Most brewers will agree: A good pilsner, with its brisk, subtle flavors, brilliant clarity, and crisp, snappy bitterness, is extremely tough to make. The globally adored style of lager, which was invented in the Bohemian city of Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic) in 1842, is known and celebrated for its stripped-down nature — a fundamental abnegation of superfluity that, during production, leaves little room for even the slightest misstep. It’s an exercise in technique and precision.
“No frills, no gimmicks — pilsners truly showcase the skill of the brewer,” says Madeleine McCarthy, a brewer at Von Ebert Brewing’s Glendoveer location in Portland, Ore., which produces a variety of pilsners. (At the time of writing, its taproom has four on draft.) “From the choice of raw materials, to water profile adjustments, to multiple enzyme rests, and fermentation temperatures, pilsners are intimately crafted love letters to your senses.”
No doubt, part of the pilsner’s admiration among beer makers around the world is the challenge in creating a notable take. It’s a true measure of brewing greatness. It’s also because pilsners are beloved by drinkers of all kinds. They are delicious and seductively refreshing, as well as low in alcohol, making them an ideal beverage choice in many situations. Ask a brewer what they’re drinking after a long shift, or what they’re discretely sipping on while working a beer festival, and you’ll likely get this response (loudly and proudly): crisp, clean pils. Cold, of course.
So, what pils’ are worth seeking out? We asked 14 brewers to share the singular example of the style that holds a special place in their hearts, and their glasses. From Old-World classics to modern interpretations, here are the experts’ picks. (Did your favorite make the list?)
The Best Pilsners Recommended By Brewers:
- Alma Mader Premiant Czech-Style Pilsner
- Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
- Rothaus Tannenzäpfle
- Bierstadt Lagerhaus Slow Pour Pils
- Wayfinder Beer Czech AF
- Sierra Nevada Nooner
- Weihenstephaner Pils
- Ardent Craft Ales Pilsner
- Notch Brewing Desítka
- Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery Saaz Pils
- Wild East Brewing Co. Patience & Fortitude
- Ex Novo Perle Haggard
- Russian River STS Pils
Keep reading for details about all of the recommended beers!
“Living in Seattle, I’m blessed with access to a lot of great pilsners. The best I’ve ever had is the Premiant, a Czech-style pilsner from Alma Mader Brewing in Kansas City. It’s the perfect expression of the style: crisp and biscuity, with a punch of lemon and a little peppery bitterness. Premiant is my go-to every time I visit K.C., and I always make sure to leave room in my bag for a couple of 4-packs.” —Rick Dankert, Brewer, Holy Mountain Brewing, Seattle, Wash.
“All due respect to centuries of European craftsmanship, but the best pilsner I’ve ever had is Pivo Pils from Firestone Walker. It’s crisp, refreshing, and maddeningly consistent. It’s not available where I live but I seek it out whenever I travel within the California brewery’s distribution footprint, and I typically hesitate to take the first sip because I’m hypnotized by the tight carbonation effervescing in its crystal clear, golden body, which always seems to glow like the mysterious briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction.'” —Joel Kodner, Head Brewer, Barrel of Monks Brewing, Boca Raton, Fla.
“My favorite pilsner yet (and I love so, so many), is Rothaus Tannenzäpfle. It’s refreshing, traditional, high-quality, and according to my good friend, Volkmar, even hard to find in German distribution! Meaning ‘pine cone’ in German, Tannenzäpfle features on its label a Black Forest local they call Biergit, to whom I am partial. Her name, often mistaken to mean ‘beer girl,’ is truly derived from the phrase ‘biergit kraft,’ meaning “beer gives me strength.” So as far as I’m concerned, drinking Tannenzäpfle — made with natural Black Forest spring water, malted barley, Tettnang and Hallertau hops, and an exclusive Rothaus yeast culture — is very good for me.” — Lucy Teusink, Owner, Frameshift Fermentation, Ellijay, Ga.
“Bierstadt’s Slow Pour Pils is the best example of German pilsner I’ve had outside of Europe. Founders Ashleigh Carter and Bill Eye are fiercely dedicated people who are inspired by their commitments. Slow Pour Pils is the greatest visual presentation of beer, with a pillowy white foam cap that protects a crystalline golden treasure beneath. Aromas of seeds and grain remind you of beer’s foundation within a fragile kernel, and the smell of hops makes the beer seem lasting and preserved. Slow Pour Pils tastes bright, elegant, and snappy, leaving you with a crisp craving for more. The cleanliness of the experience makes all of the ingredients seem singular: a detailed expression of cereal and flower. It’s pretty dang good.” —Khristopher Johnson, Owner and Brewer, Green Bench Brewing, St. Petersburg, Fla.
“In Oregon, we have so many great lager breweries it’s hard to just pick one pilsner. But I did it. (Insert drum roll here.) Wayfinder’s Czech AF. Elegantly finessed wizardry. The Saaz hops came to play, and I’m not mad about it. It’s as crisp as an autumn dawn and equally superb.” —Madeleine McCarthy, Brewer, Von Ebert Brewing (Glendoveer), Portland, Ore.
“Nooner, from Sierra Nevada, was a light-bulb beer for me. As a North American beer drinker, it isn’t possible to get fresh examples of classic German-brewed pilsner unless you go to Germany or surrounding areas. A decade ago, I spent a long weekend in Belgium and was blown away with how much fresher and brighter the beers were there. Exporting these beers really beats them up, and it is a testament to how good these beers are that they are still tasty when they make it to our store shelves. Nooner offers a window into what great German lager is like when drunk fresh. I also love that Sierra Nevada is the brewery getting this pilsner out there. I believe it can be underestimated how much we have to thank them for their bedrock contributions to our industry.” —Adam Mills, Head Brewer, Cartridge Brewing, Maineville, Ohio
“I am lucky to live in a beer region full of great lager brewers, and when one of the local options is available I will choose it nearly every time. But when I think about landmark beers that shaped the way I think about and understand beer, I have to call out Weihenstephaner Pils as the gold standard. The centuries-old Pils is perfectly malty, yet crisp and dry. The noble-hops character comes across as subtle lemon zest and grass. It has just the right touch of bitterness for me to want another sip, and another. And another. Weihenstephaner’s lager yeast is also known to brewers all over the world as being the gold standard for lager brewing, producing a clean and dependable fermentation profile that is low in sulfur with pretty good flocculation. For these reasons and more, if I see a decently fresh keg of Weihenstephaner Pils on tap, I need not read the rest of the menu.” —Shilpi Halemane, Head Brewer, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Washougal, Wash.
“While my brewery is in Williamsburg, Va., I live in Richmond, walking distance to Ardent. Ardent’s Pilsner served in a dimpled stein, enjoyed sitting outside in the brewery’s beer garden is a simply beautiful thing. It’s clean, crisp, crackery, and slightly bready like a perfect German pils should be. It has this snappy bitterness that just leaves you wanting another sip, until you find yourself needing another full stein, which inevitably happens to me a few times whenever I hang out there. Ardent has been making killer lagers in Richmond for years and to me the pilsner is just perfection. It’s one of those beers that, as a brewer, almost makes you mad that you didn’t make it yourself, until you realize you can just walk over to the beer garden and get a full stein anytime you want.” —Jonathan Newman, Brewmaster, The Virginia Beer Company, Williamsburg, Va.
“I currently live in Salem, Mass., so I don’t have to look far when I’ve got an itch for a fantastic lager. Notch’s Session Pils is a staple of mine for day drinking. But the brewery’s 10th-anniversary beer, Desítka, which came out during the great shutdown of 2020, is the best pale lager I’ve had that I can recall. The depth of malt character, like toasty, sweet biscuits, was so impressive for a 4.2-percent-ABV Czech-style pilsner. But it’s that crispy, clean finish that had me reaching for this beer after many a brew day last year. We’re all holding our breath around these parts in hopes that Notch decides to re-release Desítka this year post-pandemic, and we’ll be able to enjoy proper pours of it back in its taproom and biergarten.” —Tim Corcoran, Founder and Owner, Channel Marker Brewing, Beverly, Mass.
“I remember filling growlers of Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery‘s Saaz Pils in what was probably the summer of 2012, when I was all bright eyed and bushy tailed in the industry as a brewery grunt. Town Hall has always done lagers very well (it’s where I learned how to make them) and I think the seasonally-offered Saaz Pils is the best of them all. So simple and so clean, so simply delicious. Here, the brewery’s neutral German lager yeast allows the masterful use of Saaz to shine, sparkle, and snap in all the right places. I’m honestly not sure when the last time they made it was, or if they even still make it seasonally, but it’s a flavor profile and beer-drinking experience I’ll never forget. I wanted to forever retain those flavors of wild alpine grass and flowers on my palate indefinitely, so much so that I remember thinking how amazing it would be to be able to swim in that beer, to just fully immerse myself in the flavor. It was soft but crisp and hoppy at the same time.” —Aaron Herman, Head Brewer, Arbeiter Brewing, Minneapolis
“I’d be hard pressed to think of a style I love more than Czech-style pilsner, and when Wild East first released its take, Patience & Fortitude, it was excellent. But after a few iterations and some minor tweaks, this beer has become amazing. Double decocting the mash ensures all of the delicate malt flavors come through beautifully. There is just enough bitterness to balance the sweet, crackery grain profile. The slightest bit of yeast character assures you that it was properly fermented and lagered to perfection. I don’t know if this pilsner can be made any better, but I look forward to continually tasting it to find out.” —Jeff Lyons, Owner and Head Brewer, Endless Life Brewing, Brooklyn
“Ex Novo, with locations in Oregon and New Mexico, is a personal favorite of our brewing staff. From IPAs to sours to lager beers, the brewery seems to do it all well. Pilsners happen to be one of my favorite styles to drink, and Perle Haggard is definitely at the top in the category for me. There’s a reason this German-style pils won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. The big aroma of noble hops takes me back to being in southern Bavaria. It has a beautiful golden color and is brilliantly bright. It has a cleansing bitterness with a bread-like, earthy malt backbone that invites you back for more.” —Kevin Templin, Owner and Brewmaster, Templin Family Brewing, Salt Lake City
“Russian River’s STS Pils is a beautiful example of a classic German-style pilsner with the twist of dry hopping using European hops. It’s a very hop-forward beer with a dry, crisp, and clean finish that boasts a very noticeable lager yeast characteristic. STS is brewed in open-top fermenters and left unfiltered so it has a very complex yet balanced body and texture which I enjoy thoroughly.” —Dustin Kral, Head Brewer, Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, Calif.
“I had a lot of excellent pilsners when I was in Germany but can’t remember liking one more than the others. However, one pilsner that I’ve had in the States that clearly sets itself apart from the rest and exemplifies itself as a perfect German-style take worthy of competing with the best in Germany is Bierstadt Lagerhaus‘ Slow Pour Pils. This take pours a light straw color and is filtered to perfection. The natural carbonation gives a nice touch of sulfur, subtle hop aromas, and maintains a soft, pillowy head. It’s even served in a glass with a paper ring around the bottom. I’m not entirely sure what this does, but it makes it extremely fancy. If you are ever out in Denver, Bierstadt is a place to visit.” —Chris Enegren, Co-founder and Brewmaster, Enegren Brewing Co., Moorpark, Calif.