Sunday, 28 March 2010

What's a Pilsener?

The other night, someone asked me to define what a Pilsener should be like. I have no idea why. If I'd been sober, I would have remembered what I said and it would be something like "a pale, intensely bitter, bottom-fermented beer, made with soft water, medium-bodied and with a prominent hop aroma."

But it got me thinking about what Pilsener is in my mind and what the limits of Pilseneriness are.

A 1873 description of the flavour of Pilsener in comparison to Bavarian and English beer opines:
Most of the Austrian beers have a mild and soft flavour, and it is rarely that any of them are so bitter as the English pale ales. An exception, however, must be made with regard to the so-called Pilsner beer brewed at Pilsen, in Bohemia, on a very extensive scale, and much in favour with the Viennese who do not object to pay a slightly higher price for it. The beer is exceedingly pale in colour as well as remarkably light, being even weaker than the Vienna beer, and contains a considerable amount of carbonic acid. Its distinguishing quality, however, is its strong, indeed almost medicinal bitter flavour, due to the Saaz hops, held in the highest esteem in the locality. The Citizens' brewery at Pilsen, which produces by far the largest quantity of this beer, and is in fact the most extensive brewing establishment in Bohemia, had a medal for progress awarded to it for the samples it exhibited. Another brewery company at Pilsen received a medal for merit, the same reward being given to five other Bohemian breweries, in addition to which honourable mention was made in five instances.
Most people today will still say a Pils should be on the hoppy side, but a strong, almost medicinally bitter flavour? How many Pils brewers today can honestly say that of their beer?

A few months ago I raved about 77 Lager, and Velky Al, who knows much more about Czech beer than I do and knows what he's talking about, agreed it was good but rejected completely the suggestion that it was a pilsener.

I think the difference is in our attitude to the hops. Nobody thinks anything of a pale ale using the latest fashionable hop any more. We accept that it is what it is and enjoy the unfamiliar aromas. But when it comes to lager we have come to expect the flavour of certain classic noble hops and no others.

Should Pilsener be considered a beer made with Saaz or Hallertauer or other noble hops only, or even be reserved for beers that actually come from Plzen? I'm certainly not at all sure that I'd like to see it diluted into the kind of recipe free-for-all that the pale ale category has become.

On the other hand, would that be any worse than the likes of Warsteiner and Heineken calling their beer Pilsener?

I don't know, but I do know that lager brewers are not going to keep using just the same five or six hops forever. What are we going to call the bitter lagers of the future?


  1. Good question, to which I'll answer, does it really matter? 77 is a very nice Pale Lager, of course, if you did a blind tasting with other Pale Lagers this one would stand out thanks to the different hops.

    As for the hops. I don't think the use of hops other than the ones you mention will become very widespread, at least not in Germany and CZ, people there like their Pale Lagers as they are and brewers know that very well.

  2. Having just come back from a visit to Budvar, I got the distinct impression that they WOULD just use Saaz hops forever.

    I think that the "craft" tag will get attached to any exotically hopped lager.

  3. And some English brewers will be using Fuggles and East Kent Goldings forever, and good on them.

    Filosof, of course it matters, it's beer! ;)

  4. Pilsner = pale lager from Plzen, anything else made in the lager method is just lager, whether it is stronger, paler, odd hops, slightly harder water, it is still lager, but not Pilsner. Superb pale lager made in Ceske Budejovice (sorry, can't be bothered looking for diacritics at sparrow fart AM) is not a Pilsner either, yes it is Czech, no it isn't Pilsner, yes they use the same methods, no it isn't Pilsner. If I remember rightly, the term pilsner has the same geographic status as Champagne in EU law, so really the question is moot.

  5. I am also firmly in the Budvar-is-a-Budweiser-not-a-Pilsner camp, but Pilsner surely cannot be a protected geographic designation in the EU. That would prevent Jever, Freedom, Bitburger, whoever, labelling their beer as Pils, which evidently is not the case.

  6. Sure Budvar's not geographically Pilsener, but I meant that the whole Czech brewing tendency is pretty hidebound by tradition. I can't see them getting handy with armfuls of Nelson Sauvin any time soon.

    Pilsner isn't a PGI, AC, or any other meaningful protection in the EU, or anywhere else.

  7. My mistake, though Budvar does have PGI.

  8. Al, I think that what also confused you is the fact that in CZ no beer other than PU can be called Pilsner. And that's fine by me....

    And honestly, as long as the beer is good, I couldn't care any less how, where and with what it was made. It does provide an interesting topic to talk about, but it won't make the beer any better or worse.

  9. I find it interesting that we are talking about "bitter lagers", and yet PU has an IBU in the same ball park as many American Pale Ales.

  10. Pilnser Urquell has a stated IBU of 40. Sierra Nevada Pale has 37 and Starr Hill Pale Ale has 43.

  11. As it happens I had a filtered, green-bottled, supermarket-UV-light-exposed Pilsner Urquell last night, and at the risk of losing all my beer snob credentials it was damn good. I find it difficult to believe it was 40 IBU though.

  12. Filosof, Al, do drinkers in CZ think of Pilsner as more bitter than other kinds of svetly lezak, or different in any way at all?

  13. To kind of quote Evan Rail, Czechs will drink more Gambrinus, but Pilsner Urquell is what they have for Christmas. There is still a large number of people convinced that Pilsner Urquell is the best lager on the planet. In my experience, most Czech breweries don't mention IBUs when describing their beers.