NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, German Pilsners have changed categories and style numbers. In the new guidelines they are Style 5D German Pils in Category 5 Pale Bitter European Beer which describes German-origin beers that are pale and have an even to bitter balance with a mild to moderately strong hoppy character featuring classic German hops. They are generally bottom-fermented or are lagered to provide a smooth profile, and are well-attenuated as are most German beers.
German Pilsners Description
German Pilsners (also spelled Pilsener or just Pils) are of two types, northern German pils and southern German pils. The word pils is a shortened version of pilsner which the German brewers adopted to prevent confusion of the beers from Pilsen in Bohemia (Czech Pilsner).
The Pilsen brewers went to court to try and have the word Pilsen declared an appellation. The high court in Cologne, in 1913, declared that the word pilsen at that point was a style rather than an appellation since by then it was being brewed all over the world and most called the style of beer pilsner.
The court did ask the German brewers to designate where their beer was brewed to avoid any suggestion that it may have come from Pilsen. After a while, to avoid all the hassles, they just shortened the word to pils and it is called that to this day.
To learn the difference between the two versions of German pilsner, you only have to understand a little about brewing. The water in northern Germany is fairly hard which accentuates the up-front bitterness. These beers display a strong, zesty, citrus-like in-your-face hop bitterness.
The water in Bavaria and many other parts of southern Germany tends to be moderately to extremely soft which suppresses the bold hop bitterness. Many of the southern German pilsners favor more mellow hop aromatics than strong hop flavor and bitterness which is found in the northern German pilsners.
The pilsners are quite different as a result of the different water profiles. Northern German pils are similar in flavor and bitterness to the Pilsen beers but with more flowery notes from the German noble hops used and more lingering bitterness from the higher sulfur content of their water which helps to make a drier and more attenuated beer.
The beers from southern Germany on the other hand can be more like a Munich Helles than a pilsner. There is much more malty sweetness and less hop bitterness. At this time (using the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines), there is no distinction between the two types of pilseners in the guidelines, but keep the differences in mind when tasting the different German pilsners.
When brewing German pils, pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to minimize esters. Be sure to give the beer a diacetyl rest as diacetyl is not appropriate in the style.
A 90 minute boil is a good idea to minimize DMS, but keep the boil at a moderate level to reduce Maillard reactions which could darken the beer, pushing it out of the style guidelines.
Use only the freshest noble German hops you can find. Although Saaz is a noble hop, it is not necessarily a German Noble Hop and is more appropriate in a Czech Pilsner (Bohemian Pilsner).
If your water is extremely soft, you might want to add some gypsum and chalk to get closer to the overall German water profile.
Bittburger is a good example of the style. Try one to get an idea of how the style should taste.
- Aroma: The aroma of German pils will show some malty and grainy character from the Pils malt used. The BJCP guidelines calls it a Graham cracker-like aroma. You will notice a distinctive German noble hop aroma of spicy and mostly flowery notes. Northern German brewers rely on the slightly zesty Tettnanger hop for their typical up-front bitterness whereas the southern German brewers rely on the more subtle Hallertauer, Hersbrucker, and Spalt hops for therir typical mellow hop bouquet. One of the main differences between the German and Bohemian pilsners is that German noble hops are used in Germany and Czech Saaz (also a noble hop, but not necessarily German) is used in the Bohemian pils. Pilsners will always have a clean aroma with no fruity esters and no diacetyl. You may notice a slight sulfury aroma, especially when the head subsides, and sometimes a low background hint of DMS from the use of lightly kilned pils malt.
- Appearance: As with other light lagers, pilsners are straw colored to a light golden color. The beer’s clarity is described as brilliant to very clear, probably more from the weeks of cold lagering than any filtration. They have a creamy, long-lasting white head.
- Flavor: The differences in magnitude of the flavor characteristics will be primarily due to the regional differences in the brewing water. As a whole, the German pilsners are crisp and bitter with a dry to a medium-dry well attenuated finish. There will be a moderate (southern versions) to moderately-low (northern versions) maltiness. Some grainy flavors and some malty sweetness are acceptable (and inevitable). Hop bitterness is a characteristic of all pilsners and in the German versions (especially northern German versions) dominates the taste and finish. There is a wide range of hop flavor from low to high (northern Germany to Bavaria). These are lagers so they should be clean with no fruity esters and no diacetyl.
- Mouthfeel: Medium is the keyword here. Medium-light body and a medium amount of carbonation.
- Overall Impression: Northern German pils are crisp and clean lagers which feature noble German hop bitterness (mostly Hallertauer) due the the higher sulfur content in brewing water in the north of Germany. The German pilsners from the south are more malty with a more balanced bitterness and less hop flavor.
- Comments: As noted above, there are two rather distinct versions of the German pils. Not all texts will differentiate between the two, but try to taste the differences yourself. The pilsners of Bavaria are sometimes closer to the Munich Helles style than they are to a Pilsner. The German pils from northern Germany are quite close to Bohemian Pilsners except for the type of hops used. When brewing German pils, pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to minimize esters and make sure to give the beer a diacetyl rest. A 90 minute boil is prudent but keep the boil at a moderate level to reduce Maillard reactions which would darken the beer. Use only the freshest noble German hops you can find. If your water is extremely soft, you may want to add some gypsum and chalk to mimic the overall German water profile.
- Ingredients: Made with pilsner malt, German noble hop varieties (especially Hallertaure, Tettnanger, and Spalt), German lager yeast and a medium sulfate brewing water.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.044-1.050 FG: 1.008-1.013 IBUs: 25-45 SRM: 2-5 ABV: 4.4-5.2%
- Commercial Examples: Victory Prima Pils, Bitburger, Warsteiner, Trumer Pils, Old Dominion Tupper’s Hop Pocket Pils, König Pilsener, Jever Pils, Left Hand Polestar Pilsner, Holsten Pils, Spaten Pils, Brooklyn Pilsner (no distinction is made between the northern and southern versions here).
When brewing German pils, pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to minimize esters and make sure to give the beer a diacetyl rest. A 90 minute boil is prudent but keep the boil at a moderate level to reduce Maillard reactions which would darken the beer. Use only the freshest noble German hops you can find. If your water is extremely soft, you may want to add some gypsum and chalk to mimic the overall German water profile.
References: Information for this page about German Pilsners was adapted from the BJCP Style Guidelines for 2008 and 2015, Germanbeerinstitute.com/Pils.html, and the German beer guide.co.uk/pils.html the British Guide to German Beer.