How Pilsner came from Europe to New Zealand

The story of how one of the world's best-known beers originated in one European town.

Us Kiwis love our beer. We guzzle about 64.7 litres per person every year and have been pumping out the amber fluid ever since Captain Cook first cooked up a brew in January 1770 while anchored in Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds.

That was about 72 years before the poorly served citizens of Plzen in the Czech Republic rebelled against a myriad of crudely concocted home brews to join forces and collectively build a proper brewery.

When King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia founded Pilsen in 1295, he granted the town brewing rights and by 1838 there were around 250 brewing houses. 

While it was possible to get a beer, it wasn’t always possible to get a great beer. One day several of the more enthusiastic brewers in town declared some barrels undrinkable and dumped them out in front of town hall. The brewing households decided to join forces and collectively build a brewery – The Citizen’s Brewery of Plzen.

Visionary Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll was hired to make the beer and combined new techniques with a pale malted barley, local Czech hops, the soft water of Plzen and a lager yeast to produce a new beer. The first batch of beer was produced on 5th October 1842. Tasting the first sips of the golden beer - that was the world’s first golden lager – refreshing in taste with a hint of caramel sweetness and a fragrant, balanced hop bitterness – was a proud moment for the city of Plzen.

It was the genesis of a brewing style that, like Cook, has circumnavigated the world. In the process it has become one the globe’s most popular, dubbing Plzen with the title of inventing the most imitated style of beer in the world. 

The Citizen’s Brewery of Plzen resulted in a state-of-the-art brewery and 174 years later that draught is still brewed today in the same brewery to the same formula using the same Saaz hops from Bohemia and Czech, the same Czech barley from Moravia, the same soft water of Plzen and the same strain of yeast. It’s Pilsner Urquell which means ancient source. 

Here in New Zealand, we were the second country in the world to have Pilsner Urquell cold-shipped from the Czech Republic, stabilised at between 10 and 12 degrees over the 18,000-kilometre journey to keep it fresh.

Pilsner Urquell ambassador Dave Holan comments, “Cold shipping is what makes Pilsner Urquell so special. High temperatures affect the taste profile of the beer, and the journey to New Zealand from the Czech Republic crosses the tropics. Cold shipping means that hop bitterness and malty sweetness are kept in balance. It’s the final step in our chain of care from brewery to Kiwi beer drinkers.”

And while we are enjoying the privilege of tasting the world’s original pilsner, some of New Zealand’s most prominent craft beer exponents are putting their own twist on the pilsner style, relying on the Czech original to taste-test their brews. 

Tuatara Brewery chief executive Richard Shirtcliffe says the Czech brew has been a founding influence for him and the brand’s pioneer Carl Vasta. “Pilsner Urquell is one of the leading light pilsners that got us engaged in creating great beers," he says.

Epic Brewing Company’s Luke Nicholas says his Epic Lager and Epic Awakening Pils have taken inspiration from the pilsner style.

“I can appreciate the style and Pilsner Urquell as a beer,” says Nicholas. He explains how craft beer drinkers are into discovering many different, new beers and might not yet have made it to Pilsners, but “when they get to that place I'm sure they will find that the Pilsner style is going to be one of their go-to beers.”

Pilsner Urquell brewmaster Robert Lobovsky (based in the Czech Republic) adds “We’re always proud to see another pilsner born into the world – we love seeing new twists on what we began.”

“We’re passionate believers in craft. Not just our brewers, but the coopers who make our barrels and even supporting local craftsmen. There’s nothing we enjoy more than the craft of beer – sharing our knowledge with other brewers. Or working with bartenders to help raise the craft of serving beer. Or educating beer drinkers so they have a better experience. We support anything that raises the profile of beer.”