Two of the many things that make understanding beers so difficult for me are the following:
1) There are very little recognized standards as to what constitutes a specific type of beer. With whiskey, it was relatively easy as many governments had a vested interest in defining their highly taxable spirit. Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States have a clear understanding of what makes an Irish Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, or Bourbon. As far as I can tell, there’s no similar legal guidance on what makes a Lager, or a Pilsner, or a Bock – other than industry tradition and acceptance. I’m sure definitions are written down somewhere, but these are at best a sort of informal agreement. This leads to the second problem.
2) What one person or institution believes to be one type of beer, some other person or institution has an interest in claiming it can be something else.
That’s why I find the topic of pilsners so interesting. For all of the bluster and marketing-speak of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coor’s (from here on out referred to as “The Big Three”) that try to equate lagers to pilsners, there is a simple tried and true method to determine one from the other.
It all boils down to two things – the use of noble hops, and the use of bottom fermenting yeasts. Lagers have the bottom fermenting yeast in common with pilsners. The hops are a whole different story.
Both Beer Advocate and the Beer Certification Judging Program recognize three sub-varieties of Pilsners: German, Bohemian/Czech, and American. All of these use a type of hops from either the noble classes, or noble cross classes. Use of the ever-popular (and more importantly, ever cheaper) Cascadian hop is a strict no-no.
So the next question is, what what are noble hops and noble cross hops? That’s a post for next week, when I finally get to examine just what the big deal is about hops.
But until that time, the thing to take away from this post is this. The difference between a lager and a pilsner comes primarily from the type of hops used in the recipe. The end result is a beer that
is a tad bit more bitter has a larger hoppy flavor profile than the typical American Lager. And bitterness is also a topic to be discussed later. For all of you who disdain beer because of its bitterness, I’m sad to report that for many types of beer, bitterness is a feature and not a bug.