Looking at a beer menu can be intimidating. So many choices!
You may know you want something light and crisp and see both pilsners and lagers listed as such.
So, what’s the difference between a pilsner and a lager?
The short answer: a pilsner is a type of beer in the broader categorization of lager beers.
All pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners.
Kind of like money. All dimes are coins, but there are more coins than dimes. Make sense?
Let’s go a little deeper into the definitions.
When it boils down to it, there really are only two major types of beers: lagers and ales. The main difference between the two is the type of yeast that’s used in the brewing process — top-fermenting for ales, bottom-fermenting for lagers — and the temperature of the wort at the time of brewing. For the sake of simplicity, we will be sticking to the lager side of the family tree for today.
What Makes a Lager a Lager?
I can guarantee, with almost 100% certainty, that, even if you have only had one beer in your entire life, it was most likely a lager.
Americans love their lagers, which led to many companies mass-producing the beer to keep up with demand. Budweiser, Miller Lite and Michelob Ultra are all common types of lagers.
See, we aren’t in such unfamiliar territory after all.
Lagers are very crisp, light, smooth and low in alcohol. They are tried-and-true classics that pair well with any type of occasion.
Lagers are incredibly recognizable, especially if you grew up in America.
They’re plastered all over commercials and advertisements, served en masse at sporting events and prominently featured on the menu at nearly every restaurant that serves alcohol.
Lagers are popular as session beers, which is a low-alcohol brew that you can drink several of without getting too drunk.
Let’s break down more of their primary characteristics for a more in-depth explanation.
The most common types of lagers typically have a light straw or golden hue and are aptly referred to as pale lagers.
These types of beers are going to be your Miller, Coors, Budweiser, Corona, you name it.
However, there are a couple more varieties of lager that have darker red, almost brown hues. These are your dark lagers and bocks.
You can still very easily come across these types of beers in America, but they’re significantly more popular in Germany.
When you think of a typical beer smell, odds are you’re imagining a lager.
While some types of ales can carry fruity, chocolatey or even coffee aromas, lagers are very crisp and straightforward.
A lager’s flavor is extremely similar to its smell.
There won’t be any surprises on the first sip, unlike with crazier brews. Lagers are characterized by their crisp, refreshing, thirst-quenching qualities.
It’s no wonder we turn to them during a hot day at a barbecue or on the beach.
What About Pilsners?
As we mentioned above, pilsners are just a type of lager.
I know I mentioned Miller Lite earlier when talking about lagers, but you’ll notice that the can itself labels the beer as “a fine pilsner beer.”
Pilsners were born in a city called Pilsen in 1842, when a brewer named Josef Groll decided to introduce Saaz hops to his brew.
These types of hops tend to have a bit more flavor and can really kick things up a notch. Brewers can create a range of flavors in their beers using these hops, depending on how they’re used.
Many mild pilsners are almost indistinguishable from pale lagers, boasting that classic crisp, refreshing flavor.
Meanwhile, others have a much more noticeable hop flavor. These beers make for a good middle ground when you want the flavor of an ale, but the refreshing quality of a lager.
What are other types of lagers?
So, besides pilsners what are the other types of lagers?
Dunkel, Schwarzbier, Czech lager, Helles, Amber lager, and Bocks are also considered lager beers.
Here’s a very simplified drawing of what we’ve discussed so far.
Pairing Pilsners with Food
Now that we’ve tackled the primary characteristics of lagers and pilsners, let’s take the next step forward: pairing your chosen beer with a hearty meal.
When paired correctly, the complimentary flavors in both the beverage and the food unite to bring out the best in both components.
You’re sitting at the table with a nice, tall pilsner in hand. Little bit of white foam at the top, moderate hop flavor. All it needs is a bit of food to really make the flavors sing. Where do we start?
We discussed previously how a pilsner is a classic American brew.
We’re going to stick to that theme for our first round of food. A piping hot plate of chicken wings, no matter which sauce or spice rub you prefer, pairs perfectly with all types of pilsner beers.
There’s a good reason why Buffalo Wild Wings is so successful.
If wings aren’t your style, pilsners can also take the place of wine alongside a charcuterie board.
Your best bet with a dish like this will be to stack the board with mild cheddars, baked brie or other types of fresh, soft cheeses.
Pilsners are extremely versatile and work well with a variety of dishes, from sandwiches to sushi.
Our first choice today is a natural step up from the charcuterie board: a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.
The salty meat and savory cheeses compliment the Saaz hops perfectly. Just make sure you don’t choose a type of cheese that will overwhelm the beer’s flavor.
Pilsners also work well with Asian food. The bitterness in the Saaz hops does a fantastic job enhancing soy sauce, raw fish and wasabi in sushi dishes.
These beers can draw out and enhance the spicy flavors in Vietnamese and Thai dishes as well.
A pilsner might be a strange beer to pair with a dessert, but we can make it work. Most people naturally turn to a stout or porter because of their rich, chocolatey flavors.
Today, we’re going to venture away from that. A pilsner compliments lighter, sweeter desserts wonderfully, such as lemon pound cake, shortbread cookies or fruity pies.
The bitterness of the hops contrasts the fruity flavors for a surprisingly pleasant experience.
By now, you’re surely a pilsner expert. But that’s only on paper. Why not put your newfound knowledge to use and head out to your local brewery for some samples? After all, practice makes perfect and drinking beer is one type of training that I’ll never tire of.