We have had a few conversations in the last week triggered by New Zealand Epic Brewing’s release of Larger, their new imperial pilsner. A German friend was confused by the concept of an 8.5% beer in a style known for easy drinking. “Why would a brewer try to get more from a beer essentially designed to taste like nothing?” (Larger is in fact what it claims to be, a pilsner on steroids, hoppy and strong.)
Of course ubiquitous pilsners are light coloured and hoppy, but how are they different from other light lagers? For us they are a perfect summer hop delivery vehicle, ideally with enough hops to linger on the palate, and a toasted malt character playing a supporting role.
Very few classic beer styles have a recorded place and date of their invention, but this one is named after Plzen, the Czech town at whose city brewery the first pilsner debuted in 1842. Pilsners were the pinnacle of brewing technique, combining bottom fermenting German yeast, cool lagering techniques, quality hops, and the recently developed lightly kilned malts to create a sparklingly clear, light coloured beer. The style soon spread across Europe and then America. Pilsner, the brand, became a beer style, and Pilsner Urquell (the original pilsner) a new brand.
Pilsners went well with food, looked nice in a glass, and as refrigeration became common, could be made and served anywhere. The industrial revolution ensured that the cold new thing was a hit. Over time, brewers have created other light lager styles, often with a less pronounced hop character, or dryer malt character, sometimes still calling them pilsners.
The World Beer Cup style guidelines list over 20 categories of light coloured lagers, all or which owe something to the original pilsner. Pilsner categories include the Bohemian, German, American and International styles.
The key differences in pilsner styles have to do with the malt flavours and of course the hop aroma, flavour and bitterness. International and American pilsners are lighter bodied and less flavourful overall than their German or Bohemian counterparts because up to 25% rice or corn is added to the mash. (Some commercial entities also use corn sugar.)
The biggest difference between German and Bohemian Pilsners is in the flavour intensity. German pilsners are lighter and cleaner with less malt biscuit and hop flavour. They finish with a clean assertive hop bitterness which can often linger. The Bohemian style is a bit darker, a bit maltier with biscuit qualities, and has more hop flavours to balance the malt. (The softer water in Pilzn softens the hop bitterness compared to other regions.) The International style is the lightest all around with low hop character.
All of these beers traditionally have used “noble” hops. Saaz (Czech) and Tettnanger (German) lend a spicy floral characteristic to the beers.
While many New Zealand Pilsners use NZ or imported versions of these hops, others have been venturing out, trying other combinations. Christchurch’s Twisted Hop produce Sauvin Pilsner with distinctive fruity Nelson Sauvin hops layered over German Hallertau spiciness.
Closer to home, Nelson breweries produce a range of Pilsners to suit every taste. Sprig and Fern, Founders (JR Duncan and Sons), Lighthouse, Dead Good and Golden Bear regularly produce pilsners. Amongst these you will find everything from the light international to the hearty Bohemian style. This summer, if the rain ever ends, you should have plenty of opportunities to start picking which is which, and find your perfect balance.
Originally published in the Nelson Mail.