Lagers and Pilsners: A Brief History

Okay. I think I’m getting this. Please bear with me as I try to work through my interpretation of history based off of several sources. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but please let me know of your sources. This isn’t because I doubt any of you (in fact, the latter is true…I have more faith in you than I do myself), but rather it’s due to the fact that I would like to have a crack at the evidence that swayed you.

So…here it goes.

While beer has been around since before written records, the intentional use of non-roasted malted barley is still relatively a new thing. Prior to the early nineteenth century, people knew that grain needed to be malted in order to be fermented. Malting is the process of germinating a grain, typically barley, by letting it get damp and allowing the grain to open up and let the starch turn into a sugar. The problem is that you don’t want the grain to totally go to seed, so to speak. To create a good malt, one should let the grain open just a small bit, and then stop it suddenly. The tried and true method of doing this is to allow the grain to dry, the quicker the better. The primary way to dry the dampened grains were to let smoke and fire do its thing. The end result of this was that many beers and ales took on the flavor of smoke or roasted barley. This was and is seen as a good thing.

But because humans have this propensity to look for new and different technologies to make life easier for ourselves, someone took it upon themselves to dry dampened grains in a more efficient way. In 1817, a kiln was invented that allowed the malt to be dried by hot air, rather than smoke or fire. The result was that the malt now had the flavor of the grain, rather than of any carbon caused by roasted or any oils brought on by smoke.

The Brewers of the time went ga-ga over this technology, especially in Bavaria (or what is today southern Germany).

Some Back Story is needed: It should be stated that lagers, or more specifically, lagering was well known in these regions that now comprise Western and Southern Germany, The Czech Republic, and Austria. Albrecht V outlawed summer brewing all the way back in mid 16th century, so he, in essence, outlawed top fermenting beers, albeit unknowingly. Typical lagers that resulted from this change due to government interference were the dunkels, and were then followed by the bocks.

Now came the air-dried malt, and when used with the lagering process, it was found to have a crisper flavor. It didn’t carry the smokier or darker flavors of the previous lager kin. The beer nearly glowed in the light and was more transparent than opaque. It was something new, something different, and brewers throughout the region decided to see what would happen if they used this malt.

This included a few brewers in Plzeň, Bavaria Bohemia. Or as we known it, Pilsen.

Here is where water plays a difference and hops play a distinct difference. For the folks in Pilsen were using a different water source than those to the north. The water they pulled from their water table was a softer, less astringent water. with a different mineral composition than the water to the north. As for the hops, they were primarily using a varietal from the Saaz region.

So when they introduced the new malt, they got something markedly different from what was being brewed to the north. The flavor had a bitterness, but it worked in concert with the malt, rather than overwhelming it. It also had the characteristics of the bright colors, high CO2 content, and crispness previously discussed.

They also had the good luck to be discovered roughly the same time when railroads were rolling out across Central Europe, so they could send this new beer anywhere in a few days after brewing had been complete. This new style, called pilsner, took off. So much so, in fact that other brewers in other parts of central Europe realized that they had to do something in order to not lose marketplace, realized that they too, had to come up with something unique. In 1894, a few breweries in Munich brought forth Helles variety.

Helles never really took off outside of Germany. Pilsners were the most popular by far out of the Central European lagers. Often when brewers from the area immigrated to new lands, such as, say, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it was the Pilsner recipe that came with them and were popularized by the new consumers.

Two things strongly affected the transplanted Pilsner breweries in the United States: Prohibition and Industrialization. By many accounts, many of the beers made in the United States were quite good, and quite comparible to those made in the Bavarian region. For one, there were more good harvests here in the States, and two, less conflicts that interfered with local economies and human resources.

But when Prohibition hit, it shut nearly every brewery down. For twelve years, very little legal beer was made. By the time of its repeal, companies were looking for ways to make a quick buck rather than a quality beer. So instead of following the recipes like they did before prohibition, breweries in the United States were adding different ingredients to the recipes once held in such high regard.

In some cases, it was as simple as using different types of barley malt, or a different type of hops. In other instances, some breweries added adjuncts to their recipes. This is when the cheaper corn and rice began showing up in the beers. And to the people of the United States who hadn’t had a legal beer in half a generation? They didn’t know any better. They were simply happy to have a beer, any beer. But the larger breweries of the United States were clearly brewing something different. Something not pilsner.

So, for a quick summation, the history of lagers goes like this.

Sixteenth century – Dunkels
Seventeenth century – Bocks
Early Nineteenth Century – Pilsners
Late Nineteenth Century – Helles
Twentieth Century – American Lagers

There are some other variations of Lagers out there. Dortmunders come to mind, as do the latest in American Pilsners, which is really a recent re-discovery. But the goal here was to put Pilsners in context with American Lagers. If I have the time, I’ll write up the Dortmunder.

Additionally, I have intentionally left out any mention of yeasts, another vital component of the beer recipe. This was intentional on my part, as I’m still trying to fit that piece of the puzzle. The history of yeast, especially in beer production is indeed critical, and I want to make sure whether it fits into the above history or not.

Conclusion: All of the above are lagers, that is to say, they are all made with the lagering technique of fermentation. But I think it’s safe to say the the beer made by The Big Three are not pilsners. They may be related to pilsners, but they have made too many alterations to the original recipe to lay claim to what a pilsner should be. Three things are certainly needed: Good water, good hops, and good malt. Or rather, equivalent water, hops, and malt. Otherwise, the brewer is making a simple, non-specific lager, which is as good as a description for what The Big Three produce as anything.