[Beer Lecture] Chapter 14. A Series of Unfortunate Events
Historical period: 1842 — ?
Scene of Action: Plzen
This is the last chapter of the Section I of my free book on beer and brewing history. The second section will be dedicated to Belgium, while the third one, to the craft revolution. You reaction will greatly boost my motivation to continue the work.
Middle-19th century was a triumph of brewing as an engineering discipline. Equipped with precise measuring devices (thermometer, hydrometer, and areometer) and the newest microbiological discoveries (in 1837, Theodor Schwann proved that yeasts were living organisms), engineers-brewers made brewing a precise science.
One of the vivid examples of such transformations happened in the town of Plzen, Bohemia (then a part of the Habsburg Empire). Local burghers, the owners of the brewing rights (given to them by no one else than king Vaclav II himself in 1295), utterly disappointed by the quality of the Plzen beer, had dumped 36 barrels of sour beverage into sewers and decided to build a new state-of-the-art brewery. To do so, they invited a master named Josef Groll from nearby Bavaria, bought lager yeasts, from the Bavarians as well, and built the English-style kiln.
According to some legend, the lager yeasts were smuggled by a runaway Bavarian monk; that couldn’t be true simply because Bavarian monastic breweries were secularized by Napoleon. Burghers of Plzen had absolutely officially bought the yeasts from Bavaria.
The first beer batch was presented on November 11, 1842, and it was nothing like local ales or Bavarian lagers. Groll took the best Moravian barley, dried the malt at extremely low temperatures, and got light and crystal-clear beer — which anybody might have attested after pouring it into a goblet of Bohemian glass.
The taste of this new beer was quite unusual as well: light and clear, like the beverage itself. Also, Groll used rather bitter hops (initially, it was some less known local crops, but some time later Saaz AKA Zatec became a conventional hop for the beer). As a result, a new golden standard of beer was born: Pilsner (from ‘Pilsen’, a German name for Plzen).
Surprisingly, the burghers of Plzen were initially not eager to export this beer, but it soon became not needed: all nearby brewers started to make their own pilsner.
Still, the technical issues impeded the pilsner triumph: to make lagers a huge amount of ice was still needed. However, scientists helped with this problem as well:
- in 1824, ‘the father of thermodynamics’ Sadi Carnot enunciated his heat engines theory (the so-called ‘Carnot cycle’);
- in 1834, Jacob Perkins got the first patent on refrigeration systems;
- in 1856, James Harrison built the first ice-making machine;
- finally, in 1862, Ferdinand Carre exhibited the ice machine based on the Harrison invention that used ammonia as a refrigerating agent — and from this point on cooling systems became commercially viable.
The effect of inventing refrigerators on brewing industry was overwhelming. In 1860, 32% of breweries in Bohemia were making lager; in 1870, it was 98%, and in 1884 the last brewery that was still resisting progress and making warm-fermented beer was closed. After Bohemia, pilsner conquered the rest of Austro-Hungary (with refrigerator vans invented, the morning ‘beer train’ from Plzen to Vienna was launched), then Germany, Netherlands, France, USA, and the entire world. So-called ‘eurolager’ is the most popular beer style to this day.
How to taste
The original pilsner is still being made: in 1898, the Plzen breweries union had officially registered the ‘genuine Plzen’ trademark — Plzensky Prazdroj in Czech, Pilsner Urquell in German — and continues to make lager beer under this brand nowadays.
In general, trying pilsner is one of the easiest things in the world. Just ask for a light beer in any bar or liquor store.
Tread of triumphants
It’s rather hard to tell why pilsner became a dominating beer style. Several factors converged:
- the aura of the most fashionable and technologically advanced beer;
- unusually light and clear appearance and taste;
- the predictability of manufacturing: with refrigerators in hand, brewers no longer needed years of trial and error to brew quality beer;
- the advance of moderation societies in Europe and the US;
- world wars and alcohol prohibitions in the first half of the 20th century that disrupted the traditional brewing business.
The light lager offensive was uneven: Central Europe gave up almost instantly, while in the 1960s England lager was still below radars. Nevertheless, the lager domination became absolutely total at the end of the 20th century. Many countries were not producing beer of any other style at all. The entire generation of people had raised, who think beer might be either light, dark, or unfiltered — e.g. a light, dark, or unfiltered lager.
The prolonged British resistance against lager by coincidence killed the business of Allsopp — that Samuel Allsopp who brewed the first Burton IPA: in 1897, his heir, Samuel Allsopp Jr., had invested into lager production that turned out to be a fiasco and led to the ‘Samuel Allsopp & Sons’ eventual bankruptcy in 1911.
Under lager pressure, many other beer styles were forced to the lowest common denominator — light, thin, 4.5% ABV potion. The classical example is the Braunschweig mumme evolution, which we mentioned in the ‘Bog Myrtle’ chapter.
The 60s-80s of 20th century were probably the worst time for a beer lover, as it was virtually impossible to get anything but lager anywhere on the Earth, except for Britain where stouts and bitters were strong, Germany with its Weissbier, and little Belgium, to which the next section of this book is dedicated.
The hops geography
Until the 19th century, brewers didn’t care about hop varieties. The main factor was a geographical one: beer producers were buying hops that were grown in specific regions. We might outline the three most important ones:
- Hallertau — the area in Bavaria where the hops were already being cultivated as early as in the 8th century CE; the Hallertau hops were a default choice for German lagers and many Belgian beers as well;
- Saaz (AKA Zatec) — the Bohemian region, hops from which are known since the 15th century CE and were included in the canonical pilsner recipe;
- Kent — the county in England, where the hops were grown from the 15th century as well.
Two main Kent hops varieties became known in the 19th century as ‘Golding’ and ‘Fuggle’. To make life a bit more uneasy, Fuggle was considered a variant of Golding and was often marked as ‘Fuggle’s Golding’, so many of its derivatives do not contain the word ‘Fuggle’ at all — famous Slovenian ‘Styrian Golding’, for instance.
Fuggle and Golding were the progenitors of many contemporary hops varieties used by craft brewers. Both designations derived from surnames (most likely, of farmers that once were growing them); however, as it often happens with the beer industry, nobody bothered to write down anything on the matter, so we basically know almost nothing about who Mr. Golding and Mr. Fuggle actually were, except that they lived in the 18th-19th century England.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Belgium was a major hop supplier, with Aalst, Asse, and Poperinge being the main production regions. During the following 100 years, the crop area diminished 10 times, and Belgian hops were superseded by the German ones.
- 1 Swinnen, J., Briski, D. (2017), p. 38
- 2 Rail, E. On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part III
- 3 Rail, E. On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part II
- 4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lager
- 5 https://czechbeeralliance.co.uk/bohemian-brewing-history
- 6 https://www.prazdroj.cz/en/our-story/history
- 7 Pattinson, R. Why do beer styles disappear?
- 8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Allsopp_%26_Sons
- 9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saaz_hops
- 10 Cornell, M. (2016) Finding Mr. Fuggle: The Largely Mysterious History of England’s Two Greatest Hop Varieties
- 11 Mulder, R. The Lost Hop Varieties of Belgium