The Beauty of Pilsner Malt
by Beau Forbes, Midwest Account Executive, Advanced Cicerone and Certified Bourbon Steward
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there are objectively beautiful things out there in the world. When the sky is grey and the weather is gloomy, when challenge rears its head, when things take a turn for the worse, it seems that nothing will ever be good and no experience will ever be enjoyable. Why even hope for better, when things seem sad and grim now?
But that’s not true.
There are BEAUTIFUL things out there. Items to be found and held that are objectively gorgeous and taste wonderful. Fresh fish making elegant sushi, or a dry aged cowboy cut Tomahawk steak with *just* the right amount of sear. Sweet corn fresh off the stalk and boiled right away in salted water, creating the perfect contrast between salty and sweet. Beauty is real in the world of food and beverage and it can be directly experienced.
There is one experience that can be readily had, all over the world, that stands above the rest. A fresh and cool pilsner beer on a hot day, made with nothing but water, hops, malt, and yeast, can turn sadness to laughter and frowns to smiles. Glorious and golden, few things are as capable of bringing joy to any occasion as a well-made pils, using thoughtfully grown pilsner-malt. Accept no substitutes!
Ode To Pilsner
Pilsner is made today in virtually every nation on earth, by nearly every people on earth. The creation of pilsner is well trod ground by now, and a rarity in that we know the exact person who created the style. Josef Groll was so loathsome his own father called him ‘The Rudest Man In Bavaria’. But this supremely unlikable man created one of the most adored foodstuffs in all of history. Maybe it was because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, but his signature creation of Czech style lager is THE definition of beer for most people all over the world.
While the creation of pils is the convergence of several serendipitous factors, the focus on high-quality and pale-colored malt is arguably the most important. Thanks to advances in technology made by the English, pale malt finally emerged into the world in the 1800’s. To a people who were tired of every beer having an acridic smoky reek, it was a godsend. “There is not, in all the common arts of life, any that requires so nice a caution as the making of malt.”
The English had gotten VERY good at this by the 1800’s, with the rest of Europe playing catchup. Nonetheless, the technology spread to the rest of Europe, making it’s way to Germany and, crucially, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Still, pale malt was not yet widespread. Making pale colored beer required a very serious capital investment that not many breweries were prepared to make.
A Boor of a Bavarian in Bohemia
However by 1838, the condition of the beer in Pilsen in Bohemia was intolerable. The town fathers poured out an entire season’s worth of brewed beer in front of city hall due to terrible taste, and turned to an outsider from Bavaria to turn their beer production around. Josef Groll was hired, in spite of (or perhaps because of) being such a jerk, so that he could make the needed changes to improve the town’s beer. Josef began his legacy-defining project by starting with the ingredients.
Local Bohemian Saaz hops to add balance and aroma, soft local water which gave the finished beer a certain gentle approachability, Bavarian lager yeast, all were employed to create a Bavarian style amber lager. However, the new kilning technology they used produced incredibly pale malt. And the malt used was Hana, a landrace barley from Moravia, which was a generational step up for the quality of world barley. With its soft, sweet flavors and suitability for gentle kilning, the resultant malt created a golden brew with a rocky white head, of such a kind that had never been seen before. In an instant, everything changed.
Today, nearly all pilsner malt grown across the world is descended from Hana, or is at least inspired by it’s unmistakable character. And w hat c haracter! Depending upon how it is used it can create creamy, malty Czech style pilsners like Urquell, bitter and crisp german style pilsners like Bitburger, all the way to slightly sweet American style pilsner. Today all these malts desceneded from Hana are generally known under the family name of ‘Pilsner’ malts, and they are usually the highest quality barley a maltster provides.
Modern Pilsner Malt
So what does the landscape for modern day Pilsner malt look like? It is varied and dense, with plentiful options from all across the world. For an American brewer, some of these options will be familiar, and some will be a bit of a surprise.
German Pilsner Malt – IREKS Pilsner
The Standard, German Pilsner malt is generally considered the baseline for what a pilsner malt should be. Learning from the Czechs, in time the Germans began making all their beers with high-quality and pale-colored malt, creating beer so popular that their signature style of pilsner is seen as the best in the world. IREKS Pilsner is a true German pilsner malt with a full malty flavor supported by honey.
One fun and surprising fact about many ‘German’ pilsner malts, is that they were actually grown in whole or in part in France! France is the #3 location for barley cultivation in Europe, with Germany only producing an additional 400,000 tons or so, with Russia being the largest producer.
North American Pilsner Malt – Prairie Pilsner
The first attempts at growing European style-barley in the North American continent were not terribly successful, and six-row barley became the most successful type on the continent. This set of circumstances led to the eventual creation of American-style Pilsner to compensate for 6-Row’s astringent husk, with liberal applications of corn or rice to dilute the protein.
In time, successful 2 Row barley breeding programs led to what is now a burgeoning craft pilsner movement in the United States. While some of these brewers are still doggedly using German-malted pilsner, most have switched over to domestically grown grain. Prairie Pils has a crisp, crackery character that readily lends itself to Pilsner, whether American style or German.
British Pilsner Malt – Pauls Lager
Pilsner isn’t something that usually get associated with the British Isles, but in the UK they were making pale colored malt before anybody else, so it makes sense. Paul’s Lager Malt was a favorite out of the Prairie Malt Sensory Program, and would go well towards making virtually any beer style.
Belgian Pilsner Malt - Belgomalt Pilsen
Of course Belgium has its own very long history with pilsner, with Stella Artois being a global brand and pilsner being the most-consumed style in the country. Prairie Belgomalt Pils is full of lush and dominant notes of honey, as it gives off a terrific and inviting sweetness. While Belgomalt Pils is certainly a great choice for trappiest style beers and wits, it is fantastic making clean and delicious Pils.