How Philly became the pilsner capital of America

(Published July 2009 in Beer Advocate Magazine.)

Did you happen to catch the New York Times a couple months ago, when writer Eric Asimov complained about the lousy beer selection (9 bucks for a single 16-ounce can of PBR!) at the new Yankee Stadium? Where, he wondered, were the authentic Pilsners?

Not those watery mainstream poseurs (I’m looking at you, Miller Lite) that claim to possess “true” Pilsner flavor. Asimov wondered about the whereabouts of a style that seems designed for a long afternoon in the grandstands—crisp, refreshing and light bodied with an assertive hoppy bitterness and an exceptionally dry finish.

One-hundred miles south of the Bronx, fans of the World Champion Phillies could only chuckle when Asimov listed his top 10 American Pilsners. Three of them—Troegs Sunshine Pils, Victory Prima Pils, and Sly Fox Pikeland Pils—are among the popular crafts on tap at the Phils’ ballpark.

Indeed, the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania has emerged as a hotbed of craft-brewed Pilsners. In one tiny, 40-mile triangle just west of Philadelphia, Victory, Sly Fox, and Stoudt’s Brewing have amassed a dozen Pilsner medals collectively at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). The region is known especially for its German-style Pils (more precisely, northern German).

The distinction is obvious when comparing two classics from the south and north: Spaten from Munich and Jever, near the sea. Both are bright, clear and golden, the product of pale malts and aromatic Hallertau hops. These are fine sons of the style born in Bohemia in 1842.

Raise each glass to your mouth, and the difference emerges quickly. Spaten’s hops are softly aromatic, and its malt is bready; Jever seems ready to punch you in the nose. Take a sip, and the Bavarian caresses you with a sweet, mellow kiss. The stark Teuton from the north bites you on the tongue. Same country, same style, two different beers.

Blame it on the water. It’s naturally hard: The calcium in the north highlights the hop bitterness, especially the somewhat metallic Tettnanger variety. None of which explains the popularity of German Pils in the Keystone State.

For that, you might look to Stoudt’s, the state’s first microbrewery, and whose Pilsner came to define the American variety of craft-brewed Pilsner. In a five-year span in the mid-1990s, Stoudt’s Pils won three golds and a bronze at the Great American Beer Festival. (It’s no coincidence that one of the early mentors of Stoudt’s brewers was Karl Strauss, born at a brewery in northern Germany.)

“Stoudt’s set the standard for doing German lagers,” said Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing in Royersford and Phoenixville, Pa., whose Pilsners have won three GABF medals. “Then, Victory came along with Prima Pils, and now people in this region are just used to the flavor.”

Victory’s German-trained Bill Covaleski credits Stoudt’s too, but looks back a bit further. The region, he notes, was largely settled by Germans; the Pennsylvania Dutch still farm the acres of Chester and Lancaster counties just west of Victory’s brewery in Downingtown, Pa.

“Pils never went away in this area,” said Covaleski. “We never lost our taste for it. … I remember when I was 10 years old, tasting my dad’s Carling Black Label. It was harsh and bitter, just like a German Pils.”

Carling Black Label? I think that’s on tap at Yankee Stadium.

Aroma: Light malt with spicy hops and mild sulfur
Flavor: Crisp, bitingly bitter
IBU: 25–45
ABV: 4.5- to 5.5 percent
ExamplesVictory Prima PilsBitburgerTrumer PilsStoudt’s PilsJever PilsenerTroegs Sunshine PilsLeft Hand Polestar PilsnerSly Fox Pikeland PilsWarsteiner VerumBrooklyn PilsnerPenn Kaiser Pils.

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