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The Lager Revolution Part 2: Pilsner Spreads Across Europe

Last time here on Revelations in Fermentation, we discussed the origins of Pilsner in Bohemia and the quality ingredients that came together to create it.  In Part 2 of the series, we will take a look at how innovations in technology helped Pilsner spread across Europe and become the most popular beer in the world.

For most people, the first beer that they ever tried was a Pilsner.  Bud, Miller, Coors; each of these companies flagship products are brewed with a nod to the original Czech Pilsner.  How did a beer from such a small Bohemian town come to be so popular?

One of the most important innovations that contributed to Pilsner’s popularity was glass.  This may seem strange to us, as the modern drinker is accustomed to drinking beer from a glass.  Craft beer lovers would never dream of drinking their favorite brew from anything but.  Proper glassware not only allows the drinker to fully appreciate the aroma of the beer, but it allows them to appreciate the look of the beer as well.  Pour yourself a well made Czech Pilsner today and you will be greeted by the clean, spiciness of Saaz hops, a noble variety that has been prized for centuries for its aroma and flavor.  You will also be dazzled by the brilliant clarity of the straw colored liquid, as well as the thick layer of pure white foam that sits on top.

Looks tasty.

Drinking beer from a glass, however, is a relatively modern novelty, considering the 10000 plus years of brewing history.  For much of beers history, it was consumed from opaque vessels made of clay, metal, or even leather coated with tar.  Glass was expensive, and glassware had to be hand blown by highly skilled craftsman.  Thus, glass was only affordable for the wealthy.  That is, until the mid 19th century, when machine made glassware turned what was once an expensive display of wealth into the standard drinking vessel.  Now everyone could enjoy their beer from a glass.

Still, despite the ready availability of clear glassware by the mid 19th century, the dark, often turbid brews that were commonplace at this point in history were not necessarily pleasing to the eye.  Pilsner; the clear, golden, bubbly brew; stood in stark contrast to these beers.  This new beer was a sight to see, and when combined with the proper glassware, it proved to be irresistible.

No great idea remains uncopied, and beer is no exception.  Pilsner’s popularity within its home town soon led to the founding of several breweries in the area, all trying to cash in on the original product.  Thanks to the railroad, which had become a viable means of transport in Europe only a couple of decades earlier, these beers quickly spread all over Bohemia, and soon found their way into Bavaria and other European states.  This led to other brewers trying to imitate the new beer.  There were a few problems, however.

As I mentioned in the previous article, Plzen is blessed with extremely soft water, a characteristic that allowed the malt and the hops to come forward without having to compete with any flavor contributions from the water.  Munich, the lager capital of Europe, was not blessed with such water.  The high alkalinity of Munich’s water supply meant that any effort to reproduce Pilsner exactly would lead to a bitterness that was too sharp, since alkalinity exaggerates bitterness.  The Spaten brewery in Munich understood this, but also knew that they needed to create a beer to compete with the pale lagers coming from Bohemia.  There solution was to develop a lager that held all of the physical characteristics (clarity, golden color, effervescence), but emphasized the malt profile rather than the hops. In 1894 they unveiled their new beer, which would come to be called Munich Helles.

For most of beers history, brewers were limited to producing only the beers that were best brewed in their areas.  Darker beers do best with a highly carbonate water supply, which is why London and Dublin are famous for their darker ales.  Burton-on-Trent became famous for its hoppy, pale ales because the water was better suited to producing these beers than London’s was.  It would not be until the second quarter of the 20th century that brewing science advanced to the point that brewers were able to adjust the chemistry of their water to fit the profile needed to replicate any beer in the world.

Advances in the study of yeast were the next steps towards Pilsner’s dominance.  Recall from last week that Bavaria had been brewing bottom fermenting beers solely for 300 years before the advent of Pilsner.  Over those three centuries, by culturing only the yeast from successful batches, brewers were able to develop yeast cultures well suited for the cool, bottom fermenting conditions that produced the beer they loved.  This made it easy for them to go on and develop similar pale lager styles that could compete with beer flowing from Plzen.  Other brewers were handicapped until the late 19th century when Christian Emil Hansen, who worked for the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen, was successful at isolating the yeast strain responsible for bottom fermentation.  Before this, all yeast cultures were a mixture of several different strains.  Hansen had created the world’s first single-cell yeast culture.  Single-cell cultures produce a more consistent beer because there is less risk of infection from wild yeast mixed in with the brewer’s yeast.  Hansen’s work meant that any brewer, anywhere could brew consistently good lagers without the centuries of trial and error that the German’s had to endure.

Artificial refrigeration was the last piece necessary for Pilsner to take its hold on the beer world.  An American, Alexander Twining, developed the first commercial refrigeration unit in 1859.  The Spaten Brewery in Munich installed an advanced model developed by German engineer Carl von Linde in 1873 and by the end of the 19th century these units were common pieces of equipment in all large scale breweries.  Artificial refrigeration was vital to the spread of Pilsner because it no longer limited lager brewing to colder climates during the colder months of the year.

In 1842, the beer that was destined to conquer the world was born.  A few innovations in science and technology were all that stood in its way towards fulfilling that destiny.  Check back next week for Part 3 of the series The Lager Revolution: Pilsner in America.

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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Beer History, Lager, Pilsner, Uncategorized


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