There’s a running joke among craft beer aficionados that every coming year promises to be “the year of the lager.” Lager fans try willing the prophecy into fruition, even if sales show the IPA still reigns supreme. But even if lager can’t compete with the almighty IPA, some breweries and beer bars see a pendulum swing. According to LeAnn Darland of Talea Beer Co., the Brooklyn brewery’s Al Dente Italian-Style Pilsner matched sales of its top-selling hazy IPA in 2022. For others, an upswing is simply a nice-to-have. “Growth or no growth … there’s always going to be a dedicated lager fanbase that will continue to embrace and celebrate this style,” says Christa Sobier, owner of Brooklyn bottle shop and bar Beer Witch.
Lager has plenty to offer the 2023 beer drinker. Instead of more modern beer styles’ adjuncts and science experiment-esque hopping methods, there are time-honored production and serving methods. “Hazy IPAs and pastry stouts are the equivalent of bog myrtle and baboon’s blood to hide flaws, upcharge and market a modern mess in brewing,” says Adam Zuniga, Advanced Cicerone and host of a new show, No Life Til Lager. By contrast, brewers and connoisseurs appreciate how the simplicity of lager demands virtual perfection. And perhaps no other style better epitomizes the romance of brewing traditions, the showcase for brewers’ painstaking attention to detail, and refreshing taste than the pilsner.
“Lager” refers to an entire category of styles commonly differentiated by colder fermentation temperatures and cleaner yeast flavor and aroma profiles; like märzen or schwarzbier, pilsner is a lager style. German pilsners are drier and more bitter; Czech pilsners are more malt-forward and, thanks to a difference in water profiles, softer. The siren call of both Czech and German pilsners is strong for many brewers. As Jeff McGuire, director of brewing operations at North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. notes, “Anything that’s been around for 170-plus years and still kicking,” it’s for a reason. True to American craft beer form, even longstanding Czech serving techniques have garnered the kind of hype once reserved for hazy IPAs.
“The Czech pilsner love is really real right now in America and I’m 100 percent here for it,” says Em Sauter, Advanced Cicerone and the cartoonist and educator behind Pints and Panels. “From installations of authentic Lukr side-pull faucets to the focus on decoction mashing to even being able to order Czech pour styles like the mlíko at local breweries and bars, it’s great to see tradition on display.”
Of course, for all that love of tradition, this wouldn’t be American craft beer without some envelope-pushing. Craft beer in the United States “has always been the Wild West,” says Sauter. She explains that, without the more rigid rules of some other beer-producing countries, there’s more flexibility as to what can actually constitute a pilsner. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it allows for evolution and experimentation within styles.”
For example, some brewers are diversifying the pilsner by looking to other beer styles, like the IPA, and adding tropical New Zealand hops to the regular suite of German and Czech varieties, while others are conditioning their pilsners in giant oak barrels, known as foudres, or triumphing less common examples from other countries, like Belgium. In 2023, it’s easier than ever to find strictly conventional pilsners, celebrating decades of European brewing methods, alongside completely reinvented pilsners, and everything in between.
Considering this range of options, it feels like high time to check in with the American craft pilsner. Who is making those great, archetypal German- and Czech-style pilsners? Who is looking to other countries? Who, among the breweries making their own fresh mark on the style, is doing it well? After researching and tasting pilsners from some of the most renowned makers across the country, we’ve narrowed the pool to six who we feel are the epitome of the current craft pilsner zeitgeist.