They were the culmination of nearly four years work after enraged local tavern owners formed their own brewery to develop a new beer.  This ambitious step was taken in February 1838 after thirty-six barrels of beer from their existing supplier was deemed ‘unfit for human consumption’ and had to be tipped down the drain. [2]

Roger Protz, in his legendary grimoire “The Taste of Beer”, describes the creator of the first pilsner as “a rough, ill-mannered man but he could brew good beer.”  His name was Joseph Groll and he was a “young but experienced” brewer from Bavaria.  Protz tells the story:

“His instructions from his new employers [the Burghers Brewery] in Pilsen were simple: brew beer by the new lager method, ensure it was of sound quality and make it as different as possible from the popular Bavarian lagers.  What he produced in 1842 astonished and delighted drinkers in Pilsen.  It was a golden beer, the first such type ever seen, for the lagers brewed in Munich were deep brown in colour.”

Protz speculates that Groll must have imported a coke-fired kiln from England in order to produce the malt needed for such a pale beer.  It should be noted that brewers in Burton-on-Trent were, at the same time, already producing early pale ales which, while not as golden as pilsner, were appreciably lighter in colour than traditional beers – hence the name.

There is no doubt the beer was well received.  Protz describes pilsner as a “sensation… the cleanness, refreshing nature and clarity of the beer entranced drinkers.”  Beer writer Pete Brown said was the “biggest thing to happen to beer since hops.” 

The initial problem was that pilsner was very difficult to make.  It had to be stored for several weeks at a consistent temperature of seven to nine degrees which was problematic before the invention of refrigeration.  Brewers were forced to use harvested ice which was expensive.  Louis Pasteur calculated it took a pound of ice to produce a pint of pilsner.  Brown tells the tale in “A Man Walks Into a Pub”:

“Although it probably seemed like a long wait at the time, pilsner fans did actually see this problem solved relatively quickly after the beer was created.  In 1850, James Harrison, a Scottish emigrant to Australia (which just happened to be desperate for cold beer) invented the first practical ice-making machine, a clumsy contraption that used liquid ether.

Ten years later a French engineer called Carre developed a better version, using compressed ammonia gas, and commercial ice-making machines began to appear in European breweries.  As well as allowing lager brewing all year round, refrigeration helped produce lager of a more consistent quality, and enabled it to be transported, kept and served at the necessary low temperature.”

Pilsner also benefitted hugely from appearing on the scene just as it became increasingly fashionable (and affordable) to drink out of glassware.  It was clear and golden at a time when other beers were darker and cloudy.  However, the Burghers Brewery – which later became the Pilsner Urquell Brewery [3] – did not trademark or protect the name pilsner.  Czech and German breweries have tended to avoid calling their beers pilsners to avoid any suggestion they were from Pilsen but the rest of the world has certainly not been so meticulous. 

Countless beers, often low-strength and low-quality, have been emblazoned with the famous name of pilsner, diluting the reputation of the style in the process.  Pilsner Urquell remains the international benchmark for the style though there is considerable debate about whether the beer has dropped in quality as the brewery has modernised.  Ironically, the lack of investment under Communism meant they kept a lot of the traditional brewing process longer than their Western counterparts. [4]

The definition of a pilsner style beer in “The Taste of Beer” is that has “complex aromas of sweet, slightly toasted malt, aromatic hops, a quenching palate and long, lingering finish packed with malt and bitter hops.”  Because of the differences between New Zealand hops and the traditional Europeans hops, local pilsners here tend to have a slightly fruiter character than a Czech brew master would be comfortable with.

Perhaps the most classical tasting pilsner readily available in New Zealand is the Croucher Pilsner (5%), gold medal winner and trophy winner in the 2010 Beer Awards.  It is in outstanding form at the moment – dry, grassy, beautifully balanced and utterly quenching.  It manages to capture much of the traditional taste even though it uses a generous amount of New Zealand hops.

The Three Boys Pils (5.5%) is also a fine example of the style and perhaps one of the best balanced beers in the country.  It has some herbal notes as well as a faint citrus hint before a lingering bitter finish.  This beer is sometimes over-looked due to the strength of the Three Boys range.

Tuatara Brewing Company’s biggest selling beer is their award-winning Tuatara Pilsner (5%).  Compared to the first two, the New World hop influence is more noticeable.  The grassy nose also has some hints of lime and there is a little fruitiness in the glass before the expected dry finish.  This is a deeply refreshing drop.

Finally, Emerson’s Pilsner (4.9%) openly embraces its New Zealand-ness with the brewers calling it a “Kiwi classic.”  They embrace the beers “overt fruitiness” from the use of (now non-organic) local hopes, comparing it a sauvignon blanc.  Emerson’s Pilsner has notes of passionfruit and grapefruit which would startle a Czech purist but which delight the Kiwi palate.

[1] The feast day of Saint Martin, a saint usually associated with wine making.  Roast goose is commonly served at Martinmas events though quite why is unclear.
[2] This is thought to be the first written reference to Flame Beer.
[3] Literally meaning “Original Source Pilsner” in German.
[4] Albeit by necessity rather than choice


Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine


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