In a world of over-the-top milkshake IPAs, maple syrup and bourbon-barrel-aged stouts, and fruited sour beers that more resemble fresh-squeezed juice than “beer,” it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why it’s great that there’s a classic beer style that’s a great reset. I’m talking about the iconic, crisp, refreshing, perfect pilsner.
And, while I don’t have a problem with them, I’m not referencing the American version that many breweries label as a “pilsner.” I’m talking about the hoppier, maltier, and often more bitter versions popularized for centuries in countries like the Czech Republic and Germany. These are the beers where decoction (a specialized and time-consuming method of cooking the malts) and judicious use of hops matter when finding balance in a great pilsner.
So, as my winter reset, I’m going to do a blind taste test featuring some classic European pilsners like Pilsner Urquell, Bitburger, and Grolsch as well as a few from well-known American breweries, like Jack’s Abbey and Firestone Walker, who are known to brew their beers as close to the traditional way as possible in the American craft beer world.
I could take a handful of well-known pilsners that I know and love and rank them based on my personal preference any day. But where’s the fun in that and how is that impartial? That’s why a blind taste test is needed. There are no glossy, flashy labels, and big, historic brand names to sway my rankings in any direction. I simply use my senses of taste and smell. That’s it. It’s completely impartial (except for my own personal taste).
Our lineup today is:
- Pilsner Urquell
- OEC Coolship Lager
- Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
- Jack’s Abbey Post Shift
It’s time for a pilsner party!
Part 1: The Taste
This beer smells exactly the way you’d hope it would. There are notes of bready, caramel-like malts, fruit esters, and bright, dank, floral hops to round it all together. The flavor starts with freshly cut summer grass and delves into Noble hops, a slightly fruity flavor, and dank, piney hops. It’s very well-balanced and crisp.
This beer smells like a field of wildflowers melded with pine trees, slight caramel malts, and earthy, dank hops. It’s fresh and enticing and led me to a palate of wet grass, biscuit malts, toffee, a slightly fruity flavor, and subtly bitter, piney, dank hops. The finish is crisp, dry, and left me craving more.
A lot is going on with this beer’s nose. First, I noticed aromas of freshly-baked bread, followed by fruit esters, slight honey, sweet cereal grains, and piney, floral hops. On the palate, I found notes of biscuity malts, earthy, herbal, piney hops, caramel, and slight spice. It’s a very well-rounded and flavorful beer.
There’s a lot of bready and sweet aromas coming off of this beer at first. It’s followed by some citrus and maybe some floral hops, but that’s about it. The palate is fairly sweet with notes of caramel, freshly baked bread, and some more floral, slightly bitter hops. Overall, it’s very refreshing but not all that exciting in the flavor department.
This beer had a bit of a wet grass aroma at first sniff that went into freshly-baked bread and slight pine. Otherwise, the nose was pretty lacking. There was a slight mineral taste along with floral, piney hops, and light toffee malts. This definitely wasn’t the most exciting beer I’ve ever had but not a bad crusher either.
The aroma was fairly uninspiring with hints of wet grass, floral hops, bready malt, and a slightly skunky aroma I couldn’t place. Taking a sip revealed slight caramel, sweet yeast, and gentle, slightly dank hops. The finish was dry and crisp. All in all, this is a decent and highly drinkable pilsner.
Bready, grassy, herbal, earthy, this beer has a lot going on with its nose. It definitely prepares you for the flavor palate led by notes of slight skunk, a lingering minerality, freshly-baked bread, caramel sweetness, and gentle, clean, and floral hops.
Complex aromas of yeast, caramel malts, cereal sweetness, dry hay, and floral hops met my nose before taking my first sip. The palate was swirling with a slightly skunky flavor that jumped to biscuit-like malts, a slightly fruity flavor, and more subtly bitter, very floral, piney hops at the finish.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Krombacher — Taste 5
Average Price: $9 for a six-pack
This 4.8 percent ABV pilsner touts itself as Germany’s “No. 1 premium lager.” Brewed with 2-row malts, Hallertau Siegel hops, with natural spring water, it’s well-known for its fruity, malty, well-balanced flavor that leaves you wanting more.
This beer was clearly created to be enjoyed quickly on a hot day as there isn’t much substance to it besides its clean, refreshing flavor.
7. Jack’s Abbey Post Shift — Taste 4
Average Price: $10 for a four-pack
Jack’s Abbey makes nothing but high-quality, delicious lagers. Its Post Shift Pilsner, on top of being one of its most popular, crushable beers is brewed using German malts and hops to give it a crisp, authentic taste.
This is a great beer if you simply want to knock back a few after a long day of work. It doesn’t really have a ton of depth otherwise.
6. Grolsch — Taste 6
Average Price: $8.50 for a four-pack
When you think of Dutch beer, there’s a good chance Heineken is the first brand you think of. But the country is also home to Grolsch Premium Lager, a five percent ABV European pilsner made with a proprietary blend of hops and three different barley malts.
For a pilsner, this beer has a fairly complicated flavor profile. It was malty, hoppy, and very fresh. I would give it another try.
5. Bitburger — Taste 8
Average Price: $6 for a four-pack
With a name like Bitburger, this beer almost sounds like a Midwest fast-food chain. In reality, it’s actually a German pilsner that’s been brewed since 1817. A popular (inexpensive) beer in Germany, it’s known for its crisp, slightly hoppy, and refreshing flavor.
This is a highly drinkable, well-balanced, and memorable pilsner that I plan to drink again. A lot was going on with this beer’s flavor profile.
4. Firestone Walker Pivo — Taste 1
Average Price: $11 for a six-pack
Firestone Walker is a big name in the American beer world. Known for its award-winning beers, its Pivo Pils just might be its best beer overall. This 5.3 percent ABV pilsner gets its unique flavor from being brewed with Spalter Select, Tradition, and Saphir hops and being dry-hopped with even more Saphir hops.
There’s a great malt presence that pairs well with the slightly bitter, floral, and piney hops in this beer. It’s a great, well-balanced beer.
3. Radeberger — Taste 3
Average Price: $9 for a six-pack
Brewed since 1872, this 4.8 percent ABV bottom-fermented pilsner is brewed with simple ingredients like on-site well water, hops, malts, and yeast. It’s known for its well-balanced, crisp flavor with very little hop bitterness.
This beer had everything a pilsner fan could want. It’s crisp, clean, and dry, but still has a nice malt backbone to stand up the floral and piney hops.
2. OEC Coolship Lager — Taste 7
Average Price: $13 for a four-pack of 16-ounce cans
This OEC in this beer’s name stands for Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores. This 5.2 percent ABV pilsner is brewed in Connecticut as close to “authentic” as you can get in the U.S. craft beer world. Case in point, this unfiltered Czech-style pilsner was brewed with a double decoction mash in the traditional way.
This is the epitome of a well-balanced and refreshing pilsner. Everything seems to be where it belongs in this beer, and I can’t wait to try it again.
1. Pilsner Urquell — Taste 2
Average Price: $10 for a six-pack
One of the most popular beers in the world (for good reason), Pilsner Urquell was created back in 1842. This well-balanced beer gets its iconic flavor from being brewed with triple-decocted malt and a healthy dose of Saaz hops.
This might be the most well-balanced, crisp, thirst-quenching, and memorable pilsner I’ve ever had. It makes me want to stop the tasting right now and go drink a few of these bad boys.