When I’ve got a hankering for a cold, crisp, crushable beer, lagers and pilsners are at the top of the list. My favorite ones are generally light-bodied, perfect for a day on the river and/or lying prone on my patio after operating a lawn mower. But what’s the difference between these two brews? Take a sip, and you’ll notice that pilsners tend to be a bit hoppier and more full-flavored than standard American lagers—but the precise difference between lagers and pilsners comes down to history.
What is a lager?
Lagers are as diverse and unique as lager drinkers. Up top, I mentioned that I enjoy light-bodied lagers (think American lagers like Narragansett), but I’ll also reach for the malty, bright golden goodness of a Helles lager (Chicago-based Dovetail Brewery makes a great one). While I personally gravitate toward paler lagers, there’s a whole subset of dark lagers available to those looking for a rich, Bavarian-style drinking experience.
We could spend all day discussing the characteristics of different types of lagers, but in the interest of time, I’ll say this: A lager is a type of beer made via bottom fermentation, a technique that allows the brewing yeast to gather at the bottom of the fermentation tank. This results in the clean, crisp flavor you likely associate with a lager.
What is a pilsner?
Here’s where things get a little confusing. Before we dive in, know this: All pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. Think of a pilsner as a new-wave lager, created a bit later than some traditional lager varieties. Pilsners are, in essence, the new kid on the lager block.
As we’ve outlined before, pilsners originated in the Czech Republic city of Plzeň (Pilsen). City officials didn’t set out to create a new beer variety; they just built a new brewery during the height of the industrial revolution and hired a Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll to handle the rest. Takeout beer expert Kate Bernot explains what happens next:
“Legend has it the town expected Groll to brew a brown Bavarian lager, but the first batch came out golden and effervescent, with a creamy head of snow-white foam. In a time of thick, turbid beers, this refreshing brew from Pilsen was a revelation.”
The pilsner was born. Groll had tweaked the standard lager recipe, highlighting the region’s famously soft water, malty barley, and Saaz hops, the latter of which give the pilsner-style lager an unmistakably spicy flavor to this day.
You’ll find a few different types of pilsners on today’s market. That includes slightly hoppier German pilsners, a host of light, smooth Belgian pilsners, and, my personal favorite, the bready and sweet Czech or Bohemian pilsners like Pilsner Urquell.
Tasting the difference between pilsners and lagers
Like I mentioned above, a pilsner is really just a spicier and more hop-flavored lager. Pilsners are the way to go if you’re looking for the refreshing crispness of a lager, but with a little more flavor. The difference is unmistakable; think of the rich flavor of Old Style contrasted with, say, a Budweiser or Yuengling. If you’re still not sure you can spot the differences, try conducting a little at-home taste test with two or three brands. You’ve earned it.