A Long Tradition Gone Bad
There was something foul in the Bohemian city of Plzen (Pilsen) in 1838.
Plzen in the 18th century
The citizen despised their cloudy, dark, quickly spoiling, top-fermented beer that was brewed in the region. They had good reason to do so. Not far away, in Bavaria, brewers were able to produce a delicious bottom-fermented product that was perfected by cold-lagering. The citizen were so upset in their thirst for good beer that they dumped 36 barrels of their undrinkable brew into the street.
So why were the Pilsners stuck with an inferior beer?
This situation was especially puzzling and infuriating, since the kingdom of Bohemia has always been a shining star in the art of fermenting grains. Mainly the cities of Prague, Pilsen, and Budweis had a long tradition of brewing excellent beers. In Prague several monasteries were keeping up the good work, and in other parts of the kingdom brewing history can be traced back hundreds of years.
In the 13th and 14th century several Bohemian towns received the rights to brew beer (1). For Pilsen the time came in 1295 when King Wenceslas II. gave the 260 citizens the right to brew and sell the beverage. Located near trade routes to Regensburg and Nuernberg, the setup was ideal.(2)
“The first written records of a distinct brewery in Plzen date back to 1307 . Evidence suggests that many of the early residents of Plzen formed joint breweries and even a community malthouse to make production more efficient, with individual brewers making their own wort and then dumping it into a large vat for fermentation .” [Ensminger 1997]
Another asset were the excellent spicy hops of the Zatec region. Those Zatec Red hops were so valuable , that it was a crime punishable by death to smuggle the rhizomes across the border. Eventually the Pilsener brewers formed a guild and took King Wenceslas as their patron saint. Brewing became more and more consistent, and it was the Czechs again that put it in black and white. Tadeas Hajek was a botanist, alchemist, astrologer (3) and he also wrote the first book on brewing in 1588: On Beer and the Methods of Its Preparation, Its Substance, Strengths, and Effects.
This attempt was only part of the quest for better beers that emerged in the 1500s. In Germany the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) was put in place to regulate the sale and production of consistently well brewed beer.
So what had happened between that period and the moment in history, where 36 barrels of beer ended up in the gutter?
The answer is that somebody took a bad fall, and civilizations tumbled after..
Second Defenestration of Prague
In 1618 the Bohemian Protestants were upset that their Catholic Habsburg king wanted to cut their religious rights.So a group of nobles went to the Hradschin Castle in Prague and threw two Habsburg Lord Regents and their secretary out of the window. They fell into a pile of dung and lived, but many would not, because this event, commonly known as the Second Defenestration of Prague (yes, there was a first one), started the Thirty Year War.
The Thirty Year War did not only leave a terribly destructive footprint and took an immense human toll in Bohemia, it devastated all Europe. As for the Bohemian brewing trade it ”wiped out two thirds of the population and saw local town councils and nobility on the losing Protestant side. Brewing privileges were revoked and many breweries were taken over by Catholic nobility loyal to the Habsburg emperor.” (Oliver, 2011, p.140)
Recovery after the war was slow. While the late 1700s and early 1800s brought scientific exploration and better understanding of yeast and the fermentation process, it was still not enough to revive the ailing brewing industry in Bohemia. The beer remained subpar and that is what lead to the eclat in 1838.
New Beginnings and a Bavarian Master
Something good came out of this upheaval, because the good citizens of Pilsen had enough of the bad beer brewed in their vicinity and decided to build their own city brewery, the Buerger Brauhaus. But a brewery alone does not make good beer. It needs good ingredients and the knowledge of brewing.
As mentioned before, with the Moravian barley and the Red Zatec hops the stage was almost set for Pilsner beer. It justneeded the right yeast and the right brewer. The German lager yeast had already reached Bohemia through smugglers. It is however doubtful that the right technology and knowledge was in place for cold fermentation. However, the climate and the facilities in Pilsen were similar to the caves that were used in Germany to lager the beer.
The knowledge came in the form of a Bavarian brewer by the name of Joseph Groll. The son of a Bavarian brewery owner had the talent to work with bottom fermenting yeast. The brewer was hired and soon found out that he faced a different set of ingredients than in his homeland. The hops had a spicy character and the soft water was not suited for dark, acidic malts.
The New Way
Ray Daniels in his book Designing Great Beers (4) speculates on the way the malt was used in Pilsen. Rather than kiln the grains at higher temperatures, it was not kilned at all, but dried, which left moisture in the grain. The non-kilned grain, of course, stayed very light in color, but had to be used quickly because of the remaining moisture. This fact, in turn demanded a maltster that remained close to the brewery, to allow for short transportation times.
On November 11, 1842 Joseph Groll tapped the first light, clear beer ever seen before. Today we call it Pilsner Urquell. It was a revolution, and consumers went crazy for it. Joseph Groll himslef left Pilsen after his contract had expired in , but since Pilsen was located on a trade route, the new beer soon made it across Europe and in 1871 across the ocean to America. New technology (steam, electricity, railway) all contributed to the popularity of Pilsner Urquell.
Gate of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery
What’s in a Name
The name Pilsner was originally only used for beers brewed in Pilsen, but soon was used for many light beers brewed in the style (or just being similar).
Today, we generally distinguish between three Pilsner styles:
Bohemian (or Czech) Pilsner
Straw to golden in color, medium body, the flavor is balanced between a complex maltiness and a pronounced, yet rounded bitterness. Some diacetyl can be present in small amounts.
Clean, crisp flavor. Bitterness is less rounded and more lingering, body is medium to light. Drier and crispier than Bohemian Pilsner. No diacetyl present.
Classic American Pilsner
Malty but light, due to the presence of adjuncts. Medium to high hop bitterness. Grainy sweetness can be present.
A Moment In Time
For me, the tapping of the first Pilsner in 1842 is one of the great moments in beer history. Whenever I pour a glass of
Pilsner and see the light color and the white, foamy head, I try to imagine how the citizen of Pilsen felt, on that day in November, when they saw it for the first time. It must have been something so new that I want to compare it to the first time somebody saw a smartphone with a touchscreen. Yes, there had been phones before, but this was new and not anticipated.
They must have felt immediately that this was not only a beer that would benefit their own palates, but a new delicious product that would be desired and drunk all over Europe – and would create profit for them. Today, Pilsner is a beer style that can be found all over the world. As we have seen above, it has been copied and modified to regional tastes.
Next time you are craving a Pilsner, order a Bohemian (or Czech) style. and when you pour it and admire the light color and the white creamy head, try to imagine the surprise and joy of the citizens of Pilsen, when they tasted it for the first time.
(1) Garrett Oliver: The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press 2011. p.140
(2) Peter A. Ensminger: The History and Brewing Methods of Pilsner Urquell. In: Brewing Techniques. May/August 1997.
(3) Miltus Teich: Bohemia in History.Cambridge University Press 1998. p.130
(4) Ray Daniels: Designing Great Beers. Brewers Publications 1996