Craft beer was born out of rebellion. In the early 1980s, when the American beer landscape was populated exclusively by bubbly, light, relatively flavorless lager-style beers, a few visionary entrepreneurs started producing traditional English-style beers, aiming to give imbibers a more flavorful drinking experience. Washington helped lead the charge with breweries such as Redhook Brewery, Pyramid Brewing Co. and Hale’s Brewery. As some of the very first small, independent breweries in post-Prohibition America, they’re recognized today as founding fathers in the American craft beer revolution.
These craft breweries (originally called microbreweries) taught beer connoisseurs to appreciate English-style ales, like assertively hopped pale ales and IPAs, as well as full-bodied, darker ales, like stout and porter, not to mention the really crazy stuff, like sour, barrel-aged and Belgian-style beers. Not surprisingly, craft beer aficionados came to think of “fizzy yellow beer” as the antithesis of good beer. Those kinds of beers were brewed, almost exclusively, by the nationally recognized, mega breweries that still dominate the beer market today. Those craft beer lovers preferred the darker, heavier and stronger stuff.
In the ’80s, ’90s and into the first decade of the 21st century, it was hard to find a craft brewery that brewed a light-bodied, refreshing lager, and even harder to find one that did it well. Craft beer drinkers simply were not interested in this style. In recent years, that has changed. Today, many of our small, local breweries produce world-class lagers that are delicious and refreshing counterpoints to the heartier, more robust IPAs, porters, stouts and ambers, and craft beer enthusiasts are learning to appreciate their delicate, nuanced character.
Lager and ale are essentially the same thing: They’re both beer, but with a few slight differences in how they’re brewed. To the casual bystander, the difference is simple: Ales are dark and heavy, while lagers are light and effervescent. But there’s more to it than that. Beyond the boring brewing chemistry, the most notable difference in creating the two is time. Ales take about 10–14 days to go from brew kettle to bottle, whereas well-crafted lagers take at least twice that long. In part, this period of conditioning is what helps lend lagers a smoother, softer and lighter flavor. It’s also what gives them a sparkling clear and clean appearance.
Historically, ales were brewed in England, and lagers were brewed on the northern European mainland, largely because of the prevailing ambient temperatures in each location—ales ferment at warmer temperature than lagers, and without modern technology, brewers had to rely on Mother Nature to control fermentation temperatures. Again, more boring beer chemistry. In German, the word lager actually means storeroom or warehouse, and today’s craft brewers often use the word as a verb to mean rest or condition. “We let this beer lager for 25 days,” for example.
There are many different types of lager, but the most popular is pilsner, which dates back to the 1840s, when it was first brewed in the town of Pilsen, located in what is now the Czech Republic. Pilsners are noted for their light, crisp flavor that balances malty, bready sweetness with varying levels of hop character. In general, those super-huge beer brands that advertise with million-dollar-per-minute TV commercials are all pilsners, produced on an enormous scale.
Washington is fortunate to have a number of brewers creating pilsners that are light yet flavorful and satisfying—and sure to hit the spot. And if you’re looking to pair your pilsner with food, consider using it to wash down oysters on the half shell, enliven the spiciness of four-star Thai food or defuse the heat of Buffalo-style chicken wings.
Kendall’s Pilsner Picks
Airways Brewing Pre Flight Pilsner
A couple of years ago, this beer (5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV) won a coveted gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the most prestigious beer competition in North America. Sparkling yellow with a foamy white head, the flavor blends fresh, crisp crackers with grassy, herbal hops and then finishes bone dry. Available in 16-ounce cans at grocery stores and bottleshops. Always on tap for glass pours and growler fills at the brewery’s two locations.
Airways Brewery and Taproom:
Beer-only taproom, 21 and older.
Kent, 8611 S 212th St.; 253.200.1707
Airways Beer and Bistro: Full restaurant, all ages. Kent, 320 W Harrison St.; 253.236.8632
Chainline Brewing Company Polaris Pilsner
In 2016, this Kirkland-born brew brought home a silver medal from the aforementioned Great American Beer Festival. The hops really shine in this beer (5 percent ABV), adding an herbal, minty character, but nary a hint of bitterness. (Polaris is the name of the variety of hops Chainline Brewing uses to give the beer those flavors.) It finishes just slightly sweet, but is still light, refreshing and an excellent example of a Bohemian-style pilsner. Try it at the brewery and taproom in Kirkland, where you can get growlers to go.
Chainline Brewing Company: Beer-only taproom, all ages. Kirkland, 503 Sixth St. S; 425.242.0923
Chuckanut Brewing Pilsner
Another award-winning beer from one the nation’s most revered brewers of craft lagers, this sparkling golden beer bubbles with a soft, biscuit-like character that gives way to an earthy, minerally hop bitterness. This beer (5 percent ABV) is available in bottles at grocery stores and bottleshops, occasionally on tap at better beer-focused bars around Puget Sound, and is always available for glass pours or growler fills at the brewery’s two all-ages locations.
Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen: Full restaurant. Bellingham, 601 W Holly St.; 360.752.3377
Chuckanut Brewery and Taproom: Beer-only taproom. Burlington, 11937 Higgins Airport Way; 360.752.3377
Cloudburst Brewing Happy Little Clouds
One of the only beers offered year-round by this Seattle brewery, which otherwise focuses on brewing one-off and seasonal beers, this is a traditional pilsner with a very Northwestern twist: lots of New World hop character. With this pilsner clocking in at 5.2 percent ABV, you’ll taste the expected soft, bready malt character, but you’ll also get a bracing wallop of floral and resinous hops. Always available at the brewery’s taproom near Pike Place Market, where you can get pints and growlers.
Cloudburst Brewing: Beer-only taproom, 21 and older. Downtown, 2116 Western Ave.; 206.602.6061
Dru Bru Serious Bru Bohemian Pilsner
This pilsner is brewed for Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie, where you can always find it on tap (downtown and South Lake Union locations). Or, consider stopping by the brewery and taproom at Snoqualmie Pass to drink this beer (4.8 percent ABV). Bright golden, with a frothy white head, and masterfully balancing grainy sweetness with nearly unperceivable bitterness, this beer is a perfect refreshment following a day of summer hiking on one of the many nearby trails, or in the winter, after swooshing down the neighboring slopes.
Dru Bru: Beer-only taproom, all ages. Snoqualmie Pass, 10 Pass Life Way, No. 3; 425.434.0700
Icicle Brewing Company Crosscut Pilsner
Hailing from Leavenworth, this tasty brew was named Best Pilsner in our inaugural Seattle magazine Beer Awards. It pours sparkling clear and golden, with a thin white head that smells slightly hoppy and a little bit like cereal. The crisp and clean flavors are reminiscent of honey, corn and straw, with a wee touch of bitterness on the finish. Available in bottles at bottleshops and always on tap at the brewery, where you can get growlers and Crowlers (32-ounce cans sealed on site) to go.
Icicle Brewing: Taproom with some light food options; all ages. Leavenworth, 935 Front St.; 509.548.2739
Reuben’s Brews Pilsner
Bright golden with a tight white, sudsy head, the metallic, spicy hops mingle nicely with the corn-like malt character. Among other awards, this beer (5.4 percent ABV) brought home a gold medal at the 2016 Washington Beer Awards. Available in 12-ounce cans and regularly on tap at the brewery’s taproom in Ballard. You might also find it on tap at beer-focused bars around town if you’re lucky.
Reuben’s Brews: Beer-only taproom, all ages. Ballard, 5010 14th Ave. NW; 206.784.2859