The clean, soft headwaters of the Brandywine…the delicious Franconian Pilsner malt…the elegant whole flower noble hops…and the slow fermentation and cold aging. Without these essential aspects and a lot of attention to detail, there wouldn’t be the Prima Pils perfection we have come to love. Let’s take a look at how Prima was inspired and how and why it has become a gold standard among craft lagers.
As the first apprentice brewer at Baltimore Brewing Company, I was exposed to a lot of German production techniques by owner and Brewmaster, Theo DeGroen. In late December of 1989, the doors opened and the first really great craft Pilsner was released. BBC Pils was eventually renamed DeGroen’s Pils and represented a radical departure from what most advertisers and industrial brewers considered a Pilsner. It was hopped with American Cluster hops for bittering followed by a generous portion of Hallertau and Czech Saaz hops. It was cold fermented, well-aged and served unfiltered. Looking back, it was probably about 40-45 IBU (International Bitterness Units) and had a beautifully clean, crisp and hoppy finish. It was clearly the earliest part of Prima’s heritage. After completing a year-long apprenticeship, I was inspired to travel to Germany to learn more about this age-old trade.
Before I could start at the University of Munich at Weihenstephan, I had to improve my German language skills. During the course of 10 weeks, I studied the language in Karlsruhe and Schwäbisch Hall, two towns in southern Germany, a few hours west of Nuremberg. While in Karlsruhe, I had an epiphany in a new brewpub called “Der Vogelbräu.” Their unfiltered Pils was the hoppiest Pilsner I had ever tasted, edging out the DeGroen’s Pils. The hops were over the top and penetrated every taste bud and olfactory receptor I had. Oftentimes served young, this beer would vary widely in yeastiness, but the hops always came through, perfectly balanced with persistent slight malt sweetness.
Fast forward a few years to early 1996, around the time Victory opened its doors, and Prima Pils was brewed. In April of that same year, the first Prima Pils was released as unfiltered and draught only. It immediately turned some heads among the early adopters of craft beer, gaining some very happy draught accounts. But alas, some of those early supporters did not like the way our beer conditioned in the keg: without the full lab we would eventually have, and the fresher, happier yeast that comes along with brewing more often, we were at the time having Prima continue fermenting in the keg, and therefore becoming over-carbonated. Over-carbonation results in beer that is impossible to pour correctly and we realized we needed to take action to prevent this from happening.
That, along with the plans to bottle Prima, led us to begin filtering Prima in 1997. The benefits were certain: better shelf life, better looking beer, and correct carbonation. But…as we suspected, the beer lost some of its hoppiness. As we began filtering the beer, we needed to add additional hops to get the beer back to where is started hops-wise when it was unfiltered. We found additional Tettnanger hops got us there in a very beautiful way. The basic hopping formula was set: we would use all Noble hops, including Hallertau Mittelfrüh, Spalt, Tettnang and Czech Saaz hops. They are the original native “heirloom” hops from Europe and are known for their elegant aroma as well as their gentle bittering qualities.
Around 2007, we began adding a fifth hop, the Spalt Select. This hop has a similar but more intense aroma than its close relative: Spalt hop. As the craft beer drinker was evolving to higher hopped beers such as IPA, the addition of Spalt Select hops turbo-charged Prima’s aroma and finish.
Victory has always selected the best hops possible for all of our brands, but particularly for the very hop-forward Prima. Starting in 2007, we have been experimenting with different farms, fertilizers, terroirs, picking times, kilning temperatures, as well as the storage conditions of our hops. There are certain fields we get our Tettnang hops from every year. Similarly, in Spalt and in Hallertau, we have learned from our experiences and continuously improve our hop selections. Part of that process is working with farmers and brokers during the harvest, who allow us early access to the best hops.
And so the evolution of Prima continues. As much as we strive for #PilsPerfection, the truth is that no beer is ever perfect. That being said, we can always make it better in terms of aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and of course, shelf life and we are up for that challenge! These are the wonderful tasks that give our brewmasters job security.
*So raise your glasses of Prima and join us in celebrating the best pilsner in the world!