It shouldn't be a surprise that Colorado's breweries are making good pilsners. After all, this most basic of all German lagers was among the first few beers brewed here in 1859, when a handful of German- and Polish-speaking brewmasters followed the gold miners who'd arrived the year before and began providing refreshment. And then there is Coors, which has been pumping out its world-famous pilsner-style beers since 1873.
But our state has more recently been known for crossing boundaries and for beers with a bit more flavor, from the ambers and raspberry wheats of the 1990s to the pale ales and porters of the early 2000s and the massive IPAs, Brett-based saisons and just about every other style imaginable in the past decade.
So it's with a raised eyebrow that I have watched local breweries pile up medals in recent years at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup for the blandest of lagers. Since 2013, in fact, Colorado has taken home at least thirteen medals for its pilsners in these two competitions.
The most recent honors came last week when Cannonball Creek Brewing, a Golden brewery known for its powerful, hoppy beers and experimental IPAs, won gold for Netflix and Pils, a German-style pilsner, and The Post Brewing in Lafayette won bronze for Howdy Beer Western Pilsner, an American-style lager.
Cannonball Creek brewer and co-founder Brian Hutchinson says the success that Colorado is having may be reflective of a bigger trend toward brewing craft lagers nationwide. "Although lagers/pilsners certainly are not growing at the explosive pace or receiving the media attention that hazy IPAs and barrel-aged beers get, there are definitely more small brewers focusing on these highly technical and highly drinkable styles," he says.
But Hutchinson also credits brewers Bill Eye and Ashleigh Carter, co-owners of Bierstadt Lagerhaus, for raising the game in Colorado over the past seven or eight years when it comes to pilsners. Before opening Bierstadt, Eye and Carter were at Prost Brewing, which won a gold medal for its Keller Pils in 2013 in GABF's Kellerbier or Zwickelbier category. The two also worked at Dry Dock Brewing until 2012, helping to create its award-winning German-style lagers. Dry Dock later won medals in 2015, 2016 and 2017 for its German-style pilsner, which is brewed by Tim Evon, Martin Vargas and head brewer Alan Simons.
Although Eye and Carter rarely enter award competitions now, Bierstadt's flagship, Slow Pour Pils, is considered to be among the best pilsners in the state. "It's no secret that Slow Pour is highly popular among professional brewers in Colorado," Hutchinson says. "Most brewers, myself included, are often inspired by beers they drink and enjoy themselves. We'd all be remiss in discussing Colorado pilsner without mentioning Bill and Ashleigh."
Kevin DeLange, co-founder of Dry Dock Brewing, believes Colorado has been making good pilsners in part because of the number of dedicated brewers who live and work here.
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"On the one hand, we like to be innovative and do all the crazy stuff — the fun, new exciting stuff," he says. "But there is also a pride in a portion of our brewers that they want to make the hardest thing there is to make, and make it very well. My brewers here have always been that way. They get joy and satisfaction in making a difficult style really well. That is why people have entered competitions and enjoyed entering them."
Although the flavors in pilsners are subtle at best, that means that brewers have to be very careful when they brew one. "You can't cover up any flaws with heavy hops or fruit or peanut butter," DeLang says.
In addition to Dry Dock, Prost, the Post Brewing Co. and Cannonball Creek, other Colorado breweries that have won medals in the past five years include Rockyard Brewing, which took gold at the World Beer Cup in the German-style Pilsener category this year for its Primadonna Pilsner; Ska Brewing, which took silver in 2015 and bronze in 2016 for its Mexican Logger in the American-Style or International-Style Pilsener category at GABF; Pug Ryan's, which won bronze in 2015 for Peacemaker in the Bohemian-Style Pilsener cateogry; and Lowdown Kitchen + Brewery, which won silver for its Porch Pounding Pilz in 2014 in the Bohemian-Style Pilsener category.
Note: The World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival spell the beer style that originated in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic, "pilsener," while most of the brewers mentioned here spell it "pilsner."