Beer Department: Get to know a style: Pilsner

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When a style is as ubiquitous as Pilsner (pils, for short), one might be inclined to believe they understand it. After all, pilsners have dominated global beer consumption since their introduction in the 19th century. Pilsners, or descendants thereof, can be found everywhere beer is drunk, from Sapporo and Asahi in Japan to Efes in Turkey and from Quilmes in Argentina to Budweiser in the good ol’ US of A. Many beers, such as Miller Lite, even market themselves as having “great pilsner taste.” So what is pilsner, exactly?

First off, it needs to be said straight away that many mass-produced lagers such as Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors, etc. are in fact not true pilsners. While they trace their history to pilsner, these thoroughly modern beers are watered down, bland shadows of great pilsner. True pilsners, while retaining crispness and drinkability, offer far greater aroma, flavor, and character. Pilsners are equally at home after mowing the lawn or to accompany a fine meal that calls for a versatile, food-friendly beer. Pilsner can fit any drinking occasion, from the mundane to the memorable, and therein lies the source of its immense popularity.

Once upon a time, a few centuries ago, most beer was ale (meaning warmer fermentation temperatures that create additional fruity and spicy flavors) and beer was always some shade of amber, brown, or black. The concept of clean, golden beers with sparkling clarity simply didn’t exist because the technology of the day didn’t allow for it. Right around the time European brewers were isolating and learning to brew with lager yeast that created cleaner, more straightforward beers, they also developed the ability to gently kiln malt so that the finished malt was a light golden color rather than caramelized, toasty, roasty, or burnt. These advancements in malting and lagering allowed brewers to create golden, crystal clear beers with delicate flavors. Such beers had never existed and the drinking public writ large were immediately enamored of them, to put it mildly.

The first such golden lager to really catch on came from a town named Pilsen in what is now the Czech Republic. Brewers in Pilsen utilized the naturally soft, mineral free water and locally grown Saaz hops to create golden, light-bodied beers that carried flavors of sourdough, cracker, and a gentle hoppy herbaceousness. As these golden lagers from Pilsen began catching on throughout central Europe, the beer of Pilsen developed a logical name – pilsner. Pilsner quickly caught on throughout Europe and traveled abroad with astonishing speed. Pilsner is something of an invasive species, steamrolling native beer traditions and dominating beer culture everywhere.

The most notable regional variant to the original Czech pilsners came from Germany. German brewers adapted pilsner recipes to use their harder, more carbonate water that generally becomes harder as you travel south to north in Germany. This carbonate water gave German pils a mineral-driven edge that emphasizes their bright, crisp nature. German pils also forego Saaz hops in favor of German hop varieties like Hallertau, Spalt, and Tettnang that offer aromas and flavors more akin to woodsy spruce, mint, and light fruit. In addition to regional variations in hops and water, German pils are usually slightly lower in alcohol, lighter in color, and have even less residual sugar than their Czech counterparts.

While both styles are clean, crisp, and easy drinking with a moderately assertive hop presence, German pils are especially light and very clean, showing no fermentation character whatsoever while Czech pils will read as slightly fuller bodied with more malt flavor and a potential for minor, low level fermentation flavors including traces of diacetyl that would be considered an off-flavor at any concentration in German pilsner.

Most true pilsner (again, not the watered down, mass-produced lager that used to be pilsner 100 years ago) will fall into either the German or Czech style category, regardless of country of origin. True pilsner is a beautiful thing. Light, bright, and flavorful without being dull. Complex, enigmatic, and worth contemplating without being overly cerebral, pilsner is truly the most versatile style of beer. It pairs well with a wide range of greens, cheese, chicken, seafood, and even desserts. Pilsner is the quintessential lager style – where a clean fermentation character allows malt and hop as well as water-derived flavor to shine through beautifully. The overall profile should be that of a golden lager, 4-5.5% ABV, with little or no residual sugar, gentle malt flavors of sourdough and cracker with an assertive, yet not overwhelming, noble hop character that reflects the hops used, be they Czech or German.

After decades of shunning pilsners because of an association with the watered-down, mass-produced beers of their multinational corporate competition, American craft brewers have embraced pilsner in recent years. Its ascendancy in craft beer circles seems to represent a pendulum swing away from the tireless tinkering and experimentation with extreme flavors and ingredients that defined American craft beer for decades. Great pilsner teaches us that sometimes the best beer is a simple beer and that simple doesn’t mean boring. Pilsner wears its heart on its sleeve and great examples will lure you in and beg for another sip. While American brewers are making plenty of great pilsners like North Coast Scrimshaw and Victory Prima Pils, the best examples I’ve had are still from the other side of the pond where brewers have had centuries to perfect mashing techniques, water treatment, and yeast management that we can’t compete with in this country, yet. For great examples of German pils, try the Weihenstephan Pilsner or Ayinger Bavarian Pils. If you really want an exercise in how hard water from northern Germany will affect pilsner, grab a six pack of Jever, brewed near the North Sea. If Czech pilsner sounds more your speed, you owe it to yourself to try Pilsner Urquell or Golden Pheasant from neighboring Slovakia. Better yet, buy a couple of each and compare them for yourself to find what really floats your boat. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong when you’re drinking great pilsner. Cheers!

-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®️

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