In an hotel room in the Czech Republic, I roll out of bed, make myself some coffee, and check my e-mail. It is there again: that question.
It is a question of style. Every day, I am asked questions about beer: by email about 25 each morning; by other journalists, radio and television hosts, and in casual conversations, another couple of dozen each week. On this morning in Prague, that question, the persistent one, is close to home: “What’s the difference between lager and pilsner?”
The questioner does not tell me where he lives, but the idiom of the preamble sounds American. If you had such a question, who would you ask? The obvious place to direct such a query would be a brewery. That course was taken a few years ago by the columnist William Safire, in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. Some readers know Safire as a political analyst, writing from the conservative viewpoint. Others are more familiar with his column about the English language, in which he looks at contemporary usage
Safire wanted to know what “lager” meant. He called a major brewery and was told that lager was the German word for the verb “store.” His informant explained that it thus referred to barrels in a cellar. A brew tapped from barrels was therefore described as a lager beer. In short, lager meant “draft.”
That explanation began well, then ran off the rails. Beer is lagered at the brewery, not the pub. The original lagering cellars contained ceiling-high wooden tuns, not barrels. Today, the lagering vessels are most often made of stainless steel, and are even larger, often towering outside the brewery. A lager suggests a beer that has a cold maturation; the term has nothing to do with draft versus bottled or canned beer.
How did the language maven manage to publish such nonsense in a newspaper that takes itself extremely seriously? I suspect he talked to a person in public relations or marketing. Or perhaps he asked a brewer who had always worked in the United States. When I started researching the world’s beers, in the mid 1970s, I soon discovered that many brewers had no real understanding of what went on in other countries. In so far as style terms were used, there was a great deal of confusion about their meaning.
The first beers to be lagered were dark brown. They were made in and around the city of Munich, empirically at first, but more methodically from the 1830s. Similar beers made in some other countries became known as Munich-style lagers (or sometimes “Bavarian” after the state).
Then, around 1840, ways were found to kiln malt without rendering it smoky and dark. The first lager made this way, with an amber color, was identified as being in the Vienna style. Finally, the first golden lager was made in 1842, in the city of Pilsen, in Bohemia, then a state in the Austrian Empire.
(When I first wrote in these terms, Bohemia and Moravia were part of Czechoslovakia. They now comprise the Czech Republic; Slovakia broke away and is now independent).
I defined pilsner, Vienna, Munich and other styles of lager such as Dortmunder and bock, in my 1977 World Guide to Beer. They appeared along with wheat beers, ales, porters and stouts under the heading “The classical beer-styles.” There were a couple of dozen definitions in all. The information that went into these summaries was not new, but I don’t think anyone had previously put it together in this way. Nor had anyone placed the styles in context.
Regarding pilsner, I went on to suggest that the term should imply not only the golden color but also a well-hopped beer, preferably using Bohemian varieties.
I was not seeking to impose a set of rules on brewers. I have never wanted to be a bureaucrat; nor am I a scientist. I am a journalist, and in columns like this one, a diarist. I was trying to document the best of beer. In doing so, I had to categorise brews. I believe that, in doing that, I have helped some styles survive (Vienna-style lager and saisons, for example); and others to come back from the dead (Oatmeal Stout) or emerge from a vestigial state (Russian Imperial, Irish Red Ale). My terminology does not work for everyone.
Take pilsner: In the Czechs’ view, understandably, the city of Pilsen enters into the definition. To be a pilsner, a beer must be made there. The famous original, from Pilsner Urquell, is still made. So is a similar beer from the adjoining Gambrinus brewery.
The lager-pilsner question hovers on my screen as the sun rises outside. The diarist’s day has begun. I finish my coffee. After breakfast, I visit Prague’s biggest brewery, Staropramen (“Old Spring”). The company has invited me to taste some of its competitors. This tasting will take place before press and TV cameras. I remind myself to identify the beers in ways that the Czechs will understand.
In the Czech Republic, unless he asks for something else. the drinker is assumed to want a golden lager. If he wants one at a low price, with a modest alcohol content, he will ask simply for a “draft.” Even bottled beers in this category are dubbed “draft.” Such a beer will have 3.0-4.0 percent alcohol by volume.
He will use the term “lager” if he feels like a premium or super-premium, at around 5.0 percent alcohol by volume. Anything stronger is a “special.”
This is confusing. In some countries, lager means an ordinary, everyday golden brew. In my books, I explain these confusions of terminology, but settle on the use of lager as a generic, covering all the styles mentioned earlier.
Czech consumers concentrate so strongly on golden lagers that other styles tend to be dismissed. For the millennium, the Staropramen brewery introduced a dryish, nutty, interpretation of a Vienna-style brew. It is almost certain that this style was to some extent produced in Bohemia and Moravia in the days of the Austrian Empire, but it is unknown today. My hosts are amused when I tell them that Viennese brewers once accused me of having imagined this style―or invented it. There is a degree of surprise when I say I would like to see Staropramen Millennium Beer introduced to the United States.
Almost every Czech brewery makes a dark-brown lager, but these have only a tiny sale. The more sexist among Czech drinkers dub them “women’s beers,” fit only as a sugary restorative for nursing mothers. Yet more surprise when I mention brewpubs in Vienna and Tokyo that make beers described as “Prague dark lager.”
One of the beers at the tasting is the stronger, drier, Herold Dark Lager. My fellow tasters are pleasantly surprised by this one, made by a local brewery in South Bohemia. They have never seen it before. They are astonished when I tell them that I have already featured this in the United States, in a tasting at the Brickskeller in Washington, DC, and in my beer-of-the-month club (Beerhunter.com).
That evening, Staropramen holds a beer dinner, presented by Mark Dorber of the White Horse, Parson’s Green, London. His wife Sophie has come along to work with The White Horse chef, Heidi Flett. The menu includes the regular Staropramen with pike-perch on a bed of ricotta ravioli, and the dark Staropramen with smoked venison and Bohemian potato-cake.
Among the beers from other brewers are two of the most distinctive Czech specialities, both from East Bohemia. Marinated Hermelin cheese (like a firmer Camembert) is served with a fruity, oily, bottom-fermented porter of 8.0 percent alcohol, from Pardubice. Chocolate truffles, scented with hops, are accompanied by a beer of 10 percent, with a sweet fruitiness that reminds me of cherry brandy: Primator Double Dark, from Nachod. For all their brewing tradition, and some wonderful beers, the Czechs are astonished at the diversity of flavors.