It was a freezing Sunday early in 1838, and the ancient Bohemian town of Plzeň was in uproar
At the town hall, a throng of citizens watched as 36 barrels were publicly condemned as containing ‘bad beer’, smashed open, and the offending liquor spilled onto the cobbled streets. How had it come to this? Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – was (and still is) famous for its love of beer… and that was the root of the problem.
The beer being produced by the 250 brewers across the town was simply not up to local standards. Not only did brewing quality vary, but some taverns were sneakily undercutting the market; the other taverns found that their beer didn’t sell fast enough, and went sour because it had stayed in the barrel for too long. The town’s many beer drinkers were not happy.
This was a major crisis and Václav Mirwald, the innkeeper at U Zlatého Orla (‘The Golden Eagle’), hosted daily meetings of the town elders and leading citizens. As well as concerns about quality, the burghers were worried that cheap imported beers might end up ousting their own local brews.
Almost a year later, the communal negotiations came to a surprising decision; instead of each brewer for himself, the town’s leaders opted to pool their resources and build a single large brewery collectively owned and run by the entire town. This ‘Citizens’ Brewery’ would have its own malthouse, and would hire one of Europe’s top brewmasters to ensure that the town’s new beer would be truly splendid.
Josef Groll, a visionary brewer from Bavaria, decided that the town’s expertise in carving out deep storage cellars created an opportunity to produce a Bavarian-style, bottom-fermented lager (so named from the German word for ‘storage’) that required cool conditions all year round. This was an innovation in Bohemia, whose traditional brews were commonly top-fermented, darker ales.
Groll combined pale malted barley and the soft local water with Saaz noble hops from nearby Žatec, and – using the most up-to-date Bavarian lagering techniques – created the first new brew on 5 October 1842. Five weeks later, on 11 November, it was ready to drink; the world’s first golden beer, clear and refreshing, with a hint of caramel sweetness and a fragrant, balanced hop bitterness. This, the first Pilsner beer, was a sensational success.
Since then, there have been many beers brewed in the Pilsner style, but none has been honoured more than the original brew. Named Plzeňský Prazdroj (‘original source of Pilsner’), it is better known now by the German translation of the name, Pilsner Urquell.
The most precious document in the Pilsner Urquell archives is the founding document, written on 2 January 1839, agreeing the creation of the ‘Citizens’ Brewery’. Exported and celebrated around the world, Pilsner Urquell today still uses Josef Groll’s original recipe. When you taste it, you can only imagine how relieved and happy the beer drinkers of Plzeň must have been on that Friday in 1842 when those first glasses of Pilsner Urquell were carefully poured… and this is how you do it properly.
The Guardian has listed Plzeň (or Pilsen) and the Pilsner Urquell brewery as one of their holiday hotspots for 2015. Read the article on the Guardian’s website, or find out more about the Pilsner Urquell brewery tours.