The basics aren’t basic: Pilsner

Josef Groll had a big head. Arrogance was one of the brewer’s defining characteristics. His own father dubbed him “the rudest man in Bavaria.” But even Groll couldn’t have imagined — when he brewed the first Pilsner on October 5, 1842, in a small Bohemian city — his new pale lager would become a global mainstay.

The people of Pilsen, in what’s now Czechia, recruited Groll to create an alternative to the terrible ales they regularly dumped. They built a state-of-the-art brewery, now called Pilsner Urquell. Czech Pilsners retain much of the sweetness, hefty Bavarian malt mouthfeel, spicy bitterness from Saaz hops and golden color of the original.

Fair State Pils can with a full pilsner glass next to it
Fair State Pils draws on aspects of the north German and original Czech Pilsner. (Fair State)

In the late 1800s, advances in refrigeration and yeast accelerated the style’s popularity. Pilsner spread, adjusting to local tastes, agriculture and water. First it moved south into Austria and Bavaria where it spawned the Helles lager. Then it went north, creating the crispier northern German Pilsner and another spinoff: Dortmund export.

What about now? Unfortunately, Pilsner is no longer seen as Groll’s revolution, but too often as a macro style that breweries carry as a gateway to more exciting styles.

In this column, I want to occasionally revisit the basics, highlighting a Minnesota offering that’s a standard bearer of the style. For Pilsner, I spoke with Niko Tonks, founding brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, runs the gamut between what the beer was and what it might become again.

James Figy: Are Pilsners nowadays just something for the not-a-beer-drinker to sip?

Niko Tonks: Pilsners, in particular, are gaining ground. We always have Pils in the taproom, and when we have a second Pilsner, it often moves faster than IPAs at that time. But Pilsner is just one kind of pale lager. The lager in general has further to go. 

JF: You once said brewers, rather than being beer snobs, prefer pale lager. Why?

NT: Taste among brewers is a diverse thing. But it’s a truism that the longer you’re in the industry, the more likely you drink pale lager at the end of the day, oftentimes not even craft beer. 

At a base level, it tastes good, and you can have two or three. If you’re working in the “kettle sour mines” all day, cutting bags of fruit puree into a fermenter, you’ll probably crave a “regular beer.” On a technical level, Pilsners require consistency and are difficult to do well. That’s another truism.

JF: What makes Pilsners so difficult?

NT: The old story is there are fewer things to hide behind. That’s true to an extent. Material selection is important, but that applies to any style. Really, reaching the pinnacle of IPA is as hard as getting to the pinnacle of Pilsner. 

Fair State Brewing Cooperative's taproom in Minneapolis
Fair State Brewing Cooperative is a Union brewery with a Northeast Minneapolis taproom and St. Paul brewhouse. (Fair State)

But the opportunity cost is huge: In our peak season, we could put two or three batches of IPA through a tank in the time it takes to do one of Pils.

We use some old school, continental techniques, too. Much American brewing equipment isn’t set up for them, though many new breweries are building in these capabilities. You need to do a temperature program mash or decoction if you want to get to the next level. 

And we keep Pils simple, which is the nature of the beast. As a brewer, you have to resist complicating recipes for beers like this.

JF: Which pale lager ancestor does it most closely resemble?

NT: Fair State Pils is a mashup of the Czech and northern German versions. It’s maltier and less dry than the latter because we use Bohemian Pilsner malt. But we pair it with a lot of classic German aroma hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, so it’s more bitter and hop aromatic than the former. We aimed for an authentic continental style.

JF: Why have you focused so much on craft lagers, like Pils, Crankin’ Foamers, Union Lager and Vienna Lager?

Exterior of Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis
While Fair State received early attention for its sour program, including the ubiquitous, hibiscus-infused Roselle, the brewery’s focus remains on low-ABV lagers and other easy-drinking styles. (Fair State)

NT: Our concept when we opened in 2014 was to make low-alcohol beers. Early on, our sour beers got more attention, so we leaned into that. And we’ve definitely chased a trend or two. 

But during the pandemic, we had some downtime to think. We realized we’re technically proficient enough to make almost any style, but people can really tell when you’re excited and care about the beer. 

We’ll keep brewing as many lagers as possible, and if that’s our niche, we’ll still sleep well.

JF: Will the industry overall trend in that direction?

NT: Everything’s possible on small scales. To stay alive in Minnesota’s beer scene, most breweries must cater to everybody. I hope we see greater differentiation, with go-to places for English pub ales or brown ales or Belgians.

But I take it with a grain of salt. My first brewing job was at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, which makes Pilz — a very Czech Pilsner. Every year since, articles have said, “This is the year of the craft lager!” The only difference now is I sort of believe it.


James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

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