Like many craft beer lovers, with summer rapidly approaching I’ll be looking for a more refreshing style of beer. As a dedicated hop head, my beer of choice is normally an IPA and I wouldn’t dream of drinking lager, but give me a Pilsner-style beer on a hot summer afternoon and I will be quite happy!
Along with IPAs, Pilsner lagers are one of the most popular beer styles in the world and are probably enjoyed in more countries than any other style of beer. Without being too much of a lager snob, I have to say that Pilsners are so much more flavorsome than your traditional American lagers such as Budweiser or Coors. They have more of that hop flavor that we ale drinkers are looking for, although not as much as an IPA.
Let’s take a look at the key differences between an IPA and a Pilsner, their different histories, the difference in the brewing process, and, most importantly, how their taste profiles differ.
Pilsner vs IPA at a Glance
|Pilsner||IPA (India Pale Ale)|
|Type of Beer||Lager||Ale|
|Type of Yeast Used||Bottom fermented at cooler temperature||Top fermented|
|IBU||30 - 45||40 - 70|
|ABV||4.2% - 5.8%||5.5% - 7.5%|
|SRM||3.5 - 6||6 - 14|
IPAs and Pilsner beers are two different styles of beer with very distinctive characteristics.
An IPA, as the name ‘India Pale Ale’ suggests, is a type of ale that uses a top-fermenting yeast and has a strong hoppy flavor and aroma. They originated in the UK (not India!) although they are probably better known for their American versions nowadays.
Normally an IPA, especially an American IPA, will be brewed with a higher amount of hops which gives them a more bitter taste and fruity or floral aromas. IPAs are certainly one of the hoppiest beer styles out there. An IPA can range in color from light to dark and will have a higher alcohol content than a Pilsner or many classic lagers.
Pilsner beers are a type of lager that uses a bottom-fermenting yeast and is brewed at much cooler temperatures for a more delicate flavor profile. Pilsners originated in the Czech Republic in the 19th Century and are known for their light and crisp taste with just a subtle hop flavor and a clean finish. A Pilsner will generally be lighter in color than an IPA and will have a lower alcohol content.
In both IPAs and Pilsners, there is a wide range of styles. Pilsners can be either German Pilsners, Czech, Belgian, or Imperial Pilsner styles, while the numerous styles of IPA include British IPA, American IPA, West Coast IPA, East Coast IPA, Hazy IPA, Brut IPA, Session IPA, Imperial IPA, and even a Black IPA.
The Origins of IPAs and Pilsners
Both the Pilsner and IPA styles of beer originate from Europe, although they have quite different backstories. The first IPAs were brewed towards the end of the 1700s while the Czech Pilsners beers debuted in the mid-1800s.
History of IPA
India Pale Ale (IPA) is a type of beer that became popular in England in the 18th century.
India Pale Ale was not first brewed in India, so why does it have India in its name? The beer was actually brewed in England and then shipped to India.
At the time, the British Empire was expanding rapidly, and English ships were traveling all over the world. Unfortunately, the climate in many far-off places like India was too warm to support the brewing of beer.
As the soldiers in India started craving beer the only solution seemed to be shipping it from England. However, the major problem was that beer was not equipped to survive the six-month sea voyage to India.
The beer the ships took with them would often spoil before they arrived at their destination.
To solve this problem, brewers in England began adding extra hops and alcohol to their beer. Hops act as a natural preservative, and the extra alcohol helped to preserve the beer as well. The result was a beer that could survive the long journey to India and beyond.
The first recorded batch of IPA was brewed by a London brewer named George Hodgson in the late 1700s. Hodgson’s beer was a hit with the British troops stationed in India, and IPA quickly became the beer of choice for British soldiers and colonists throughout the Empire.
Interestingly enough, India Pale Ales were never brewed in India and only became known as IPAs when returning colonialists from India started demanding the hoppy beers they had previously drunk in India.
History of Pilsner
Pilsner was, again, a beer born out of necessity. This time the problem was the low-quality beers that the city of Pilsen was producing. Pilsner was born after a batch of beer had to be poured into the streets of Pilsen in 1838 due to its spoilage.
Ales were prone to spoilage either by wild yeasts or bacteria. Even the breweries of Plzen, with over 800 years of experience, regularly contended with contamination issues. This batch was simply too far gone, and the brewers decided that the ale had become undrinkable.
The town’s elders decided to act and commissioned an architect to travel to Munich and other parts of Bavaria to draw up the plans for a new Bürger-Brauerei (citizens’ brewery) for the town.
On his travels the architect recruited Josef Groll, a Bavarian brewmaster, to teach the town’s brewers how to make lager. Upon arriving in Plzen, Groll found there was already a supply of lager yeasts available in addition to a plentiful source of Saaz noble hops (that he would have already been familiar with in Bavaria). The brewers of Plzen also had a source of very soft water from the town’s well and sandstone caves which could be used for lagering.
By adding more hops to the beer and using bottom-fermenting yeast, the beer could avoid spoilage and many of the other off-flavors the top-fermenting yeasts could cause. Using light barley that was only partially malted and none of the roasted or smoked barley that the German brewers were using, Groll added generous portions of the fragrant Saaz hops to his brew.
The result was a light-colored beer with a crisp, clean taste and a mild hop flavor. This new beer was an instant hit and quickly became popular throughout Europe and beyond.
Both Pilsner beers and IPA have different sub-styles dependent on where they are brewed. Here in the States in particular we have virtually adopted the beer styles as our own and in the US craft beer scene, American Pilsner and American IPAs are two of the most consumed craft beer styles.
A British-style IPA tends to be less hoppy than its American counterpart and has more of a spicy or grassy flavor.
Pilsner vs IPA – The Ingredients
As we have already stressed, Pilsners are lagers while IPAs are ales. You’d be forgiven for thinking they used different ingredients in their brewing process, but that’s far from the truth. Both styles of beer use the same basic ingredients, it’s just the yeast in ales and lagers which differ.
The yeast strain used is the basis of their classification as an ale or a lager. Pilsners use a bottom-fermenting yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, which ferments in cooler environments more slowly to produce fewer esters and phenols for a cleaner taste. IPAs use a top-fermenting yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that ferments much quicker at higher temperatures and can influence the flavor of the ale.
Yeast isn’t the only ingredient that affects the taste and smell of the beer though. The malted grain can be a large influence, with barley malt being the most commonly used grain for brewing beers today, with perhaps the exception of wheat beers. Both IPAs and Pilsners will use barley although Pilsners will tend to use lighter-colored malts and have their flavor profile influenced more by the malt.
Hops are used in both Pilsners and IPAs but to different extents. For Pilsners, the major hops used are Saaz noble hops which add more aroma but less bitterness. IPAs commonly use both aroma and bittering high-alpha acid hops such as Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, Centennial, and Chinook, to name but a few.
Water is perhaps the last basic ingredient with IPAs using just plain water, while Pilsner beers tend to use softer waters native to the cities where they are brewed.
Pilsner vs IPA – The Brewing Process
The brewing process for both a Pilsner and an IPA is quite simple but with a few key differences along the way. Both beers start with mashing out the barley malt to extract the sugars and enzymes needed for fermentation.
The key difference in the boiling of the wort is the addition of the hops. While hops will be added at different stages during the boil of an IPA wort for bitter flavors and aroma, usually a Pilsner brew will only add hops at the start of the boil for a slight bitterness and very little aroma.
IPAs typically use more hops with fruity, citrusy, or floral hops often taking center stage. Specific varietals like Cascade or Citra can bring out the desired herbal or fruity notes.
Pilsners on the other hand, belonging to the lager family, use a distinctly different fermentation process that focuses on accentuating the malt flavor rather than the intensity of the hops.
The cooler temperature at which yeast ferments in a bottom-fermenting lager allows the yeasts to work slower for a cleaner taste profile with just a subtle hop presence.
Pilsner vs IPA – The Flavor
Ales are traditionally stronger in flavor than many classic lagers due to the extra esters and phenols produced by the top-fermenting yeasts. This trend continues with IPAs although much of the flavors come from the amount of hops added.
IPAs often have an intense, fruity, hoppy, and citrussy flavor which can outshine the malt flavors. As there are many different styles of IPAs, the exact flavor profile can depend on the brand.
In contrast, Pilsners are much more subtle in flavor, with a clean and crisp taste that will appeal to those who like drinking lighter beers. That’s not to say they are lacking in flavor, indeed they certainly have more flavor than many classic lagers with a balancing flavor of maltiness and a hoppy presence.
Pilsners won’t have the strong lingering aftertaste of an IPA, but their hop bitterness will remain for a short period after drinking. Their aroma is often characterized by floral or earthy notes depending on the types of hops used in the brewing process. Although Czech Pilsners are quite a balanced affair, German Pilsners tend to be more spartan and stripped back with a grainy and bitter taste.
For beer lovers who crave complexity and intensity in their beer, the IPA is definitely the way forward. For those who prefer a lager but want just a little more taste, Pilsner is a great choice.
Pilsner vs IPA – Color and Appearance
Pilsners and IPAs have distinct differences in their color and appearance too. IPAs tend to be a more amber to copper-colored beer, sometimes with a hazy or cloudy appearance. Pilsners are straw-colored to golden with a clear and sparkling appearance.
IPAs can be darker in color when they use caramel malts which also give them a characteristic sweetness, while a Pilsner typically uses lighter malts which add little to no flavor but contribute to the light color.
IPAs will also have more of a frothy head that lingers for longer due to higher carbonation levels than Pilsner beer styles.
Pilsner vs IPA – Serving Temperature
What can make a Pilsner the ideal beer for summer is the cooler serving temperature. Pilsners should be served between 40 – 45ºF to bring out the crispness and refreshing qualities while IPAs are best enjoyed around 50-55ºF, as the bitterness of the hops can be more pronounced at colder temperatures.
However, serving temperature can be down to personal preference. Some of my beer-loving buddies even enjoy their IPA served cold, just get ready for some lip-smacking bitterness!
Pilsner vs IPA – Glassware
The type of glassware you choose can also affect your overall enjoyment and flavor experience of a beer.
For IPAs, a wide-mouthed glass like a tulip or a pint glass can allow for more aroma to be released while drinking the beer.
Pilsner beers are best served in tall slender glasses called a Pilsner glass which helps maintain the carbonation of the beer and will showcase the clarity and lighter color.
Pilsner vs IPA – Food Pairings
When it comes to which food you can pair with a Pilsner or IPA both beers have their unique distinctive characteristics which complement different flavors.
IPAs tend to go well with Spicy foods like Indian, Mexican, or Thai cuisine. One of my favorite IPAs ever, a Thai Lemongrass IPA, goes extremely well with my favorite Thai Green Curry.
Bold flavourful meats like steak, burgers, or any other BBQ fare can be a perfect complement to an IPA. The hoppy bitterness of the IPA can almost act like a palate cleanser for stronger flavors.
Rich creamy cheese like blue cheese or sharp cheddar can also benefit from the numerous styles of IPA.
Lighter fare and foods like salads or seafood won’t overpower the subtle flavor of a Pilsner-style beer.
Fried foods like fish and chips or chicken wings can also work with the carbonation of a Pilsner helping to cut through the fat and leaving your palate feeling cleaner.
And finally, if looking for a cheese to go with a Pilsner-style beer you should choose a milder cheese like Gouda or Swiss.
Final Thoughts – Pilsner vs IPA. Which is Better?
There’s no easy answer to the question of which beers you should choose. A lot of it comes down to your personal preferences.
IPAs are renowned for their bitterness and complexity, with hoppy flavors which range from herbal to fruity or citrussy. Pilsners, by comparison, will generally have a milder flavor profile with a little more pronounced malt character and less of those hoppy notes.
That’s not to say you can’t enjoy both. For the summer months and outdoor barbecues and parties, a Pilsner offers a beer that is light and easy to drink. For cooler months or when something more hearty is on the menu, IPAs are an excellent choice.
Why not try both and see which you prefer?