Tag Archives: pilsner

Youtube Find: What is a Pilsner?

A brief, yet succinct overview of what exactly is a pilsner, brought to you by the fine folks at maltminute.com and Penn Brewery (located in my hometown of Pittsburgh!).

The Pilsner Hops


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”.




Pilsner Varieties


If you all want me to talk about pilsners (and, according to the polling, you do), the first thing we have to cover is that there is more than one kind of pilsner out there.  As a point of fact, the Beer Judging Certification Program(BJCP) * recognizes three varieties of pilsners. They are -

  1. German Pilsner  aka “Pils”
  2. Bohemian Pilsener
  3. Classic American Pilsner

The German Pilsner is, historically, a derivative of the Bohemian Pilsener, and the Classic American, thanks to German immigration in the mid-to-late 1800′s, is an amalgam of both German and Bohemian, with a healthy dose of American ingredients thrown in to boot.

As I talk about Pilsners, I’m going to start in Bohemia, work my way over to Germany, and then discuss German immigration in the 1800′s, and its effect on our brewing culture here in the States.

I expect to get fully into this sometime in the next week or so, so bear with me on this.

* Note: As with anything I do with the BJCP , it’s important to note that I use them as a starting point, recognizing that information and experience I uncover may expand beyond the boundaries that their style guides impose.  While I have a healthy dose of respect for the BJCP, brewing  and its history is nuanced enough to unable to be captured by any given 250 word entry.

And the Winner is…

Sure. sure, the website has been down for about half of the voting period. And the amount of people who voted could easily be counted in the dozens. But my word is my word, and I’m here to announce the winning topic. For the trip to Europe in September, I will research and write about …

Beer! Specifically Pils and Pilsners!

What this means is that I’m going to be taking a trip to the town of Plzen in the western half of the Czech Republic. Additionally, I’ll plan on some basic taste tests, and other plans that I will reveal at a later day.

So, more beer drinking it is!

The Little Beer Primer

As alluded to previously, beer grew in popularity in England and Germany around the Roman age. Primarily due to the fact that growing grapes (for wine) in either Germany or England was a tad difficult at times. The Romans thought beer barbaric, but the outlaying regions of their empire didn’t really give a damn what those high-faloutin’ wine drinkers from Rome thought. Wheat, hops and barley were readily accessible. Grapes were not.

Ales: Ales are pervasive in Britain. Ales were initially beer made without hops (which were not abundant in the Isles), but over the past few centuries, that has now changed. Instead, ales are now distinguised by the “top-fermenting” yeasts that work at near room temperature (50-70F). Ales are often best served warm, as their complexity of flavors come forth better in that environment. Types of “top-fermenting” beers include the following:

Bitters:Bitters are beers which are bitter or very bitter to the taste because of the addition of hops.
Brown Ale:This is a style of beer that’s sweeter, darker, and less bitter than the typical American lager beer.

Pale ales:These golden brown ales are somewhat bitter and fruity.
India Pale Ale (IPA):This is a bitter, full-bodied ale that’s relatively high in alcohol.

Porters:This is a dark beer with a heavy foam and a bitter flavor.
Stouts:This dark beer tastes strongly of malt and hops. Stronger than it’s parent brew, Porter.

Barley wines:Barley wines are golden to amber coloured very strong and heavy top fermented beers with a fruity and malty flavour and a bitterish aftertaste. Those special beers have an alcohol level over 9%.
Alt:Sweetish to very sweet and bitterish beer with often a burnt or roasted flavour.

Lagers:Lagers are brewed with “bottom-fermenting” yeasts at much colder temperatures, 35-50F over long periods of time (months). As lager yeast can survive, metabolize, and reproduce at lower temperatures. The result is a very clean, sparkling beer. Lagers are best served at slightly cooler temperatures than ales, 40-50F. Some of the typs of lager include the following:

Bocks: Bocks are brewed in the fall when barley and hops were at their peak. It was “lagered” all winter and enjoyed in the spring at the beginning of the new brewing season. There are several typs of bocks, including-

Helles Bock – Helles Bock is an amber to light coloured, rather strong, sweety barley beer specially brewed in the spring and the summer. There are three types of Helles Bock, inlcuding Meibok (May Bock), Lentebok (Spring Bock) and Zomerbok (Summer Bock). Traditionally, Meibok was a stronger beer than the standard brew, because it was brewed before the summer and the quality of the beer had to be able to endure the summer temperature rises. The alcohol was used as a preservative. Meibok is amber to light in colour, rather strong, and usually somewhat sweet. Summerbocks are usually lighter and more bitter.

Dunkles Bock – Dunkles Bock, the original German bock-style, refers to a heavy low fermentation beer with a dark colour. There are several sub caetgories of Dunkles Bock, including Herfstbok, Winterbok, Dubbelbok and Tarwebok. The Herfstbok is the traditional German bock-style, the Winterbok is a much stronger and sweeter version, a Tarwebok is a variety where not only barley but also wheat is used to brew the beer. This results in a less heavier, less sticky beer.

Doppelbocks:A doppelbock is a stronger version of the Herfstbok mentioned above.
Märzen/Oktoberfest: A bottom fermented beer with a copper-reddish-brown color traqditionally brewed in March and April, and then stored in refrigeration for several months in order to be consumed at Oktoberfest.

Pilsners:Probably the most widely known in America, Pilsner is a light low fermentation beer with a taste ranging from neutral to bitter. Substyles of pilsener are export, luxe and dry beers.

Taste: Although types of beers will have similar characteristics, they all will have a taste that is unique to themselves. Guinness Stout does not taste like other stouts. A Taddy Porter will not taste like an Elysian Brewery Porter.

In fact, there will be differences in how the beer is served. Draught (Draft) beer will taste different from bottled, which will taste different from canned (which should be your order of preference …draft, bottled, and then…god help you…canned). And if you have a truly artisan brewery, the taste of the brew may vary from keg to keg, depending on when it was brewed and how long it has been tapped. It’s when your local brewery is at this level that they really can start competing with wine as a beverage of choice. When they quality of the barley harvest affects the taste of your beer, each brew becomes it’s own entity. And you can hang out with your wine snob friends and while partaking of your favorite brew, say “While this is a smooth drink, it’s still doesn’t carry the nuttiness of their release last fall.” And your friends will nod their heads, impressed.

And somewhere, the snobs of ancient Rome will be turning in their grave. After all, your still drinking a barbarian drink after all.