When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
In perhaps the best-known origin story of any beer, pilsner began in 1838 with a group of Bohemians in Plzeň who demanded more from their beer. After dumping 36 barrels of the disappointing local product, a collective of independent local brewers joined forces to found a new brewery. Those brewers made two Bavarian investments: they procured a strain of lager yeast and hired Bavarian Josef Groll to be their brewer. He got to work on developing a new style of golden lager:
“He had soft well water, aromatic Saaz hops, that workhorse lager strain, and plenty of pale malts . . . those four ingredients worked in concert to create a thrilling new beer with a sparkling clarity, a color reminiscent of spun gold, an aromatic bouquet, and an incomparably light body.The Complete Beer Course
The beer was christened Pilsner Urquell, after the German spelling of its hometown. The style quickly spread throughout Europe and around the world, promoting a global taste for light lager.
“Rich, characterful, pale Czech lager, with considerable malt and hop character and a long, rounded finish. Complex yet well-balanced and refreshing. The malt flavors are complex for a Pilsner-type beer, and the bitterness is strong but clean and without harshness, which gives a rounded impression that enhances drinkability.”
According to WTTW, Chicago’s neighborhood of the same name originally got its name from a restaurant, At the City of Plzeň, where Bohemian immigrants liked to gather. Personally, I can confirm that pilsner makes a great accompaniment to a meal at Pilsen’s many excellent BYOB restaurants today.
Third Coast Review’s Take
Pilsners are simply delightful. Balanced, subtly complex, yet utterly drinkable, it’s no wonder that pilsners and pilsner-inspired light lagers are the most popular style in the world.
Lagunitas Pils is a gateway beer to sell hopheads on the potential of lagers. “Brewed with loads of imported Saaz hops,” it’s a showcase of spicy hop character, coupled with a crisp, clean lager finish. As an aside, while Lagunitas is the California-based subsidiary of a Dutch brewery (Heineken), it does operate a large production brewery in Chicago’s Douglas Park. In other words, this isn’t a Chicago beer in the traditional sense, but is in the literal one.
This series started with lagers, and I’ve leaned heavily on Dovetail throughout. Their beers have been a revelation, in that they’re all remarkably subtle without sacrificing complexity or flavor. Their pilsner is no exception, with the brewery’s characteristic soft touch yielding a bright, crisp, clean and very balanced beer. Besides its qualities as a stand-alone beer, it made a perfect pairing with pizza.
Saaz hops and carbonation do a lot of the heavy lifting on Kinslahger’s take, with bready balance emerging over time. Neither as balanced as Dovetail, nor as hop-forward as Lagunitas, this was something of a middle path among the Czech pilsners I sampled.