09 November 2011

Know your styles -- Pilsner

It is the most popular style of beer in the world, and I would say the least appreciated by beer geeks.  It is really a shame that more craft beer geeks do not embrace the pilsner style.  It isn't exciting enough for them or it is vilified because the big three call themselves pilsners.  The truth for me is that a well made pilsner is one of  the most delicious beers I've had the pleasure of consuming.  It won't knock you over with fully forward flavor, but will knock you over with a true art form in your glass. I will admit I wasn't always like this and I stayed away from the style after I got into craft beer, but now that I've found out how much I love a good pilsner there is no going back.  The world just flat out needs more big ass glasses of all-malt pilsners.


The Germans have been brewing lagers since sometime in the 1400's.  They were typically dark, murky, and cloudy brews.  It would be nearly 450 years until a new style of lager came into existence.  In just 160 years the style would become the most consumed style of beer in the world.

This is another bit of folklore that probably has some truth in the story.  The story that I read the most about the  birth of the pilsner style starts with thievery   A monk in Germany stole bottom fermenting yeast from a brewery in Germany and brought it to Plzen in the current day Czech Republic  The town of Plzen was tired of the inconsistency of their beer and built a new brewery for the town. They then hired a brewer from Germany to brew in their new brew house by the name of  Josef Groll.  Groll was Bavarian by birth, and his father owned a brewery in Germany. He was already familiar with the pale malts being used in England after studying brewing there, and Groll was already experimenting with bottom fermenting yeast by the time he arrived in Plzen. Plzen has nearly the same climate as Bavaria and brewers could keep the barrels of beer cool during the warm summer months in massive underground caves.  Mr. Groll brought consistent German brewing techniques with Czech ingredients to create a new style of beer.  At the time the brown Bavarian lager would have been one of the most consumed beers in Europe.

German brewers were still using healthy portions of darker malt in their beers near this time.  Groll used the lightest pale malt he could find and when the first batch was tapped they had the clearest and most golden lagered beer that anyone had ever seen.  The long maturation process produced a wonderfully carbonated beer with a huge head of perfect white froth on top of it. It was crisp and refreshing and got everyone talking about it immediately.  The beer was being poured into actual glassware, and so for one of the first times in history people were drinking with their eyes just as much as with their other senses on a massive scale.  Glassware wasn't just for the rich anymore.  It was 1842 and pilsner style beer from Plzen was starting its rapid ascent as the favorite beer of the world.

How did the pilsner go from an all-malt and wonderfully hoppy creation to the mass produced toilet water that is produced today by the mega-brewers?

Its like Lenin said: "You look for the person that will benefit"....I am the Walrus? Shut the fuck up Donny!

Pilsner really should be recognized like the Champagne region of France or Stilton cheese from England or any other regionally specific product that can carry that name, but because no one got around to trademarking the name until 1859 the damage had already been done and pilsner style beer was everywhere using that name and basic recipe. The name pilsner simply means beer from Plzen and the name Budweiser originally meant beer from Budweis.  This new beer started a firestorm of discussion around Europe and people were there to capitalize on the name. It wasn't until 1898 that the original brewery that Josef Groll brewed the very first pilsner lager changed its name to Pilsner Urquell or "Orignal Pilsner" in Czech.  This also coincided with great industrial change around the world.  Refrigeration was being pioneered, Louis Pasteur finally helped everyone understand just how important yeast was in the process of beer making, railways made it easy for regional breweries to get their beers out to more thirsty patrons.  Because of industrialization and the buzz around the pilsner style this beer became the mark of the times and it never looked back. It was a case of man, moment, and machine that really caused pilsner style beer to take off.  The mega-brands have all been brewing this style of beers for many years and calling it pilsner, but they have taken away just about anything from it that makes it true to its original form.  The quality of barley, lower hopping rates, adjuncts and fillers, and much quicker lagering times have reduced an amazing style of beer to little more than industrial imitation sliced cheese. It is still beer in the academic sense, but is so bastardized from the original it has no business calling itself a pilsner beer or beer for that matter.

This is where advertising has done injustice to the style.  Many beer geeks associate pilsner with this, but my friends, that couldn't be further from the truth.  My first drink of a true pilsner changed the way I thought about beer in general.  It was crisp, clean, refreshing, and amazing conducive to conversation.   Pilsner should be consumed as close to the source as possible. We don't have many people doing pilsners here, but you can certainly find a number of really good ones.

The BJCP splits pilsners into three distinct categories.  Those are Bohemian (Czech) pilsners, German pilsners, and American pilsners.

German pilsners (pils) are distinct because they will be drier and crisper than their Czech counterparts, but the Germans modeled their beer after the Czech's.  It will use only pilsner malt, German noble hops, and German lager yeast.

Bohemian/Czech pilsners will also be crisp, hoppy, spicy, floral, sometimes grassy, and deliciously malty.

American pilsners were copies of the German pilsners that immigrants brought with them to America.  They used what was around and will many times included corn in the process.

Commercial examples:

German pilsners: People's brewing company: People's pilsners, Victory Prima Pils, Lefthand Polestar Pilsners, Brooklyn Pilsner, Rogue's Uber Pils

Czech pilsners: Upland Preservation pilsner, Sam Adam's Noble Pils, Shiner 101 Czech style pilsner, Sierra Nevada Summerfest, Oskar Blue's Mama's Little Yella Pils, Pilsner Urquell, Golden Pheasant from  Pivovar Zlaty Bazant a.s. (available in Indiana) and Budweiser Budvar

I would highly recommend giving a real pilsner another chance when you see one at your favorite local brewery or pub. 


Oliver, Garrett. The Brewmaster's Table, Discovering The Pleasures Of Real Beer With Real Food. Ecco, 2005. Print.

Papazian, Charlie. The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. 3. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.


  1. Great piece, Matt, on one of my favorite styles.

    I don't know whether World Class still brings it in state, but I remember a really good Czech pilsner called Zatec being available in central Indiana a few years back. It's been awhile since I've had it--probably 3 or 4 years--but it was a really nice beer. Your post makes me want to head to Prague right now!

  2. I have to admit: while I can certainly detect complete utter rubbish, I have a much harder time discerning very good from good from excellent when it comes to Pilsner. Need to explore your list Matt.

  3. A commercial example of an authentic German pilsner would be Jever. Spaten produces both a pils and a helles.

    As an aside, Helles is a German style that is also brewed with 100% pilsner malt, and was created to compete with the Pilsner style. To most people, the two styles will taste the same. The primary difference is that a Helles will be slightly sweeter and a Pilsner will be slightly more dry.

  4. uBravo.Great piece.This is the first posting I've seen that properly described the much maligned brew.