The Rise and Fall of Pilsner, the Original Pale Lager

Here's how the bestselling beer in the world became so underappreciated.

On a tour of eight essential styles of beer, Anne Becerra — the first female certified cicerone in New York City — begins with Pilsner. She reminds attendees at the 2024 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen that beer is even older than wine, dating back to Mesopotamia. And while it was long a murky, warm, sour form of sustenance that was safer than drinking water, everything changed with the first Pilsner.

<p>omilaew - Getty Images</p>

omilaew - Getty Images

The German brewer Josef Groll developed the first Pilsner pale lager at Bürgerbrauerei (now Pilsner Urquell Brewery), naming the groundbreaking beer after the city where it originated: Pilsen in the Czech Republic. The style is characterized by Pilsner barley malts and it notably popularized bottom-fermenting beer at lower temperatures than the top fermentation used for ales. Keeping beer cold was a game changer.

“It's refreshing, it's tasty, and it explodes,” says Becerra, noting that the milestone coincided with advancements in transportation, pasteurization, refrigeration, and even glassware.

Related: Do You Know the Difference Between Pilsners and Lagers?

While the Czech Republic adopted the style first, Germany followed suit, and both countries became synonymous with beer. Becerra — who develops beer programs, tastings, events, and education — walks the audience through the story of Germans bringing their love of lager to the United States where “warmer English-style ales were the norm and what people were used to drinking.” Refreshing, crisp lagers were a welcome change, as was German beer culture’s convivial beer hall drinking.

U.S. breweries began opening in places like Brooklyn, but with local agriculture came different types of barley, corn, and rice. Thus, a variation in the style — American light lager or adjunct lager — was born.

“Now this style really takes off, big time, and it's refreshing; light, light, light; again, cold; and it's cheaper,” Becerra says.

But right when Pilsner became hugely popular, Prohibition shut down many breweries in the 1920s. The biggest brands suspected the ban on alcohol was temporary, though. With foresight and financial means they used their names and logos to produce legal products like ice cream — with mass promotion by sponsoring baseball teams, for example. “So when Prohibition ends, we have all these technological advances, and these titans of industry brewing the majority of the beer,” Becerra says.

This is when Pilsner went “from a local craft product to a national, homogeneous one, and it lasts for a very long time,” she says. “Fast forward to today, and this edited version of Pils is still the bestselling beer in the world — everywhere.”

Ubiquity led to underappreciation. Americans took easy-drinking Pilsner for granted. Even the makers still promote the crisp, refreshing functionality over the nuances in taste and smell.

Related: The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers Ever Brewed

“We drink them watching the game. We drink them out of the bottle, especially the cheaper ones. So we're just kind of used to it,” Becerra says. “But a really great, well-made Pils is phenomenal, and it's as elegant as it comes.”

In fact, in 1996 Victory Brewery in Pennsylvania, released Prima Pils, the first craft Pilsner that influenced American breweries to reinvest in the style.

“It made people take a step back and be like, ‘This is delicious,’ and if it's done right, it can be refreshing and crisp, but also really, really flavorful,” Becerra says, crediting the release with reviving Pilsners and pale lagers at American craft breweries.

For a true taste of Pilsner, try the German style from Weihenstephaner, the world’s oldest brewery, and Victory’s Prima Pils, brewed with German hops. You may be surprised, and you’ll still be refreshed.

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