Plzen (Czech Rep.)
It is possible to say that pilsen beer is the most famous in the world. After all, it is among the most appreciated, and is certainly the most copied on the planet. With that reputation, it reaches 180 springs in 2022. Its origin is not German, American, Belgian or English — to name the four main brewing schools — but Czech.
It was in the city of Plzen (or Pilsen) —which belonged to the Kingdom of Bohemia—, just over an hour away from Prague, that the style was created at the Pilsner Urquell brewery. The official date of the first batch of the drink, which had the signature of the brewmaster Josef Groll (German), was October 5, 1842, but it was not presented to the public until five weeks later, on November 11. Approval was immediate by the public and critics — basically, the same group. In a short time, pilsen revolutionized the brewing universe and became the most copied style on the planet.
Pilsen is a pale lager (bottom fermentation) or czech lager beer. Among his most famous imitations are the American lagers that flood the markets. Some of them even use or have used the holy name “pilsen” in vain, such as Brahma Pilsen, or Skol Pilsen.
But there are differences. American lagers are weaker beers, with lower alcohol content and also less bitterness and flavor.
The original pilsen has 100% Czech ingredients, including malt, yeast and the precious Saaz hops, which grows in Zatec (Saaz is actually the German name for Zatec, pronounced something like “jiatetz”), close to Pilsen, and is exported to the entire brewing universe. Its color is more golden, pulling towards amber, and it has a desired bitterness. While American lager has between 15 and 25 IBU (bitterness unit that goes a little over a hundred), pilsen is between 25 and 40 IBU.
In theory, only Urquell (which means “original”) has the right to use the pilsen name. The other style beers in the country are clear lagers, the traditional czech lagers — but they use the same precepts of pilsen in general line.
Back in history, the creation of pilsen took place shortly after a major brewing crisis, as a visiting tour to Urquell in Plzen attests.
In the early 19th century, many residents were allowed to brew beer in the Bohemia region, with sometimes below average results. In 1838, however, it was the last straw, or beer. Several lots came out with poor quality, perhaps due to some contamination, generating a popular revolt. Brewers poured their kegs into the central square in front of the town hall, demanding a good drink. It was the impetus for the construction of a municipal factory with quality control.
The factory was completed a few years later, in 1842. The architect Martin Steltzer, also one of Plzen’s brewers, traveled around some countries to bring the most modern facilities to the new factory. And it was also he who brought in the German Josef Groll.
It is possible to say that nothing was truly invented in the birth of pilsen, the techniques were already appearing there or there, but in Plzen the perfect storm happened. Groll already mastered the technique of fermentation with bottom-fermenting yeasts (and consequently at low temperatures).
The brewer made the whole process cold, both the fermentation. And he was also patient, increased the maturation time in relation to the current practice until then. However, legend has it that Groll himself was not very confident with the outcome and left town before the beer was released.
“There were more than a thousand breweries authorized to brew beer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. Perhaps five or six were already experimenting with bottom-fermenting yeasts, but without success. They didn’t have the structure of cold cellars and these yeasts need low temperatures,” explains Václav Berka, Urquell’s thirteenth brewmaster (and a celebrity in Plzen), as he showed off the kegs in the basement brewery’s cellars.
The drying of malt also gained new techniques with the steam technology that was being developed on English soil. Previously, malting companies used a wood-fired oven, which left the ingredient roasted and, as a consequence, darker beers. Pilsner Urquell started using a process with hot air drying, preventing the malt from roasting and making the liquid lighter.
The hops were lacking and the choice was Saaz, from Zatec, about 80 kilometers from Plzen —in a country slightly smaller than Santa Catarina, the Czech Republic is still the third largest hop producer in the world; and Saaz is considered the essential seasoning of a pilsen.
Even without Twitter or Instagram at the time, lager’s success quickly spread around the world. “About 40 years after the style was born, 99% of the breweries in the region were copying pilsen techniques for similar beers,” says Berka, a proud smile on his face.
Decorated by a beautiful gate built at the time of the factory’s 50th anniversary, at the end of the 19th century, Pilsner Urquell is today a heritage not only of Plzen, but of the entire brewing community — the image of the gate even illustrates the seal on the label of the beverage cans and bottles. In the Czech Republic, the brand supports the main cultural movements, such as the renovation of the National Theater or the completion of the Metropolitan Cathedral, both in Prague; it also sponsors the Czech national team of hockey, a sport that rivals soccer in the preference of the Czechs.
After a brief period at InBev, Pilsner Urquell was acquired by the Japanese group Asahi. But despite the acquisitions of the modern brewing world, the method of making the liquid maintains the same quality standard.
Pilsner Urquell in SP
- Ecommerces and some bars/specialized markets sell the Pilsner Urquell bottle. To find the beer of the drink in São Paulo is a little more difficult, but you don’t have to go to Plzen:
- Empório Alto dos Pinheiros – R. Vupabussu, 305, Pinheiros, @eapsp, tel. 3031-4328
- Alley of Vila Olímpia – R. Ramos Batista, 409, Vila Olímpia, @becodavilaolimpia, tel. 97823-5943
- Let’s Beer – R. Joaquim Távora, 961, Vila Mariana, @letsbeer, tel. 93072-6192
- Zur Alten Mühle – R. Princesa Isabel, 102 – Brooklin, @zuraltenmuhle
Other Brazilian lagers
The brewery in the northern region of São Paulo (r. Miguel Nelson Bechara, 316, Limão, @cervejariatarantino) launched Bohemian Lager a few months ago, made with Saaz hops and in partnership with the Czech Consulate; ecommerce: cerariatarantino.com.br
To find out more about the possibilities of the lagers family (low fermentation beers, such as pilsen), one suggestion is Cerveja Avós (r. Croata, 703, Lapa); ecommerce: beeravos.com/loja
Empório Alto dos Pinheiros
Main brewery address in São Paulo, EAP has good options for national lagers in draft or cans, such as those from the Dádiva (SP) or Koala San Brew (MG) breweries.
Koala San Brew (MG)
Koala has been dedicated to making lagers inspired by the original recipes, such as Closer to the Truth, a clear lager with Saaz hops that is matured in stainless steel and oak barrels at a controlled temperature to emulate Urquell’s cellars; but this one is only available at the factory bar, at r. Niagara, 339, Jardim Canada, Nova Lima (MG); @koalasanbrew
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