In this series I visit contemporary beer styles and examine where they currently sit in today’s market. Tastes, demands, equipment and supplies change over time, which leads beer styles to adapt and evolve. So, just how did we get from there to here, and why?
Today’s focus is one of my favorite styles. Pilsners have a history rich in human developments–creatively, scientifically and engineering-wise. I could lie and say that’s the reason I love pilsners so much–but really, I can mostly just point to the crisp, clean grain and delicious goodness of a well-made pint.
Pilsners came into being as an established style in the mid 1800’s in the Czech city of Plzeň. Until this time, most or all beers in Bohemia were top-fermented with ale yeast. But bottom-fermenting lager yeasts were beginning to take hold, and Bavarian brewer Josef Groll began making pale lagers at a brewery known now as Pilsner Urquell. Bavaria was considered an important region at the time for its high-quality brews, many of which were produced with lager yeasts. But the yeast wasn’t the only big development for the time–the pale factor was new and exciting too. Until this era, fires to roast or kiln malt were utilizing wood or in certain areas, peat. Both of these product lend color and a smoky flavor to the resulting malt. Instead of using wood or peat, maltsters now had the option to use coke, a form of processed coal being produced in large quantities in Scotland and England. Coke greatly reduced the smoke-factor and allowed maltsters to retain much more of a true, pure grain flavor and color. For more on pilsner malt itself, check out my earlier article here.
Other major industrial developments during this time helped spread the popularity of pilsner beers, including improved transport via train as well as packaging materials–specifically, glass bottles. This larger-scale glass production helped move more beer at lower prices. And finally, the spread of refrigeration in the same time period eventually allowed breweries to have more control and consistency over their fermentation and lagering process. So the story of pilsners is also a story of human progress and industrial developments.
Lagers and pilsners became extremely popular all over a most of Europe as well as where European powers and people went around the world. American beer has had numerous influences throughout its relatively short history but we can’t discuss very much without mentioning the German and German-American brewers and business-people who produced and popularized pale lagers here. Yes, I’m talking about Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors to name a few. There were many more that did not survive prohibition, and others even that did and have remained independent like Yuengling. The empires of these big-name companies are legendary. Their flagships have always been lagers inspired by German and Czech pilsners. While I very much do not agree with some contemporary business tactics that many of these companies employ, their impact is not to be ignored.
The American craft beer movement that began in the 1980’s has hugely affected the state of beer in the US as well as around the world. Small businesses and homebrewers wanted to bring styles to market other than mass-produced American light lagers. We owe them a lot. Many of these earlier craft breweries focused on making American versions of English styles, using available ale yeasts and a whole slew of American hops. These beers were defined somewhat in opposition to lagers for a long time, and those interested in being in the craft beer community eschewed mainstream lagers in exchange for pale ales, IPAs and stouts. There was an overall distinct lack of craft-produced lagers for two decades. Most consumers (craft or otherwise) only had experience drinking those familiar light lagers of American legend, so it’s understandable why neither craft producers nor enthusiasts pushed very hard for craft pilsners. But happily, they’re making a resurgence in popularity in the US and other places. Consumers are calling for more “drinkable” beers of lower alcohol percentage. Brewers and industry professionals often enjoy pilsners as a statement of the brewer’s abilities. There’s very little you can cover up in a pilsner, and the beer will make its recipe, process and storage very obvious. Flaws are easily recognizable, but luckily so are the flavors! When made well, a pilsner is the perfect style to showcase not just those abilities but also the ingredients. The malt shines in this style, and so does the quality of the water used.
So how are brewers making contemporary pilsners? Some are calling back to historical brewing and using older styles of malt like floor-malted pilsner, which gives an intense grainy and spicy flavor to beer. Some are using newer American or southern hemisphere hops for a fresh set of flavors. Others are loading up the malt bill and creating export and imperial pilsners, or are adding spices, fruit, herbs, and more. And some are going back to basics, brewing Bavarian-styles to spec or venturing out with pre-prohibition American-style with corn or other adjuncts.
Here are a few Pacific Northwest breweries helping keep pilsners in craft beer.
Cheers, friends–now go enjoy a pilsner or two!