Of the many events that have blazed the path of beer history, arguably none holds more sway than the creation of pilsner. The introduction, in 1842, of the clear golden lager in Plzen, Bohemia, was so revolutionary that it left breweries scrambling for years to produce a similar product to compete. All golden lagers are offspring of the original pilsner. Hoppy, aromatic, and pleasantly bitter, with a clean and soft malt backbone, pilsners are satisfying, thirst quenching and appetizing.
Pilsner is no doubt the pan-global beer style, but its pedigree lies squarely in Bohemia.
Plzen was established in western Bohemia at a strategic site, proximal to several economically important rivers and trading arteries. Founder King Wenceslas II, in 1295, initially granted the right to brew beer to Plzen’s citizens, who quickly coalesced to form a cooperative brewing venture.
In 1307, Plzen formed its first brewery and not long afterward, realized its first strides toward commercial brewing. With the aid of subsequently formed guilds, the brewing industry strengthened, and the economic and artistic importance of brewing became ensconced in Bohemian culture. King Wenceslas II was so instrumental in maintaining and furthering the art of brewing that he was honored as the patron saint of brewing by the Bohemian guild.
Over the next several centuries, beer gained importance in European culture. Beer was economically significant as a source of revenue, socially vital as an escape, and valuable as food and as a way to preserve water. And while it could be assumed that beer quality was somewhat improved from earlier products, it would be some time before the evolution from dark, turbid brews to the later tidy, light-colored beers would be complete.
Science And Serendipity
After a tumultuous period of pillage and plague in the 17th century temporarily stymied brewing progress in Europe, things settled down and set the stage for the birth of modern brewing. In the middle of the 18th century, some tools and techniques that we might consider elementary today were implemented in brewing protocols, and the Czechs were on the point.
They were purportedly the first to utilize the thermometer to maximize mash conditions. They made the hydrometer a standard brewing tool. The Czechs also took advantage of the new malting technology to create mellow, light-colored malt. Although these were welcome additions to brewing, Czech beer was still top fermented and less refined than the German brews of the day. The final piece would soon be added to the puzzle.
The brewery known today as Pilsner Urquell (Plzensky Prozdroj) was built specifically to emulate the famous lager bier of Germany. A Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll, was hired to oversee the operation. Using a bottom-fermenting yeast smuggled to Plzen from Bavaria, Groll introduced the brewery’s first pilsner in 1842. The brewing world was stunned by the new beer, even more so when it was served in the avant-garde drinking vessels of the day—glass. Eventually, brewers all over Europe produced a competitive beer—export in Dortmund, helles in Munich, and pils all over Germany. Today, breweries in virtually every corner of the world make a version based at least loosely on the original pilsner.
True pilsners are soft, fragrant and complex, and express in their overall character a distinct contribution from each of the four basic beer ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Water is mentioned in beer character only in special cases. This is one of them. The water of Bohemia is extremely soft, and this imparts a distinctly mellow profile all the way around, especially in the manifestation of the hops.
The prized malt grown in Moravia is considered by many to be the finest in the world. It may, in fact, be the forerunner of all pale continental European malt grown today. Some is malted using traditional floor-malting methods. It is relatively sweet and quite smooth, and is often under-modified by the maltster. This necessitates a complex and lengthy decoction mashing procedure that adds some extra color, richer flavor, and better mouthfeel than in most pale beers. The wort produces a finished beer in the range of 4.5 to 5.0 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
No beer style showcases a specific type of hop more than a Bohemian pilsner. The finest hops are grown in the Zatec region in northwest Bohemia. They are known as Zatec red or Bohemian red, but might be most familiar by their German designation, Saaz. Their distinctive spicy, floral aroma and gentle bittering qualities make them an ideal hop for all kettle additions. The soft water erases the lingering bitterness that is common in most well-hopped beers. The aroma of a fresh pilsner is quite something to experience, like burying one’s head in a bag of fresh hops.
The yeast used in Bohemian pilsners, although a descendent of German bottom fermenters, ferments a little less crisp than its German counterparts. There is plenty of dextrinous body, a slight sweetness, and perhaps even a very light buttery (diacetyl) footprint in a Bohemian pilsner owing to the yeast.
The most famous of the Bohemian pilsners are Pilsner Urquell and Budvar (Czechvar in the U.S.), but the Czech Republic is loaded with breweries and pubs, most specializing in pilsners. Staropramen, Crystal, Lev, Lobkowicz, Rebel, and Primator are just a few available via export. A slow, steady amble through the Czech Republic would be a beer trip worthy of any in Germany, Belgium or the British Isles.
While classic pilsners are the domain of the Czech Republic, specifically Bohemia, they are also the most copied, ubiquitous, and uniquely interpreted beer in the world. Pilsners of other countries may stray slightly or significantly from the Bohemian originals, but this is not to say that the others can’t qualify as classic beers in their own right.
Pilsner is probably the most popular style in neighboring Germany. The German interpretation is a little lighter in body and color, and possesses a piercing, lingering hop character. German pilsner malt is generally used, as are noble hops like Tettnanger and Hallertau varieties. These crisp pils brews express all that is best in German brewing. Look for Spaten, Warsteiner, Bitburger, Einbecker and Dinkel-Acker, all of which are widely available.
Poland makes some delicious pilsners that remind one of the Czech style, though slightly lighter. They include Okocim OK, Krakus, and Zywiec. Poland has a thriving hop industry, and their utilization adds a certain individuality to their pilsners.
The Netherlands produces two giants, Grolsch and Heineken, that are light and refreshing, and one, Christofell Blond, that is hopped as copiously as any pils.
In the United States, pilsners are somewhat common in brewpubs and microbreweries, with both Czech and German interpretations available. Tabernash Pilsner is a crisp, clean, Saaz-accented example that is outstanding and combines both German and Czech qualities. Stoudt’s Pils from Pennsylvania is also one of the best.
Many pubs in Germany serve “keller bier,” or cellar beer. Straight from the cellar, unfiltered, fresh and chewy, two such bottled versions are available in the United States. St. Georgen Keller Bier, from Franconia, Germany, is a pilsner keller bier. Full of rich, fresh hops and substantial on the palate, it is worth a try. Tupper’s Hop Pocket Pils is also a cellared pils, always fresh and true to brewer Bob Tupper’s label and love of hops. The bottle conditioning gives the brew a unique edge.
The development of pilsner in Bohemia was a harmonic convergence of scientific application, craftsmanship and serendipity. Given the importance of beer in European history, it should be considered a watershed event, period. Copied from the Netherlands to the South Pacific, pilsner is by far the most popular beer style on the planet. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, in the world of beer, none has been cajoled more than pilsner.
Pilsner UrquellABV: 4.4
Tasting Notes: Urquell means “original source,” and, in essence, the moniker was added to protect the originator of the style. The worldwide imitators may be good in their own right, but Urquell is distinctive. The hop aroma is soft, flowery and round. The mouthfeel is full, the flavor is full of hops and malt with a slight sweetness. At about 40 international bittering units (IBU), Urquell is bitter, but the soft water rinses the palate within seconds.
Ceské Budejovice BudvarABV: 5.0
Tasting Notes: Budweiser Budvar in German, imported to the United States as Czechvar, and brewed in Bohemia, Budvar is a very aromatic, less bitter example of pilsner. Malty, with a sweetish background, Budvar is as aromatic as any pilsner. The gentle bitterness, about 25 IBU, takes an uncharacteristic back seat in this pilsner. It is lagered for 90 days, producing a smooth, enticing brew.
Spaten Premium PilsABV: 5.0
Tasting Notes: Few names are more respected in brewing than the Munich brewery, Spaten. Spaten Pils exemplifies German pilsner beer. It has a little more maltiness than most, and the hop character is firm without being forceful. A rich Bavarian hop aroma makes it a well-rounded beer that can be enjoyed and savored any time. A classic German pils.
Bitburger PilsABV: 4.5
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Bitburg, Germany, in the western Rhineland, Bitburger Pils is light gold in color, fairly dry, and well hopped. The malt character is light, but not at all overwhelmed by the crisp hop bitterness. The Bitburger Brewery was founded in 1817 and one of the first to produce a pils, in 1884. Made with German malt and a blend of German hops, Bitburger is the crisp, quenching beer that you might find perfect for summertime.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.
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