Liquid gold

In praise of Pilsener, the lager that led the way

Pilsener is the granddaddy of all the watery domestic brews we buy at the local quickie mart by the quart and suitcase. It's the ancestor of Bud and Miller and Pabst Blue Ribbon, all the light and bright beer that fuels our sporting events and frat parties. But in a sea of low-end imitators, Pilsener stands out.

People used to drink beer from mugs and tankards made of metal and ceramic — substantial vessels for a substantial beverage. Brewing was more art than science, so an opaque stein helped hide the dark, cloudy and frequently unappetizing appearance of your average brew. Until the 1800s, that is.

By 1840, the town of Pilsen — in what is now the Czech Republic — was facing stiff competition from the murky but popular lagers of neighboring Bavaria. The Pilsen town brewery (later renamed Pilsner Urquell, and still in operation today) turned to brewmaster Josef Grolle and a strain of bottom-fermenting yeast that may have been smuggled out of Bavaria in an early case of corporate espionage, all to help them keep up with the Joneses. Or the Schmidts, I guess.

Through careful yeast selection and temperature control, Grolle gave Pilsen the world's first golden lager, a glowing beacon of heady pleasure that was clean and clear and looked great. The common man no longer had to hide his ugly beer in shame when confronted by roving gangs of wine snobs. This new style of lager spread rapidly through northern Europe, until everyone wanted a transparent vessel through which they could admire their newly attractive brew. Oddly enough, crystal stemware was an important Czech manufacturing concern. Coincidence?

Pilsener's beauty was, and still is, more than skin deep. Prodigious use of Saaz hops from Pilsener Urquell's home region of Bohemia adds a distinctive fragrant bitterness, offset by extremely soft water that is surprisingly free of minerals, pulled straight from the brewery's own springs. The beer even goes through triple-decoction mashing! You don't have to know what that means — just that the process accentuates a rich malty character that further mellows the bright bitter notes of the hops. You end up with a beer that has all the excitement and power of heavy hopping, with none of the rough edges.

Styles differed slightly as Pilsener spread across Europe, but most stayed largely true to the original, some breweries even importing Bavarian hops just for their Pilsener-style beer. One exception is the Czech town of Budweis. Soon after the first golden lager started flowing from Pilsen, Budweis created a competing brand that was significantly softer and sweeter, with less of the bright hop character of the original — kind of like a watered-down Hollywood sequel. That's probably why our own Budweiser decided to steal the name for their even less exciting American brews.

Perhaps because most modern American lagers are descended from Pilsener — and have a roughly similar flavor — Pilsener is a good starting point for people who want to expand their taste buds. Think of it as fancy beer with training wheels. Good Pilseners are easy to find and generally aren't too pricey, so the next time you're out reach for the golden brew that started a beerevolution.

Here are some of the most popular producers of Pilsener:

Pilsener Urquell (Czech Republic): The one that started it all is still the most widely available. Subtly sweet malt and that low-mineral water tone down the brightly bitter hops, resulting in a seriously complex and balanced beer.

Bitburger (Germany): German hops instead of the traditional Bavarian, but this Pilsener isn't as soft as Urquell, so the gentle bitterness is accentuated. This makes it a bit brighter, a bit more refreshing and a great choice when served ice cold out by the pool.

Warsteiner (Germany): More like American beers, this Pilsener is significantly softer and richer than most, with little of the strong hop character that typifies the more traditional varieties. It's a good entry-level Pilsener.