The Lager Revolution Part 1: The Origin of Pilsner

06 Nov

The story of the success of Pilsner is one of quality ingredients, innovation, and relentless marketing.  In this three part series, I will discuss the origins of Pilsner, its spread across Europe and the rest of the world, and finally finish off by focusing on its modern day manifestations.

Pilsner was invented in the Bohemian town of Plzen (Modern day Czech Republic) in 1842.  Many factors had to come together in the early half of the 19th century in order for the beer that would eventually take over the world to come into existence.

First, the invention of indirect kilning made it possible to produce very light colored malt on a large scale for the first time in history.  Other methods existed to produce light malt, such as air drying, but these were not practical on a commercial scale.  For ages, malt had been kilned using direct heat, which made it very difficult to control temperature and thus only brown colored beers were possible.  Even English Pale Ales, which had been popular for 50 years or so at this point, were only called “pale” because they were less dark than porters, stouts, and the other brown beers that were available to English drinkers at the time.

The ability to produce light colored malt is nothing, however, without good barley.  Luckily, the barley that grew in the area around Plzen was already considered some of the best in Europe.  Saaz hops, which grow native in the Czech Republic, were also prized.  Saaz is classified as one of just four noble hop varieties, which are treasured throughout the beer making world as those with the best aroma and flavor.  On top of this, the town of Plzen is blessed with incredibly soft water.  The lack of dissolved minerals in the towns water supply meant that the flavors and aromas of their cherished malt and hops were allowed to shine through without having to compete with any flavors from the water.

But wait, what about the yeast?  Beer can’t become beer without yeast.  Recall back to my last article in which I wrote about the ban on summer brewing in Bavaria in 1553.  This essentially equated to a ban on ale brewing.  Over the next three centuries, Bavaria’s reputation for producing outstanding bottom fermenting beers, by then known as lagerbier,  had spread throughout Europe.  Although single strain yeast cultures were still about a half century away, the yeast used by Bavarian brewers had become quite adapt to bottom fermentation by 1842.  Sources are unable to agree about how this yeast made its way to Plzen.  Some say that a Bohemian monk traveled to Bavaria to learn the secrets of lager brewing, and smuggled back a sample of the yeast.  Others claim that it was a run away Bavarian monk that brought it into Bohemia.  Still other sources say that both of these stories are hogwash.  No matter how it got there, the Bohemians were able to score some primo yeast.  Lager yeast, when handled properly, produces no flavors of its own, unlike ale yeast, which produces fruity esters and spicy phenols.  Much like the regions soft water, this clean fermentation allowed the malt and the hops to play the staring roles.

And so, from the combination of each of these ingredients, Pilsner was born.  Check back next week for the second installment in the series, The Lager Revolution Part 2: Pilsner Spreads Across Europe.


Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Beer History, brewing, Lager, Pilsner


Tags: , , ,

2 responses to “The Lager Revolution Part 1: The Origin of Pilsner

  1. Martyn Cornell

    November 16, 2011 at 4:20 AM

    Um: you’re a bit off in saying pale malt was only being produced on a large scale in the 19th century: see my post here about the invention of coke and the making of pale malt in the 17th century in England. And bottom-fermenting yeast undoubtedly arrived in Plzen with Joseph Groll, the Bavarian hired to be the new brewery’s first brewmaster.

  2. Brenden

    November 16, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    Thank you Martyn for taking the time to read through my writing. You are actually my first commenter! I have been looking through your site for a few days now. I will likely be adding a copy of your book to my library. I like how it challenges so many of the myths and uncertainties in beer history that other authors have simply spouted as fact.

    As for the pale malt thing, I was referring to David Wheeler’s drum roaster that was being used by Groll to achieve the super light color of Pilsner. Coke produced “pale” malt, but only when compared to porter and stout. This is correct, is it not?

    Thanks again! I hope you’ll be around for future posts to point out any potential inaccuracies. I certainly welcome any constructive criticism you may have.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: