More specifically, they are light-bodied, dry-hopped lagers. Dry-hopping is a process by which hops are added after the wort is boiled to keep bitterness low while increasing the aroma and taste.
Most breweries use Old World hops, such as Hallertauer Mittelfrüher, Saphir and Saaz, so that the result resembles traditional German or Czech pilsners, which have varying degrees of floral or spicy hop aromas — but with a slightly more hop-forward profile. But some brewers are also experimenting with hops from New Zealand, the U.S. or elsewhere to lend richer or more fruity aromas and flavors.
Westbound & Down Brewing, which made an Italian-style pilsner earlier this summer. The recipe included Hallertau Blanc, Saphir and Saaz hops. "I like very hop-forward beers. That is what made us fall in love with Italian pilsner."
Kelissa Hieber, head brewer and co-owner at Goldspot Brewing, also loves Italian-style pilsners for their hoppy flavors. As a result, she has already brewed two this summer and will release a third on Saturday. That third beer, Contessa Italian Pilsner, is a collaboration with the team at Zymos Brewing (which is set to open later this year in Westminster).
"A lot of these aren't traditional pilsners," Hieber notes. For her previous versions, she used Motueka (a Saaz-like hop from New Zealand) and Cashmere (an American-style tropical hop that is more often found in hazy IPAs than in other styles) to make the beer "citrusy but not crazy-topical."
A few other breweries that have brewed Italian-style pilsners recently include Cannonball Creek Brewing (one of the first to do so locally), New Image Brewing, Joyride Brewing and Cerebral Brewing. And a few others have used dry-hopping techniques in their pilsners without labeling them as "Italian."
Both Gardner and Hieber point to Firestone Walker Brewing's Pivo Pils as the instigator of Italian-style pilsners in the United States. The California brewery got the idea to use dry-hopping in its pilsner from an Italian brewery called Birrifico Italiano, which wowed brewers a few years earlier with its Tipopils. (Want to try it? It's on tap at the Bull & Bush Brewery, though that could change at any moment.)
Although Firestone has been brewing Pivo for eight years — to much acclaim — pilsners didn't capture the imagination of IPA-obsessed U.S. craft-beer-drinking consumers until a couple of years ago. Since then, however, a variety of lagers, including Italian-style pilsners, have enjoyed more popularity.