15 Jul 2009


What you will read below is not a serious historical paper, nor does it intend to be. I haven't done any in depth research. Take this as me thinking out loud. Shall you find any bollocks, please let me know, nicely, don't hurt my feelings.

Ron Pattison has started with his series "Summer of Lager". One of the firsts posts he published is called "The Spread of Pale Lager" and is a about how the Bavarian brewers adopted the style of pale lager that had been created in Bohemia in 1842, a process that was much slower than many people believe.

Reading the post reminded me of a question that's been going around my head for quite some time: How and why the pale (pilsner) lager became the dominant style in what is today the Czech Rep., to the point of pretty much driving to extintion all the other styles that had been traditional until then?

One afternoon, while having a few beers, I discussed this with Velký Al (whom I wish the best fortune in his new life in the USA). He told me about his theory: the popularity of the pale lager was because it was escentially a "german" beer, and it became the favourite of the ethnic German community in Bohemia, which also happened to be members of the high and government classes. From there it passed to the rest of the population, who just copied the fashion.

There is some logic in there, but it doesn't quite make it for me and it generates two questions:

1- How "German" was the beer actually?

It's true that Josef Groll was a Bavarian brewer and it's very likely that al least the majority of his employers (the folks who established what was then called Pilsner Burgerbräu or Plzeňský Měšťanský Pivovar, in Czech) were ethnic Germans. The brewing process of decoction mashing, bottom fermentation and secondary fermentation in low temperatures was also the one traditionally used in Bavaria.

The ingredients, however, were all locally sourced and the resulting beer was unlike the ones brewed by the Bavarian breweries. Rich gold and crystal like appearance, instead of a dark beer.

In fact, the document cited by Pattison in the above mentioned article tells us that most of the Bavarian brewers weren't sold on the new project, with many of them refusing to adopt it until the market pretty much forced them to do so. By 1909 the pale lager had a market share of 30%. Not bad, but not very dominant, either. I've got no figures for the period in Bohemia, but I am very sure that they are higher.

Anyway, this doesn't mean much. And it wouldn't have stopped the brewers from Pilsen and the rest of the region from selling their beer as "German" just the same. Which brings me to the second question.

2- How sucessful out of the German community would a product sold as "German" have been in the socio-historical context of the middle of the 19th century?

The first half of the 19th century saw big changes in the Austrian Empire. In Bohemia, the Czech language was not clandestine anymore, something that reinforced the Slavic identity of the people. The Czech speaking middle class and intellectuals were gaining influence in every aspect of the society and little by little things like autonomy or even independence were being discussed. This doesn't mean that there were ethnic conflicts between Germans and Czechs, quite the opposite, both communities seemed to have got along just fine, and their intellectual leaders agreed in their wishes to do away with the Habsburg rule. There was a difference, though, the Germans fancied the idea of being part of a unified German Federation, while the Czechs wanted, if not total autonomy, at least a unified state composed of all the Slavic provinces of the Empire.

The situation reached a peak with the uprisings of 1848, which for a moment seemed that they were going to break the Empire apart. In the end, the rebels were defeated (in the case of Bohemia, partly due to their internal differences). This didn't mean, however, a total victory for the central government. The economy, which wasn't very healthy before the revolts to begin with (one of the causes of the uprisings), was terribly weakened. Vienna was forced to make serious concesions, specially towards Hungary. And, what is even worse, the nationalist ideas could not be erradicated, in fact, they were reinforced. Despite having lost in the battlefield, the Czechs not only could feel proud of their Slavic identity, but they were also free to say it out loud.

So I think it would have been very difficult that, during the years of the "Czech Awakening" (as the period is known), a new product identified with "germanness" would have had the success this beer did, at least not out of the German community that represented only 10% of the population.

Now, let's assume for a moment that what I've written above is not too far off the mark and let's go back to the initial question: How and why did the pale lager became the dominant style?

Its looks were sure a factor. The beer was something completely new and it looked fantastic in the glassware that, thanks to industrialisation, was now affordable for more people. But there has to be something else. A pretty face can't be enough.

Until then, top fermented wheat beers were the most popular, there were also rye and even unhopped brews. Bottom fermented barley beers and some hybrids, though not unknown, were rather marginal, more so perhaps than wheat beers are today.

Can it be that this beers were actually not that good? Or, put it in another way, that people simply liked the new pale lager better?

I'm sure the new beers were easier to drink, and more suitable for "session" drinking. Besides, it's likely that they were more stable and statyed fresh longer than the traditional beers. Two things which any drinker would certainly appreciate and two things that would have been a heaven sent blessing for anyone who made a living out of beer. This would explain why so many brewers, specially the industrial ones, were so enthusiastic in adopting the new style.

In short words, my (not very qualified) conclusion is that the pale lager became so popular because, on the one hand, people liked it more, and on the other, because brewing it was a big advantage both for the breweries and for the pubs that sold it.

I don't know, maybe someday, someone like Ron Pattison or Evan Rail, or any other beer writer with better access to historical records and more will and time to explore them will publish something that will make this piece look stupid or, why not, will more or less confirm it (which would certainly make me very happy).

Whatever the truth might be, it's a pity that these beers have disappeared and that we can't taste them today. The wheat beers that are brewed now follow the Bavarian model, with the exception of the magnificent Staročeské Bilé (Old Czech White (beer)) from Pivovar Hastrman that, at least in name, is the only one identified with the extinguished species.

Na Zdraví!

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  1. I think ethnicity in Bohemia is a massive problem here, and let's take a beer personality as an example - Karl Balling. I have read somewhere that his ancestry was in fact English, he regarded himself as German and yet his children considered themselves Czech. Nothing is really clear cut and simple with the German/Czech thing in Bohemian history.

    Talking with Evan one time he raised an interesting question - would pilsner have become so dominant if it hadn't been for the now affordable glassware, through which you could see this golden goodness? It is certainly an interesting idea and especially given the parallel development and popularity of pale ales in the English speaking world before the coming of lager to Britain and the USA.

    On the German community thing, and I wish I could remember where I read this, but if you took the Sudeten Germans out of the newly created Czechoslovakia (as they expressed their desire to do so under the noble principle of self-determination as put forward by Woodrow Wilson) a large amount of industrial development would have disappeared from the new nation's economy.

  2. I agree with you on both points.

    The ethnic situation was indeed quite complex and I guess it deteriorated after 1848. I can see Czechs and Germans blaming each other for the defeat and the failure to acheive their goals.

    And I think the glassware played a big part, but if the beer hand't had anything else going for it, it wouldn't have got very far, methinks

  3. Unfortunately I don't have any statistics on the colour of Czech beer 1850 to 1950. But, if you look at old adverts and labels, it's clear that there were plenty of amber and dark lagers being brewed. My guess would be that pale lezak only came to dominate the Czech market after WW II.

    I've heard the glassware theory before. It sounds convincing. Except that at the time when glasses replaced pewter pots in London pubs, Mild went from being a pale to a dark beer.

  4. Then it wasn't only pale lagers, but lagers in general that displaced the old top fermented (mostly) wheat beers. Can that be then because of the drinkability and stability issue I mention by the end?

    And now that you mention the colours, you remind me of one thing that sort of nagged me about the spread of pale lager. If its "seethroughness" was due to the characteristics of the water in Pilsen, how did brewers elsewhere managed to imitate it? Did they already have means to alter the chemistry of their waters? I've read about something similar done with the "imitation Burton" in England, I wonder if Czech brewers were doing something similar here. If they bothered to imitate it at all, at least at the beginning.

  5. About the colours. There is a good joke at the beginning of "The Good Soldier Švejk". After he learns about the death of Franz Ferdinand he goes to the pub and orders a black beer because "they are also mourning in Vienna".

    Švejk was an everyday man and the author, Hašek, was a notorious barfly, the pub, U Kalicha (now a bit of a tourist trap), was your average local Prague hospoda at the time. Though it's never mentioned, the scene implies that drinking dark beer wasn't something people would do every day, at least not in a place like U Kalicha. Was the other beer a pale lager? I know it was Velkopopovický, it's mentioned later in the book. Would be nice to know what the brewery was cooking at the time.

  6. I thought that at the time of WW I dark lager was the typical Prague beer.

    The new lager beers would have been more stable, but also would have had a higher CO2 content as a result of the lagering process. I think that helped the spread of all bottom-fermenting beers.

  7. Wildly speculating here, but dark lager might have been the typical Prague beer at the time of WW I if we speak about the city's brewhouses, but what about beerhalls tied or stocking stuff from the already industrialised breweries?

  8. I thought stuff like Branik 12º dark was the typical beer of the large Prague breweries. Somewhere getting its beer from Pilsen would probably have sold pale beer. But what Czechs have told me is that up until the 1950's most pubs sold both pale and dark lagers.

  9. Interesting discussion! Typical prague beer were a dark lager such as the beer at U Fleku today, or the much praised dark Branik or the beer which were brewed at the u Thomas brewery. This was a beer style of its own I think.

    In norwegian newspaper in the late 19th century I have seen ads for "prager" beer while i worked with my thesis in history. Some norwegian breweries produced this beer in the 19th century. They also produced beer labeled Bock, Bayer (bavarian), wienna and Erlanger. In the last decades the pilsner style arrived, and the "Prager" beer was never advertised in norwegian newspaper anymore. I have often wondered what kind of beer this "Prager" beer were. Perhaps is the beer much the same as the beer at U Fleku today. If so it´s to bad the style has disappeared from the norwegian beerscene today ....


  10. Well, this is really great because now I want to know for sure what beers were people drinking in Prague at the time and what the bigger breweries were making. You've convinced me about the colours, but I still need to be sure.

    I've found a book someone gave me years ago called "Ve Stínu Pípy" (In the Shade of the Taps) that seems to be about old Prague hospody, vinárny and kavárny. Maybe I will find some information there, but I guess I will also have to look in other sources.

  11. The undercover patrolman became silent. His gloomy expression improved only upon the arrival of Švejk, who sauntered into the pub and ordered a dark beer.
    “They’re sad in Vienna today,” said Švejk, hoisting his black-colored beer, “and in mourning, too.”

    ". . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek's The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War are available for sale as paperbacks at http://zenny.com.

    We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier ... after all these years."

    More information on the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral.com