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Whither the German Pilsner?

German pilsner bitterness unitesHere is a chilling thought: “If this trend of reducing the hop-content in (German) Pilsner beer continues, by 2030 the Pilsner beer will have similar composition to today’s export or lager beers.”

The Journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling recently published a study that indicated the bitterness level of German pilsners had remained relatively constant between 1983 and 2006, but since then has dipped, now brewing with about 27 International Bitterness Units (IBU) rather than 30. Just in case you thought hops were making a comeback everywhere.

The report suggests there are several possible reasons for the results. “One may be purely economic reasons in times of a declining beer market in Germany. This is probably true for so-called ‘discount’ beers, which are regularly at the lower end of the legally permissible range regarding original gravity but also regarding (bitterness units). Another reason may be a change in consumer preference towards less bitter beers (a statement that
has often been made during our contacts with industry but which is currently not scientifically verifiable). Or is this an apparent case of consumer deception, because the consumers’ expectations may have been intentionally changed by the subtle decline in hop-dosage during a 40 year period? Clearly, a German Pilsner beer today is not what is was in the last century.”

The story concludes with a discussion about German food laws and if there should be a way to legally enforce the bitterness level of pilsners. That’s not going to happen.

The chart at the top compares four single breweries to the overall trend. The dark blue band on the left represents 1986-2003, the middle band 1998-2004, the one on the right 2005-2013.

5 Responses to Whither the German Pilsner?

  1. Bill June 10, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Interesting. Also, a pretty big “if”! Is this something that can happen unintentionally, by the way? So, any given recipe stays the same, but as equipment is modified, results vary? It looks like brewery 4 notice something was up and tried to compensate for it.

  2. Lars Marius Garshol June 10, 2015 at 8:03 am #

    Same story elsewhere, too. The former head of labs at Stella Artois told me Stella was 33 IBU in 1973 (when he started brewing it) but it’s now only 20.

  3. Stan Hieronymus June 10, 2015 at 8:15 am #

    Bill – Given modern technology I don’t think this could happen by accident.

    Lars- It would seem it is accelerating. I seem to remember Stella being listed as 28 IBU less than 10 years ago.

  4. Jeff Alworth June 10, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Yes, but there’s a second trend in Germany where some breweries are adding more hops and experimenting with new varieties (and of course you know all about this). So we could see a similar split in Germany that is happening in countries with craft brewing movements.

    • Stan Hieronymus June 10, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      What surprised me is that pils held so steady, then declined only recently. The “new breed” (or maybe it is the old breed revived) of pilsners certainly contain more hops, not just for bittering but for aroma (and that elusive mouth feel you get from additional hop polyphenols).

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