Kölsch vs Pilsner – The Similarities and the Differences

It’s an argument my buddies and I often have in the local German Biergarten – is a Kölsch a type of Pilsner? I always argue no, but some of them refuse to accept this as they taste and look so similar. Here, I intend to set the argument straight once and for all.

No! A Kölsch is not a Pilsner – its not even a lager!

Kölsch and Pilsner are two very popular German style beers which if they were lined up next to each other on the bar you would have difficulty telling apart (unless, of course, they were in their traditional glassware but more on that later!).

Both of these beers are light and refreshing, but they have distinct differences in their brewing process and taste. In this post, we will explore the differences between Kölsch and Pilsner.

What Is the Main Difference Between a Kölsch and a Pilsner? (It’s in the Yeast?)

brown and red labeled bottle
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A Kölsch is an ale while Pilsner is a lager. Remember the old argument about a top fermenting yeast being used in ales and a bottom fermenting yeast being used in lagers? The Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) vs Saccharomyces Pastorianus (lager yeast) debate.

Kölsch is brewed with an ale yeast and is therefore a top-fermented style ale, definitely not a lager. Although top fermenting yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures, they then spend a few weeks at cooler temperatures, a bit like the lagering process of lagers, which sometimes means Kölsch is referred to as a hybrid beer.

The cold temperatures give the Kölsch a crisp, dry finish similar to a lager, while the warmer fermentation of the ale yeast contributes the fruity and bread-like aromas and flavors not normally found in most lagers.

Top fermented always means ale, with bottom fermented meaning lager. It’s not a bit ale, a bit lager, instead it’s probably safer to call a Kölsch a “largered ale.”

clear drinking glass with beer
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Although ale yeasts typically ferment at much warmer temperatures than the bottom fermenting yeasts used in lager, the yeasts used in Kölsch like colder temperatures as opposed to your generally warm temperature loving ale yeasts.

The temperature is still higher than most bottom fermenting lager yeasts. To be honest, its positively toasty by lager standards.

Kölsch vs Pilsner at a Glance

Country of OriginGermanyCzech Republic
Style of BeerAleLager
Brewing ProcessTop fermentedBottom fermented
ABV4.4% - 5.2%4.5% - 6%
IBU18 - 3025 - 40 +
SRM3.5 - 53 - 6

Kölsch vs Pilsner – The Origins

Another key area where a Kölsch is different from a Pilsner is the history of where they come from and how they originated.


Kölsch is a beer style that originated in Cologne, Germany. The Cologne region had been brewing top fermented ales since the early 1500’s. In fact, the use of bottom fermenting lager yeast was actually forbidden for many years.

The Kölsch style of ale was born out of necessity, as the beers from Cologne didn’t enjoy a good reputation. The brewers of Cologne in the decades leading up to 1750 were finding themselves losing the battle against the more popular bottom-fermented lagers being brewed elsewhere in Germany.

Instead, they responded by keeping their beloved style of top fermentation but used a yeast which could tolerate slightly cooler temperatures (not as low as lager yeasts though), and would condition the ale at colder temperatures for 2 – 3 weeks after fermentation similar to “lagering” a beer.

The result was a crisp, clean-tasting ale with a slightly fruity and floral aroma. It has a golden color, with a small amount of hop bitterness and a low to medium level of carbonation. It has remained a landmark style beer of Germany ever since.

Kölsch was first given it’s name in 1918, after an old German dialect word “Köln”, meaning the city of Cologne. This later became Kölsch in much the same way as we refer to anything from Germany as “Deutsch”.

The Kölsch style was formally established in the mid-80’s when brewers met at the Kölsch Konvention. The style dictates that Kölsch must be a pale, top-fermented beer, hop-accented and filtered ale with a gravity between 11 and 14 degrees using the Plato scale.

When Germany joined the European Union, Kölsch was given a Protected Geographical Indication which limits the brewing of Kölsch to Cologne in Germany. Although this is adhered to in Europe, many American craft breweries have started making their own Kölsch beers, which are often labelled “Kölsch-style.”

Southern Star Humidity
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The origins and history of Pilsner are probably better known by most beer lovers. Often called the most popular beer style in the world, Pilsner is a lager beer that originated in the city of Pilsen, in the Czech Republic.

Pilsner Urquell
Image by Leonhard Niederwimmer at Pixabay

The beer of Pilsen in Bohemia also suffered a bad reputation. Ales were prone to spoilage form either the wild yeast used or bacteria. In 1836, after seeing barrel after barrel of beer being poured away in the town centre square, the brewers of the town decided to take drastic action and sent a local architect to study the breweries of Munich and other parts of Bavaria.

On his travels the architect met Josef Groll, a Bavarian brewer who the local burghers (licensed brewers) of Pilzen hired to teach them the German lagering method.

Although a romantic myth states that a monk smuggled some of the precious Bavarian larger yeast to Pilsen, when Groll arrived in Pilzen, there was as supply of lager yeast available and a nearby source of Saaz hops, a noble hop variety which would have been familiar to German brewers.

The use of specialised bottom fermenting lager yeasts, the cold lagering process, and adding copious amounts of Saaz hops resulted in a beer which was crisp, dry and refreshing and most importantly not as prone to spoilage (hops are natural astringent and preservative).

Although in Bohemia (or the modern day Czech Republic) Pilsner can only be called as such if it comes from the town of Pilsen, there are many variations of the Pilsner lager which is often abbreviated to Pils, like the German Pils.

A Helles style German Pils is a less hoppy adaptation developed in Munich, and is the one most often found in beer halls in Germany.

Other variations of the Pilsner were developed to cut costs, with adjuncts like rice often replacing part of the barley (Kölsch, by comparison, is still brewed based on the German beer purity laws of Reinheitsgebot, which dictate that you can only brew beer with barley, water, hops and yeast).

Rice may not add much flavor or aroma to the brew, but with less flavour from the barley the balancing hops can also be cut to help keep the costs down.

These kind of Pilsners may have the same strength of a traditional Pilsner beer but will seem watery compared to 100 percent barley Bohemian Pilsners. Often these Pilsners will fit into the category of American light lager.

Kölsch vs Pilsner – The Taste

When it comes to taste, Kolsch has a clean and crisp flavor with a low hop bitterness and a slightly fruity and floral aroma, with a more rounded flavor than a Pilsner. The slight maltiness obviously results from the malt used, the fruitiness as a result of the esters from the top-fermenting yeast, and the hoppiness from the aromatic and bittering hops used.

Pilsner, on the other hand, still has that crisp and clean flavor but with a hoppy bitterness from the Saaz hops and a slight malt sweetness of a barley malt backbone that balances the taste. The lightly kilned malted barley, along with the spicy hops, tend to define the aroma and flavor of a Pilsner and give it more lager characteristics.

Both beers are light-bodied and refreshing, but Pilsner has a higher level of carbonation and a smoother taste.

Most knowledgeable German brewers will describe a Kölsch style as falling somewhere between a Pilsner and a Helles. Not as bitter as a Pilsner but not as malty as a Helles, Kölsch is an ale rather than a lager such as pilsner or a variation of the Pilsner lager style Helles.

US-produced Kölsch beers can be more varied in taste and often stronger and hoppier (US brewers don’t have to abide by the Reinheitsgebot purity laws), and nontraditional ingredients such as wheat can be added.

Kölsch vs Pilsner – The Ingredients

All beers, regardless of the style use the same basic ingredients of yeast, malt, hops and water. This is true for Pilsners and Kölsch beers too but the type and quality of allowable ingredients may vary.

The yeast strain used in the top-fermenting process of ales such as a Kölsch has more impact on the flavors than a lager strain of yeast. This explains the fruity-estery aroma too.

Generally, barley is the grain used for both Pilsners and Kölsch beers with, ironically, German Pilsner malt or pale malt being the main ingredient of most Kölsch ales. However, many breweries in the US now supplement the barley malt with non-traditional ingredients like wheat.

Pilsners will often have more of a malted barley backbone from the use of two-row barley which has been slightly kilned.

Hops in the beer are the other key difference. A Pilsner will generally be made up of mainly Saaz hops which add more of a bitterness to the Pilsner and a more beer-like taste.

Whereas a Kölsch uses more aromatic hops with subtle bittering notes such as Hallertau, Perle, Tettnang and Hersbrucker hops. One technical point, true Kölsch beers should only ever use hops that are native to Germany.

Finally, the water used can be important when distinguishing between a Pilsner and a Kölsch. Kölsch beers will use a more acidic water while the original Pilsner beers used water which was native to Pilsen because of it’s higher quality.

In terms of food pairings, Kölsch pairs well with lighter fare like salads, seafood, and chicken dishes, while Pilsner is a great choice for spicy foods, grilled meats, and hearty stews.

Kölsch vs Pilsner – Alcohol Content

According to the guidelines of the BJCP, Pilsners have an ABV of 4.5 % – 6% while Kölsch beers have an ABV of 4.4 % and 5.2%.

Interestingly, most ales tend to be stronger than lagers but the cooler fermenting temperature of the yeast used in Kölsch brewing means the yeast doesn’t thrive as well as other warm fermentation temperatures.

Kölsch vs Pilsner – Appearance

Both beers have a characteristic yellow to deep gold color. However, the BJCP gives the Pilsner lagers an SRM color range of 2 to 7 in comparison to Kölsch, which has a narrower range of 3.5 to 5.

Although the ranges overlap, Pilsner beers can be significantly darker or lighter than a Kölsch. Medium yellow to light gold is probably a better descriptor of a Kölsch. In reality there’s not normally too much to choose between the two beers, even if they’re sat next to each other on a bar.

One thing which may give away whether the beer is a Kölsch or a Pilsner is if traditional glassware is used for each drink.

A Pilsner glass is traditionally a tall glass which is narrow at the bottom but gets a little wider at the rim. Kölsch is traditionally served in small, cylindrical glasses known as “Stangen” (meaning rod in German) and is a straight glass similar to a cut of drain pipe. They are traditionally smaller at 8 oz as Kölsch should be enjoyed at cooler temperatures and you don’t want a large glass of warm stale beer.

Kölsch vs Pilsner – The Final Call

Kölsch is not a lager, it is an ale!

In conclusion, Kölsch and Pilsner are both light and refreshing beer styles with distinct differences in their brewing process and taste. Kolsch is a top-fermented ale that is cold-conditioned like a lager, with a slightly fruity flavor and floral aroma, and a clean, crisp taste.

Pilsner, on the other hand, is a bottom-fermented lager made with Pilsner lager malt, with a hoppy bitterness and a smooth, crisp taste. Whether you prefer a slightly fruity Kölsch or a hoppy Pilsner, both beers are great choices for a refreshing drink on a hot summer day or paired with your favorite meal.

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