Pilsner is the new IPA. Here’s the best of a new crop of local light lagers
By Matthew Korfhage
Virginia has long been known for its excellent, caramel-malty and biscuit-burpy Vienna lagers — a style rare elsewhere in the country except in a Negro Modelo bottle. But outside of Hardywood and Smartmouth, two of the earliest to nail the style, the Old Dominion hasn’t always been a great state to get a cool, refreshing glass of pilsner.
Used to be, the last thing a craft beer fan would order is a boring, old pale lager. Craft beer was about strong flavors, bold experiments, the thrill of an unfloculated English yeast or a hop burst so strong you sneeze pinecones for a week.
Craft beer was about everything but the fizz and straw of a clear, pale lager that looks like what they pour in a Super Bowl commercial.
But when craft brewers sit down at the end of a long day dropping hops in the boil, they’re probably not ordering an IPA. Brewers, by and large, drink beer-flavored beer. And if you ask brewers which one they’re most proud of, chances are they tell you it’s their pilsner. The style is a showcase of subtlety, balance, and straightforward brewing skill. It drinks easy and offers nowhere for flaws to hide.
“If I’m going to a bar, I’m ordering a pilsner, a lager,” says Benchtop Brewing’s Eric Tennant. “And if I’m in my brewery having a beer, that’s gonna be the beer.”
Customers have finally followed suit. The boom in craft lagers has been one of the most welcome trends in beer.
Over the past two years, there’s been a new crop of truly great pale lagers in Virginia: odes to the craft malt of North Carolina, experiments in wild-yeast lager, and subtle American updates to the ageless German style.
Here are our five new favorite lagers and Pilsners in Hampton Roads and Richmond.
Triple Crossing Beer
At Richmond’s Triple Crossing, brewer Jeremy Wirtes is a serial monomaniac, moving his obsessions from style to style and pinning down each one like a butterfly under glass.
In the past couple years, Wirtes has turned his attention to lager. And he’s made a menagerie like none other in the state: A dry Roccale Italian Pilsner with a beautiful charge from late-addition noble German hops, an eminently drinkable Czech Pale Lager with the light orange zest of Saaz hops, a Hilltop Franconian Kellerbier with the legendary Augustiner yeast from Germany, and a Fault Line Helles that marries malty depth with flavors both floral and dank.
But while the seasonal lagers are each surprisingly distinctive, the German-style Pathway Pils is the estate blend, made with a house yeast that adds a touch of almost lavender-like notes. Wirtes adjusts his mix of new- and old-school noble hops with each batch to achieve the same fundamental flavor, a note that rings true: It is dry with just enough residual sugar to let the Weyermann malt shine, a balanced blend of grassy, lightly fruity, and floral. God, it’s good.
Crispy Whip Pilsner
Benchtop Brewing Company
Benchtop has always been the most farm-to-table of breweries — mixing in local products from beets to oysters to make truly local beer. This has also come through in its choice of malt on its Crispy Whip Pilsner. The beer carries the taste of North Carolina fields, a distinctive melony and floral pilsner made by Epiphany Craft Malt.
Though it started as more of a Czech pilsner, Crispy has slowly migrated into a modern German style, mixing noble German hops with the lemon-zesty, lightly herbal Sterling hops grown in Oregon. This last addition is the other key to the beer’s distinctiveness: A pilsner’s familiar edge of bitterness slides into a lingering memory of citrus, bubbling up through generous carbonation.
The beer is made the old-fashioned way: by waiting. There’s no filtering, no fining, just eight weeks of letting the beer settle as its flavors integrate into crisp balance. Whip pours beautifully clean and clear, and almost exclusively out of the side-pull Czech taps in the brewery’s Chelsea-district taproom. But during the coronavirus pandemic it has also been available in cans, ready to be shipped all over the state.
O’Connor Brewing Company
For a lot of its life, O’Connor has been defined by its IPA, especially its old-school El Guapo Agave IPA — a mainstay on Virginia tap lists and grocery shelves. But its most distinguished beer of 2019 was a humble working man’s lager that has already rocketed to the top of national lists in blind tastings, ranking alongside stalwarts like Firestone Walker Brewing Company and pFriem Family Brewers.
Proper is made like a helles from the valleys of Bavaria, though with a little less time in the tanks. Its easygoing nature comes from new-school Saphir hops made in Hüll, Germany, which have some of the lowest alpha-acid bitterness of any hop in German history, riding a beautiful biscuity undercurrent from classic pilsner and Vienna malts.
Proper tastes like its name suggests: a crushable lawn-mowing beer. It goes down so gently, and with such deft balance of flavors, you don’t know it’s gone until you’ve already ordered another. And its low cost lets you drink it without swiss-cheese holes in your bank account, regularly tapping at $5 or less at bars all over the state.
“It’s a great shift beer,” says owner Kevin O’Connor. “When I come out on the loading dock, they’re all drinking that.”
New Realm Brewing Company
At Stone Brewing in California, Mitch Steele became perhaps the most renowned maker of hoppy beers in America, so pivotal to the evolution of IPA that his book on the subject has become a brewer’s bible. But when he moved to the East, he wanted to take advantage of our soft water supply — water he says is similar to the water where the great European pilsners are made. The results speak for themselves.
Since debuting in the tanks in Virginia Beach in late 2018, New Realm’s Euphonia Pilsner won best in show at the Virginia Craft Beer Cup last year, a rare prize for the style. To make it, Steele applied his longstanding mastery of hops to beers not always thought of for that profile. He used late addition hop bursting to wring out maximum flavor without much bitterness, blending the classic noble-hop flavor of German Hersbrucker with Hüll Melon whose flavor lives up to their name. The malt is classic, with a hint of crackeriness.
The first time I tried a batch from Atlanta, I nearly swooned into the wall — a gesture my drinking partner at the time still mimics whenever I mention the beer. The first batches in Virginia Beach didn’t quite match what Steele first brewed in Georgia. The water was a little different, and it took a few tries to optimize hop additions on the larger brewing system.
But these days, Virginia Beach brewer Zachary Camp’s batches of Euphonia that have the sturdy backbone of a classic European pilsner, and the floral, fruity, hoppy deftness of new American greats.
The Veil Brewing Company
At The Veil, brewer Matt Tarpey has dabbled in classic-tasting pils and helles. But what’s really characterized the brewery’s lagers is its devotion to pushing at the edges of what a pale German beer can be. Tarpey has made lagers out of ancient grains such as spelt, lagers with raw wheat and American hops that taste like stone fruit, and a beautiful recent Cope lager with whole-leaf Hallertau hops.
But Dwell is the brewery’s towering achievement in lager, an open-fermented beer lagered for months in red-wine oak barrels. The crisp assertiveness of lager shines through, but with a light edge of wild-yeast funk and oaky tannin. On the one hand, Dwell is a re-imagination of the lager. And on the other, it tunnels deep into the historical roots of lagers, back to the ancient days of Deutschland when all beer was wild.
Dwell is a startlingly complex and rewarding beer, a subtle ride across the palate, with flavor notes you can pull anew out of the sky with each new taste. It’s not always available — the beer takes nine months to make — but when each new batch arrives you should run, not walk, to the brewery.