NEWCASTLE — In the world of beer lovers and experts, pilsners aren’t usually on the radar.

These days, it’s typically something big, bold, powerful. A hop-forward, double-dry-hopped Imperial Pale Ale with funky yeasts. A sherry-barrel aged Belgian beer with a cherry tartness that took two years to make. The more bitter, the more sour, the stranger … the better.

For many brewers, however, all of that is well and good, but a good pilsner is a thing of beauty.

“It is a very delicate beer style,” said Tim Adams, a founder and brewer for Oxbow Brewing in Newcastle. “There’s nothing to hide behind.”

Oxbow recently partnered with Birrificio Italiano – a Northern Italy based brewery founded by Agostino Arioli – to create a gathering of pilsners the likes of which the U.S. has never seen before. Dubbed “Pils and Love,” it featured 60 pilsners from across the world. And it all started thanks to a chance meeting in a pizzeria in Washington D.C., and a love of pilsner style.

The beginnings

Arioli initially learned his craft from German beer makers, but has diverged from that over time. In Germany, he said, a specific beer has very strict standards to which it must adhere, a rigidity he eschews in his own brewing. Thus, the creation of Tipo Pils, which is dry-hopped, something typically frowned upon in Germany.

As his unique pilsner gained popularity, it began to spread across the world. A few years back, Arioli was visiting Washington D.C. to organize things with those who manage the importation of Tipo Pils. One restaurant in particular, Pizzeria Paradiso, is known for its selection of craft beer, and a pilsner from a craft brewery in Italy fit the bill.

Upon visiting the restaurant, Arioli was introduced to Greg Jasgur, director of sales for Oxbow. Jasgur had heard of, tried, and appreciated Tipo Pils, and the two began discussing the pilsner style and their mutual love of it.

Arioli has likely contributed more to the appreciation of the pilsner than anyone else in the world. Not only has he brewed his Tipo Pils for decades, but over 10 years ago he started a big event in Europe called Pils Pride.

“The so-called beer experts were only drinking the big, complex beers,” said Arioli. “I’ve always thought beer, even craft beer, can be easy drinking but something with character.”

Pilsner, in particular, is easy drinking that can have subtle touches that make it unique. Yet in the craft beer world, it seemed like being caught drinking a pilsner was a shameful thing.

“There’s no shame.” said Arioli. “It’s good beer! You can come to Pils Pride and enjoy it with no shame.”

Jasgur liked the idea, and a promise was made to form a partnership out of mutual appreciation for the under-appreciated beer style.

At the time, said Arioli, he had no idea who Adams was or that Oxbow even existed. “I didn’t know much about this incredible place.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the two breweries would meet. In the following years, they would see each other at a variety of beer events, and the details of Pils and Love were hammered out between the organizations.

“I think we are alike because Tim and I share the same approach to what beer ‘must’ be. There’s no way it ‘must’ be,” said Arioli. “It’s about pleasure.”

Pilsner & sunshine

On July 15, the first ever Pils and Love came to the shores of Casco Bay at Spring Point in South Portland. Over 700 people showed up to sample dozens of different pilsners from across the world. Attendance skewed heavily toward brewers. “That was probably the most industry people I’ve seen in one place before,” said Adams.

Pils and Love happened to be scheduled in the wake of a lobster roll festival that went disastrously, a fact that was pointed out in comments on Facebook and elsewhere.

Luckily, the comparisons were only relevant due to scheduling. Lines were short, complaints were few, and the weather cooperated to create one heck of a festival.

I was lucky enough to attend, and it’s easy to see why Adams already has the same venue booked next year. Spring Point has plenty of space for people to spread out onto the expansive lawn, and a large tent kept anyone who needed it cool. Beer was cold and flowed freely, water was stationed throughout the area, and attendees (and their dogs) had the chance to spread out blankets, bask in the sun, and enjoy some craft beer.

A large tent on the shores of Casco Bay is a great place to catch some shade as attendees enjoy pilsners at Pils & Love. Staff photo by Chris Chase

The selection, while only pilsners, was still varied. There were maltier, darker pilsners like Pivovar Kout na Šumavě’s Koutska. Based in Prague, the beer is rarely seen on U.S. soil. Birrificio Italiano represented with three separate pilsners, including a casked one that was flavorful and floral.

Birrificio Italiano founder Agostino Arioli pours out pilsners for thirsty Pils Love attendees. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Another benefit of a pilsner fest: They’re all low Alcohol by Volume, so sampling a lot won’t leave you regretting it the next day.

Adams said he’s thrilled with how the event turned out, and hopes to keep the trend going next year.

Collaborating & creating

In the wake of the successful event, Birrificio Italiano and Oxbow decided to do one more special thing: Collaborate on a new beer.

The Monday after the event, Oxbow’s Head Brewer Mike Fava, Adams, and Arioli worked together at Oxbow’s facility in Newcastle to create a beer blending the best of their independent knowledge.
Each one had some input on the brew, with Arioli offering suggestions on ratios of hops and ingredients as they pored over clipboards and a cardboard box with a rough recipe scrawled on it.

Head Brewer Mike Fava, left, Birrificio Italiano founder Agostino Arioli, and Oxbow founder Tim Adams discuss ingredient ratios in their collaboration beer. Staff photo by Chris Chase

The process, from the outside looking in, seemed organic. But when it comes to the math, everything needs to be precise. Which, when one brewer is used to Imperial measurements and the other is used to Metric, can be complicated.

“I’m hoping this Google conversion has the math right,” said Adams.

Despite a few difficulties in translation (both numbers and language, though Arioli’s English is excellent) it was a moment of camaraderie between the two organizations. Plus, a bit of fresh-as-you-can-get Luppolo, Oxbow’s pilsner, helped fill the moments between waiting for things to progress in the brew kettle.

The collaboration will likely not be the last time the two groups work together, assures Arioli. Between future Pils and Love festivals and their similar tastes in beer, the crews of both breweries have become good friends.

“We are crazy for these people and this place,” said Arioli.

What the new beer will be called, at the time they were making it, was still up in the air.

“How about Saison Dell’Agostino?” said Adams with a laugh. He was referencing their previous collaboration with Birrificio del Ducato on Saison Dell’Aragosta, a beer brewed with lobster (Aragosta means lobster in Italian).

“No, no, no it can’t be that!” said Arioli.

Whatever it’s called, it’ll have a cross-continental collaboration behind it, and it’s all thanks to a chance meeting in a pizzeria.