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History of the Bohemian Golden Lager

Beer has been part of the history and heritage of the Czech Republic which is the home of the first golden lager, the original Bohemian Pilsner, for many centuries. The story of the famous Pilsner is rooted in the long Czech history of brewing beer, the natural resources of its soft water and hops cultivation, and a relentless drive for making great beer.

Glass of Pilsner Urquell
Glass of Pilsner Urquell
It was in 1842, after many failures, the little town of Plzeň finally produced its first success—one of the first golden lagers in existence that would become known around the world, after its home town.

History of Beer Making in the Ancient Czech Lands

The Czech lands are the three historical regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. Since 1993, these three regions have formed the Czech Republic.

Czech republic showing the borders of its historical lands
Czech republic showing the borders of its historical lands

The brewing of beer in the ancient Czech lands has a long history. The Slavs who inhabited the land were known to be cultivators and beer brewers.

The Czech lands have had a long history of agriculture due to its fertile soil which supports many top quality cereals, including wheat and barley which are the fundamental ingredients for making beer.

Bludov known as a medieval farming village in Moravia by Tomáš Kelar
Bludov known as a medieval farming village in Moravia by Tomáš Kelar
The land of Moravia is a fertile plain that includes the Haná region, an agricultural lowland with many rivers. The Haná region is known for its barley and its malt has played an important part in the history of brewing in the Czech lands. Many of today's best barley variety cultivated for brewing around the world, including those for the pilsner malt are considered to be the genetic descendants of the old Haná barley.

Hops are also known to have been grown in this region before the 10th century.

The Influence of Monasteries

Beer has been brewed at the monasteries in Europe for many centuries. In the Czech lands, monasteries have also played an important part in the history of its beer, as unlike commercial breweries, they have had the freedom to operate without the distraction of politics and European wars.

Strahov and Břevnov are two of the most well known monastic breweries in the city of Prague.

Břevnov monastery
Břevnov monastery
The first mention of brewing beer in Bohemia is in the year 993, when a bishop from Prague, Vojtěch, referred to as St. Adalbert of Prague, built a Benedictine monastery in Břevnov, a district in the west of Prague. The Břevnovský Benedict beer brewed by Břevnovský klášterní pivovar in Prague starting from 2011 is a reestablishment of the old Břevnov monastery brewery.

The Strahov Monastery was founded by King Vladislav II in 1142 and the first documentation on the brewery comes from the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Brewing Right and the Foundation of the Royal Town of Plzeň

For a long period in the Middle Ages, brewing was outlawed or banned by the church for the general public in the Czech lands. It was only brewed by the monasteries and a few noble and wealthy families who had special permission or brewing right from the king. The ban on brewing was lifted by Pope Innocent IV at the urging of the King Wenceslas II towards the end of the 13th century.

Main square of Plzeň
Main square of Plzeň
In 1295, King Wenceslaus II granted Plzeň its civic charter as a 'Royal Town' and any resident in the town could legally produce beer.

Brewing Disputes between Towns and the Nobles

In the Middle Ages, brewing beer was under the control of the towns with each assigned its own business jurisdiction called 'Mílové Právo'. In Bohemia, the first legal standards were applied in the 13th century and the towns had the exclusive right and the control of beer production.

The production of beer was a lucrative business and this caused dissension between the nobles and the towns at the turn of fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many of the nobles during this period began conducting business in areas that infringed upon earlier town privileges.

The Treaty of Saint Wenceslas established in 1517, revoked the exclusive brewing right of the towns in exchange for the nobility recognizing the towns' privileges of jurisdiction.

An Important Czech Brewer

One of the most important personalities in the history of Czech beer is František Ondřej Poupě who was born in 1753, in Šternberk, located in the Central Bohemian Region.

František Ondřej Poupě
František Ondřej Poupě
Having worked as a brewer for many years, he used his knowledge to improve beer production methods and towards the end of the 18th century authored several papers describing the beer production process. In 1801, he published the first Czech textbook on brewing.

Birth of the Bohemian Golden Lager

In the early part of the 19th century the Czech beer industry faced several difficult moments. The poor quality of the beer combined with some tavern owners charging higher prices than others resulted in fewer beer being sold, increasing the storage period, hence turning it sour. The wealthy townspeople, so called burghers, who had the brewing right in the towns also noticed the threat of cheaper imported beers to their beer monopoly.

In 1838, a momentous event occurred in the town of Plzeň (Pilsen), where 36 barrels of bad beer were smashed and emptied into the street. A committee of important brewers decided that the solution was to build one new brewery to be run by the town. In January 1839 a plan was agreed and the foundation was laid for a new brewery, called the 'Burghers’ Brewery'.

Josef Groll
Josef Groll
During this period most of the Bohemian beer produced was top-fermented ales. The founders of Burghers’ Brewery were looking for a new approach and therefore hired Josef Groll, a visionary brew-master from Bavaria.

Josef Groll introduced new methods to produce pale malted barley, using local Czech hops, the soft water of Plzeň and bottom-fermenting yeast to create a new lager.

Pilsner Urquell bottles
Pilsner Urquell bottles
The first batch of lager beer at the Burgher's Brewery in Plzeň was brewed on 5th October 1842 and was first drunk in the town, on 11th November—it was fresh, clear and refreshing with a hint of caramel sweetness from the malt and an aromatic, balanced hop bitterness—it was the birth of the Bohemian golden lager, known today as Pilsner Urquell.

Pilsner Urquell brewery
Pilsner Urquell brewery
In 1898, the Burghers’ Brewery created its German trademark Urquell and Czech trademark Prazdroj and labeled its beer Pilsner Urquell, which means 'the original source of Pilsner' or in Czech, Plzeňský Prazdroj.

Pilsner Urquell the world's first golden lager is known for its distinct flavor from the soft Plzeň water, and the noble Saaz hops which is the German name of the Czech town Žatec, famous for its long history of growing hops.


References

Bohemia: An Historical Sketch by Francis Lützow (hrabě)

A history of Austro-Hungary, from the earliest time to the year 1889 by Louis Leger

Pilsner Urquell history document

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