The pilsner style of beer is a clash of mainstream “Lite” America and traditional Czech recipes. Obnoxious, macho marketing versus a quiet, simple history. At least it was.
Much maligned with the rise of Budweiser, Miller and Coors, the pilsner was seemingly forgotten by many American craft brewers. While the “Big Three” products may share the light golden color with true pilsners, the similarities halt there. We needed our craft brewmasters to defend the pilsner on our behalf. Fortunately, they’ve answered the call with a recent surge in the creation of craft beer pilsners.
But what made the pilsner worth drinking in the first place?
Contrasting greatly with the traditional ale styles brewed at the time, the pilsner’s crisp, refreshing taste made the style immensely popular. The pilsner is essentially a new kid in class when it comes to beer styles, with the first batch originally tapped Nov. 11, 1842 in the Czech town of Pilsen. This beer is still available today under the widely recognized name Pilsner Urquell.
Two major differences caused the pilsner to be such a sensation: the light color and crisp taste. Most beers at the time were copper/amber in color or darker. The lighter and clearer Pilsner beers were introduced just as glass drinking containers became popular. Suddenly, people could see right through their beer!
Much like true Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in France, a true Pilsner can only come from the area around Pilsen. Here, the kilning of the pilsner malt occurs at a much lower temperature and the water used is also very soft. It’s both of these factors that contribute to the light color and flavor of the beer. The slight dryness and spiciness evident in any really good pilsner is a product of the noble Czech Saaz hop.
While Pilsen may produce the original pilsner, American craft brewers have put own their spin on the classic style. To explore these efforts, we decided to pair one of our favorite warm weather activities, cycling, with one of the quintessential summer beers, the pilsner.
Our journey began after we picked up six pilsners for the ride around town: Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner, Troegs Sunshine Pils, Victory Prima Pils, Oskar Blues Little Yella Pils and Pilsner Urquell. We also brought from home Voodoo Pilzilla and Czechvar.
With our samples tucked safely away in our packs, we headed out to explore Pittsburgh’s great riverfront trails.
We first ventured to Station Square, a flat, easy ride, with lots of people as well as gnats to help cleanse our palette.
Stopping along the Mon, we tried the Oskar Blues Little Yella Pils. Like all other Oskar Blues’ brews this one was canned. The aroma was tough to gauge with the can interfering with my nose and I wish we had a glass to pour it into. The flavor profile was that of a sweet, slightly hopped, malty pilsner. The mouth feel had a decent amount of carbonation, but was easy to drink. We knew this wasn’t going to be our favorite pilsner and it didn’t surprise us.
From there we crossed the Smithfield Street Bridge riding through Point State Park and on to the David Lawrence Convention Center to check out a few of the newest bike trails. This area along the Allegheny exemplifies Pittsburgh’s commitment to biking. A path surrounded by waterfalls meanders down from Penn Avenue to the river then connects to the riverfront trail.
Next, we headed north and stopped for a quick beer behind the Cork Factory. Our thirst called for the Sly Fox Pilsner, another canned offering, which is perfect for the active life style. The beer had a very dry finish, the last impression you were left with. The initial flavor said German pilsner, but was quickly muddied by a German lager yeast taste and bitterness that lingered along with a slight pungent note.
From the Strip we biked up Smallman Street and crossed over the 31st Street Bridge with our eyes set on Washington’s Landing. Again we were parched and needed some liquid refreshment. We found a cool spot at the north end of the island looking toward the 40th Street Bridge. Here we cracked open a bottle of Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner. A rye pilsner with eight different hops and five malts, the aroma was predictably not that of a typical pilsner. A malty nose with a hint of rye gave way to classic style pilsner taste. After a few more sips it was obvious Mermaid Pilsner was a tad hoppier and spicier, both good things. The rye flavor was more subtle then most rye ales or rye IPAs. The Mermaid was also brewed with Amarillo hops in place of the traditional Saaz hops giving it a more citrusy characteristic.
With more beer to sample, we hopped back on the bikes and headed toward town. Along the North Side trail, we stopped across the river from the DLCC. It was a great photo op and time to drink Troegs Sunshine Pils. The aroma was fresh and grassy with a hint of hops. Initially the tongue picks up a slight hop bitterness that mixes in with the semisweet malt. The mouth feel was very light and crisp. Thanks to the typical Pittsburgh clouds, Sunshine Pils was as close to sunshine as we got that day.
We didn’t ride much farther till we reached again into our packs for something cold. Among the Pirates fans outside PNC Park we enjoyed a Voodoo Pilzilla. Enticing hop aromas of citrus, floral and even grass or pine hit the nose right away followed by some lager malt. Past the first sip, the hops begin to balance more into the taste than in the aroma. With lager yeast characteristics present, there are some lemony citrus, earthy, floral, somewhat spicy hop flavors. Pilzilla is mostly hop forward and finishes with a decent amount of lingering bitterness. A nice and crisp summer beer.
Next stop was Heinz Field, where we reminded all picture-taking Boston fans of our six Super Bowls while we enjoyed a cold Victory Prima. The Prima is a damn good beer with a great aroma. The nose picks up on hay with some lemon, spice and citrus. The flavor is not far off from what the nose picked up. It has a great clean finish with some spicy hoppiness and still very crisp.
As the first pitch approached, we left the bustling baseball fans and pedaled over the pedestrian bridge to Point State Park. Relaxing next to the Allegheny, we watched fish jump and boats pass. It was the perfect time to drink the mother of all pilsners, Pilsner Urquell. This beer embodies all that is a pilsner. The aroma, taste and finish are just as good as advertised. A clean, crisp, balanced hop beer. The Czechvar was also enjoyed at this location and mirrors Pilsner Urquell, though with a little less flavor.
Comparing the American craft pilsners to the original European style, it’s evident the American offerings are generally hoppier. None could match the smooth, crisp taste of Pilsner Urquell. Within our sampling, the Voodoo Pilzilla, Coney Island Mermaid and Victory Prima stood out among the rest.
Eight pilsners and over eight miles later, our biking and beer adventure came to a close. We had a great time pairing Pittsburgh’s scenic trails with some excellent brews. Hop on your bike to your local bottle shop and give the pilsner a try.
We recommend starting out with Pilsner Urquell, especially if you are new to the style. This will provide a standard by which you can compare your other options. Relax, have fun with it and enjoy!
Until next time, cheers!
The Drunk Yinzer is a grassroots movement devoted to enjoying and enhancing the craft beer scene in Pittsburgh. We are avid home brewers that eat, sleep, and dream about beer. Follow us atTheDrunkYinzer.com or on Twitter @TheDrunkYinzer.
Pittsburgh by Bike, Pilsners by Palette originally published in Craft Pittsburgh, a quarterly magazine about the local craft beer industry. Pick up free copies at and beer distributors along McKnight Road. Follow @CraftPittsburgh on Twitter.
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About this column: Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week runs April 20 through April 28.