Profiling Pilsner (And Dashing Its Bad Rap)

This Style Profile mounts a passionate defense of an “ordinary” beer.

By Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint
 Illustrations by DWITT 

Anyone who has talked to me at any length about beer knows that in my world, pilsner is the perfect beer. People are often taken aback by this.

“Why pilsner?” they ask. “I would expect you to go for beers with some complexity, like imperial stouts and double IPAs. Pilsners are boring.” I have been known to respond to such comments with a curt, “You’re wrong.” Pilsner is only boring if you don’t make the effort to get to know it. While those big, bombastic beers announce their complexity with a bull horn, pilsner remains quiet. Pilsner is not a beer that comes to you. You have to go to it.

 

The beauty of pilsner is its ability to be both unobtrusive and sublime. It’s made for a European drinking culture in which beer is meant to prop up a social interaction, not intrude upon it. It’s modest enough to remain a side player, and light enough to allow for several pints (or liters as the case may be). But if you want to sit and contemplate, pilsner reveals fathoms of depth beneath its seemingly simple surface.

Pilsner rides a knife’s edge of balance. Lightly kilned malts impart graham cracker-like sweetness with overtones of toast and sometimes hints of corn. In a well-made pilsner you can taste the grain. Bottom-fermenting yeast and long, cold maturation leaves the beer crisp and clean with that sharp lager edge. There may be subtle notes of yeast-derived sulfur, or just the faintest suggestion of buttery diacetyl that adds fullness without being offensive. While most wouldn’t consider pilsner to be a hoppy beer, it is the careful expression of noble hops that truly defines the style: perfumy Saaz hops for the Czechs and spicy Hallertau or Tettnang for the Germans. Listen closely to the hops and you begin to pick out undertones of blackberry, black currant, licorice, and citrus.

I think part of the problem that people have with pilsners is confusion with American and international lagers. That can of Budweiser says it’s a pilsner. It may have been at one time. Today though, those beers are (literally) pale shadows of their stylistic progenitors.

There are two types of European pilsner recognized in the BJCP guidelines: Bohemian and German. Bohemian pilsners are based on the original, created in 1842 in the Bohemian – now Czech – town of Plzen. They are brilliantly clear, have a deep golden color, and a dense, long-lasting cap of white foam. Both the flavor and aroma reveal a rich and complex maltiness with gentle sweetness and hints of toast. Spicy/floral Saaz hops round out the nose and carry into the flavor. Bitterness is pronounced but soft and rounded. It doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Bohemian pilsners fall in the range of 4 to 5.5% alcohol and 35 to 45 IBUs.

Pilsner Urquell is the prime example of the style. It is the direct descendant of the beer that Josef Groll first brewed in 1842. Buy it in cans. Though the brewery says it has taken steps to avoid lightstruck beer, my experience has been that the bottles are still skunked. Other examples include Czechvar, Staropramen, Summit Pilsener, New Belgium Blue Paddle Pilsner, and Lagunitas Pils.

German pilsners tend to be a bit paler in color than the Czech, but they should be every bit as clear. A higher degree of attenuation makes for a drier beer that emphasizes hop bitterness and spicy noble hop flavor. Malt isn’t absent though. There should be some grainy malt flavor and graham cracker sweetness. German pilsners will not have the buttery character sometimes found in Bohemian versions, but there may be some initial sulfur notes from the cold fermentation. German pilsners fall in the range of 4.5 to 5% alcohol and 25 to 45 IBUs.

For my money you can’t beat Victory Prima Pils for the style. Other examples that are available in the area include Bitburger, Warsteiner, Left Hand Polestar Pilsner, and Brooklyn Pilsner.

Pilsners are versatile food beers. They go well with lighter spicy dishes. Try pilsner with Thai green curry or a big bowl of Vietnamese pho. Shellfish from fried calamari (doesn’t have a shell, I know) to shrimp cocktail, clams, crabs, and oysters are great with Pilsner. You can drink pilsner with a variety of cheeses from chevre to mild white cheddar. It’s brilliant with cured ham, melted brie, and apples.

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Comments

  1. ryanromana@msn.com says:

    Thanks Mr Agnew for your excellent review. MostlyI have a question- of those Pilsners you mentioned – where in the Twin Cities can I find a good draft version of them. I’ve been to a few of the new craft pubs and all they seem to know how to brew is over-hopped ales and syruppy thick porters and multiple brown-sugar,lemon, paprika, oateal creations. The pilsners I find here are mostly boring and overly carbonated.

    I lived in beer heaven (Czech Republic) back 20 year ago when I was 25. The beer was golden delight. Perfectly balanced. Not overly carbonated, but very smooth. And no matter how much I drank I never got hung over. And they cost 25 cents a pint.

    Call me cynical, but I think most of the craft brewers make all these ales so they can hide behind too many hops. I think a Pilsner is harder to make. Somehow they’ve figured it out in Bohemia. I wish our local craft brewers could mature to the point where they could bring back beer heaven. I’d be happy to pay much more than a quarter.

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