From the Caves of Plzeň Emerges the Pilsner: A History

What better way to ring in the outdoor drinking season than to focus on one of the most consumed beer styles in the world, the Pilsner? According to the German Beer Institute, nine out of ten beer consumed worldwide are Pilsners. This style is often misidentified as a “light beer” (e.g. Coors Light) or as synonymous with a Lager. And while both a lighter beer and a style of Lager, the nuances of this session beer have been generally under-appreciated. No longer, we say!  Bring the Pils our way!

The glory of the Pilsner.

The Pilsner is commonly found in the Czech Republic and Germany. While the Czech Pilsner and the German Pilsner have similar traits, there are some noticeable differences. You may have heard of Pilsner Urquell? That is a Czech beer, and one of their most popular (or at least most widely-distributed; in the Czech Republic itself, Staropromen is the more popular brew).  In Germany, the popular Pilsner is Jever.

The Origin of the Czech Pilsner

The history of the Pilsner in the Czech Republic actually has its roots in the Ale.  Apparently, in the 1830s, the citizens of the Czech town Plzeň (then Austria Hungary) saw a horrifying sight one day: barrels and barrels of Ale were being poured down the city streets by consumers unhappy with the increasingly deteriorating quality of their beer. At the time, bacteria was prone to grow in Ale yeast, and the brewers were growing increasingly frustrated by their production of an unconsumable product.

In 1840, a group of brewers in Bohemia sought a new way of producing beer. They commissioned Bavarian brewer Josef Groll to teach them how to brew in the bottom-fermenting method (a.k.a. the method used to produce a Lager), as Germans were renowned for this method. Groll brought with him Lager yeast–the first time it had crossed into the Czech lands. Using the Lager yeasts and local Saaz hops (closely familiar to the Noble hops that Groll would have used in Germany), Groll began brewing a new Lager, in the German style of a Helles bock, alongside the Bohemian brewers in the caverns of Plzeň.

The beer that emerged out of these caves was clearer than anything Groll & Company had expected; the Czech brewers were accustomed to brewing dark, murky Ales, not this clear, straw-colored, super-refreshing Lager. And in those caverns, in 1842, the Pilsner style was born. The name became a brand in 1859, and the first Pilsner to be mass-produced was the aforementioned Pilsner Urquell in 1898.

The iconic gate outside of the Pilsner Urquell brewery that is found on their logo.

While a number of variations on the recipe have emerged over the last one-and-a-half centuries, Pilsners are most commonly made with Saaz hops, Lager yeast, and soft water, which brings out the flavor of the grains. The recipe has been tinkered with by major American breweries, such as Budweiser, as it is such a crisp, drinkable style. These breweries, to reduce costs, have replaced some barley with rice, cutting the alcohol (and flavor) content. These variations, sometimes still marketed as a “Pilsner,” are more actually  “American Light” lagers, so…BEWARE. If you go out and try to find a Pilsner tonight, don’t be fooled when Coors tells you it’s a Pilsner. It’s not; it just wishes it was.

Molson’s “Old Style Pilsner”…Old Style apparently meaning a time when Native Americans lived in teepees while early airplanes flew overhead and cars cruised around country roads.

While the origin story of the Pilsner has its roots in Bohemia and Bavaria, the Pilsner did not make its way to Germany until a little while later (Radeburger debuted a Pilsner in 1872). The style is slightly different there, too. The German Pilsner (or Pils, as it’s sometimes abbreviated to) is more bitter and earthy. Popular German examples are Jever and Becks’s (found in the North) and Bitburger (found in the South). German Pilsners also vary depending on their geographic orientation. Northern Pilsners are associated with an even more bitter, almost aggressive, hop presence and zest due to the hard water in this region and the Southerners are generally more mellow.

Imitators have since popped up in Belgium, Poland, and other neighboring countries, where they are often sweeter and are more closely aligned with the European Lager. Although we slammed the early American adaptation of the Pilsner, there have been a number of craft breweries that have done what US craft breweries do best: take a traditional style and amp up the alcohol content. The Imperial Pilsner emerged in the US in the last few decades, and they are generally spicier, more bitter, and a helluva lot more alcoholic. Go, Team USA.

So, what to expect?

Sight: Look for a clear, straw body with a light, white, long-lasting head.

Smell: The aroma will be of light malts, a little spice, and little hop.

Flavor: Expect a crisp grain taste with a lingering hop bitterness. Czech Pils will also have a floral note (characteristic of the Saaz hop). The German counterpart will be on the bitter-er side, but will be balanced with a citrus presence.

So, go get your Pilsner on!

What we’re trying to say is, enjoy the month. Go outside, order a Pilsner (Urquell or otherwise), and drink that 4.5% beer until it finally gives you a buzz. Frequent your favorite local beer garden, order some smažený sýr (fried cheese) or wurst, and let the glory of this simple yet delicious beer sink in whilst you sit outside in the sun. What. Is. Better. Than. That?

The Czechs consume the most beer per capita in the world; now’s the month to discover why! (Just please, be wary of American Light impostors.)

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Categories: Pilsner | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “From the Caves of Plzeň Emerges the Pilsner: A History

  1. Svanur

    My favorite Pilsner style beer is Budvar (or Czechvar as it is marketed as in the US). I haven’t found many US breweries that do a great job with the pilsner, but I did think that the Victory Prima Pils was pretty close in the flavor profile, although it was a lot cloudier than what I expect from pilsners on the continent of Europe.

  2. Pingback: Beer Friday: The Zymurgist Ponders a Smoked Wheat Ale | feed me kc

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