The History of Pilsner Beer

Detail view of a pilsner in a glass

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Whatever you call it–Bohemian Pilsner, German Pils, American Light–Pilsner is easily the most popular beer in the world. The story of how pilsner was developed is interesting, and it all began with a river full of bad beer.

Plzen–Where Beer Runs In The Streets

In 1838 the citizens of Plzen (Pilsen), Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) saw something that would make any beer lover cringe. The town's brewmasters rolled 36 barrels of ale out into the street, opened them up, and spilled the beer in the main square. Beer ran into the ditches and finally into the nearby Radbuza River.

The brewers had decided that the ale had become undrinkable. Even the breweries of Plzen with over 800 years of brewing experience, had contamination issues to contend with. Ales were prone to spoilage either by wild yeasts or bacteria.

A New Beginning 

This time, though, would be different. The brewers gathered after watching their work run down the street and decided to take drastic measures so this would not happen again.

By this time, brewers in Bohemia and across Europe had learned the importance of yeast in the brewing process. There was some debate about whether fermentation was a living process or the by-product of the death of yeast. There was, however, no question that this mysterious little life form had a big effect on the character of a beer.

They hired Josef Groll, a Bavarian brewer, to come to Plzen and teach them the German lagering method of brewing. Legend holds that in 1840 a monk smuggled some of the precious lager yeast out of Bavaria.

Whether this is the case or not, when Groll arrived in Plzen there was a supply of lager yeast available. He also found a nearby source of excellent Saaz hops, a Noble variety that he would have been familiar with in Germany.

The brewers of Plzen also had a well that supplied very soft water. With caverns carved for lagering in the local sandstone, the stage was set for lager brewing.

A New Recipe

Using light barley that was only partially malted and none of the roasted or smoked barley that the German brewers were using, Groll added generous portions of the fragrant Saaz hops to his brew. On October 5, 1842, he and the other brewers of Plzen gathered for their first taste of the new beer.

A New Beer

When they tapped the cask, they saw a beer unlike any other that they or anyone else in the world had seen.

The color of straw, it was light and clear. One could see right through it to the other side of the Bohemian crystal glass. Still, cool from the lagering tunnels, this was a surprisingly refreshing beer, not dark and heavy like the ales that they were used to.

The brewers of Plzen knew that they had a great new beer here. Thanks to the Radbuza River, not only did news of this new beer from Bohemia spread, but also so did a lot of the beer itself. Plzen, or Pilsner, beer was born.

Many Copies, One Original

Since then, Pilsner Urquell has become one of the most copied beers in history. So much so that the brand name Pilsner became the name of the new style.

Aside from improvements brought about through advances in refrigeration and sanitation, little has changed about the way that Pilsner is brewed. There are many variations on the recipe, but most contain lightly kilned malt and Noble hops varieties, usually Saaz.

Often, breweries will soften water from their local sources in an attempt to replicate the naturally occurring soft water of the Plzen brewery. Doing so enhances the delicate flavors of the grain.

Other variations have been made to cut costs as breweries allow the bottom dollar to dictate. Such changes include replacing part of the barley with rice. Rice is cheap and contributes little flavor or aroma to the brew. 

With the flavors contributed by the barley, the balancing hops can also be cut to drive costs even lower. The result is a beer with an equal amount of alcohol but less flavor and aroma, making it seem watery when compared to other 100% barley pilsners.

Though the breweries that produce these beers continue to call them Pilsner, some have assigned a new style category to describe the–American Light.