Italian-style pilsners from Sebago, Flight Deck and Cushnoc breweries. Photo by Ben Lisle

It’s been seven years since Oxbow Brewing Co. and Birrificio Italiano hosted the inaugural Pils & Love festival at Spring Point in South Portland. Over 50 breweries from Italy, the United States, Germany and Canada poured pale lager on a glorious summer day, at a time when nearly all beer festivals featured big IPAs and massive, barrel-aged stouts. What a pleasurable education it was, to compare all these delicate beers side-by-side, exploring the various textures of the style (and just about make it home in one piece).

A drinker today could practically stage a pils festival in their own backyard, given the abundance of pale lagers – of all sorts or regional and national varieties – on the market. But when Birrificio Italiano arrived on the shores of Casco Bay, “Italian pilsner” wouldn’t have meant much to most beer drinkers (outside brewing circles).

The urtext for the style comes from Birrificio Italiano, located in a small town outside of Lake Como in Northern Italy. Brewer Agostino Arioli was experimenting with recipes for a German-style kellerbier, but he was also inspired by English brewers, who were dry-hopping in their casks. Arioli called the resulting beer “tipopils,” or “kind of a pils.”

When American drinkers see the words “dry-hopped,” they almost certainly will think of IPAs. And this is also the characteristic that most see as distinguishing the Italian pils from other regional adaptations. But Arioli himself complicates this notion.

“When we are talking about lager, especially pils beer, Italian beers are more hoppy, more fruity,” he told beer writer Jeff Alworth, “and also a bit more malty.” That is, it isn’t just a matter of jacking up the hops but also maintaining balance. And unlike many hoppy lagers, the Italian-style pilsner features the so-called “noble” hops of Germany and Bohemia.

Tipopils debuted in 1996. Pivo pils from California’s Firestone Walker is generally considered the first American beer inspired by Arioli’s innovations, debuting in 2012. Oxbow’s Luppolo would be launched in 2016, the first American pils to be labeled as “Italian-style.”


Today, one could easily stage their own Italian-style pilsner party after a trip to the package store. You can even start with the original, often found at Bier Cellar, RSVP or Bow Street. Tipopils joins sweet malty and herbal aromas with lemon zest and a little bit of yeastiness in a beautiful balance. A brand new interpretation of the style is Bella Vita, brewed by New Hampshire’s Schilling Beer Co. in tribute to the 10-year anniversary of Maine’s Vacationland Distributors. Featuring floor-malted pilsner malt from Maine’s Blue Ox Malthouse, along with German Diamant and Saphir hops, it is herbal and grassy, with notes of citrus zest and a little strawberry, before a crisp, bitter finish.

It’s always a good time for Italian-style pils, but these lovely, pre-summer days seem a particularly good match – and a number of local variations have arrived. I sampled a few for the first time this week (along with Tipopils, Luppulo and Bella Vita). And like Pils & Love seven years ago, it opened my eyes to how much variety there is in this style, as practiced by Maine’s craft brewers.


STYLE: Italian-style pilsner
ABV: 5.2%
NOTES: Italian- and Maine-grown pilsner malts are joined with Hallertau Blanc, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Saaz hops. Straw-colored, it is medium bodied with some nice depth. The aromas and flavors are quite expressive, with notes of citrus, white wine, sage and lavender. A bit of spiciness accompanies a semi-sweet, balanced finish.


STYLE: Italian-style pilsner
ABV: 5.6%
NOTES: This one deploys Italian-grown Eraclea malt, dry-hopped with Czech Kazbek and German Saphir hops. More adjacent to an Imperial Pale Lager or Cold IPA than the others I tried, this really is about the hops. It is reminiscent of the orange-flavored drink Tang, accented with strawberries, and a bit of juniper piney-ness. Its name alludes to the “real Italian” sandwich; thankfully, no boiled ham here.


STYLE: Italian-Style Pilsner
ABV: 5.5%
NOTES: Made with Maine-grown pilsner malt and spelt, as well as (unspecified) noble hops, this occupies the other end of the spectrum from Flight Deck’s interpretation. Doughy, grassy and a little floral, it recalls an open-window drive through central Maine farmland in early June.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: