Pilsner Urquell: A History Lesson
Beer: Pilsner Urquell
Brewery: Plzensky Prazdroj
Style: Bohemian Pilsner
ABV: 4.4 percent
For good or for ill, there is no brewery that's affected beer consumption worldwide more than Plzensky Prazdroj. One hundred and seventy-one years ago this November, the Czech brewery introduced pilsner, a beer style with qualities so unique at the time of its development and so pleasing to most palates that it quickly became the most popular brew in the region and has retained the top spot on the planet ever since. Now, Phoenicians have the opportunity to try an unpasteurized version of the world's first pilsner poured straight from the casks held deep below Plzensky Prazdroj. But we'll get to that. First, some history.
We begin in the year 1295, in the western half of an area that's now known as the Czech Republic, but was formerly called Czechoslovakia, and, before that, the Kingdom of Bohemia. Any good kingdom has a king, and the Kingdom of Bohemia was no different -- his name was Wenceslas II, and he liked beer. So much so, in fact, that upon his founding of the town of New Plzen in 1295, the good King Wenceslas gave all 260 citizens the right to make beer and sell it from their houses -- a privilege that was passed down through each family and inspired citizens to form joint breweries and even build a community malthouse to improve their beer production.
Things were dandy until the 1830s, when beer quality in the region began deteriorating. Fed up with poor sanitation practices and undrinkable brews, several of Plzen's brewers got together in 1838, dumped 36 barrels of beer on the steps of city hall, and promptly set about building a brewery that would bring the town's beer back to potable levels while making them a little extra cash. But the Citizen's Brewery of Plzen, as they called themselves, had a large task ahead of them. They needed to create a style unique to the beer world -- one that would be complex enough for those wackos over in Belgium while remaining pleasing to palates in other regions. Luckily, they had a few things going for them.
Saaz hops: Saaz is a varietal of hop native to the Czech Republic. Due to low levels of alpha acids (the stuff that provides bitterness to beer when boiled), Saaz isn't really useful as a bittering hop -- but it's great for aroma. The brewers of Plzen used this hop exclusively in their new brew, relishing in its mildly earthy, herbal qualities.
Soft water: Many of the best-known beer styles use water that's distinctive in quality and unique to the area in which they were developed. Pilsner is no different. The well water in the Czech town was, and is, very soft, meaning mineral-free. While the pale ale-appropriate water in Burton-on-Trent, England contains about 1,200 ppm of dissolved solids, Plzen water is all the way down at 50 ppm.
Decoction mashing: Without getting too technical (which is what people say before they launch into something very technical), decoction mashing involves drawing off thick portions of the mash at three different times over the course of a four-hour mashing regimen. Each portion, or decoction, is heated to a specific temperature, briefly boiled, and then returned to the mash vessel to boost the main mash's temperature. The process is both complicated and necessary -- Pilsner Urquell is still made with malt that is not fully modified, meaning it's undergone a shorter germination process to break down internal starch structures and compounds. A decoction mash helps break down the proteins surrounding the malt's sugary goodness, making them more accessible to starch-dissolving enzymes.
These qualities, combined with a batch of lager yeast reportedly smuggled over from Germany, combined to make Pilsner Urquell, the world's first pilsner. Plzensky Prazdroj, which literally means "original source of pilsner" in Czech, still produces Urquell at the same brewery according to the same methods using the same ingredients.
The experience of drinking Pilsner Urquell in America is mostly the same as it is in Plzen. Poured into a pilsner flute -- which was designed to accentuate the beer's color, clarity, and carbonation -- Urquell shines, golden and somehow clearer than water. An inch of pure white froth is replenished by rising bubbles. The light to medium-light body has mild, massaging carbonation, and a bit of snappy bitterness at the finish has you reaching for another sip forthwith.
But it's in the flavor and aroma that things can sometimes differ, mainly because Pilsner Urquell is packaged in green bottles that provide little protection from ultraviolet light -- the enemy of beer. A glass of Urquell poured from one of these bottles will have the same aroma as in the Czech Republic, replete with sweet honey and saltine crackers and subtly spiced with cilantro, crushed black pepper, and grass blades. The flavor will have the same musty, honeyed maltiness that reminds of just-baked bread loaf and hops akin to a plate of bitter salad greens topped with cracked black pepper and dried lemon peel. But it'll all be underlined with a layer of skunk, the unfortunate off-flavor caused by the interaction of hops and sunlight. Pilsner Urquell would be perfect without it.
And that's where you come in, Phoenix. DRAFT Magazine has partnered with Plzensky Prazdroj for the brewery's anniversary, and they've committed to bringing one 170-liter cask of unpasteurized, un-skunked Pilsner Urquell flown directly from the brewery in Plzen to one American beer bar. Papago Brewing Co. is on the list of finalists, and you can vote for them to host the tapping of this brew here until August 31. If Papago wins, the beer'll be flowing on November 11, the anniversary of Plzensky Prazdroj's Founders Day. Get to voting so we can get to drinking.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.