Pilsner (also pilsener or simply pils) is a type of pale lager. It takes its name from the Czech city of Pilsen, where it was first produced in 1842 by Bavarian brewer Josef Groll. The world’s first blond lager, the original Pilsner Urquell, is still produced there today.
The city of Pilsen began brewing in 1295, but until the mid-1840s, most Bohemian beers were top-fermented. The taste and standards of quality often varied widely, and in 1838, consumers dumped whole barrels to show their dissatisfaction. The officials of Pilsen founded a city-owned brewery in 1839, called Měšťanský pivovar Plzeň (German: Bürger-Brauerei, English: Citizens' Brewery – now Pilsner Urquell), which was to brew beer in the pioneering Bavarian style. Brewers had begun aging beer made with cool fermenting yeasts in caves (lager, i.e., German: gelagert [stored]), which improved the beer's clarity and shelf-life. Part of this research benefited from the knowledge already expounded on in a book (printed in German in 1794, in Czech in 1799), written by Czech brewer František Ondřej Poupě (Ger: Franz Andreas Paupie) (1753–1805) from Brno.
The Pilsen brewery recruited the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll (1813–1887) who, using new techniques and paler malts, presented his first batch of pale lager on 5 October 1842. The combination of brighter malt prepared by British technology, Pilsen's remarkably soft water, local Saaz noble hops from nearby Žatec and Bavarian-style lagering produced a clear, golden beer that was regarded as a sensation. Groll returned to Vilshofen three years later in 1845, and there later inherited his father's brewery.
Emergence of efficient glass manufacturing in Europe, around the same time, lowered glass prices. This allowed the general population to purchase glass drinking vessels for the first time. These former luxury items showcased the visually pleasing golden clarity of the beer, further influencing the Pilsner's rapid dissemination.
In 1853, the beer was available in 35 pubs in Prague. In 1856, it came to Vienna and in 1862 to Paris. Improving transport and communications also meant that this new beer was soon available throughout Europe, and the Pilsner style of brewing was soon widely imitated. In 1859, “Pilsner Bier” was registered as a brand name at the Chamber of Commerce and Trade in Pilsen. In 1898, the Pilsner Urquell trade mark was created to put emphasis on being the original brewery (Urquell meaning original well, the English equivalent would probably be prototype pilsener beer).
The introduction to Germany of modern refrigeration by Carl von Linde in the late 19th century eliminated the need for caves for beer storage, enabling the brewing of cool fermenting beer in many new locations. Until 1993 the Pilsner Urquell brewery fermented its beer using open barrels in the cellars beneath their brewery. This changed in 1993 with the use of large cylindrical tanks. Small samples are still brewed in a traditional way for taste comparisons.
A modern pale lager termed a Pilsner may have a very light, clear colour from pale to golden yellow, with varying levels of hop aroma and flavour. The alcohol strength of beers termed Pilsner vary but are typically around 4.5%–5% (by volume). There are categories such as "European-Style Pilsner" at beer competitions such as the World Beer Cup. Pilsen style lagers are marketed internationally by numerous small brewers and larger conglomerates.
A study utilizing blind taste-testing has found that several common mass-produced lagers have indistinguishable tastes to the average consumer.
- German-style Pilsner
- Light straw to golden colour with more bitter or earthy taste – Beck's, Bitburger, Flensburger, Fürstenberg, Holsten, Jever, König, Krombacher, Radeberger, St. Pauli Girl, Veltins, Warsteiner, Wernesgrüner
- Czech-style Pilsner
- Golden, full of colours, with high foaminess and lighter flavour – Budweiser/Budvar, Gambrinus, Kozel, Pilsner Urquell, Radegast, Staropramen, Svijany
- European-style Pilsner
- Has a slightly sweet taste, can be produced from other than barley malt – Dutch: Amstel, Grolsch, Heineken or Belgian: Jupiler, Stella Artois
- American-style Pilsner
- American Pilsners, particularly Imperial Pilsners, tend to have more of a robust maltiness than their European counterparts and typically have an alcohol content between 6.5% and 9% alcohol by volume. On the whole, they tend to be a little darker and sweeter with a certain spiciness when compared to Czech and German variants. Another example of American Pilsner beer is Miller Lite.
- Canadian-style Pilsner
- Hoppy lager-like beer originating from the west-coast of Canada.
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- Beware: The “Pilsner” at grocery stores is not beer!
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