The Plight of the Pils

A Brief History of an Old Standard

Whether you realize it or not, the first beer you ever tasted -- sipped surreptitiously from the dregs of dad's poker game, downed on a dare during a high school party, or quaffed in the first years of college -- was almost certainly a Pilsner. Just about every brand of beer you could possibly have imbibed -- everything from American standards like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, to imports from Canada (Labatt's, Molson), Mexico (Dos Equis, Bohemia), and Europe (Heineken) -- is based on the Pilsner. Although we drink it every day (well, some of us only on weekends, perhaps), very few people know what a Pilsner really is, let alone its history and how it came to dominate the world beer market.

Where There's a Pils...

The original Pilsner is named after a lager style of beer (that is, bottom-fermented, as opposed to top-fermented ales) developed in 1842 in the village of Pilsn, Bohemia. Now part of the Czech Republic, Bohemia was a German-speaking province of the Austrian Empire when the Pilsner was introduced to the world. Pilsn had been a brewing center since 1295, and, as in many of the German cities, the bottom-fermenting technique used to make lager-style beers had been known there for years before the creation of the beer that takes the town's name. But in the mid-1800s, brewers at the brewery now known as Pilsner Urquell combined technological advances in bottom fermentation with Bohemia's unique Saaz style of hops, a special type of malt from the neighboring province of Moravia, and the brewery's incredibly soft water to produce the world's first golden lager.

The refreshing golden beer was also clear. And, as Bohemia happened to be a leading producer of the glassware that was replacing ceramic and metal tankards, the sparkling Pilsner quickly spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. The popularization of the Pilsner was also aided by another aspect of the industrial revolution. Previously, lagers had been confined to the mountainous Bohemian and Bavarian brewing regions, where it was possible to store the beer in deep caves to ensure the cold temperatures they require for fermentation and maturation. The advent of refrigeration introduced beer, in the form of the Pilsner, to many countries of the world, as well as popularizing it in the established brewing cities, particularly those of Germany.

The 1840s also saw a wave of German and Czech emigration to the United States, and much of this country's brewing know-how (and tastes) can be traced to these regions. But then Prohibition wiped out over half of America's breweries; it wasn't until the advent of World War II that brewers began to take advantage of industrial techniques and cheaper materials (like corn and rice), and American beermaking hit its stride.

Of course, the need to appeal to the broadest possible palate enticed the big brewers to dilute the Pilsner, removing the vast majority of the beer's flavor, and all beers were lightened somewhat for the ladies. The corruption of the original recipe has continued unabated since the end of WWII, with the myriad brands of "light" and "dry" beers watering it down even more. And that's where we are today. But the Pilsner wouldn't have been so widely copied in the first place if there weren't more to it than the bland fizz of an All-American Bud, and indeed the taste of a genuine Pilsner is a far cry from its overseas cousins.

Take a Pils

The unique characteristics of the original brewing methods in Pilsn, Bohemia -- the Saaz hops, the Moravian malt, and the especially soft water -- combine to produce a brew that is much more than simply a golden lager. A true Pilsner should have a strong accent of hops mellowed by malt, giving it a dry finish and a flowery aroma, and it should be clean, crisp, and sparkling in appearance. So distinctive is the beer that many beer purists regard "Pilsner" as an appellation of origin, similar to the system used with wines, and believe it should never refer to a brew made outside of Pilsn. Some European countries agree, and the name is altered to "Pilsener" or set off with hyphens (as in Germany's "Bitburger-Pils") when produced elsewhere. Almost all Czech breweries include in their product lines a golden Pilsner-style beer, but label it with their own name.

Despite these unique attributes, there are readily available brews the world over which do a better job than Bud or Coors of interpreting the style of a Pilsner. According to Michael Jackson, the author of Beer Companion and a noted expert on beers around the world, Belgium exports an excellent Pilsner under the name Stell Artois. Originally from the Netherlands, Heineken and Grolsch have an international following. Mexico's Bohemia is a German-style Pilsner while Dos Equis Special Lager is classified as a European-style. Japanese brewers produce light Pilsners and export them under the names Kirin and Sapporo. Bitburger was one of the first German breweries to adapt the Pilsner style and still produces a Pilsner available in the U.S. New Zealand's Steinlager is also widely available.

"Real" Pilsners are still being produced by small breweries and brewpubs in Bohemia using the original ingredients. In fact, the brewery that started it all in 1842, Pilsner Urquell, is still operating at the same site in Bohemia, and thanks to the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 which introduced capitalism to the region (and made Bohemia part of the Czech Republic), the brand is now widely available in America. (Urquell was added to the name in 1898 to protect the product's identity, and means "original source.")

The Plight of the Pils

While the Velvet Revolution made it possible for Americans to enjoy a real pint of Pils, however, the opening of these formerly Iron-Curtained markets to the multinational giants has threatened the individuality and, perhaps, the very autonomy of the old Bohemian breweries, and Pilsner Urquell is no exception. In order to maintain their independence, the small breweries in the Czech Republic are looking to American beer drinkers for help. By introducing their products to this country, the Czech breweries hope to raise the capital to modernize their aging factories, to establish distributors in North America, and to encourage beer lovers to pressure the Czech government with letter campaigns not to allow buyouts.

To this end, a group of English and American Pilsner fans have formed The Campaign to Protect the Czech Brewing Heritage to assist the small breweries in holding off takeover attempts by large corporations. "The awareness campaign is to let Americans know that the Czech situation closely parallels the microbrewery situation in the U.S.," said Lynne O'Connor, the founding member of the U.S. chapter of the Campaign and a second-generation Czech. When the large breweries buy out the smaller ones, the consumer loses valuable variety and choices, and the Campaign is attempting to help keep the beers available to consumers while preventing the corporate control that could drown their identities.

At the Great American Beer Festival and other international beer tasting competitions categories have been added for German-style, Bohemian-style, European-style, and American Standard Pilsners. The last category is for the bland, mass produced beers from Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and the other giant breweries. Yet once again, American microbreweries are coming to the rescue, as many are finally attempting to tackle to the difficult and delicate task of brewing a true Pilsner. Here in Texas, Live Oak Brewing Company, Austin's newest microbrewery, plans to have a Czech-style Pilsner available on tap by October and in bottles by the first of next year. The brewery, located in an old meat packing plant on the Eastside, will use a barley malt, Saaz hops, and an open fermentation process similar to Pilsner Urquell, to make a golden lager in the old-world tradition. n

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