Pilsner, the classic German style

Last week we discussed Dunkelweizens, not the first style that comes to mind when discussing German beers. But there’s a good chance one of the first will be Pilsner, Germany’s most famous style. Pilsners are crisp and bitter, and can have a dry finish. You’ll notice grainy flavors, reminding you of bread or biscuits, and maybe a touch of malt sweetness. Pilsners are the “hoppiest” German beers, with a bitterness from floral and herbal German hops.

DSC_0595German Pilsners were first introduced in the mid-1800s as a response to Bohemian Pilsners from the Czech Republic. Czech Pilsners are richer, darker in color and havemore malt flavor and sweetness. Of course, they are bittered with Czech hops, the earthy and spicy Saaz. German pilsners are lighter in color and malt sweetness, crisper, and hopped with Hallertau, Perle or Tettnanger hops.

German Pilsners are made with barley malt, hops, water and yeast, in accordance with Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Laws of 1516. The rule decreed German lagers could only be made with barley, hops and water. Of course you can’t make beer without yeast, but the world wouldn’t understand yeast until a few centuries later. The law was in response to brewers putting profits over quality and substituting cheaper ingredients, you know, like putting rice in beer (like modern macro industrial brewers do).

Pilsners are beautifully clear, ranging from pale yellow to light gold, with a low SRM* of 2-5. They can have a pronounced hop bitterness, with IBUs* from 25-45, similar to American Pale Ales. With a low ABV of 4.4 to 5.2%, it’s easy to put a few away with dinner without overdoing it.

Commercial Examples

A well known German Pilsner is Bitburger, the best selling beer in Germany. It’s a clean beer, with crisp malt flavors and floral hops. It pours crystal clear and straw yellow, with a full, white head. Bitburger has a light biscuity flavor and finishes with a mild malt sweetness. This Pilsner leans more toward the malt in its balance, but you still notice the flowery and herbal flavors of German hops.

DSC_0606Besides Bitburger, try Pilsners from Warsteiner, Weihenstephaner or Krombacher. The only problem with Pilsners shipped from Germany, is, umm… they’re shipped from Germany. Check packaging dates to make sure you’re getting fresh beer. (In buying beer for this post, I saw some German beer with a brew date of August 2013. The Bitburger had an enjoy by date of July 2015.)

My favorite German-style Pilsner from America is Victory Prima Pils. Prima Pils is my hands down favorite German Pilsner and one of my go-to beers. It leans more to the hoppy side of malt/hop balance, and that’s a part of why I enjoy it. But it’s also very fresh. I imagine I’d prefer some German Pilsners more if I could get them fresh on tap (on my to-do list for September 2020). Prima Pils pours as clear as Bitburger, but is a light gold, a shade darker. It has noticeable herbal hops in the nose and less floral than Bitburger. It’s also more complex with rich biscuity malt flavor, but with less sweetness.

Many American craft brewers don’t produce lagers, but there are plenty of German-style Pilsners available. Check out Left Hand Polestar Pilsner, Sierra Nevada Nooner, Stoudts Pils, Sixpoint The Crisp, North Coast Scrimshaw, Orlison Havanuther and Smuttynose Vunderbar.

Food Pairings

DSC_0620Pilsner is one of the most versatile beers for pairing and works with a wide variety of dishes. It doesn’t have complex flavors others styles may have, but its simplicity is its strength.
Pilsner’s bitterness is perfect for cutting through spicy and fatty foods. It works well with Mexican foods, cleaning the palate and letting the food flavors shine. Most seafoods are great too with Pilsner, as long as they aren’t too light. Chicken, whether grilled or Buffalo-style, shows Pilsner’s versatility. I think it’s a great beer for a cookout too and pairs with Burgers and Brats. For a cheese pairing, try a mild cheddar or a creamy camembert, to play off the beer herbal, spicy hop flavors.


Although glassware has not been discussed in the previous style post, I’ll add that from now on. Beer tastes better in appropriate glassware, and Pilsner is a style that has it’s own, the Pilsner glass. The glass is tall and thin, taller than a lager glass, yet skinnier than a weissbier vase. The Spiegelau Pilsner Glass is my favorite (the glass you see in the pictures).


*Standard Reference Method
*International Bitterness Units
*Alcohol by Volume
All quantitative specifications are from the BJCP Style Guide.