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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.

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