Musician Frank Zappa is famously quoted as saying, “You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.” The irony of this statement is that, outside of a few countries like England and Belgium, the vast majority of countries’ “national” beer styles typically stem from a beer that comes from Eastern Europe: Pilsner.
With its strikingly clear golden hue, effervescent bubbles and crisp, clean taste, Pilsners immediately stood out from the less refined darker or hazier lagers being produced at the time. Not long after the style was first produced in 1842 in the now Czech Republic city of Pilsen (formerly in Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire), this grandfather of the pale lagers went on to influence beer production in the surrounding areas and eventually the world. Though not necessarily officially “Pilsners,” many famous beers from across the world – USA’s Budweiser, Japan’s Sapporo and plenty of other around the globe – stem from the success of the Pilsner.
So what makes a Pilsner a true Pilsner as opposed to the vast swath of pale lagers influenced by the style? Admittedly, the differences can be subtle. As one might expect, Pilsner malts are a key ingredient, which lends these beers their distinctly lighter color and slightly sweet flavor. The biggest difference may come from the hops. True Pilsners tend to use varieties of “noble hops” which present as distinctly floral and spicy. More boring pale lagers tend to dial the hops back and won’t have these refined flavors. Also, really well-crafted Pilsners can have fuller mouthfeels, not just because of their carbonation, which can be on the higher side, but also because they embrace their malt character, sometimes giving the beer a “husky” essence.
Though a lot has changed in its production methods since 1842, Pilsner Urquell is literally billed as the first Pilsner ever produced, and unsurprisingly, still holds up as a classic version of a Pilsner today, if only for that reason. However, many more recent American takes on the Pilsner are even more enjoyable to actually drink. Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing introduced its Prima Pils back in 1996 which could be seen as the modern American craft beer movement’s signature Pilsner: Aggressively hopped and beautifully floral, this beer still drinks wonderfully today. Meanwhile, West Coasters can take pride in Firestone Walker’s equally tasty and easy-to-find Pivo Pils, which also boasts a big and more bitter hop bite.
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In general, Pilsners are seeing a recent resurgence. Though for a while, the style had fallen out of favor with newer, smaller breweries (in part because of its global prevalence), some tinier breweries are beginning to embrace it again. For instance, Maine’s Bunker Brewery has made Machine Czech Pilz its flagship brew, and the beer drinks wonderfully, a bit uncharacteristically hazy, but embracing the huskiness and mouthfeel of the malts instead of leaning on the hops. So don’t fear the Pilsner – though for generation, its success made the beer world a blander place, many craft brewers are trying to revive its nuances.