IT WAS A river of beer.
The year was 1838; the place was the city of Plzen, in what was then Bohemia (and what is now Czechia, and what was the Czech Republic just before that). The people of Plzen loved beer, and they were known for their brewing skill. But one day in 1838, beer drinkers in Plzen took barrels of their precious brew and dumped it on the streets, leaving it to course down muddy tracks, pool into gutters, and dribble into nearby rivers and streams like effluvia from some dissatisfied god.
Because it was skunky.
This theatrical moment of customer dissatisfaction was perhaps due to the tendency of some Czech people to be exacting about things in general (see my stepfather, my fiancé, and Kafka, all Czech, for reference), but beer can be volatile and finicky, particularly top-fermented beers, which is what all beers were for eons and eons since the Mesopotamians first decided to drink their bread. In top fermenting, which is how you make “ales,” the beer yeast floats in the foam on top of the beer, doing its job eating sugars and pooping alcohol. Brewing in warm weather can cause bacteria to overrun the yeast floating in the foamy fermentation atop the vat, skunking the beer.
Bottom-fermentation was invented by Bavarians (aka Germans, mostly) in the early 1400s, when they discovered they could brew beer in the summer if they did it in cool, dark caves. The yeast that could function under these conditions tended to float to the bottom of the vat, fermenting the beer from the bottom up. This process is called lagering and results in a cleaner, crisper, clearer beer that shines like liquid gold (and humans always have been drawn to gold). This is the process the city of Plzen began performing in its collective brewery the year after the beer flood.
Lagers, while refreshing, can be a bit one-note (Budweiser, looking at you), but one of the Plzen brewery’s imported beer meisters, a Bavarian named Josef Groll, added some Saaz hops from nearby Zatec and, along with what is said to be Plzen’s superior, soft water (New York bagel bakers, take note), Groll developed the style of beer we today call the “pilsner.”
It was an immediate hit; pilsners are the fun artistic cousins of the lager world: delicate, floral and spicy from the hops (and many beer people will insist that for pilsners, they must be Saaz hops). They also look different in the glass; in Czechia, pilsners are poured with an intentionally thick head of foam, meant to seal in the flavor of the beer once it’s left the cask.
That original Bohemian pilsner from that collective brewery in Plzen was Pilsner Urquell, which you still can purchase to this day, pretty much anywhere you can get Budweiser. But my very favorite local beer — indeed, my favorite American beer — is the Czech-style pilsner from Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery. It gets the Bohemian seal of approval from the fiancé (rarely effusive, he proclaims it “as close as you can get to real Czech beer in this country”), and without fail, when I see this beer on a menu, I order it.
I do hesitate a bit to tell you this, though, lest my swelling army of faithful readers make a run on this beer, resulting in a shortage that can only hurt me when I go to my favorite watering hole and find they’ve run out. I might then have my own customer-satisfaction-related tantrum.