Pilsners are a Beer Style for the World

Jun 1, 2001

The Bottom Line Pilsner beers are the grandparents of most modern pale-colored lager beers. Here's what makes these beers so GREAT!

I must have heard it said a million times that "pilsner is the world's most popular beer style." And there's a nugget of truth to that -- if you consider all offshoots and variations of pilsner to be "pilsner" beers. While all pale lager beers -- regardless of where they are made -- are represented somewhere in the pilsner family tree, many of them are so distinct from the original classics that they might be best left for another discussion.

What to Expect in Pilsner Beers...
Good pilsner beers always have a strong hop aroma and flavor bringing deliciously bitter taste experiences along with often identifiable hop signatures (especially in the Czech classics). The beers are always very pale, light yellow beers with brilliant clarity. There should never be sediment or haze in a well brewed pilsner beer. It is intended as a beer that looks beautiful when poured into a tall narrow glass.

I've heard it said that the reason Bohemian brewers first made pilsner was to showcase the talent of local glass blowers who had perfected techniques for making glassware that was free of bubbles, waves, and other imperfections. I don't know if that's really true, but it sure makes for a good story!

Pilsner beers are perfectly average brews in terms of strength. They are brewed to around 12 degrees Plato and have about 5 percent alcohol.

Chances are that if you like beers that are "just beer, nothing fancy" you really want a beer somewhere in the pilsner family. Yellow, well-carbonated, normal strength ... nothing weird in it. That's pilsner.

The Czech Original...
The world's first pale light-bodied lager beers came from the Plzen area of the Czech Republic (I still want to call the place Czechoslavakia -- old habits die hard). Urquell is the best known Czech brand -- the name roughly means "original source," in reference to its position as the model for all modern pilsner beers.

Urquell deserves its reputation because it is an outstanding beer when you get fresh samples. It has a firm, complex malt base that tastes slightly toasty (a hard thing to do with really pale malts), but the beer's signature is its remarkably strong floral hop aroma. The beer is made using only locally grown Saaz hops with multiple additions to the kettle throughout the brewing process.

The trick for U.S. beer drinkers is to get fresh Urquell since so many beer retailers badly handle their beers, and Urquell is a very fragile beer due to the very high hopping rates and its use of green glass bottles rather than brown. I generally avoid buying six packs of Urquell, especially if they are stored on shelves under fluorescent lights. The best glass of Urquell you can taste in the U.S. will probably come from buying it on draft in a bar in a busy urban area (kegs are continuously refrigerated, are immune to light-strike damage, and usually turn over fast in busy bars).

Urquell is a beer that rewards careful drinkers who seek out the freshest samples. If you take a whiff of a freshly poured glass of Urquell and it smells like skunk, you got a bad bottle that was exposed to too much light. If it smells floral with a slightly spicy or earthy edge to it, you got a good bottle -- congratulations!

Recommended brands: Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen

European Variations...
Pilsner style beers are made everywhere in the world. In many countries the term "pilsner" is applied to beers that are slightly different from the Czechs. Most notable are the pilsners of Germany and Holland. In these countries, the hops may or may not be slightly lower, and the Saaz hop variety will likely be replaced by another hop of the "noble" lineages -- especially Hallertau.

German pilsners may be a little bit drier tasting than the soft Czech pilsners -- even when they are brewed to identical specifications. The reason is differences in local brewing water as well as the use of Hallertau hops instead of Saaz. A couple good examples are Bitburger Pils, or if you're particularly thirsty, try one of those big tappable cans of Paulaner (I used to call these "gallon" cans since that's about how much beer they hold, until I realized that the Europeans were actually measuring in litres, not gallons...)

The best known of the Dutch pilsners is undoubtedly the ubiquitous Heineken and its many imitators. This is probably the best example of a typical "pilsner" that you'd find not just in most of central Europe, but also in Scandinavian countries -- or even in any country in the world. I always compare Heineken to beers like Mexico's Bohemia or the Thai brand Singha. Because Heineken is so widely available, it is a good benchmark. All of these beers have similar firm, all-malt bases with a strong hop aroma that's sort of an earthy generic noble hop character. They are all premium pilsners that are a notch above most pale lager beers.

Recommended brands: Bitburger Pils, Heineken, Singha

American Variations and Frauds
Pilsner beer is the basis for all pale lager beers, but nowhere in the world is the family tree longer and more distant than in the Americas. Most mainstream American lager beers (and that includes Canadian brands and those brewed throughout Latin America) use large amounts of corn (or rice in the case of Budweiser) in the grist, producing a thinner bodied beer. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and a lot of everyday beer drinkers are perfectly happy about it, but if what you really want is something close to the pilsner styles of Europe, you will need to look to the pilsners of young craft breweries to slake your thirst (or maybe try Bohemia). There are also plenty of American pilsners that I studiously avoid...

I don't care for most Latin American lagers produced south of Mexico because the quality is often highly variable and because they tend to taste very thin to me with a substantial corn flavor. The Salvadoran brand labeled simply "Pilsner" is one of the worst offenders, although the Columbian Aguila is not a heck of a lot better. There are plenty of hot sunny days when these beers will taste perfectly refreshing, but I never seek out these brands in the U.S. Some are imported, but I always ask myself, "why"??

You have to be careful about choosing a "pilsner" beer in the United States too. Because the term is unregulated and very loosely used by American brewers, beers may be labeled or advertised as "pilsner" even though they bear about as much resemblance to a pilsner as I do to the pope. The worst offender is unquestionably Miller Brewing who use the term in commercials for their Lite beer. Other than the fact that pilsner beers and Lite are both wet and come in a bottle or can, I can't see a similarity...can you?

But there are a lot of truly great pilsner beers being brewed by American craft brewers. Some of the best rival the quality of any European import. Some of my favorite American pilsners include the highly regarded Tuppers Hop Pocket Pils from Dominion Brewing, Prima Pils from Victory Brewing, and DeGroen's Pils from Baltimore Brewing. All of these have firm malt bodies with a dry mouthfeel and substantial hop signatures. If you want to try an interesting experiment, sit down with a bottle of each and compare the hoppiness of each.

I'm sometimes wary about ordering pilsner in a brewpub. Some (like the Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh) make excellent pilsners. Others taste grainy, inappropriately hopped, or have off-flavors like phenolic or metallic twinges. Always worth a try though...after all, no prospector ever hit the mother lode without digging.

Recommended brands: Tuppers Hop Pocket Pils, Prima Pils, Bohemia

More On Pilsners...
If you want to know more about pilsners, I highly recommend reading some of the excellent reviews of pilsner beers that appear here in epinions. Some of my favorite epinion reviews about pilsner include the reviews of Urquell by andaryl, Brian_Carey, and psugrowler, and Bruguru's excellent reviews of Tuppers Hop Pocket Pils and Victory's Prima Pils. caconti has also posted a little more than his fair share of reviews on the Tuppers -- guess he really likes the stuff! Of course I'm always happy to have people read my reviews too, and I've posted reviews on DeGroen's pils, Bohemia, and Singha, among others.


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