Grab your favourite beer steins, folks! We’re heading to the source for a pilsener.
To many a beer drinker, the city of Plzeň (Pilsen) is virtually synonymous with its storied brewery and famous beer style. But beer in this western Bohemian town wasn’t always the kind of liquid sustenance that inspired pilgrimages.
Rewind to the early nineteenth century, a time when the good citizens of Pilsen were brewing anything but good beer. The brew had gotten so foul, in fact, that city councilors publicly dumped out thirty-six barrels of it in the town square in 1838. Quelle horreur! So intense was the humiliation that some of the burghers who owned brewing rights banded together to found the Měšťanský Pivovar (Civic Brewery), precursor to what is now Pilsener Urquell. They would soon turn their reputation around.
To the south and to the west of Pilsen, the Viennese brewer Anton Dreher and his Bavarian companion Gabriel Sedlmayr (of Spaten fame) had made significant strides in developing a bottom-fermented and lagered beer that held up admirably over time. Other Bavarian brewers embraced these technological advances, and it wasn’t long before word about these beers spread well beyond Bavaria and the capital of the Habsburg Empire. Enter Martin Stelzer, head of Pilsen’s Civic Brewery, who journeyed to Bavaria in 1842 to interview the son of one of these successful brewers. Invited to Pilsen on a three-year contract, the 29-year-old Josef Groll fired up the brewhouse on 5 October 1842, beginning work on a beer that would revolutionize the entire concept of the beverage –– but not, according to rumour, before he convinced a Bavarian monk to smuggle the all-important Bavarian yeast into Bohemia (Weyermann, 2009, 12; Ensminger, 1997).
It wasn’t just the yeast and the local Saaz hops that were to shine in this new beer. Groll’s central innovation was on the malting floor, where he embraced a relatively new technology from England patented by Daniel Wheeler in 1817. Previously, malt had been kilned directly over smoky fires, but Groll astutely recognized the potential of this novel kilning method to yield a cleaner and lighter-hued malt.
A month after mashing and boiling his first batch, Groll unveiled the first-ever golden-coloured sparkling beer. The suds that flowed forth on 11 November 1842 looked and tasted mighty fine, immediately captivating the beer-drinking public in Pilsen and garnering further European attention during the Paris World Exposition in 1867.
Alas, Groll passed away unaware of his contribution to brewing history. He didn’t stay long in Pilsen, returning in 1845 to his native village of Vilshofen, where he inherited his father’s brewery. He expired in relative obscurity at the ripe old age of 74 in his favourite tavern, the Wolferstetter Keller, tankard in hand (Weyermann, 2009, 13).
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Pilsen today is a vibrant industrial city where the kolaches are fine and the city square magnificent. Set amidst the Baroque and Renaissance facades, the Gothic spires of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral rise 102 meters above the city. Those who venture up the tower are rewarded with vistas in the direction of the Great Synagogue (the world’s third-largest Jewish temple) and the Skoda works to the west, and the sprawling Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsener Urquell) brewery to the east.
Pilsener Urquell is, indeed, one large concern, owned until 2016 by SABMiller before being spun off to Asahi as part of the shake-out from the AB-InBev merger with SABMiller. Pilsen’s Brewery Museum is affiliated with Pilsener Urquell, as are a number of restaurants and taverns in the center of town. Not that Pilsener Urquell is in any way bad –– far from it –– but the company’s long reach means that you’ll have to look a bit harder for liquid sustenance that isn’t part of the Pilsener Urquell portfolio of brands.
Beyond Pilsener Urquell
A growing number of brewers and taproom proprietors supportive of artisanal/craft beer have responded to Pilsener Urquell’s dominant presence, with one taproom owner, Jaroslav Jakeś, going so far as to open up shop in the shadow of the Brewery Museum. During an enjoyable evening at his Na Čepu taproom, Jakeś explained that he aimed to convince his fellow Pilseners that there’s more to beer than Pilsener Urquell. It’s an uphill battle, but he seems to have struck a chord with his lively taproom. Along with characterful takes on Czech classics, we tried a white IPA and a stout from Pivovar Raven, a Pilsen brewery that is creating quite a stir in Bohemia and beyond. (For more on the bottle of stout I brought back to Vienna with me, see A World of Stouts for Your Weekend.) We also had a polotmarý from Pivovar U Lenocha, another local David taking on Goliath. Polotmarý is a fine example of what happens when intrepid homebrewers and craft brewers pick up on a tavern favourite: a half-and-half mix of a light-coloured and a dark-coloured lager. The result is a rich, caramel-toasty amber beer that includes a mix of some or all of the following ingredients: pilsener malt, Vienna malt, Munich malt, a caramel malt like CaraAmber, and (usually) Saaz hops.
U Pašáka is another place to sample the non-Pilsener Urquell wares of the city. Their beers hew fairly close to tradition (unfiltered lagers and amber lagers), but they’re well-crafted and the food is a nice change of pace from the heavy (but tasty!) fare you’re likely to encounter at many other taverns in Pilsen. Their farmers’ board came with crackling spread spiked with onion, paté with cranberry confit, and head cheese marinated with peppercorns – the perfect accompaniment to their beers.Last but not least, there’s Pivovar Groll, a brewery named in honour of the hero of Pilsen’s beer narrative. Though the name pays homage to a beer legend, the beer that we sampled on that cold December night was far from legendary. Try it, though. Maybe they’ll have sorted out some of their issues by the time you visit.
… And Back to the Source
It’s an interesting state of affairs that’s brewing in Pilsen. People like Jakeś are getting an impressive artisanal/craft beer scene off the ground, and it’ll likely be all the more vibrant by the time you visit. For many non-European beer travelers, though, Pilsen is a destination precisely because of its historically significant brewery. To be sure, Pilsener Urquell was already a highly industrialized operation by the latter half of the nineteenth century, with an annual output of 221,720 hectoliters by 1878. But it has maintained a reputation for brewing flavourful lagers without recourse to cost-cutting ingredients, even as other brewers of Pilsen-influenced beers drove their recipes into Blandsville. Pilsener Urquell remains tasty enough, its open-fermented and cask-aged version even more so.
So down that IPA and let’s head over to this fabled brewery for a visit. (After all, we’re here on a beer pilgrimage.) As for the brewery tour, it presents a fairly standard origin story of beer, offers up plenty of cool copper kettles, and shows off the always-fascinating bottling lines. But beyond the slick multi-media presentation lies something deeper. Literally.
As the lights dim on the last of the surround-sound shows detailing the ingredients that go into your beer, the tour guide swings open a door that leads down to a different century. Film noir meets Stieglitz-inspired black-and-white photos of glistening cobblestones in this byzantine network of lagering cellars sunk in 1839. Here among the row upon row of barrels you’ll see the tools of the trade employed by the hewers of ice who kept the cellars cold. You’ll also get to taste a Pilsener Urquell brewed the old-fashioned way: open-fermented in oak vats and lagered in casks. When Pilsener Urquell switched over to stainless steel fermentation in 1992, they claimed that they had managed to preserve the traditional character of the beer (Ensminger, 1997). Maybe it was the magic of the surroundings, or maybe it was the über-freshness of the beer I was drinking straight from the cask, but I enjoyed that glass of Pilsener Urquell more than any other pint I had while in Bohemia.
You can take my word for it that the beer tastes better straight from the cask, or you can find out for yourself. I recommend the latter.
Brewery Museum, Veleslavínova 6, 30114 Plzeň. See their website for opening hours and rates. Tucked into a 15th century brewing house, the museum traces the history of beer in the city and region with ample displays and informative wall texts. All roads lead to Pilsener Urquell, but to the brewery’s credit, the connection is understated. I’m slowly working on a piece on beer and brewing museums in Europe, so I’ll say more there.
Na Čepu, Veleslavínova 57/8, 30100 Plzeň
U Pašáka, Poděbradova 12, 30100 Plzeň 3
Brewery Museum (visited 29 December 2015). General brewing history of the region and information/stats specific to Pilsener Urquell.
Sabine Weyermann, “On the Trail of Josef Groll: Rediscovering Authentic Bohemian Malt and Beer,” Scandinavian Brewers’ Review, Vol.66, No. 6 (2009). Given her name, it’s hardly surprising that Weyermann delves into the maltier aspects of Groll’s contribution to brewing history.
Peter A. Ensminger, “The History and Methods of Pilsner Urquell: Divining the Source of the World’s Most Imitated Beer,” Brewing Techniques (May/August 1997), provides a comprehensive account of the history of Pilsen’s famous beer.
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Images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.