Pilsner beer is remarkable not only for its modern dominance, but also its relatively recent origins. The popularity of Pilsner is truly worldwide, so much so that Pilsner recipes still dominates the US and many other beer markets. It is simply the most popular beer style in the world.
Pilsner’s origins can be traced to a single date and location. On November 11th, 1842, in the town of Pilsen the first keg of Pilsner Urquell was tapped. (Ref: Daniels) This makes Pilsner one of the youngest beer styles, even among lager beer styles which were brewed in nearby Bavaria at least back to the 1500’s.
Pilsen in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) had a unique combination of ingredients and circumstance to create the Pilsner style. First, the surrounding country produced light 2-row Moravian barley, considered the finest light malt for brewing beer. Second, the country produced a hops originally known as Zatac red, now called Saaz (from Zatac). Saaz hops is a noble hop prized for its aroma.
Third, Pilsen had extremely soft water that is desirable for making very pale beers, and also enhances the bitterness from the hops. Finally, Bohemian Pilsen shared many brewing techniques with nearby Bavaria. The first Pilsner was created with a combination of these four elements and the important fifth element of Bavarian lager yeast. The result was the palest of lagers with a refreshing aromatic hop finish that we now know as Pilsner.
The Pilsner Style
The defining example of Pilsner is the original Pilsner Urquell from the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech republic. In fact the word Pilsner is reserved in Bohemia exclusively for brewers in Pilsen.
Pilsners have an original gravity between 1.044 and 1.056, very light color of 4-6 SRM and hop rate of 35-45 IBUs. They have light to medium body, a clean flavor and finish with low diaceytls. They are hoppy and slightly malty with no aftertaste. They are typically well carbonated, and often served in a tall Pilsner glass to enhance the perception of carbonation.
Brewing Pilsner Beer
The unusually pale color of Pilsner derives from the use of Moravian Pilsner malt that is malted at the brewery at the low temperature of 100-122F versus 170-180F for an average lager malt. The lower temperature develops less melodin and a far lighter color than conventional lager malt. It also leaves some residual moisture that will spoil Pilsner malt if not used quickly.
Moravian Pilsner malt is most desirable for brewing Pilsners, though it can be difficult to find here in the US. Pilsner malt from other sources is an acceptable alternative, and lager malt can be used in a pinch, though it will result in a darker beer than true Pilsner malt.
Brewing light colored Pilsner from extract can be a challenge as extracts are inherently darker than corresponding grain malts due to the extraction process. The best course of action is to choose the lightest possible pilsner or lager malt extract if you want an authentic light pilsner color.
Pilsner Urquell uses 100% pilsner malt, with no other additions. Some home brewers will use a small amount (<10%) CaraPils or very light Crystal malt to add body and head retention.
Pilsners use a Bavarian style of three step decoction, though Pilsners typically are mashed with unusually thin decoctions, and then boiled for an extremely long time (often 2-3 hours) to boil off the excess water added. However, many modern commercial and home brewers use a single step infusion mash at 153 F (67 C) with equally good results. Some do add a protein rest.
Saaz hops is used exclusively on traditional Bohemian Pilsners, with hops added at the start of boil and the last hop addition about 30 minutes before the end of the boil.
Soft water is a key ingredient in Pilsner. Pilsen water has extremely soft water containing only 50 parts per million of hardness. For homebrewers, you can often start with distilled water and add the minimal water minerals needed to approximate Pilsen water.
Bohemian Lager yeast is the ideal yeast to use for a full bodied Bohemian style, though in a pinch Bavarian or another continental lager yeast can be used for a lighter, drier taste. Your lager should be fermented at 50F and lagered at low temperature of 35-40F for three to five weeks before serving.
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- Rye Cap VIII – American Pilsner – All Grain
- Honey Pilsner – American Pilsner – Extract
- Lager Classic American Pilsner – Extract
- German Pilsner – All Grain
- Miller German Pilsner – All Grain
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