Pilsner versus lager: What’s the difference?

Two beer glasses filled with similar-looking beer sit on top of a wooden table.

Pilsner and lager are two often-confused beer types that have a lot in common. Read on to learn about the main differences that set them apart

When you think of a pale, easy-drinking beer, what pops to mind? For most, the answer is either “pilsner” or “lager.” These two thirst-quenching beers are often mistaken for each other, because they have a lot in common. But pilsner is actually a type of lager, and lager is a broad category of beer that includes several subtypes, one of which is pilsner.

So, what else differentiates the two? Read on to learn the main differences between pilsner and other types of lagers, various styles of each and what makes every one of them unique.

What is a lager?

What truly defines a lager — one of three broad categories of beers — are its fermentation process, which involves cooler temperatures and bottom-fermenting yeast, and its resulting flavour profile, which is notably clean, crisp and refreshing. No wonder it’s the most popular beer in the world. While lagers vary across countries and individual brewers, they have these five key characteristics in common.

  • Bottom fermenting: The yeast used to ferment lagers settles to the bottom of the barrel or fermenting vessel, which is why lagers are sometimes referred to as “bottom-fermented” beers.
  • Lower temperatures: This yeast also ferments at cooler temperatures (typically between 7 and 13 degrees Celsius) and undergoes a longer maturation process than other types of beer, such as ales and stouts or porters.
  • Light colour: Lagers are typically lighter in colour, but they can range from straw to gold to chocolate, depending on how the malt is roasted.
  • Clean flavour: Cooler temperatures reduce the amount of by-products and fruity or spicy compounds known as “esters” and “phenols,” resulting in a cleaner, crisper taste.
  • Well-carbonated: Lagers also tend to have a higher level of carbonation, which contributes to their refreshingness.

How is pilsner different from other lagers?

The main differences between pilsner beer and other types of lagers are its origin and brewing method. Pilsner originated in the Bohemian city of Pilsen (Plzeň) — in what is now the Czech Republic — in the 19th century and is brewed using a specific type of yeast (now known as “pilsner yeast”) and a specific type of malted barley (now known as “pilsner malt”).

Pilsner is also typically lighter in colour and has a crisper, cleaner taste than other lagers. What truly sets apart pilsner beer is that it is the world’s first pale lager, a far cry from the dark and murky versions that came before it.

A number of factors went into the revolutionary new look and taste, including lightly kilned and pale malts, Saaz hops and special yeast, as well as the town’s soft water and sandstone caverns for lagering.

Before long, breweries all over Europe and the rest of the world were trying to emulate this brilliantly clear beverage, making it the most imitated beer ever.

Besides pilsner, what are some different types of lager?

Lagers have a solid reputation for being crowd-pleasing and refreshing palette-cleansers, but just because they appeal to the masses, doesn’t mean they’re boring. Apart from pilsner, there are many other types of lager (and countless iterations of each one), including dunkel, helles and Vienna, each with their own distinct flavours, colours and brewing methods.

  • Dunkel: The word “dunkel” means “dark” in German, so, naturally, this lager is a deeper-hued beer that originated in — you guessed it — Germany. The colour typically ranges from copper to dark brown, depending on the use of roasted malts during the brewing process. Dunkel lagers are also known for having a more complex and robust flavour profile, compared with lighter lagers.
  • Helles: Helles, which means “light” in German, is usually a light straw colour. And it’s typically brewed with a combination of pilsner and Munich malts, as well as noble hops, which give it a slightly sweeter, more bread-like and earthy flavour.
  • Vienna: Vienna-style lagers, named after the Austrian city they originated in, are usually reddish-brown or copper in colour and have a slight malt sweetness. This is because of the use of Vienna or Munich malts, which gives the beer a toasty, caramel-like flavour.

What are the different types of pilsner?

To understand how the fashionable Bohemian pilsner travelled around the world and evolved, have a look at the four main styles found today.

  • Czech pilsner: The original Bohemian-style pilsner is pale gold and brilliantly clear. It’s famously balanced with a mild hop flavour and malt-forward sweetness, with notes of biscuit, cracker and bread. Its traditional use of Saaz hops also lends a distinct, floral and slightly spicy aroma to the beer.
  • German pilsner: Just over the border, a German “pils” is similarly light and crisp, but it’s extra dry and known for its more distinct hop bitterness, with stronger aromas and flavours that are spicy, floral, earthy or herbal.
  • European pilsner: Elsewhere in Europe (and around the world), pilsners can be made with additional grains besides barley malt, such as corn or rice, in order to enhance lightness and clarity. European-style pilsners can also be smoother and slightly sweeter on the malt side.
  • American pilsner: Around the same time that pilsner was making waves in Europe, it was also becoming a revelation in America. The American style is very light in colour, similar to Czech- and German-style pilsners. And, like the European varieties, it may also use different types of grains and local varieties of hops with more subtle flavours.

Is pilsner stronger than lager?

Pilsner and other types of lager can vary in strength, depending on the style of beer and how they’re brewed. Some pilsner styles’ “spicy” and hop-forward flavour can give the beer a bit of an extra kick, but it’s a common misconception that pilsners are stronger in alcohol content than other types of more milder-flavoured lagers.

The strength of a beer is measured by its alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage, which can range from less than three per cent to more than 10 per cent. So, whether a pilsner is stronger than another lager depends on the specific beers you’re comparing.

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