Timeline 180: Birth of the golden beer
There's gold in
them thar pils
A new beer first saw the light of day 180 years ago this month. Alastair Gilmour relates the story of Pilsner Urquell, one of the world’s greatest lagers.
In Britain we put Olympic gold medallists on postage stamps and pay our footballers obscene amounts of money. We promote concert room singers to the realms of royalty while minor celebrities dance their way into national treasure status.
But beer, the breweries it’s made in, and the pubs where it’s consumed, are considered ‘add-ons’ in this country; something for the masses to get on with while our politicians build empires and store up enormous societal problems across the globe for decades to come.
We never consider beer, breweries and pubs as woven into the fabric of society with an incalculable influence on commerce, enterprise and history. Thankfully, other nations do.
However, it’s generally accepted that mid-19th century beer quality control was pretty basic – almost primitive. In the towns and cities of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) for instance, brewery owners became increasingly under pressure from the staff they employed, their investors, and ever-more discerning consumers to up their game and invest in better equipment, superior knowledge and modern techniques, or else lose their way completely.
The Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzeň, Czech Republic. Photos: Official PU media
Pilsner Urquell’s copper brewing vessels contribute considerably to beer flavour
For aeons, the test of a beer’s quality was to drench a wooden bench in beer then let people sit on it for a short while to see if their leather trousers stuck. If they did, the beer was considered good enough to drink. Little wonder then that general beer quality was poor and standards varied widely. Often townsfolk would demand their local breweries be ordered to pour their beer down the drain as a penalty for producing a sub-standard product.
A milestone incident occurred in the town of Plzeň in 1838 when its furious townsfolk inevitably took control and poured 36 barrels of undrinkable bilge into the town’s gutters. Enough was enough and the search began to find an architect to design a new brewery, with a brief to build the most contemporary possible.
Martin Stelzer, a forward-thinker in every respect, was enlisted to build the Burgher’s Brewery, a forerunner to the present-day Pilsner Urquell brewery (Plzensky Prazdroj). Stelzer went off to study the best in brewery design and construction before returning to Plzeň with plans for a state-of-the-art complex, choosing a site on the banks of the Radbuza River. The sandstone rock there would be relatively easy to carve out a network of tunnels for cold storage, but deeper underground were aquifers to supply the distinctive soft water that would help make Plzeň’s new beer come of age.
Stelzer’s piece-de-resistance, however, was the discovery of a young Bavarian brewer called Josef Groll who got to grips with the new brewing operation and created something on October 5 1842 which was to revolutionise Plzeň’s beer when it emerged five weeks later (on November 11 1842), blinking in the late autumn sunshine.
The visionary Groll combined new techniques to get the utmost out of pale malted Moravian barley; he used aromatic Zatec (Saaz) hops from the north of the region; he drew on Plzeň’s soft water, and chose a lager yeast that would do his bidding. A new beer was born and unlikely heroes created.
Branding: The original source
Wooden barrels take up miles of underground storage
The proof, as always, is in the pubbing
Visitors are treated to freshly-drawn Pilsner Urquell in one of the beer world’s unmissable rituals
This was Pilsner, the world’s first golden beer; an amazing product – the world’s first golden lager – which was fresh, clear and highly quaffable with a hint of caramel sweetness and a fragrant, balanced hop bitterness.
It was an immediate success – a sensation – and a proud moment for Plzeň. It was a beer style that quickly conquered Europe’s palate, aided and abetted by emergent communications systems and a developing trans-European rail network, not to mention a consumer thirst for better that simply demanded to be satisfied.
Germany and Holland soon claimed Pilsners as their own (often abbreviated to Pils) which developed into a generic term for any bottom-fermented golden beer accounting for around a third of the world’s total light beer production.
The new beer from Plzeň took the name Pilsner Urquell – ‘from the original source’. Throughout its history, Pilsner Urquell has been brewed in the same brewery with the same Czech/Bohemian/Moravian ingredients and the same 1842 recipe while still using traditional methods to achieve a signature flavour profile that balances sweetness and bitterness to perfection.
Beer is almost part of Czech religion, certainly its national economy, and it could be argued it’s in individuals’ blood. The pride that Pilsner Urquell brewery guides display to visiting tourist groups is a joy to witness (www.visitpilsen.eu). For example, five years ago, a special 175th anniversary brew was blessed by Plzeň’s bishop Frantisek Radkovsky in a ceremony attended by international brewery chiefs and national dignitaries that was broadcast on television to the nation.
Pilsner Urquell is certainly not a relic of the past, nor simply a museum display story, and lately has been responding to the planet’s alarmingly changing climate with a strong commitment to sustainability. Since 2021, Pilsner Urquell’s bottles have used 100% recyclable paper labels, saving 48.4 tonnes of aluminium and 57.6 tonnes of plastic every year.
“Our 180th anniversary is an emotional milestone,” says Ard Bossema, Pilsner Urquell global brand director. “Our golden pilsner is now the world’s favourite style of beer. It’s also a celebration of the passion, consistency and integrity that’s gone into crafting every drop for 180 years. In a world where things are evolving at lightning speed, we’re proud to say we haven’t changed a thing – from the way we brew our beer to the way it’s poured, topped with three fingers of foam.”
This adds up to Pilsner Urquell being one of the world’s classic beers. The Czech passion for beer and the quality of their favourite brew has never wavered. They had developed one of the world’s greatest beers and they weren’t going to let that one go.
And yes, they’ve produced postage stamps in the beer’s honour. A true three-fingered icon.
Photographs courtesy of www.visitpilsen.eu
With special thanks to Visit Pilsen and CzechTourism UK
*The Pilsner Urquell brewery offers tours which will impress beer fans and history lovers alike where visitors can view the original locations where the famous Pilsner Urquell beer was born 180 years ago and whose story continues today. Learn about the ingredients from which Pilsner Urquell is brewed, visit the heart of the brewery’s three brew houses from different centuries, and be guided through a labyrinth of passageways, cellars and wells built below the town of Plzeň from as early as the 13th Century.