The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Two summers ago, the Beer Judge Certification Program made waves – or at least a menacing ripple or two – when it formally recognized the New England IPA as a style, bucking years of derision from classically minded brewers who viewed its hazy, often turbid appearance as a flaw, if not a pox on good brewing practices. Assuredly, this was not a decision taken lightly by the standards-setting nonprofit.
“In order to be a style, it really needs to have staying power or proper history,” Kristen England, the BJCP’s emeritus education director, explained later. “There has never been a style proposed yet that we haven’t been talking about for a year or more.”
The New England IPA wasn’t the only style on the lips of the BJCP that June – to date, the only time the it has introduced “provisional styles” since its guidelines were comprehensively updated in 2015. The organization recognized Burton ale, a rich and malty brown ale with origins in 18th century England. On the other end of the age spectrum, it gave the nod to a Brazilian beverage first brewed in 2015, the Catharina sour, a tart wheat ale – similar to a Berliner weisse, but boozier – that’s conditioned on fresh tropical fruit. And, lastly, the BJCP spotlighted another emerging Southern Hemisphere style: the New Zealand pilsner.
Brought into life during the mid-90s by Emerson’s Brewery of Dunedin, New Zealand, this lager subset is defined largely by its generous inclusion of the country’s pungent homegrown hops, like Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, and Riwaka (all three of which can be found in the brewery’s NZ Pilsner). Prized around the world, these varietals possess an array of distinctly tropical, citrusy, and fruity characteristics. Cleaner than a Bohemian pilsner, maltier than a German pilsner, the New Zealand pilsner is a vessel to showcase those hop flavors and aromas, albeit with some subtlety. This is a lager, after all.
Despite its decades of history, though, the New Zealand pilsner was slow to cross the Pacific. In fact, the production team at Virginia’s Crooked Run Brewing (which operates a production facility in Sterling and a second taproom in Leesburg) hadn’t even heard of one when they came across a New Zealand pilsner homebrew kit advertisement in an industry magazine three years ago.
“Someone was like, ‘New Zealand pilsner… that sounds kind of cool,’” says Jake Endres, a Crooked Run co-owner and its production manager.
That was all the inspiration Crooked Run needed to brew its own take on a New Zealand pilsner, Cruise Control. With a recipe developed by brewer Brad Erikson, the 5% lager was introduced at the brewery’s fourth anniversary party in July 2017. It wasn’t the flashiest beer on the menu that day – that title probably went to a passionfruit sour double IPA, also brewed for the occasion – but it was the one brewers anticipated most.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m really stoked about this beer. I can’t wait to hang out and just drink this,” Endres recalls.
It quickly became apparent this sentiment was shared beyond the brewery’s staff. The New Zealand pilsner, subsequently renamed Coast, emerged as a favorite among regulars. In short time, Coast was elevated from a one-off to the brewery’s year-round lager offering, taking the place of Carrera, a Mexican-style amber lager that was underperforming in that slot.
“Carrera was cool and everything, but being a Mexican lager, it had a little bit of a copper color, and we kind of realized there wasn’t much of a point in having a lighter beer that didn’t look light,” says Endres. “Plus, we had some customers where Coast was all they wanted to drink. People got very upset if we didn’t have it on tap.”
While unquestionably quenching, Coast is hardly without malt character. On the contrary, Endres has gone so far as to call it a “heavy pilsner.” The primary source of its biscuity, mildly sweet flavor is a hefty charge of melanoidin malt, a kilned grain that helps brewers mimic the deep malt character derived from a decoction mash. (A traditional German technique, decoction calls for removing a thick portion of the mash, essentially scorching it to create maillard reactions, then adding it back to the larger kettle. The labor-intensive process is, by all accounts, a pain in the ass, and Crooked Run doesn’t have equipment built to execute it.)
“Coast was created to be a fairly full-flavored pilsner,” Endres explains. “I mean, a lot of incredible Czech pilsners are basically pilsner malt plus a noble hop, and we like that style too, but we wanted to make something that’s a little different.”
Coast’s grist lends it a rich golden hue – a color that pushes the limits of the style by BJCP guidelines. This isn’t overly concerning to Endres, who cites a nearly copper pilsner from Fox Farms Brewery as one of his favorite renditions of the style.
“A lot of people are tossing out the rules on pilsner,” he tells me. “Just make it however you want.”
Along those lines, Crooked Run hops its New Zealand pilsner at levels close to an IPA. And much like modern IPAs, those additions happen primarily in the whirlpool and dry-hop rather the kettle, in an effort to maximize their aromatic and flavor contributions over potential bitterness. As such, Coast again skirts the style guidelines – this time, its expectation of “medium to high hop bitterness.” But keep one thing in mind: This recipe was developed before such guidelines even existed. (“I didn’t really expect it to become an actual category with the BJCP,” Endres admits.)
It could even be argued that minor deviations are true to the root of the makeshift style. The New Zealand pilsner emerged from a country of brewers isolated in the middle of the ocean, making lager with what was at their disposal. That’s why, rather incredibly, it can be brewed with lager or ale yeast.
Ultimately, though, any New Zealand pilsner is most about the interplay of its particular hops. In Coast, Crooked Run pairs the uniquely lemon-lime flavor of Motueka (a hop that’s often said to evoke a mojito) with Wakatu. A descendent of German Hallertau, Wakatu has clean spiciness and delicate herbal flavor like most noble hops, but its Southern Hemisphere terroir imparts a slight citrus character.
“There’s really no other hop out there like it,” Endres says of Motueka, which is used primarily in the whirlpool. “And Wakatu is a great way to finish the beer. The two hops just go together really well. If you did just one or the other, it would probably be boring.”
For the first fifteen years of this century, many American craft beer drinkers would have applied that descriptor to all pilsners: boring. And there is certainly a non-insignificant portion of the community who still feel this way, particularly those brought into craft beer by the maximal flavors of pastry stout, fruited sour ale, and New England IPA. But Endres says that perception is continuing to erode, and he’s seen the proof firsthand in Crooked Run’s taproom.
“Pils and lager are way up for us,” he told me in January. “When we introduced rotating monthly lagers, we immediately had to double the batch size because they sell out in a week. That never happens with our other beers. Last night, we sold 230 glasses of Coast – far more than any other beer, and it’s wintertime.”
Of course, pilsners will always be an utmost favorite among brewers, who value the style’s technical craft, clean flavors, and more approachable alcohol content. On a trip up the East Coast this winter, Endres says this was a constant refrain.
“Literally everyone I talked to was bored with hazy IPA,” he shares, “and almost every industry person I know has switched to drinking lagers.”
Much like the increasingly popular (but as yet officially unrecognized) Italian-style pilsner, New Zealand pilsner represents a new way to attract drinkers – and excite brewers – with big, often unexpected hop character in a lager. While the style is far from ubiquitous, it can be found elsewhere on occasion locally at Astro Lab (in the form of Tahi), Idiom (as Pils Freak), and Ocelot, whose Helles Awaits (hopped with Wai-iti) is at least adjacent to the style. Meanwhile, in Maine, craft juggernaut Bissell Brothers introduced a New Zealand pilsner, Outgrowth, to its rotation earlier this year.
“I think part of the reason why a lot of people have done a New Zealand pilsner is that you can’t really do a pilsner with Citra and all of those American IPA hops; those beers just sort of taste like citrusy lagers, which is just not what you’re going for,” Endres observes. “But hops like Motueka and Wakatu bring different flavors than your typical Czech hop pils, and they work really together.”
If anything is inhibiting the growth of New Zealand pilsners in the States, it’s somewhat ironically the fact that these hops are too alluring. Coveted for its white wine characteristics, Nelson Sauvin is one of the most expensive hops on the secondary market. As Shaun Hill has discussed, Riwaka is nearly impossible to source. And according to Endres, even lining up Motueka has become a challenge.
“So many breweries are doing New England IPAs, and they’re just sucking up all the hops,” he explains. “By the time you find out about a new hop variety, it’s already 30 dollars for 8 ounces. Everybody is being forced to take a look at every variety.”
Still, hustling to source hops for your in-demand pilsner is a situation many brewers wouldn’t mind facing.
And, eventually, a solution will emerge. After all, if the BJCP is to be believed, New Zealand pilsner is here to stay.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.