Have you ever drunk a beer and wondered what kind of style it was? Understanding the variations between the large variety of beer types is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of beer and homebrewing knowledge.
Read on for a comprehensive comparison between 2 popular beer styles: pilsners and lagers, including their respective types, notable brands, best serving temperatures and foods to pair with!
Lager is one of the 2 main types of beer in the world besides ale. It’s also the most popular and widely available beer style.
Lager is derived from the German word for “storage”, as the beer was historically preserved in cold caves before consumption.
Types of lager
1. Pale lager
ABV: 4.1 – 8%
Pale lager is the most common type of beer produced in the world. It was created in the 19th century with pale ale brewing techniques and is best served cold.
Variations of the pale lager include:
- American lager: Lagers made in the United States with subdued hop flavour
- Pilsners: Notable hop flavours with a dry finish
- Helles: Traditional German pale lagers with a light sweetness
- Dry beer: Pale beers with little to no sweetness
2. Dark lager
ABV: 4.4 – 6%
Until the introduction of pale ale brewing techniques, most lagers were dark. In comparison to their pale counterparts, dark lagers have a maltier and smokier flavour.
Examples of this drink include:
- Vienna lager: An amber to brown dark lager with a slight malty sweetness
- Dunkel: Brown German lagers with a smooth malty flavour
- Schwarzbier: German lagers that are almost black in colour with a strong maltiness
Popular lager brands
Also known as pils, a pilsner is a variation of the pale lager. This style of beer originated in the 19th century in the Czech city of Pilsen, where it derived its name from.
Main styles of pilsners
1. Czech pilsner
ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%
The Czech pilsner is the original pilsner created in the city of Pilsen. It was created by Josef Groll, a Bavarian brewer who combined lager yeasts, light malts and Saaz hops.
This pilsner features an invigorating balance of soft malts with spicy Saaz, and is topped with lots of foam. The result is a subtle bitterness with a clean finish.
2. German pilsner
ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%
The German pilsner acquired popularity and its own style after it was created from Czech pilsners being brewed with German lager yeasts. It can be brewed with Saaz or other German hops.
In comparison to the Czech pilsner, this is more hoppy and features a malty sweetness with a hint of citrus. It’s known to be a great palette cleanser due to its focus on hops.
3. American pilsner
ABV: 6.5 – 8%
The American pilsner was developed after the Germans took their pilsners to America with them. It was created during the craft beer movement in the 1960s.
The Americans adapted the pilsner with more intense flavours, hops and higher alcohol content, making it the strongest version of the pilsner style.
Popular pilsner brands
Comparing pilsners and lagers
*Lager properties are based on American lagers, pilsners, vienna lagers, dunkels and schwarzbier. Note that this is a more general description and different lager types will have distinct unique appearances and tastes.
Lagers: Depends on the type of lager
As there are pale and dark lagers, appearances will vary. Pale lagers can be found in pale yellows to golds. They’re thin and clear in consistency, almost akin to water.
On the other hand, dark lagers are deeper in colour, ranging from amber to dark brown. They can be quite opaque and their white froth is heavier.
Pilsners: Pale yellow to gold shades
As the pilsner is a type of pale lager, it comes in a light straw to a deeper golden colour. Its body is also described to be crystal clear.
Pilsners are also topped with large and thick white foam.
Lagers: Varies based on type of lager
The flavour profile of a lager depends on its type. Pale lagers are often noted to have a more clean, crispy and refreshing taste with subtle flavours and lower levels of sweetness.
Dark lagers are fuller in their flavour profiles. They’re toasty, nutty and have a malty sweetness. The bitterness is very fine and won’t overwhelm the overall taste.
Pilsners: “Spicy” and hoppy
In comparison to other pale lagers, pilsners have a distinctive “spicy”, invigorating and palette-cleansing flavour due to more usage of hops.
It’s described as a ‘spicier’ and more hoppy pale lager.
Lagers: Bottom fermentation and lagering
Lager beer is made through bottom fermentation, which is the process of using strains of yeast that ferment effectively at cold temperatures.
Depending on the type of lager to be made, appropriate malts, hops and yeast are selected, brewed and then fermented at cold temperatures. The ideal temperature is 4 – 13°C and the process can last anywhere from 1 – 3 weeks.
This is the process of ageing the beer after primary fermentation, which can span around 2 – 6 weeks. Lagering takes place at near-freezing temperatures of 0 – 2°C.
After the beer looks smooth with minimal leftover fermentation, it’s ready to be packaged!
Pilsners: Brewed with pilsner malts and Saaz hops
As a pale lager, pilsners are also made through a process* of bottom fermentation and lagering. Lightly-coloured pilsner malts, a bottom-fermenting lager yeast and Saaz hops are used to make classic pilsners.
The malt, hops and yeast are fermented at a temperature of around 4°C for a duration of 1½ weeks. Once the temperature reaches 9°C, the fermentation is stopped and prepared for lagering.
As with other pale lagers, the lager for pilsners is kept at around 0 – 2°C. The fermented mixture is stored in stainless steel tanks for around 5 weeks. Once there is minimal residue, the pilsner is ready to be packed!
*The brewing process is based on Pilsner Urquell.
Ideal serving temperature
Lagers: Pale lagers best served cold, dark lagers slightly warmer
For pale lagers, 3 – 7°C is the ideal temperature for serving. Ice-cold temperatures could completely conceal the drink’s flavours, and overly enhance its bitterness and dryness.
On the other hand, dark lagers taste better when they’re served slightly warmer at 7 – 10°C as it brings out the expression and complexity of the hops. Take dark lagers out of the fridge earlier to allow them to heat up slightly.
Pilsners: Served cold at around 3°C
A suitable serving temperature for pilsners is around 3°C. This temperature is perfect enough to enhance the refreshing flavour of a pale lager while retaining its flavours.
Best food pairings
Lagers: Spicy foods for pale lagers and meaty dishes for dark lagers
When pairing foods with pale lagers, spicy foods are the way to go! Pale lagers give a nice contrast to bold spicy flavours with their lightness, allowing them to cleanse the palette well.
For dark lagers, their richness and complexity complements hearty meat dishes such as pizza and bratwurst.
Pilsners: Spicy foods or light snacks
Pilsners are clean and light with a refreshing taste that comes from the use of Saaz hops. Due to this, they help balance out complex and spicy dishes.
The additional kick you get out of a pilsner can also bring out the best in light or simple snacks or desserts, such as salads and lemon tarts.
The difference between pilsners and lagers
Lagers can encompass both pale and dark variations, each with their own unique flavours, aromas and finishes. A pilsner is essentially a ‘spicy’ pale lager.
We hope that this has helped you understand the 2 beer styles better and entices you to try them out for yourself. You’ll also be able to impress your peers with your newfound beer expertise!