Pilsner, Pilsener

Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:

Pils is arguably the most successful beer style in the world. Nine out of ten beers drunk in the worldtoday are made according to the Pilsner style or a style directly derived from it. Pils is a very blond, brilliantly clear, moderately effervescent lager, modeled largely after a beer style invented in 1842 in the Czech city of Pilsen. Pils is often strongly
hopped with an assertive up-front bitterness bite. It emerged in the north of Germany. Perhaps the classic representation of the style is Jever Pils, a beer from a small town by the same name. Jever Pils is being imported into the United Sates and is available in many parts of the country.

Related beer styles:
Dortmunder, Helles
, Radler(mass), Alsterwasser

Pils — Germany’s Most Popular Beer Style
The world’s first-ever blond lager was the Pilsner Urquell. In spite of its German-sounding name, it was created in 1842 in the city of Pilsen in what is now the region of Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It is named after its city of origin and is variably called Pilsener, Pilsner (without the middle “e”), or just Pils (an abriged version of the other two).

The Czech name for the brew was Plzenky Prasdroj, which means "Pilsen's original source." However, because Bohemia belonged then to the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire (where it remained until the end of WW I), the brew's German name stuck. "Ur" is a prefix meaning "original" in and "Quell" means "source." The blond lager was an instant success, not only on its home turf but also in the most elegant cafes and bistros of Europe. It was soon imitated by every major brewing nation on the Continent. The first German brewery to issue a Pilsener-style beer was the Aktienbrauerei Zum Bierkeller of Radeberg near the Saxon capitol of Dresden—now known as the Radeberger brewery. It brought its Pilsner to market in 1872.

France especially became an important export market for German-made Pilsner beers as is apparent from the alluring French poster (above). It shows a young Pils drinker wearing a hat with the inscription "Bière alemande de luxe" ("Luxury German Beer"). Pils now accounts for almost two-thirds of all beers sold in Germany. The style has many significant regional, north-south, variations. Characteristically, many Pils varieties made in northern Germany have a very strong, zesty, citrus-like, up-front hop-bitterness, in part because the water in northern Germany tends to be fairly hard. Hard water accentuates up-front hop-bitterness in the brewing process. In many parts of southern and southeastern Germany (as well as in the Czech Republic, incidentally) water tends to be moderately to extremely soft. Such water suppresses hop-bitternes. Because of Bavaria’s southern location, Bavarian Pils varieties tend to be more hop-aromatic than hop-pungent. They have a mellow hop-aroma instead of the more aggressive hop-bitterness found in some of the northern German Pils versions.

Some Pils brands especially in the north of Germany may have as many as 45 units of hop bitterness. This is about five times as much as an average American lager in a can. Most Pils, however, have no more than 25 to 35 bittering units, while the traditional Bavarian blond lager, the Helles, by comparison, requires only about 20 units. In a Pils, hop, rather than malt notes are supposed to dominate, while in a Bavarian helles, it is the other way around. Many northern Pils varieties rely in a slightly zesty hop variety called Tettnanger for their up-front assertiveness, while Bavarian-made Pils varieties tend to be more subdued, because of their brewery's preference for Hallertauer, Hersbrucker and Spalter hops. The Bavarian interpretations of the Pils, therefore, are neither too assertive up-front nor too strongly aromatic in the finish. Instead, they have a gentle hop bouquet. In fact, hop bitterness in beer tends to increase the closer the beer is made to the Atlantic Ocean; it tends to decrease in favor of maltiness, the closer the beer is made to the Alps.

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160 Years Ago, A Bavarian “Invents” the Pils
The modern Pils may be a northern German brew, but it was a Bavarian brewmaster, Josef Groll, who started it all a scant 160 years ago, when he accepted a new job. Groll, who was born in 1813 in the Bavarian village of Vilshofen (some 100 miles northeast of Munich), prepared a new mash on October 5, 1842, at his new place of employment, the Burgher Brewery in the Bohemian city of Pilsen. As it turned out, the brew that Josef was mixing in the mash tun that day was truly revolutionary...it was the very first blond lager. It was a brew that was to set the style for an entirely new line of beers. The beer that resulted from that first brew was first served on November 11, 1842...and it has conquered the entire world ever since.

Until Groll made his new beer, the standard drink in Pilsen was a top-fermented brew, an ale. But not all was well with the Pilsen ale, because on one occasion, the city council ordered that 36 casks of it be dumped in public. It had become all too frequent that the beers available to the good burghers of Pilsen had been unfit to drink. This caused them to stick their heads together and to hatch a drastic plan: They would invest in a new, state-of-the art brewery and contract a competent brewer to come up with a better beer. In the 1840s, that meant a brewery capable of making Bavarian-style bottom-fermented brews, that is, lagers. Because of the reputation of Bavarian beer, Bavarian brewmasters, too, were held in high regard. So the citizens of Pilsen not only built a Bavarian brewhouse for Bavarian beer, they even engaged a Bavarian brewer to rescue the Pilsner beer from oblivion.

The fellow they engaged for the job was the above-mentioned Josef Groll of Vilshofen. He was an intrepid brewer who clearly rose to the challenge. Instead of using the standard dark malts of his day, he kilned his malt to a very pale color — a technique that had only recently been perfected in Britain. Groll then made use of only the finest of local raw materials. He flavored the brew with plenty of hops from the Saaz region of Bohemia (today, Czech Saaz hops is considered one of the finest aroma hops money can buy) and, of course, brewed with the city’s extremely soft water. From these ingredients he made an extract, which he fermented with good Bavarian lager yeast — and a new beer was born. Nobody before Groll had ever made such an aromatic golden-blond, full-bodied lager.

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Pilsner Triumphant
When Joseph’s contract was up, on April 30, 1845, he went back home to his native Bavaria, but his new beer’s reputation spread quickly beyond the limits of Pilsen. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Joseph Groll sure had cause to feel flattered. Initially, the designation Pilsner beer was just an appellation of origin — a beer made in the city of Pilsen. But soon the new brew was copied everywhere. The first imitators were in adjacent towns with similarly soft water and equal access to Saaz hops. This was the beginning of the Bohemian Pilsner style. But breweries across the border, in Germany, began also to be interested in the Bohemian phenomenon ... they had to, because it started to eat into their own sales. This was the time in Europe, when the emerging railway network made the transportation of beer possible to just about any major city.

By the turn of the 19th century, it had become chic from Paris to Vienna and from Hamburg to Rome to drink the beer from Pilsen. The beer’s name had become a household word, usually in its abridged form of Pils. The term Pils had evolved from an appellation of origin to a designation for a new beer style, the very model of a modern lager beer. When Groll died in the village of his birth, in little Vilshofen, on October 22, 1887, he probably had no idea how profound a revolution he had brought about in the world of beer!

Groll’s beer was taking the continent by storm and was even making inroads in Munich, where brewers were starting to make their own variation on the Groll brew. The Burgher Brewery of Pilsen, however, where it had all started, was far from flattered by the imitations its beer had spawned. This brewery was far more interested in supplying the demand for Pilsner beer itself than having other breweries usurp what it considered its proprietary brand name. In 1898, therefore, the Burgher Brewery of Pilsen went to court in Munich. It sought an injunction against the Thomass Brewery, which had come out with a blonde lager, named “Thomass-Pilsner-Bier.” The verdict that the court handed down in April 1899, however, went against the plaintiff. The court argued that “Pilsner” was no longer an appellation, but had become a universal style designation.

The average Pils nowadays has an alcohol content by volume of roughly 5%, which puts it into the strength range of an average beer. Because of its delicacy, however, only the very finest top-quality raw materials will do for a good Pils. The water must be extremely soft. Bavarian brewers, therefore, take some of the natural carbonate hardness out of their water before they use it for brewing a Pils. To ensure the beer’s golden-blond tinge, they only use malted barley that is dried gently in the kiln. High-temperature kilned grain becomes amber or even brown and roasted, and would make a dark, not blond, beer. The barley malt that goes into Pils-making, nowadays, is the palest malt available. In fact, such malt is named for the beer for which it is most often used. Brewers the world over now make their best Pils beer only with Pils malt — and the best Pils malt comes from Bavarian farms and malting companies.

Unfortunately, several industrial lagers named Pilsner outside of Germany are frequently made with the addition of flavorless rice and corn as cheap starch substitutes for the more expensive Pils malt, and many breweries use chemical agents to enhance the conversion of grain starches into fermentable sugars. Such shortcuts, however, are never ever practiced in a Bavarian brewhouse!

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French poster courtesy of Heinrich Becker, CEO of the Gaffel Kölsch brewery in Colgne, Germany