There has not been a more replicated and modified beer style than the pilsner. The beer giants have their fair share of pale American lagers and similar products, but all fall short of their heritage. That’s not to say that they are bad beers, as every beer style has its place. But a true pilsner is simply a thing of beauty. Not only do we know where it originated, we even have the dates! On this edition of March of Lagers, let’s dive into the history of the original pale golden lager, the pilsner.
Let’s start in the early 1800s in Bohemia, what is now modern-day Czechia. Due to the poor quality of the ale, it eventually would spoil from it just sitting around. This was further exacerbated by the cheaper, cleaner lager bier imported from neighboring areas. The native ale was so awful that in 1838, barrels were ordered to be dumped into the streets of Pilsen.
After some protests by the locals, a new brewery was commissioned and built, complete with a malthouse. The new brewery also included a revolutionary way of kilning malt that was patented by Daniel Wheeler in England on 1818. Finally, Bavarian brewer Joseph Groll was hired to make things right. He brewed a batch of beer on Oct. 5 and released it Nov. 11, 1842, to the residents of Pilsen. The pilsner was born!
Pilsen is known for its soft water, and it was a major contributing factor to the delicate flavors that resulted in the finished beer. Floor malting the barley created a unique constancy of the germinating grain that contributes to the flavor. The use of the new malt-kilning technologies implemented were also a contributing aspect creating some very pale malt. Native Saaz hops imparted the unmistakable perfume and spicy aroma notes. The result was a golden beer with soft, well-rounded bitterness, bready maltiness, and a clean and refreshing finish. A light butter note imparted by the compound diacetyl, which is usually an off-flavor, is not looked on negatively for the Czech pilsners so long as it’s not overwhelming. It’s not by all means required, however.
Germany soon began to create its own versions of the pale lager. Beginning in about the 1870s, German breweries started to explore how to make pilsner to suit their water profiles. The German pilsner, sometimes spelled pilsener, has two unofficial subcategories: Northern and Southern German pils. The Northern style is drier, more bitter, and paler than the Southern versions. This is historically due to the higher levels of sulfates in the water. The Southern versions have a more pronounced hop aroma by contrast.
We also have the migration of the brewing tradition traveling with German immigrants to wherever they went. The American pilsner, those produced pre-prohibition, were like their cousins but with the addition of a rice and/or corn to contrast the use of higher-protein six-row barley. In more modern times, Italian pilsners (Click here for an overview of them!) are quite comparable to the German style but are dry-hopped.
Pilsner is a seamless partner with food, especially spicy Mexican dishes, with its sharp bitterness and cutting carbonation. Spicy hop aromatics harmonize with ingredients like onion and cilantro. Delicate shellfish will not be overpowered by a true pilsner. The burst of bitterness isn’t at IPA levels, so the gentle flavors of lobster or crab will rush in as soon it passes. Buffalo wings? Pilsner can help put out the fire. Salty dishes will be tamed by the bitter hop notes. Also, indulge yourself and serve a genuine pilsner in flutes as an aperitif before dinner. A bit of bitterness tends to wake up the palate and encourage appetite. Plus, it just looks cool!
We have plenty of producers of both German and Czech pilsners. Stereo Brewing in Placentia has a collaboration with the soon-to-open Bearded Tang ready for your enjoyment. Sun Medallion is a Czech style with wonderful floral notes and a snappy finish. A wonderful pils! Vater Von Pils from Unsung is also very nice. Brewery X usually has a rendition of both versions if not at least one. Both are very nicely done. TAPS has Bjorn in the USA, an unfiltered German pils, and has been known to make both Czech and German pils as well as a pre-Prohibition pils, Amend This! Chapman Crafted Pils is very easy to drink and is a crowd pleaser. Bottle Logic, Green Cheek, Golden Road, Artifex, Tustin, Laguna Beach, GameCraft, The Bruery, Bootlegger’s, and just about all other breweries have been known to have a pils of one kind or another at some point, if not currently. Check out their current selection for it and recommend they brew one soon if they don’t! Many local breweries offer pick-up and delivery orders while tasting rooms are closed.
Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.