Thursday, February 9, 2023

1895 - The Year of Pilsener?

It was only within about 50 years of its creation in 1842 that pale lagers from Plzeň were under attack in the learned press of the day. We all know the story of how Josef Groll's golden lager swept continental Europe, inspiring imitations in Munich, Dortmund, Strasbourg, Leuven, Glasgow. You name a major brewing city in Europe in and around 1895 and you likely have a pale lager, vaguely in the style of "pilsner", being brewed, though of course there were hold outs like London, Burton, and Dublin.

Recently though in one of my trawls through the newspaper archive of the Austrian National Library, it really is a fascinating resource that I keep coming back to, I learnt that certain beers being brewed in the recently established German Empire were considered better than the Bohemian original, in particular the "pilsener" lagers of northern Germany and the Dortmunder.

According to one Doctor Wilhelm Windisch, writing in "Wochenschrift für Brauerei", Pilsner and Dortmunder are both "light beers" but of "very different types", and Dr Windisch poses the question "which is the nobler of the two"? Windisch then goes on to sing the praises of the Dortmunder, saying (and here I am relying on the veracity of the quotation in Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer in August 1895 above) that Dortmunder is "always clean". The German here is "es stets blank", "blank" can translate into English as "bare", "shiny", or "pure", though a Czech possibility is the word "čistý", which in English can translate as "clean". Given the context of later in the quote about a yeasty flavour, I think Dr Windisch is talking about the classic clean flavour that we associate with lagers in general.

Dr Windisch goes on that Dortmunder has "a better hop taste than the Pilsener" arguing that in pale lagers from Plzeň "the taste of hop oil is sometimes very strong". His final accusation as to the inferiority of Pilsner, from Plzeň, when compared to Dortmunder is that it has "almost without exception...a peculiar yeasty taste" which he then claims "is not fresh, but a peculiarly old one, like the one imparted to beer by dying or dead yeast". From this he would seem to be claiming that in the Bohemian pilsners of the 1890s you could taste the autolysis of the yeast as it dies.

Moving on from comparing Dortmunder and Bohemian Pilsner, Windisch further extols the virtues of the "Pilsener" style being brewed in Northern Germany, noting that they are "light in colour and...they have a more pronounced hop taste". He points out that this additional hop flavour is due to in part to using more hops in the boil and a slightly different hopping schedule in Northern Germany than in Bohemia. Windisch then goes on to drop the mic, by declaring that Northern German:

"so-called "Pilsener" beers are much more similar to Dortmund beer, and we really didn't need to borrow a beer type from abroad, especially since Dortmund beer has long since acquired an excellent reputation"

leaving us with this question:

"as far as wholesomeness and digestibility are concerned, the question still needs to be decided, whether our light, clear, and not excessively hopped so-called "Pilsener" beer or the Dortmund-style beer isn't even "healthier" than the cloudy, yeasty, strongly hopped Pilsner beer"?

Despite this, Windisch notes that the "importation of Pilsener and other Bohemian beers is steadily increasing and has become very important". As a result of this growing competition from the east,  Munich breweries were forced into action, particularly Spaten and their the recently created helles lager that he notes is "similar to Pilsener beer". So conservative though were Munich drinkers that it had been market tested far from the Bavarian heartlands at the Café Ronacher in Hamburg's Savoy Hotel. As a result of the success of the trial, Spaten started full scale production of their pale lager. The coming of pale lager to Munich, whilst seemingly ignored by the Munich beer press, was declared "notable progress" in the popular press, and in the mind of Windisch himself "a beer-political event of the very first order".

Having quoted Dr Windisch at length, the author of this article in Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer gives short shrift and is quite acerbic in his response claim that:

"you have to get used to the fact that "Pilsner" is making more friends in North Germany because of its excellent properties, is spreading as a result of North German breweries borrowing this popular beer type from Bohemia! The fact that the people of Munich are now also brewing a light beer in the "Pilsner" style doesn't come as a surprise either; already in the 16th Century people set a good example there, in that a brewing method that originated in Bohemia - to produce weisses Weizenbier - was made native in Munich, as can be seen from the brewing regulations of 1616."

Boom from the Bohemian, who signs off as "Ein echter Pilsener". He is basically saying, yes Mr Windisch it is no surprise that people are jumping on the "Pilsener" bandwagon because it is popular, and points out that we have seen this in beer history before, when Bavaria copied the Bohemian "bilé pivo" (white beer/weissbier) and made it is own.

What I found particularly interesting about this little article, which feels like an editorial, was not the history as presented by Dr Windisch, though yes that was fascinating, but rather the response of the "echter Pilsener". Rather than engage with the learned professor on the merits of Bohemian brewed pilsners when compared with those of norther Germany, Dortmund, and Munich he choses the route of rather nationalistic bombast. His argument is essentially, "we're popular and that's why people use the name pilsener", a brewer's "yah boo sucks to you" response basically.

Though putting this in context a little, at this point, if I have understand the other German language stuff I have been reading lately, the definition of what constituted a "pilsner" or "pilsener" in the German Empire, as opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had not been settled. As late as 1909 the "Böhmische Brauhaus" in Berlin was using the term "Pilsator" for their pale Bohemian style lager. What we are seeing here is the beginning of a battle that in some ways rages on to this day, what exactly even is a "pilsner"?


  1. Nice piece - just a note to say that Dublin got its first lager brewery in 1891, although it had closed by 1895.

    1. Nice fact! Do you have any more details about this lager brewery in Dublin?

    2. Sure!


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