How Beer Styles are BornIn the early 1800s, Pilsen was not known…

How Beer Styles are Born

In the early 1800s, Pilsen was not known for beer. The brewers of Pilsen made ale, and not very well. The beer was unimaginative and often quite bad. Locals with connections started bringing in lager across the border from Bavaria, especially lager. Lager was still a new phenomenon. No one was quite sure why, but these cold fermented new beers didn’t spoil as often as the locally made ale. The local brewers didn’t like seeing their market shrink, so they gathered together to make a new brewery, specialized to recreate the lagers everyone loved.

They hired local architects to study breweries in Munich and abroad. He designed a state of the art brewery with sparkling brewing equipment, cellars for long aging, and a new malthouse for making pale English-style malt. The money men also hired a young brewer trained in the German lager breweries. In 1842, Josef Grolls made the world’s first Pilsner.

Why am I telling you all this? Because all beer styles are created by human beings living in a particular place at a particular time. Without the popularity of imported dunkel from Bavaria, the burghers never would have fronted the money for a local lager brewery. Without advances in kiln technology and malting, clear, golden beer wouldn’t be possible. And without that soft Pilsen well water, the beer wouldn’t taste as sweet.

Beer is a product of the surrounding culture. Beer is subject to the forces of technology, geography, and politics.

Pilsner Urquell, the direct descendant of Josef Grolls first beer, is made in much the same way as it was in the beginning. It starts with Czech barley floor malted and kilned to a light toast. Floor malting leads to a uneven product, but that’s part of the charm. At Urquell, and most Czech breweries, the malt is mashed using traditional decoctions method in which a portion of the grain is removed from the main mash and boiled before being added back in. This extra step caramelizes the sugars slightly, giving the beer a deeper gold color and a richer flavor. The hops are locally grown Saaz, a cultivar that was domesticated from European wild hops centuries ago. The result is a fresh, herbal bitterness. The beer is fermented cold and matured underground for up to weeks – until the nineties Urquell was lagered in oak tanks four two months before packaging.

This new Bohemian beer caught on like wildfire. Josef Groll’s Pilsner hit like the hyped up IPAs of today. Within a few short years the new beer was everywhere. And soon everyone was trying to copy it.

Across the border in Bavaria, brewers suddenly found themselves competing with Czech upstarts. They designed their own sparkling lager Helles, like this Benediktiner, made with local German ingredients. The new blonde lager was even clearer than the original. The malt is more evenly kilned and need less work in the brewhouse. Without decoction the beer ends up with a more honey flavored sweetness and a rounded body. The hops are German varietals like Tettnanger, but there are less of them. For drinkers raised on the malt driven Dunkel, the sweeter, less hoppy Helles style was a great alternative to imported Pilsner.

Further north, in the mining regions of the Westphalia, the brewers of Dortmund made their own take on Pilsner and, following the naming conventions of the time, called it Dortmunder. But Dortmunder didn’t catch on until they made a stronger version for foreign markets, Dortmunder Export. This new beer was stronger, almost 6% ABV. The extra alcohol was met with a sulfury scent from the local water, giving the beer a snappy edge. Of course, it’s hard to find a proper Dortmunder Export these days. Brewers still trade under the name, but the beer is a shadow of its former self. DAB makes a 5% ABV lager called Export, but it lacks any features to differentiate it from any other pale lager. No sulfur. No alcohol. It’s just another inane, inoffensive, crisp beer

So what causes one beer style disappear while another lives on to beguile a new generation of beer drinkers? Let’s blame Capitalism.

The story of twentieth century beer is a tale of industrialization, consolidation, and standardization. As the name implies, Dortmunder Export was made for international markets, and the international market was dominated by American lagers with their increasingly flavorless fizz. To compete, you’re beer had to be almost completely indistinct. Hard edges were worn down, alcohol brought down to avoid duties, and any hint of sulfur scrubbed away. The result is a beer that tastes just like any other beer, but in a signature package.

Bavarian brewers have always been a stubborn lot. Even as dark Munich dunkel was losing sales to golden Pilsner, the local brewers union was voting to expel anyone making the new helles lager. But once helles caught on, brewers and drinkers stuck to it. Bavaria is provincial like that. The beer is brewed by locals for locals for the most part. They didn’t look to make their beer accessible to foreigners.

Pilsner brewers in Bohemia didn’t even have the option. After the World Wars, Pilsen and the entire Bohemian region was absorbed into Czechoslovakia a member of the Soviet Bloc. Behind the Iron Curtain, brewers and drinkers had less access to imported lagers from the US and Germany and were not affected by the midcentury boom in brewery consolidation and the flavor revolution of light beer. When international Communism dissolved in 1990 Pilsner Urquell emerged as if nothing had changed. The multinational conglomerates never had a chance to “improve” the old methods.

When a brewer sets out a make a beer these days, she’s liable to look at the way beer was made somewhere else, sometime else and attempt to match those specifications exactly. It’s not hard to use a little chemistry to match the soft water of Pilsen or the hard water of Burton-upon-Trent. It’s simple to order malt and hops from around the world. So when you see a Czech-style Pilsner brewed in Portland or New York, you know the brewer is trying to echo this ur-Pilsner. 

But in the process we’ve lost a bit of the wibbly copying of the late 19th century. If Bavarian brewers had access to Czech ingredients and basic water chemistry, they could have easily copied their neighbors and run them out of business. But they didn’t. They only had access to locally grown ingredients and made due., creating something unique in the process. The same thing happened all over the globe, from Dortmund to St. Louis brewers tried to make their own pilsner, and in the process invented dozens of variations on that same theme.

The same thing rarely happens these days. An IPA brewed in San Diego or Tampa or London is going to use malt from a few global producers and hops inevitably grown in the Yakima Valley and fermented with yeast from one of three labs. There’s plenty of room for experimentation, but less room for regional specialization. That’s a shame. I’d love to see someone try to create an IPA with ingredients only grown in Canada or Columbia. That would take some real creativity.