a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A pilsner is born

Te brewery at Plzen (Pilsen), Czech Republic, above, is where the locals invented pilsner beer in the 1840s.

By Harry Funk

PLZEN, Czech Republic – They take their beer seriously in Europe.

Back in 1838, for example, a near riot erupted in the city of Plzen when residents became so dismayed at the poor quality of the local brew that they emptied gallon upon gallon into the gutter in front of the town hall.

Their loss is our gain.

Town leaders acted swiftly to consolidate Plzen's brewing operations, culminating four years later in the first batch of what would become Pilsner Urquell.

Nations have come and gone in Plzen. At various stages, it has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia, under German occupation, and now is one of the major cities of the Ceská republika (Czech Republic).

But no matter who's been in charge, the golden beverage has flowed out of Plzen and all over the earth for more than 160 years.

"It's the pride of the whole Czech Republic and of each Czech person," explained Helena Emmerová, client service coordinator for Pilsner Urquell Svet Piva (Beer World), the combination brewery, museum and entertainment complex in the heart of Plzen.

She may be a bit biased considering her job, but the typical Czech seems to agree. First-time visitors to the republic, for example, often are whisked straight to a friendly pub and presented with a tall glass of the cold stuff.

"Our national drink," they'll be told.

As well it should be, according to beer connoisseurs who have tried the best of what the world has to offer. Writing for Brewing Techniques magazine, Peter A. Ensminger summarizes the impact made by Pilsner Urquell:

"No sooner had shipments of this new beer reached American shores than brewers set to work duplicating the style. ... No imitator, whoever, can hope to match the true character of this Czech original. Brewed with a combination of soft Plzen water, home-malted barley, superb native Saaz hops and a lager yeast originally smuggled out of Bavaria more than 150 years ago, Pilsner Urquell is to this day a true king of beers."

The beer's reputation preceded it, as Matt Lawrence, bar manager at the Union Grill in Washington, Pa., learned this summer when his tavern started serving Pilsner Urquell on tap.

"I didn't know how many people were familiar with the beer," he said. "As soon as people see it, they want it. It's been a huge success."

For the curious who don't know about it, the bar often pours a small sample.

"After that, nine out of 10 people say, 'Pour me a draft,'" said Lawrence. "It's a good-tasting Pilsner beer for someone who's not real familiar with a Pilsner. It's not overpowering."

Pilsner beer – the name is derived from Pilsen, the German name for Plzen – is made with bottom-fermenting lager yeast and usually has the slightly bitter taste of malt and hops. The golden color represents a change of pace from the dark, cloudy beers available before the brewers of Plzen developed their heralded recipe.

That recipe starts with barley that is soaked in water for five days, then heated to convert malt starches into sugars, a process repeated three times (known as "triple mashing").

"That's a specialty to Pilsner," Emmerová said. "Of course, it's time- and money-consuming, but the product is better."

The solution is filtered into conical, stainless-steel kettles, where hops are added and boiled, then cooled to 5 degrees Centigrade. Yeast and oxygen are added for fermentation, which takes seven days, then the brew is aged for 29 days.

Until recent modernization of the brewery, the final process took place in oak barrels stored in the spilka, or fermenting cellar. Today, visitors can walk through sections of the 9 kilometers (5 1/2 miles) of corridors constituting the cellar, where they can sample the beer poured directly from a traditional wooden fermenting barrel.

The taste is described on the realbeer.com Web site: "a very slight but benign sulfury flavor, where the rich hops dominate the flavor with a very smooth bitterness. This version has yeasty notes and fermentation byproducts evident in the final flavor that you'll never find in any of the 50,000 bottles that leave the bottling line each hour."

More of those bottles are finding their way to the United States following the recent merger between Miller Brewing Co. and SAB, the South African conglomerate with a majority interest in Pilsner Urquell.

"The regulars are very loyal to it," said Matt Talerico, assistant manager of the Beer Store in South Strabane Township. The distributor is owned by Beverage Distribution Inc., the regional wholesaler for Pilsner Urquell (and the folks who recommended it to the Union Grill).

The beer could be more popular among U.S. beer drinkers, in Talerico's opinion.

"I believe that its biggest obstacle is a lack of advertising," he said. "Comparable imports, like Corona and Heineken, they have those great commercials. Even Foster's, for that matter."

But while Pilsner Urquell may be a relatively well-kept American secret, it's ubiquitous in taverns throughout the Czech Republic and neighboring countries, especially Slovakia. Plzensky Prazdroj s.a., the corporation that runs the brewery, now accounts for nearly 50 percent of the Czech beer market, and sales abroad totaled 1.2 million hectoliters (31.7 million gallons) last year.

After all, Europeans take their beer seriously. Especially when it comes to the original Pilsner.

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