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Pilsner; Pilsener [PIHLZ-nuhr] :

Originally this term referred to a very fine beer brewed in Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. Today, however, it more commonly refers to any pale, light LAGER beer.

The History of Beer in the Czech Lands

How long, exactly, have the Czechs been drinking beer?

The Czechs have been drinking beer since time immemorial. The secret of Czech beer is that agricultural conditions are ideal for growing hops, and chronicles establish their cultivation in Bohemia as early as 859 A.D., while the first evidence of their export dates back to 903. Bohemian hops were so prized that King Wenceslas ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings, from which new plants could be grown.The first mention of brewing in the Czech territories is in the foundation charter for the Vysehrad church, dating from 1088. In this document, the first Czech king, Vratislav II, decreed that his estates should pay a hop tithe to the church. The U-Fleku microbrewery in Prague has been in operation since 1499 and is still going strong.

How did the famous Czech beer industry get its start?

The first Czech brewery was built at Cerhenice in 1118. In earlier days, only citizens in the Czech lands had the right to brew beer - and that for their own consumption - so most citizens had a microbrewery in their home. It wasn't long before some of these citizens banded together to form a cooperative central brewery, from which they would take beer extract home and finish the brewing process there, in a medieval equivalent to the "home brew" kits which are so popular today. In the 13th century, King Wenceslas convinced the Pope to revoke an order banning the brewing of beer, which may explain why he's called Good King Wenceslas. It was a small step up from there for breweries to start hawking their wares to the general public as well, and so the Czech beer industry was spawned.

And when did the Czech beer industry become great?

The art of brewing beer came along gradually, with help along the way. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, for instace, was a friend of the beer industry even though he ordered that Burgundy grape vines be cultivated in Bohemia. Emperor Rudolf II's personal physician held that beer was an incredibly healthy beverage and wrote a treatise to that effect. The Czech beer industry's worldwide fame dates from the Renaissance, as does the Bohemian tavern which is famous throughout Europe. A popular rhyme of the time goes "Unus papa Romae, una cerevesia Raconae"("one pope in Rome, one beer in Rakovnik." Beer is still brewed in Rakovnik today. In the early 16th century, the Czech beer industry contributed as much as 87% of total municipal income to city coffers. Czech hops were being shipped up the Elbe to the special Hamburg hops market from 1101, and the Germans still prize Bohemian Saaz hops from Zatec today. The Czechs were even exporting their beer at this time, most notably the beer they brewed in the town of Ceske Budejovice in south Bohemia. The Bavarians who were importing this beer understandably had a hard time pronouncing the name of the town, and so they referred to it as "Budweis," a place name that is still associated with great beer today - as is Pilsner, which is derived from the place name of the west Bohemian town of Plzen.

And I guess it's just been getting better ever since?

Actually, no. This 16th-century beer heaven was not to last. Feudal lords discovered that forcing their laborers to drink the manor brew was a clever way to line their pockets.The Thirty Years' War, which devastated much of northern Europe, devastated the Czech beer industry as well. At one point, beer was used to pay off a Swedish army to prevent the plunder of Kutna Hora. After that, what fame the Czech beer industry managed to attain was under the auspices of the Emperor in Vienna. He even sent a Czech brewmaster to Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to brew beer. Bohemia beer from Mexico was named for the Czech contribution.

The Czech nation - and its beer - did not begin to recover until the "national awakening" movement of the 19th century, when the Czech language, Czech culture, and Czech beer were reinvented after centuries of Germanization and decline.

Did the Communists appreciate the Workers' love of beer?

Under the Communists, beer was very cheap - and it was legal. This helped establish beer drinking as perhaps the single most popular hobby among Czech men. Unfortunately, as with so many other industries, the Communists failed to invest anything into the breweries. They simply produced the beer and squeezed as much money as possible out of the industry. One of the Czech Republic's most famous beer drinkers, the protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's novel "The Good Soldier Svejk" said that the government that raises the price of beer is destined to fall within one year. The Communists almost doubled the price of beer in 1984 (from 1.70 to 2.50 crowns per half-liter), so it took 5 years instead of one for the prophecy to come to pass.

Does the President really drink beer?

President Vaclav Havel may be the best spokesman beer has ever had in the Czech Republic, at least in public office. Havel loves to take visiting politicians to pubs. He once skipped a function in the U.S. to go drink beer and watch John Cale. In fact, one of Havel's plays is based on the time he spent working in a brewery before the Revolution.

"I suppose that drinking beer in pubs has got a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than for example wine, vodka or whisky and therefore people's polical chat in pubs is less crazy." -Vaclav Havel, October 1995

And so what happened with this major hobby of Czech men after the Velvet Revolution?

Although a decrease in beer consumption was predicted, the numbers did not go down much even after price controls were lifted in 1991. Beer prices have gone up as the price of everything has gone up, but are still low. Breweries have such a small profit margin at home that they try to make up for it in exports, where Czech beer commands premium prices. Shares in breweries, most of which have been privatized, trade at the top of the stock market even though many of them are deeply in debt due to payment problems. It's expected that there will soon be only a few giant breweries and a smattering of small local microbreweries in the Czech Republic. Mid-sized breweries, which face the biggest problems with marketing, transport, and taxes, are probably on the way out. Perhaps with the prophecy of Svejk in mind, Premier Klaus' government has made special tax breaks for the Association of Small Brewers.


Picturing Pilsner

by Eric Warner

While it’s arguable that the recent craft beer boom in America represents the greatest renaissance in brewing history, the most significant revolution in brewing history has to be the development of the pilsner style.

First brewed in the 1840s in the town of Plzen (or Pilsen) in what is now known as the Czech Republic, this style-a delicately flavored golden lager-represented a dramatic shift in appearance and flavor away from the dark, sweet beers that were more common at the time.

Though the word "plzen" means mushroom or fungus, the most widely emulated, bastardized and prevalent of all the world’s beer styles gets its flavor from the combination of pale malts, soft water, Czech or German hops, and lager yeast. Pale, or pilsner, malt is low in protein and is kilned (dried) for shorter periods of time and at lower temperatures than darker malts. This malt yields a beer that has a strawlike or golden color.

The soft waters of Bohemia played a major role in the flavor profile of the first pilsners, and to this day brewers around the world undertake extensive water treatment to duplicate the waters found near Pilsen. Just as soft water would totally change the character of some of the classic ale styles, hard water that is high in




carbonates detracts from the soft, delicate flavors and mouthfeel typical of pilsners.

The trademark of any classic pilsner is the strong hop bitterness and floral, spicy hop notes associated with the Saaz group of hops (Saaz, Tettnanger, Spalt and Hallertau). Although lager yeasts were being used in Bavaria and Bohemia prior to the advent of pilsner beer, it was the use of lager yeast to brew this particular style that set off the brewing revolution that has now reached every continent on the globe.

So, how exactly did the pilsner revolution begin? I was lucky enough to come across a little gem of a book a year ago, appropriately titled Pilsner Bier, written in 1930 by Prof. Eduard Jalowetz. The story goes something like this: As was often the case in ducal provinces like Bavaria and Bohemia, the right to brew was granted by the duke of the province. In 1839 the citizens in Pilsen, who held the brewing rights, banded together to found what was called the People’s Brewery of Pilsen. In 1842 a chap by the name of Josef Groll was "headhunted" away from Bavaria to become the new organization’s first brewmaster.

After Groll built the brewery and produced the first batches, all of Pilsen eagerly awaited the tapping of the kegs. What they were presented literally made them jump for joy. No one had ever seen anything like it: a relatively clear, golden colored beer with a dense, mousse-like head of foam, decidedly drier in character than their customary brew. This beer was so out of the box that the experience was probably akin to seeing a television for the first time!

Just as television has changed our lives forever, this creation of Josef Groll altered the course of brewing history more than any other beer. The style was copied first in Europe, then in the United States, and today some derivation of the style is the most popular beer in nearly every country in the world.

Groll’s bag of tricks included the lager yeast he brought with him from Bavaria, a complex system of mashing that included three decoctions, an extremely thin mash and a unique brew kettle. The latter boiled the wort in such a way that haze-producing proteins were eliminated from the brew.

Most of the classic pilsners brewed in the Czech Republic and Germany still follow many of the same techniques used by the People’s Brewery 150 years ago. Brew masters today still look for the finest, straw-colored malt and Czech Saaz hops to brew their interpretation of the style. These same brew masters will totally alter the character of their brewing water in an attempt to match the water composition found in Bohemia.

Pilsner continues to be the dominant style in Germany, Bohemia and the European continent. Most of the beer being produced in the emerging markets of Asia and South America is also some interpretation of the style. Unfortunately, the large industrial brewers of the world put the bottom line above the style by diluting its classic character with adjuncts and lower hopping rates. But, ironically, this dilution of the style toward insipid mono-swill has allowed American and Canadian craft brewers to steal market share that the industry giants so dearly covet.

The German variations tend to be lighter in color and body, with hop bitterness increasing as one travels from Bavaria to the North Sea. The presentation of the beer is taken very seriously. Temperature, glassware and method of draft dispense all converge to take the drinker to beer Nirvana.

A German pils is usually served at about 45 degrees F into a vase-like or fluted glass. Certain breweries use glass similar to a brandy snifter for their pils. The publican will generally dispense the draft in several violent shots straight down the middle of the glass. Never once allowing the beer to foam over, the trained barkeep will continue to "top off" the beer until it has a rich, 2- to 3-inch mousse of foam resting on top. This process is sometimes referred to as the seven-minute pils.

A Czech pils is generally a little deeper in color than its German cousin. It will likely be a little maltier and have more body as well. The glassware and pouring methods aren’t usually as elaborate, but that really doesn’t matter because the beer is spectacular.