What is pilsner? Everything you need to know

A refreshing glass of pilsner sits on top of a wood tabletop

Clear golden pilsner quickly became more popular than the dark and cloudy beers that came before it. Here’s everything you need to know about this type of beer

Golden, tangy and crisp, pilsner is the old-school definition of what a refreshing beer looks and tastes like. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular styles in the world. In fact, pilsner is the original pale lager and one of the most imitated beers in history.

A short history of pilsner

Pilsner’s story starts in the Bohemian city of Plzen (or Pilsen), in what is now the Czech Republic, a.k.a. the beer-drinking capital of the world. In 1838, the town’s supply of foul-tasting beer was literally running through the streets and into the nearby Radbuza river after its citizens — in a show of protest — dumped dozens of undrinkable barrels into the main square. They were determined to do better.

Tasked with building the town’s first brewery, local architect Martin Stelzer sought the help of Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll. Using lightly kilned malts, Saaz hops, bottom-fermenting yeast and the town’s soft water and sandstone caverns, they invented modern lager as we know it, a style that has dominated the beer landscape ever since. (Fun fact: Beer is still made in this same brewery today!)

What is a pilsner?

Pilsner is a type of light-coloured beer that maintains its brightness and clarity thanks to a production process called “lagering.” (More on this below.) To beer lovers, a pilsner may seem simple (and to some even boring), but compared with the dark and cloudy beers that came before it, it was a revelation. Although pilsners vary between countries and individual breweries, some common traits include:

  • Typically light, bright and clear in colour
  • Light in body and “easy drinking”
  • Tangy hop flavour
  • Malty sweet aroma
  • Moderate carbonation
  • Crisp finish

What’s the difference between a pilsner and a lager?

A pilsner is a type of lager, so all pilsners are lagers but not all lagers are pilsners. The lagering process means the beer is fermented in colder temperatures (at or near freezing) at the bottom of the barrel over a longer period of time. As the yeast consumes the sugar slowly, it results in a cleaner and crisper flavour. What makes pilsners stand out from other lagers is that they are made using a special type of yeast and tend to be more hop-forward and “spicy” in flavour.

Pour the right amount of foam

A finger or two of foam is crucial, says Mittag, because carbon dioxide is what gets those aromas into your nose. For a proper pour, tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and start pouring. At the halfway point, gradually straighten the glass as the head forms. Ta-da! You’ve attained the perfect pour.

The 4 main types of pilsners

To understand how the beer evolved and travelled around the world, take a look at the four main pilsner styles:

  1. Czech (or Bohemian) pilsner: The original pilsner style is known for its pale golden colour, medium fizz, malty-sweet aroma and flavour and moderately bitter hoppiness. Its tasting notes are biscuit, cracker and bread.
  2. German pilsner: German “pils” varies from the north to the south of the country, but it tends to be lighter in colour and crisper and drier, with more pronounced bitterness and hoppy flavours. Its tasting notes are often earthy, spicy, herbal and floral.
  3. European pilsner: Pilsners from other parts of Europe, like the Netherlands and Belgium, can be made with other grains besides barley malt, such as corn or rice, and they are often described as lighter, smoother and slightly sweeter.
  4. American pilsner: The American style also uses various grains and tends to have more aggressive hop flavours, bitterness and “spice” as well as a richer and creamier mouthfeel.

How do you pour a pilsner?

If you think pilsner is a bland beer, just try it with a slow pour. Many beer enthusiasts argue that the lager is infinitely more interesting when poured over a span of five to seven minutes. Your patience will pay off, they say, with a beer that’s more delicate in flavour and softer on carbonation. And don’t be afraid of a billowing head of foam. That’s where the aroma is at, with fragrance being released with each bubble’s pop.

What food pairs well with pilsner?

Thanks to the “crisp and clean” character of pilsners, they’re amazingly versatile for pairing with food, from fried and salty snacks to bright and flavourful fruits and vegetables. A good rule of thumb is that the complexity of a dish should match the complexity of the beer it’s paired with. With a typical Czech-style pilsner, for example, think of balancing it with Crispy Beer-Battered Fish, a tomato and mozzarella salad or roasted chicken with a Stovetop Pilsner and Herb Stuffing. A punchier German or American pilsner, on the other hand, could easily stand up to more spice, like these Pilsner Chimichurri Burgers.

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