Our Guide to Pilsner Lager

The great thing about being a beer enthusiast is that the world of beer has so much diversity of styles, tastes, textures and appearances to offer that no matter what the occasion there’s a beer that’s just perfect to make it pop! It doesn’t matter if you’re relaxing in front of the TV with your family after a hard day’s work or throwing an elegant dinner party for guests who aren’t big wine fans. Just as there’s a beer to suit every occasion, there’s a beer to suit every taste. It can make the flavours in your Sunday roast come alive or make a game of darts with your friends all the more pleasurable.

Of course, personal taste is a huge factor and seasoned beer buffs know that different beers offer their own unique gratifications. There are sometimes when the comforting thickness and heft of an Irish stout is just what the doctor ordered. There are others where a light and fruity IPA is the tipple of the day. Other occasions may require a more complex and malty affair like a cask conditioned ale. And then there are times where we want something a little lighter. Something crisp and refreshing that’s not overly complex but still not without character. While most will simply opt for the nearest available lager, many beer connoisseurs will opt instead for a pilsner.

There’s a good chance that you, dear reader, have sampled one or two pilsners in your time. It’s possible you may have imbibed a pilsner and not known it from a lager. Perhaps you’ve always drunk pilsners but never quite been able to put your finger on what gives it its distinctively light and refreshing taste and texture. Here we’re going to go into great detail about exactly what makes a pilsner, the fundamentals that distinguish it from lager and how the origins of pilsner came about. We’ll also look at the subtly different types of pilsner beer available on the market and look at some of the most famous examples from all over the world…

Pilsner_Urquell_mug

What is pilsner lager?

Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? Pilsner beer is a light and sharp beer with a distinctively bitter and heady flavour that distinguishes it from its little brother the lager (although we’ll get into greater detail about the differences between the two shortly). Pilsner is often referred to as a bohemian-style beer and in many ways it’s a beer that changed the world. While we Brits have always retained our fondness for ales and stouts, cross the pond and ask someone to picture a beer and they’ll almost definitely picture a pilsner or a lager. This is due predominantly to the mass migration of immigrants of Germanic heritage into the United States in the 1800s. These immigrants took their distinctive bohemian brewing techniques with them, which in turn had been revolutionised by the creation of pilsner. This forever changed the face of beer in the popular consciousness which is why we so rarely see ales and stouts consumed across the pond. Indeed, the most commonly consumed American beers like Budweiser, Coors and PBR owe their very existence to the bohemian style pilsners which changed the face of beer brewing in continental Europe and began life in former Czechoslovakia.

But what is it that makes pilsner beer so distinctive and influential? There are a number of factors. Firstly pilsner is made using a the bottom-fermenting lager yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus. This is was atypical at the time of its inception and allowed the beer to ferment over a longer period of time. This results in a beer with a distinctive golden colour and a light and effervescent mouthfeel. There is usually a bold and malty undertone with a sharp and hoppy finish. A true pilsner uses Saaz hops; a “noble” variety of hops that gives a pilsner its distinctive sharp bite and makes it such a refreshing and crisp drink that’s perfect for warm summer days.  

Lager vs Pilsner: What’s the difference?

The distinction between a pilsner and a lager is not dissimilar from that between a whisky (or whiskey if you’re reading in the emerald isle) and a bourbon. Every bourbon is a whisky but not every whisky is a bourbon. Just as the difference between whisky and bourbon lies crucially in ingredients; whiskies are made from wheat, rye or barley while a bourbon by its very nature must be made with corn, the difference between a lager and a pilsner lies mostly in the hops; although there is also a geographical component. All pilsners are lagers but not all lagers are pilsners, although the advent of pilsner did indeed lead to the widespread boom in lager consumption.

Saaz hops are typically required for a lager to be a pilsner, whereas any breed of hops can be used to make a lager. Likewise, just as not all sparkling white wines can call themselves champagnes, a pilsner should technically be brewed in the Czech Republic to earn its name. That’s why so many pilsners today refer to themselves simply as “pils”. Indeed, just before World War I and shortly after the inception of pilsner, the Czech brewery that invented pilsner beer took the German brewing giant Bitburger to court for copyright infringement and won. From then on, brewers outside of the Czech Republic tend to call their products pils.

In terms of taste, a pils tends to have a more vivid taste than most other lagers. The Saaz hops lend them a spice that’s absent from many other lagers and its colours tend to be a little more vivid, ranging from a light straw colour to a rich gold. They tend to have a maltier aroma with vividly floral notes. Essentially while indistinguishable from lager by contemporary standards, pilsner beer created whittled the yardstick by which lagers are measured. Beer connoisseurs will notice that while a pilsner has many of the same visual, taste and aromatic attributes of any other lager they are just that little bit stronger and more vivid. Basically, lager with the volume turned way up!

Pilsner Lager

The origins of pilsner

There are some occasions where a new alcoholic beverage or a permutation of an existing drink are created accidentally. In the case of pilsner beer, however, its creation was very much by design. The name pilsner comes from the Czech city of Pilzen in which the beer was first created. Located within the former kingdom of Bohemia, the area has a rich history of brewing going back centuries. Brewing was woven into the very fabric of the region, not only accounting for a vast proportion of its GDP but playing a major role in the culture and politics of the region. Yet, for all the region’s success in the brewing of fine beers, the process was not completely infallible

Like the rest of the world, the brewers of Pilzen used a traditional shorter, hotter top-fermented brewing process. The trouble is that this process made the beer extremely prone to spoilage. In the mid-19th century, a great deal of beer was wasted due to spoilage during the fermentation process. Since beer was such an intrinsic part of the region’s economy every wasted casket brought the prospect of economic ruin closer and closer. If only there was some way in which they could prevent this widespread waste by revolutionising the brewing process.    

Enter Joseph Groll, a 29-year-old master brewer brought in from Bavaria. The young Groll brought with him a few of his own innovative ideas as well as a crucial ingredient… the bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus. In fact, there’s a charming story that a monk stole the yeast from a Bavarian brewery and smuggled it back to Groll in Bohemia. The simple truth, however, is that Groll simply bought it in Bohemia and brought it with him to the  Mestansky Pivovar (Citizens’ Brewery), which was later renamed Plzensky Prazdroj, or “original source of Pilsener” in Czech. If your product encourages your entire operation to change its name, you know you’ve done a great job. In fact, the amber coloured beer that Groll helped to create; Pilsner Urquell is still sold today. Its name literally means the original source of pilsner! The revolutionary colder and slower brewing process circumvented a lot of the spoilage issues and the rest, as they say, is history.

Types of Pilsner

So, we’ve established that pilsner beer is essential lager with the volume turned up. But even within this subset of beers, there’s considerable fluctuation in ingredients and brewing techniques that give rise to a range of different styles of pilsners. Variety, after all, is the spice of life. Broadly speaking, pilsners are divided into 3 main categories. While purists will argue that there is only either Czech pils or German pils, there are so many versions of the American product (many of which really are very good) that we feel they deserve recognition here too;

Czech Pilsener

The original and classic Czech pilsener has a distinctive flavour owing not only to the unique yeast known as “H-strain” which is still used to this day. Its flavour also comes from the extremely soft water of the region and the proprietary malt with a low protein content that lends the beer its clarity. Malt/hop balances vary although fans of hoppier beers should opt for the original Pilsner Urquell.

German Pilsener

German Pilseners were adapted from the original variant to be more suitable to German brewing conditions such as the higher mineral content in the water which in turn influenced local tastes. Thus, they have some subtle distinctions from their Czech counterparts both in taste and appearance. The tastes tend to be more bitter and drier in their finish due to the higher sulfate content in the water while they tend to be lighter in appearance. As Saaz is less common in Germany, they tend to use local equivalent hops such as Tettnanger, Hallertauer, and Spalt lending it a subtly different aroma as well as taste. Even within the German subset, there is still some variation with tastes erring on the maltier as you travel further south into Bavaria.

American Double / Imperial Pilsner

American pilsners, particularly Imperial pilsners tend to have more of a robust maltiness than their European counterparts while also tending more towards their alcoholic content typically ranging between 6.5 and 9% Alcohol By Volume. On the whole, they tend to be a little darker and sweeter with a certain spiciness when compared to Czech and German variants.

Famous Pilsners from around the world

So, by now you’re no doubt eager to get your hands on a cool refreshing pils. But with so many to choose from, where do you begin? Even within the comparatively small realm of pilsners, there’s a broad range of textures, flavours and finishes out there. Here we’ll take a look at some of our famous favourites from all over the world…

Pilsner Urquell

We have to start with the original pils which are the closest you can get to tasting the amber creations of Joseph Groll all those years ago. A crisp and clean texture belies a complex flavour that unlike most lagers doesn’t leave all of its taste in the front of the mouth. Its clean finish and balanced aftertaste make it exceptionally moreish.

Samuel Adams

As good an example of the American double pils as you’re ever going to get, Sam Adams is full bodied and complex while still being refreshing and easy drinking.

Trumer Pils

Just as there’s something All-American about Samuel Adams, Trumer is a pretty characteristic German Pilsner that offers a classically Bavarian taste profile. Medium bodied and zesty it’s a light yet punchy beer that’s great for a range of occasions.

Republika

An authentic tasting Czech beer brewed right here in the heart of Britain? Yes indeedy! This Czech / British collaboration uses authentic Czech yeast and Saaz hops to bring a robust yet refreshing taste and at just 4.8% alcohol, it’s a nice and easy drink, too!

So, what are you waiting for? Crack open a crisp, refreshing pilsner tonight. Cheers!

Want to get that perfect draft beer experience at home? Read our guide to the best home beer dispensers.

Eager to learn more about different types of beer? Read out guide to Stout