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.