I have been holding back on posting this for a long time. One reason is because I knew it would end up being a long article. For that reason, it will be broken up into several posts. Here is a short primer that we wrote quite a while back about Pilsner.
The last among the classic styles, Pilsner is the certainly not the least. Of course, one cannot deny that the neo-classic styles of tomorrow are hitting markets and shelves during our time. However, Pilsner remains the last and supreme style among the true classic brews. But how does something first commercially brewed circa 1842 become so lastingly dominant?
Pilsner is perhaps like a band that makes it big time. More than half the battle is being in the right place at the right time. If that’s true of bands, Pilsner is the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other great bands rolled into one. Several truly significant occurrences converged to make Pilsner skyrocket into ridiculous success, which was more than meteoric: modern drum roasting, yeast discovery/lager yeast, glassware, modern refrigeration, Saaz hops, steam power/industrial revolution.
Coke Fuel/Drum Roasting
Beers in the past were dark. It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that they were all smokey, a fact I’ve learned since my first post about Pilsner as a style. However, beers were certainly a dark affair, not that it mattered much because people, except the wealthy, drank from metal containers and even leather. So, the brilliant clarity of the beer wasn’t a big deal anyway. And then in came coke fuel.
Coke fuel, which had future implications for the industrial revolution, was suggested for use in the early 1600s. Ostensibly, it was a response to the rapid deforestation that was occurring in much of Europe. This might take you back to standardized tests, but here is the analogy: wood is to charred remains as coal is to coke fuel. The problem with coal was that it would produce sulfur fumes—not a positive impact on malt—and it could not be used directly. The basic solution was, instead, to get the byproduct of coal, or coke fuel.
Coke fuel started to be used in malting circa 1642 in Derbyshire. One of the more immediate results was better and more even roasting. It was during this time that the Pale Ale was born. Pale Ales are not necessarily or historically pale; they are simply pale in comparison to the beers that preceded the use of coke fuel. So beers were, in fact, able to be lighter in color, although even these beers were darker than pilsner. But they were about to get even lighter.
Fast forward about 200 years after coke fuel was thought of as a heat source when drum roasting had finally been born. Although the earlier use of coke fuel helped to lighten beers, malting was not as even as it could be, and the grains would only allow for a certain color threshold. In contrast, rotational roasting, made possible with the use of a drum, allowed for a more even roast, and by proxy, different types of specialty malts. In the end a more even roast could be expected, and the pale malt that was born out of the older coke fuel process was no longer the palest. The continual advance of even roasting ultimately led to better and better techniques and lighter grain coloring.
The malting techniques and the Tolar and Hanka barley varieties used by Josef Groll in Pilsen allowed for a particularly, comparatively speaking, light malt. This speaks to why the color of the beer was such a novel sensation. But that is not the only significant factor… yeast can also speak to several points, which I will talk about in the next post.