Pilsner vs Lager: What’s the Difference? Answered!

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Confused about the difference between pilsners and lagers? You’re not alone. Many people use these terms interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same. In this article, we’ll explore what sets these two popular beer styles apart, helping you navigate the world of beer with confidence. Whether you’re a seasoned beer drinker or just starting to explore, understanding the distinctions between pilsner vs lager will enhance your appreciation for these beloved brews.

Pilsner Vs Lager
Photo by Dan Barrett on Unsplash

Table of Contents

What Is a Pilsner?

Pilsner is a type of beer that originated in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842. It’s characterized by its golden color, clear appearance, and crisp, refreshing taste. Pilsners are brewed using pale malts and noble hops, which give them a distinctive hoppy bitterness balanced by a subtle sweetness. The original Pilsner, known as Pilsner Urquell, set the standard for this style and remains a classic example of a Czech Pilsner. Today, Pilsner-style beers are brewed all over the world, each with its own unique twist on this beloved beer.

Types of Pilsner

Czech Pilsner

Czech Pilsner, or Bohemian Pilsner, is the original style from Pilsen, Czech Republic. Brewed since 1842, it boasts a golden colour, crisp taste, and pronounced hop bitterness. Saaz hops lend a spicy, floral aroma and flavour, balanced by a subtle, biscuity malt sweetness. Pilsner Urquell is the most renowned example.

German Pilsner

German Pilsner, or “Pils,” is similar to Czech Pilsner but lighter in colour, ranging from straw to pale gold, with a drier finish. German noble hops like Hallertau, Tettnang, or Spalt provide a prominent bitterness, while the malt profile is clean and crisp with a subtle grainy character.

American Pilsner

American Pilsner is a modern take on European styles, tailored to American beer tastes and ingredients. Lighter in body and colour, with a more subdued hop bitterness, these beers often feature citrusy, floral American hops like Cascade, Centennial, or Willamette. The clean, neutral malt allows the hops to shine. Craft breweries often offer American Pilsners as a crisp, refreshing lager option.

Pairing Pilsners with Food

Pilsners are a great match for many different foods. Their crisp, refreshing taste and hoppy character make them a perfect partner for:

  • Seafood: Fish and chips, grilled prawns, or pan-seared scallops
  • Salads: Crisp green salads with tangy dressings
  • Mildly spicy dishes: Thai green curry or jalapeño-topped pizza

When pairing Pilsners with food, remember:

  • Choose foods that complement the beer’s flavour without overpowering it
  • The beer’s bitterness can balance the richness of seafood or the acidity of salad dressings
  • The crisp, clean taste helps to tame the heat in mildly spicy dishes
  • The carbonation cleanses the palate between bites

What Is a Lager?

Lager, originating in Bavaria, is a beer fermented and conditioned at low temperatures using bottom-fermenting yeast. This process creates a crisp, clean, and smooth taste profile. Lagers are typically pale to medium in colour, with a moderate hop bitterness and a subtle malt sweetness. The lager family is diverse, encompassing various styles such as German Lagers, including Helles, Bock, and Märzen, known for their balanced flavours and adherence to traditional brewing methods; American Lagers, like Budweiser and Coors, which are light-bodied, refreshing, and often mass-produced; and Craft Lagers, innovative interpretations by microbreweries, pushing the boundaries of the classic lager style.

Types of Lager

Helles

Helles, a pale lager from Munich, is known for its crisp, clean taste and subtle hop bitterness. Brewed with pale malts and noble hops, Helles lagers have a light to medium body and a golden colour. Perfect for warm summer days or pairing with light dishes like salads or grilled chicken, these refreshing beers are a favourite among lager enthusiasts.

Dunkel

Dunkel, a traditional Bavarian dark lager, showcases a rich, toasty malt character. Brewed with a mix of light and dark malts, Dunkels have a deep amber to dark brown colour and a smooth, complex flavour profile with notes of caramel, bread crust, and a hint of chocolate. They pair well with hearty fare like roasted meats or stews.

Märzen

Märzen, or Oktoberfest beer, is a seasonal lager traditionally brewed in March and served at Oktoberfest. Known for their deep amber to copper colour and robust malt flavour, Märzens have a medium to full body, balanced sweetness, and a clean, dry finish. Enjoy them during autumn months with roasted pork or sausages.

Bock

Bock, a strong, malty lager from Einbeck, Germany, boasts a high alcohol content (6-7% ABV) and a rich, complex flavour profile. Ranging in colour from light copper to dark brown, Bocks have a full body and smooth, creamy mouthfeel with flavours of toasted bread, caramel, and subtle hop bitterness. They pair well with aged cheeses or rich, chocolate desserts.

Pairing Lagers with Food

Lagers are great for pairing with all sorts of food. Here are some top tips:

  • Light Lagers (like Helles): Perfect with spicy dishes like curry or chilli. The bubbles cleanse your palate between bites.
  • Amber Lagers (like Märzen): Lovely with grilled meats and veggies. The toasty sweetness complements the charred flavours.
  • Dark Lagers (like Dunkel): Rich enough for desserts like chocolate cake or sticky toffee pudding. Also fab with hearty stews or pies.

The key is to experiment and have fun. Try different combos to find your favourite Lager and food match. Some other ideas:

  • Pilsner with fish and chips
  • Bock with a cheeseboard
  • Schwarzbier with bangers and mash

The Brewing Process of Pilsner vs. Lager

Ingredients and Recipes

While both Pilsners and Lagers use similar ingredients—malted barley, hops, yeast, and water—the proportions and specific varieties used can differ. Pilsners typically feature pale malts and noble hops, which impart a crisp, floral, and slightly spicy character. Lagers, on the other hand, can incorporate a wider range of malts and hops depending on the specific style, from pale to dark malts and various hop varieties.

Mashing and Lautering

In both Pilsner and Lager brewing, the malt is crushed and mixed with hot water in a process called mashing. This converts the starches in the malt into fermentable sugars. The resulting sweet liquid, called wort, is then separated from the spent grains in a process called lautering. The clarity of the wort is especially important for Pilsners, which are known for their brilliant clarity.

Boiling and Hopping

The wort is then boiled, during which time hops are added. Pilsners are characterized by their pronounced hop bitterness, achieved through generous additions of noble hops during the boil. Lagers can have varying levels of hop bitterness, depending on the style. The boiling process also sterilizes the wort and helps to coagulate proteins, leading to a clearer beer.

Fermentation and Conditioning

The cooled wort is then fermented with yeast. Pilsners and Lagers both use bottom-fermenting yeast strains, which work best at lower temperatures. However, Pilsners are typically fermented at slightly higher temperatures than Lagers, around 7-12°C, while Lagers are fermented at colder temperatures, typically between 4-10°C. After primary fermentation, both styles undergo a lengthy conditioning period at cold temperatures, which can last several weeks to months. This cold conditioning, or lagering, contributes to the crisp, clean flavour profile associated with these beers.

Brewing Pilsner Tips

When crafting a smashing Pilsner at home, focus on water chemistry, temperature control, and ingredient selection. Soft water with low minerals is ideal – use reverse osmosis or distilled water and add brewing salts to achieve the perfect balance. Aim for a mash pH of 5.2-5.4.

Pilsner yeast is finicky, so maintain precise fermentation temperatures around 10-13°C. Invest in a temperature controller and fermentation fridge to prevent fruity off-flavours. Traditional Pilsners use continental hops like Saaz or Hallertau for a spicy, floral character. Stick to light Pilsner malt as your base, with a touch of Carapils for head retention.

Patience is key – opt for a long, cool fermentation (10-14 days) followed by an extended cold conditioning phase (4-8 weeks). This allows the yeast to clean up off-flavours and create a smooth, crisp lager character. Don’t rush the process, and your Pilsner will be top-notch.

Brewing Lager Tips

Brewing a cracking Lager at home is all about finesse and patience. To achieve that clean, crisp taste, choose a Lager-specific yeast like Saflager W-34/70 or Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager. Keep your fermentation temperature between 7-13°C using a temperature-controlled chamber or a spare fridge with a thermostat.

After primary fermentation, lager your beer at 0-4°C for several weeks to a few months. This low and slow approach is key to developing that signature Lager character.

For your ingredients, use 90-100% Pilsner malt as your base, with a touch of Munich or Vienna malt if desired. Stick to noble hops like Saaz or Hallertau, and mash at around 67°C for a drier finish.

Pitch double the amount of yeast you’d use for an ale and thoroughly aerate your wort before pitching. This helps ensure a strong fermentation and reduces the risk of off-flavours.

Pilsner Brands:

  • Pilsner Urquell: The original Pilsner from the Czech Republic, boasting a crisp, refreshing taste with a perfect balance of maltiness and hop bitterness.
  • Beck’s: A German Pilsner brewed according to the German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot), offering a crisp, clean taste with a distinctive hoppy bitterness.

Lager Brands:

  • Budweiser: An American Lager known for its crisp, clean taste and consistent quality, earning it the nickname “The King of Beers.”
  • Heineken: A Dutch Lager recognised for its balanced flavour profile and subtle sweetness.

Serving and Storage Recommendations

To get the most out of your Pilsner or Lager, pay attention to serving and storage. Use the right glassware: a tall, slender Pilsner glass for Pilsners, and a pint glass or dimpled mug for Lagers. Serve Pilsners at 4-7°C and Lagers at 3-5°C for optimal flavour. Store beer in a cool, dark place, preferably in the fridge, to slow down aging and maintain freshness. Some specialty Lagers may benefit from cellaring at slightly warmer temperatures (10-13°C) to develop complex flavours. Most Pilsners and Lagers are best enjoyed within 3-6 months of packaging, so check the best-before date. Remember, beer is perishable, and its quality will decline over time, even with proper storage.

Wrap Up

Pilsners and Lagers are distinct yet refreshing beer styles. Pilsners, originating from Pilsen, boast a crisp, hoppy character, while Lagers encompass a diverse range, from light Helles to rich Dunkels. Both pair well with various foods and have a loyal following. Understanding the brewing process, ingredients, and proper serving and storage can enhance your appreciation for these timeless beers. Whether you prefer Pilsners or Lagers, these styles offer a world of flavour to explore and enjoy.

Pilsner Vs Lager: FAQs

How is pilsner different from lager?

Pilsner is a specific type of lager beer that originated in the Czech city of Pilsen. It is characterized by its pale golden color, crisp and hoppy flavor, and a more pronounced bitterness compared to other lagers. While all pilsners are lagers, not all lagers are pilsners. Lagers encompass a broader range of beer styles fermented at low temperatures.

Is Budweiser a lager or pilsner?

Budweiser is a lager beer, not a pilsner. It is an American-style pale lager, known for its crisp, clean taste and light body. While Budweiser shares some characteristics with pilsner beers, such as its pale color and smooth finish, it does not have the distinct hoppy bitterness and floral aroma typically associated with traditional pilsners.

Is Corona a pilsner or lager?

Corona is a pale lager beer, not a pilsner. This Mexican beer is known for its light, crisp, and refreshing taste, often served with a lime wedge. Corona falls under the broader category of lagers, as it is fermented at low temperatures, but it does not have the characteristic hoppy bitterness and floral notes of a classic pilsner.

Is Heineken a lager or a pilsner?

Heineken is a Dutch pale lager beer, not a pilsner. While it shares some similarities with pilsner beers, such as its golden color and crisp finish, Heineken has a milder hop profile and a slightly sweeter taste compared to traditional pilsners. It is fermented at low temperatures, which is a defining characteristic of lager beers.

Is Coors Light a pilsner?

Coors Light is an American-style light lager, not a pilsner. It is known for its light body, low calorie content, and mild flavor profile. While Coors Light shares the pale golden color of a pilsner, it lacks the distinctive hoppy bitterness and floral aroma associated with classic pilsner beers. Coors Light is fermented at low temperatures, making it a lager.

By Tickety Brew

Ivor Ardghal : Brewer and Writer at Tickety Brew