The homelands of authentic blond lagers are the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria, though the spread of various related styles in the late 19th century encouraged a few classic examples in many other countries. The best traditionally-made blond lagers may be seen as the world’s most intricately crafted simple beers.
Bohemian Světlý (or Světlé)
The key quality of a classic Bohemian (or Czech) blond lager is drinkability, achieved by balancing a rich malty character with a noticeable but well-rounded hop presence that is never harsh. A little diacetyl – a butterscotch-flavoured organic compound considered a flaw in many styles, is allowed provided it is consistent. The grain base is lightly kilned, unrefined Moravian malted barley and the hops are Bohemian Saaz (locally Žatec). Decoction mashing is often repeated three times, squeezing maximum flavour from the malt, and cold-conditioning may last three months. They come in two principle strengths, measured in degrees (o) Plato. A premium quality 12o beer (4.8-5.1% ABV) is termed Světlý Ležák (pronounced ‘sfet-lay lesh-ack’ in English), while the regular 10 o beer (4.4-4.7% ABV) is Světlé Výčepní (‘vee-chep-nee’).
Helles (or Hell)
Fermented through to dryness but still classy for being brewed from 100% malted barley, accented with German hops. Sometimes termed Munchener Helles (4.7-5.1 % ABV), for being the workaday blond beer of Munich, the capital city of Bavaria. The name can mean ‘blond’, ‘light’ or ‘bright’, each of which is accurate. The name has proved popular with craft brewers in other countries to mean, who use the tag Helles or Hell tag to mean ‘crafty lager lookalike’.
German Pils (or Pilsner, Pilsener)
This light bodied, highly attenuated, elegantly floral, blond style, beautiful enough to justify a bouffant head, was seen as the showboat of late 20th century German brewing, yet takes its name from the Czech town of Plzeň (once Pilsen), where blond lager was first sold in 1842. The first Bavarian interpretations appeared around 1870, more highly hopped, reflecting the harder waters of the region. It is made typically by infusion or single-decoction mashing, with a brand-specific mix of German hops. The Pilsener name was deemed not to be copyright by Germany’s supreme Court in 1913. The style has become less popular in recent years, the more hop-forward versions may now appear as Ur-Pils, implying “original”.
Märzen (or Oktoberfestbier)
German Märzen beers are typically darker, maltier and richer than Pils, and typically not as hoppy. Austrian variants are lighter, with a dry finish. Although they now appear year-round the style is named for the fact that they used to be made in March, kept over summer in cold caves and finished off at the end of the summer, at events often called Oktoberfest, leading to some being branded Oktoberfestbier.
Emerging blond lager styles
The financial appeal of creating a “craft” version of blond lager is obvious and in recent years many smaller, independent breweries have been experimenting actively with different hop recipes, 100% traditional variety Pilsener malts, and even some decoction mashing and extended cold conditioning, to create smaller run lagers with a recognisable appeal.
The best established of these modern styles is the so-called Italian Pilsener. Since 1996, when Birrificio Italiano in Como began to produce its first dry-hopped blond lager, brewers in Italy have created variations using fresh hops, experimental hops and in some cases hops grown specifically for particular ‘terroir’.