Cracking a bottle of Pilsner Urquell is a bit like jumping in a time machine. History tells us this was (effectively) the first true “pilsner” beer; and it’s remained pretty much unchanged ever since.
The story of this famous lager goes back to the 1830s, when there was trouble brewing in the beer-loving Czech town of Plzeň (then in the Duchy of Bohemia). At the time, the town’s brewers produced ales, but their quality had declined so much, there had been virtual riots in 1838, with barrels of the stuff poured out in the streets. The good burghers of Plzeň were none too pleased at this development (naturally enough) so decided to found a city-owned brewery to brew beer in the then-groundbreaking Bavarian style, with the snappy name of Měšťanský pivovar Plzeň (roughly, “the Citizens’ Brewery”).
The brewery hired a German brewer, Josef Groll, to bring the new-fangled bottom-fermenting and lagering techniques to the new enterprise. It took him three years to produce the first batch of “pilsner”, which was released in November 1842. However, the new beer was pretty much an overnight success. The combination of bottom-fermention, Plzeň’s soft water and the use of local Saaz hops produced a clear, easy-drinking beer, the like of which hadn’t been seen in those parts before.
The brewery adopted the trademark “Urquell” – German for “original source” – in 1898 and the name has continued ever since. In the Czech Republic, it’s known as Plzeňský Prazdroj, with “Prazdroj” meaning the same as “Urquell”.
From the 1840s until after WWII, the brewery used “natural” fermentation in open wooden vats. However, modern techniques mean that virtually all Pilsner Urquell is now produced in sealed steel cylinders. However, they apparently still brew a small amount of the beer in the traditional way, to ensure the tastes match up.
So, with all that history in the background, drinking a Pilsner Urquell is akin to engaging in a bit of brewing archeology. It’s not going to be exactly the same as it was in 1842, but the bones are still there.
In Australia, I’ve only seen Pilsner Urquell in a 330 ml bottle; although if you’re lucky, you might be able to score a 500 ml. In any case, the beer pours a clear golden-amber with a small but quickly dissipating white head and lively carbonation.
The aromas are fairly typical of pilsners, with noble hops, fresh cut grass, lemon zest and crackers all coming through. The taste starts out slightly sweet, before a moderate kick of hop bitterness comes though in the mid-palate. The Saaz hops are evident, and this is rather more highly hopped than your average Aussie lager. As expected, it finishes cleanly, leaving a fairly zingy lemon aftertaste, although it fades fairly quickly.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable pilsner and – not unexpectedly – is the exemplar of the European pilsner style. With the weather starting to warm up, it makes an ideal BBQ beer. It’s pretty cheap too, and available just about everywhere.