A sort of hired gun of the lauter tun, he fetched up in Pilsen after the call went out from the local burgomasters for a decent brewer; they were sick and tired of their beer being the laughingstock of Bohemia. Prior to Groll’s arrival, the local beers were top-fermenting (and presumably dark), but the use of a Munich yeast, plus lightly cured Moravian barley malt and Saaz hops changed history, presenting the world with a light golden beer that delighted the palates of Groll’s employers (as well as the much-suffering and thirsty locals).
In the book Pilsner Beer in the Light of Practice and Science (1930), Professor Edward Jalowtz speculated whether the Bavarian brewmaster really knew what he was doing. Perhaps, writes the author, it was just pure chance that he came up with his gorgeous beer: “The burghers had planned to build a new brewery to produce beer in the ‘Bavarian way’ and a lucky chance brought a pleasant surprise for all, a new type of beer not known to anybody then.”
The fame of this beer then spread like a conquering army throughout Europe and then the world. The result was a rash of breweries boasting the name “Pilsner,” which led to the trademark Pilsner Beer being registered in 1859. However, two other breweries in Plzen were set up and also started to use the word pilsner; the result was Pilsner Urquell being registered in 1898 (meaning Plzen beer from the original source).
During the communist era, Pilsner Urquell, along with Budweiser Budvar, were the two Bohemian beers that girdled the globe, occasioning a sort of beery détente with the West. Following the Velvet Revolution, privatization coursed through the sclerotic veins of the Czech brewing industry, and after a few years, Pilsner Urquell was bought by SABMiller. Some claim that this was when its credibility started to suffer (others look back to the loss of the open, pitch-lined wooden fermenters in the 1990s). In 2005, a delegation from the British consumer group CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) travelled to the Republic to join a Budvar-inspired marketing campaign against what was perceived as a dumbing down of Czech beers.
This didn’t go down well with many Czech brewers and not long afterwards I was part of a small group of journalists who had to sit through a tirade about CAMRA’s presumptiveness from Jan Vesely, then chairman of the Czech Beer and Malt Association (he’s now executive director). He thundered about the unwritten law that Czech brewers never said anything bad about each other (ironically enough, in 2010 Vesely brought Pilsner Urquell to book for an ad campaign that criticized other Czech brewers for their use of hop extract) and asked with a great flourish of rhetoric: “CAMRA―who do they think they are?”
The crowds who flocked to the Pilsner Urquell brewery last August didn’t seem to worry too much about the presumption of a few Englishmen, as they lay siege to booths dispensing the beer at the annual Pilsen Festival. “Pilsner good, Gambrinus not,” yelled a reveler at me, after hearing my English, as I negotiated through the masses. Gambrinus is the best-selling beer in the Czech Republic and is brewed next door to Pilsner Urquell (as well as being owned by the same company)―the best I can say of it is that it is inoffensive and that its new brewery center is rather fun.