Pilsener and American Lager: Origin and Evolution

How one little beer from Czechoslovakia took American beer to hell and back.  A brief history of American mainstream beer and a comparison of its categorization by the BJCP, BeerAdvocate, and RateBeer.

Pilsner, or Pilsener, is a style of lager that originated in Pilsen (Plzeň) in the Czech Republic. It is exceptionally light in color and body and has delicate flavor. This style is properly known as Bohemian or Czech Pilsener and the quintessential example is Pilsner Urquell, which is widely available.

When this style of beer was originally developed in 1842 the public trend toward lighter looking and tasting beers had already taken off. The Germans quickly followed by creating the German Pilsener, which showcased herbal Hallertau hops from Germany rather than the spicy Saaz from the Czech Republican. These first pilseners are regarded as “true pilseners” and they each show off a certain variety of hops in the “Noble” family of hops native to that area of Europe.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines has a third category of Pilsner in addition to Czech/Bohemian and German: The American Pilsner. This beer is of similar composition and quality as the European counterparts, but it is made up with all American malt and hops. RateBeer also has a “Pilsener” category where Pilseners that are not Czech or German can fit in.

In the United States brewers quickly followed suit as well, but American brewers had some difficulty replicating this delicate beer. American barley was typically lower in quality and less suited for producing such a light beer. The use of adjunct grains (e.g. not barley) such as corn and rice exploded in order to provide lighter bodies that were otherwise unattainable at the time without costly importation of premium two-row barley from Northern Europe.

This specialty usage of adjuncts explains why beers like Budweiser use rice. It really was for flavor and appearance rather than to cheapen the product. Of course, over time adjuncts like corn and rice began to serve a dual purpose and provided both the lighter body consumers desired as well as offering cheap filler for thrifty brewers. While there are limits today on the percentage of adjuncts that may be in a beer, cheap lagers can be made with as little as 60% barley malt.

While lack of proper materials caused American brewers to utilize them in order to make lighter colored and bodied beers in the nineteenth century, they are no longer necessary in creating a good Pilsener in America. Unfortunately, corn and rice are more often abused. The core portfolio of the traditional American breweries (Bud, Miller, Coors) is built on the flagrant usage of adjuncts. The continued use of adjuncts allows shady brewers to continue using cheaper and poorer quality six-row barley and continue making light colored/bodied beer. When a major brewer claims the recipe hasn’t changed since the nineteenth century, this piece of trivia, while nostalgic, just exposes a refusal to make better beer now that better ingredients are available.

Poor quality pale lagers made with adjunct grains do not receive the privilege of the name Pilsener. In addition to the cheapening with adjunct grains, these beers also typically lack the showcase of spicy, herbal, floral, and grassy hops. These beers taste rather generic, but are generally inoffensive and drinkable. The emergence of the great American corporation in post-World War II America led to national brands that consolidated countless generic varieties of beer and grew through clever mass marketing. While Miller Lite may be “triple hops brewed” most beers are, and Miller Lite has no discernible hop flavor or aroma. It certainly is not a Pilsner.

These famous and basic lagers, inspired by but no longer considered to be Pilsners, became known as American Lagers. These can be categorized in various ways. It is the belief of Extol Beer that the inclusion of adjuncts in these lagers is important enough to determine the categorization. Most common American lagers include adjuncts, so Extol Beer prefers the term American Adjunct Lager for these beers. The BJCP and beer industry calls this category “Premium American Lager” but the reality is not as congruent as one would like.

All-malt versions (without adjuncts like corn or rice) of these beers do exist and BeerAdvocate calls this category “American Pale Lager.” This is a step up from the “Premium” category for sure. On the other hand, there are even lower tiers of beers with more adjuncts. Economy or value brands like Busch, Miller High Life, and Keystone are “Standard American Lagers” according to BJCP.

On the bottom of the heap are malt liquors. They contain the highest amount of adjuncts and usually the highest amount of alcohol. Forgive the crass reality, but they get people drunk cheap. The BJCP does not recognize this category, but both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer do.

The chart below shows different types of Pilseners and American Lagers and how different style guidelines distinguish between the variations.

American ingenuity also spawned the Light/Lite Lager. The original version was Gablinger’s Diet Beer, which turned into Meister Brau Lite and then Miller Lite. So Lite is the original, except it was called Diet. Ironically, Light Lagers are now the biggest market segment in beer, with Bud Light eclipsing the original in 1992. Light Lagers are adjunct lagers designed to have little flavor and body. The way I see it, the ultimate goal of Light Lager is to taste as much like water as possible. With Bud Select 55, we are well on our way to this perplexing destination. BJCP recognizes the “Lite American Lager” category as does BeerAdvocate.

In the 1970s almost all beer in America was an Adjunct Lager, and truth be told the vast majority still is today. Yet we must remember that not all adjuncts are bad. Craft breweries have learned to utilize grain adjuncts in a positive way, using them without sacrificing good flavor. Rice gives the The Bruery’s Trade Winds Tripel a boost in gravity and lightens the color rather than the traditional candi sugar, and it pairs nicely with Thai Basil for a Southeast Asian influence in the beer. This bright spot in the land of adjuncts, however, is a far cry from the adjunct lager industry that comprises most of the American marketplace.

All malt lagers are enjoying more success, and thanks to the craft beer revolution the true Pilsener is making a resurgence as well. American Craft Brewers are now going back to the roots of these styles and are starting to produce true Pilseners once again. Delicate and freshly floral Noble hops combined with crisp malts are making a comeback. Beers like Samuel Adams Noble Pilsner, Victory Prima Pils, and Moonlight Reality Czeck are showing us that a well balanced Pilsener can be just as amazing as any other style of beer.

Craft brewers are not only bringing Pilseners back in style; they are innovating new styles of beer altogether. The Imperial Pilsner is a uniquely American style of beer that pumps up the alcohol and matches the Noble hops to create a tasty new style of beer that is both highly drinkable and high gravity. Both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer recognize this style, however BJCP does not, with examples still falling under Category 23: Specialty Ale.

Many craft beer drinkers started on the lesser beers inspired by the Pilsener and write off the category altogether, but craft brewers are now giving us plenty of good reasons to come back to fizzy yellow beer that is actually good. Pilseners are misunderstood by many beer drinkers, but excellence is definitely there if we look closer.

©2010 Extol Beer


2 responses to “Pilsener and American Lager: Origin and Evolution

  1. One correction…ratebeer has the “Premium Lager” category for all malt lagers…

  2. Thanks Andrew. I am updating my chart.

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