Pilgrimage to Plzen

26 Apr 2012 BY Jim Taylor

Image of Pilgrimage to Plzen

For the uninitiated, Plzen (or Pilsen) is a town in the Czech Republic, about an hour’s drive south-west of Prague. And its chief claim to fame is that it is the birth-place of Pilsner Urquell, the world’s first golden lager, and a remarkable beer which is still brewed there and exported around the world.

This great leap forward in beer was made in 1842. Prior to this, the townsfolk of Plzen had been brewing for several centuries, in their own houses, each house getting a turn every few years to brew and sell beer. But the quality had been getting worse and worse, until the townsfolk decided to build a brewery – which they’d all own – and appoint a proper brew-master who knew what he was doing.

So they appointed Josef Groll, who - on taking up his job - did something no-one else had ever done before: he took the pale malt which was being used in England to make pale ales, and the lager yeast which was being used to lager dark beer in the hillsides of southern Germany, and he brought these together, to make what subsequently became known as Pilsner lager. He also did this in Plzen, a town with very pure, soft water.

Now the beer that Josef Groll first made, went on to take the beer world by storm. Pilsner Urquell became the global benchmark and Pilsner became the name given to this style of beer – pale golden beer made with lager yeast. Pilsner now accounts for around 90% of global beer volumes. But in truth, most of the Pilsner lager that is produced around the world falls well short of Pilsner Urquell in quality and taste.

I’ve been drinking Pilsner Urquell for the last 10 years. It is way better than any other Pilsner or lager I’ve ever tasted. It’s a gorgeous beer that is honey-coloured, and is sweet but also with firm hop bitterness. In short, it’s beautifully balanced.   And it’s one of my two beer ‘staples’ that I will always buy in Tesco (the other being Sierra Nevada Pale Ale)

So for ten years, it has been a beer I’ve loved.  And finally today, I got to visit the brewery. I got to walk through the fabled Jubilee Gate.

On this little pilgrimage, the three things that most stood out for me were: the process they still use; the buildings and architecture of the brewery; and – of course – the beer itself.

Process first then … the Pilsner Urquell brewery is breath-taking in its dedication to making the beer in the original way and to the best possible quality. This starts with the water … they draw it up from wells, into a water tower, then filter it; and to ensure the water is pure enough, they have a little tank in the filtration area with trout in it, the idea being that trout are really sensitive to water quality and any signs of ill-health from them is seen as an early-warning system for the water purity.

Then there’s the mashing. The sweetness in the beer comes from a system of decoction mashing, where a portion of the malt barley & warm water mix, is removed from the mash, heated up in copper vats under a gas flame - which caramelises some of the mix - then put back into the mash again. And they do this decoction three times. They first did this in 1842, and guess what? They’re still doing it in exactly the same way, with the same copper vats.

Furthermore, when it comes to fermentation, they put most of the wort in large conical fermenters and conditioners. But they also ferment a portion of it in the old-fashioned way, in huge oak barrels placed in near-freezing conditions within the 9km of cellars that were dug by hand under the brewery by three generations of Plzen town-folk.

The second thing remarkable thing about the brewery is the architecture. The brewery still uses the same buildings it did in 1842; so we’re not talking about modern factory-like buildings here, but rather, huge barn-like buildings that are great architectural achievements in their own right.

Then finally, there is the beer. Whilst filtered Pilsner Urquell is great, the unfiltered beer is sublime.

 I got to try the unfiltered beer whilst touring the cellars, straight out of an oak barrel. It was utterly gorgeous.

But it has to be said that last night I also got to try a fair amount of the beer, in a great little bar that had tanks of the unfiltered beer, and – amazingly - dispatched this beer to the general bar area, but also direct to the tables of customers! Wow. What a great innovation.

So we sat at little tables, and each table had a console and 4-taps sitting in the middle of the table. When you wanted beer, you washed your glass then helped yourself. And the little screen in the central console, kept a tally of how much beer the table had drunk, but also allowed you to search for and play music. It was so cool and much more convenient and fun than having to fight your way through to a bar to get served.

I’ve never seen this ‘help-yourself beer system’ before … I think it’s still brand-new and only found in a few bars in the Czech Republic.

So all in all, I’ve had a great trip to Plzen. And the Czech people know a thing or two about beer. They innovated in 1842 in making fantastic beer; and it seems that in the last couple of years, they’ve innovated again, in how to sell and serve it.