If you are a beer fan, you definitely would have heard of the terms pilsner and lager. Perhaps you have even heard people combine them and say, “pilsner lager?” Well, that’s because pilsner and lager are very close relatives, but they do not mean the same thing. This article will break down the difference between the two beer styles, starting with this quick answer.
There are different types of lagers, and pilsners are one of them. While they are produced the same way, using bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures, pilsners are lighter in color than traditional lagers and have large foaming. To put it simply, all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners.
That answer seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But it does not paint the full picture of the difference between the two beers. This article will duly examine the two beer styles, considering their origin, beer properties, brewing process, ingredients, and popular examples. Let’s get right into it.
Experts have suggested that beers have been made for as long as 14000 years ago. For long, beer production was exclusively ale. However, in the 1400s, another main beer style emerged: the lager we all know and love.
Lagers weren’t actually intentionally brewed. Ales, the only style of beer brewed before lagers, used the top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This yeast strain is responsible for a lot of the properties of ale beers. In Germany, Bavaria to be specific, during the 15th century, another beer strain found its way into the fermentation tanks of ales.
This other yeast strain is known as Saccharomyces eubayanus. While there is no consensus on how exactly the strain made its way into the fermentation tanks with yeast, we know it formed a hybrid strain with Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The hybrid strain is Saccharomyces pastorianus, also known as bottom-fermenting yeast.
The brewers loved the quality of the beer, and so did beer lovers. It was clear the beer was there to stay, and it did just that. Moreover, lagers soon became the commonest beer style, displacing ales in many regions of the world.
In the 1800s, lager had already found its way to all beer-loving countries, especially throughout Europe. The story of pilsners originated in a European country, Czech. The city of Plzeň in Czech has been brewing beers since the 13th century. In 1839, city officials founded a city-owned brewery known as Pilsner Urquell.
Unfortunately, their beers were not exactly great. To worsen matters, many of their beers were spoilt before the end of their fermentation period. To combat this, brewers decided to adopt the German technique of cold fermentation. They called hired a German brewmaster Josef Groll who revolutionized the Pilsner Urquell beers and, eventually, the entire beer industry.
Josef turned to the special German noble hops – Saaz hops – to solve the problem. He also used brighter malts, the city’s top-notch water, and some local hops to create a new style of beer, which we today know as the Pilsner beer.
Today, pilsners are classified as pale lagers, a subtype of lagers, and they are among the most common beers consumed globally.
While the top-fermenting yeast primarily drives the flavor of ales, lagers have their flavors influenced by malt and hops. Considering there are several different types of lagers, it is difficult to generalize the flavor of lagers. Despite being a subtype of lager beers, pilsner is also subdivided further. Therefore, the flavor of a pilsner beer depends on the type of pilsner beer.
Classic American pilsners usually have a slight grainy, corn-like sweetness with moderate to moderately high maltiness. The flavor is typically subtle with bread notes. Czech pilsners also have a sweetened bread flavor with a malt character. Of all the types of pilsners, the German pilsners are the most bitter and have the strongest flavor profile. These German pilsners have high hop character, which reflects in their flavor profile.
If you are a fan of traditional lager beers, you will have no problem with pilsners. If you are looking for a stronger lager, you can also simply change the exact pilsner beer type you are drinking.
Pilsners have a medium body and rich mouthfeel. The carbonation levels are medium to high, implying that the beer has some refreshing properties. Let’s talk about the beer’s character.
Judging a beer’s character is not as straightforward as you may imagine because many factors are in play. However, a rule of thumb is the higher the alcohol content, carbonation, and bitterness of a beer, the higher its character. For pilsners, the presence of Saaz hops improve the character and “kick”. Lager beers brewed using noble hops also tend to have a high character.
What’s more, pilsners also have an underlying malt character that you can notice if you pay close enough attention. There is no lingering bitter aftertaste, as with most lagers produced nowadays, but the beer itself is fairly bitter.
Lagers have a weaker aroma strength than ales because the bottom-fermenting yeast involved in their fermentation does not heavily impact flavor. The lighter the lager is, the less its flavor profile. As pilsners aren’t light lagers, they have a quite distinguishable aroma.
Pilsners have a malty and hoppy aroma. As the beer uses noble hops, you may perceive the classic noble hops aroma. There is typically no fruitiness.
Pilsners are lagers, implying that they share the same brewing process. Let me walk you through this process.
Lagers are brewed using a technique known as bottom fermentation. Essentially, this technique involves the use of bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus to brew beers. This yeast strain is actually a hybrid strain from top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces eubayanus.
Bottom fermentation is done between 35˚and 50˚F, which is a colder temperature than the top fermentation of ales. The technique is so named because the yeast used never rises to the top during fermentation, always remaining at the bottom of the tank.
The use of bottom-fermenting yeast results in a clean and crisp lager beer. This brewing process remains the same for all lagers, pilsners included.
As I have stated, all lagers are brewed using the same basic bottom fermentation technique. The difference between the different lager types is a result of the different ingredients used during the fermentation of these beers.
All beers have the same basic ingredients of malt, yeast, water, and hops. For lagers, the flavor and aroma profile are largely determined by the malt and hops. Barley malt is used for pilsner beers and most lager beers at that. This is the source of sugars in the beer. However, many brewers use adjunct grains for even more sweetness, but more on that later.
Pilsners are typically heavy on hops. Josef Stroll, the beer style founder, used Saaz noble hops, as well as local hops in the Czech city. On a general note, lagers use diverse hops. Noble hops have won the hearts of many recently, but there is still a wide variety of hops lager beer brewers use.
Yeast, another basic ingredient used, is the same for pilsners and lagers. This is, of course, because pilsners are also lagers. The final ingredient for producing beers is water. Many beers use plain, distilled water to brew their beers. Pilsners, though, were traditionally brewed using high-quality water in Plzeň.
Today, it is unlikely that all pilsner beer brewers travel to the Czech city to use that particular water, but it is not improbable that brewers would target specific mineral compositions to clone the one in the Czech city.
Aside from these four basic ingredients, many brewers use adjunct grains in their beers to add additional sugar and sweeten the beer. Some brewers also use adjuncts to improve the flavor and aroma of their beers. While there is no documented record that Josef Stroll used any adjunct when first brewing pilsners, many breweries today use flaked corn or rice as adjunct grains. Brewmasters have also made it quite a habit of brewing lager beers with adjuncts.
The alcohol content of a beer is measured using ABV, which is an acronym for alcohol by volume. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, pilsners have between 4.5 and 6% ABV. This alcohol content is consistent with the average range of lager beers, which is between 4 and 6%.
One of the defining properties of pilsner beers is their yellow to intense golden color. Lager beers can take on a variety of colors, usually ranging from dark to light golden. Pilsners are on the lighter end of the spectrum.
A consequence of the slow fermentation process of lager beers is clarity in the resulting beers. This applies to pilsner beers, too, as they are very clear beers.
While the golden color is a staple of pilsner beers, you may be unable to tell that beer is a pilsner solely off its appearance. This is simply because so many lager beers have that light straw to golden color of pilsners.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
There are different types of lagers and pilsners. Below, we overview some of the most popular examples of both beer styles.
- Lone Star Lager
- Coors Light
- Stella Artois Midnight Lager
- Miller Lite
- Hofbrau Oktoberfest
- Budweiser American Pilsner
- Modelo Mexican Pilsner
- Stella Artois Belgium Pilsner