Like most Americans, my first exposure to German beer was to one of those mass produced brews designed for good shelf life and consistency… not necessarily for flavor or quality. Being lucky enough to have been living in San Francisco at the time, I was exposed to a variety of better beers than that.
Microbreweries were (and still are) everywhere. A world of bocks, porters and stouts was where I lived predominantly. From time to time, however, I ventured into the lighter side of things… pilsners.
I didn’t really know what the term meant, or what made a bock different from a pilsner. I just knew what I liked and I also knew that pilsners were not the “in” beer at the time.
Down the street from my house in San Francisco were a few liquor stores run by Russians. This was pretty common in SF. The nice thing about having Russian run liquor stores down the street was the exposure to Central and Eastern European foodstuffs. And it turns out that pilsners are a Central European foodstuff. Specifically pilsners were born in Bohemia (in the modern Czech Republic) and then spread all over Central Europe.
They were the all the rage in the 1840s. Pilsners were the newest development in the evolution of lager beers. The term lager, meaning storage in German, refers to storing the beer for a few weeks in a cool dry place. Typically they were stored in caves until the advent of refrigeration in the 19th Century. It was the first golden beer, earlier beers being dark brown and sometimes black… reflecting their early ale lineage. The light gold, clear beer was an indicator of progress to brewers and drinkers alike.
So there I was… 19th century cutting edge culinary adventures ended up being an exotic lure for me. Bitburger Pilsner to be exact. Honestly, I liked it but didn’t love it. While they do produce a good tasty product over the years pilsners fell off my radar of beer and I reverted to bocks, porters, stouts and the occasional ale.
Flash forward to today. In an odd twist of fate, I live about 30 minutes from the 192 year old Bitburger brewery. Bitburger pils (pils is short pilsner), along with various Kölsch varieties are the dominant beers here in the Eifel. Now living in the land of German pils, I have developed a taste for it and I can tell the difference between the different brews. Each region has their own brewery and some are real microbrews, typically called landbiers. One of these landbiers is now my favorite… Eifeler Landbier.
What is a pilsner? To oversimplify: pilsners are bottom fermenting (meaning the yeast which drives the fermentation process live on the bottom of the container) with a relatively long cold ageing process. Usually soft acidic water is used. These characteristics help to keep the beer stable during the beer making process. Over the centuries, there have been variations which all live into today, but wherever you go a pilsner will always be a glass of the first golden beer with a rich history.