The True Difference Between Pilsner And Pale Ale (+Examples)


Pilsners and pale ales have become the go-to beer styles of many beer lovers around the planet. This is unsurprising, as both beers have a case of being the best of their worlds. However, are they really different beers? If yes, how exactly do they differ? These are some of the questions often asked about these two beer styles. We will answer that in detail in this article, but before that, let’s give a brief answer.

Pilsners are lagers, while pale ales are ales. That’s the simple difference between the two. Lagers are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures, while ales are brewed using top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures. Also, pale ales tend to be more bitter than pilsners, although the latter is crispier and cleaner.

Beyond this brief answer, there is a whole world of difference between both beers, starting with their origin. After considering that, this article will compare the properties of both beers as well as their brewing process and ingredients. Finally, the article will briefly examine some popular examples of both beers. Let’s dive in!

Origin

As with several other beer styles, the origin of pilsners can be traced to Europe. Pilsners came into existence officially in 1842, but there is a lot of history leading up to the beer launch. Let’s examine that.

Plzen is a city in the Czech Republic that has been brewing beer since the 1200s, which was at least two full centuries before lagers even debuted. You would expect the city to have perfected the act of brewing beers by the 1800s, right? Well, not quite. In fact, the city was renowned for producing low-quality beer. Even worse, many of the beers they produced spoilt before the end of the fermentation period.

In 1839, the city formed a brewery, Pilsner Urquell, hoping to change its beer fortunes. And that was exactly what happened soon after the brewery’s debut when brewers recognized that they needed to revamp their beer style. Therefore, the brewery called on the services of Josef Groll, a German brewer, to save their beer industry.

By this time, lagers had pretty much taken over the beer market, and the fermentation style was greatly revered. Josef decided that the solution to the brewery’s problem was using noble Saaz hops, new malting techniques, and other local hops. The resultant beer became an instant hit and was named after the city, etching its name forever in beer history.

Pale ale actually came a lot earlier than pilsners. While the term pale ale itself would not be used till 1703, the origin of the beer was in the 1600s. During that period, an industrial revolution saw many industries switch from their use of wood fires to coke. The beer industry followed suit and started roasting malt with coke.

The result was malt that was lighter in color as coke kilns do not have the smoky character wood fires had become famous for. Brewers in Burton-on-Trent, England, found the new beer clearer and a little different from conventional ales. This discovered style soon became a national hit, and before long, it spread to the rest of Europe. Today, pale ales are the most popular ale beers, which is a testament to their quality.

Flavor

One of the distinguishing features between ales and lagers is the flavor profile. Generally, ales usually have a stronger flavor profile. However, pale ales are a distinction from this. Pale ales have a lighter flavor profile than traditional ales. Even more interesting is that pale ales have a lighter flavor profile than many lagers. This lighter flavor profile of pale ales is attributed to the malting technique used.

A fruity aroma characterizes ales because of the yeast strain used. Pale ales retain this property, having subtle fruitiness with their caramel-like flavor. It is worth noting, though, that there are different substyles of pale ales, and each has its individual flavor profile.

Pilsners also have different substyles, meaning it is tricky to generalize the beer style’s flavor profile. Even then, though, pilsners generally have a slightly malty and grainy flavor. There are few observable fruity characters in the beer’s flavor profile. 

Mouthfeel

Pale ales typically have a light to medium body with moderate to high carbonation. The finish of the beer is smooth, and there is usually no lingering bitterness. Some pale ales even have a sweet aftertaste.

Pale ales generally have a smooth, medium-bodied mouthfeel with moderate to high carbonation.

According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, the beer style has an IBU (International Bitterness Units) between 30 and 50. IBU is a measure of the beer’s bitterness. Pilsners have an IBU between 25 and 45, meaning they are generally more bitter than pale ales.

The higher bitterness combined with a medium body and medium to high carbonation of pilsners means they have a higher beer character than pale ales.

Smell

Pilsners and pale ales are not the most aromatic beers. The former has a malty and hoppy aroma profile, while the latter possesses a roasted malt scent with a touch of caramel. While the beer styles have different aroma profiles, it may be difficult to tell unless you pay close attention.

Brewing Process

Pilsners are lagers, and like all lagers, they are brewed using the bottom fermentation technique. This technique is so named because it involves the use of bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures. The yeast strain used is Saccharomyces pastorianus, and the brewing temperature is between 35˚ and 50˚F.

Pale ales, on the other hand, are ale beers. This means they are fermented using the top-fermentation technique, involving Saccharomyces cerevisiae at warmer temperatures. Since the fermentation is done in warmer conditions, it takes place faster. While this means the overall process is easier and faster for brewers, it also means the brew has less clarity.

However, pale ales manage to circumvent this problem because of their type of malt. Recall that pale ales use coke-roasted malt instead of wood fire-roasted malt. As such, the brew is clearer and paler than other ales.

Ingredients

Pilsners and pale have the same basic four ingredients: malt, yeast, hops, and water. However, they differ in the type and quality of these ingredients. Below, we will examine these differences in detail.

The first main ingredient we will consider is malted grain. This is the energy source of yeast, which ensures fermentation can occur. Barley is the most popular grain used in beer production; however, some breweries also use wheat. For lagers generally, malt contributes in large part to the flavor and aroma, which also applies to pilsners.

For pale ales, the type of malt used is known as pale malt, which is actually similar to that used by lagers. This pale malt is largely responsible for the color and clarity of pale ales and was popularized in Burton-on-Trent, England, where the beer style originated.

Another main ingredient is, of course, yeast. This is the primary difference between pilsners, and pale ales is the yeast strain used. Pale ales use top-fermenting yeast, while pilsners use bottom-fermenting yeast.

Further, hops are essential in beer fermentation for two main reasons. For one, hops help to counter the sweetness imposed by malt in the brew. Again, hops are essential in the preservation of beer, as it inhibits microbial growth. Pilsners are renowned for their use of Saaz hops, which is a type of German noble hop. However, some breweries use some other hops to complete the style. Pale ales also use varied hops, particularly Fuggles, Kent Goldings, and Northern Brewer.

Last but definitely not least on the main ingredient list is water. Brewmasters often use water with specific mineral composition or from a particular geographical location to impart a unique flavor or aroma to their beer. For pilsners, the water originally used was water native to the city, while pale ales use high-sulfate water.

Alcohol Content

There are different substyles of pale ales and pilsners, so it is difficult to settle on one alcohol percentage as the standard ABV of the beer styles. Still, according to the BJCP, pilsners have an alcohol content between 4.5 and 6%, while pale ales have between 4 and 9%. Generally, ales tend to be more alcoholic than lagers, and that trend is also observed here.

Appearance

Beer’s appearance can be a valid indication of its style. The official metric for measuring the color intensity of beer is the standard reference method (SRM). The higher this value, the darker beer is.

Both beer styles appear clear. According to the BJCP, pilsners have an SRM between 2 and 7, with a yellow to deep golden color. Contrastingly, pale ales have a wider SRM range, with beers having between 5 and 14 SRM. Pale ales often range between medium yellow to amber color.

While the appearance of both styles is not enough to tell them apart, as they have overlapping SRMs (5-7), it does offer a valuable assessment. For instance, deeply copper-colored beers are far more likely to be pale ales than they are pilsners. 

Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style

Both beers are quite popular today with their different substyles. Below are some examples of both styles.

Pilsner

  • Heineken
  • Pilsner Urquell Beer
  • Beck’s
  • Sixpoint The Crisp
  • Jack’s Abby Post Shift Pilsner

Pale Ale

  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  • Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale
  • Bass Pale Ale
  • Foster’s Premium Ale Beer
  • De Ryck Special

References

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