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First golden pilsner beer

One of the youngest styles of beer in the world, pilsner was created on 5th October 1842 in the Citizens’ Brewery in Plzeň, Czech Republic, when the first batch of Pilsner Urquell was brewed.

Four years earlier, the people of Plzeň had publicly poured 36 barrels of bad beer onto the cobbles of the town square to revolt against the appalling quality of beer being served in the local pubs. Known as the first beer revolution, it led the town’s burgher’s to build a new brewery and hire a new Bavarian Brewmaster called Josef Groll.

The new brewery was designed to showcase the best new beer-making practices that were spreading across central Europe, including the use of soft spring water and new inventions in malt kilning.

Rude and bad-tempered, Josef Groll was described as the ‘coarsest man in the whole of Bavaria’. And that was by his own father! But Groll’s commitment to beer and the brewery was unwavering and he was determined to make a beer the best it could be.

He was born and raised in the quiet Bavarian town of Vilshofen, northeast of Munich, about 30km from the Czech border. Josef learnt his brewing skills from his father, who owned a small brewery, and would almost certainly have experimented with a cutting-edge technique called bottom-fermenting, a secret he brought with him to Plzeň.

Bottom-fermenting yeast was a strain that Bavarian brewers would have used and treasured. Ironically, to replicate the high icy Bavarian cave temperatures needed for the yeast to work their magic, the brewery went underground, digging a 9km series of limestone tunnels under the Plzeň brewery. It was here, under Groll’s supervision, that the beer was left to ferment and lager (the name ‘lager’ comes from the German word ‘lagern’ meaning ‘to store’) at around 3˚C.

The final brew differed from the German lagers in a couple of important ways. First, it was golden compared to Bavarian lagers, which would have been a light brown colour due to the sulphate-heavy water they used. And it had a unique balance of sweetness and bitterness thanks to the fine Czech ingredients, noble Saaz hops, soft Plzeň water and Moravian barley. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it used a light new kilning technique, which used indirect heat, that produced a much paler malt (that ultimately created a paler lager).

The name pilsner was coined to describe this new style of golden lager, honouring the town where it was first brewed in 1842 (pilsner literally means ‘the beer from Plzeň’ and is the same word used to describe the citizens of Plzeň). Today, however, the term is now used more generically to describe any bottom-fermented pale beer sold as 'pils' or 'pilsner' – whether it comes from Plzeň or not.

Pilsner is now the most popular and most copied beer style in the world (of the 500 billion or so pints of lager drunk every year, 70% of them are in this pilsner style). They are generally crisp, fragrant and complex, showcasing the quality of their ingredients – the sweetness of their malt and the bitterness of their noble hops.

The first golden pilsner beer was officially unveiled at St Martin Fair on 11th November 1842, where it changed the history of beer forever.


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