Pilsner Urquell thumbnail

Pilsner Urquell

The original.

It says so right in the name.

(“Urquell” translates to “original source” from German.)

Pilsner Urquell glass

And this beer from Pilsen, Czech Republic, first brewed on this day in 1842 was just that – the original Pilsner beer. The style that took the world by storm and is today the most popular style of beer worldwide.

When I think about the history of beer – and the fact that beer has been brewed since 3000 BC – it fascinates me to think that it was a beer first-brewed 175 years ago that has won the world over.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise then that this beer was no accident; the town forefathers of Pilsen had a plan.

In 1839, disappointed with the quality of the local beer production, the townspeople decided to invest in a brewery, and construction began that very year.

Original brewery in Pilsen
The humble beginnings of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, which is still located on this site today.

As England was the superpower of the day, English pale ales were the style of the moment. So the town forefathers wanted to create a beer with the crisp, hoppy dryness of the English pale ale, with one noticeable difference, it was going to be a lager.

Conveniently, an understanding of yeast was just coming to light.

Germans had been producing lager beers for a few hundred years – supposedly, the first mention of cold fermentation was back in 1420 in a document from the Munich city council – but it wasn’t until the 1830s when the living nature of yeast was truly understood.

Quickly after the discovery, a sample of lager yeast was brought to the Czech Republic from Germany and put to use in Pilsen by the Bavarian-born brewer, Josef Groll.

Lager had been brewed in Germany for decades, however, so why was this particular dry, hoppy lager so special?

It was brewed with pale malt (later known as Pilsner malt, also named after the town), giving the beer a beautiful golden hue.

Pilsner Urquell maltings
The maltings, or malt house, at Pilsner Urquell, where golden Pilsner malt was first produced.

Confusingly, the popular English ales of the time, although called pale ales, were more of an amber colour.

It was very difficult to control the temperature of malt kilns, making very light or very dark coloured malts difficult to produce. Most ended up an amber or brown colour somewhere in between.

By the 1840s, however, sophisticated kilns with indirect heat and good temperature control made it possible to produce malt light enough to truly produce a pale coloured beer.

Although pale gold in colour, the beer still has rich, caramel flavors from the use of specific brewing techniques – decoction mashing and direct-fired copper kettles – which are still used today.

New Pilsner Urquell brewhouse
The new brewhouse at Pilsner Urquell, complete with copper kettles just like those in the old brewhouse. Direct fire on the copper kettle helps give the beer its caramel notes.

This malt backbone was important to help give the beer enough body and sweetness to stand up to the bitterness of the hops.

The Saaz-Saaz hops used in Pilsner Urquell give the beer spicy, citrusy aroma and flavor notes, along with a bold bitterness. Today known as “Noble hops”, the name gives you an idea of their quality.

Pilsner Urquell hops
Harvesting the Czech Saaz hops used in Pilsner Urquell from the nearby town of Zatec.

The water in the region was highly influential on the style, as well. Pilsen’s wells provided a source of soft water that was very low in minerals, allowing the flavor of the malt and hops to shine.

This confluence of factors made Pilsen’s lager – the Pilsner – an instant hit.

And its popularity was only increased by the introduction of glassware drinking vessels in the 1850s.

Filtered and unfiltered Pilsner Urquell
Although common place today, the golden hue of Pilsner Urquell was a real novelty back in the mid-1800s. Did you know? Both of these glasses contain the same beer. One is filtered (left), while the other is unfiltered (right). We’ll delve into these differences in my next post. Check back!

Previously, clay or metal was used for drinkware (glass was only available to the wealthy). Suddenly, as glass became more prevalent, beer colour began to matter, and the sparkling gold hue of the Pilsner made it incredibly popular.

The beer wasn’t just popular in Pilsen, however. Other scientific and technological advancements helped make the spread of this style possible.

Pilsner Urquell railcar
Railcars, like this one, helped the Pilsner style reach far beyond the borders of Pilsen.

In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur introduced the process of pasteurization, which prevented the beer from spoiling on long journeys. Refrigeration, first used in brewing in 1873, was adopted at the Pilsner Urquell brewery in the 1890s and further extended shelf life. Finally, the use of rail networks helped to expand distribution across the European continent. The beer was first poured in America before the end of the 19th century; talk about well-travelled!

It shows that having a plan – and access to some of the world’s best malt, hops, water, and brewing technology – can pay off. And it certainly did for Pilsner Urquell.

Pilsner Urquell brewery today
The Pilsner Urquell Brewery today (a big change from its humble beginnings in 1842!)

Today, most mass produced lagers are Pilsner-style beers, directly influenced by the original.

A true legend, Pilsner Urquell was first brewed on this day 175 years ago – October 5th, 1842.

Why not join me in raising a toast to beer history.


P.S. In my next post, I take a visit to the original source – the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic. We’ll explore how modern day Pilsner Urquell differs from the original. (The quick answer: very little!)

Czech back next week! 😉 (cringe)


Image sources:
Pilsner Urquell maltings, Pilsner Urquell hops, other images by Natalya Watson

Randy Mosher // Tasting Beer
Garrett Oliver // The Brewmaster’s Table
Beer Judge Certification Program // 2015 Style Guidelines: Beer Style Guidelines