Pinning Down Pilsner

The word “Pilsner” conjures images of beautiful German women in Dirndls delivering multiple liters of fresh-brewed paradise to groups of anxiously awaiting patrons. No doubt, German brewers were integral in crafting this masterpiece of a beverage and they continue to make some of the world’s best examples today. Despite the perception of the words “German” and “Pilsner” going hand in hand, Pilsner is actually a Bohemian creation.

Pilsner originates from the city that shares its name, Plzen, located in the western part of the land formerly known as Czechoslovakia. In earlier times, this area was part of the kingdom of Bohemia. This is why the terms “Czech Pils” and “Bohemian Pils” are often interchangeable.

The Czechs love their beer. In fact, Czech citizens annually consume on average upwards of 150 liters of beer per person. This love of beer has been part of the Czech’s DNA for centuries. Though beer was often brewed in people’s homes, the Bohemians organized their first community brewery in Plzen around the turn of the fourteenth century and took beer very seriously ever since.

Fast forward to the year 1838, when the community brewery was producing beer its citizens found to be less than stellar. Fed up with subpar beer, the community brewery’s beer was spilled into the streets of the city and the brewers and citizens alike watched as it traveled through streets into the nearby Radbuza River. Though history doesn’t tell us whether or not this created a bug epidemic, it signaled the start of improving the local beer scene. In an effort to change their fortunes, the citizens commissioned Bavarian brewer Josef Groll to come to their land, head up brewing operations at the community brewery, and start from scratch with a brand new brewing approach. Legend has it that around this time, highly sought after bottom fermenting yeast was smuggled from Germany, purportedly by a monk, and was available to Groll when he arrived to craft a new world beer for the Czech people.

Though Bavarian brewers had perfected the art of brewing over the centuries, they often used malts that were toasted, smoked and typically darker in color. Groll replaced this approach with the lightly kilned malts of Bohemia’s Moravian region. Like most malts of the time, these grains were under-modified, which means the malt contained less protein than similar modern malts, a key component to the brilliant clarity of the finished product. Hops known as Saaz from the nearby Zatec region provided aromatic notes of spice and flowers. Most importantly, the virtually mineral-free water of Plzen was some of the softest in the world, another key variable that provided a rounded, less intense bitterness while showcasing the brilliant flavors of the grainy Moravian malt.

Process also played a key role in this beer being so different from others brewed previously. Due to the water having very little calcium, the mash had to be adjusted for proper enzymatic conversion. And, the proteins in this malt needed to be broken down into more usable components. Both of these issues were addressed by implementation of a triple decoction, which will be explained in more detail later in this article.

It was about four years from the time the subpar beer ran through the streets of Plzen and Groll’s new beer was ready to be revealed to the eager citizens. Finally, on October 5, 1842, this new style of beer was introduced and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. This new beer was quite a departure from the beers of the time, as it was light colored, brilliantly clear and extremely refreshing. The smoky, toasty character of beers past was replaced with a marriage of floral, spicy and grainy flavors perfectly intermingled. Created in Plzen, the beer was named “Pilsener” and soon after adopted the moniker Pilsner Urquell. Urquell translates from the German as “the original source.” This new style of beer was nothing short of revolutionary. Word traveled quickly and brewers all over the world scrambled to try to replicate this utopian beverage. Different styles of Pilsner emerged with signature characteristics of the regions from which they originated. It is not a stretch to say that Pilsner essentially changed the world of brewing, and did so almost overnight.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Though Pilsner was a pretty straightforward beer style, the indigenous ingredients and different brewing techniques allowed the Pilsner style to evolve geographically. The Bohemian take on the style has some characteristics that make it unique. A shining example of this is the residual diacetyl that Czech brewers consider integral to the overall flavor profile of the beer. This buttery smelling and tasting yeast byproduct, though completely acceptable to the Czechs, was verboten to their counterparts across the border in Germany.

German brewers had been living and breathing the edict of the German purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, since 1516. This law limited brewing ingredients to the bare essentials of water, malted barley and hops; nothing more. (Of course, once yeast was isolated and understood, the Reinheitsgebot was amended to include it.) Additional flavors including those derived from diacetyl, even though it was a yeast byproduct, were simply unacceptable to German brewers and consumers.
Though the Czechs were typically a little more heavy handed with their bittering hops, the Germans used their own prized noble hops to create their own wonderful versions of the style. The German versions tended to be slightly lighter in color and body and more carbonated. German fermentation was perfectly clean, resulting in no off-flavors such as the aforementioned diacetyl preferred by the Czechs.

Knowing the Terminology

As if enough names and styles of beer didn’t already exist, many of these beer styles are known by more than one name. The well-respected BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) enacted major style guideline changes in 2015, which changed the well-known names of many beers, including several pale lagers. The Bohemian or Czech Pils now has a third moniker, The Czech premium pale lager. The Dortmunder has now become the third German beer with the word helles in it under its new name, German helles exportbier. And the good old fashioned premium lager is now to be known as international pale lager. One man’s progress is another man’s confusion — but all this is important to know if you plan to enter your beer into competition, or of course if you are a beer judge.

Pilsner the American Way

Due to some German unrest in the later half of the 19th century, a mass German emigration occurred transplanting many Germans, including brewers, to America to start a new life. Doing what they do best, brewers were introduced to local ingredients available to them in the new world and began to create new versions of this beverage in America. As the American population began to grow, concurrently with the popularity of beers produced by the immigrant German brewers, a new style began to take shape that would change the landscape of brewing around the world.

Besides using ingredients that were available to them, American brewers also learned quickly that adjunct grains could not only produce fermentables very consistently, but they could help significantly with protein dilution as it was nearly impossible to make a bright beer with indigenous barley available at the time. Adjuncts also allowed them to brew these beers at a much more reasonable cost. Some of these brewers replaced a portion of the barley with rice or with corn. Rice is cheap and contributes little flavor or aroma to the brew. Though corn does impart some flavor and aroma, these characteristics go very well with the base barley and produce a lighter style of the beer.

As the beers continued to change, especially in the 1970s and 1980s with the boom of the light beer era, the name Pilsner did not change. Marketing and advertising still referred to these beers as “Pilsner,” though the new product was much lighter, less flavorful, and quite a departure from the beer of Plzen that first used the term. Although industry experts eventually reclassified these beers with names such as American lager, premium lager, or American light lager, many of the bottles and cans still retain the word “Pilsner” in their logos, further confusing an uninformed consumer. When including these modern day variations under the overall umbrella of Pilsner, this category of beer is easily the most popular in the world by a wide margin.

Current Trends

The popularity of Pilsners is growing at a rapid pace among today’s craft beer consumers. According to IRI (an American market research company) data provided by Bart Watson of the Brewers Association, the Pilsner category showed a year over year growth of 117% by dollars and 120% growth by volume in 2015. This outpaced the third place category of golden ales, which showed an increase in category of 84% by dollars and 81% by volume. The category with the highest increase year over year was the “fruit/veggie/spice” category with an incredible 337% by dollars and 303% by volume increase, though it’s not entirely surprising with the influx and popularity of grapefruit and shandy-style beverages appearing everywhere. It should be noted that the IRI data focuses on off-premise sales in multi-outlet and convenience stores only, eliminating the on-premise and independent off-premise segments from the overall mix. Also the definition of what makes a “craft” versus a “regular” Pilsner is somewhat inconsistent and open to interpretation between IRI and the Brewer’s Association. Therefore these numbers may not paint a complete, perfectly representative snapshot of the category though it is certainly indicative of the upward rise in popularity of the style. Interestingly, all three of these categories have one thing in common: Sessionability. This seems to be a trend in and of itself as craft consumers continue to move toward lighter alcohol choices.


The various styles of Pilsners are relatively similar in their brewing statistics, with ABVs, IBUs, and color ranges varying slightly. The finishing gravities are what indicates the more thoroughly attenuated German version. Though there are certainly well-hopped German versions out there, the Germans seem to achieve their dry, crisp character through higher attenuation whereas the Czechs tend to increase the bittering hop additions.

German Pilsner: OG: 1.044–1.060,  FG: 1.008–1.013,  ABV: 4.4%–5.2%,  IBU: 22–40,  SRM: 2–5

Czech Pilsner: OG: 1.044–1.060,  FG: 1.013–1.017,  ABV: 4.2%–5.8%, IBU: 30–45, SRM: 3.5–6

Brewing Techniques

A traditional triple decoction was more a necessity than a preference in Plzen. Due to the under-modified malts that were available at the time, proteins needed to be broken down into a more usable form. This necessitated a protein rest to ensure a clear, end-resulting beer. The triple decoction looked something like this: After the grains are hydrated with water, an addition of hot water brings the temperature to 95 °F (35 °C) for an acid rest. Next, the temperature climbs to around 127 °F (53 °C) during the first decoction, intended to break down the larger proteins. After this short rest, the mash temperature is raised to 143 °F (62 °C) for enzymatic conversion; and the final decoction raises the temperature to around 163 °F (73 °C) for mash-out. In Technology Brewing and Malting (VRB Berlin, 5th Revised English Edition, 2014), Wolfgang Kunze recommends the steps as: 35 °C (95 °F), 50 °C (122 °F), 64 °C (147 °F), and 75 °C (167 °F).

These days decoction is more of a choice, not a requirement, thanks to modern malts. Many brewers around the world employ a single infusion or a step mash for this style. If employing a single infusion, the best bet is to aim for a temperature on the lower side that will encourage beta amylase activity, producing a more fermentable wort. This will result in a crisper, drier beer; 149 °F (65 °C) is an excellent mash temperature to achieve this result. Industry professionals Andy Tveekrem (Market Garden Brewery), Matt Brynildson (Firestone Walker), and Mitch Steele (formerly of Stone) all recommend a step mash, which gives a brewer more precise control on flavor development from the malt.

Using European Pilsner malt is strongly recommended to really achieve the traditional flavors expected in a Pilsner. Since Pilsner malt is the majority of the grist, plan on using at least a 90-minute boil to ensure enough of the malt derived SMM (s-metylmethionine) is driven off. In a shorter boil, too much of this DMS (Dimethyl sulfide) precursor can be developed leading to cooked corn-like flavors in the finished product. Brewmaster Matt Cole of Cleveland’s Fat Head’s Brewery employs a 120-minute boil for his Jack Straw Pilsner, which not only eliminates the potential DMS issue, it also helps to precipitate proteins more thoroughly resulting in a clearer beer without the need to filter.

Pilsner should have multiple hop additions as hop flavor and aroma are key components of the style. The aroma should be floral and/or spicy and these aromas and flavors are best derived from noble hops. Hallertau, Tettnang, or Saaz are all excellent choices for hop additions, whereas earthy continental or American citrus hops should be avoided in traditional versions of this style. Steele strongly recommends using Sterling, which he calls “a supercharged Saaz.” Brynildson’s West Coast approach to Pilsner brewing includes dry hopping with German Saphir hops, a German variety that is an alternative to the Hallertau Mittlefrüh variety. Saphir hops are also one of the finishing hops used in Sierra Nevada’s Nooner, along with Strisselspalt and Tettnanger. Tveekrem’s first wort hopping protocol increases the hop flavor that comes from his blend of various Czech and German hops.

For best results start with clean reverse osmosis (RO) water and add your minerals back in. The key is to have enough calcium to achieve the proper mash pH once the grains are introduced and both Tveekrem and Brynildson suggest calcium chloride over calcium sulfate for this addition. Fermentation temperatures can range from about 48 to 52 °F (9 to 11 °C), with a free rise to around 58 °F (14 °C) toward the end for a diacetyl rest. “Producing a very clear, fermentable wort, then conducting a clean fermentation and keeping the yeast happy and healthy are keys to successfully brewing a great Pilsner,” says Brynildson. German or Bohemian lager yeast are both excellent choices for a Pilsner. Tveekrem also recommends lagering very cold to help clarify and stabilize the beer. Market Garden’s Progress Pilsner is lagered at 28 °F (-2 °C) for six to eight weeks (see the recipe on page 41). Cole adds that it is best to lower the temperature gradually after the diacetyl rest is complete until the desired lagering temperature is achieved.

Commercial Examples

No conversation about Pilsners would be complete without starting with Pilsner Urquell. At 4.4% ABV, Pilsner Urquell is on the lighter side of the ABV range. Signature notes of grainy Moravian malt lead with intentional hints of butter from residual diacetyl. The soft water provides a rounded bitterness eliminating any harshness, creating a very delicate, incredibly enjoyable product. A true original in every regard.

Jever Pils is a fine German example that pushes the limit on hopping. Jever delivers both a floral bouquet and a sharp, pleasant bitterness that lets you know that the hops are the star of the show. The green bottles don’t do the beer any justice in its trek across the pond so try to get one fresh that was stored out of the light and you will have a wonderful experience.

In America, craft Pilsner is growing daily in popularity. Though long time American brewers such as Stoudt’s, Schell’s, and Victory have brewed great examples for years, some of the fairly recent entries to the Pilsner party are the ones attracting the attention. Sierra Nevada’s Nooner presents a beautiful malt showcase highlighted with the fresh spicy aromas that are derived from their whole cone hops. Trumer, who produces beer in both Austria and Berkeley, California, makes one of the country’s finest examples, showcasing imported Saaz hops. Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils, the reigning three-time gold medal winner at The Great American Beer Festival, incorporates every characteristic of an authentic German style Pilsner without any of the maladies that come with intercontinental transportation of the fragile German examples. The hops in Pivo are simply special, inviting the senses to partake and rewarding the palate with a crisp, refreshing finish that leaves drinkers of all walks of life satisfied and wanting more. Vinnie Cilurzo, the mastermind behind Russian River Brewing, also makes a great example, known as STS Pils. And recently, Cilurzo and Brynildson came together to brew a new Pilsner known as STiVO, which Brynildson called “the love child of Pivo and STS, which combines hops from both of the original recipes.”

How to Serve

Pilsners are meant to be presented. They want to show off their brilliant clarity, their lasting head and beautiful yellow-gold color. Enjoy a Pilsner between 38 and 42 °F (3 and 5 °C) in a proper tall, thin Pilsner glass, where the hop aroma will be showcased and delivered straight to your senses.
A fresh Pilsner pairs well with many different entrees, but plays remarkably well with fish, chicken, and veal dishes. Pair your favorite Pilsner with fish and chips, baked chicken piccata, or wienerschnitzel.


Czech It Out

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.051 FG = 1.011
IBU = 43 SRM = 5 ABV = 5.2%

by Nelson Crowle
A Bohemian-style Pilsner with rich maltiness, soft bittering, and a hint of black pepper.


10.5 lbs. (4.8 kg) Weyermann
Bohemian Pilsner malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Weyermann Carahell® malt (10 °L)
5.6 AAU Czech Saaz pellet hops
(60 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
6.75 AAU Czech Saaz pellet hops
(15 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
6.75 AAU Czech Saaz pellet hops
(5 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
1/2 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
Wyeast 2001 (Pilsner Urquell H-Strain) or White Labs WLP800 (Pilsner Lager), or Fermentis Saflager S-23 yeast
1 cup extra light dried malt extract (if priming)

Step by Step

Target a mash temperature of 154 °F (68 °C) and mash for 60 minutes or until conversion is complete. Recirculate 2 gallons (7.6 L) of wort (vorlauf) from the bottom to the top of your mash tun to set the grain bed, then sparge with 5 gallons (19 L) of water at 170 °F (77 °C) and collect about 7 gallons (26 L) of runoff to your boil kettle. Boil for 90 minutes and add the hops and the Irish moss at the times indicated in the ingredients list. At flameout, rapidly chill the wort to 60 °F (16 °C) and transfer the wort to your fermenter. Pitch the yeast, oxygenate throughly, and set the fermenter in a cool, dark place to ferment at about 48 °F (9 °C) (up to 52 °F/11 °C is OK). Once fermentation is near completion, raise the temperature to the low 60s (16–17 °C) to perform a diacetyl rest. After fermentation has completed, rack the beer into a keg and force carbonate to 2.5 volumes, or prime and bottle condition. If bottle conditioning, leave the beer at 70–75 °F (21–24 °C) for a week or two. Lager at 35 °F (2 °C) for two weeks to a month. Serve at 40–45 °F (4–7 °C).

Czech It Out

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.054 FG = 1.013
IBU = 41 SRM = 4 ABV = 5.3%


6 lbs. (2.7 kg) Briess Pilsen light dried malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Weyermann Carahell® malt (10 °L)
9 AAU Czech Saaz pellets hops
(60 min.) (2 oz./57 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
6.75 AAU Czech Saaz pellets hops
(15 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
6.75 AAU Czech Saaz pellets hops
(5 min.) (1.5 oz./43 g at 4.5% alpha acids)
1/2 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
Wyeast 2001 (Pilsner Urquell H-Strain), White Labs WLP800 (Pilsner Lager), or Fermentis Saflager S-23 yeast
1 cup extra light dried malt extract (if priming)

Step by Step

Steep the Carahell® malt in 1 gallon (14 L) of water at 155 °F (68 °C) for 20 minutes and remove the grains. Add water to your boil pot so the total volume is 4 gallons (15 L) and bring to a boil. Turn off the flame and stir in the extract until it is dissolved. Then turn the heat back on, and follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe for boil, fermenting, and packaging

Market Garden Brewery’s Progress Pilsner clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.008
IBU = 37 SRM = 4 ABV = 5.5%

Progress Pilsner, created in the style of a German Pilsner, is one of three year-round beers at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland, Ohio.


9 lbs. (4.1 kg) Avangard German Pilsener malt
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Weyermann Carahell® malt (10 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) acidulated malt
3.5 AAU Czech Saaz hops (first wort hop) (1 oz./28 g at 3.5% alpha acids)
3.5 AAU Czech Saaz hops (60 min.)
(1 oz./28 g at 3.5% alpha acids)
1 AAU Spalter Select hops (30 min.)
(0.5 oz./14 g at 2% alpha acids)
3.5 AAU Czech Saaz hops (10 min.)
(1 oz./28 g at 3.5% alpha acids)
2 oz. (57 g) Czech Saaz hops (0 min.)
White Labs WLP830 (German Lager) or Wyeast 2124 (Bohemian Lager) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step

This is a multi-step mash. Start with 5 gallons (19 L) of low carbonate strike water. This is a ratio of 2 quarts perpound of grain (4.2 L/kg) to provide a thin mash with high enzymatic activity. Follow this mash schedule: Start at 131 °F (55 °C) and hold for 10 minutes for the protein rest. Raise the grain bed to 145 °F (63 °C) and hold for 30 minutes for beta amylase conversion. Raise the grain bed to 158 °F (70 °C) and hold for 10–15 minutes until starch conversion is complete. Finally raise the grain bed to 170 °F (77 °C) for mash out. Sparge with enough water to collect 7.1 gallons (26.8 L) of wort pre-boil. Add the first wort hops during the sparge. Bring the wort to a boil, and add the hops according to the ingredients list. Boil for a total of 90 minutes. After the boil, chill to 48–50 °F (9–10 °C) and pitch the yeast. Ferment at 52 °F (11 °C) until around 1.012 SG, then let the temperature rise to 56–58 °F (13–14 °C) for a diacetyl rest. After 72 hours at terminal gravity, drop the temperature 2–3 °F (1-1.5 °C) per day until you reach 40 °F (4 °C). Transfer the beer to a secondary and slowly cool to 28 °F ( -2 °C) (or as close to freezing without freezing) for 6 to 8 weeks until clear for optimum results. Bottle or keg as usual.

Issue: January-February 2017