The beer style known as Pilsner has a rich history. In 1838, citizens of Plzen, Czech Republic dumped an entire season’s worth of beer due to a lack of quality. Because of this, they built a new brewery, and recruited Josef Groll, a brewer from neighboring Bavaria, to be its brewmaster. Groll was asked to make a darker lager, as that was the beer of choice at the time in Bavaria, but what he produced was something entirely different. The combination of pale British-inspired malt, soft Bohemian water, and aromatic Saaz hops produced a golden, clear, crisp lager that was immediately hailed by the locals. So, while the Bohemians, geographically, have earned the right to take credit for this style, it was Bavaria who gave them the opportunity.
After its introduction in Plzen in 1842, Pilsner quickly became the most widely consumed beer style in the world. Pilsners can generally be broken down into two categories: Czech- and German-style. German-style Pilsners are traditionally slightly lighter in color, drier, and crisper than their Czech counterparts, and while sometimes being brewed with spicy Saaz hops, they often contain many of the other noble varietals, such as Spalt, Hallertauer-Mittelfruh and Tettanang.
Appellation aside, what makes a Pilsner such a well-loved beer style has everything to do with the ingredients in the beer. These ingredients, shared by many other beer styles we have come to love, are present in these beers as simple, yet complex, pure expressions of the sum of its parts. Pilsner, in its simplest form, is a light bouquet of pale malt, lightly kilned, with white bread and subtle notes of honey-sweetness, clean lager yeast that is free from fruit-derived fermentation characters, and an exuberant spicy, herbal, grassy or earthy hop flavor and aroma that doesn’t dominate the beer or stifle the malt. Oh, and then there is water, arguably the single most important ingredient in any beer style!? The perfect water to brew a Pilsner would be something soft and similar to that of Plzen, Czech Republic. A water that’s low in calcium and magnesium, which allows the ingredients, particularly the hops, to waltz delicately in unison with the other ingredients, one not over-powering the other.
American and International versions of the Pilsner-style exist, which make use of American and New World hops; not exclusively citrus or piney versions, but rather European-styled hops, that carry some of the same earthy, herbal and spicy characters, but oftentimes with a higher bitterness. Some International Pilsners use corn and/or rice to keep the body light. All-in-all, extremely drinkable and enjoyable versions of the original Pilsner that was first created 176 years ago.
Well known, widely available examples of traditional pilsner lagers include Left Hand Polestar Pils (German-style), Sierra Nevada Summerfest (Czech-style), Rothaus Tannenzapfle (German) and Pilsner Urquell (Czech). Many American brewers have put their spin on the classic with dry-hopped versions, such as Firestone Walker Pivo Pils.