NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, German Pilsners have changed categories and style numbers. In the new guidelines they are Style 5D German Pils in Category 5 Pale Bitter European Beer which describes German-origin beers that are pale and have an even to bitter balance with a mild to moderately strong hoppy character featuring classic German hops. They are generally bottom-fermented or are lagered to provide a smooth profile, and are well-attenuated as are most German beers.
German Pilsners (also spelled Pilsener or just Pils) are of two types, northern German pils and southern German pils. The word pils is a shortened version of pilsner which the German brewers adopted to prevent confusion of the beers from Pilsen in Bohemia (Czech Pilsner).
The Pilsen brewers went to court to try and have the word Pilsen declared an appellation. The high court in Cologne, in 1913, declared that the word pilsen at that point was a style rather than an appellation since by then it was being brewed all over the world and most called the style of beer pilsner.
The court did ask the German brewers to designate where their beer was brewed to avoid any suggestion that it may have come from Pilsen. After a while, to avoid all the hassles, they just shortened the word to pils and it is called that to this day.
To learn the difference between the two versions of German pilsner, you only have to understand a little about brewing. The water in northern Germany is fairly hard which accentuates the up-front bitterness. These beers display a strong, zesty, citrus-like in-your-face hop bitterness.
The water in Bavaria and many other parts of southern Germany tends to be moderately to extremely soft which suppresses the bold hop bitterness. Many of the southern German pilsners favor more mellow hop aromatics than strong hop flavor and bitterness which is found in the northern German pilsners.
The pilsners are quite different as a result of the different water profiles. Northern German pils are similar in flavor and bitterness to the Pilsen beers but with more flowery notes from the German noble hops used and more lingering bitterness from the higher sulfur content of their water which helps to make a drier and more attenuated beer.
The beers from southern Germany on the other hand can be more like a Munich Helles than a pilsner. There is much more malty sweetness and less hop bitterness. At this time (using the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines), there is no distinction between the two types of pilseners in the guidelines, but keep the differences in mind when tasting the different German pilsners.
When brewing German pils, pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to minimize esters. Be sure to give the beer a diacetyl rest as diacetyl is not appropriate in the style.
A 90 minute boil is a good idea to minimize DMS, but keep the boil at a moderate level to reduce Maillard reactions which could darken the beer, pushing it out of the style guidelines.
Use only the freshest noble German hops you can find. Although Saaz is a noble hop, it is not necessarily a German Noble Hop and is more appropriate in a Czech Pilsner (Bohemian Pilsner).
If your water is extremely soft, you might want to add some gypsum and chalk to get closer to the overall German water profile.
Bittburger is a good example of the style. Try one to get an idea of how the style should taste.
When brewing German pils, pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to minimize esters and make sure to give the beer a diacetyl rest. A 90 minute boil is prudent but keep the boil at a moderate level to reduce Maillard reactions which would darken the beer. Use only the freshest noble German hops you can find. If your water is extremely soft, you may want to add some gypsum and chalk to mimic the overall German water profile.
References: Information for this page about German Pilsners was adapted from the BJCP Style Guidelines for 2008 and 2015, Germanbeerinstitute.com/Pils.html, and the German beer guide.co.uk/pils.html the British Guide to German Beer.
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