Pils pils me

Insomnia is less fun than drinking beer, and it’s also less fun than sleeping. In fact, insomnia is one of the least rewarding hobbies available to mankind. The only positive aspect is that you get a few extra hours in the middle of the night which you can use to update your blog, and write about fun things such as sleeping, beer, or sleeping after drinking beer, so I guess it could be worse.

Today I thought I’d write about the World’s favourite beer style: pils, pilsner or pilsener. This incredibly successful brew originates in the town of Plzen, known as Pilsen in German and once upon time part of the massive Habsburg Empire, but nowadays situated in the westernmost part of the Czech Republic. It was here, in the 1830s, that a handful of breweries united to form a citizens’ brewery (Bürgerbrauerei) in order to improve quality and compete efficiently with the Bavarians, whose beers had a far better reputation. They recruited a young brewer named Josef Groll from the town of Vilshofen in Bavaria, but it was quite clear that this lad wasn’t satisfied with merely trying to copy the dark, bottom-fermented lagers that were commonly brewed just across the border. Instead, he started experimenting with paler malts and proceeded to combine this with the lovely soft water from the wells in Plzen as well as a generous helping of Saaz hops to create something the world had never seen before. He presented his first batch of beer to the unsuspecting drinkers on the 5th of October 1842.

The rest is, as they say, history.

The brewery where the Pilsner beer was invented
The drinkers in Plzen loved the new golden beer, and presented in the new see-through glassware that was becoming popular (replacing the old ceramic tankards), the visual appearance of the brew also played a major part in its success. Soon, others started copying the style, and before anyone realized what was going on (mainly because they were too busy drinking, I suppose), 150 years had flown by and breweries were churning out their various interpretations of pilsner all over the world.

Lovely looking kettles, now used to show tourists how lovely they look
A few years ago I visited the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery which made, and still makes, the Pilsner Urquell (which means the “original source” in German). This was a very mixed experience. On the one hand, you’re standing in the exact spot where Josef didn’t brew the first batch, but at least you’re not far away, and you get a real sense of brewing history. On the other hand, you very quickly realize that ever since the brewery was bought out by the giant corporation SABMiller, the emphasis has shifted from tradition and quality to marketing and brands. They take you on a big tour around the brewery and serve up one claim after the other about how they’ve modernized and changed everything but ensured that the beer tastes exactly the same. Then you get to see the vast network of underground passageways containing wooden lagering casks kept at a constant 4-5 degrees Celsius, and they tell you that this is no longer in use because it has been replaced with modern tanks. Finally, they actually give you a glass of unfiltered beer from one of the few wooden casks they still use “for quality control purposes”, and you get to taste what may well be the best pilsner in the world. In fact, this is also a great place to bring the kids if you have some, or rent a couple if you don’t, because they also get a glass of beer which you can swiftly confiscate as long as they’re under 16 or 18 or 35 or whatever you find appropriate. I was ready to adopt a couple of the most gullible-looking kids on the tour, but their father politely refused before guzzling their beers with a very happy smile on his face.

Underground passageway with beer casks, some with very good beer in them

After the tour you’re ushered into the brewery tavern where you can drink more beer from taps conveniently located at your own table. They serve the filtered version from the modern tanks this time, and it still tastes pretty good, even if it lacks the magical wonderfulness of the unfiltered beer straight from the cask.

It’s only when you come home to wherever you live and you pick up a bottle of Pilsner Urquell in your local supermarket that you realize what’s really wrong with this whole enterprise. Not only is the beer brewed at several different breweries hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from its home (making a complete mockery of the “original source” claim), it is also likely that the beer will taste absolutely nothing like the wonderful stuff you quaffed back in Plzen. It’s not just that this beer doesn’t travel well, I think it goes a bit deeper than that. SABMiller have bought up the brand and shamelessly exploited its heritage whilst disregarding quality and tradition. Perhaps it’s just the way of the world nowadays, but I personally find it a bit sad. May it one day spectacularly backfire.

Pilsner remains one of my favourite types of beer, but I’m getting increasingly picky. Most of the pilsners in Germany and the Czech Republic are good, with a decent amount of bitterness as a result of generous usage of hops. This is how it should be. The Czech versions tend to have a bit more of a malty body, whereas the German ones are a bit drier, but the best ones from both countries are wonderful beers, especially on a hot summer’s day. The rest of the world, unfortunately, is not so lucky. Although there are some glorious exceptions, most “pilsners” that you buy are fizzy, cold, and taste either next to nothing, or have this unpleasant chemical taste that comes from the use of sugar, maize, rice, polluted water or, perhaps, chemicals. The emphasis is on producing vast quantities at low cost. To avoid scaring off customers, the marketing people that instruct the brewers what to do tell them to avoid using too much hops in case the trendy young people who bought the beer because of the great design on the new label should accidentally taste something.

As you can see, I have a love-hate relationship with the pilsner. I love the ones in my fridge, but I hate the big global beer makers that buy out the small players and promote their tasteless brands instead. Too often the choice is a big brand or no beer, but increasingly often I see smaller breweries sneaking into bars and restaurants, so perhaps there’s hope. I’m using my consumer power for all it’s worth, buying the good stuff and avoiding the crap, and I encourage you all to do the same. This way, we’ll support local brewers and hopefully retain the diversity we enjoy – at least in some countries – today. Man, that’s enough preaching for today, I think. I’m sleepy. Good night!