Pilsen (or Plzeň, in the original Bohemian) is a town in the western Czech Republic, and the birthplace of what the world now calls “pilsner’” beer. In the 1840’s, a Bavarian brewmaster named Josef Groll was brewing beer for the city brewery. At the time, the most popular beer in Europe was that made in Bavaria, so Groll hired other Bavarian brewers to help him, and set about to make Munich-style lagers in the Pilsen brewery.
But the ingredients that Josef Groll had available to him led to a completely different type of beer. The barley grown in the western Czech Republic is quite sweet, and new malting techniques made it possible to produce lightly kilned malts. Czech Saaz hops have low bitterness, but are very aromatic, with pleasantly floral and slightly fruity notes. The most important ingredient, however, was the water – the wells in Pilsen are very deep and the water is very soft, allowing the flavors of the malt and hops to really shine.
Soon “Pilsner” beer was found throughout Europe, but since the original Pilsen brewery didn’t trademark the term “Pilsner beer” until late (some sources say as late as 1898), many breweries around the world started making pilsner-style beer, and many continue to do so to this day. The brewery in Pilsen continues to make its famous beer, calling it “Pilsner Urquell,” which means “the original source of Pilsner beer.”
Pilsners are usually associated with being more bitter than other lager styles, but even so, there is a lot of variety. Czech pilsners tend to be slightly sweeter and sometimes a bit darker, with mildly floral hop aromas. German pilsners are frequently more bitter, sometimes owing to the harder water found in northern Germany, which accentuates hop bitterness.
Pilsner beer is also the basis for a lot of the industrially produced, pale yellow beers in the world, but they are only remotely related to the style that made Pilsen famous.
Our own Anaheim Pilsner is a clear golden lager (owing to the use of some Munich malt) with a thick, snowy white head and a delicate and complex, slightly floral hop aroma. The bitterness of the hops is balanced by the sweetness of the malt, for crisp, refreshing taste. I’m drinking one right now.
In the mid-1990’s, we had the opportunity to visit Pilsen regularly (we lived a few hours away, in Bavaria). On our first trip, we stopped by the Pilsner Urquell brewery (actually called “Plzeňsky Prazdroj). There was a small, street-side stand selling cups of Pilsener Urquell for a few Czech Koruna, which was about 30 cents US. The beer was amazing, as one would expect such a famous beer, served just steps from the brewery gates, to be. Then I noticed that my cup was leaking. It was one of those wax-covered paper cups, with the rolled paper rim, and mine was quite obviously used! Once I had rescued the beer from the leaky cup, I asked the gentleman selling the beer why he re-used the paper cups. He patiently explained that (remember, this was the mid-1990’s, and the Czech Republic had only a few years earlier been a Communist “Eastern Bloc” country) that getting the excellent beer was easy – the brewery was right here – but getting good-quality paper cups was next to impossible, so he had to make them last as long as he could!
Enjoy Anaheim Pilsner. We’ll even put it in a clean glass for you.