Lager is by far what most people mentally reference when they think of ‘beer’. Yet a pilsner seems to enjoy a special status – and for a good reason – no other type of beer has ever been more impactful.
A pilsner is a style of lager beer – hands down the most famous one in the world. It originated in 1842 Plzeň (Pilsen), a small town in Bohemia, today’s Czech Republic. Pilsner was the world’s first pale, crystal clear lager and it changed the realm of beer forever.
- Keep reading for a brief but enriching overview of the events that lead to the existence of lagers, the different styles of lager and the most important traits of pilsner (6-7 minute read)
- Go directly to Pilsner vs Lager
- Go to the Types of Lager Beer
- Go to Lager Glassware
In order to understand what lager beer is and how it evolved to give rise to the golden pilsner which inspired the overwhelming majority of the contemporary world’s total beer consumption you must first understand the difference between ales and lagers.
Ale vs Lager Beer
When it comes to the two main families of beer differentiation is a matter of top vs bottom fermenting yeast.
Ale. Ales are beers fermented by yeast strains which tend to float to the top of the wort and prefer warmer temperatures. This is why they are called top fermented beers. Yeast plays an important role in the overall flavor experience of the beer, ales are often yeast-esters forward.
Lager. Lagers are fermented by yeast strains which tend to settle towards the bottom of the wort and prefer low temperatures. Lagers also undergo extensive periods of lagering/maturation in a cold environment (from the German verb lagern which means to store/to keep). They are known as bottom fermented beers. Lager yeasts are clean and the focus in these brews is on the flavors derived from the malt and hops and how they are balanced.
A few common misconceptions about lager beer are:
- lagers are less flavorful than ale – totally wrong, lagers are very flavorful and certain well-crafted styles are outright delicious (traditional Oktoberfest, doppelbock, maibock for example).
- lagers are generally lower in alcohol when compared to ales – not true, while some have low ABV there are plenty of strong lagers.
- lagers do not require the same degree of skill to brew – totally wrong, in fact lagers are notoriously difficult to brew – they require more skill and experience, more steps in the brewing process and considerably longer time.
- all lagers are yellow and lack body – not at all true, lagers originated as dark brews and styles such as eisbock, doppelbock and rauchbier prove the second part of the statement false.
Evolution of Lager Beer
In the beginning there was only ale. For most of its history all the beer brewed around the world was ale. Not until the 1500s was lager yeast unknowingly cultivated by Bavarian brewers through a series of practices having to do with cold temperature fermentation and storage.
Lagers emerge as the dominant beer in Bavaria. Regulations that effectively prohibited the brewing of beer during warm months played an instrumental part in the dominance of lager yeast in Bavaria. Even though the nature of the microorganisms responsible for the fermentation of beer was not yet understood repitching yeast from batch to batch helped cultivate a cold temperature loving lager yeast strain which out-competed common ale and wild yeasts. It was gradually isolated and strengthened. The Bavarians were brewing dark lagers such as dunkel and doppelbock.
Lightly kilned malt and the British Industrial Revolution. Up until the scientific and technological advances of the British Industrial Revolution malted barley had been dark and so was all beer. The brewers and maltsters of 18th century Britain devised a new kilning method which resulted in a very lightly kilned white malt. Pale ales became possible and brewers from around Europe became interested in the new English kilns that could deliver the light colored malt. The brewers of Bohemia got their hands on the new technology and were able to make what later on became known as pilsner malt.
Pilsner becomes a style of lager. A Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll was hired by the town brewery of the Bohemian town Plzeň (Pilsen). His expertise was much needed as the quality of the local beer was failing and the town frequently had to discard entire batches.
He was given access to the best of barley and hops, the very high quality local water, strong lager yeast from Bavaria and the latest in brewing technology (including an English kiln for white malt). In 1842 he gave the men of Plzeň the world’s first pale lager and it was a resounding success.
Golden lagers dominate Europe. The new style of golden lager gained instant popularity with its perfect balance between delicate caramel malt bouquet and slightly spicy, earthy hop flavor. Within a very short time its fame spread beyond Bohemia to become all the rage in Europe. The German brewers soon followed with their own versions of the lager from Pilsen or as they called it, pilsner.
Lagers thrive in the New World. As Europeans of various beer-loving and brewing nationalities arrived to the Americas so did their beer. Those who were German, Czech and Austrian brought the lager brewing techniques and the popularity of pilsner and other golden lagers grew, and grew and grew. Artificial refrigeration strengthened lager brewing while the availability of ingredients changed it.
American barley (known as 6-row) was richer in enzymes which allowed it to work well if combined with unmalted grains. Adjunct lagers using corn and rice became common and even though they were modeled on pilsner they became a different style of beer altogether. Mass produced American lagers were lighter, less flavorful but widely consumed.
Lagers take over the world. Lagers eventually spread to every corner of the world. Modeled after pilsner (usually German, see below), with varying degrees of success and often times having nothing to do with the original concept and traits, lagers rose to the status of the most consumed beer on the planet.
The re-emergence of flavorful craft lagers in the US was lead by Sam Adams Beer Company (Boston Lager) on the East coast and Anchor Steam Brewery on the West coast. More craft brewers joined in brewing well-executed, flavorful lagers with craft malts and hops and passion for the traditional brewing methods such as triple decoction. New lager styles were also invented such as IPL (India pale lager) and a number of fruit lagers.
Pilsner vs Lager
The original pilsner lager, Pilsner Urquell, is crystal clear and alive with natural carbonation. It has beautiful wet foam and is perfectly balanced – mild caramel undertones transition to enjoyable hoppy notes. The finish is extremely clean and refreshing. No other type of lager (or ale for that matter) has had such a profound effect on beer.
The following ingredient attributes account for Pilsner Urquell’s unique appearance, flavor and immense popularity.
Pilsner malt. The sweet Moravian barley native to Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) was and still is of particularly high quality. Lightly kilned (see above for discussion of white malt) it becomes pilsner malt and gives the lager its light color and subtle caramel sweetness.
Noble hops. Bohemian Pilsner is bittered with a variety of Noble hops known as Žatec (Saaz in German) and cultivated in the fields of Žatec. The aromatic and bitter components of Žatec hops are very well balanced and they impart delicate spicy and earthy notes to the lager.
Plzeň water. The water in the town of Pilsner is a soft water which perfectly accentuates hop character and makes it feel drier and crisper.
Bavarian lager yeast. The original strong lager yeast used to ferment the first pilsner was thought to have been smuggled in from Bavaria. The strain has been carefully cultivated since.
Pilsner Urquell Brewery. While a visit to the original brewery may not be an option for everyone we do recommend a visit to the Pilsner Urquell website (ideally while enjoying a glass of the beer). The site offers an all around enriching experience commensurate with the status of the lager. You will learn about the different Czech ways of pouring pilsner for flavor, their parallel brewing practice and a lot more.
As the world’s first pale lager Bohemian pilsner enjoyed unprecedented growth in popularity and a matching increase in exports. After a few decades Bavaria was first to imitate the popular new style and responded with its own pale lager, the Munich helles.
The word helles means light/bright/pale. The composition of this lager was a bit different, the water for one was not as soft and the lager tastes milder with the balance tipped to the malt.
A German style pilsner soon emerged, lighter in color and with a more assertive hops presence than the original Bohemian pale lager. It was bittered with Bavarian hops like Hallertauer and Tettnanger. This was the style that eventually became the emulation target for light, mass produced lagers worldwide.
Pils, Pilsner or Pilsener?
In order to differentiate between the original Czech style pilsner and the more assertive German interpretations, especially the hoppier Northern versions, the truncated name pils is usually applied to the German style of the lager.
You may have also noticed that pilsner is sometimes spelled with an extra e or pilsener. This is simply an alternative spelling.
Types of Lager Beer
The following list begins with the lager styles born in Europe, the dark first then the pale, and continues to include lagers conceived in North America, mostly the US.
We include very brief descriptors due to the sheer volume of lager styles. If you are interested in more granular detail we sincerely recommend the book Lager: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Brewing the World’s Most Popular Beer Styles by Dave Carpenter. It is a must read for any beer lover, truly.
Old World Dark Lagers
Czech Dark Lager. ABV 4.2-5.5 %. Dark brown, near black with big off-white head. Roasted coffee like malt character with accompanying significant bitterness and caramel notes. Subtle hops character. A dry finish is the norm.
Try: Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar) B Dark (imported) or Devil’s Backbone Morana (US brewed).
Dunkel. ABV 4-5.5 %. Dunkel (dark in German) has two sub-styles – the richer Munich dunkel which tends to be more chocolaty and the Franconia dunkel which tends to be drier. Brown color with reddish highlights, good ivory head. Malty, with cocoa notes and a confident hops presence to balance the malt sweetness. Usually full bodied, but very crisp. The lager equivalent of brown ales.
Try: Paulaner Original Münchner Dunkel or Hacker-Pschorr Munchner Dunkel (imported) or Chuckanut Dunkel, Grimm Brothers Fearless Youth (US brewed).
Schwarzbier. ABV 4-5.5%. This black lager is all about roasted malts with bold coffee character, but low bitterness and subtle floral hoppy notes. Incredibly smooth to drink with rich malty character and dry finish.
Try: Köstritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei Köstritzer Schwarzbier (imported) or New Belgium Brewing 1554 Black Lager (US brewed).
Bock. ABV 6-7.5 %. Dark amber color with reddish hints and a full malty body with deep, complex sweetness just barely balanced by hops. Absent bitterness. Finishes with a bit of alcohol warmth, in the best of ways – like a suggestion of rum soaked dried fruit.
Try: Einbecker Breuhaus Einbecker Ur-Bock (imported) or Boston Beer Company Sam Adams Winter Lager (US brewed).
Doppelbock. ABV 7-9 %. A double bock original to Munich. Rich, malty with notes of toast, caramel, chocolate, exotic spices and dried fruit. Hopped only to balance the complex malt sweetness and displays a smooth character with a warm alcoholic embrace.
Try: Paulaner Brauerei Paulaner Salvator (imported) or Troegs Brewing Company Troegenator (US brewed).
Eisbock. ABV 9-15%. The strongest dark lager builds on bock and doppelbock and uses below freezing temperatures to extract water from the wort as it freezes, concentrating the alcohol. This potent dark mahogany colored brew greets the nose with seductive dark fruit and chocolate aromas. It is intensely skewed to the malty side with notable alcohol warmth and just enough hop bitterness to prevent it from feeling syrupy. Easy to drink so be careful (usually served in small snifter glasses).
Try: Kulmbacher Brauerei Eisbock and Schneider Weisse Aventinus Eisbock (imported) or look for it during the winter months in German style focused craft breweries.
Rauchbier. A smokey character is the dominant trait of this dark brown smoke lager. The ABV, appearance and flavor base depend on the style of beer that was smoked – typically it is an amber lager (Marzen), bock or doppelbock.
Try: Brauerei Heller-Trum Aecht Shlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen or Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche (imported) or look for it in German style focused craft breweries.
Baltic Porter (German Porter). ABV 7-10 %. Porter is usually an ale, but not this one. Original to the Scandinavian countries this brown lager is a version of the Russian Imperial style dark ales that were brewed in Britain for export. Rich with dark fruit and chocolate notes, cafe au lait smooth with pleasant alcohol warmth. It finishes quite sweet despite respectable hopping.
Try: Devil’s Backbone Danzig, Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter (US brewed).
Old World Pale Lagers
Czech Pilsner. ABV 4-5.5 %. The style at the beginning of golden lager. The ingredients are crucial to brewing it correctly as they do in Pilsen. Gold color with plentiful white head. On the nose malt and spicy hops blend together and a delicate caramel maltiness along with herbal hops follow before a perfectly balanced bitter and sweet finish.
Try: Plzeňský Prazdroj Pilsner Urquell, Budějovický Budvar Budweiser Czech Lager (imported) and Oskar Blues Mama’s Yella Pils (US brewed).
Bavarian Helles. ABV 4.5 – 5.5 %. Originally brewed as the first Bavarian pale lager, in response to the growing popularity of Czech pilsner, this straw colored lager has a malty backbone, nose and taste. Hop character is a bit subdued, because the water in Bavaria is not as soft as the famous Pilsen water and does not accentuate hops aroma quite the same way.
Try: Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan Weihenstephaner Original Premium, Zwei Brewing Munich Helles, Bierstadt Lagerhaus Helles (US brewed).
German Pilsner. ABV 4.5-5.4 %. This style is what inspired brewers around the world to try their hand at golden lagers. When you hear that a lager is pilsner-like, usually it means that an attempt was made to approximate a German pils. The Germans simply perfected the pale lager. Lighter in color than the original Czech pilsner, brilliant and clear, with clean bread or cracker like malty base (vs the caramel sweetness of the Czech counterpart). Very assertive Noble hops character and a pronounced bitterness, especially in the North of Germany.
Try: König Brauerei König Pilsener, Bitburger Premium Pils and Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus Pils (imported) or Trumer Brauerei Trumer Pils (US brewed in California available), Victory Brewing Prima Pils (US brewed).
Dortmunder Export. ABV 5-6 %. This style is sort of a catch all for German brewed pale lagers that do not conform to the helles guidelines but are not a pils either. Similar in appearance to German pils, but softer, the hops are more subdued while the maltiness a bit richer. Overall well-balanced.
Try: Dortmunder Actien Brauerei DAB Original (imported) or Great Lakes Brewing Company Dortmunder Gold (US brewed).
Märzen (Oktoberfest Amber Lager). ABV 5-6.2%. Amber lager with gorgeous copper to reddish light brown color. This seasonal style became the original Oktoberfestbier and its popularity in the US is growing even as another style lager is now more common during the annual folk fest. Uses Munich malt which accounts for the rich color and flavor. Caramel malt notes on the nose also coat the tongue, toasted bread comes to mind and sweetness is countered by floral, spicy, earthy German grown hops. Dry finish.
Try: Paulaner Brauerei Oktoberfest Märzen and Boston Beer Samuel Adams Octoberfest.
Vienna Lager. ABV 4.5-5.5 %. Another amber colored lager, very similar to Märzen but originated in Vienna, Austria. Interestingly the style almost went extinct due to the rise of pilsner, but Austrian migrants to Mexico continued to make it and it is alive and well today (think of Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar). Generally lighter in color than Märzen, with a little less emphasis on the malty sweetness while the hops presence is amplified. Very drinkable
Try: Most Mexican dark lagers (imported) and Chuckanut Vienna Lager, WeldWerks Puesta del Sol, Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager (US brewed).
Festbier. ABV 6-6.5%. This newer style lager replaced Märzen as the official Oktoberfestbier. It is what you will find served at the contemporary beer tents on the Wiesn. Gold (quite lighter than Märzen), clear and brilliant. Malty like a helles, with a dry, crisp finish. Supremely easy and enjoyable to drink.
Try: Paulaner Brauerei Wiesn, Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan Weichenstephaner Oktoberfestbier, Hacker-Pschorr Festbier (imported).
Maibock/Hellerbock. ABV 6-8 %. This style is a transition between bock lagers and helles. It is a seasonal spring brew with pale appearance but uncompromising strength. Bready sweetness on the nose with rich malty flavor balanced by floral, spicy hops. Mixed, bitter-sweet finish.
Try: Hofbräuhaus Hofbräu Maibock (imported) and Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock (US Brewed).
North American Lagers
California Common. ABV 4.5-6 %. This style is also known as California steam beer because it is fermented by lager yeast at higher than typical temperatures. As to why it was named ‘steam’ beer, there is no agreement. It has a deep copper color, toffee nose mixed with the woody aroma of Northern Brewer hops. The dominant flavor is caramel, the maltiness is assertively countered by hop bitterness. Overall very refreshing with nice, dry finish.
Try: Anchor Brewing Anchor Steam, Steamworks Brewing Steam Engine Lager.
American All Malt Pale Lager. ABV 4.5-5.5 %. The American recreation of pilsner using ingredients grown in the new world. Very similar to Classic American Pilsner (next style, see below), but brewed with only barley malt in the grain bill. Clear, straw colored, balanced and refreshing.
Try: Anchor Steam California Lager, Full Sail Session Premium Lager.
Classic American Pilsner. ABV 4.5-6 %. This style started off with the goal to brew German pils but the New World’s 6-row barley malt proved to have so many enzymes that corn was added to the grain bill. The potent sweetness is balanced with a lot of herbal hops and the finish is dry. Very few lagers of this style are still brewed – it was mainly a pre-Prohibition style of lager.
Try: Short’s Pontius Road Pilsner, AC Golden Colorado Native Olathe.
American Adjunct Pale Lager. ABV 4.5-5.5 %. There is no lighter lager that this. Brewed with maize and rice and few hops. Brilliant, clear light yellow with lasting white head. Corn versions have a pronounced sweetness that lacks in rice versions. Hop character is neutral and hops are altogether often undetectable besides the fact their balancing role. Refreshing with dry finish if brewed well.
Try: 21st Amendment El Sully, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Hoppy Amercian Pilsner. ABV 4.5-6%. A German style pils with strong focus on aggressive West coast style hopping. The hops are typically Noble hops or varieties with similar attributes, sometimes citrusy American hops. Clear, brilliant and straw colored, excellent pillowy foam. Hop forward with stable bready foundation and a bitter finish.
Try: Boston Beer Samuel Adams Noble Pils.
India Pale Lager (IPL). ABV 4.5-10 %. Basically an American IPA but brewed as a lager. Tons and tons of hops make this lager both highly aromatic and very bitter. Malt character comes in support of the bittering hops.
Try: Sierra Nevada Hoppy Lager, Ballast Point Fathom.
There are so many more varieties of lager dreamed up by US craft brewers, bursting with flavor while defying definitive classification. A red pilsner or a sticky pils with fresh American hops, imperial lagers, Americanized cereal keller pils with flaked corn, pumpkin lagers, citrus lagers, berry flavored lagers, American dark lagers (ex. Shiner Bock, but considered a historical style).
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Specific glassware has become associated with certain lager styles whether due to tradition or in a deliberate effort to present the beer in the best possible way and maximize its enjoyment.
Some contemporary brewers dedicated to the delights of lagers like Sam Adams (Boston Lager) have even designed their own glasses to showcase the merits of their brews.
Note that no rules are written in stone and opinions and practices vary. We’ll go over the most popular glassware used to serve lagers, most of them rooted in the continental styles where traditions are rich and adhered to.
Willi becher. This is THE glass you can rely on for any lager. The shape of the Willi becher glass both retains foam and focuses aromas.
Pilsner glass. It only makes sense that the most popular lager of them all should have its signature glassware. Pilsner glasses are also appropriate for serving maibock and schwarzbier. Another version of them has a stem near the base of the glass.
Augenkanne/Dimpled Mug. The quintessential glass mug of Bavarian beer halls is sturdy to withstand energetic toasting and decorated with circular indentations (augen means eyes in German). It is great for Czech pilsner and dark lager, helles, dunkle, Dortmunder export. A similarly decorated version is known as dimpled mug in Britain and used for ales.
Stein/Masskrug. From small steins to the liter large versions indispensable to Oktoberfest and German biergatens and beer halls these glasses are Oktoberfest style lagers/Marzens and festbier are served in a glass stein.
Flute. Flute glasses are used for pilsners (Czech and German) and are also appropriate for bock, maibock and schwarzbier.
Snifter. The higher the alcohol, the smaller the serving size of the beer and therefore the smaller the glass. Snifter glasses are excellent for serving lager styles like doppelbock or eisbock.
Some of the sources consulted for aggregating the information in this article include:
New Brewing Lager Beer: The Most Comprehensive Book for Home and Microbrewers by Gregory J. Noonan