By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Lew Bryson
Pilsner is the The Beer That Conquered The World.
Unlike IPA, which we looked at earlier, pilsner has not been a huge success in the craft-brewing business. But it has been a massive success in brewing in general. Probably 85 percent of the beer consumed every day around the world is a type of pilsner or a direct pilsner descendant.
Pilsner was first brewed in the town of Pilsen, in Bohemia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pilsen is now known as Plzn in what's now the Czech Republic. Because the beer was originally brewed in Pilsen when the official language was German, the beer became known as pilsener or pilsner, which simply means, "from Pilsen" – much like a New Yorker comes from New York ... or "hamburger" comes from Hamburg. Really. You can look it up.
The story of pilsner goes that an itinerant German brewer named Josef Grolle was hired by the city fathers of Pilsen to develop a lager beer to compete with the new light-colored (helles) lagers coming into vogue in nearby Bavaria. Grolle beefed up a helles recipe by dumping a lot more hops in the kettle – not surprising, as hoppy beers had been a Bohemian signature for centuries. The beer was an instant hit, and it spread across the world.
Like IPA, American brewers grabbed pilsner and made it their own ... but in a completely different way. They added rice or corn to lighten the beer at first. Then, after Prohibition stomped brewing almost flat in the U.S., brewers lightened pilsner even more in response to changes in public taste brought on by 13 years of drinking lightweight bootleg brews. Hopping rates dropped over the years as the country went white-bread. Light beer is pilsner's grandchild, the disrespectful one with the iPod and the rumpled hair.
Craft brewers didn't embrace pilsner like they did the ale styles for a simple reason: money. Pilsner is a lager, and lagers cost more to brew because of the extended period of cold aging to bring them to their peak flavor. Most craft brewers started on a shoestring, and ales gave a quicker return.
You can get real pilsner, of course. Some stubborn craft-brewers make pilsner, there are numerous European imports and you can even get Czech pilsners these days. The key to getting good pilsner, though, is getting fresh pilsner. Draft is always a good way to go when you know your bartender keeps the beer moving and the lines clean. Bottles are good if you know they were bottled less than four months ago.
Once you have a fresh one in your hand, enjoy it. Pilsner conquered the world for a reason, and it wasn't because of marketing or advertising; it's because of flavor. Good pilsner has a solid but refreshing malt body and flavor, with a crisp crack of hops. It's a great beer for red meat, for pork and bacon and sausage, for Tex-Mex, and for a wide variety of Asian foods.
And it's tough to beat for just sitting on the back porch, sipping away. Conquer the world tonight, with a tall glass full of pilsner.
Past lessons at Sam Adams University:
Feb. 2, 2007 - What it means to brew
Jan. 26, 2007 - Is your beer hoppy?
Jan. 12, 2007 - Tiny Bubbles in the Beer
Jan. 5, 2007 - All About Malt
Dec. 28, 2006 - India Pale Ale
Dec. 21, 2006 - Ale vs. Lager
Dec. 14, 2006 - Dark Beers