Oxbow’s new Trisky Pivo is branded as a pale lager, but is a traditional take on the pilsner. Photo courtesy of Oxbow Brewing Co.

Influential beer writer Jeff Allworth was surprised and impressed when he visited Maine back in 2014. The state possessed “arguably the richest vein of good beer in the country,” he wrote, suggesting that pioneers Geary’s and Allagash had laid the groundwork for a drinking culture in which experimentation and variety was the norm.

“In regions with immature beer cultures, new breweries can’t rely on a customer base to support beer that’s overly avant garde,” Allworth argued. “In mature cultures, it’s the opposite – new breweries have to distinguish themselves to find an audience.”

Allagash’s Truepenny is a Belgian-style pilsner brewed with German pilsner malt and hopped with Czech Saaz and French Strisselspalt. Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Co.

Seven years is an eternity in our contemporary beer world, and the astonishing range of Maine beers at our command today is a testament to that. New England IPAs might pay the bills, but Maine brewers’ appetites for traditional styles – along with the experimental temperament cited by Allworth years ago – makes this a beer drinker’s paradise. Look no further than the abundance and variety of pilsner-style pale lagers being brewed in Maine for evidence; it’s a beer for any time or place, though particularly delightful as temperatures warm. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the debut of Oxbow’s Trisky Pivo and the return of Allagash’s Truepenny, as they enter a crowded field of interpretations on the style.

The pilsner style was first brewed in the Bohemian city of Pilsen in today’s Czech Republic; it literally means “from Pilsen.” Like much great art, it was born out of crisis. In 1838, the city was forced to dump an entire season’s worth of beer that had become contaminated. In response, the city built a cutting-edge brewery with a top-notch brewer from Bavaria, who brought yeast from there with him. But when the first batch flowed from the tanks, it wasn’t the brown Bavarian lager so popular across Europe; rather, it was a golden beer with a pillowy head.

Sweet Moravian barley, Bohemian Saaz hops (less bitter than their German counterparts) and the soft, sandstone-filtered water of Pilsen rendered a new style that quickly became popular across Europe and the world. Today, that brewery goes by the name Pilsner Urquell, and, in the Czech Republic, only beers from that brewery are called “pilsner,” though the name has been widely adopted elsewhere.

Oxbow’s new Trisky Pivo is branded as a “pale lager,” perhaps in deference to the original’s unofficial naming rights. But it is a traditional take on the style, brewed with 100% Czech-grown ingredients and double-decocted, a traditional method of mashing that can develop the beer’s malt character. Gold colored, its rich, bready maltiness (with a hint of earthy funk) is balanced with the hops for a long and balanced, well-rounded finish. I’m reminded of my fond first encounter with the classic Czech lager Koutská at Novare Res. It makes for an interesting contrast with Bunker’s Machine Pilz, the local Bohemian stalwart for nearly a decade.

But the pale lager tree has many branches. Germans brewed their own adaptations, beginning in the early 1870s, using what we now call noble hops. German pils tend to be paler in color than Bohemian pilsners, with drier finishes and more pronounced hop bitterness (they generally get more bitter the further north you go). Maine brewers tend to draw more frequently from the Germans than the Czechs, it would seem, with interpretations like Banded’s light and spicy Pepperell, Austin Street’s honeyed Pactolian, Foundation’s grassy Riverton Flyer, and Bissell Brothers’ floral Precept.

Floral, crackery and lemony, Oxbow’s Luppulo is the standard bearer of Italian pilsners in Maine. Photo by Michael D Wilson

Germans were inspired by the Czechs, and Italians were inspired by the Germans. As the story goes, the “Italian pilsner” was stumbled upon when an Italian brewer attempted to brew a northern German Pils. It didn’t come out right, but it was good, and so he called it something else: tipo pils, meaning “kind of a pils” in Italian. The Italian pilsner is unfiltered and dry-hopped with traditional noble hops or new varieties resembling those, featuring their floral, herbal and spicy perfumes. Examples of this increasingly popular style in Maine include Cushnoc’s Peasant Pils and Austin Street’s Pallino. But Oxbow’s Luppulo is the standard bearer here – floral, crackery and lemony, it is a year-round fixture in my fridge.

While Italian-style Pilsners are on-trend, here and elsewhere, the Belgian-style Pilsner is not. Allagash’s Truepenny has made its annual return, and we are lucky to live in its orbit. It is brewed with German pilsner malt and hopped with Czech Saaz and French Strisselspalt (a descendant of German noble hops). The addition of wild beer distinguishes this one, lending it a slight woodiness and tang. It is strange and outstanding, reminiscent of another Allagash beer from a few years back – the Brett IPA – not because of how it tastes, but how the brewery uses brettanomyces to play with popular styles. Anchored in tradition, but not limited by it.

Modern American craft brewing got its start nearly a half century ago. It was, in large part, a response to the ubiquity of banal, mass-produced pale lager. It is ironic that pilsner today is such an experimental playground for second- and third-generation craft brewers.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: