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.
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.