The beer style that had its humble origins in the Czech town of Plzeň has spawned heaps of imitators all over the world. Stefanie Collins investigates Pilsner
For a beer that has pretty much conquered the world, the Pilsner style is relatively young, arriving with much fanfare in 1842 in the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic.
Brewing in the small Czech Republic town – formerly part of the Bohemian Kingdom – dates back to 1295 when the citizens of Plzeň were granted the right to brew beer by the monarch, King Wenceslas II. The town continued to brew right through until the 1840s when, legend has it, the townspeople and brewers were disgusted by the sight of 36 barrels of beer being rolled out of the central brewery and summarily poured down the drain. They had been declared “undrinkable” by a city councillor and doomed to feed the fish.
Now from here things get a little hazy. History dictates that the people banded together to create a brewing collective that would ensure the quality of the town’s beer supply – a very serious matter, obviously. However, there are apocryphal historical rumours of brewing yeast being smuggled out of the Bavarian Empire by monks and more. What we do know is that gifted Bavarian master brewer Josef Groll from Vilshofen brewed the first batch of Pilsner in the new brewery. It was his magic combination of Saaz hops, the soft local water, the choice of lager yeast and the use of lighter malt that became an overnight success and Plzeň’s beer has been brewed in vast quantities ever since.
The People Demand Good Beer
Interestingly, it was breweries born through the efforts of people power that have created the two, arguably, most famous Czech Pilsners in the world.
Pilsner Urquell – literally Czech for ‘original Pilsner’ – is the beer of aforementioned legend. According to the brand the original brewery, known as Burgher’s Brewery, was a direct result of the townspeople of Plzeň building and running a brewery for themselves in order to combat cheaper imported beers that were at risk of overwhelming the market.
Similarly, the original Budweiser Budvar brewery was known as the Czech Share Brewery, and was built to improve the economic, and therefore political, standing of the native Czech population in the town of Česke Budějovice – they had been lagging behind the migrant German community despite their majority. The Czech Share Brewery – the direct predecessor of Budweiser Budvar – was founded by Czech brewers and pumped out its first batch in October 1895 and is still going strong today with a recipe that is reportedly unchanged.
Not to be outdone by their Bohemian cousins, Bavarian – German and Austrian – breweries also got behind the Pilsner trend, creating their own versions of the golden beer for their own markets. And it was two Austrian breweries that created benchmark Pilsners that are now widely drunk around the world. Both Trumer Pils and the slightly lesser known Stiegl are widely distributed, with the former being touted as the world’s first ‘craft Pilsner’.
Let’s get Technical
Stylistically speaking, Czech (or Bohemian) Pilsner ranges from a light straw colour through to a light golden colour and is crystal clear. There should be a distinct hop nose with the spicy floral notes of the Saaz hop variety being particularly prevalent. The hop notes should carry through into the palate with a smooth, crisp and clean malty backbone in evidence. Some original Czech Pilsners will also exhibit yeast characteristics with mild buttery flavours and aromas. The average alcohol by volume for a classic Pilsner is 4.5-5.5 per cent.
According to Ben Kraus, head brewer and owner of Bridge Road Brewers in Victoria, it is the hops that are the standout feature of a classic Pilsner.
“For me a classic Pilsner is defined by the, relatively, liberal use of aromatic and bittering hops. Liberal when compared to other classic lagers such as Helles, or general mainstream euro or global lagers,” he says. “Pilsner Urquell is the original beer that defines the style, hoppy and aromatic with solid bitterness when fresh. Even much of the tired stock that finds its way to Australia is still evidently hoppy.”
Appearance is important too, and according to Neal Cameron, Pilsner-phile and head brewer at The Australian Brewery in Sydney, this is one instance where it is perfectly okay to judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
“It’s one of the purest beer styles – it’s all about a super pale, sparklingly bright body, a soft pillowy long lasting head, and a crisp and assertive bitterness backed up with a distinctively Noble hop aroma from some of oldest hop varieties there are,” he says. “It’s the one beer style that leaves you nowhere to hide from a brewing perspective. The Germans measure their brewers on how pale and bright they make their Pilsners and it’s there for everybody to see.”
The Pilsner Spectrum
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines there are only three official types of Pilsner: German Pilsner, Bohemian (Czech) Pilsner and American Pilsner. However, if you consult a bit more broadly, there are a few more categories that crop up, including: European Pilsner, Asian Pilsner, Antipodean Pilsner, Craft Pilsner, and Imperial Pilsner.
It’s an interesting spectrum, and Kraus is a firm fan of the Antipodean (or New World) style of Pilsner, characterised by the use of New World hops instead of the traditional Saaz hop.
“My preference for Pilsner is the New World style for which NZ is (in my mind) famous for,” he says. “Emersons and Croucher make two of my favourites – solid, dry pilsners with strong NZ hop characters.”
Kraus himself has created what can only be termed a Craft Pilsner with his brewery’s popular Chestnut Pilsner – inspired by local produce and Italian craft beers.
“[We wanted] to use local ingredients from our region as our one of our strengths and points of difference,” he says. “I had seen a few examples of chestnut beers from Italy and given that Beechworth and Stanley are the capital for chestnut production in Australia it seemed only logical to brew a beer using them. We didn’t at the time have a lager, so a milder style of beer – when compared with our bigger hoppy and malty ales – seemed appropriate given that the flavour influence of raw chestnuts is so subtle.”
It’s possibly a wise choice, given that both Cameron and Kraus assert that genuine Pilsners are actually relatively rare in the market despite their apparent popularity – most are simply lagers mislabelled – with Cameron adding that it is a travesty for many ‘Pilsners’ from around the world to even carry the name.
“You have to have drunk some of the world’s great Pilsners in the beer gardens of Bavaria or Plzeň to truly understand how magisterial these beers are and how poor many of the copies are,” he says.
The reason for this, according to Cameron, is that while certain conditions can be mimicked – he notes that Sydney’s water is not so different from Plzeň’s – it is the lagering time that Pilsner Urquell and their counterparts give their beers that is the point of difference: 12 weeks at very cold temperatures is normal. The cost of the stainless steel and refrigeration in most other countries would be exorbitant, so brewing a genuine Pilsner is out of the question.
If it’s Not Czech Beer, it’s Not Czech Beer
Now, it is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, which is of great comfort to the brewers of Plzeň seeing as though it is estimated that Pilsner is the most highly copied beer style of all time. The breweries were so flattered that they applied for – and were granted – Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union for the term ‘Czech beer’. Now, much like Champagne, a brewery has to pass inspection to be allowed to label their creations as Czech beer.