Despite what the limited range of macrobrewed American lagers would suggest, pale lagers are varied, challenging, and very enjoyable beers. Many brewing historians point to the advent of glassware as the point when the beer drinkers of the world turned away from darker styles in favor of pale lagers, as drinkers could more clearly see the beer and appreciate the light color and clarity. The interplay of hops and malt takes center stage in many of these sub-styles, and with the overall cleanness of the flavor, the balance can be quite delicate. For homebrewers pale lagers are often the most challenging beer to brew: techniques like cold fermentation and decoction mashing are often employed, and attention to high quality ingredients and detail in the recipe and process are a must.
Pilsner is the most successful and widely imitated style of beer in the world. It was invented in Bohemia by combining lagering techniques with very pale malt; the resulting original Pilsner is still produced today under the name Pilsner Urquell. This original was made with very soft water, which helped in numerous stages of the brewing process. The hops were always Czech Saaz, which is still considered one of the finest and most delicate varieties. Pilsner is a very balanced beer, with firm, round malt flavors and good body, but significant mellow bitterness and spicy hop character. The malt characteristics are heightened by a traditional triple-decoction mash. The Pilsner was very successful and was quickly made by breweries all over. The German style of Pilsner is similar, but has a lighter body and more pronounced bitterness. American Pilsners were very popular prior to prohibition, but were rarely brewed afterwards, though the name “pilsner” is sometimes used in marketing for American macrobrews. An American Pilsner has a similar level of bitterness and hop flavor as the classic Bohemian Pilsner, but with a slightly lighter body due to the use of corn or rice in the mash.
BONUS: Try brewing a honey pilsner.
The Helles style, first brewed by the Spaten Brewery in Germany, was a response to the pale Pilsners created in Bohemia. Unlike German Pilsner, however, the hops are not aggressive, which allows the pleasant sweet maltiness to shine. Helles is pale and very clear, with an impressive white head of foam. Pilsner malt is the feature, usually 100% of the grain bill, and German noble hop varieties like Hallertau and Tettnang are used as well. A period of lagering should leave the beer with excellent clarity and very clean flavors.
This is the style of beer most popular in America since prohibition. The macrobreweries of the US have elevated the production of this style of beer to a very precise, very well-researched science. But there’s not reason a homebrewer can’t make excellent versions as well, full of their own personal character. The American Lager is a very pale, clear beer that has a smooth cleanness from cold storage and a slightly sweet character from the grains used. Barley is still the base of the beer, but up to 40% of rice or corn are added, which lightens the body considerably and provides corn-like or crisp flavors. The crispness is heightened by a high level of carbonation. Many homebrewers consider this to be a highly challenging style of beer to brew, as any faults in the brewing process will be highly noticeable, with no significant malt or hop flavors to cover them up.
BONUS: Check out the Pre-Prohibition American Lager.