By Brian Peters, Brewer
I blame it all on the Czechs. I’m talking about my obsession with Czech-style Bohemian Pilsners (see Classic Lager Styles). It all started around 1992 when I started homebrewing lagers for the challenge that lager brewing poses. I heard that one of the best lagers in the world was Pilsner Urquell. It quickly became the beer I wanted to emulate at home. At the time, lager-brewing information was hard to find and pilsner tips were even harder to uncover. My early batches were decent, but sorely lacking “Bohemian-ness.”
A trip to the Czech Republic was in order. It was 1993 and the Velvet Revolution was underway. The free market was a new concept and the Czechs were trying to adjust to their new-found freedom. Nightly rates at hotels in Prague varied from $20 to $120 and there was very little difference between the rooms. But the one thing that was cheap everywhere was the pivo (beer). Most bars sold Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen for 50 cents a half-liter. Paying a dollar was being gouged.
Waking up to the sound of beer delivery trucks unloading fresh pilsner was a beautiful way to start the day. Most days, I would start my research early. It would include a few pivos in the sun-drenched Old Town Square. I loved the young American musicians playing guitars and trying their best to be “Bohemian.”
I traveled to Plzen (Pilsen to us Americans) and went straight to the birthplace of all pilsners, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. The tours were given in Czech or German and I spoke neither. My chances of uncovering brewing nuggets took a serious blow with the language barrier. The tour, nonetheless, was spectacular.
The highlight was when our tour guide (a grizzled, old woman wearing a house coat) took us into the caves where the beer fermented. Large wooden vessels holding beer in various stages of fermentation filled the cave as far as I could see. I signaled to our guide that I’d like to look into one of the fermenters and she approved. I went up the hand-built wooden ladder and there I saw what I had been searching for, the meringue-like head of actively-fermenting pilsner.
In 1997, I co-founded Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, Texas, with the goal of producing the best Bohemian-style pilsner outside the Czech Republic. Live Oak Pilz is brewed with Czech malt and hops using a decoction mash and is fermented in shallow open fermenters.
Presently, I’m the brewer at Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que, a brewpub in Austin that pairs Texas-style BBQ with fresh beer. My obsession with pilsners continues but, due to lack of lagering space, I can only brew it a few times a year. My “Hell In Keller,” a German-style pils, has won two medals at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in the kellerbier category (unfiltered lager). I was happy to see a kellerbier category added to GABF because I don’t filter any of my ales or lagers.
My latest interest is in brewing smoked beers. Uncle Billy’s has huge smokers in the kitchen that I can smoke my malt in. I may even experiment with brewing a smoked Pilsner. Don’t be surprised to see it at next year’s GABF.
Visit Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que for more information.