It’s a sleepy Sunday lunchtime in Dobrany, a small town a few kilometres southwest of Pilsen. This is Bohemian beer country, deeply embedded in the lager lands of central Europe. Pivovar Modra Hvezda is a small brewery based in a comfortable hotel opposite the town square. A copper-faced brew-kit stands on show in the bar, though the real brewing action happens in the back. Meanwhile, in an ornately furnished dining room, brewmaster Petr Petruzalek, a tall serious-looking guy with a ponytail, is conducting a beer tasting.
Pilsner as a beer style might have crossed the world and spawned a thousand poor imitations, but as the example of the classic German pils demonstrates, not all are mere thirst-quenchers to be solely enjoyed on vacation.
Dobranska Desitka is the 10˚ unfiltered house lager, light orange-colored in the glass and sitting beneath a fine and firm head of snow-white foam. A nose of crushed grain (think Grape Nuts) with underlying hints of resin and ripe pineapple in the background leads through to an appetizingly crisp mouthfeel that is softened by a flurry of light sugary caramel notes before a dry, bittersweet finish. It’s marvelous.
Dobranska Hvezda is the 12˚ svetly lezak (light lager), a superlative beer with sweet toasted grain, slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate has a hint of fruit pastilles, a slight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish. A lightbulb flashes on in my head. I ask Petruzalek if what we are drinking is really a pilsner style, bearing in mind the closeness of the historical brewery (I didn’t know then that he had worked there until 2003). The answer, translated, comes back, “All these beers would be adjudged to be a pilsner style because of the way they are made.”
I guess he means yes. However, search through the rest of the Czech-brewing world and you will only find one brewery using the term pilsner: the mighty Pilsner Urquell, a Hercules of beer that has bestrode the world since its arrival in 1842. On that sunny afternoon, passing through this gorgeous array of beers, I wonder why this is so. Especially as in the rest of the brewing world the terms pils and pilsner/pilsener are sprinkled about as freely as ticker tape on a big day in Lower Manhattan.
You Say Pilsner, I Say Pilsener
Is this avoidance of the word pilsner perhaps a case of Bohemian brewers’ respect for the unique place in brewing history that Pilsner Urquell has? After all, it was the first golden lagered beer in the world. Hardly, given the growing wave of new Czech craft brewers who are looking elsewhere for their beery nirvana―Kocour IPA Samurai anyone? However, if Petruzalek knows, he’s not saying as we move on to his wheat beer (spicy, herbal, banana).
Eager to discover more, I communicated with Josef Tolar, formerly brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar). I asked him how he would define a pilsner, was it the same as svetly lezak? His reply was short and succinct: “The pilsner style is really svetly lezak in the Czech Republic.” Budvar’s bottles in their home country bear the legend “svetly lezak”; make of that what you will.
If, as is often said, porter was the first beer of the industrial age, you could argue that pilsner was the first beer to really go global (IPA was more of a phenomena of the British Empire). Cross from Bohemia into Bavaria and you’ll be following in its tracks when offered a Spaten Pils; further north the bitter tones of Jever Pilsener will tantalise the palate. Get on the global grid and wherever you order a beer, whether on a beach in Mexico or a bar in Brisbane, a variation on the theme of pilsner will be proffered. Chances are that some of the beers might have rice or corn in the mix, hop extracts as well, and as for lagering or storing, what on earth is that? It is said that the pilsner style (or derivations of) make up 90 percent of the beer sold in the world. The majority seem to have little to do with the beer that first emerged from Pilsen.
Take Australia for instance. According to Eric Walters at Grand Ridge Brewery, whose Brewers Pilsner is dry and sweetish, elegant and yet robust, “Big brewers in Australia have called beers pilsner that don’t even resemble them. This is very sad as it often puts people off inappropriately. However, the surge of new microbrewers has revived big hoppy pilsners in their true form.”
Steven Pauwels at Boulevard Brewing Co. echoes Walters sentiment. “Pilsner is used to describe a wide range of lagers with a low color. For a lot of people, pilsner beers are light, very drinkable beers. Something you drink when you want something more than water.”
His take on pilsner is the rounded and full-bodied American amber lager, which is 100 percent barley malt, including a pinch of Munich malt. “I’m not sure why our pilsner is described as an American amber lager,” he says, “The color is higher than domestic lagers but not out of range for a European pilsner.” The discussion then ranges over to American lagers prior to Prohibition. Would they have been closer to what we recognize as the classic pilsner style now?
“That is a hard question,” he says, “They would have been closer to European versions, not so much the current American lager version. The biggest difference to me is the hop characters that these beers would have had. Adjuncts were used because European immigrant brewers had to work with the high protein six-row barley they had available in the U.S. instead of the low protein they were used to. To be able to get the beer close to what they brewed in Europe, they had to use adjuncts to get the starch/protein ratio right. So in the end, the body of the beer would have been similar to a European version. Brewers [or the brewery financial people] later figured out that adjuncts are a lot cheaper and by using more adjuncts the beers got less flavor, easier to drink, more mainstream, etc. The pre-Prohibition pilsners had a hop character that is lost in domestic pilsners today.”
When he talks about domestic pilsners, presumably he has in mind the high-selling, mass-market beers that 20 years ago would have been the only homegrown beers on sale in the U.S. with the word pilsner in the title. Nowadays, Saint Arnold’s Fancy Lawnmower Beer, Pauwels’ own pilsner and Lagunitas Pils (described as Czech-style) are several that spring to mind instead.
A recent trip around the breweries of Vermont in the summer of 2010 also brought me face-to-face with a couple of fascinating takes on the style. Northshire’s Equinox Pilsner had a soft floral center with a dry, bittersweet finish, while I was greatly impressed by Pocock Pilsner from Bristol brewpub Bobcat―it was robustly bitter, which put me very much in mind of Jever.
“Put simply, I was looking to make a Czech-style pilsner for the Bobcat’s patrons,” says brewmaster Mark Magiera. “There was an extremely hoppy ‘pils’ made for the locals a few years back at the Bobcat by the same name. The bitterness profile was a combination of European and American hops, which made the beer pretty confusing on where it was going. However, the bitterness levels were at the levels I’ve encountered with European pilsners.
“As much as I want to tell you that I was out to make a copy of Pilsner Urquell and/or Zatec, the water in Bristol is not soft enough to reproduce the beer to those specifications. However, I was drawn to these two products as primary sources of interpretation. Secondary influences are definitely north German or German in origin.”
First Europe, Then the World
The ongoing evolution of Italian craft beer is also seeing some stunning interpretations. For my money, one of the greatest emerges from Birrificio Italiano, whose tap is in the northern Italian town of Lurago Marinone near Como. Tipopils is perhaps one of the finest non-Bohemian/Bavarian expressions of this elegant beer style, albeit with a German twist.
“Everyone calls their beers pils,” says the brewery’s founder Agostino Arioli, who has been known to drive to Germany to pick up his fresh hops, “but I believe it is a style that has been neglected. With Tipopils I brewed a beer that was based on a pils that I liked―that was Jever Pils.”
The beer is magnificent, big and bold in both nose and flavour, a beer that stamps its own identity with a crisp and refreshing arrival in the mouth. It’s bitter and aromatic, dry and sprightly, fragrant, resiny, powerful and punchy. Pilsner-obsessive Arioli also produces the seasonal Imperial Pils as well as Extra Hop. When I visited the tap the latter was served with a Mittelfrau hop cone on top of the foam―pure pilsner theatre. “I usually say to people that you should take the hop off and leave it or let it sink, or push it into the beer,” laughs Arioli.
It might be worthwhile at this moment to pause a little and briefly consider how pilsner became the beer that changed the world. As any beer lover worth their bottle of imperial IPA (or should that be imperial pilsner?) should know, what would become Pilsner Urquell was first produced in 1842 by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll, who has gone down in history as a truculent type of chap (his father called him “the rudest man in Bavaria”).
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.
A Visit to the Source
The Pilsner Urquell complex (or Plzeňský Prazdroj in Czech) is brewing as Disneyland, a massive site that takes in the massive brew house (you can see both current and former brewing equipment), an old train shed complete with a decommissioned locomotive, a water tower that closely resembles a minaret and various other buildings. The latter includes an impressively modern journey through Pilsner Urquell’s brewing technique and its use of raw materials―triple decoction, open flame heating, Czech pale malt, Saaz hops and the famously soft local water (though there’s no mention of the fact it is also brewed in Poland… so much for Urquell meaning from the original source).
Another must-see on the visit is Na Spilce, a restaurant/bar set in an underground cellar, complete with arched columns and a space that echoes with voices, giving it the ambience of a beer hall (Bohemia and Bavaria are neighbors and there’s a surprising convergence between their brewing traditions). As well as the ubiquitous plates of leaden dumplings and super-sized knuckles of pork, here the unfiltered and unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell can be drunk. It’s a graceful, elegant, toasty, spicy beer with a fine bitter finish and one of the best beers I have ever had.
Pilsner as a beer style might have crossed the world and spawned a thousand poor imitations, but as the example of the classic German pils demonstrates, not all are mere thirst-quenchers to be solely enjoyed on vacation. The pils that took root in Germany developed a style of their own: higher bitter notes, a lemony hop character and a slighter body than its Bohemian forebear. Regional variations, such as northern Germany’s much more bitter examples, also add diversity. First brewed in 1928 (which suggests some Germans were late to the party), the western German Veltins is one of the bestselling examples, a clean, crisp take on the style, with delicate herbal and lemony notes.
“German pils is generally more clean and crisp than Bohemian pilsner,” confirms brewery spokeswoman Agnes Ochmann, “which is probably a result of differences in the production process, lagering techniques and materials. With Veltins we do not believe that the taste has changed significantly over the years, but advances in production technology will have improved consistency.”
The boldest move in the world of pilsner, however, has come with the introduction of the imperial or double pilsner, which, in the light of everything that has happened in the U.S. in the past few years, should come as no surprise. Yet, there’s a dilemma here―a well-made pilsner is a high-wire balancing act between gently toasted bready notes, cool fragrant and often aromatic floral wafts on the breeze and―depending on whether it’s the Bohemian or Bavarian model―a crystalline or fuller mouth feel. Ramp up the alcohol and you risk putting your brewing boot through a masterpiece of subtlety. Yet, the ones I have tried somehow work.
Earlier this year, I devoured Alchemist’s Your Mother at the Vermont Brewers Association’s beer festival in Burlington VT. With 65 bittering units and an alcoholic strength of 7 percent ABV, this was a boisterous German-influenced beer. Lagering had taken place for a staggering 14 weeks, while pilsner malt and noble hops had gone into the boil. Lemon/grapefruit notes on the nose were beamed up onto the palate along with a light peachy/apricot fruitiness, and a softly floral and piney character; the finish was long and appetizingly bitter. It was glorious and I went back for more.
Steven Pauwels took one step further and produced an imperial pilsner in collaboration with Orval’s brewmaster Jean-Marie Rock. “When he and I started discussing it,” he says, “his first input was that he wanted to brew a pilsner. He wanted to revive a beer that he had brewed at an earlier brewery in his career in Belgium. We, on the other hand, wanted to make it bigger or stronger. To me an imperial pilsner has all the characters of a pilsner beer: crisp, balance between malt and hops, floral hop character, easy drinking and not cloying or sweet. There also is no alcohol perception in pilsner and there shouldn’t be any in an imperial pilsner.”
I did get shown a bottle when I visited Rock at Orval in 2010, but it was empty.
Pilsner has taken a long journey from the moment Josef Groll turned up in Pilsen from Bavaria. He wouldn’t have known that the beer he eventually came up with would take over the world and, given his nature, he probably wouldn’t have been too impressed. However, there’s one variant of the beer that he and the burgomasters might have been familiar with, given the problems they had with beer―sourness. But if you’re thinking that pilsner-plus-funk is the next big thing, hold on: read what Doug Odell has to say.
“We have an oak-aged pilsner,” he says. “The idea sprang from wanting to use the virgin oak barrels we age our Woodcut beers in, for a second time. We tried about four of our regular beers including the Double Pilsner. I would say it added a complimentary nutty, vanilla character to the beer.” However, and here comes the pay-off. “We tried adding some Brettanomyces to the Double Pilsner for secondary fermentation, but it kind of overwhelmed the flavor. I don’t think a sour pilsner would work.”
Is there a brewer out there ready to prove him wrong?