What is a Pilsner?

Of all the beer styles that have emerged over the past two hundred years, none stand out in importance like Pilsner. Pilsner changed the way most of the world drank beer for over 150 years, and its descendants are still among the most popular beers in the world.

Where did Pilsner come from?

Pilsner originated in the town of Plzen, in modern day Czech Republic. The, likely somewhat apocryphal, story goes that a German immigrant named Josef Groll arrived in the town of Plzen to find that the town brewery had just dumped its most recent batch of beer into the river because it was undrinkable. Groll allegedly combined the area’s summer barley, native Saaz hops and mineral free water with his Bavarian lager yeast and created a beer unlike anything most people had seen before. Before Pilsner, most beers were brown, and many were cloudy.  Pilsner was bright gold and crystal clear. It had a nice spicy aroma and some crackery malt flavors from the lightly kilned Pilsner malt. And this beer took Europe by storm.

Growing Commercial Success

As Pilsner made its way through Europe it was altered by brewers hoping to make a similar product and cash in on the commercial success.  When Germans in the central part of the country brewed their version, they used local water with a higher mineral content, making for a crisper more bitter beer. The hops in that region were also different, slightly changing the aroma and flavor of the beer.

Pilsner in America

When German immigrants moved to the US they brought with them this extremely popular beer, but they too were faced with challenges. The barley being grown in the US was primarily six-row, great for animal feed but not very good for brewing. Brewers typically prefer malted two-row barley because of its higher starch content and lower protein content. Using the native six-row, the beer was cloudy, husky and astringent. The solution was to use small amounts of adjuncts like corn and rice in their recipes. Corn and rice would lend ferment-able sugars, but they wouldn’t lend any body or flavor to the beer. The resulting American lager was a unique style with clear ancestry. Of course, the US exports culture all over the world, so American lager found its way to every continent and inspired brewers in each of its new homes. If you consider Chinese beers, like Tsing Tao, they aren’t too far from Budweiser.  Neither is Foster’s in Australia or Corona in Mexico or Kirin Ichiban in Japan. They are all variations on this American adjunct lager, a descendant of Pilsner.

It is unlikely that Groll could have known when brewed that first batch of Pilsner that his creation would change the way the world drank beer, but the effects are seen everywhere in the world.  So, raise a glass of Pilsner Urquell (Ur Quell means “original source”) and celebrate, or try a local Pilsner on one of our Asheville brewery tours, if you’re in the area.