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Classic Beer of the Month April 2016: Pilsner Urquell

Pilsner Urquell, 4.4%

I once remarked to a family member that I was looking forward to drinking some Czech lager. ‘Czech lager!’, he laughed, as if he’d just been offered a glass of Siberian merlot.

Pilsner UrquellEven today, there are beer drinkers who do not realise that the Czech Republic is home to some of the finest beers in the world or even that it was the birthplace of the golden lager style.

Golden lager was created in 1842 when the townsfolk of Pilsen decided that the dark, warm-fermented beer they were being asked to drink by the local brewers was not fit for purpose.

They clubbed together and set up a new brewery and then hired in a brewer from Bavaria to produce something better.

Josef Groll, by many accounts, was not a pleasant man but he was skilful in the brewhouse.

He brought with him the cold fermentation and conditioning techniques he had worked with in Germany, and the yeast that made those possible.

Using the wonderfully soft local water, and taking advantage of the new-fangled paler malts that had just been invented, he came up with a beer that was bright, sparkling and unusually light in colour.

It tasted good, too – crisp, refreshing, full of the sweetness of local Moravian barley and perfectly balanced by the smooth, herbal bitterness of Bohemian Saaz hops.

Instant Hit

The beer was an instant hit and immediately copied in other parts of Europe, going on, eventually, to inspire thousands of brewers around the world.

Groll had invented pilsner, literally a beer from Pilsen, which was to dominate the international beer scene, even if most of the beers that subsequently used the name had little in common with Groll’s creation, apart from a yellow colour.

Pilsner Urquell is that original golden lager and it is still brewed at the original site in Pilsen, where there is an excellent visitor centre. You can even tour the underground tunnels that once housed the wooden casks where the beer underwent its long, slow, cold conditioning.

The beer is not made that way these days. The conditioning period has been markedly reduced and the wood is only used to give visitors a taste of how things were a few decades ago. But it’s still an exceptional beer.

It has a distinct Czech lager character, rich in buttery malt with hints of vanilla, all offset by the full, rounded herbal notes of the Saaz hops.

Some people who have been drinking Pilsner Urquell for decades claim that it’s not as complex as before, that the reduction in lagering time has worked against it and that other modern brewhouse techniques have also changed the flavour.

I can’t confirm that as my experience of the beer has been much shorter but, for me, it is still an impressive brew, especially if you can drink it fresh and unpasteurised, as is now the case in the UK, thanks to the installation of tanks for draught dispense in an increasing number of pubs.

It’s the next best thing to visiting Pilsen for yourself, but I do urge you to take the opportunity to make the trip if you can.

At this moment in time, the future of Pilsner Urquell has a cloud hanging over it. SABMiller, which has owned the beer since 1999, has now become part of AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, the maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois.

There’s nothing to suggest that the new ownership will change things at Pilsner Urquell – they’d be idiotic if they did – but, as we’ve seen in the past, when big conglomerates take hold of prized assets, they don’t always do the logical thing.

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