“Sometimes I just want beer that tastes like beer.”
I keep hearing this, or variations thereof, from craft-beer drinkers around me, and I’ve uttered it under my breath a number of times when confronted with the latest over-the-top experimental brew (I’m looking at you, exotic fruit milkshake IPA). We can argue over the specifics of what qualifies as just plain beer, but the answer, in any case, is pilsner.
It’s by no means the oldest style of beer; it was first brewed in 1842. Bill Covaleski, co-founder and brewmaster of Victory Brewing Co., tells me, “The pilsner style introduced lager beer to all corners of the earth, putting ales on notice that crisp and refreshing attributes would be the future of beer.”
Its deceitful simplicity; crisp, balanced, clean flavor; and widespread acceptance make it a safe bet as beer’s best representative.
“If I want to gauge someone’s prowess as a brewer, it’s their pilsner I’m going to try. It has the least ability to hide flaws,” says Rob LoBreglio, co-founder and brewmaster of the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.
So what’s the story, and where can we get some?
Bavaria Meets Bohemia
The story begins in Plzen (Pilsen in German and English), a city in Bohemia, a region now within the borders of the Czech Republic. Like some of us today, folks were just looking for a good tasting beer.
But in 1838, 36 barrels of beer were dumped in front of the town hall in Plzen, because it had been deemed undrinkable. Tough crowd. Though brewing had been going on in Plzen since its founding in 1295, when King Wenceslaus II gave permission for citizens to brew out of their homes and sell it, the quality hadn’t always been up to snuff. The market—and the local beer dumpers—were ready for something better.
Brewers came together and built a proper brewery, appropriately named Mestansky Pivovar, or Citizens’ Brewery, right along the banks of the Radbuza river. They brought in Josef Groll, a young brewer from next door in Bavaria, in the hopes of making comparable quality lagers.
Prior to this, these brewers had been making ales, beer that employs yeast that ferments at the top of a batch and at a warmer temperature (55–70 degrees F). Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast at colder temperatures (40–54 degrees F). The historical record is a bit unclear on how that lager yeast got to Bohemia, because it was apparently already there when Groll arrived. The legend is that a Bavarian monk “smuggled” it out of Bavaria.
Earlier beers had been on the dark side, and depending on the method of drying the malt, they could be a bit smoky. Kilning methods developed in Britain in the 17th century made it possible to create barley malt that wasn’t so darkly roasted; this was why they had amber-colored “pale” ales when no one else did. That kiln knowledge made its way into the rest of Europe around this time.
Groll brought together the Bavarian lager yeast with malt lighter than had yet been used. These ingredients, combined with the soft water of Plzen and regional Saaz hops, became something revolutionary. In October of 1842, he rolled out the barrels of a brew that was light and golden in color, unlike any beer before. It was a smashing success. The pilsner was born.
The Styles of a Style
Other brewers followed the trend. The Pilsners (people) sought to protect their pilsners (beer) and named it Plzensky Prazdroj, “original pilsner” in Czech. Translated to German, it became Pilsner Urquell, and that beer with that name is still being brewed to this day.
Groll returned to Bavaria in 1845, and for the next 55 years, his job passed only to Bavarians. Meanwhile, back in Bavaria, brewers started making their own version of a pilsner, lighter still in color and with a different variety of hops.
When many Germans emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century, they brewed yet another version of a pilsner using what grains they had available in the New World. Maize made it into the mix, adding a hint of sweetness. And once again, the appearance of a very drinkable lager pushed aside the ales that had dominated before the waves of German immigrants.
In the end, we have three styles of pilsner: the Bohemian (or Czech) Pilsner, the Bavarian (or German) Pilsner, and the American Pilsner.
What’s the Difference?
“In all the cases—American, German, Czech—they’re lagers, so they have less of the esters and tend to have a smoother, cleaner profile,” says LoBreglio of The Great Dane. He keeps one of each style on tap.
For the European pilsners—Bavarian-style or Bohemian-style—the recipes call for “noble hops,” four European varieties that are named for the regions they came from: Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Saaz. These varieties can be grown outside Europe, of course, but due to terroir-related differences, they may not provide the same aromas and flavors.
German pilsners are lighter in color, and tend to be crisper and drier than the Bohemian variety, with a slight bitterness that lingers a bit longer on the palate. “It’s lighter-bodied, plus the hoppiness is a little lower; it’s that really clean Hallertau that makes things really difficult to hide,” says LoBreglio.
The Czechs use Saaz hops, which are a touch spicier than the Hallertau the Germans typically use, and the beer’s color is a bit darker.
For the Bohemian style, LoBreglio’s favorite import is the original, Pilsner Urquell, which is actually the only beer called pilsner in the Czech Republic. He recommends getting it in cans, which preserve the imported beer better than bottles do. If he’s in the mood for a German pils, he might go for Krombacher or Warsteiner.
Ayinger, famous for its Fest-Märzen, also makes a good pils, and Pinkus Müller, a Münster brewery dating back to 1816, produces Ur-Pils, a certified organic beer.
In the States, Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils is a highly regarded American craft version of a German-style pilsner. For something Bohemian, Five Boroughs Brewing in Brooklyn offers a Czech Pilsner, and Gordon Biersch Brewery in McLean, Virginia got a gold for their Czech-style pilsner at 2018’s Great American Beer Festival.
Look for them at your local brewery. And if you have friends who don’t think they like craft beer, have them give pilsners a try: A beer that tastes like beer.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com