Pilsners and Kolsch are actually very similar in a lot of their properties that it becomes easy for beer enthusiasts to take them for one another. However, they are fundamentally different beers. What is the primary difference between them? How are they similar? Find out here, but before we get to the crux of the matter, consider this quick answer.
Pilsners are a style of lager, which means they are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast. Kolsch beers, on the other hand, are a style of ale and are brewed using top-fermenting yeast. However, unlike typical ales, Kolsch beer is similar to pilsner lagers in that it is stored at cold temperatures after fermentation.
That’s a quick answer to the topic question, but it’s not all there is to the pilsner vs. Kolsch discussion. This article will walk you through the origin of both beers, their respective beer properties, brewing process, ingredients, and their popular examples. You’re in for a treat, so keep reading!
Pilsners are a type of lagers that entered the beer market in the mid-1800s. Although lagers have existed since the 1400s, few breweries got it right during its early periods. While beer fans absolutely loved quality lagers, the not-so-good ones were barely looked at. And one city that specialized in producing not-so-good lagers was Plzeň in Czech.
Despite the city’s rich history with beers, brewing beers as far back as the 1200s, they could not get lagers right. Worse still, the lagers they brewed often spoilt rather rapidly. This led to the city’s brewery, Pilsner Urquell, calling on the services of a German brewer Josef Groll. This move was made to make their beer more similar to the more popular German lagers.
What Josef did was add more German noble hops, specifically, Saaz hops, to the brew. In addition, Josef Groll used brighter hops, the city’s water, and some native hops. The result was pilsner beer, which is making all the waves in the beer industry today.
Kolsch beer actually came about a century before pilsners, debuting in 1750. However, the beer debut was necessitated by beers produced in Cologne (a German city) losing out to competition around the country. It was a consensus that Cologne’s beers were not very good, and this is, in a way, similar to the origin of pilsners, when beers from Plzen were also not highly-rated.
Pilsners turned to the German brewing technique for lagers to turn around the fortune of their beer. However, unlike pilsners, Kolsch is an ale, which means the city could not just adopt the lager-brewing technique entirely. However, a sensible consensus was reached – brewing the beer with top-fermenting yeast but at cold temperatures and slower storage periods characteristic of lagers. It worked a treat.
Soon, Kolsch beers became quite popular, and this time, the consensus was that the beer was great. In 1997, the European Union and German law enshrined Kolsch as a protected geographical indication. This meant the beer could only be produced within a 50 km radius of Cologne to be regarded as a Kolsch beer.
As you would expect, this has made the true beer quite rare around the globe. Therefore, in terms of popularity, pilsners take the win, and by a fairly wide margin. However, brewers from other countries, especially the United States, have brewed Kolsch-style beers, which, although not true Kolsch beers, feel and taste very much like it.
It is not straightforward to generalize the flavor of pilsners because the different sub-styles (yes, there are further sub-styles of pilsners) of pilsners have different flavor profiles. Still, pilsners often have a slightly grainy, sweetened bread flavor. Depending on the type of pilsner, the bitterness factor may be high.
Kolsch beers, meanwhile, have well-rounded and well-attenuated flavor profiles, characterized by a brilliant balance between malty, fruity, and hoppy notes. The maltiness obviously results from the malt used, the fruitiness is a result of the top-fermenting yeast, while the hoppiness is a result of the aromatic and bittering hops added.
Pilsners and Kolsch beers are actually not that far apart in flavor. However, Kolsch is not as bitter as pilsners and also has a more fruity taste due to the esters of the top-fermenting yeast.
The mouthfeel of both beers is, again, quite similar. Pilsners have a medium body, while Kolsch beers have a medium-light to medium body. They both have medium to medium-high carbonation levels. Being a lager, pilsners are dry, clean, and crisp, but so do Kolsch beers because of the cold conditioning and storage.
Regarding bitterness, pilsners have an IBU between 20 and 40, while Kolsch beers have an IBU between 18 and 30. IBU is a measure of beer’s bitterness, implying that pilsners are indeed more bitter than Kolsch beers. As a result of the higher bitterness, pilsners have a stronger beer character than Kolsch beers.
Kolsch beers have a low grainy-sweet malt aroma, according to the BJCP. Although the aroma is not intense, a fruity aroma is observed with most ales in Kolsch beers. Pilsners lack this fruity aroma and often sport hoppy and malty aroma profiles.
Pilsners are lagers, and are brewed as such. The yeast strain used is the bottom-fermenting hybrid yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus. The temperature range for brewing the beer is 35˚ to 50˚F. This is colder than beers brewed using top-fermenting ale yeast. Again, pilsners are allowed to age for longer, another property of lager beers.
The fact that lagers are stored for longer means they often come out with more clarity than ales, which ferment faster due to the higher brewing temperature conditions.
In contrast, Kolsch beers are ales. Yes, I know you might have heard some people refer to the beer as hybrid beer because it utilizes brewing conditions of lagers but with top-fermenting yeast. However, that’s overcomplicating a rather simple definition – beers are either ales or lagers, depending on their yeast strain. Ales use top-fermenting yeast, while lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast. It really is that simple.
To be clear, Kolsch beers are produced using top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. However, fermentation is done at cold temperatures observed when brewing lagers. Also, Kolsch beers are allowed to last for long, another property of lager beers. The result is an ale beer similar to lagers, but fundamentally still an ale.
All beers, regardless of style, have the same basic ingredients: yeast, malt, hops, and water. This holds true for pilsners and Kolsch beers too, but the type and quality of these ingredients differ. Let’s break that down.
For starters, the yeast strain used not only determines the style of the beer but can also impact the flavor and taste of the beer. Top-fermenting yeast has more of an impact on the flavor of beers than lagers. This explains why ales have a unique, fruity taste. Conversely, bottom-fermenting yeast does not contribute much to the flavor of beers.
Judging from this, you would expect Kolsch beers to have their flavor more impacted by the yeast strain than pilsners. However, that’s not entirely the case. While Kolsch beers have their flavors impacted by yeast, they are only mild because of the low fermentation temperature. Note that the high temperature the yeast strain is subjected to is majorly responsible for the unique aroma of ale beers.
Another main ingredient is malt. Generally, barley is the grain used for both ales and lagers, including pilsners and Kolsch beers. Interestingly, Kolsch beers typically use German pilsner or pale malt, similar to pilsners. However, many breweries supplement the barley malt with malted wheat in Kolsch beers.
Furthermore, the hops in the beer play a crucial role in not just the bitterness but also the flavor of the beer. One of the major changes Josef Groll made to pilsners was to add noble Saaz hops, and that practice remains to date. However, Kolsch beers often use Hallertau, Perle, Tettnang, and Hersbrucker hops. One technicality in brewing true Kolsch beers is that the hops have to be native to Germany.
The final and perhaps most obvious ingredient is water. If you were expecting this ingredient to be boring because it is water, you’d be wrong. The type of water used in brewing the beer is actually essential to how the beer style turns out. For Kolsch beers, the water must be slightly acidic. However, pilsner beers traditionally used water native to Plzen because of its “high quality.”
According to the guidelines of one of the most reputable beer certification programs, Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), pilsners have an ABV between 4.5 and 6%. In comparison, Kolsch beers have an ABV between 4.4 and 5.2%. The ABV stands for alcohol by volume and is a measure of how much alcohol beer contains. From these figures, pilsners are higher in alcohol than Kolsch beers.
Interestingly, ales are typically stronger than lager beers. Still, the cold conditioning of Kolsch beers means the alcohol production is lower as the yeast does not thrive as well as warm fermentation temperatures.
Pilsners have a characteristic yellow to deep gold color. They also appear clear, which is characteristic of all lagers as the beer has more than enough time to settle during storage. Comparatively, Kolsch has a medium yellow to light gold color.
The Standard Reference Method (SRM) is the metric for determining the color intensity of beers. The higher the SRM, the darker the beer. According to the BJCP, pilsners have an SRM between 2 and 7, while Kolsch beers have an SRM between 3.5 and 5. The range overlaps, but pilsners have a wider range, meaning they can get significantly lighter or darker than Kolsch beers. In reality, though, you may not be able to differentiate between both beers, even next to each other.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
Below are common examples of each beer style.
- Coors Banquet
- Miller Lite
- Dos Equis
- Heineken Lager
- Sion Kölsch
- Sünner Kölsch
- Reissdorf Kölsch
- Fremont Brewing Pride
- Früh Kölsch