Pilsners. The Beginning Of So Many Beer Roads.
It all sounds like subplots and locales from either a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie – masses revolting in the streets, new technology “borrowed” from one country and taken to another, Great Britain, The Czech Republic, and Germany. Most folks may not think of such things when ordering a beer, and true, just about any style of beer likely has a long and colorful history. But these things in particular dot the timeline of not just any beer, but what we might as well call “the” beer, the one that changed the face of beer drinking and production worldwide. The one which started out with mass appeal and not a small amount of fanfare, and over the years, has given birth to so many other styles, including the most widely drunk beer throughout the world. I bet Indiana Jones could not only figure out what it is, but track its history all the way to its beginning – after all, it is the beer with a trademark golden color, so it even sounds like lost treasure. As far as for Mr. Bond? He sipped martinis, right? What did he know about good beer?
Of course, this particular beer style would be the legendary Pilsner. It would seem that not one, but all of the typical factors that usually make for major changes in history came together in one place, at one time, to give birth to this game changing beer. The first, pure necessity. Beer drinkers in what is now the Czech Republic, unhappy with inconsistent quality in their beers, begun to demand a change in their beer. The story usually revolves around barrels of the beer they had being dumped into the streets in revolt – a sad day for any brewer, and a tough thought for me even today. A Brewer’s Guild was formed in the town of Plzen to fix the situation. Necessity, meet opportunity. In a couple other areas of Europe, beer “technologies” which would help change beer forever had been growing. German brewers were really getting their minds around the advantages of cold storing, or “lagering”, their beer, a process that activates the yeast strains which produce the smoother, mellower beers we know as lagers. And in Great Britain, brewers and maltsters had found new methods to produce paler colored malt, or the grain used to produce their beer, which in turn gave them both lighter colors and lighter flavors in beer. These two advancements met with a few regional characteristics, the kind of wheat used, the famous ‘Saaz’ hop favored in the area, and a softer regional water which softened the overall hop bitterness. The result of course was the original Pilsner, the Czech Pilsner. It’s a stlyle that would soon take off in popularity throughout Europe, and thereafter, brewers would attempt to replicate all over the world.
As the story continues, the Germans weren’t about to let the growing popularity of this Czech product steal their own beer drinkers away. But without the particular kind of soft water Czech brewers had at their disposal, and also through the use of regional German barley and hops types, a different style of the Pilsner began to be created, becoming known as, maybe obviously, the German Pilsner. Experts tend to disagree on the finer points here and there, but generally, Czech style Pilsners can be slightly to moderately sweeter, with is sometimes described as a biscuity or cracker like flavor from the malt, feature a little less hop bitterness, and have a wonderful floral aroma (from the Saaz hops). German Pilsners can also have a slightly different but still flowery aroma, are usually more bitter and overall less malty sweet, but are well carbonated and very crisp. Both use types of hops that are referred to as the “Noble Hops”, varieties native to particular European regions, and known more for the flowery or herbal aromas they provide and have generally low “bittering” qualities overall.
These two styles of beer have a large enough story to tell on their own. But on a larger historical scale, what these brewers provided the beer world with was, in fact, its first pale colored lager. Not only were other beer styles born from the Pilsner, but in the long run, any pale lager you care to pick up at your local restaurant, bar, pub, and so on, owes its existence to the legendary Pilsner. Unfortunately, today, most pale lagers are only that – pale, and yes, they’re lagers. Only similar to the original Pilsner style in that they are light in color, they don’t hold a candle in aroma, taste, character, or any other characteristic to a true Pilsner. Most of today’s light colored lagers are the distant cousin who has traded his lineage for sheer popularity, and forgotten his roots altogether. But there are still heroes around to save the day from those dangerous sounding subplots we started with. There are plenty of imported Czech and German Pilsners out there today which are delicious examples, and in most cases easily found. The other good news comes in the form, yet again, of the American craft brewer. As with so many other European styles, American craft brewers continue to replicate the style while staying close to the lineage of the Pilsner, and many times adjustments only build upon the beer, perhaps making it even better, without trading off of the name of the world’s first golden lager. After all, maybe American craft brewers have a little Indiana Jones in them anyway. Can’t you picture many with a sly grin, (maybe) a fedora, and a look half of ultra resourceful attitude and half of pure mischievous spirit?
Perhaps start with these Czech and Czech style, American craft brewed Pilsners: Měšťanský pivovar Havlíčkův “Rebel” (Czech), Pilsner Urquell (Czech), Žatec Pivovar Zatec (Czech), Samuel Adams Noble Pils (Sam Adams/Boston Beer Co. US), Mama’s Little Yella Pils (Oskar Blues Brewing US), Great Lakes Brewing The Wright Pils (US).
And these German and German style, American craft brewed Pilsners: Bitburger Premium Pils (German), Warsteiner Premium Verum (German), St. George Brewing Company Pilsner (US), Victory Brewing Prima Pils (US), Brooklyn Brewing’s Pilsner (US), Troeg’s Brewing’s Sunshine Pils (US), Tupper’s Hop Pocket Pils (US), North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw Pilsner (US)…just to name a few craft brewed German style pilsners out there which are very good.