Beer styles

What’s Italian pilsner all about?

In Italy for the better part of a fortnight, we ordered Italian Pils whenever the opportunity arose, trying to understand it.

It’s not a sub-style we’ve particularly engaged with back home in the UK because:

  • the UK is not Italy
  • we think of pils as being about freshness

Having said that, we have tried the odd example, such as one that showed up at the Bristol branch of brewpub chain Zero Degrees. “Ever-so-slightly floral” we wrote of that at the time.

In Milan and Parma, the term seems to mean something quite specific.

As in, lots of beer menus have both ‘Pils’ and ‘Italian Pils’ as separate items.

The former tends to be something that might be badged as ‘lager’ in the UK – plain, not especially bitter; think Tennent’s or Carling.

The Italian Pilsners, by contrast, are:

  • dry
  • bitter
  • flowery

Our quick tasting notes, which we don’t overthink, show a theme emerging: we often can’t quite decide if they taste like pale-n-hoppy cask ale, or authentically Franconian.

St.Georgenbräu of Buttenheim has come up a couple of times.

An excellent blog post by Jeff ‘Beervana’ Alworth suggests that perhaps this is the point:

[Augustino] Arioli first brewed Tipopils in 1996 when he founded the brewery, but the inspiration emerged earlier, after a peripatetic journey through the different traditions of brewing. As he learned to brew, Germany was his first influence. Later he spent time and brewed in the UK, Canada, and US. All of this informed the way he thought about beer. “I [had] visited some English brewers and studied some more about English cask beer. I knew that they were using dry-hop in the cask. I thought, why don’t I do this with my Tipopils?”

We found a spectrum with Tipopils being very much the cleanest, most balanced beer we tried.

It’s a grown-up, commercial beer that has plenty of character, without being likely to upset someone who just wants a glass of cold, refreshing beer.

Others seemed to be hazier, and either tilted towards more floweriness (heavy dry hopping) or towards extreme bitterness. 

Almost as if they’ve been brewed based on a description of Tipopils, having never actually tasted it.

For example, on the flowery front, Birrificio del Ducato’s Via Emilia (bottled, 5%) is a remarkable beer which smells like hops straight out of the packet, before they’ve been anywhere near wort or beer.

Bringing it up to take a sip was joyful. A sort of magic trick.

We enjoyed drinking the beer a lot but it didn’t quite live up to the initial aromatic fanfare.

All the Italian pils we tried had a distinct European noble hop character, reminding us of a type of cask ale we used to see quite a lot in the UK: novelty single-hopped golden ales using, say, Tettnang, or Saaz.

Cask ale brewed with lager ingredients; lager brewed with cask ale techniques…

That’s an interesting middle ground, and a place we like to hang out.

A first take on this post first appeared on Patreon, while we were in the middle of our holiday and still thinking it through.

4 replies on “What’s Italian pilsner all about?”

I am still not convinced that there is really much of a difference between “Italian Pils” and a properly bitter and aromatic German Pils, but I have drunk enough to be convinced that some quite small Italian breweries are very good at brewing Pils.

“Almost as if they’ve been brewed based on a description of Tipopils, having never actually tasted it.”

That’s been my experience with some of the US ones I’ve had. Sweet and soapy from ( presumably ) too many dry hops and not enough bittering hops. I recall Tipopils being on the softer side but still retaining the crispness I’d expect from any variant of pilsner.

I have to think some German or other European brewers of old dry-hopped their lager. Is there no evidence of this? If not, the Italian pilsener can lay claim to something distinctive, but not otherwise. On a practical level many are good but still classic pils-type imo.

The cask thing arises simply because much cask ale has used European noble hops as a keynote, especially with the decline in production of classic English varieties.

There is quite a bit of flavour crossover between cask ale and Franconian beers already. I’ve several times encountered Mahr’s U which tasted a lot like Bass, and Spezial Ungespundet reminds me very much of an English pale’n’hoppy, though it’s a few years since I had it.

Pilsner is supposed to be redolent of hops. I think this concept is not sufficiently understood in the US – cf. the backlash against Victory Prima Pils – which is possibly why they needed to come up with an “Italian” extension to their idea of what a Pilsner can be like.

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