Since the first Pilsner was made in Bohemia in 1842, it’s been incredibly popular worldwide. For many, the pilsner style epitomises lager as a whole, and for some it’s known simply as ‘beer!’ Mainstream lager, which would mostly fit the BJCP international pilsner style, accounts for approximately 75% of all the beer sold in Britain. These lagers are all made following a similar process, with similar ingredients and made for the quickest turnaround. Those lagers won’t be discussed here, we all know what they taste like! Instead, we’ll focus on the original styles made in Southern Germany (Bavaria) and Western Czech Republic (Bohemia) – Pilsner, Pils and Helles.
A Brief History
The pilsner style was first created in the Bohemian town of Pilsen – Pilsner translates to ‘of Pilsen’ in Czech. A German brewer by the name Josef Groll set up a brewery in Pilsen to create a new style of beer, using a brand new yeast strain from a monastery (allegedly!) Using new English kilning techniques to keep the colour of the malt low, the soft mineral-absent water of the region and copious amounts of locally grown Saaz hops, the new beer was born. It was an instant hit, and Groll moved on to Bavaria to begin brewing the beer in his home country.
With the success of the pilsner/pils style, lagers were created all over the world. Different water, hops, malts and yeasts created subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them, and many towns had their own version, not least of all Germany itself – Kölsch from Cologne; Helles from Munich; Rauchbier from Bamburg; and Bock from Einbeck.
Also known as ‘BoPils’, Czech Pilsner is characterised as clean, soft, full of Saaz hop flavour and assertively malty. Out of the three styles here, it’s piggy in the middle, being neither too malt heavy nor with high bitterness. Well rounded is often used to describe this style.
Staropramen is one example of BoPils – others include the original (and some say only true pilsner,) Urquell, and Budvar, the origin to Budweiser. It has a prominent bready, slightly toasty malt aroma, with floral and herbal hop notes. There is also a faint orangey-citrus character. The flavour is much the same, with malty sweetness up front giving way to a medium bitterness that builds into a long finish. That orange comes back, but adds a complexity rather than dominating the flavour. Carbonation is fairly high, but doesn’t come across as gassy. There’s a really nice interplay between hops and malt, with neither dominating the overall balance.
This style is very closely related to the Bohemian version, though it leans further towards hops and bitterness. The different water profile lends a dry and crisp finish, and accentuates the hops. There is often a faint sulphur note accompanying the hop aromas. It is generally more bitter and carbonated to a higher level than its Czech cousin.
Warsteiner is a classic example of this style. It’s paler than the BoPils, with a taller head that remains thanks to the higher carbonation level. Overall aroma profile is more restrained – the malt is more grainy with light bready notes, and hop aroma is decidedly herbal. Once again the flavour begins with the malt, but herbal and slightly spicy hops start to take over as the bitterness kicks in. It finishes quite short, and you’re ready to take the next sip. This is a really crisp and clean taste, once you’ve swallowed and exhaled your palate has already reset. The body is very light, partly owing to that higher carbonation, but it does tend to give you a fuller feeling, and forces you to slow down to appreciate the subtle flavours a little more.
Paulaner Munich Hell
Where pilsners balance malt and hops to one side or the other, Munich Helles is all about the malt. The role the hops play is to balance any residual sweetness and add a dash of complexity, rather than as a USP. It’s often brewed with 100% pilsner malt, just as pilsners themselves are, and is a showcase for the finest of pale malts.
Paulaner Helles has a strong grainy to low bready malt aroma, with only a light herbal hop note. Just as the other two, it’s also very clean. The flavour is, of course, decidedly malty, but there is plenty of herbal hop in the mix to make it interesting. It comes across as sweet, but that’s due to the apparent absence of bitterness, being the lowest of the three styles here. The finish is short, but the hop flavour lingers around a little longer than the malt. Carbonation is on a par with the Czech lager, as is the mouthfeel, while the colour is closer to the German version. This beer really is to show off just how good premium quality malt is, and how good a brewer you need to be to pull something like this off – there is nowhere for any faults to hide here. This is a beer that should be enjoyed on a warm summer evening from a litre stein.
These three styles have some common similarities, but they’re also distinctly different. The Czech pilsner is one that seems somewhat out of place, given the name. We expect pilsners to be very pale, fairly bitter and highly hopped – exactly what German and international pilsners are. However this style can take far more malt than the other two styles, which may seem odd as Helles (and the styles bred from this, Festbier, for example) is considered the “malty” lager. In fact, Czech pilsners could even approach levels of malt complexity seen in German Märzens! It’s the high hopping in Czech pilsners that keep the malt in check (no pun intended.)
It’s amazing just how much malt flavour you can get from pure pilsner malt. I used to think that you needed small amounts of specialty malts to get that flavour in a Helles, but with hop levels dialled in, any Vienna, biscuit or Munich malt would be overpowering.
The German pilsner is the closest you’ll get to that ‘lager’ character that mainstream lagers emulate (poorly, in my opinion.) Forget the mass produced stuff that uses cheap adjuncts to boost profit over a quality product, this style has a rich complexity of malt and hop interplay that makes an exceptionally quaffable beer. That long finish that holds all of the flavours together is what makes this style so much more enjoyable than other Euro lagers from big breweries*.
|Czech Pilsner||German Pils||Munich Helles|
|Colour||Pale – Deep Gold||Straw – Pale Yellow||Yellow – Gold|
|Malt||Medium, bready||Low, grainy||High, bready|
|Mouthfeel||Soft & rounded||Dry & Crisp||Fuller, rounded|
*Staropramen is owned by Molson Coors. Independent producers of Czech pilsners include Budvar and Dobřanské pivo