There are many variables that shape one variety of beer over another. From fermenting styles to the types of barley used, to types of adjuncts added, to what kind of yeast is “thrown into the pot”, a change to any one of these variables is sure to bring out something different.
For pilsners, one of the primary characteristics comes from the hops used to help bitter/flavor the beer. It’s not necessarily the only variable considered, but it is one of the first. For Pilsners, this means use of the noble hops.
Actually, I need to expand on that a bit, because there are two types of noble hops. The first type is your classic continental noble hops, generally recognized to include the following:
- Hallertauer An aroma-type cultivar which originated in Germany. Good in recipes for European-style lagers, with its mild spicy flavor and aroma. (alpha acid: 3.5-5.5% / beta acid: 3.5-5.5%)
- Saaz: Saaz is the traditional noble hop for true pilsner beer. (average alpha acid: 3.0%)
- Spalt Select: Aroma based cultivar, grown in Germany in the Hallertau and Spalt areas and in the U.S.A. in Washington State. (alpha acid: 3.5-5.5% / beta acid: 3.0-4.5%)
- Tettnang Tettnang is an aroma-type cultivar which originated in Germany and is now also grown in the U.S.A. in Oregon and Washington State. It is said to be ideal for lagers and wheat beers. The German variety of this hop has a fine, pure aroma, that is not present in United States version. (alpha acid: 4.0-5.0% / beta acid: 3.5-4.5%)
There is, however, a group of hops called the modern noble crosses. They inlcude:
- Crystal: Aromatic. Very popular in the craft-brewing industry, and often used in Pilsners, Lagers, Koslsches, ESB’s, and Belgian-Style Ales. (alpha acid: 4.0-6.0% / beta acid: 5.0-6.7%)
- Liberty: An aroma-type cultivar. (alpha acid: 3.5-4.5% / beta acid: 3.0-3.5%)
- Ultra: A relatively new cultivar, a near clone of a German variety Hallertauer. (alpha acid: 4.5-5.0% / beta acid: 3.6-4.7%)
The primary purposes of any hops is to do one or two things – add flavor and/or add aroma. From a pilsner perspective these hops should provide a flavor that can be somewhat bitter, but not overly so. When it comes to pilsners, flavors from hops should be present, and can range from everywhere between subtle to strong, but it does have to remain in balance, with no one ingredient defining the characteristic of the beer. However, the aroma should be distinct, and in line with the smells of the hops mentioned above. I’ll explore this in more depth when I talk about each individual variety.
So why do pilsners use these hops? Two reasons: One – they work, meaning that when they are used properly, they create a distinct, tasty beer. Two – tradition, at least for the German and Bohemian variety of pilsners. And when I say “tradition”, what I mean is that, historically speaking, these hops worked well in the beers made with the water found in those areas where pilsners thrived.
The classic American pilsner is a bit different in its regard to its usage of noble hops, because, as with almost every American beer that comes with a German heritage, tradition wasn’t the driving force as much as trying to find ingredients which could create a reasonable facsimile of what they knew of beer from back home. This included breeding and splicing hop shoots in order to get the flavors required/desired to get something resembling a pilsner. This is an over-simplification of American hops history, but I think you get the general idea.
More to the point, when you think Pilsners, you need to think “noble hops”, either of the classic variety or the modern variety. Any other kind runs the risk of creating a beer that is notably not pilsner-like.
So again- Pilsners = noble hops.
It’s not the only defining characteristic, but it should be the first thought of when someone says “pilsner, please”.