The term “pilsner” is attached to many pale lagers worldwide, some of which are worthy imitators of the Bohemian original at best, or pale imposters at worst. The clear-cut roots of pilsner are in Bohemia, a phenomenal convergence of science, imported brewing talent and ideal ingredients. The success of pilsner is extraordinary and by far the most significant single revolution in the craft. Ironically, a definitive set of circumstances sparked the development of pilsner, with a subsequent, distinct set spawning the globalization, diverse interpretation and ultimate watering down of its unpretentious elegance.
A true pilsner should be all-malt, a shade of gold and decidedly hop-first, with a crisp bitterness and rambunctious aroma overlaying soft Continental maltiness. Pilsner Urquell is the original, implicit in the name, and is the triumphant culmination of the Bohemian brewing in Plzeň, an area known for its superior malt and hops, and unfortunate lack of direction. That direction was supplied by a famous brewer―along with yeast from Bavaria―and a couple of whirlwind years transformed Plzeň from substandard to sublime.
The Bohemian Life
The Czech territories have been under the auspices of various empires over the past 2,000 years, and like most of the European lands, the inhabitants brewed beer. Trade routes crossing Europe during the first millennium passed through Bohemia and Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Settlements where Prague and Plzeň now sit were key stations for commerce and respite. Bohemia has nearly perfect conditions for growing hops, which cultivated a thriving hop industry. This valuable, coveted commodity was exported extensively, as hops were becoming an ordinary brewing ingredient. First agricultural note was in 859 A.D., and export in 903, meaning that Bohemian hop merchants have been in business for over 1,100 years.
The Žatec region produced the best, known as Žatec Red, or the familiar Saaz. So important were they that it was made a capital crime to smuggle rhizomes out of the territory. Cities were built on the strength of Bohemia’s hop production, and the beer-centric cities of Plzeň, Prague and České Budějovice have always been part of Bohemia.
Bohemia and adjacent Moravia has soil unmatched for growing wheat, oats and barley. Though beer was still a multi-grain tipple, the seeds were sown for what became the world’s most important barley growing region. Moravia especially cultivated, by careful selection, what is considered the finest barley in the world over several centuries. By the mid-19th century, a wealthy landowner developed the Hana variety. It is considered the progenitor of all modern types, having genetic ties to premium barley grown in Germany and England.
Modern Plzeň was granted cityship in 1295 by King Wenceslas II of Bohemia on a site 10 kilometers from the old settlement at the confluence of 4 rivers, convenient to trade routes. The Good King granted the 260 citizens of New Plzeňthe right to brew in their homes with wort from a communal brewery. History seems to cast the Bohemians as a cooperative lot, evident in their collective brewing persuasions. Soon, a guild of brewers and farmers was formed to ensure that their product would remain locally robust and to allow passage of the craft to their descendants.
Even with outstanding indigenous hops and barley, Bohemian brews were not more highly regarded than their neighbors in Germany. Bavarians were perfecting bottom-fermentation, and Einbeckers to the north were fine-tuning their renowned bock. Meanwhile, contemporary Bohemian brews were rather undistinguished. Perhaps this was due to the lack of continuity and endless, chaotic change of rule that hovered over them for centuries. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was especially devastating for Bohemian brewing. Within 200 years though, Plzeň would rebound and take the world by storm, combining local ingredients, the savvy of an invited guest and yeast from an unlikely source. They have never looked back.