|Lagers are finally making their long anticipated comeback and leading the pack are Czech Lagers-
The beer world is replete with traditions: American IPA, English cask bitters, Belgian abbey ales, etc. but none
have the distinction, nor cast a longer shadow than, that of Czech lagers. As the story goes, ’round about 1840, a
citizens’ brewery in Pilsen, Bohemia, recruited a brewer from neighboring Bavaria, Josef Groll, to invent a premium
beer they could hang their hat on. Groll accepted, brought Bavarian lager yeast across the border, combined it
with the native Saaz (or Žatec) hops, Bohemia’s soft water, and pale malting techniques perfected in England. The
result was a sparkling golden beer, crisp and clean, flavorful and tangy, with a refined taste and distinct balance.
They called it Plzeňský Prazdroj, or, in German, pilsner urquell, “pilsner original source.”
It was a watershed moment in brewing and the majority of all beers produced since echo —
no matter how faint — Groll’s Pilsner Urquell.
Though the ingredients of Czech lager are simple (pale/Pilsner malt, Saaz hops, lager yeast), the beauty lies in the
brewing technique. The barley is floor-malted — less modified than other malts, thus richer and more flavorful —
and works better with decoction mashing. This labor-intensive process involves drawing off portions of the mash,
boiling it in a separate vessel and then returning it to the mash, raising the overall temperature. Time-consuming,
to say the least, but it develops a level of malt character second to none.
Ditto for first wort hopping — which adds hops early in the process and takes the spike off the bitterness and
smooths out rough characteristics — and long lagering times, all of which tend to be cost-prohibitive for small
brewers. You could make a lager without them, but then it wouldn’t be the Czech lager.
The best American versions I've seen use grains from the Czech Republic and reverse osmosis water blended with
carbon filter municipal water to mimic Pilsen’s soft water. Mashes are decocted, and the wort is boiled for two hours
with multiple Saaz additions. Next it’s put through a heat exchanger, dropping the temperature. There’s no way to
make this beer (well) and be ignorant of your water chemistry, at least in the broadest strokes. We want soft (but
not barren) water. If you’re building up from pure H2O, make sure you have sufficient calcium
A good Czech / Bohemian Pilsener isn’t as clean as your typical German or American Pilsner. There aren’t
obvious fermentation flaws or anything “unclean” about the beer, but there is a very subtle background note of
fermentation-derived compounds that add a certain fullness and interest to the beer. Some may point out the
BJCP style guide’s acceptance of diacetyl in this style. I suppose that is acceptable in very small amounts,
but I don’t think it is something to laud. In many cases I believe it may not be present at the brewery, but it is
instead a fault that develops in the package with the oxidation of alpha-acetolactate into diacetyl over time.
And yes you can ferment Bohemian Pilsener with almost any lager yeast, though my favorites are
White Labs WLP800 Pilsner Lager and Wyeast 2001 Urquell.
The first Pilsener, brewed in 1842 Bohemia was a lager unlike, any other. Its brilliant clarity, golden color, and
light body made it an instant success in a world that was accustomed only to dark, heavy, cloudy beers. Its
popularity soared. Within a couple of decades it was being exported around the world. I encourage you to give
this great style a try. You will not be disappointed.
Hope you found this month's column of interest. If you have any questions about beer or brewing
or just want to submit a word for me to discuss here just e-mail it to me.
Thanks and Cheers!
|A new column by
|Jack O'Reilly attended the
famous Siebel Institute/ World
Brewing Academy in Chicago.
|I'm very excited to be part of the BeerNexus team. I think my many years in the
beer business both as a brewer and manger will enable me to explain and
investigate many topics of interest for those who really love craft beer.
Hope you join me every month.
More by Jack: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14,
#15, #16, #17, #18, #19, #20, #21, #22, #23, #24, #25, #26, #27, #28, #29, #30,
#31, #32, #33, #34, #35
|Techniques and insights
for the serious ceft beer
fan and home brewer.