Considering there are over 100 different styles of beer and thousands of different beer recipes it is no wonder that people become confused when trying to tell the differences between styles. One of the most common areas of confusion is when it comes to a pilsner vs lager.
So what is the difference between Pilsner and Lager? In actuality, it can not be said that there is a difference between them because a Pilsner is actually a Lager, or perhaps better stated a Pilsner is one of the many styles of Lagers. Which means that all Pilsners are Lagers, but not all Lagers are Pilsners. It is understandable if this sounds confusing but bear with us as we will explain all in this article.
To start with, it is first important to understand what a Lager is…
What is a Lager?
Lagers are one of two categories of beer, the other is Ales. All styles of beer fall into one of these two categories. Each of these categories has subcategories, in the case of Pilsners they are a subcategory of Lagers.
The difference between a Lager and an Ale is the yeast used to ferment them, the temperature they are fermented at and the length of time it takes to produce them. A Lager uses a bottom-fermenting yeast whereas an Ale uses a top-fermenting yeast. This yeast requires colder temperatures and takes longer to ferment. Lagers also undergo a cold aging process that can last 6-8 weeks called Lagering.
These differences result in Lagers like Pilsners having a cleaner, crisper, and lighter mouthfeel and taste. Their appearance is also usually much clearer.
Types of Lagers
All lagers fall into one of two categories, dark or pale. Dark lagers range in color from a darker red to brown and they typically have a higher alcohol percentage or ABV compared to Pale lagers which are typically straw or golden in color.
Each of these two categories has subcategories…
Dark Lager Subcategories
The following are examples of some of the beers in this subcategory…
Doppelbock: Was originally brewed by monks in Munich. It is copper to dark brown in color, has a significantly sweet flavor from the malts used to brew it, and is typically higher in ABV.
Dunkel: Means dark in German and it lives up to its name as it is a very dark-colored beer. Flavor-wise you will find hints of chocolate and caramel. If you have ever celebrated Oktoberfest you have most likely tried this lager.
Schwarzbier: meaning black beer in German. They are best described as being what you might call a light Stout due to having similar characteristics such as their appearance and flavor but lighter versions.
Pale Lager Subcategories
When people think of lagers they typically think of lighter-colored beers such as these…
Marzen: Darker than most of the pale lagers a Marzen has a rich malt flavor balanced by the bitterness from the hops. It was typically brewed in March and goes through the lagering process during the summer months. It is another popular Oktoberfest beer.
Helles: Actually means pale in color. They actually taste and look very much like a Pilsner, however, they have a little bit more body to them. Considered a refreshing beer due to its clean and crisp taste.
Pilsner: Last but certainly not least is what could be considered the most well-known and popular beer of our time, the Pilsner…
What is a Pilsner?
A Pilsner also referred to as a “pils” by its fans and known for being crystal clear, golden in color, and having a crisp taste is arguably the most renowned beer of the last 150 years. It belongs in the subcategory of pale lager and was first brewed in the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic.
As its popularity quickly grew in a short period of time it became the gold standard for what a lager should look, smell and taste like. Many of the well-known commercial beers around the world; such as Heineken, Budweiser, and Stella Artois are considered to be pilsners.
History of Pilsner
There are two stories as to why and how pilsners were first developed. The first is that the beers at the time in the Czech Republic were lacking in quality compared to German beers and the second is that brewers in the Czech Republic were having a hard time keeping their beer from spoiling.
Regardless if one or both stories are correct the end result is the same. A brewer from Bavaria by the name of Josef Groll was tasked with developing a high-quality lager that would have an increased shelf life. The story goes that Josef brought his own yeast with him and developed a recipe that when combined with the soft water of Pilsen as well as Saaz hops to prevent spoilage resulted in the quintessential beer now known as Pilsner.
Characteristics of Pilsners
One of the main differences between pilsners and lagers in other subcategories is their taste which is largely a result of the hops used in brewing them.
Classic pilsners are brewed using Saaz hops which are a variety of hops called noble hops; they are known for the spice and floral flavor characteristics they provide to the beer. These characteristics are not overpowering and are nicely balanced with the beer’s malt sweetness but do provide for just a little added spicy hop flavor that is noticeable in a pilsner when compared to other lagers.
Their appearance is always a light straw to golden color, crisp and clear; never dark like other lagers can be. The carbonation bubbles are visible and the foam or head retention is high.
Overall pilsners are considered to be a clear, refreshing, and thirst-quenching beer with a slight spicy hop flavor that goes down very smoothly, especially on a hot day.
Types of Pilsners
Just like with most styles of beers, brewers in other countries modify the original recipe and develop their own unique version of it using locally sourced ingredients and brewing practices.
There are now what would be considered 4 types of Pilsner. The original Czech pilsner that we have described in this article as well as American, German, and Belgian versions.
American Pilsner: Most commercial beer drinkers in North America do not realize the beer they are drinking is a pilsner, they would just consider it to be a pale lager. There are really two versions of pilsner in North America.
The first would be the original that was first brewed in America by German immigrants, out of the two it would be closest in taste, aroma, and appearance to the original from the Czech Republic. It has the classic crisp, refreshing and malty flavor. Nowadays you will find Craft breweries brewing this version.
The other version is the lager put out by the commercial breweries, it is a much more watered down and lower quality version that dominated the US beer market after prohibition and up until the craft beer movement.
German Pilsner: Although the Czechs invented the pilsner, there are many who believe that the Germans perfected it. This version is very similar to the original however they use Noble hops from Germany combined with local grains and yeasts resulting in a beer that has a slightly thinner mouthfeel and a lighter color. It is considered to be a very balanced-tasting beer that is highly refreshing.
Belgian Pilsner: Although not as well known around the world, the Belgian Pilsner is the most produced and consumed beer in Belgium. They are very similar in taste to their Czech and German counterparts and generally considered to be a smooth and light-tasting beer. One of the world’s best-selling pilsners comes from Belgium, Stella Artois.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Budweiser a lager or pilsner – Budweiser is considered to be a pale lager which as discussed also means it is a pilsner.
Is Pilsner stronger than lager – Most lagers including pilsner typically have lower ABV’s than ales. The range is usually between 4 – 6%, with the average being around 4.5 – 5%.
Is Heineken a lager or pilsner – One of the most iconic beers around the world brewed by the Dutch, Heineken is a pilsner which also means it is a lager.
Is Stella Artois a pilsner – Stella Artois is a European Pale Lager which means that it is also a pilsner.
The Difference Between Pilsner and Lager
To put it simply when it comes to a pilsner vs lager it is impossible to make that comparison because a pilsner is a subcategory of lager, which means it is a lager. You can certainly compare pilsners to other subcategories of lagers, and although they are brewed in a very similar fashion they look and taste considerably different. Considered to be one of the most refreshing and easiest drinking beer types it is no wonder they are the world’s number one selling style of beer.
P.S. Be sure to check out our gift to you; Robb’s top 5 beer recipes from his brewpub. Details are on the side of the blog or at the bottom if you are on your smart device. Cheers!