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Style School: Examining the Czech Pale Lager Tradition

The world’s most influential beer style is also one of the most misunderstood outside its birth country. “Pilsner” took over the world, but the Czech source material is strikingly different and far more alluring.

Jeff Alworth Jan 24, 2022 - 12 min read

Style School: Examining the Czech Pale Lager Tradition Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

In the decades since sparkling, golden lager began captivating drinkers in the 19th century, imitations have circled the globe, put down roots in various places, and changed. Much of the world looks first to German-style pilsner—and then falls short of it. Even makers of Miller Lite call their products “pilsner.” For many folks, anything pale and fizzy qualifies. We think we know pilsner because we have tasted distant descendants of the original.

Encountering one of Czechia’s pale lagers—a světlé pivo—can therefore be a startling experience. Stop into a Bohemian pub, and you won’t see the word “pilsner” anywhere, unless it’s attached to one brand—that of Urquell. Czechs identify their lagers by strength, and the pale ones often come listed as 10˚ or 12˚. (Those are degrees Balling, very similar to Plato as a measure of original gravity.) You may also see beers offered in different preparations; some might be unfiltered, others “tank” beer. Which is the pilsner? None of them? All?

The problem is, we’re thinking about them all wrong. For the Czechs, pale lagers are more of a tradition—a part of daily life—than they are a style. Political history, agronomy, and drinking culture all play important roles in how they view and brew their beer.

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