The original Pilsner beer came from the town of Pilsen, in Western Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1842. It is made using bottom fermenting yeast at cold temperatures, and is thus a lager. The beer is a result of German beer-making expertise put to work with unique ingredients that were found near the town of Pilsen, along with a new type of malt kiln being used in England. Prior to this time, beers from Bohemia (and in fact throughout most of the world) were cloudy and brown, whether they were ales or lagers. The English had begun experimenting with pale malt a few decades earlier, creating beers that were lighter in color (pale ales). The folks from the area around Pilsner had never seen clear, golden colored beer.
While these Bohemians prided themselves as beer drinkers, the quality and consistency of their beers were often times lacking. This culminated in 1838, when the town of Pilsen had to pour an entire season’s worth of beer (36 barrels) down the drain because it was not fit to drink. This sparked a revolution of sorts, and the town came together to plan a brand new, state of the art brewery. Martin Stelzer was commissioned to create the new brewery. He went to Bavaria (now Southern Germany), where brewmasters were known for their high level of expertise, and met Josef Groll. Bavarian lager (which was brown in color) was the most popular beer style in Europe at the time, and Stelzer hired Groll to bring his expertise to the new brewery being built in Pilsen, in an attempt to recreate the quality of the beer coming out of Bavaria. It is believed that Stelzer also traveled to England and brought back a malt kiln that was indirectly fired by coke, rather than directly fired by wood. This new type of kiln did not scorch the malt, and was being used to make pale ales, the relatively new style being brewed in England.
Along with the brewing expertise of Groll and the new type of malt kiln, a third element came into play that created a “perfect storm” in Pilsen. It turns out the ingredients found locally were ideal for brewing. Moravian barley is sweet and is low in nitrates, which can cause a haze in beer. The local Bohemian Saaz hop is low in bitterness, but has a nice spicy, floral aroma. And the water in the area is sandstone filtered and extremely soft, which allows the flavors to come through, making it ideal for brewing. The result was a clear, golden colored beer that had an assertive hop character, but not a lot of bitterness. The first batch of beer brewed at the new brewery came out in the fall of 1842, and caused an instant sensation in the town, where the people had never seen such a clear, golden lager. A new style had been created: Pilsner!
Unfortunately for the folks in Pilsen, the name nor the style were ever patented, and the beer was quickly copied throughout Europe. The Germans came out with Pilsner style beers that were lighter in color, and had a more pronounced bitterness. Brewers in the Netherlands and Belgium copied the style and created beers that were sweeter and had less hop character, and called them pilsners. Eventually the style was copied (and bastardized) world wide, and the clear golden “pilsner” style became the most popular style of beer just about everywhere. But while the makers of beers such as Miller Lite and the like can call their beers Pilsners, they are really nothing like the original style that came out of Bohemia in 1842 and shook the brewing world.