Lagers and pilsners are two of the most popular beer types in America. Each is cool and refreshing, ideally served ice cold on a midsummer’s day, but what, really, is the difference between lagers and pilsners?
As it turns out, a pilsner is actually a type of lager — they’re sort of like squares and rectangles: all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners.
Of course, every style of beer has its sub-categories, which means that lagers can be classified as either pale lagers or dark lagers. In fact, the only thing all lagers have in common is that they are all bottom-fermentation beers as opposed to the top-fermenting methods used for ales.
But when does a lager become a pilsner?
What Is a Pilsner?
A pilsner is a type of lager originating in Europe. Many beer drinkers are under the impression that the pilsner first made its appearance in Germany, but it’s actually the Czech Bohemia region we have to thank for this hoppy-style lager.
German brewers were just the first to develop the lagering process — more on that later.
A Brief History of the Pilsner
Pilsner beers were created almost as a mistake. In the 18th century, Czech beers were considered to be pretty awful in comparison to their German counterparts. Top-fermenting the type of yeast used by the Czech brewers produced a taste and quality which wasn’t favored by Western palates.
It wasn’t until 1839 that the city of Pilsen founded a city-owned original brewery that would come to be known as the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, still one of today’s leading beer brands. Using the cold-fermentation method learned from German immigrants, the brewery improved the quality of its beers substantially.
Unfortunately, the shelf life of the beers left a lot to be desired. Legend has it that the mass dumping of 36 spoiled casks of beer led to leading Bavarian brewer Josef Groll being called in to help with the spoiled beer problems of the Urquell Brewery.
Adding Saaz hops to the lager masked any spoiled flavors of the beer and produced a “spicy” taste very much of its own. This spiciness doesn’t refer to heat, but rather the noble hops character that equates to the floral, earthy hop flavor that came to define Czech pilsners.
This original pilsner lager utilized brighter malts, the high-quality water of Pilsen, and local Saaz hops to gain instant popularity, and production quickly spread to all regions of Bohemia.
To this day, only pilsner produced in the city of Pilsen is allowed to be called a pilsner in the Czech Republic, much like champagne must come from Champagne, France.
Characteristics of Pilsner Beer
Simplicity is the key when it comes to the flavor profile of pilsner lagers. The lighter pilsner malt used by the Czech brewery results in a unique, lighter gold color beer with a refreshing flavor. The subtle hops character from noble hops, most commonly the Saaz hop, used in the hopping process give it a pronounced flavor base and a crisp finish.
Traditionally using lager yeast strains in the primary fermentation, the brewing process results in a pilsner with an alcohol volume of anywhere between 4% and 6.5%, although many American craft brewers now produce craft pilsners with an ABV between 6.5% and 9.5%.
Types of Pilsner
The popularity of pilsner beers means they are not just exclusively brewed in the Czech Republic anymore. Contemporary brewers all over the world from Beijing to Mexico and Tokyo to London now produce these golden crisp lager beers, some even importing Bavarian wild yeasts just for the task.
Although there are some subtle differences between pilsners produced in different countries, they mostly use the same brewing techniques, which can be broken down into four distinct styles that most pilsners follow.
The original pilsner lager, Bohemian Pilsners as created by Pilsner Urquell in the mid-19th century are also called “Czech Pilsner” or svêtlé ležák in Czech, which translates to “bright lager.” They typically have a light color and crisp, refreshing taste.
Caramelized floor-malted barley used in the brewing method of Czech pilsners gives it a slightly deeper color than German dark lagers, ranging from a straw-to-light-amber hue. The Saaz or Žatec hops in pilsners give them a perfect balance of a toasted malt character and a spicy aroma.
Popular brands of Czech Pilsener include:
- Pilsner Urquell including Plzeňský Prazdroj Pilsner Urquell, the world’s very first pilsner
- Budweiser Czech Lager or Budweiser Budvar (sold in the US as Czechvar)
- My favorite Bohemian brew: Staropramen.
Pils or German Pilsners
Pilsner beers from Germany are perhaps the style most beer drinkers are familiar with. This often leads to the common misconception that the pilsner was born in Germany (not true, as we detailed above!).
Using German Noble hops like the Hallertau and Hesbruck, a German pilsner is thinner and much lighter colored than a Czech beer. A straw-colored beer, German pilsners exhibit a brilliant clarity and feature a big, white, foamy head as often seen in those large Stein glasses at Oktoberfest events.
Although it’s a matter of personal preference, many beer drinkers often describe German pils as having a more refined, cleaner, more balanced taste than Czech beer styles.
Popular German brands of pilsner include:
- Holsten Pils
- Krombacher Pils
- Spaten Pils
- Bitburger Premium Pils
- Dortmunder Actien Brauerei Dab Original (constantly voted most well-balanced Pilsner)
Also referred to as American Pale Ale lagers, these beers were introduced to the US by German immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.
Craft breweries have adapted the original pilsner recipes to use ingredients native to North America including flaked corn, American barley, and North American hops to create this new sub-style.
Popular American Pilsners worth checking out include:
- Lagunita Pils – a Czech-style golden Pilsner from California
- Miller Lite Pilsner – a pilsner-style light beer from Wisconsin
- Mamas Little Yella Pils – a Bohemia-style pils using just pilsner and honey malt with Saaz hops from Colorado
- Victory Prima Pils – one of the highest-rated pilsner beers in the US
American Imperial Pilsners
American Imperial Pilsners are a pimped-up product of the American craft beer scene.
Also often known as American double pilsner, this type of beer uses even more malts and hops for an IBU of 30 to 85 and is brewed to a higher alcohol volume between 6.5% to 9%.
To stay true to the original pilsner beer styles, Imperial Pilsners tend to favor European hops rather than American hops for a higher level of spice and bitterness. Some may even add citrus or a malty sweetness.
Popular styles of American Imperial Pilsners include:
- Troegs Brewing Company Dry Hopped Imperial Pilsner – an Imperial Pilsner from Pennsylvania, a collaboration between the Tröegs Brewing Company, Mack Brewing Company, and the Harris family brewery.
- Morimoto Imperial Pilsner – Rogue Ales of Oregon Imperial Pilsner, which uses Czech Pils Yeast and Sterling Hops for a higher level of bitterness.
- Samuel Adams Double Pilsner – A hazy, amber-color Imperial Pilsner using Hallertau hops with a caramel sweetness from the different malts used.
- Mikkeller Imperial Pilsner – A golden beer, which is incredibly light for an Imperial Pilsner, almost transparent, the dominant flavor is a pepper kick with the usual pils freshness.
What Exactly Is a Lager?
We have talked about pilsner as a style of lager and the differences between pilsner types, but what makes a lager a lager and not an ale?
Lager is one of the most popular beer styles in the world along with ales. The key distinction separating a lager from an ale is the process of using bottom-fermenting yeast.
During the brewing process, ales like an IPA will use a top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures, whereas the bottom-fermented yeast used to brew lagers can withstand much cooler temperatures, typically between 45° and 55°F.
The lower temperatures reduce the number of unwanted by-products such as haze-inducing proteins and polyphenols which fall to the bottom in the fermentation process. The result is a cleaner beer with crisp flavors.
A Brief History of the Lager
Lagers are much younger than traditional ales, and much like pilsners, were discovered nearly by accident.
Hops have been used in the brewing of beer since around 1000 BCE, but it was only in the 1500s that German brewers found they could produce a crisper beer by using cold stabilization techniques during the fermentation process.
Innovative head brewers such as Gabriel Sedlmayr from Germany and Anton Dreher from Austria introduced the delights of lagers into Europe at the turn of the 19th century.
As many Germans began migrating to the Americas, they also brought lager-brewing techniques to the US, Mexico, and South America. Some German immigrants even introduced the delights of lagers to China, where it quickly spread across the Asian subcontinent.
The word “lager” even comes from the process of “lagering,” in which beers can be aged in much lower, cellar temperatures for months at 54° to 57°F.
Common Lager Beer Styles
Lager has far fewer beer types than ale, with only a few styles found in the lager family. In general, a lager will have a light, crisp taste and a golden color, although some such as a bock can range from dark amber to a brown color, or even go as far as a black lager.
Bocks also have more barley flavor than many other lagers, while Oktoberfest beers or dunkers can feature a more malty flavor.
While we have already looked in detail at pilsner style lager, let’s take a quick look at the more common styles of American lager.
Dunkel translates from German as “dark” and is a classic pub-style beer from the Bavaria region, specifically Munich. An original style of lager, it features dark roasted malts, giving it a slightly red-tinted color ranging from amber to deep mahogany.
The flavor base includes a bold coffee character, chocolate notes, and sometimes even nuts or a bready sweetness. Alcohol content and bitterness in a Dunkel are relatively low compared to many other styles of lager.
A popular stateside example of a Dunkel is Chuckanut Dunkel lager from the Chuckanut Brewery in Washington. More traditional Dunkel lagers from Germany and Bavaria are Paulaner Brauerei Wiesn, Lowenbraus Dunkel, and Spaten München Dunkel, to name but a few.
Another of the dark beers, Schwarzbier comes from the eastern state of Germany known as Thungria. Dark brown to almost ruby black in color, this lager has a complex malty character with hints of chocolate and licorice. With a smooth dry finish, Schwarzbier has a low alcohol content and a mild bitterness.
Often known as a black lager, modern examples of this style include Samuel Adams Black Lager, New Belgium 1554 Black Lager, and Xingu Black.
A variation on the pilsner style, Munich Helles or “hell” comes from the German for “bright” or “pale.”
These South German pale lagers are a gold color with a mixed, bitter-sweet finish and a lighter hop profile. Helles guidelines state the beer should use continental pilsner malt, traditional German Saazar hop varieties, and German lager yeast.
Commercial examples of a Helles style beer include Bürgerbräu Wolznacher Hell Naturtrüb, Bierstadt Lagerhaus Helles, Löwenbraü Original, Paulaner Premium Lager, Spaten Premium Lager, Weihenstephaner Original.
The most famous of this type of lager is the Oktoberfest Amber Lager also known as märzenbier (or “march beer”). With a complex, malty sweetness, these lagers feature hoppy notes and a crisp finish due to the Noble hops blended in the brewing process.
A Vienna lager is another popular amber lager that uses a lighter roasted malt than its Munich-derived counterparts. An amber lager tends to be a little stronger at around 5% ABV than many other styles of lager.
Popular amber lagers produced by American brewers today include Dos Equis, Clara Lager, Sam Adams Winter Lager, Chuckanut Vienna Lager, and Boston Lager. If you look in the German section of your local beer store you will find quality amber lagers such as Brauerei Heller-trum Aecht Shlenkerla, or Ayinger Oktoberfest Märzen.
Bock lagers are normally more potent with a complex sweetness and chocolate notes. Most Bock original lagers will have an ABV of 6% or more and use a strong lager yeast in the fermentation process.
Double bock or Doppelbock lagers are an even bigger and stronger version of the Bock original beers. With a deep copper color, these beers were originally made by monks in Munich. They tend to feature earthy notes which pair well with food, and the use of fewer hops results in a less bitter taste.
Eisbocks are the strongest of the bock-style beers and use a process known as “freeze distilling” that freezes the water during the brewing process. As alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water, this leaves the alcohol liquid. When the water is removed you get a much stronger beer, often up to 14% ABV.
Popular examples of a bock lager include Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock, Michelob Amberbock, Kulmbacher Brauerei Eisbock, Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock, UberBock, and Samuel Adams Double Bock.
Mass-Produced or Mass Market Lagers
Most of the lagers you will see on supermarket shelves fall into this category and are an easy-drinking style of pilsner-like beer. Popular lager brands such as Budweiser, Corona Extra, Miller, Coors, and Anchor Steam California Lager all fall into this category.
Lighter lagers may not have the hoppy flavor of pilsner beers or a full body from the aggressive use of hops, but they will still have a crisp finish.
Produced worldwide, golden lager brands such as Stella Artois, Heineken, Foster, Peroni, and Sapporo are popular international variants. Mexican lager even seems to have its own subcategory in this section with many variants including Corona Light, Sol, Dos Equis, and Silver Bluff Mexican Lager.
Many American lagers are further known as “adjunct lagers” in which adjunct ingredients like corn, rice, or barley native to the region have been added to the brew for a crisper and cleaner style of beer. Think of brands such as Bud, Miller Lite, or Pabst for lagers that use adjunct malts. Flavored lagers and citrus lagers could also be considered adjunct macro lagers.
The Difference Between Pilsners and Lagers – The Takeaway
As we have seen above, there are many styles of lagers, including the popular sub-category pilsner.
The dominance of lager yeast, in particular, the Saccharomyces pastorianus strain of bottom-fermenting yeast has seen a growth in the popularity of lager-style beers. Lagers now outsell ales in almost every part of the world.
Ales tend to be better suited to the winter months, with notable alcohol warmth coming from the earthy hop flavor. By comparison, the cold storage used in the “lagering” technique of brewing lagers and pilsners gives a crisp finish which is more refreshing in the summer months and easier to quaff.
The main differences between the types of lagers and pilsners are the yeast used and the more aggressive use of different hops in pilsners. Saaz hops, or the Noble hop character of pilsner beers, give them their crispy or tangy flavors and aromas.
Basically, a pilsner is a spicier-tasting lager, almost floral some would say.
Whichever type of beer you prefer is a matter of personal palate, but if you are looking for a cool and refreshing crisp golden lager with added hop flavors then a pilsner is definitely the way forward.