What Is Pilsner Beer?

Pilsner in a glass mug on a coaster

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Pilsner is a pale lager with a crisp, refreshing taste that's lightly hopped. It was originally brewed in the town of Pilsen (Plzeň) in what is now the Czech Republic. The brewery that would become known as Pilsner Urquell created the beer in 1842, and it was an immediate success. It did not take long for brewers throughout Bohemia to adopt the style. Today, the bottom-fermented beer with lightly kilned malted barley and moderate alcohol is easily the most popular style of beer in the world.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 4–5.3%
  • Bitterness: 30–40+ IBU
  • Color: 3–7 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Pilsner and Lager?

It's easy to get pilsner and lager confused, and breweries don't help because some use one name or the other to describe their beer. The key point to remember is that all pilsners are lagers, but pilsner is just one style of beer within the lager family, which includes dark and amber beers as well. Pilsner happens to be the most recognizable and has the signature look and taste of what many beer drinkers expect from a lager.

As with many good things, simplicity is the key to pilsner's success. Pilsner is brewed with pilsner malt and lager yeast, which is bottom-fermenting and distinguishes lagers from ales. Lightly kilned malted barley, spicy hops that so define the aroma and flavor of this style, lager yeast, and soft water are all that's needed for the skilled brewer to produce a fine pilsner. These ingredients combine for a clean, simple beer.

The head of a pilsner is white and dense, and the body is almost always straw-colored. The aroma should contain hops with a hint of graininess. The flavor is simple, with light grain and hops bittering, while the finish is clean and refreshing.

Types of Pilsner

This pale lager style goes by a few different names, depending on where the beer is brewed:

  • Pils: Germany
  • Pilsner: Germany, United States, and Much of the World
  • Pilsener: A spelling used for Czech brews
  • Světlé Ležák: Used exclusively in the Czech Republic

Styles

Pilsner is brewed all over the world. Beyond the style's Bohemian homelands, breweries from Beijing to Rio de Janeiro and Anchorage to London produce the clean pale brew. Pilsner commands over half of the beer market worldwide, though there are a few distinct styles that many pilsners follow.

Bohemian Pilsener

The original style created by Pilsner Urquell is also simply called Czech pilsener. In the Czech Republic, it's světlé ležák (meaning "bright lager").

Unlike the better-known German style, these Czech brews have a deeper color that ranges from straw to light amber. The brewers use floor-malted barley that's slightly caramelized along with Saaz (Žatec) hops. The result of these brewing methods is a distinct pilsener with a full body and the taste of toasted malt and spicy hops.

German Pilsner

German pilsners are the beers most drinkers associate with this iconic lager style. Brewed with German Noble hops, including Hallertau and Hersbruck, the beer is thinner and lighter colored than its Czech counterparts. The straw-colored beer has brilliant clarity and is topped with a big, foamy white head. It's often described as having a more refined "clean" taste that is more polished and balanced than the Bohemian pilseners.

American Pilsner

Also called American pale lager, these beers were originally brewed by German immigrants; some of the names are still found on many bottles. It adapted the pilsner recipes they knew to use ingredients native to America, including corn and North American hops, to develop a unique sub-style.

Today, American pilsner can be found on the labels of two distinct versions. Craft breweries have revived the classic American pilsner, which fell out of favor after Prohibition. It's very similar to those of Germany: refreshing, crisp, and a nice malt hoppiness. In contrast, pilsner is popular among mass-brewed light beers. These have a softer flavor (often described as "watered down") and may include rice. The light pilsners have more hoppy character than the average light lager.

American Imperial Pilsner

Also known as American double pilsner, this style is a product of the U.S. craft brewing scene. It takes the pilsner profile to the extreme and off any normal style scale. With an imperial pilsner, you'll get a stronger 6.5 percent to 9.0 percent ABV beer that's full of hops, with an IBU between 30 and 85.

How to Serve Pilsner

Pilsners are best served cold, at around 38 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, in a pilsner glass. The tall, narrow glass with a narrow base and wide rim is designed to showcase the beer's clarity and snowy head.

In Germany, a slow, multi-stage pour is preferred. The traditional way to pour a pilsner is to aim the beer for the center of the glass, pouring so one-third of the glass is beer and two-thirds is foam. Let this sit until the foam dissipates slightly, then pour a second time until the head hits the rim. After another break, the glass is topped off. It requires patience—typically between 3 and 5 minutes—and results in a more open flavor and softer carbonation. The technique also celebrates the beer's head, which American drinkers often seek to minimize.

Food Pairing

One of the reasons for pilsner's popularity is that it pairs easily with many different foods. Roasted meat, chicken, and fish are all good choices for nearly any pilsner. German-style pilsners are admirable with spicy Indian or Mexican dishes as well as most Asian cuisines.

Bohemian-style pilseners are not the best choice for spicy foods. Instead, they're nice companions for milder Thai and Indian dishes and most Chinese or Japanese foods. Sushi is a good option, but not so much with German pils.

Best Brands

Czech and German pilsners are classics worth trying for an authentic taste, and a number of breweries offer worldwide distribution. Beers brewed in other parts of the world often use "-style" to indicate which of the two approaches they use.

  • Bitburger (Germany)
  • Budweiser Budvar (Czech Republic; Sold in the U.S. as Czechvar)
  • Dogfish Head Piercing Pils (Delaware; Czech-Style)
  • Krombacher Pils (Germany)
  • Lagunita Pils (California; Czech-Style)
  • Miller Lite Pilsner (Wisconsin)
  • Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic)
  • Spaten Pils (Germany)
  • Victory Brewing Prima Pils (Pennsylvania; German-Style)
  • Warsteiner (Germany)