My first beer: Pilsner Urquell and the challenges of green bottles

The first time I drank beer, it was from a green bottle.

It was Rolling Rock, so you’ll have to forgive me this one. I was a late bloomer to beer, thanks to a high-school dedication to being straight-edge, and so even the cheap stuff was new and exotic. I still remember the taste - carbonated funk, like a mix between the recycling bin at a fraternity and the expression of a woodland creature’s warning glands.

A skunk, that is. As in: that beer was skunked, yo.

"This is normal!" I thought, because I was a dumb kid who assumed this was normal. It wasn’t. But I wouldn’t realize it until I ran into my first favorite beer - on tap, no less - at the Tavern on Germain in St. Cloud.

Pilsner Urquell.

In the early 2000s, there was little in the way of craft beer on tap in a college town like St. Cloud - maybe some Summit, if we were lucky, but mostly the traditional mass-produced pale stuff. Yet, here, in this tavern that already stood out against the backdrop of college dance bars and television-ladened sports bars - sat a constant keg of foreign gold.

It was delicious to me. It’s what introduced me to the complexity of beer. And, more than anything, it taught me about the curse of the green bottle. Because the beer I later purchased to drink at home - from a six-pack full of green bottled beers - was only faintly reminiscent of what I had just poured from my pint glass at the Tavern.

With this, I was introduced to the effects of clear and green bottles on beer - the allowance of UV light, the degradation of flavor, the introduction to what we call “skunkiness” - but those effects aren’t usually so cut and dry. Green bottled beers don’t necessarily equate skunkiness - in fact, I now realize that the reason for the skunked taste in the two previous examples was as much time and fluctuating conditions as it was the green bottle.

Time and fluctuating conditions are the two things that Pilsner Urquell has a hard time controlling. The issue, in this case, isn’t the bottle. It’s the distance. Pilsner Urquell comes from a long long way away - Czech Republic, home of my wife’s ancestors and home to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Prague.

Though you’ll never be able to pronounce it correctly without spending a few weeks in the Czech Republic, the pilsner we all know and love originated in the town of Plzeň, a location that not only stumps the tongue, but also forces us to find the “alternate characters” option for our keyboards. It was from here that the European pilsner got its foothold, and it was from here that Pilsner Urquell sprouted into a multi-national brewery with ties to giant conglomerates.

Pilsner Urquell is different from most giant breweries, however, in that it values some elements of tradition over the capitalistic trend toward accessibility and corner-cutting. They didn’t see the green bottles as a problem - they saw the method of shipment as a problem. So they kept the bottles and improved the packaging.

For this reason, Pilsner Urquell has dipped its toes into the “container wars” that beers like Miller Lite continue to wage against their foes. The difference, of course, is that Pilsner Urquell’s changes - cold shipping its beer and hiding its bottles from light during the entire trip from Europe - actually improve the taste of the beer. There’s no vortex neck or vent hole here. Just protection.

A lot of things have changed for Pilsner Urquell over the past few years. They’ve become a big name. They’ve adapted their brewing process. They have done everything they can to rid their beer of skunk - even going as far as replacing some of their hops with hop extract.

But to me, as a person who isn’t old enough to have experienced Pilsner Urquell at its peak, the beer is a lovely elixer of golden goodness - a beer that doesn’t wow in the minds of fancier craft beer connoisseurs, but in my mind is the perfect embodiment of what a European lager should taste like. It’s one part the collaboration of centuries of brewers, one part deep and important European history and one part subtle skunk. Most of all, it’s one part nostalgia for the bars of St. Cloud.