Are Pilsners *Really* the Hardest Beers to Make?
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.
“Pilsners don’t lie. Because the beer’s so simple, any faults or mistakes show up. If you have a little fault in an IPA, you add some more hops, ‘hop it out,’ as it’s called, and you bury it.”
I have heard some variation on that comment (which comes from the Spectacular Failures podcast episode one Schlitz) for decades. The comparator isn’t always an IPA, but the idea—that pilsners are the hardest beers to make—has been repeated constantly since I’ve been writing about beer. It’s such a common belief that it’s passed along without context, without much thought, as an empirical fact. When I polled folks on social media, this thesis was getting the approval by three-quarters of my (educated) community. But is it really true?
In one very narrow sense, perhaps—but forwarding this as a general thesis is a lot more wrong than right, and something we should quit passing along as fact.
The Difficulty of Pilsners
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Berlin-educated founder of Zoiglhaus Brewing, Alan Taylor. He was describing the German approach to training brewmasters, in which the entire curriculum revolves around pilsners.
“To make that style, you need all the techniques in the book. If you can make a good pilsner, you can make any beer. It is hard to make good pilsner: that’s their philosophy: if you can make this beer—in which you can’t hide anything—if you can make that beer with all the technological tools we give you in your toolkit, you can make [anything]. You can make a hefeweizen; well, it’s slightly different, but it’s the same principles. You use different ingredients, you use a different mill setting for the wheat, you use different mash schedules, you use different yeasts, you use an open fermenter, but you know all about that because you learned how to make a pilsner beer. [You can make gose because] your lactic acid is being created in biological acidification, and you learn how to do that because you learn how to brew a pilsner. So you know how to make sour.”
According to the German thinking, pilsner offers an advanced course in principle and technique. Master this style, and everything else is an elaboration. Matthias Trum, who was educated at Weihenstephan, told me that the professors there didn’t know anything about making his kind of beer—rauchbier—nor did they care. And this spring, Japanese beer promoter Ry Beville told a story about the Coedo Brewery in Kawagoe. They hired a German brewmaster, Christian Mitterbauer, who would only let them brew pilsner until they completely dialed it in. It took a year.
All of this amounts to a fairly technical point, though. Pilsners expose technique. Because the parameters are so specific, deviating slightly is noticeable, even when it’s not objectionable. Miss the final gravity by half a point of Plato or leave a tiny shimmer of haze and these issues will be evident. Brewing a pilsner requires knowledge, discipline, and attention. But does that make it hard to make? Let’s consider the alternate view.
The Difficulty of Excellence
The truth is, all beers are challenging to make with consistent excellence. Even at larger breweries where systems are largely automated, the beer that comes out of brite tanks isn’t identical. It’s why breweries have tasting panels to approve each lot before it leaves the building. Making beer involves an almost inconceivable number of variables, and while most of these don’t change batch-to-batch, enough do that each brew is an adventure. Knowing how to make a great pilsner means mastering the fundamentals, and I always love talking to German-trained brewers because of the precision they bring to their thinking and approach. But that training will only take a brewer so far.
Let’s take IPA as the counter-example. The difficulty of a pilsner is its simplicity, but the difficulty of a good IPA is its complexity. Brewers must harmonize much stronger flavors, and this presents its own challenge. Figuring out how the hops will harmonize, when there are dozens of hop varieties available that can be used in thousands of combinations, and jillions (technical term) of combinations when you consider all the opportunities during the brewing process to add these thousands of combinations of hop varieties. (And cryo hops, extracts, oils, and other hop products—it makes the head spin.) Good brewers know enough to approximate an outcome in their minds, but getting everything aligned so that the resulting IPA is excellent—that’s damn hard. The idea that other beers are “easier” to make is refuted by all the mediocre examples out there. How many crap IPAs have you had? Is the batting average for excellent IPAs any better than excellent pilsners? Not in my experience.
It’s true that the profile of pale lagers is delicate enough to expose minor faults. That doesn’t mean that major faults are easier to obscure in other beers. If a beer has a microbial infection, a load of diacetyl or DMS, a fault of technique like huskiness, or any noticeable fault, it’s going to be hard to rescue that beer. Adding more hops to a diacetyl bomb just adds bitterness to the butter, which hardly improves matters. Even the original argument—if you have a fault, add more hops—seems to misunderstand the brewing process.
In Their Words
Don’t take my word for it. As the discussion unfolded, three professionals offered their views (edited very slightly for clarity—original comments here). They’re the ones actually making these beers, so let’s hear what they have to say. First up, Lisa Allen, who makes one of the country’s most well-regarded pilsners at lager-brewery Heater Allen.
“I think both beers have their challenges and they are very different challenges. The style of IPA is a bit of a moving target and I think saying "you can hide flaws with hops" is BS. However, I feel like I can go to a number of breweries, especially in Oregon, and their IPA is probably going to be pretty decent, because it's their flagship or one of their flagships. I think part of the issue is that US brewers know how to make IPAs pretty well, we've been doing it for a while and have had a lot of trial and error.
“Pilsners, at least in the traditional sense (non-adjunct), haven't. Just in the last several years have they become more popular in the craft world, so a lot of brewers don't have the experience brewing them. Pilsners take good malt, good hops, good water, and time. I also am a huge proponent of step mashing. For me it's kind of hard to say what exactly makes a pilsner difficult to brew because I brew Pilsner every week (in a very non-automated system...). They are both hard in different ways, [but] I don't necessarily think one is more difficult than the other because they have different challenges.”
Tyler Brown speaks for the IPA-maker. He’s the man behind Barley Brown’s Brewing, which has won about every IPA award there is to win.
“Our brewery has never brewed a pilsner, so I won't speak from personal experience. I would assume that given the proper brewing facility it's easier to brew a pilsner than an IPA. There are a lot of fully automated pilsner breweries around the world that crank out lots of quality pilsner from a plush, well lit, control room, with a brewer clicking a mouse and the recipe hasn't changed in years. I can't really think of the same scenario with IPAs. It seems as though quality pilsner is made very traditionally, quality ingredients, noble hops, proper water, and sound brewing practices. IPA by comparison, is a moving target. IPA brewing evolves with the advancement of hop breeding programs, the farmers commitment to growing high quality aroma hops, and the constant changing consumer market.”
Finally, Doug Rehberg, senior director of brewing at Craft Brew Alliance, brings it all home. This is an excellent way to leave things—good beer is hard, and bad beer is obvious.
I don’t think making beer is easy. Good brewing practices matched with good understanding of brewing and being consistent makes it easier. I have had both styles that were not up to standard, often without obvious flaws. I don’t think you can hide flaws, with more hops, more dark malt, serve it colder, or heavy carbonation. Poor beer is distinguishable from good beer no matter the style.
If you haven’t exhausted yourself with the discussion, feel free to add your comments below.