How did the burghers of Pilsen come to build their own brewery in 1842, and thus create Pilsner beer, the world’s most popular brewing style?
Perhaps the best explanation of what actually took place is to be found in the brewery’s own fiftieth-anniversary Festschrift, Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892. In it, the burghers describe the events leading up to the creation of what would — much later — come to be known around the world as Pilsner Urquell. Occasionally biased, sometimes even arguably incorrect, the book is about as close as we can get to a contemporary account of the first days of the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen.
The passage on the brewery’s founding begins by noting that
In Pilsen, only top-fermented [“nadkvasné”] beer was brewed until 1842, although already at the beginning of the century, bottom-fermented [“podkvasné”] beer was made elsewhere in Bohemia.
This is not quite right: as mentioned here earlier, Marie Černohorská has written about fifteenth-century bottom-fermented beers and other pre-Pilsner “lager” brewing styles in the Czech lands in the brewing journal Kvasný průmysl, meaning that there were certainly bottom-fermented beers in Bohemia before the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the time of Pilsner Urquell’s founding, however, it seems that bottom fermentation had largely died out here, just as top fermentation would then quite swiftly go extinct in the wake of industrial lager, disappearing over the course of less than forty years.
Bottom-fermented beer, otherwise generally called “Bavarian beer,” because it first spread in Bavaria, slowly pushed back top-fermenting beer, and everywhere people tried to rearrange breweries for bottom fermentation. By the year 1841, already one-tenth of all breweries in Bohemia brewed bottom-fermenting beer, which over four decades then entirely took over and pushed back the top-fermented product.
According to the “Nový Poupě” of 1880, a Czech brewing handbook based on František Ondřej Poupě’s watershed brewing manual from 1794, Bohemia still had 137 top-fermenting breweries in 1870, though only two remained by 1876. Similar accounts appeared in the New York Times in 1876, as discussed here in 2008.
Most importantly, this passage gives the lie to the notion that bottom fermentation was unknown in Bohemia when Pilsner Urquell first fired its kettles in 1842.
This victorious march, which bottom-fermenting beer started in the late thirties, around all European beer-producing countries, was not missed by the observation of the Pilsen burghers, but the inclination towards old habits and the very primitive equipment of Pilsen breweries, on one hand, and also the satisfying influence on the selling price of beer remaining at the same level and untouched by any competition, proved to be a very strong obstacle, which up until then blocked the entry of bottom-fermenting beers to brewing in Pilsen.
Everywhere else they were adapting to the new way of brewing beer, by which they were accommodating the requests of the citizenry. Only in Pilsen did everything remain in the old manner. This circumstance, which was joined by the worsening quality of many Pilsen brewers, caused that there were foreign beers imported into Pilsen, largely from surrounding noblemen’s breweries, and here, being sold for a cheap price, were ousting the local product.
Weak sales were often the reason that top-fermented Pilsen beer, stored in many different Pilsen taproom buildings, went bad and had to be destroyed.
This idea of the “worsening quality” of Pilsen’s own beer, or that of beer going bad comes up several times, here and in other accounts of the founding of Pilsner Urquell.
This passage, however, is one of the only places where a further argument is made: that a chief culprit was the excessive price of local beer, which caused slow sales, which in turn caused the town’s beer to go bad — an argument that is backed up by numerous references to high prices in the brewery’s founding document, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brew-house” of 1839.
To say nothing of the growing preference at the time for bottom-fermented, so-called “Bavarian” beer, if Pilsen’s local drink hadn’t been much more expensive than imports, Pilsner Urquell might never have been founded.
It is then quite easy to understand that this was the way that the formerly thriving brewing business in Pilsen was deteriorating, and by this deterioration the income from brewing rights was also falling. As a result of this situation, bitter dissatisfaction rose among the burghers with brewing rights, and it was generally concluded the opinion that a repair must be done if the brewing rights of Pilsen citizens — which for centuries had created a rich source of income — should not be infringed so much that their income would be damaged for entire decades, or perhaps even forever.
There was a good deal of bitter dissatisfaction among Pilsen’s citizens at the time, as we’ll see in the “Request,” which notes that “the burghers who held brewing rights lived in constant unrest and tension with the town’s brewers and maltsters.”
The beer calamity which started falling on the interested parties kept growing, and it so happened that in February of 1838, the offices saw themselves forced to pour out in the square in front of the town hall 36 barrels of beer that were said to be unfit for use and dangerous for health.
This caused a new deliberation about the then-current defects which were possible to be repaired only through speedy and radical help.
In the tavern U Zlatého Orla, whose owner Václav Mirwald was at the time the innkeeper, a daily meeting took place of a group of important citizens, who often discussed the construction of a Pilsen brewery and advised each other of the steps that were necessary to take so that the repairs would be done and the badly threatened interests of the brewing-right citizenry returned to their original validity.
This is not the only text which notes Václav Mirwald’s singular importance in creating the brewery: the town chronicle Kniha pamětní král. krajského města Plzně od roku 775 až 1870, published in 1883, notes that “the greatest credit for the founding of the brewery should go to Václav Mirwald.” It is easy to understand Mr. Mirwald’s interest, as he was in the rare position to profit two times on a single serving of beer. As a právovárečník, or brewing-rights holder, Mr. Mirwald earned money no matter where the town’s beer was sold, just like any other burgher with brewing rights. And as an innkeeper, Mr. Mirwald made a couple of crowns on every pint he himself sold in his pub, one of the most popular establishments in town.
Gifted with healthy reason, the innkeeper Václav Mirwald took part at these lively meetings, and usually finished his judgments on this subject by stating:
“We need good and cheap beer, the brewing-right citizens must itself build a brewery for themselves, which is then equipped in the Bavarian manner, and by themselves brew beer with a Bavarian brewmaster.”
Again, the importance is placed not just on the quality of the beer, but on its price. An alternate account in Kniha pamětní král. krajského města Plzně od roku 775 až 1870 notes that Václav Mirwald “finished each opportunity to speak with the declaration ‘We must have good and cheap beer!'”
I have heard it implied more than once that the burghers of Pilsen took advantage of the original brewmaster from Bavaria, Josef Groll, hiring him to set up the brewery and then sending him away once they had acquired his Bavarian beer-making mojo. (It was more than just Mr. Groll: Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892 notes that the original head brewer, his assistant brewer and the brewery’s chief cooper all came from Bavaria.) This is incorrect: according to Plzeňský Prazdroj, pivo z Měšťanského pivovaru v Plzni, a brewery brochure from 1907, all of the brewmasters at Pilsner Urquell until the year 1900 — Josef Groll from Vilshofen as brewmaster from 1842–1845, Sebastian Baumgärtner from Sankt Salvator from 1845–1850, Jakub Blöchl from Wolfstein from 1850–1879 and Josef Binder from Kreuzberg as brewmaster from 1879–1900 — all came from Bavaria.
It was not until 1900 that the brewery hired its first non-Bavarian brewmaster, Adolf Bayer, who came from Dobřany, a town 9 miles (14 kilometers) south of Pilsen.
This opinion of Mirwald’s gained ground, not just among the majority of the brewing-rights committee, but also among the majority of his fellow citizens, and the first step to the realization of Mirwald’s ideas was that the brewing-rights committee sent deputies from among the burghers, Messrs. Václav Mirwald, František Bretschneider, Josef Jan Klotz, Václav Starý and Jakub Michel to the current imperial mayor, Martin Kopecký, bringing first the complaint against the sale of foreign beer in Pilsen, and furthermore heard the advice of this dignitary regarding the device of the burghers‘ brewery.
Martin Kopecký was a man of progress, responsible in every respect for the general blossoming of Pilsen. What a wonder, then, that his advice was always heard with trust, each time when it was about solving the questions of public importance.
Regarding foreign beer, the mayor said that this could not be undone by ban, because each innkeeper in the town could buy beer according to his judgment from any brewer he preferred, even from foreign ones. On the other hand, this enlightened man was inclined to the view that the brewing-right citizenry should build its own brewery, because — as he reminded them — only with healthy and good beer would it be possible to beat the foreign competition, and also achieve rich sales outside of Pilsen.
This is probably influenced by the view of an immensely successful brewery in 1892. As we’ll see, there is only the slightest hint of the possibility of selling beer outside of Pilsen in the founding document of 1839, which places much more importance simply on keeping the burghers’ market in their hometown.
At the same time, in the case that the brewing-right citizenry decided to realize this idea, the mayor promised to extend his useful assistance to accomplish this goal.
When the burghers who were sent to the mayor were accommodated so positively, the committee of the brewing-right citizenry started the needed preparatory works with pleasure, in order to win over their fellow citizens to the idea of building their own brewery.
And on January 2, 1839, the committee of Pilsen burghers with brewing rights issued an appeal to their fellow citizens.