In the period around WW I, Pilsner Urquell still had many 1800s production characteristics.
This article c. 1910 from the American Society of Brewing Technology (see extract below, via HathiTrust) enumerates a number of these, chosen no doubt to contrast with American practice at large breweries.
While the key elements of the palate were Moravian barley malt and Saaz hops, the high quality of which were recognized internationally at an early date, many points of the process contributed to the final palate.
The article mentions:
- use of open coolers vs. a refrigeration system to chill hot wort
- fermentation in small vessels, below grade in sandstone caverns
- lagering, also underground, in wood vessels for three to four months
- re-pitching of lagering casks after each emptying (I discussed the contribution of the incense-like pitch earlier)
- shipment primarily in “packages”, meaning here wood casks
- a small bottling output, pasteurized, for export to South America and Asia
- filtration of product for “Europe”, which I think meant outside Bohemia (almost certainly unpasteurized)
- beer krausened for “export”, perhaps meaning the U.S., Britain, and certain overseas markets, probably to ensure sufficient carbonation over the longer shipment period.
Numerous elements are not mentioned, notably decoction mashing, the relatively high final gravity of Urquell, influence of the soft Pilsen water, and details of its malting practice.
All these qualities meant for a full-flavoured, creamy, and fairly bitter drink, certainly on draft, the major way Urquell was delivered to market then.
Ever fewer American breweries were to follow such pattern. Rather, shortened lagering, injected carbonation, continued use of grain adjunct, closed fermenters, and use of metal or glass for lagering were to spell the future of American beer.
Urquell today, in contrast to 1910, uses no wood in any part of the process, and no pitch; the draft is pasteurized everywhere except for small amounts of “tank” beer, and some unfiltered beer sold mainly in Pilsen; fermenting is in enclosed cylindricals; and lagering rarely goes past five weeks.
Yet it’s still a very good beer. Was it better in 1910 when it attracted the attention of at least one master of prose style in America?