Skip to main content

Pilsner vs lager: What’s the difference?

What's the difference between a pilsner and a lager?

Beer foaming over the glass
engin akyurt / Unsplash

If you’re a fan of crisp, crushable beers, there’s a good chance you enjoy a good light lager or a pilsner. Both are no-frills, thirst-quenching and (hopefully) balanced and flavorful. But what’s the difference between a pilsner and a lager? Well, the short answer is that all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. But the long answer is a little more complicated.

A pilsner is a lager

Beer Pint
Poojitha Prasad/Unsplash

If you didn’t understand what we were saying earlier with “all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners”, let us break it down. Lager is the umbrella term for the beer style. Believe it or not, a pilsner is actually a type of lager. Other lagers include Vienna-style lagers, Helles lagers, bocks, doppelbocks, marzens, and more.

What’s a lager?

Gose beer
Josh Olalde/Unsplash

Lagers are bottom-fermented beers that are brewed and bottle-conditioned at cold temperatures. The word lager comes from the German word “lagern” which translated into English means “to store”. This is a reference to the fact that many beers of this style are matured or “lagered” in cellars, caves, and other underground spaces for weeks or months.

While (as we mentioned earlier) there are different types of lagers, in general, they have a crisp, clean, refreshing flavor profile with a nice backbone of malt sweetness. There’s a reason lagers are the most popular beer style in the world. They taste the way you envision beer in your head, and that’s a good thing.

What’s a pilsner?

Close-up of beer in a glass
Timothy Dykes / Unsplash

When it comes to lagers, the pilsner is the most commonly imbibed beer style in the world. Also called the pale lager, the pilsner was first created back in 1842 in the Bohemian city of Plzeň in the Czech Republic. This is where one of the most iconic beer styles in the world was brewed for the first time, thus creating the pale lager style. Of course, we’re talking about the beloved, refreshing, crisp, clean Pilsner Urquell.

Since then, brewers all over the world (especially in Germany) have created their own take on the pilsner style. While there are different types of pilsners (Czech style, German style, American, Italian, and others), the style is well-known for its very refreshing, crushable, malty-sweet, crisp, and often dry flavor profile.

Lagers vs. pilsners

Dan Barrett/Unsplash

Now that we have learned a little bit about the key differences between lagers and pilsners, it’s time to differentiate the two based on appearance. Pilsners are referred to as pale lagers for a reason. While other lagers might range from bright yellow to amber to caramel-colored and beyond, pilsners never have a dark appearance. They are always pale yellow to corn yellow—never darker than that.

Also, while some lagers can have a much higher sweet, caramel malt flavor, pilsners are almost always honey-sweet with a ton of crisp, dry, floral flavors. While some lagers can be heavy, pilsners are always light, clean, and refreshing.

Popular pilsners

Two glasses of beer
Timothy Dykes / Unsplash

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the differences (and similarities) between pilsners and lagers, it’s time to find some to drink. We mentioned Pilsner Urquell earlier. Any pilsner journey must start with this classic beer. Other notable pilsners include Bitburger and Rothaus Tannenzäpfle from Germany and Victory Prima Pils and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils in the US. Whether you go for a Czech, German, Belgian, Italian, or American craft pilsner, there are countless beers to choose from.

Popular lagers that aren’t pilsners


Many lagers aren’t pilsners. They include the very popular Budweiser lager as well as Yuengling lager and even Corona Extra. If you want to get into German lagers, you can dive into Augustiner Helles, Paulaner Salvator, Spaten Optimator, and more. American bocks include Troegs Troegenator, Shiner Bock, and more. American-made Vienna lagers include Dovetail Vienna Lager, von Trapp Vienna-style lager, and many more.

In the simplest terms, there are a lot of non-pilsner lagers to choose from and they range from light, crisp, refreshing flavors to dark, malty, sweet, rich flavors. There’s something for every palate.

Bottom line

Gerrie van der Walt/Unsplash

If you’re comparing lagers and pilsners, your best bet to fully understand the two is to taste them side by side. And we aren’t saying to grab a Pilsner Urquell and a Bud Light and sip them one after another. You should crack open a doppelbock, bock, helles-style lager, or Vienna-style lager and a crisp, light, refreshing pilsner and drink them side by side. You’ll be amazed at the very noticeable differences, and you’ll have a better idea about the two beer styles. You can read about lagers and pilsners all day long, but nothing beats drinking them.

Editors' Recommendations

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
New Orleans in a glass: Stirring up a seductive Sazerac
Want the taste of the Big Easy? Add the Sazerac to your cocktail menu
Sazerac (with the red feather boa) is the official cocktail of New Orleans for summer drinks

One of America’s oldest known cocktails, the Sazerac cocktail is a New Orleans classic. One sip and you’ll quickly realize why this reddish-orange elixir has been going strong in the Big Easy and beyond since the 1800s. The Sazerac has a big, bold flavor that’s remarkably balanced, with a blend of sweetness, spice, and herbal notes, all wrapped up in one potent, whiskey-loving libation. Though difficult to master, it’s a fairly easy drink to make. It’s also a great cocktail to showcase your mixology skills, particularly while playing some fiery jazz in the background  (you can’t go wrong with Rebirth Brass Band.)
The classic Sazerac recipe

The Sazerac drink recipe is a fairly straightforward one, but if you want to have the authentic taste, make sure you are using the right bitters,

Read more
The best espresso martinis aren’t made with vodka
Why you shouldn't use vodka for an espresso martini
Espresso martini cocktail

Here's a hot take for today: the best espresso martini recipe doesn't contain any vodka. Now, before you vodka fans come for me for that opinion, let me lay out my justifications -- and what I think you should use instead.

Vodka is a popular choice for classic martinis, along with or instead of gin. That makes sense when you're mixing just two ingredients, vodka and dry vermouth, as the aim is to create a tart, sharp, boozy drink that feels decadent in the way only a classic martini does. I prefer the flavors that come through from a gin-based martini myself, but one thing I can absolutely appreciate about vodka is the texture or mouthfeel that it brings. When really cold, vodka becomes thick and almost chewy and adds a great texture to a drink that works well for a classic martini.

Read more
Grab a bottle of Old Forester President’s Choice before it’s too late
old forester presidents choice oldforester presidentschoice revised

Popular whisky brand Old Forester, known for its bourbons (and occasional rye whiskey too), is coming out with a new release of its rarest expression, President's Choice. This historied whisky dates back to 1964, when the president of the Brown-Forman corporation, George Garvin Brown II, selected a few of these private single barrels for sale to the public.

“President’s Choice is our most sought-after product – and most people never get the chance to buy a bottle,” said Old Forester's Master Taster Melissa Rift. “We’re excited to announce this special President’s Choice release just in time for Father’s Day.”

Read more