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 …

0 thoughts on “The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

  1. “… 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”
    That goes in hand with one of my theories. If that mythical revolt in 1838 really did happen, I believe it could have been a protest against imported beer. In a history of Czech pubs I read once, it was mentioned that beer from neighbouring villages had to be smuggled into Prague. Yet by 1843 Pilsner Urquell was already sold here at U Pinkasu, I wonder when the law changed and allowed beer to be imported from other towns.

    I still believe that the Burghers of Pilsen wanted to make something like a Pale Ale. Even if those beers weren’t that popular yet in Britain, Dreher and Sedlemayr had been quite impressed by then and Dreher even tried to brew one himself, unsuccessfully, or at least that is what Ron told me in an e-mail once.

    It all adds up, if you think of it. The colour, the malting technique and the hopiness. Of all the classic lager styles, Pils is the only one that has a hop character, just like PA’s back then.

    On the other hand, if Groll had indeed worked with Dreher and Sedlemayr, he must have known about their British experience.

    Anyway, if my theory is right, then Pils would be the first multicultural style, a English Pale, brewed the Bavarian way using Czech ingredients.

  2. J.C. Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, also tried to hire a bavarian brewmaster in 1845, but without luck. At that time he was already running the family’s brewery in the old city of Copenhagen and needed a skilled brewmaster for the upstart of his “bajersk lagerølsbryggeri” aka Carlsberg. Maybe the brewmasters of Munich was not really inclinef to leave town or maybe there just wasn’t enough skilled persons? That could explain why the burgherbrewers of Pilsen chose Josef Grolle, even though he was a difficult personality. Btw. If I recall correctly the name pils or pilsner predates the pale lager. The oldest (Danish) source I’ve seen was a 18th century book(let) written by a Holsten-born doctor living in Copenhagen. He mentions Pils as one of the imported beers that people ought to drink for their good health.

  3. Rail has indeed done great work here and deserves to be congratulated and more importantly encouraged to continue. We really need a definitive book on the history of cold fermentation, as very little exists at present, and it’s such a fascinating, not to say important, part of the whole story of beer and brewing.

  4. I am not sure I understand the concern with speed of information transfer in this chronology. I have a lager brewery recorded in what is now Cambridge Ontario in 1844. What was the impediment in central Europe? I appreciate if it is a legal ban but other than that, what is the impediment to technological transfer that requires years to pass? What is needed other than acquisition of yeast and a sense of pale malting (pre-1600s English knowledge) in a vernacular scene that might have had a natural colder brewing tradition?

    1. “What is needed other than acquisition of yeast and a sense of pale malting …?”

      In a word, refrigeration.

      Ron Pattinson has demonstrated that in, for example, Bohemia, the development of artificial refrigeration (as opposed to the huge quantities of ice that, for example, Dreher was getting through when he stared cold fermentation) was the key factor in breweries converting to cold fermentation. It may be that the cold Ontario winters and the proximity of Lakes Ontario and Erie provided enough ice for this not to be a problem there.

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