A pilsner is a type of pale lager that is typically recognized by the use of noble hops in brewing, as well as using bottom fermentation and cold storage. This type of beer is named after the town in which it was invented, a Bohemian town named Pilsen, now called Plzn and located in the Czech Republic. The name typically refers to a lager that is pale yellow or golden in color and which often has a more subdued and approachable flavor. A pilsner from Germany will often be somewhat bitter in flavor, while Czech pilsners have a lighter flavor, and some Belgian and Dutch varieties have a fairly sweet taste.
Prior to and during the 1840s, most beer brewed in Bohemia — what has become the Czech Republic — was brewed using a top-fermenting method that produced a fairly cloudy beer with somewhat unpredictable results. There was so much discontent and noted outrage over the poor quality that the city council of Pilsen ordered a number of barrels of the beer to be publicly dumped out in protest. In 1839, the officials of the town decided to start their own publicly held brewing company that would produce a new, higher quality beer.
This company, originally named Bürger Brauerei, contracted a Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll to create its new beer. Groll used noble hops, a type of European hop with more pronounced aromatic qualities, and employed new techniques to utilize a bottom-fermentation method that would produce a clearer and more controlled type of lager. He also used German cold storage techniques by allowing the beer to ferment and brew in casks that were placed inside cold caves. The final result was first served on 11 November 1842 and was an immediate success. They called the beer pilsner to indicate where it came from, and later registered the name Pilsner Urquell, which means “original pilsner” in German.
Today, the pilsner name has come to be associated with a wide array of different lagers, though Pilsner Urquell is still brewed, bottled and made available throughout the world. Noble hops are typically used in most European pilsners, though American brewers may not always use these traditional hops for brewing pilsners. Many American breweries use the name “pilsner” to indicate a higher level of quality, though they are still usually light golden or amber in color with a lighter taste than heavier ales.