What is a Pilsner?
During the month of April Happy Hour City will be celebrating all things beer related. Each week we will educate you on the different types of beer, we will also show you how to make beer centered cocktails/drinks, and we will be giving you the inside scoop on some of the best beer bars & breweries around LA.
Welcome again to our weekly What Is. Last time in a previous article about beer we covered Lagers. Which is good. Because as we talk about Pilsner, it’s good to know about Lagers. Because just like the comparison of rectangles to squares you can never remember from grade school; all Pilsner beers are a Lager, but not all Lagers are Pilsners.
The modern beer industry uses the terms almost interchangeably, however, yet you can still have dark mild Lagers that are not similar to a bright flavorful Czech Pilsner. Confused yet? Don’t worry we’re here to help.
-Pilsners are a Lager. This will come up again so we wanted to be clear. A subcategory of Lager. They are Lagers ramped up a bit due to the inclusion of Noble Hops, traditionally the Saaz variety from Czech Republic, the birthplace of Pilsner.
-Pilsner Urquell is the original Pilsner beer, still produced to this day since its birth over 200 years ago. All other Pilsners in the world are a derivative of this beer. Tweaked recipes pop up with time and regional differences sure but this beer birthed every clear golden lager you’ve ever seen. You like Budweiser? We don’t either but people who do have Pilsner Urquell to thank. Same goes for 90% of beers consumed in the world.
-Pilsners also have their own subcategories based on the region, again though, all derived from the original Czech recipe. German, Czech (The OG aka Bohemian) or the Classic American Pilsner. With the substitution of locally available German Noble Hops not of the Saaz variety, German pilsners tend to be a bit drier and crisper, and even slightly more bitter in the aftertaste than the traditional Czech Pils.
-A sulfury aroma can help a German Pilsner stand out from the crowd as a small degree is allowed to carry over from fermentation. Classic American pilsners, popular before prohibition and making a resurgence now in microbrews, were a product of German immigrants to the Americas at the same time that Pilsners were spreading like wildfire in Europe. They’re not the only ones who like beer. America said “gimme gimme gimme!” too.
-While newly arrived beer makers that moved across the American frontier used domestically produced variants of Noble Hops, local ingredients were a must of the times as well including Cluster Hops or small amounts of corn or rice.
-As we told you before all that Lager means a that it’s a bottom fermented Beer that is stored cold. In the past, they used caves and had regimented production times to be able to have cold beers for summertime. Now we have modern refrigeration. Which is great. Pilsners are a beer best served cold. When you think of a nice refreshing beer that’s easy to drink and has mass marketing appeal you’re most likely thinking Pilsner.
-In 1842 Josef Groll of the Bavarian town Plzen (now Pilsner) agreed with you, which is why he pioneered production of Pilsner Urquell, the first historical example of a “golden” Lager. As other companies tried to bite off his newfound recipe for success, they also referred to their beers as Pilsners hence the specific derivation of Lagers into this light golden tasty sub category.
-Imagine if the first Coca-Cola was invented in a town called Soda. That’s how we got the word Pilsner to describe a Czech Golden Lager. There was no copyright in place and mimicry ran wild.
A brief history:
When Pilsners were invented in the 1800’s in Bohemia (The Czech Republic now) they were a brand new thing. Like Ever. The entire collective beer drinking world just got a new type of beer. It came after the brewers of Plzen had to watch the citizens dumping gallons of ale down the drains into the street. INTO. THE .STREET. (Breathe; it’s ok, it was a long time ago, there’s been plenty of beer made since.)
The citizens felt the need to dump after issues with spoilage that ales were prone to at the time. Brewers decided they weren’t crying over any more spilled beer. While there was still some scientific debate concerning what was actually going on during yeast fermentation, the brewers of the time had come to learn that the microscopic life forms in question played a big deal. What they were lacking in was hops knowledge.
Enter Josef Groll, a German brewer mentioned earlier. The brewers of Plzen turned to him and his understanding of the German Lagering method of production. Using a lightly malted barley, not smoked or roasted as ale recipes called for, as well as a local hops from the Noble Hops family known as Saaz which was more fragrant than previous German lagers, soft water from the local river and some available Lager yeast strains (that may or may not have been smuggled out of Germany)-Groll was able to open a cask of Pilsner beer for the Plzen brewers on Oct 5, 1842.
That’s literally Pilsners birthday. If that sounds like all Groll did was tweak up a Lager recipe a bit, that’s not wrong. However, it was indeed new and was immediately successful and spreading all over Europe.
Today, Pilsners are one of the most commercially available, imitated and unchanged recipes of beer worldwide. Aside from advancements in refrigeration and hygiene little has been done to alter the brewing process. Noble hops? Still a go, usually Saaz. Breweries even try to get down on the soft water aspect, softening the water from their local sources in an attempt to copy the naturally occurring soft water found in Plzen. The light golden to straw color still remains a constant of Pilsners with an alcohol content of around 4.5-5% by volume.
Pilsner Vs. Lager:
Pilsner being a subclass of Lagers there will be quite a few similarities. With all of the same main differences from Ales. However, there are a few notable differences to tell if you’re having a Lager or a Pilsner.
-The inclusion of Noble Hops. Saaz hops are bursting with flavors of earthiness, a hint of floral and some green flavor as well. This subtle extra “spicy-ness” of hops gives us one of our main differentiators. This includes German pilsners as well, again with a different bitterness level and not quite the pungency, plus sulfur. Any of these increased depths of flavor should help clue you in that you’ve got a Pilsner on hand
-That color though. All Pilsners must have a light straw to golden color. You can find darker Lagers, but then they’re not in that Pilsner family.
-Speaking of color, Pilsners were so popular they helped change the glass market.
Random Beer Fact:
Pilsners were so popular they helped change the glass market. After Bavarian glass was helped on its way to being made into every beer mug ever at the time thanks in large part to the color of Pilsners.
The golden hue and the clarity of the liquid helped show off the newly affordable to everyone drinking glasses. Demand skyrocketed and drinking glasses were brought to the masses. Pilsners are a Lager so technically that’s not a difference but... thanks Pilsner!
Now that’s we’ve delved a little deeper into the category of Lager by examining Pilsners there’s one big take away to remember when thinking about Pilsners. Lagers aren’t made with Noble Hops all the time. Sometimes they are. When they are they are called Pilsners.
Still confused? No? Glad we could help. Look out next week when we explain the entricacies of a Stout. Hope you're enjoying Beer Month thanks for reading, and as always...