Matt’s Myriad of Beer Styles #4 – Pilsner

In this edition, we are going to look a famous European beer style – Pilsner.

Pilsner is a type of pale lager and whilst it is often associated with Germany, it actually originated in Plzeň, Bohemia, Czech Republic, where it was first produced in 1842. The city first started producing beers in 1295 and the original Pilsner Urquell beer is still produced there today.

Until the mid-1840s most Bohemian beers were top-fermented, but Pilsner Urquell, or Měšťanský pivovar Plzeň as it was then known (Citizen’s Brewery), began brewing in the Bavarian style and ageing their beer made with bottom-fermenting yeasts in caves, which improved the beer’s clarity and shelf-life. (The German word for ‘store’ is lager!)

The cold helped keep wild yeasts and bacteria away, and fermentation was slower due to the low temperatures. In this method, the yeast slowly works away at converting the remaining sugars into alcohol with a lively, natural fermentation.

Pilsner is not the original lager beer, but it was the original golden beer made in this way, as the first commercial lager beers brewed in Munich we actually dark brown in colour, as the method of pale malt developed in England had not yet reached the rest of Europe. Indeed, the Czech’s imported a modern malt kiln from England to enable pale malt to be made.

The bottom-fermenting method became commercial during the Industrial Revolution and the invention of refrigeration. Around this time, glass manufacturing was taking off in Europe, which allowed ordinary people to acquire drinking glasses that were previously seen as luxury items. Glass was key to the rise in popularity of pilsner, as it allowed drinkers to see the pleasing golden clarity of the beer.

A modern pilsner has a very light, clear colour from pale to golden yellow and a distinct hop aroma and flavour. The ABV is typically around 4.5%-5% and if pilsner is brewed stronger, it is usually labeled “Export”. Pilsners compete in categories like “European-Style Pilsner” at the World Beer Cup or other similar competitions and they are now marketed internationally by numerous small brewers and larger conglomerates.

Czech-style pilsners tend to be golden in colour with lots of foam and a light flavour. Famous examples include Kozel, Gambrinus, Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen. German-style pilsners tend to be light straw to golden-coloured and have a more bitter, earthy taste. Such versions include Beck’s, Bitburger, Flensburger, Jever, Holsten, König, Krombacher, Radeburger, Veltins, and Warsteiner.

European-style pilsners are often sweeter in taste and are sometimes produced from other than barley malt. Names you will recognise are Amstel, Grolsch and Heineken from The Netherlands and Jupiler and Stella Artois from Belgium. Of course, you may have your own opinion as to the quality of such mass-produced products of such behemoth corporations!

You may have noticed that German pilsners are usually branded ‘pils’ (e.g. Bitburger Pils). This is because, in the early 20th century, the Czechs took several German brewers to court to try to stop them using the term ‘pilsner’, as their beers were not ‘from Pilsen’. The ensuing compromise was that they would shorten their names to ‘pils’ or to state the place of origin on their labels. Others use the term ‘pilsener’ instead, although these efforts by the Czechs were somewhat in vain, as most of the world now think pilsner is a German product.

Examples of pilsners/pils/pilseners brewed closer to home are Hop Studio Pilsner (4%), Copper Dragon Radka Pilsner (5%) and Silver Myst (4%), Wharfe Bank Crystal Rain (4.3%) and Yorkshire Dales Pilsner (4.1%).

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