by Rick Kempen Beer Sommelier at Het Bierplein
Pilsner: a special kind of beerIn defence of pilsner
In today’s beer scene, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the humble pilsner is actually something quite special. Now, we flit from one taste explosion to another, and new beers with a totally unknown histories and innovative recipes are ten a penny.
In terms of flavour intensity, the pilsner falls short of every other beer type, perhaps with the exception of the Radler. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the pilsner, in all its simplicity, is a wonderful beer style. I’m personally in love with it and I’m happy to come to its defence. It was once as revolutionary an invention as a barrel-aged, vanilla and turmeric-infused Tripel Russian Imperial Stout is today.
Mayor seeks brewer
I don’t have a time machine with which to verify this, but one can safely assume that all beers up to 1842 were dark in colour. Many beers did not look particularly appealing; they looked like muddy water. Around this time, Anton Dreher presented the ‘Vienna Lager’, a bottom-fermented easy-drinker that was almost clear and was similar in colour to the Palm Spéciale.
In attendance was Josef Groll from Bavaria, who had been asked by the mayor of the Czech city of Pilsen to commission the local brewery to brew a delicious, easy-drinking beer. The former mayor of Pilsen had been unsuccessful in this task as his beer was thrown in the river, along with the brewer.
The first Pilsner: Pilsner Urquell
Groll took his knowledge of bottom fermentation and combined it with the locally brewed barley that was being dried using a revolutionary new method. The drying was done above cokes (extra hot charcoal) rather than above an open fire. The result was a pale-coloured malt. The final special ingredient was the local water, which was extremely soft (it contained almost zero minerals). When Groll presented the first brew, after more than three months of fermentation in a cold cavern, the locals were blown away. Pilsner Urquell was born.
Tidal wave of Pilsner
It's the first time anyone has ever seen a golden-yellow beer: clear and fresh as river water, with a head as white as snow. The flavour is delicate. The sparkling carbonation is the first thing you notice along with the crisp bitterness of the hops. A soft, bread-like malty sweetness unites the flavour palette. Cheers of joy are heard and the Pilsner style (a beer originally from Pilsen) is born.
The news spreads quickly across Europe. Around this time, railways were being built, meaning goods could be transported faster than ever. The pilsner beer slowly gains popularity, before a tidal wave of interest wipes across Europe. Everyone wants to try this beer and demand skyrockets. Finally, a beer that’s clear, refreshing and has a consistent flavour. The flavour isn’t intense or overwhelming. But the consumer isn’t looking for that. Pilsner’s mission is simply to be a refreshing and tasty beer. A mission it continues to fulfill today.
Refreshing pilsner: you have to get it right the first time
Something that perhaps not many beer lovers realise is that brewers of bottom-fermented beers, such as pilsners, have to get things right the first time. Any mistakes are immediately noticeable in the end result and there is no way to correct an error once the process has begun. This is fundamentally different to top-fermenting where you can always make adjustments along the way. Pilsner has to be perfect the first time around, otherwise you have to throw the whole batch out.
As fresh as possible, cooled and without pretension. Even the Asian pilsners that are brewed with rice feel at their best when they’re fulfilling their main purpose: to be refreshing and delicious. Pleasure can really be that simple. And that’s quite incredible when you think about it.