I Prescribe Some Pils!
Many people come to me with questions about beer. Most are easily answered. Others are more obscure and must be thoroughly researched. Recently, I was asked, "aren't pilsners actually lagers, and if not, how are they set apart?" Sounds easy enough, right. Wrong. I thought about it for a while and decided that, while I know quite a bit about the beer world, I couldn't explain the difference to my satisfaction. I know pilsners are of the bottom-fermenting, lager beer category. But what makes them separate form others lagers was an enigma that has eluded me much like Moby Dick eluded Captain Ahab. So, I am here today to pursue my white whale and tackle the confounding question: "What exactly is a pilsner, and how does one different from lagers?"In order to get started, one must realize most beers brewed over the last 50 years fall into the pilsner category. Heineken, Corona, Bud, Genny and just about any other beer you can name off the top of your head are of this style. In fact, most beer consumed in the U.S. is of the pilsner variety. While the numbers have been dropping slightly due to a major influx of both British ales and American micro-brews, pilsners remain the top selling beer style in the U.S., indeed the world.This is a remarkable feat considering the pilsner style of beer is relatively new in the whole scheme of things. The birth of pilsner beer can be traced directly to the town of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in 1842. Until this time, all beers, whether ales or lagers, were either dark or reddish, and almost always cloudy. While dark malts make tasty brews, they were also used to cover up haziness caused by yeast instability.Pilsen's town-owned brewery was the first to brew a clear, pale beer by bottom-fermentation. This beer was known as Pilsner Urquell, or "original pilsner." The name Pilsen has since become synonymous with this style and is often called pilsner, or simply pils. Coincidentally at this time, the often used wooden, stone and pewter drinking vessels were giving way to increasingly popular glassware. This popularity was not confirmed solely to the Czechs. The Germans, Dutch and even the new American breweries of the late 19th century became infatuated with this style and it quickly became the beer of choice for the masses. American brewer Adolphus Busch recognized early on that this was not just a passing fancy. In 1875 he toured Czechoslovakia in order to study first hand their brewing techniques. He was particularly impressed with the brew from a small town called Budweis. Upon returning to the U.S. he upgraded all of his brewing facilities. Shortly after, he introduced a new product which he dubbed "The King of Beers," Budweiser, in honor of Budweis. In addition, he introduced a "super-premium" version he called Michelob. This also took its name from a town in Czechoslovakia. Anheuser-Busch has since become the single largest producer of beer in the world.The pilsner style of beer, although somewhat different from brewery to brewery, always has a floral bouquet and crispy hopped finish as its main characteristics. This is achieved through the use of three distinct hop varieties. Hallertau, Tettnang, and Saaz hops are all used in the making of pilsner beer. The latter being the hop of choice for the worlds first pils, Pilsner Urquell. Other hops can be utilized, but to get a true pils, these three are highly recommended.Many beer drinkers assume since all pilsners are brewed the same way, they all taste the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you take the average, mass-produced American pilsner, then I would agree. There is not much separating Bud from Coors or Miller. However put a Genny or a Michelob along side a Bitburger Pils (Germany) or a Staropramen (Czech Republic) and the differences are quite astounding. The imports abound with taste while domestics are bland in comparison. Other imports worth looking into include Pinkus, Dortmunder, Spaten, and Dinkelacker.This is not to say there are no domestic pilsners worth further investigation. Stoudt's Brewing of Adamstown puts out a superb example. Dock Street, Sam Adams and Wild Boar also brew fine pilsners that are available locally. Even Rolling Rock (aka Labatts) is getting into the act with their version called Latrobe Bohemian Pilsner. All of the these are brewed in the U.S. and are certainly worthy of praise. Give one, or all, a try! It will open your eyes to what a pilsner should be.