Pilsner for beginners
Malty, delicately hoppy and beautiful beyond measure, pilsner is the people’s beer. Here’s the epic origin story.
May 27, 2021
What are pilsners?
Pilsner beer rightfully claims its throne as the original pale lager. Crisply balancing light, bready malts and spicy, floral hops, the world had never seen anything like pilsner when it arrived on the scene. Now we can’t live without this thirst-quencher.
A game-changing lager
Pilsner turned the beer world upside-down. If you think we're being poetically dramatic, consider that over 80% of beer sales this year will be styles with pilsner roots. How did one little lager change the whole landscape? Let's hop a flight to central Europe and find out in pilsner for beginners.
A lot of booze history is pretty hazy, but for pilsner we can pin down an exact day, year and place of birth: October 5th (libra, baby), 1842 in Plzeň (pull-zen-yuh), currently part of the lovely Czech Republic. Josef Groll, a Bavarian brewer at Pilsner Urquell brewery, accepted the challenge of brewing a better beer for the local population. Local suds quality had been too uneven for too long; change was in the air.
Groll had a few ringers in his corner. Maybe the biggest was new malting technology, which offered a very light, golden malt that we now know simply as, well, “pilsner” malt. Second, he had plenty of gorgeously floral czech saaz hops at his disposal. Finally - and he probably didn't totally understand this - Plzeň's super-soft local water turned out to be ideal for brewing crisp lagers.
With skill, science and luck nudging him towards destiny, Groll settled on a lager recipe with his light malt and noble hops. He employed a very tricky mashing process called decoction to caramelize a small portion of the mash and add malt complexity, something modern brewers still struggle to achieve. In classic Bavarian style, he selected a bottom fermenting lager yeast to power the brew. A slow, cool, lager fermentation gave Groll over a month to sweat about his decisions.
When the beer emerged from its wooden aging vessel, he had the legendary Pilsner Urquell on his hands. The style spread from Plzeň like an absolute shockwave. They’re still brewing it nearly the same way today if you want us to bring you a six pack. Might be worth a try, right?
What does pilsner taste like?
Czech pilsner might be the “beer-iest” of all beer styles. It’s a clinic in balance that just checks so many boxes. Its malt profile is grainy and bready with a touch of caramel from the decoction mashing. Exclusive saaz hop cones add trademark spicy, floral aromas and flavors that are key to pilsner’s success. Those same hops also bring an assertive, balancing bitterness that adds a little drying astringency. That just encourages another sip; funny how that works. You might also notice a touch of buttery character that promotes a creamy mouthfeel. Clear and gold with a frothy head, pilsner dominates google search results for “beer”.
Pilsner is the ultimate brewer’s challenge
Pilsner represented a seismic shift in beer style and technical acumen that challenged many brewers of the day. Why? A bright, golden beer with no dark malts had no place to hide off-flavors. Recipe, process and lager fermentation must be perfect or the drinker is going to taste it. Pilsner helped raise the quality bar for all beer.
What’s a pilsner’s ABV?
We consider pilsner a “sessionable” beer at 4.0-5.5 ABV. Neither too sweet nor too heavy, pilsner excels at both drinking sessions and comfort food pairings.
A wide-mouth pilsner glass helps guarantee a glorious, foamy head for your pilsner. Almost impossible to drop, these glasses are also sufficiently thick for exuberant “na zdraví” cheers-ing.
Pour your pilsner slowly at a 45-degree angle for best results - you really want to maximize foam. When the can is about ¾ empty, raise it up and let the last few ounces hit the beer hard to build that frothy head.
Pilsner beer pairing
Pilsner pairs up with all manner of comfort foods. A pilsner and a burger? Check. Salty pretzel? Absolutně! Summer sausage? 100%. Tacos are another particular pilsner specialty.
German style pilsner and other riffs on the original
Germany technically didn’t exist when Josef Groll came up with Pilsner Urquell, but that doesn’t mean that the Bavarians and Prussians weren’t paying attention. They immediately set to tweaking his recipe for german palates.
How is german pilsner different from Czech pilsner?
German pilsners are typically less malty and hoppy than their czech counterparts. Brewing with less caramelized malt and fewer hops begets lighter, less bitter beer. The Germans were banking on mass appeal. Did they achieve it? Paulaner (our fave) and Beck’s would say yes. German-American brewers eventually took it a step further. Read on.
What about American lagers? Is Budweiser a pilsner? Is Coors a pilsner?
Technically no. True pilsner is “all-malt” beer, meaning that it only uses malted barley for fermentation. Coors and Budweiser both have American-style “adjuncts”, or non-barley fermentables. Coors Banquet has corn, whereas Budweiser has rice.
Light beer and pilsner
Barley is actually pretty pricey. In the USA, rice and corn are cheap, local ingredients. It makes sense to use them when you’re making a ton of beer. They don’t contribute as much flavor as barley, so you end up with a lighter-flavored beer. This technique eventually spawned its own beer style.
Are there other Czech pilsners?
Oh definitely. The czechs drink more lager than any other country in the solar system, and they drink lots of different brands. In Czech Republic, the other big pilsner-style beer is Czechvar (Budvar outside the US). Czechvar is a bit lighter, crisper and less buttery than Pilsner Urquell - probably closer to the German style. Pilsner is an affordable style, so try them both and see which you prefer.
Craft brewed pilsners
Craft-brewed pilsners used to suffer from numerous fermentation problems; you need really healthy yeast and temperature control to make a good one. Nowadays, though, some of the best pilsners are right down the street. Remember: freshness matters, so try your local pilsner!
Is Czech pilsner gluten free?
No. Barley is a cereal grain that contains gluten, so if you have gluten sensitivities, you’ll want to check out our gluten free/reduced section.
Pilsner changed brewing - and beer drinking - forever. This beer appeals to first-time beer drinkers on sunlit patios and sweat-soaked pro brewers at the end of their shifts. We recommend heading out to Czech Republic and quaffing a pilsner next to a slow-moving river if you get the chance. If that’s not in the budget, Drizly’s got you covered with an array of deliciously drinkable pilsners. Na zdraví!