Pilsner, the world’s most popular style of beer, was invented in Czech Bohemia, perfected in Germany, and turned into flavorless mass-market fizz in America. Some version of pilsner is the only style that many people have ever seen or heard of. Many people who have recently become beer aficionados turn up their noses at the sight of it. So familiar, so yellow. What could it have to offer? The answer is plenty-if you get your hands on the real thing. Genuine pilsner is a thing of beauty-delicate, sharp, flavorful, aromatic, and appetizing. Beer snobs who disdain its bright, simple, linear flavors don’t realize what they’re missing. Alas, we are awash in ersatz mass-market “pilsner,” the equivalent of the flavorless, blindingly white sliced sponges that masquerade as bread on our supermarket shelves. Let’s have a look at real pilsner, shall we?
While most people think of pilsner as a German style, it actually has its origins in Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech republic. In 1842, a Bavarian monk (historically, monks never seem to be far from beer) smuggled some bottom-fermenting lager yeast from Munich to the Bohemian town of Pilsen. He gave it to the Bavarian-born brewer at the Plzensky Prazdroj brewery, who had plans for Bavaria’s special yeast. The brewer, Josef Grolle , had a trick up his sleeve. The British had learned t make pale malts, and he had traveled to Great Britain to learn the secret. Grolle had then developed a technique to make the malt paler still, to point where the beer brewed from it could be truly golden in color.
Only a year before, the Spaten brewery had stunned and delighted the people of Munich with its light bronze Marzen Oktoberfest beer. Before then, all German beers had been dark and usually murky. That beer had been a sensation, but now Grolle took this refinement one crucial step further. Grolle’s Pilsner Bier stopped people in their tracks. It had the color of burnished gold, and light sparkled through it as no one had ever seen before. The bottom-fermenting yeast, true to its promise, dropped to the bottom of the vessel after the cold fermentation was finished, leaving the beer clear and bright after its long aging. The sharp, clean bitterness and flowery aromatics of the region’s native Saaz hops and the full breadiness of the Moravian barley malt were accentuated by the remarkably soft water of the brewery’s wells. The high carbonation, developed by months of aging, formed a white pillowy head on top of the golden liquid. People were enraptured, and word of the new golden pilsner beer raced past the boarders of Bohemia and swept throughout Europe.
Josef Grolle and his brewery, today known as Pilsner Urquell can take credit for the first pilsner beer, but the industrial revolution can take some credit for the rapid spread of the its popularity. What was so special about the sparkling, golden beer from Pilsen? Until the 1840s, virtually all Europeans drank beer (and wine, for the matter) out of crockery steins, metal tankards wooden mugs, or even leather jars. These drinking vessels were opaque, but that was fine, since the beer wasn’t much to look at anyhow. Only the rich could afford glassware. Now, however, a new process of mechanized glassmaking brought the price of glassware with the means of the middle class, who, not surprisingly, took quickly to this former luxury item. Once the middle classes were sat down in their beer gardens with the sunshine sparkling through their golden, clear glasses of beer, they were hopelessly smitten. The new railroads brought the beer to Bavaria, Prussia, Vienna, and Berlin, where local brewers quickly discovered that they would be forced to brew similar beers or be left in the dust. The rest of Europe fell in love pilsner beer as well, and within only a few years pilsner was being brewed in the United States by German and Czech immigrants.
The original Budweiser beer is still brewed in Geske Budejovice (Budweis in German) in the Czech Republic. Budweiser originally meant beer from Budweis, just as Pilsner meant beer from Pilsen. Deferring to the sensitivities of the Czechs, most German breweries abbreviate Pilsner as simply Pils. The Bohemian roots of pilsner beer can be discerned in the names of the American National Bohemian beer and the Mexican beer Bohemia. Those beers, however, have strayed far from their roots. Genuine pilsners are all-malt beers, which means that they conform to the Reinheitsgebot and contain no rice, corn, wheat or any grain other than malted barley. True pilsner is full yellow to deep gold in color and has a sharply snappy well-focused hop bitterness, a floral hop aroma, a soft bready malt center, and very clean and dry finish. A prickle of bitterness and the taste of barley linger. It is a beer of great finesses. Brewers sometimes refer to pilsner, with some trepidation, as “naked,” meaning that there’s nowhere for imperfect flavors to hide. Like all lagers, pilsner expresses very little fermentation character, except perhaps for a faint whiff of sulfur. The flavor and aroma are pure malt and hops, with little if any fruit. The alcohol content of pilsner is moderate, about 5 percent.
Even among the true pilsners there are regional variations. In southern Germany the Bavarian pilsners are round and full-bodied, almost buttery malt character. The classic Czech hop, the delicately flowery Saaz, virtually leaps from the glass, lending an alluring nose. American craft brewers, after years of studiously ignoring the pilsner style, have started to brew full-flavored all malt pilsners that are worthy of their European roots. Some of these new American pilsners are truly world-class, and their freshness can give them an edge over imports.
Once off its home turf, though, the pilsner style tends to be less steady. An “international” pilsner style is brewed around the world, but its pedigree is less impressive than that of the original. These beers tend to be lighter in color and malt flavor and less bracingly hopped. Both in bitterness and in aroma. Sometimes adjuncts-rice, corn, and other cheap grains excluded from German brewhouses- make there way into these beers, lightening them enough to achieve mass-market ambitions. Heineken (an all-malt beer), Belgium’s Stella Artois, and Denmark’s Carlsberg are well-known European examples of the international pilsner style. In Asia, examples include Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory, Kirin, Tsing-Tao, Singha, Kingfisher, and dozens of others. Some of these beers are acceptably clean and refreshing, the beer world’s answer to the average $6 pinot grigio. There’s not a lot of depth here, but they’ll be OK in a pinch.