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Pilsner, the original golden lager


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Jever, a pilsner from northern Germany, is emblematic of the modern interpretation of the style.

By: Stephen Beaumont


In 1842, four aspects of beer came together in a revolutionary form. A German brewer named Josef Groll, working in the Bohemian (now-Czech) town of Pilsen, combined a newly available pale-coloured malt with the soft water of the region and a local hop known in English as Saaz. He then fermented the resulting beer with a lager yeast he had brought with him from Bavaria and thus created the world’s first pilsner.


Groll’s pilsner was not the first lager beer, as is sometimes reported, since the Germans had been fermenting with cool- or bottom-fermenting yeasts for centuries (see What’s in a Beer: Yeast). Neither was it the first blonde beer, since records indicate it was fashioned after British ales of the time, nor the first beer to use Saaz hops, which had been employed in Bohemia for some time.

But when the Industrial Revolution modernized the malting of grain (see What’s in a Beer: Malted Barley) and made possible the production of extremely pale-coloured malt, it opened the door to the production of very pale-hued beer, which was what Groll created in Pilsen. That the yeast, water and hops were in place to make the beer exceptional was simply good planning combined with no small amount of luck.


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Brewer Phil DiFonzo checks on his Czech style King Pilsner at the brewery in Toronto, Canada.

While all golden lagers brewed today are the spiritual descendents of Groll’s beer, proper pilsners are generally divided into two categories: Bohemian (sometimes known as Czech) style and German style.


The Bohemian style beer is classically a balanced blend of floral and moderately bitter hoppiness and smooth, lightly caramelly maltiness. It will sometimes have a hint of a buttery creaminess to it, but should always finish dry rather than at all sweet.


The German style pilsner should be thinner in maltiness than the Bohemian original and so higher in perceived hoppiness, or bitterness. It should also be light gold in colour and quite dry with a medium to high degree of bitterness.


Outside of those two classes is grouped all the remaining pale golden beers that don’t fit into other golden lager classes. These are beers technically descended from the original pilsner, but often bear little resemblance to either the Bohemian or German style, and include most of the world’s best-selling global beer brands. Sometimes described as international pilsner or continental pilsner, they range from moderately to very mildly hoppy and bright to very pale gold in colour, with light to medium grainy sweetness.


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