Published on November 9, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour0
A new beer first saw the light of day 175 years ago this month. Alastair Gilmour relates the story of Pilsner Urquell, one of the world’s greatest beers
In Britain put Olympic gold medallists on postage stamps and pay our footballers obscene amounts of money. We promote concert room singers to the realms of royalty while minor celebrities dance their way into national treasure status.
But beer, the breweries it’s made in, and the pubs where it’s consumed are considered “add-ons” in this country; something for the masses to get on with while we were building empires and storing up enormous political problems across the globe for hundreds of years to come. We never consider beer, breweries and pubs as woven into the fabric of society with an incalculable influence on commerce, enterprise and history. Thankfully, other nations do.
In 1838, a momentous event in Plzen, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) saw 36 barrels of bad beer smashed and emptied into the city’s streets. Around 250 burghers had brewing rights in the city but poor quality beer combined with some tavern owners charging higher prices than others (meaning the beer sold slower and turned sour), and the threat of cheaper imported beers replacing their own brews was strangling business.
Something had to be done. A committee of important townsfolk decided that the answer was to build one new brewery to be run by the city. In January 1839 a plan was agreed upon and work started to build this new enterprise.
A young architect named Martin Stelzer was enlisted to build the Burgher’s Brewery, a forerunner to the present-day Pilsner Urquell brewery (Plzensky Prazdroj). Seltzer went off to study the best in brewery design and construction before returning to Plzen with plans for a state-of-the-art brewery, choosing a site on the banks of the Radbuza River. The sandstone rock there would be relatively easy to carve out a network of tunnels for cold storage but deeper underground were aquifers to supply the distinctive soft water that would make Plzen’s new beer so special.
Josef Groll, visionary Bavarian brewmaster, was hired to brew the beer and he combined new techniques to produce pale malted Moravian barley; he used aromatic Zatec (Saaz) hops; he drew on Plzen’s soft water, and chose a lager yeast. A new beer was born and unlikely heroes created.
The first batch of Groll’s new beer, Pilsner Urquell (“from the source”) was brewed on October 5 1842. Five weeks later, on November 11, it was presented to drinkers in the town. It was an amazing beer – the world’s first golden lager – and it was fresh, clear and highly quaffable with a hint of caramel sweetness and a fragrant, balanced hop bitterness. It was an immediate success, a sensation, and a proud moment for the city of Plzen which gave its name to the style Pilsner or Pils which then swept across Europe and the rest of the world.
Germany, France and Holland soon claimed pilsners as their own – previously most beers had been murkily dark or sulkily brown – but the original source remains supremely important to the Czech psyche. Beer is almost part of their religion, certainly their national economy, and it could be argued it’s in their blood.
For example, five years ago, a special 170th anniversary brew was blessed by Plzen’s bishop Frantisek Radkovsky in a ceremony attended by international brewery chiefs and city and national dignitaries, that was broadcast on television to the nation.
Pilsner has become a generic term for any bottom-fermented golden beer with around a third of the world’s total light beer production coming under the category Pils or Pilsner.
Pilsner Urquell is one of the world’s classic beers which is quite remarkable, given the history of Central Europe since it was first brewed. The First World War brought about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, giving rise to a new state, Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War and the German invasion which was followed by 40 years of Russian rule and communism which resulted in isolation from its Western neighbours. The Velvet Revolution in 1989 split Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but despite this turmoil the passion for beer and the quality of their favourite brew, Pilsner Urquell, never wavered. They had developed one of the world’s greatest beers and they weren’t going to let that one go. And yes, they’ve produced postage stamps in the beer’s honour.
Photographs courtesy of
With special thanks to Visit Pilsen
(www.pilsen.eu/tourist) and CzechTourism UK