Beer, the lineage of the Pilsner: a seminar and tasting with Melissa Monosoff

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This Texsom seminar, presented by Melissa Monosoff, was an interesting exploration of the invention of the Pilsner, and its spread across the globe. It’s now the most imitated, most popular beer in the world. For example, Bud Light and Budweiser alone sold 11 billion dollars worth of beer last year. How did we get here, from a small town making a specific style of beer?

She began by asking what beer was like before the Pilsner, and the first beer we tasted was a clean version of what people were drinking in the mid 1800s and earlier. The beers were malt focused, with a malty, toasty nose. They were cloudy and dark. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge on how yeast worked, and no electricity or refrigeration.

Hofbrauhaus Munchen Dunkel, Munchen, Germany
Brown colour. Malty and sweet with a fresh tangy citrussy edge. Bright with a bit of bitterness on the finish. Interesting mix of sweetness and richness and freshness. 7/10

So, to the Pilsner. In the late 1830s the people of Pilsen were upset about the quality of their beer. It wasn’t very good. Back in those days every town had its brewery: it was very regional. If their beer went bad people were really upset. But no one really knew why it was bad because at that time they didn’t understand yeast and spoilage: they had no understanding of microbes.

The solution? Pilsen decided to build a new brewery. They also recruited Bavarian brewer Josef Groll and sent him abroad to research brewing. He came back with some new ideas, including some ideas about malt he’d learned while in England. When these were implemented, the result that a new style of beer that was to take the world by storm. Pilsner Urquell, the original Pilsner, was first brewed in 1842.

People had never seen a beer like this before.

Pilsner Urquell The Original Pilsner, Plzen, Czech Republic
Malty and broad with nice texture and depth. Fresh but with a rich nutty, malty character. 7/10

What is special about Pilsner? First of all, the malt: a very specific Moravian barley. The hops are distinctive, too: Saaz, with a specific flavour, high in aromatics but low in bitterness. The water: soft sandstone, with few ions in the water. This placates the hops and makes them seem softer and rounder.

Pilsner brewers were originally ale brewers, and they began to learn about lager brewing. They didn’t understand yeast at the time. They knew there was something going on, but it wasn’t specific. The lager yeast was cleaner than anything they had before.

Underneath the town they dug out 9 km of underground cellars to keep their barrels in. These cool cellars were part of the production process, because they allowed the specific bottom fermentation used to make lager, rather than the ale top fermentation.

But it was the kilning of the malt, without direct heat, that was really revolutionary. Back then the grains were kilned in direct fire heat, so some were burned. These dark, burned grains don’t work, and the underdone grains don’t work either. Indirect heat created a consistent pale malt that no one had seen before. Add this to the local hops, and it produced a beer that people went mad for.

The development of the railways (enabling the easy movement of beer) and the availability of Bohemian glass also contributed to the rise of pilsner. Previously people had drunk beer out of opaque steins and now with the Bohemian glass, suddenly people could see what they were drinking. And the development of refrigeration, allowing people to enjoy their beer cold, also helped.

But the town of Pilsen didn’t have any intellectual property rights with Pilsner, and others soon began making it too.

The German reaction to pilsner was that their breweries tried to make their own version. We tried one: the Bitberger Premium.

Bitburger Premium Beer, Eifel, Germany
4.4.% alcohol. Herby, hoppy, fresh and bright. Nice citrus. Tangy with nice acidity. Lively and with some grip. 7/10

The next element of the German reaction to Pilsner was the Helles from Munich. In Munich, the younger generation recognized the need for their breweries to be commercially viable. Spaten was the first to try making a light-coloured beer. The Munich water is not soft, and it accentuates the hops, and it took until 1894 to make the Helles style. Helles means bright, and this was the first bright beer made in Munich.

Spaten Premium Lager, Munich, Germany
Fruity and malty with some sweetness on the palate. Nice nutty, yeasty character with some attractive toffee notes as well as lovely sweet fruity character. Refreshing and generous. 6.5/10

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Belgium had to respond to Pilsner too, and begin making lighter beers. The Duvel is made with Saaz hops and lighter malts, but it has personality. It is an ale: ales produce stronger aromas. It’s the recipe of the Pilsner with the twist of the Belgian yeast, which is a very specific strain.

Duvel Golden Ale, Belgium
Citrussy and intense with a hint of coriander and lovely vivid spiciness. It’s textured, yeasty and complex with a lovely vivid spiciness. Just delicious, fresh and pure. 8/10

How did the pilsner come to the USA? From the 1840s until 1900 a million people emigrated to the USA from Germany and Czechoslovakia. They brought their brewing techniques and yeasts. But it became expensive bringing ingredients over, and they realized they needed to start using American ingredients, such as barley and corn.

The reason corn became an ingredient is that the first barley-only beers they tried to make just didn’t taste good: the barley here is six row, rather than two. This has more protein content and doesn’t work so well. And they didn’t like the local hops. So they used corn to tone down the harshness of the malt and the American hops. This was actually a more expensive ingredient than barley back then. It’s more recently that corn and rice have been used as a cheaper sugar source to make more neutral, cheaper lagers.

The late 19th century really was a golden age of brewing in the USA.

Full Sail Brewing Company Session Premium Lager, Hood River, Oregon
Very interesting lemon, peach and tangerine fruitiness. Fresh with a bit of hoppiness. So fruity and pure with lovely precision. Nice tanginess, with real personality. 8/10

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If the late 19th century was the golden age, then the dark ages were 1933-1971. Prohibition had removed most of the small brewers, and the scene became dominated by the big breweries. The USA went from regionality and specificity to commercial and national level scale. They brewed with more corn and more rice. The industry decided to target women, because most of the men were off at war. So they brewed nice light beers for women. People drank whatever the big breweries were making. It had become commoditized.

The revival began in the late 1960s when the Anchor Brewing Company was founded. In 1971 they produced their Anchor Steam beer.

When prohibition started there were 4000 breweries in the USA; in 1970 there were just 50. Now we are back to 3800.

So, the craft beer movement began, and the last thing that they wanted to make was a lager. They wanted lots of flavour. It has taken a long time for craft lagers to emerge, but now they are starting to become popular. The original craft brewers went for intense IPAs. Now we are seeing a reversal: people want something more refreshing and less hoppy.

Currently, in 2016, the sales of the big companies are dropping, so they are consolidating and buying smaller breweries. There’s the emergence of brands that look like craft. Over the last year there were 25 transactions where large brewers brought a small craft brewery.

We finished by trying thee craft PIls.

Victory Brewing Company Prima Pils, Downington, Pennsylvania
Lively complex and malty. Crisp with a herby, weedy hoppy edge to the bright citrus and pear fruit. Concentrated, complex and full flavoured with a lovely hoppiness and a bit of bitterness. 7.5/10

Real Ale Brewing Company Hans Pils, Blanco, Texas
Crisp and fresh with lovely refreshing citrussy notes, and also a tangy, spicy hoppiness. Taut and complex with nice weight. Intense and complex with nice precision of flavour. 7.5/10

Firestone Walker PIVO Hoppy Pils, Central Coast, California
So hoppy and detailed with nice herby, weedy hoppiness. Citrussy and bright with a grippy edge. Broad, complex, delicious and very hoppy. So distinctive. 8/10

 

 

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