Tweet 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.
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