Just when you had your German and Czech pilsners straight—not to mention figuring out where American pilsners fall on the spectrum—Italian pilsner entered the chat.
The substyle was born, naturally, in Italy in 1996, when Agostino Arioli brewed Tipopils at his Como brewery, Birrificio Italiano. A fan of German pilsners like Jever, Arioli had been on a mission to brew his own take on the style. It wasn’t until a trip to England where he learned about hop plugs and dry-hopping real ale in casks, however, that the pieces fell into place. Upon opening Birrificio Italiano, he combined the dry-hopping he learned in England with his formula for German pils. The result was a “kind of pils,” or tipopils, in Italian.
Today, dry-hopping is the defining characteristic of Italian-style pilsners, which stand apart from the slightly sweet Czech pilsner and the drier, crisper, more bitter German pilsner by retaining the aromatics of the hops, which might otherwise be lost to the boil. Those aromas should come from traditional European hops, especially noble hops, with floral, citrusy, spicy and/or herbal notes. (If you see a pils dry-hopped with American or Southern Hemisphere hops, consider it an American pilsner.)
Arioli emphasizes one additional distinguishing quality to his product that’s often imitated in more modern iterations. “Tipopils has never been filtered or centrifuged, and usually has a very short brewing cycle, only four to five weeks,” he says. “This really makes the difference.” A shorter maturation period means less of the rounded, malty flavors that can characterize other traditional pilsners.
The style’s first foray into American craft beer came in 2012 when brewmaster Matt Brynildson brewed Pivo at California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Company, described at the time as a “hoppy pils.” In 2017, Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company released Luppolo, the first example explicitly called an Italian-style pils in the United States. (Co-founder and head brewer Tim Adams points out that Italians use the term “pils,” not “pilsner.”)
After an initial slow start, the Italian-style pils has begun to blossom stateside. “So far, I see it as a fairly small, quiet trend,” says Rachael Engel, who currently brews an Italian-style pils called Pantheon at Bosk Brew Works in Washington state. “I’d love to see them gain some ground because they’re another style that’s difficult to get right but very rewarding.”
Their trajectory may not be splashy, but it’s upward all the same. For however much stock you put into Untappd ratings, the site’s top-ranked Italian-style pilsners of 2022 at least demonstrate a wide geographic reach and read like a who’s who of American craft beer darlings. The style is represented at Schilling Beer Co. in New Hampshire, Wayfinder Beer in Oregon, Burial Beer Co. in North Carolina, Hop Butcher in Illinois and Talea Beer Co. in New York.
Whether the Italian-style pils will explode into ubiquity remains to be seen, but in the meantime it’s got dedicated American fans. They flock to the Pils & Love festival, a stateside extension of Birrificio Italiano’s Pils Pride event that launched 18 years ago. The only rules Arioli set were “no American hops and no pasteurization or anything connected to an industrial way to brew beer.” This June, Pils & Love will make its first post-COVID return at DeCicco & Sons, a New York grocery chain known for its craft beer program, with plans to scale up next year.
No longer, it seems, is topping with Campari the only way to enjoy lager Italian-style. As the substyle continues to grow and evolve, here are six Italian-style pils to seek out right now.