For many beverages, it is impossible to identify their exact moment of creation, but not so with the style of beer known as Pilsner. We know exactly the moment it was born, the town in which it was brewed, the brewery that served as its incubator, as well as the team behind its vision. The creation of the Pilsner style so dramatically rocked the beer world, and sent a lightning bolt of change ripping through the norm, that the history of beer was forever changed. Today, according to the Oxford Companion to Beer, Pilsner-inspired beers account for 95 percent of global beer volume.
The beers of the past would be nearly unrecognizable to today’s drinkers. They were often dark in color, low in alcohol, sweet in taste, cloudy in clarity, and sometimes even needed to be sipped through straws to avoid ingesting floating sediment. But with time, ingenuity, and advancements in technology, the art of brewing has evolved to once undreamed of levels of quality and variety. And nothing encourages these advancements more than when things come to a screeching, desperate halt.
In the early 1800s in what is now the Czech Republic, breweries were churning out as much beer as they could as the demand was nearly unquenchable. But with that demand came shortcuts on quality. The name of the game was volume, and the standards for what was passable were barely above the level of rotgut swill.
In 1838, in the town of Pilsen, the citizens protested by dumping an entire season’s worth of poorly-made beer in front of the town hall. Perhaps fueled by thirst, and certainly by ambition, they formed a plan to build a new brewery and to combine their skills and resources to create a beer they could be proud of. They looked to Bavaria, and its well-regarded beers for inspiration, and tasked a 24-year old builder named Martin Stelzer to design the new brewery. He worked with Josef Groll, a Bavarian whose father had owned a brewery and who spent years experimenting with bottom-fermenting beers known as lagers (as opposed to ales, which are made using yeast that floats on top of the beer). Groll and Stelzer traveled extensively for research, and eventually returned to build the brewery of their dreams in Pilsen, where they unveiled the beer that would change the world in October of 1842.
The Pilsner they brewed combined the latest in Bavarian skill, the most up to date malting techniques, and Czech ingredients. It was gold in color, with a thick white foamy head, and had an assertive, yet smooth and balanced, hop character. The townspeople were elated, and word of this new beer style quickly spread throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond.
“It's hard to overstate the influence Pilsner has had,” said Jonathan Moxey, head brewer at Rockwell Beer Co. in St. Louis. “It's a style that, as word spread, everyone had to have it. Brewers outside Pilsen did their best to recreate a clean, pale lager within the constraints placed by the available malt and water source they had at the time. Some tried and succeeded, some failed, and some ended up creating their own styles of pale lagers or ales that are delicious, yet distinct from the original.”
Using the original Pilsner style as a template, there have been countless spin-offs, particularly as large breweries found ways to augment the beer with adjuncts such as rice and corn, bringing down the costs in the process, but also significantly changing the flavor profile. These Pilsner-inspired beers now flood every corner of the beer world, dominating the market.
“It's arguably the most recognized style of beer in the world,” said Kelly Taylor, owner and brewer of KelSo Beer Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Delicate malt, zesty hops, yet a clean and snappy finish. It's what people expect in a beer. I love the depth of character, layered malt, judicious hops, and mellow finish. Great with food or as a standalone. Great in both the summer and the winter, and extremely versatile.”
The Pilsner was not only wholly unique in style, but it also required a high level of skill to brew.
“Brewing Pilsner is a true test of a brewer's skill,” Moxey said. “Everything has to be dialed in because there's nothing to hide behind. It's like a diamond or a perfect omelet, where all is laid bare. Any flaw in technique, ingredients, water profile, fermentation, etc., is going to show.”
As beer fads have come and gone, many see the rise of well-balanced, lower-alcohol beers as the next big wave to hit the craft beer scene.
“The market is wide open for Pilsners,” said Taylor, who’s been brewing his own version since 2007. “The craft beer scene has been dominated by IPAs [India Pale Ales] and their hoppy spinoffs (White IPA, Session IPA, Northeast IPA, West Coast IPA and the like) for some time. But sessionable, simply good beers, are on the comeback. Pilsners are at the forefront of that charge.”
Experimentation is also afoot, with many brewers paying homage to the classic grand daddy, but also leaving their own modern fingerprint.
“Brewers today are doing all sorts of things with Pilsners,” says Moxey. “Be it dry-hopping [a process that adds more hop aromatics without extra bitterness], fermentation in oak, fruiting, incorporating experimental and New World hop varietals. Some are very delicious, but it's simply hard to beat a classic interpretation.”
That juxtaposition in style is summed up beautifully by Pete Brown, who penned the entry on Pilsner for the Oxford Companion to Beer: “The first encounter with a true Pilsner can be a life-changing revelation to the drinker who has only previously experienced mass-produced pale imitations.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.