Bohemian Pilsner: Will the Real Pilsner Please Stand Up?

Style Profile by | Apr 2008 | Issue #15

After decades of callous abuse by megabrewers, it’s no wonder Pilsner gets such a bad rap from beer lovers. The aroma, the flavor, the body, the marvel—all have been sacrificed in the name of mass production. I retched the first time I read a highway billboard’s bold declaration, “Miller Lite: True Pilsner.”

“True Pilsner”—Bohemian Pilsner—is the single most glorious achievement in the entire history of beer. Its invention 166 years ago brought the world its first clear, golden lager, a new style that spawned a thousand imitators and revolutionized brewing forever. At its finest, Pilsner is a delicate, refreshing glass with a pure, flowery bouquet and a crisp finish. True Pilsner is the happy confluence of art and technology, of man striving to make himself better through his own ingenuity.

The world was a dark place in 1842. Even Pale Ale was haunted. And the city of Plzen, now part of the Czech Republic, was cursed with sour beer. The answer was not some magic stirring stick or earnest prayers to the gods. The town government, pressured by its thirsty citizens, paid a Bavarian-trained brewer to come fix the problem.

Like the brewers who preceded him, Josef Groll had the benefit of Bohemia’s finest Saaz hops and its soft water. But he also had the advantage of a broadening array of 19th-century technology:

  • He traveled to England to learn the latest method of kilning to produce a lighter-colored malt.
  • He made his wort with a decoction mash, a highly complex method in which the kettle temperature is raised in stages by removing a part of the mash and boiling it separately, then returning it to the brew pot.
  • He got his hands on a new strain of German-lager yeast that would allow him to ferment the beer longer at a lower temperature without risking bacterial infection.
  • He used new thermometers and hydrometers to help him perfect his methods.

Its history bears repeating because the distinct flavor and quality of Bohemian Pilsner is a product of all that emerging technology. The lighter malt gave us the golden color. Decoction brought out the malt flavor, but left its body smooth. The slower fermentation produced a clearer, crisper beer.

In later years the beauty of his finished beer—now called Pilsner Urquell—would be enhanced by two more of the century’s most important technological advances: cheap, mass-produced glassware and artificial refrigeration. It was fully revolutionary.

The Germans, frightened by Pilsner’s new popularity, created their own variety, with a bigger hop bite. In America, Adolphus Busch developed another version (with rice) and called it Budweiser. Throughout the United States, “Bohemian” became synonymous with quality and excellence. Dark ales would virtually disappear. Yellow beer was king.

The glorious achievement would come full circle by the 21st century. Thanks to cheaper ingredients, duller tastes and crass advertising, Pilsner would devolve into watered-down diet beer. Beer advocates snub them, few American craft brewers make them.

It’s sad because this is a beer style that established the very notion of a definable beer style: It is a singularly recognizable product of technique, ingredients and environment. Cold, clean, aromatic, delicately hopped, golden, clear, refreshing and flavorful—that is a true Bohemian Pilsner.

Color: Golden, brilliantly clear
Aroma: Spicy Saaz hops, light malt
Flavor: Complex maltiness with a pronounced but not harsh hops presence, dry finish
IBU: 35–45
ABV: 4.2–5.4 percent
Examples: Pilsner Urquell, Czechvar (US), Staropramen, Dock Street Bohemian Pilsner, Golden Pheasant, Krušovice Imperial, Lagunitas Pils