Pilsner Urquell originated after disgruntled tavern owners in the Bohemian city of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech, and now within the Czech Republic) poured 36 barrels of the local beer down the drains in 1838 and sparked a revolution in brewing. The beer, probably wheat beer but certainly made by the method of warm fermentation, was sour and undrinkable. Beer drinkers demanded better beer and they had heard of the new method of brewing in neighboring Munich, where so-called Bohemian beer made with the aid of newly invented ice-making machines was meeting with approval. Local businessmen and tavern owners in Pilsen committed to raise funds and build a new brewery, to be called Burghers’ (Citizens’) Brewery. A leading architect, Martin Stelzer, was hired to design the brewery and he toured Europe and Britain to study modern breweries that used the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution—pure yeast strains, steam power, and artificial refrigeration—to make beer.

He returned to Pilsen to design a brewery on a site in the Bubenc district with a plentiful supply of soft water and sandstone foundations where deep cellars could be dug to store or “lager” beer. He also brought with him from Bavaria a brewer called Josef Groll who had the skills to make the new cold-fermented style of beer. See groll, josef. The brewery was built rapidly and its first batch of beer was unveiled at the Martinmas Fair on November 11, 1842. The beer astonished and delighted the people of Pilsen. It was a golden beer, the first truly pale beer ever seen in central Europe, for the lager beers brewed in Bavaria were a deep russet/brown in color as a result of barley malt being kilned or gently roasted over wood fires. A legend in Pilsen says the wrong type of malt was delivered to the brewery by mistake but this seems fanciful. It’s more likely that Martin Stelzer brought back from England a malt kiln indirectly fired by coke rather than directly fired by wood. This type of kiln that was used to make pale malt, the basis of the new style of beer brewed in England called pale ale. A model of a kiln in the Pilsen museum of brewing supports this theory.

Groll would also have been aided in his endeavor by the high quality of Moravian barley, which is low in nitrates, which can cause hazes. The clarity of the beer, the extremely soft water of the Pilsen region, and the floral, spicy Saaz hops from the Žatec region all combined to make this beer something special. See saaz (hop). The beer from the Burghers’ Brewery was an instant sensation. It coincided with the development of glass on a commercial scale; before then, glassware was all handmade and therefore the province of the wealthy. Now, staring at the beer in clear glasses, consumers could finally see what they were drinking. They reveled in the sparkling, golden nature of the new beer from Pilsen, so different from the cloudy beers they had been drinking from their earthenware tankards. The clarity of the new beer was aided by a slow decoction mashing regime that extracted the maximum sugars from the malt and settled out proteins. The lager yeast strain, which Groll had brought from Bavaria, worked at a low temperature to mature the beer in the cold sandstone cellars beneath the new brewery. The new beer—golden, clear, malty, hoppy, and bittersweet—appealed to a wider audience than those reached by darker beers.

The reputation of the beer from Pilsen spread like a brush fire. Supplies left via canals and the new railroad network to all parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which the Czech lands were a part. A “pilsner beer train” left every day for Vienna and the beer became a cult drink in Berlin and Paris. It reached Hamburg and other cities of northern Germany via the River Elbe. By 1874 pilsner beer had arrived in the United States and, with the second wave of immigrants from central Europe, lager brewing began to challenge the hegemony of the English-style ales introduced by the first colonists.

It was the Austrian connection and the role of German as the official language in Bohemia that gave the beer its name. Pilsner means “from Pilsen” but, as the fame of the beer spread, brewers in other countries started to produce their interpretations of the style and were not shy about calling them pilsners or pilseners. In 1898 the Burghers’ Brewery labeled its beer Pilsner Urquell, which means “original source of pilsner” (the Czech rendition is Plzensky Prazdroj). The Pilsen company, when it introduced the new label, referred to the “absurdity and illogicality of using the word Pilsner for beers brewed in towns outside Pilsen.” Just before World War I, the Czech company took the German brewery Bitburger to court for infringement of copyright when the Germans labeled a new golden lager Bitburger pilsner. The result was not an outright victory for the Czechs, but Bitburg and other German brewers did agree to either shorten the name to “pils” or to place the town of origin on the label to avoid giving the impression their beers came from Pilsen. That convention is still widely followed in Germany today. During the communist period that followed World War II, the name of the brewery was officially changed to Pilsner Urquell. But the original brewing methods were left intact and it was possible to see, even in the late 1980s, the remarkable system used to produce the beer since the 19th century. The entrance to the brewery is through a Napoleonic arch built during the period of empire. Inside, an exhaustive mashing regime was, and is still, used. The system is triple decoction, in two rows of polished copper vessels. One third of the mash is pumped from one vessel to a second one, the temperature is raised, and the mash is then returned to the first vessel. The process is then repeated. See decoction. The sweet wort is then boiled for around two and a half hours with Žatec hops (Saaz in German). Most breweries consider 90 min sufficient, but at Pilsner Urquell brewers believe the long copper boil aids the clarity of the finished beer and develops deeper flavors. Some slight caramelization of the sugars during the boil accounts for the fact that the original pilsner is a shade darker than many modern versions of the style.

Until the 1990s, the hopped wort was cooled and then pumped to small open fermenting vessels made of Bavarian oak. Following primary fermentation, the unfinished beer was pumped down to the sandstone lager cellars and matured there for 70 days in large wooden vessels lined with pitch. The pitch sealed the wood and made sure that wild yeast and bacteria did not infect the maturing beer. The finished beer had mellowness and also a noticeable touch of butterscotch (diacetyl) from the yeast strain. See diacetyl.

Once the free market replaced communism, the method of fermentation was changed with great rapidity. Since 1993, 3.6 billion Czech crowns ($200 million) have been pumped into the brewery. The aim has been to speed up fermentation and produce more beer. Fermentation and lagering now take place in cylindroconical stainless steel vessels and last for 35 days. Some drinkers—mainly outside the Czech Republic—complained that the beer lacked its old complexity and had a more austere bitterness, reminiscent of a north German pils, than did the original. Since 2005, the brewery has been owned by the SABMiller international group and by 2010 it seemed that the beer had returned to something like its original aroma and flavor.