In the decades since sparkling, golden lager began captivating drinkers in the 19th century, imitations have circled the globe, put down roots in various places, and changed. Much of the world looks first to German-style pilsner—and then falls short of it. Even makers of Miller Lite call their products “pilsner.” For many folks, anything pale and fizzy qualifies. We think we know pilsner because we have tasted distant descendants of the original.
Encountering one of Czechia’s pale lagers—a světlé pivo—can therefore be a startling experience. Stop into a Bohemian pub, and you won’t see the word “pilsner” anywhere, unless it’s attached to one brand—that of Urquell. Czechs identify their lagers by strength, and the pale ones often come listed as 10˚ or 12˚. (Those are degrees Balling, very similar to Plato as a measure of original gravity.) You may also see beers offered in different preparations; some might be unfiltered, others “tank” beer. Which is the pilsner? None of them? All?
The problem is, we’re thinking about them all wrong. For the Czechs, pale lagers are more of a tradition—a part of daily life—than they are a style. Political history, agronomy, and drinking culture all play important roles in how they view and brew their beer.
If we want to understand Czech pale lager, we need to think more like the Czechs.
The story of pilsner has been told so often that it takes on the hue of myth—but it is largely accurate. In the 1830s, leaders in the small town of Plzeň (or Pilsen, in German) had grown weary of the poor quality of their local ales. Imported Bavarian lager was trickling into western Bohemia and impressing drinkers with its quality and durability.
The town burghers decided to address the problem by funding a brewery to make the same kind of lager right there at home. They sent a local architect to Munich to learn how to design a proper brewery, and they hired a Bavarian brewer to come back and make the beer. By coincidence, this was just when the knowledge of English-style kilns was filtering into central Europe; they decided to build one of those, too.
The young brewer they hired, Josef Groll, was not a pleasant fellow (his own father called him the “rudest man in Bavaria”). However, during his three-year stint at what would later become Plzeňský Prazdroj—aka Pilsner Urquell—he brewed the most influential beer ever made. In the German convention of the time, the beer was named after the town. Groll debuted his “pilsner” at St. Martin’s Fair on November 11, 1842.
Groll’s pilsner wasn’t the first pale lager. Anton Dreher had brewed one a year earlier in a town near Vienna. In fact, Dreher’s Vienna lager probably sparked more imitators, at least at the start. Even in Bohemia, ale breweries remained popular for decades. Eventually, however, the Czech pale lager started attracting more attention, and the rest is history.
After stout, no beer style ever achieved the kind of international success that pilsner did. By the end of the 19th century, it was taking root worldwide. Eventually, pale lagers would displace most local styles virtually everywhere. Yet, as they spread, pilsners morphed. They left Bohemia’s originals behind, while the Czech lands headed into a turbulent century.
A Separate, Slower Evolution
In much of the brewing world, the 20th century brought remarkable change. To Bohemia and Moravia, it brought conquerors. First came the Nazis, then a Soviet-backed Communist Party. These incursions stalled the kind of innovations embraced in the West. Indeed, dissident and future post-Soviet President Václav Havel worked at the Krakonoš Brewery, where he observed calcification promoted by a system of patronage that created jobs but no change. One of the brewers, he wrote, was reprimanded for pursuing efficiency.
That stasis had one positive, if unplanned, effect: It preserved some old brewing traditions. Those included decoction mashing, which is now enshrined in Czech law as a mandatory feature of any beer called České pivo—Czech beer. The process is important in building the subtle but evident fullness that makes Czech beer what it is. State-owned Budvar has an active research arm, and master brewer Adam Brož points to studies showing its effect. “If you boil during the decoction, you prepare the compounds which cause golden color,” he says. In the non-decocted comparison sample, the beers were thin and “emptier in taste.”
Brewers also use other old-fashioned techniques. Open fermentation is still common in smaller breweries. Many, including Urquell, still use grants in their brewhouses. At the sadly defunct Kout na Šumavě, brewers boiled their wort for two hours. They started typically, with a first-wort hop addition, and the long boil produced a curiously stiff bitterness. Finally, there is the long lagering period: Budvar lagers its standard světlý ležák for a shocking three months. This “deep fermentation,” as Brož called it, is important to Budvar’s softness and smoothness. Much like Belgium, Czechia remains a repository for funky old equipment and processes.
Not Pilsner—It’s Světlé Pivo
In Czechia, brewers offer great deference to Pilsner Urquell. I was surprised, visiting the second-most-famous Czech brewery, Budvar, to hear master brewer Brož say this: “We don’t say we are a pilsner. We are a bit different.”
Brož went on to talk about bitterness and “deep fermentation” as points of difference. While his distinctions may seem pedantic, they’re real, and they point to an important fact about Czech brewing: For beers made with basically the same two ingredients—pale base malt and Saaz hops—there’s a lot of room to experiment.
Before we get to how brewers distinguish their beers from one another, though, let’s discuss categories. Czechs group their beers along two axes—color and strength. A beer may be pale (světlé), dark (tmavé), or amber (polotmavé), and it may appear in strengths that range from very weak up to doppelbock-ish boomers. Most of the pale lager that Czechs drink is výčepní—the word used for draft beer, in fact—falling around or just above 4 percent ABV and listed as 9˚ or 10˚. A second category, the ones usually exported, is mid-strength versions called ležák—literally, lager—listed at 11˚ or 12˚ and usually weighing in around 5 percent ABV. You’d order them by looking at the strength and asking for a světlé výčepní or světlý ležák.
But wait, there’s more! Czechs also offer special preparations of their beers. Some are unfiltered (nefiltrované), which is straightforward enough. Others may be tanková or tank beers. For these, Czech brewers send brewery-fresh beers straight to pubs, to be served from polyethylene bags inside submarine-shaped serving tanks; the bags help prevent oxidation as well as contact with additional CO2. Beer served this way is always unpasteurized, and the flavors are softer but more vivid—not unlike British cask ale.
Back to Groll, the Sladmistr
Writers routinely describe Josef Groll as a brewmaster, which is accurate but incomplete. Perhaps more important than understanding mashing techniques, he also was a sladmistr, or malt-master. The Burghers’ Brewery in Plzeň was special because of the English-style kiln, capable of making very pale malt. Groll used it to create a grist the rest of the world would come to call “pilsner malt”—the secret to the style.
This is characteristic of the way Czechs think about beer. In most places, the brewmaster is the king of the brewery; in Czechia, the causation is reversed. A světlé pivo depends on distinctive malt character, and that depends on the sladmistr. That was true in the case of Groll, whose malt was the star of the show.
Czechs have a word to describe very well-made beer: říz. Translations range from “zest” or “tang,” but also “pep” or “elan” or even something close to “cut.” Depending on how it’s used and which word it’s modifying, it acts as something like a magnifier. It takes a country like Czechia—where the distinctions are not in type of beer but character—for such a notion emerge. Říz captures the combined elements of the beer, that delicate balance; it is treated as an objective standard to the extent that people can use it to argue over pivo in a pub. Říz identifies the spirit of a beer, its living essence. It’s hard to imagine říz ever describing a beer made from bland, mass-produced malt.
The Terroir of Pivo
Of course, a critical component of that zest and tang is the famous Saaz hop, grown around Žatec, 50 miles north of Plzeň or about the same distance west of Prague. Hops have been cultivated in the region for more than a thousand years; Saaz dates back at least 500 years. Its tangy character is critical to the flavor of světlé pivo.
One characteristic feature is hopping the kettle as the wort comes from the lauter tun. Brewers believe this first-wort hopping creates a “fine” bitterness. Beer is always a downstream product of terroir, but in Czech pale lager, the expression is starker than in other styles.
For a long time, American brewers understood “Bohemian-style pilsner” to mean a German pilsner brewed with Saaz hops—and many apparently still do. Czechoslovakia remained behind the Iron Curtain at the dawn of the microbrewing era; it’s taken time for brewers elsewhere to learn all the apparent quirks of Czech brewing.
Now, more brewers understand something about the Czech tradition, and many are drawn to the rich character created by those processes. Techniques once dismissed as obsolete now have the allure of craft and heritage and the ability to lead brewers to unique destinations. As lagers enjoy sustained interest, the Czech tradition continues to win new champions. You can even find tmavés now.
Slowly, even drinkers are starting to understand that this “Bohemian pilsner” is far more than a single beer. It’s a tradition and, possibly, even a life’s pursuit.