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Pilsners have been described as “naked” beers, meaning they are intended to be simple and stripped-down beers. They are truly a type of beer that is meant to showcase the malt and quiet hops rather than give you a flavor explosion of fruit and bitterness.
But what makes a Pilsner a Pilsner? And what exactly is it about that brewing malt that makes this beer such a go-to for drinkers and a white whale for brewers? In this Pilsner Malt Guide, we’ll discuss this style of beer, the malt that makes it, and the history behind how we got to where we are today.
First, you need to know that we have the Czech Republic to thank for the creation of Pilsners. The name “Pilsener” is Czech for “from Pilsen” because Pilseners were invented in the Czech Republic.
Pilsners were created in the year 1842 and have been recreated, imitated, but never duplicated worldwide ever since. You will see a lot of American breweries doing Czech-style Pilsners as a nod to their forefathers. Those beers adhere to the mash bill and technique of the Czech Pilsners, but because they are not made in the Czech Republic, they can only be called Czech-style.
Czech Pilsners may also be referred to as Bohemian Pilsners, so if you see them referred to as such, just know that it is the same thing. Bohemia is the Province where Saaz hops, the main hops used in Pilsners, was discovered. Those hops have been regulated and closely protected since the 1500s, when, even then, what beautiful beer this hop could create was realized.
The Pilsner Malt, like the Pilsner beer, is named after the Czech city that founded it. It is a base malt, which means that it is a malt that makes up 60-100% of the beers it’s in. Why? Well, because base malts have enough enzymatic activity to guarantee starch conversion during the mashing process. It really all comes down to science!
By definition, Pilsner malt is kind of complicated. It must be all of the following details:
- A type of pale lager malt made from two-row spring barley (more on that barley soon!)
- It is always highly modified during the malting process. This modification gives a higher starch to protein value, which is great for brewing.
- It is baked in a kiln (also referred to as ‘kilned’) to a blonde color value.
- The blonde color value must be no more than 2.5 to 4 European Brewery Convention.
The base malt of the original Pilsner in 1842 and ever since had been made from Haná (it is sometimes also spelled ‘Hanna’ or ‘Hannah’). Haná is a common variety of barley that was once very common in the province of Bohemia, where Saaz hops were discovered as well.
Fun fact: even though breweries today still use barley varieties cultivated worldwide, they are all genetic descendants of that original Haná strain!
Two-row barley is the oldest form of barley. It is wild or naturally occurring. It is called ‘two-row because it has two rows of seeds versus its sibling, six-row, along with the flowering head. It is higher in starch than protein and offers a nice huskiness to the beers it’s in. This is a desirable barley because it’s resistant to drought and has more versatility than six-row barley when it comes to the style of beers you can brew.
The kiln process of modifying the malt is to dry the grain out. This is also when the malt begins to develop those biscuity, bready flavors that you expect in a Pilsner or Pilsner malt-based beer. This cooking process is what makes them pop!
The European Brewery Convention color scale simply regulates what goes into beers and how they look. They require styles to be certain colors, to maintain consistency and high-quality in beers.
Pros and Cons of Pilsner Malts:
- Versatile, while you recognize these for their use in Pilsners, they are and can be used in a variety of beers.
- Two-row barley is hearty and easy to grow.
- Great starch to protein values (higher in starch).
- Pilsners themselves are difficult to make.
- Pilsner malt can be difficult to work with, according to what I found on conversation boards on the internet.
A Little About Saaz Hops
You can’t really discuss Pilsners without discussing Saaz hops. Saaz hops, much like two-row barley, are popular because they are functional. They are hearty and produce a high yield. Their strong resistance to mildew is also a huge plus.
Saaz hops were discovered in Zatec, Bohemia which was at the time a German province. Hence the reason why a Czech Pilsner can also be referred to as a Bohemian Pilsner.
Today, the area of Zatec is no longer a part of Germany but belongs to the Czech Republic instead. Saaz is Zatec in German, hence the name of the hops Saaz being Saaz, not Zatec. Are you keeping up?
Saaz hops are unique because they are low in alpha acid content and high in polyphenols. Those two chemical details combined result in reduced oxidation and therefore lead to a longer shelf life for the hops. But why does that matter? Well, it makes Saaz more naturally resistant to mildew than other hops, which makes it a more desirable hop to invest in. Of course, no hop is mildew-proof, but Saaz hops simply have the chemical components that make their shelf-life much longer than others.
Saaz hops are also unique because they are naturally occurring. They have not only survived in the Czech Republic, the very place they were discovered, but they have thrived at least since the 1500s. Their success in growth in the Czech Republic climate and terroir has given rise to their usage in the iconic local Czech Pilsners, and as the world got smaller, Czech-style Pilsners.
Tasting-wise, the Saaz hops really add a nice aroma to their Pilsners. They give earthy, grassy, and floral notes that don’t overtake the beer. This hop is all about that aroma, letting the palate be crisp biscuit and malt: just the way a Pilsner is supposed to be!
Saaz Hops Tasting Notes
When it comes to how Saaz hops perform in a beer, they are primarily used to add notes to the nose of the beer, and on the palate tend to be more mild and delicate. Another way that Saaz hops are unique from their peers is that they are not usually used as a bittering agent. Saaz hops are almost exclusively used for their ability to add that earthy, floral aroma to a beer, rather than bittering or juicy notes that you get from hops like Citra or Cascade.
On their own, you will get some spice with hints of pepper and even nutmeg from Saaz hops. And as I said before, in a beer, Saaz hops bring earthy, herbal, and spicy notes to the nose. Those herbal, spicy, and earthy notes are very strongly associated with Pilsners, thanks to the Czech Republic for utilizing Saaz hops and protecting their integrity so well for so long.
Because of Saaz hops, Pilsners, in general, are usually floral on the nose with mild carbonation. And because of the Pilsner malts, they have a biscuity, malty body with a thirst-quenching, crisp finish.
Around the World with Pilsners
- The Czech Pilsners pre-dates what we now know as German Pilsners.
- The German Pilsner recipe is an altered variation of Czech Pilsners, edited to accommodate their water in Germany, which was more minerally than in the Czech Republic.
- Due to different hops that grew naturally in Germany, German Pilsners continued to evolve and differ from their forefather in the Czech Republic.
- By the 1870s, the German Pilsner recipe was complete.
- Prohibition halted American craft brewing, stunting our growth in brewing. As a result, when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, consumers wanted any beer that tasted like anything at all. (As long as it had alcohol in it!)
- The result was macro brewing with companies like Budweiser and Miller Lite.
- Those macro brews are not even allowed to be called Pilsners in Europe. That’s how far they veered from the Pilsner path.
- Due to the craft beer explosion, Americans are gradually earning the respect of European brewers and drinkers. Our market has never been so rich with wonderful beers brewed in America, and that includes Pilsners!
Can’t Miss Pilsners
You cannot mention Saaz hops or Czech Pilsners without mentioning Pilsner Urquell, one of the most iconic beers in the world. This Czech Pilsner is floral on the nose, with a crisp malty dryness on the palate. Due to its popularity, you should be able to find it easily at a liquor store near you.
The Rothaus Tannenzäpfle Pils from Germany is to die for! The brewery itself was established in 1791 in the Black Forest and is Germany’s highest brewery by elevation. The Pilsner malt is grown in the Black Forest, and the hops are from surrounding local areas. The yeast is cultivated at the brewery and can only be found in Rothaus beers, and the water used comes from seven different natural springs in the heart of the Black Forest. This beer is everything a German Pilsner should be!
Representing America on this list is the STS Pils from Russian River Brewing! This is a German-style Keller Pilsner. Keller translates to ‘cellar’ and means that it is an unpasteurized and unfiltered beer. This Keller veers from the German inspiration as it is dry-hopped (which is not done in a German Pilsner) with a touch of European hops. This Pilsner is hoppy, hazy, straw-colored, with a solid malt palate, strong lager yeast, and a lovely dry and bitter finish.
Pilsner Malt FAQs
Question: Does a Pilsner have to be made in the Czech Republic?
Answer: No, but if you’re calling it a Czech Pilsner, it does. Otherwise, just add the word ‘style,’ and you’re good!
Question: Are there different styles of Pilsner malts?
Answer: Some people will say ‘German Pilsner malt,’ but that really is probably directing you towards where it is made. The regulations of Pilsner malts are universal, so distinguishing where they are made is really just telling you a little about the terroir. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, but it doesn’t make something a Pilsner malt or not.
Question: Do Pilsner malts only be created in the Czech Republic?
Answer: No, they can be grown anywhere and therefore made anywhere!
Question: Can you use Pilsner malt in styles of beer other than Pilsners?
Answer: Absolutely! A Pilsner must be made with a Pilsner malt, but Pilsner malt can also be used in any other beer.
Question: What does Pilsner malt add to a beer?
Answer: Pilsner malts make a beer biscuity and husky. Some people describe it as giving the beer a ‘white bread’ taste. When you sip a Pilsner, you’re going to get that nice dry, bready taste on the palate. That’s the Pilsner malt.
Question: Can you make your own Pilsner malt?
Answer: I suppose so, but it would mean growing two-row barley, harvesting it, etc… Essentially, you’d be starting the whole process from scratch. If you have the space, energy, and time to do that, go for it! But if you’re not a superhuman, I’d recommend finding a Pilsner malt to purchase and use that to brew a Pilsner, a Pale Ale, or really any beer you want, at home instead. It will save you the headache and the wait time!
Final Thoughts on Pilsner Malt
Even though Pilsner malts were made famous by the various Pilsners the world has given us, they are often used in other beers to give a nice white bready, biscuity taste to any beer. These malts offer a solid body and crispness to any beer they appear in.
So while making a Pilsner and working with Pilsner malt itself can be challenging, the proper outcome is quite rewarding! Pilsners have always been some of the most popular beers in the world. They are meant to showcase the quality of hops, malt, and water used in the beer. For this reason, we circle back to the beginning of this article, where I pointed out that Pilsners are often called “naked” beers. If you want to taste gentle nuance with biscuit, crispness, and floral aromas, reach for a Pilsner.