The Taste Test: Blind-tasting 25 Minnesota Pilsners

Photo by Wing Ta

Photos by Wing Ta

Whenever I visit a new brewery or taproom, if a Pilsner is available, it will be my first selection. It represents the perfect test of a brewer’s skill.

Pilsner is a straightforward style. The recipe is simple—Pilsner malt, noble hops, lager yeast, and water. The profile is not overly complex—a blend of grainy malt sweetness, herbal and spicy hop flavor, smooth bitterness, and a crisp, clean finish. Nothing is over the top. Nothing demands your attention.

But this straightforwardness is deceptive. Despite its seeming simplicity—or perhaps because of it—Pilsner is notoriously difficult to brew. It requires a precise balance of malt, hop, and bitterness that is easily thrown off-kilter by the wrong water, a minor process flaw, or a slightly light or heavy hand with any one ingredient. Lager yeast requires careful management. Mishandled fermentation results in a buttery, sour apple mess. The lack of complexity leaves a brewer nowhere to hide. Every flaw is painfully apparent.

On February 12, a group of BJCP judges gathered at the offices of The Growler to put Minnesota-made Pilsners to the test. A total of 25 entries were tasted blind over two rounds. The beers were judged against the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines—the guidelines used for commercial beer competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. The beers were assigned to style categories according to brewer identification. Categories judged included Bohemian Pilsner, German Pilsner, American Pilsner, and International Pilsner. Three samples did not have a style designation. These were judged in the category determined by the panel to be the closest fit. Judges’ scores for each beer were required to be within five points of each other.

In the first round of judging, three groups of four judges each assessed eight to nine beers. Three from each flight were passed on to a Best of Show round. These beers were narrowed down by a panel of three highly experienced judges.

Blind tasting is an enlightening and sometimes humbling exercise. Tasting without the biases that come with branding allows one to objectively assess each beer on its core characteristics. There are nearly always surprises. Old favorites can fail to perform, while unknown or even derided beers rise to the top.

But the process followed here is not without its potential pitfalls. Judging against particular guidelines can eliminate good beers because they don’t quite fit the parameters of the identified style. Additionally, the guidelines are intentionally somewhat vague and subject to interpretation. “Pronounced” hop flavor and aroma may mean something different to each judge. There is also a tendency in blind judging to reward boldness over subtlety. Because every beer was not tasted by every judge, the possibility exists that differences in experience level and style familiarity between the three first-round panels could have skewed the results.

Nonetheless, the combination of blind tasting, multiple flights, more than one judge for each flight and the requirement that scores fall within narrow range does provide a reasonable assurance of an objective outcome.

There were several insights to be gained from the February Pilsner tasting.

One thing that stood out to me was the sheer number of entries. I have been following a rise in popularity of classic lager-style beers for some time. But 25 Pilsners was surprising even to me and something that would have been unthinkable even a couple years ago. And these 25 beers don’t represent nearly all of the Minnesota-made Pilsners that are out there. It is an indicator that a taste for beers that aren’t super hopped or high alcohol is well entrenched in the state’s beer community.

Another noteworthy observation was the overall high quality of the samples. When The Growler did a similar assessment of Minnesota IPAs two years ago, there were a significant number of problematic beers. This year’s beers fared much better. In my own flight of nine beers, only two had significant flaws. The others all scored within a narrow and fairly high range. Similar results were seen in the other two judging groups. Is this a sign that the overall quality of Minnesota beer is improving?

Before getting to the top nine Pilsners advanced to the Best of Show round, below is the complete list of the beers that were submitted for tasting after we put out a request for submissions to all Minnesota breweries and brewpubs.

Beers submitted for judging (in alphabetical order):

56 Brewing PilsNEr
612Brew 52 by 612
Bad Weather Batch 200 Bohemian Pilsner
Beaver Island Check Pils
Bent Paddle Venture Pils
Birch’s on the Lake Bohemian Pilsner
Brau Brothers Thresher
Clockwerks Boho Rye Pilsner
Eastlake Southside Pilsener
Excelsior Cross Czech Pilsner
Fair State Pils
Fulton Pils
Hoops No. 39 Keller Pils
Indeed B-Side Pils
Lake Monster Calhoun Claw Pilsener
Schell’s Pils
Summit Dakota Soul
Summit Keller Pils
Tanzenwald Gottlieb Pilsner
Utepils Pils
Venn Batch #10 American Pilsner
Waldmann Pilsener
Wayzata Brew Works Pontoon Ride Pilsner
Wild Mind Pils

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Continue to see the results and Best Of Show.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.