German Pilsner, more often simply called “pils” in Germany, is a light-bodied and highly attenuated lager beer brewed from 100% barley malt and generally defined as a golden-colored bottom fermented bitter beer showing excellent head retention and a floral hop aroma. Together with its namesake and forerunner, the original pilsner from the town of Plzeň (Pilsen) in Czech Bohemia, German pilsner is the ancestor of the vast majority of beers brewed in the world today. From Heineken to Budweiser, from Peroni to Corona, most commercially brewed beer is golden lager, even if most of them are not made to the same standard as the originals.

That said, the use of the name “pilsner” has been a point of contention since the emergence of the style in the 1840s. For most German brewers (and almost all German beer consumers) there is little doubt that pils, pilsner, or pilsener (the terms are used interchangeably) is a style of German origin. Part of the reason for this may be that the creator of the style was Bavarian born and trained Josef Groll (1813–1887) from Vilshofen near Passau. See groll, josef. He was the first head brewer of Pilsen’s Měš ’tanský Pivovar (Citizens’ Brewery or, in German, Bürgerliches Brauhaus). And Pilsen was a town with an influential German-speaking minority and the beer style that had made the town a household name came from a German-owned brewery. German breweries started brewing (and marketing) pilsner beers in the early 1870s, about 30 years after Groll had started brewing what we now know as Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj in Czech). See pilsner urquell. Most of the breweries that copied the style would have insisted that their beer did not differ from the original in appearance, taste, and even analysis.

One of the breweries that is still famous for pilsner in Germany is Simonbräu from Bitburg (now marketed as Bitburger). Theobald Simon introduced his first “bier nach pilsner art” (beer of the pilsner type), in 1883. At the Landgericht Trier (state court at Trier) in 1911 and again at the appellate court in Cologne the next year, Bitburger was sued for unlawfully using the term “pilsner” and they lost both cases. But in 1913 the Reichsgericht in Leipzig (then Germany’s supreme court) ruled in favor of Simonbräu as well as Radeberger Exportbierbrauerei that pilsner had become a generic term and Bitburger (and other breweries) could use the term freely for beer brewed in Germany.

They did so in rather modest quantities. Bavarian-style dunkel was far more prestigious, and local beer styles remained more popular. By 1927 there were only 329 breweries producing their own version of a pilsner; by 1939 the number had risen to 458. Even though the world has come to think of pilsner as the quintessential German beer style, only 1 in 10 commercial breweries in Germany brewed the style before World War II.

Change came slowly after the industry had recovered from the devastations of the war. In this era of steady growth many small breweries discovered the virtues of the pilsner style, and they were encouraged to do so by the professors at both Weihenstephan in Munich and the VLB in Berlin. The role of professor Ludwig Narziss cannot be overestimated. Formerly head brewer at Löwenbräu (1958–1964) he was appointed head of the department of brewing technology (at that time Lehrstuhl für Technologie der Brauerei I) in Weihenstephan, a position he held until 1992. See narziss, ludwig. Narziss taught two generations of German brewmasters how to achieve light-colored and clean-tasting pilsner-style beers by focusing on modern brewing techniques. These included brewing with low levels of oxidation during the mashing, lautering, and boiling phases in the brewhouse as well as implementing state of the art yeast management. Weihenstephan’s yeast strain W-34/70 proved to be the most reliable for the production of highly attenuated, crisp, and clean pilsner beers. Therefore, this particular strain became the standard in most German breweries. By the 1970s the German pilsner style differed notably from the Bohemian original. The aroma of diacetyl, a buttery-tasting compound produced by yeast during fermentation, remained somewhat characteristic for a Bohemian style pilsner but had disappeared from most German pilsner beers. The use of the famous Czech Saaz hops, considered style-defining up to World War II, also went by the wayside. German pilsner had diverged into a distinct variant of the style.

Small family-owned breweries from rural parts of North Rhine-Westphalia, among them Krombacher, Veltins, and Warsteiner, modernized their equipment in the 1960s and built breweries large enough to quench the thirst of the beer drinkers in Germany’s most densely populated areas in the valleys of the rivers Rhine and Ruhr. Local beers (altbier, kölsch, and Dortmunder export) fell out of fashion along with the large breweries that had dominated the markets in the industrial towns when the country breweries brought their clean tasting (albeit somewhat bland) pilsner beers to the urban beer bars. By the late 1980s about two thirds of the German beer market consisted of pilsner. Pilsner became so popular that beer drinkers built rituals around it, energetically discussing the right dispensing method, which bizarrely came to include such features as a 7-minute draught pour. They claimed that it took this long to build perfect foam, and it took years for many to realize that the beer actually tasted better if served quickly. Beer drinkers also demanded that their local breweries introduce their own pilsner brands. Most breweries did, including those in Bavaria where it had been a common belief that the relatively hard water in southern Germany would not allow brewers to produce authentic pilsner beers; the water from Pilsen is famously soft. Some of the most characteristic examples of the German pilsner style now come from the south—the aromatic Waldhaus pils, the Meckatzer pils, and the Ketterer pils, to mention a few. These beers emphasize the hop aromas of southern German hops, most prominently Tettnanger. See tettnanger (hop). Northern German beers maybe somewhat higher in bitterness, but typically have less hop aroma, with Jever Pils being the most prominent example. In the meantime the right to use the name “pilsner” was challenged over and over again. As late as 1966 Pilsner Urquell (then a state-owned Czechoslovakian National Company) was forced to drop the right to exclusively use the term “Ur-Pils” (a brand name also used by Karlsberg in Homburg/Saar and a couple of smaller breweries).

Today, the straw gold color remains a hallmark of the style, but bitterness has decreased substantially in most examples and now averages about 26 IBUs. See international bitterness units (ibus). A series of analyses carried out by the VLB shows that there has been a steady decrease of bitterness in the hundreds of samples they analyze every year. In 1973 the average German pilsner would have had a bitterness of 34 IBUs, with extreme samples going as high as 50 IBUs, and the low end of the scale having only 16 IBUs. There was little change until 1985, but by 1995 the average bitterness was down to 30, and another decade later it was 27. Statistics from 2008 indicate an average of 26.5 IBUs for German pilsner beers, with the lowest ranking sample having only 13 IBUs and the highest, 37 IBUs.

In the style guidelines for the prestigious World Beer Cup competition, German pilsner is still defined as having 30 to 40 IBUs, but the German brewers themselves have allowed the snappy hop character of pilsner to erode.

As of 2010 it was estimated that beers labeled as pils, pilsner, and pilsener accounted for two-thirds of all beer sold in Germany, with the majority of this beer sold in northwestern Germany where it holds about three-quarters of the market; and a shrinking market in the south, where pilsner accounts for only about one-quarter of total beer sales.