The Sleeping Giant
The early 19th century found brewers in Europe taking advantage of innovative malting technology to develop pale and specialty malts. Brewers in Bohemia, Germany and Austria were to this point making dark beers, and only Bavarians were using bottom-fermentation (as they had been for about 400 years).
Plzeň brews were in such a sad state that in 1838, civic leaders dumped 36 kegs of beer into the street in front of City Hall. Fed up with the quality, they decided to start from scratch. Two Bavarians were hired, Martin Steltzer to build the brewery, and Josef Groll to brew. Both were adept at the Bavarian way, and the situation was perfect. The new collective brewery, called the Bürgerbrauerei (citizen’s brewery) in German and later named the Mestansky Pivovar (Czech), was built atop labyrinthine sandstone caves, near a generous source of incredibly soft artesian water. A lager brewery by design prompted Groll to procure a strain of bottom-fermenting yeast allegedly smuggled into Plzeň by a wayward monk.
Groll was also busy developing a pale malt from the famous Moravian variety, much as Gabriel Sadlmyer and Anton Dreher were in nearby Vienna (an intriguing coincidence). Groll succeeded in producing a malt so pale that it produced a wort of gold (Dreher and Sedlmayr’s was a shade darker), known then and now as pilsner malt. Groll’s golden brew, made with soft water and copious quantities of the spicy Žatec red hops, bottom-fermented and cave-lagered, was introduced to the public on October 4, 1942 at St. Martins Market. Brewing would never be the same. The recipe and method remains relatively unchanged, with home malting, artesian water, undermodified malt and decoction mashing, and an intoxicating dose of top-shelf hops.
Continental European brewers scrambled to create a similar beer. Soon after, other technical innovations made the production of pale lager even more feasible even further afield. Louis Pasteur deciphered the role of yeast in brewing and Emil Hansen at the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen succeeded in isolating pure yeast strains (Pilsner Urquell’s H strain can be traced back to Groll’s landmark beer). Refrigeration was invented, and hydrometers and thermometers became standard equipment.
This convergence of science with the hotbed of 19th century brewing led to many imitators in a very short period of time, many of them calling themselves pilsner, but often with scant resemblance to the original. The Mestansky Pivovar trademarked the word “pilsner” in 1859, to little avail, and finally trademarked Pilsner Urquell as a product (original source pilsner in German) in 1898. The brewery was renamed the Plzensky Prazdroj (original source of pilsner). Nonetheless, many beers continued to call themselves pilsner, pils or pilsener whether or not they were even close to authentic.
The style eventually spread worldwide, and was corrupted to a great degree. Not to say that the various incantations of the style aren’t an easy drinking quaff, but some can hardly be called pilsner. German brewers, using their own malt and hops, have developed a distinctive and delicious interpretive pilsner, and it is the most widely consumed type of beer there. It is drier, paler and less aromatic than those of the Czech Republic. Those from the north can be intensely bitter and dry, whereas in the south they have a bit of malty, Bavarian accent. German and Czech immigrants to the United States made theirs in the 19th century with 6-row malted barley and corn grits, hops with old world pedigree and lager yeast. That beer is known today by microbrewers, homebrewers and general beer enthusiasts as “Classic American Pilsner.” Today, German and Czech pilsners are common among American microbrewers, and often emulate the Euro-version nicely.
Other notables in Bohemia that flatter the original are Gambrinus in Plzeň, founded in 1869; Žatec, from the city of hops and locavore brewing at its finest; and Budweiser Budvar, the original Budweiser, brewed in České Budějovice since the late 19th century (the city was home to 44 breweries in the 16th century). There are many others brewed and consumed locally in the Czech Republic.
Perhaps it is fitting, giving the prodigious brewing history of the region, that Bohemia would foment the greatest influence in the history of brewing. A trip to the Czech Republic to soak up some pilsner and history would be one to remember. A freshly drawn pilsner, in all of its brilliant, aromatic glory, is something to behold, especially at the source.