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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Makes a Good Pilsner?

No, they're not pilsners; I claim poetic license.

After I posted a link to my Sherpa recommendation for Block 15's Gloria! pilsner on Facebook yesterday, Jonathan Aichele added his own link--and promptly sparked 397 furious comments. He directed us to a blind tasting the Oregonian did with Oregon pilsners that resulted in the selection of ... an infected one as Oregon's finest. (Verbatim tasting notes from the "winner": "is this infected?," "good, clean fun," "tart, gose-y," "not very pilsner-y.") This demonstrates that, while style sometimes blinds us to a beer's true nature, ignoring it while comparing beers doesn't make a lot of sense, either. It's like selecting a schnauzer as the best tabby because you don't like cats.

Which leads us to an obvious question: okay, smarty pants, then what is a good pilsner? In anticipation of yet another pilsner-related post for later this week, I'm really glad I asked.

Pilsners Generally
Pilsners are pale lagers that originally came from--spoiler alert--Pilsen (or Plzeň in the Czech), Bohemia. In the United States, we say there are two variants, Bohemian and German, and this is dead wrong. These are actually separate beers. German pilsners have evolved on a separate track from the Czech line and bear Bavarian hallmarks. (German helles is far closer to German pils than the later is to Czech světlý ležák--what we now call Czech pilsner.) Nevertheless, the entire category, as European lagers, do share some similarities that are very distinct from the American tradition, and they're important.

In the United States, we commonly build beer from a foundation of generic two-row pale malt--a "base malt"--so generic its variety isn't even mentioned, and layer on specialty malts for flavor. In both ales and lagers, yeast plays a diminished role. In ales particularly, hops are the diva at the center of the performance, and the other elements are supporting characters. Pilsners, by contrast, sing in harmony, with three actors playing equal roles:
  • Aromatic, flavorful base malts. Pilsners are made with basically one malt, and yet they have  incredible malt character. This comes from the base malts, which are prepared in such a way at the malthouse that they produce distinctive aromas and rich flavors. Dozens of malthouses are scattered across Bavaria, and they prepare the pilsner malts differently, accentuating different characteristics. Some tend toward honey, others grain, others rustic breadiness. In the Czech Republic, the malts may even still be made in traditional floor maltings, and in any case, the strain of barley--as in England--plays a big role. (Many breweries favor either Moravian or Bohemian-grown malts, too.) Again, the Czechs are looking for unique aromas and flavors that come just from these malts. Because no specialty malts are used for flavor, the base malts have to be distinctive.
  • Delicate herbal hops. Continental hops are not uniform, but they do share a kind of delicacy that's critical to a pilsner. Those malts need to shine through, so the hops have to add a dose of flavor and aroma without overwhelming them. European hops aren't so strongly flavored, so even when used to produce high levels of bitterness, they don't overshadow those malts. Ideally, they'll harmonize with malt flavors, too, so that the honey or bread play nice with the black pepper or tarragon coming from the hops. 
  • Clean, crisp yeasts. Lager yeasts don't contribute fermentation characteristics like phenols and esters--they let those malts and hops shine through transparently. What they do add is a smoothness of palate and, particularly, a crisp snap at the finish that makes these among the most moreish of all beers. 
Sladmistr David Mares at the Ferdinand brewery/malthouse.

This tripartite balance point is essential to the style. There are a lot of ways to make great beers, but the thing that makes pilsners work is when all of these elements are expressed simultaneously. It is often said that pilsners are the hardest beers to make because they don't hide anything. I think that's wrong. They're the hardest beers to make because each of these elements is subtle, and when you're trying to make them sing in harmony, the slightest off note is immediately evident. They test a brewer because she must find a way to take three delicate elements and bring them together so that they wow a drinker. When it works, it looks like magic.

Regional Differences
A quick word on why German and Czech pilsners are not really the same style. It is true that in 1842 and for decades thereafter Bavarians were the ones leading the lager renaissance in Bohemia (Josef Groll, who brewed the first pilsner, was Bavarian). But that was a long time ago. Two world wars and a cold war interceded, and the two countries spent the 20th century brewing separately. Germany's tradition followed technology, while the Czech tradition, for long decades imprisoned behind an iron wall, languished. Qualitatively, this means German lagers are more refined and polished. They're often thinner of mouthfeel and drier. Czech lagers are more assertive and fuller. There are reasons for this.
  • Decoction mashing. This old German technique is mandated by law for any beer that wants to be called "Czech beer." Many Bavarian breweries still do it, too, especially in the countryside, but it's getting less common. Decoction mashing is used (now) to create melanoidins that help build richness. Think less of the process,though, and more of the result--that richness. This isn't a priority in German pilsners, but it is in good Czech ones.
  • Hopping rates. In the US, basically the only distinction we acknowledge between Czech and German pilsners is that the former uses Saaz hops. They're basically the marker for Americans. And important they are! But there's also an issue of intensity. That richness that builds up with the malts can withstand a bit more bitterness, and Czechs take advantage. In neither tradition does late- or aroma-hopping play much of a role, but the Czechs do something interesting to create a "softness" to their hopping...
  • First wort hopping. This is a technique where you put the hops into the kettle while the beer is coming in from the lauter tun and being raised to a boil. It is said to create a delicacy, a softness to the bittering that helps keep all the elements in balance, even with stiff bitterness. I suppose there are breweries in the Czech Republic that don't do this, but I didn't encounter them. Conversely, I've never heard of a German using the technique. (Which doesn't mean none do, but.)
  • Other oddities. Some Czechs do other funny things from time to time, too, like using open fermentation, using long boils, and conducting extra-long lagering. These things can probably be found in farmhouse breweries and rustic village breweries in Bavaria, but that's the thing--they're rustic. In the Czech Republic, breweries like Budvar still do weird things like lager their beer for three months. It's considered normal.
We don't get many Czech pilsners in the US and the ones we do--Budvar and Urquell--are regarded as slight oddballs in the Czech Republic. So you may have to take my word on this one. Side by side, the differences between a Czech and German pilsner are anything by incidental.

These are pilsners--or rather, světlý ležáks.


  1. Very nice article, good read, thanks!


    No, really, quite interesting. I didn't know that about the law requiring "Czech" beer to be decocted. Where'd you find that out?

    But on lager yeasts being so clean...except in cases of certain rustic Franconian country lagers, of course.

  3. In my experience in the Czech Republic Budvar and Prazdroj although both being in the broadly 'světlý ležák' genre are essentially treated as different 'styles' for want of a better word. Drinkers are either in one camp or the other.

    One thing I have noticed since moving the US though is that slowly craft brewers, and to a lesser extent craft beer drinkers, are really starting to understand and appreciate what it is about this style that makes it so magnificent - I am an unabashed lagerboy and pilsner fanatic. There are a handful of US made pilsners, whether 'German' or 'Czech' that I think are great drinking (and let's face it what's the point of beer other than drinking?) - Port City Downright Pilsner, for example, is probably the best unfiltered pilsner I have had since leaving Prague.

    However there are still too many breweries and drinkers out there who think of pilsner as being a pallid pale lager in the Miller Lite mould. Keep on educating!

  4. I have a bottle of that Port City in the fridge right now. What luck! (Never had it before.)

  5. I hope it is well within date! I was recently in a store here in VA that was selling year old six packs at full price.

  6. I think that another good differentiator is diacetyl. Czech brewers often embrace some noticeable diacetyl, while German brewers are pretty much the opposite. Kunze's Technology Brewing and Malting equates this mostly to Czechs sticking with the older process of starting to slowly chill the beer before reaching terminal gravity, while German brewers moved to doing diacetyl rests before chilling.