Recently I was talking with Jim Koch, chairman and founder of Samuel Adams' parent, Boston Beer Co., when he poured himself a glass of his brewery's Noble Pils, a crisp, golden beer with a grassy, floral aroma.
"The thing about a good pilsner is that it is exquisitely balanced," he said, after taking a sip. "The beer's key flavor attributes — body, sweetness, spiciness and bitterness are all going to be there, and none overwhelms the others. To me, that's the hallmark of any great beer, but in a pilsner it's particularly important."
That balance is a big part of why pilsners make great summer beers. Beers true to the pilsner style are flavorful with spicy and floral (think lily and rose) notes thanks to European noble hop varieties and biscuity notes from lightly roasted malt.
Those beers are in line with the beers first brewed in Pilsen in 1842 in what is today's Czech Republic. And they aren't too bold that you can't enjoy a few. They're not too big or strong (they typically top out around 5 percent alcohol by volume), nor too hoppy, malty or bitter. They go well with a wide range of summer fare — from salads to Thai summer rolls to sushi.
But getting the balance right is difficult; Lagunitas Brewing Co. founder Tony Magee says it took his brewery about 10 years to get to the point that he was satisfied with his take on the style, Lagunitas Pils, because one off-note stands out.
"Making an IPA is pretty straightforward," he says. "It's like chili in that you layer ingredients in. But making a pilsner is making a light French broth. You make one mistake, and it shows."
So while big, aggressive beers like stouts and pale ales are exciting in their wildness and rambunctiousness, Magee says, beers like pilsners require drinkers to appreciate their subtle complexity and nuances.
Pilsners, said Koch, represent the high art of brewing. Making a great pilsner is a bit like Nik Wallenda crossing a high-wire above a gorge near the Grand Canyon. "There's no room for error," he said. "But when done right, it's great."
Three to taste
Oskar Blues Mama's Little Yella Pils: Grass and flowers dominate the nose of this crisp, well-balanced yellow beer that has sharp, hoppy notes and bready malt notes.
Sam Adams Noble Pils: A golden beer with a grassy, herbal aroma. A dry flavor brings to mind bread, oranges, lemons and tangerines.
Victory Prima Pils: Herbal, floral notes dominate the nose of this bright sun-colored beer with a hoppy, biscuity flavor.