Draught Diversions: Book Review – Pilsner by Tom Acitelli

Name: Pilsner: How the Beer of Kings Changed the World
Author: Tom Acitelli | Twitter
Publication Date: August 2020
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Acitelli_Pilsner

Publisher’s Landing Page for the book: Chicago Review Press

A book for both the beer geek and the foodie seeking a better understanding of modern food and drink.

On the night of April 17, 1945, Allied planes dropped more than a hundred bombs on the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, destroying much of the birthplace of pilsner, the world’s most popular beer style and the bestselling alcoholic beverage of all time. Still, workers at the brewery would rally so they could have beer to toast their American, Canadian, and British liberators the following month. It was another twist in pilsner’s remarkable story, one that started in a supernova of technological, political, and demographic shifts in the mid-1800s and that continues to unfold today anywhere alcohol is sold. Tom Acitelli’s Pilsner: How the Beer of Kings Changed the World tells that story, shattering myths about pilsner’s very birth and about its immediate parentage. A character-driven narrative that shows how pilsner influenced everything from modern-day advertising and marketing to immigration to today’s craft beer movement.

Pilsner, the most ubiquitous beer style in the world and perhaps the most maligned style in the world. For me, when a Pilsner is made well with the right ingredients…I don’t know that there’s any beer I like more than a cold, freshly made, freshly poured pilsner. In this fine book from Tom Acitelli, the style is given a historical perspective through a fascinating narrative weaving a story of the beer style, its place in the world, and America specifically, rather than a regurgitation of facts.

The “story” begins with beer before Pilsner was born, because in many ways, the beer was a reaction to much of the beer in Germany and the Bohemian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Acitelli charts some of the German breweries and styles like brewery Spaten brewery, the Vienna Lager, as well as the dark lagers that all predate Pilsner and eventually led to the style’s creation. I’m a big reader of Fantasy and the way in which Acitelli writes of the “pre-history” of Pilsner felt near mythic in nature, not unlike some of the mythic backstory of some of the Fantasy novels I’ve read. In other words, his mythologizing approach to telling the beer’s story clicked very strongly with my personal reading sensibilities.

The burghers (high profile citizens) of Pilsen wanted to have their own beer, they didn’t want to have to go to more Germanic regions for lager. As a result, they came together to build a brewery and hired a brewer to create a lager that was unheard of at the time: a clear, yellow, clean lager. That beer, of course, came to be known as Pilsner and would have a ripple affect like a boulder being dropped in a small pond

From there, the beer (or an interpretation of the style) was adopted as the flagship by breweries that would become the largest breweries in the world: Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, Pabst, and Miller. Acitelli weaves the history of these breweries into a fascinating narrative, how Anheuser Busch came to call their beer Budweiser, the familial history behind the Heinekin brewery, the legacy of Pabst’s early prominence as an American Lager brewery. While many of the beers from those breweries now are distinct from what Pilser actually is, there’s no doubt Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Champagne of Beers would not exist if it weren’t for Pilsner beer and the large contingent of German immigrants in the United States.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the book (I originally wrote “novel” because the book reads like a story), is how Acitelli demythologizes some elements of the history. For example, since Pilsner was created in the region of Bohemia that is now the Czech Republic the beer has often been considered a Czech invention. As such, many breweries would refer to their interpretation of Pilsner as “Bohemian Lager.” Well, that Pilsner is a Czech invention is only partially true. Sure, regionally that may be the case, but at the time, that region was largely populated by people of Germanic heritage and the man who created the beer, Bavarian Josef Groll, himself was German.

From the early days of those “American Adjunct Lager” breweries, through the days of Prohibition, Acitelli tells a fascinating story of the Beer of Kings. He then shifts his pen slightly to focus on Pilsner’s affect on advertising, especially Television advertising, through to the development of Light (or Lite) beer and its saturation of the market in the 1970s and 1980s. Much like Pilsner was a reaction to the earlier lagers from Germany, the author notes how the American Craft Beer movement of the 1980s and 1990s and IPAs were most definitely a reaction to how flavorless the Americanized Pilsner had become. He further charts the more recent embracement of the Pilsner and Lager style in general by the smaller, Independent American Craft breweries.

Pilsner+Peitsche
A delicious Pilsner and a great book about the style

I initially heard about this book on the Steal This Beer Podcast hosted by Augie Carton and John Holl, both of whom have championed the style on episodes of their podcast. Augie’s Carton Brewing cans a few really tasty pilsners, as have many of the smaller breweries in my home State of New Jersey. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give them a shout out because reading this book about Pilsner made me want to enjoy a few pours. An inexhaustive list of great New Jersey pilsners, according to the Tasting Faculty of the Rob Bedford Institute of Beer at The Tap Takeover University follows: Whip and Peitsche from Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands), Rewal from Jersey Cyclone Brewing (Somerset), Parking Lot Pilz from Hackensack Brewing (Hackensack), Morning Breeze from Untied Brewing (New Providence), Pound of Feathers from Icarus Brewing (Lakewood), Lawn Boi from Tonewood Brewing (Oaklyn), Jersey Dreamin’ from Ashton Brewing (Middlesex), Czechs and Balances from Man Skirt Brewing (Hackettstown), Pilsner from Double Nickel Brewing (Pennsauken), Ramstein Imperial Pilsner from Ramstein/High Point Brewing Company (Butler), plus from neighboring Pennsylvania, I have to mention Victory’s Prima Pils and Tröegs’s Sunshine Pilsner.

In the end, Tom Acitelli has told an extremely fascinating story about the most popular style of beer in the world and reveals things about the style that add even more to the beer’s allure. This book is a must read and should reside on the shelf of any beer drinker.

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