Fine dining. Fine wine. And, surely, fine beer

The beerysphere (it’s like a bathysphere only more pressured, sometimes) has been rocking and bobbing again with attempts to define this drink that we love. Much effort has been put into digging ditches, and insisting that everything THIS side of the ditch, defined by methods of dispense, or size of brewing plant, or attitude of brewer, or some other criterion, is OUR SORT OF THING, while everything the OTHER side of the ditch is, automatically, BEYOND THE PALE (insert your own joke about “beyond the pale ale” here).

Over on the left-hand shore of the Atlantic they’re pretty rock-solid about what they like, and how to define it: the good stuff is made by “craft brewers“, and you can tell a “craft brewer” because (1) he/she will be “small” (although the US definition of “small brewer” is still around 12,000 UK barrels A DAY, which is more than many British small brewers make in a year), while the second most important criterion is that “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation.”

Now, I like innovation, and I’m delighted to see much more of it now that when I first started drinking beer. Hurrah for brewers who push the envelope, even if the envelope tears sometimes. But what I most want from a brewer isn’t innovation: it’s consistent excellent beer. I think I would actually give up all the innovation of the past 15 or 20 years, just to be guaranteed that the beers I found in every pub or bar I went into were of uniformly impeccable quality. So if the number one hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers isn’t top-notch product, but something else, then I suggest the wrong horse is pulling the cart.

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The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.

Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.

Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:

  • The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
  • The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
  • The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
  • The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.

That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.

However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.

Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.

I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …