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A Pivo Pilgrimage to Pilsen

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.

About That Beer We Call Pilsener

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.

Addresses:

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

Sources:

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.

Related Tempest articles:

Pictures at a Czech Beer Exhibition: Pilsen, Budweis, Český Krumlov

Beer Travel off the Beaten Track: Austria’s Innviertel

O’ zapft is! Oktoberfest 2016

Vienna, City of Beer Gardens

Images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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A World of Stouts for Your Weekend

The Lucky Seven Selection

Blame Guinness for declaring St. Patrick’s Weekend. Not that I’m complaining. Stouts of all stripes are among my favourite beers, after all. Guinness has also given me an excuse to bundle my occasional Saturday Six-Pack Series together with the commemoration of a saint who drove snakes out of a country that has never seen a snake. IMG_6648We’ll leave that to naturalists and hagiographers to debate while we tuck into a few stout beers.

Stouts, though. Not exactly a clear-cut style. Case in point: the marked proliferation of sub-styles in the 2015 edition of the BJCP Style Guidelines compared with the 2008 edition –– proof positive that style categories are anything but static. And then we have all those legends worthy of St. Patrick, guaranteed to keep self-styled beer historians debating till the wee hours. Though I’m not (yet) what I’d call a historian of beer, I know enough about the shifting sands of beer styles to say that you’re not alone if you’ve ever confused a porter with a stout. And don’t even get started with Russian Stouts. Or do. Interesting stories of icy sea journeys and opulent courts abound, along with no shortage of confusion over nomenclature. For now, I’m content to let the legends be. If nothing else, the heated debates and sedulous myth-busting make for entertaining reading.

Fine-grained differences between stouts and the family resemblance with porters aside, just what is it about stouts that keep us coming back for more, century after century? It’s worth quoting Ray Daniels, one of the more lucid writers on homebrewing caught up in an alliterative moment:

Perhaps it is the blinding blackness of the brew as it sits in the glass – a sort of barroom black hole so intense that it might absorb everything around it.

He continues:

Those who finish their first glass often become converts, swearing allegiance and setting off on a sybaritic search for the perfect pint.

Twenty years after Daniels wrote those words, our love affair with stouts shows no sign of abating. Bourbon County Brand Stout, anyone? Or how about Dark Lord Day – which, incidentally, has its very own website?

***

For this edition of your “Lucky Seven” Saturday Six-Pack, I’m going to leave the emerald isles to their celebrations and sample what lies beyond the traditional Anglo-Irish homeland of stouts. Much as I love plenty of American stouts, enough has been written about these justifiably sought-after beers, so I’ll save a sixer of those for another day.

Regardless of which version of the history of the style you read, one element of the story stands out in all versions: Stout is an eminently international beverage, with examples from just about every continent. The stouts I talk about below are, for the most part, available in any well-stocked North American bottle shop. As for the Austrian and Czech examples? Whether you live in Los Angeles or Latvia, you’ll need to get a little closer to the source. Never a bad thing, exploring new beer regions.

***

Rasputin (Brouwerij de Molen, Netherlands). Why not start off with a beer that tips its hat to that infamous lover of the Russian Queen? The lightest-hued stout in this mixed pack, Rasputin is no black knight, but also no lightweight at 23º Plato and 10.4% alcohol. Translation: plenty of malt, and more than enough octane to go the distance.Brouwerij de Molen website (03-bierografiebanner) And like any wise master of intrigue, it hides its claws. Cocoa-dusted ganache, dark cherry, chocolate milk, and plenty of rich Ovaltine-like malt herald a palate of bitter black coffee, prune, and earthy-anise licorice. Café au lait and bourbon vanilla bean linger in the background of this medicinally bitter beer. The beer was bottled in August 2015 and carries a balsy best-by date of 2040, so I’d suggest giving this beer a few years to round out. Brouwerij de Molen has created a tidy little niche for itself with its big beers. You can also check out my extended review of their Hel & Verdoemenis Imperial Stout.

Espresso Stout (Hitachino Nest, Japan). You may be familiar with the little red owl adorning Hitachino Nest’s beer labels, but what you might not know is that this spectacularly successful brand started as a side-project of a saké kura in the Tohoku region of Japan.IMG_6654 Kiuchi Brewery knows a thing or two about the art of fermentation, and it shows in their beers. Even if the Espresso Stout’s coffee notes are a touch too “jalapeno green” for my taste, it nonetheless delivers a satisfying cup of espresso spiked with dark chocolate, mocha, and chocolate liqueur. Black cherry and prune lurk in the depths, and an earthy herbal-spiciness evoking sassafras lends intrigue to this export-strength stout (7% ABV).

Morrigan Dry Stout (Pivovar Raven, Plzeň, Czech Republic). A stout isn’t the first beer you’d expect to come across in the town where a particularly ubiquitous beer style was born. Echoing the understated brewing tradition of western Bohemia, Raven’s Morrigan is the kind of stout that doesn’t rely on barrels or tonnes of malt to win over its admirers. As impenetrable as the Bohemian Forest at night, Morrigan offers up dark notes of earthy cocoa powder and an ever-so-slight smokiness from the roasted malts.IMG_6464 Mocha and dark cherry brighten up the beer’s countenance, with café au lait and a touch of milk caramel adding a suggestion of sweetness to this elegantly austere, tautly balanced dry stout. One Tankard.

Imperial Stout, (Nøgne Ø, Norway). Nøgne Ø prides itself on its uncompromising approach to quality, an approach reflected not only in its beers. The brewery’s name pays homage to the famous Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, who used the poetic term, “naked island,” to describe “the stark, barren, outcroppings that are visible in the rough seas off Norway’s southern coast.” Nøgne Ø’s rich and unctuous imperial stout forms the perfect antipode to images of steel-hued coastlines ravaged by waves. Lyric aromas of espresso, prune, molasses, dark bread, vanilla, cookie dough, walnut, and a touch of salted caramel cascade forth from this jet-black beer –– a dreamy complexity that retains its harmoniousness throughout. Chocolate notes take center stage on the moderately sweet and rounded palate. Cocoa-dusted prune mingles with milk chocolate-coated pecans; baking spice hop notes intertwine with artisanal dark bread and a smooth, understated bitterness. Note: This example was bottled in October 2012 and consumed in March 2016. File under cellar-worthy, and take Nøgne Ø’s advice regarding serving temperature (12ºC). Two Tankards.

Lion Stout (The Ceylon Brewery, Carlsberg Group, Sri Lanka). Formerly grouped under the Foreign Extra Stout category in the BJCP Style Guidelines, Tropical Stout is now a category of its own (16C, for anyone interested). If you’re new to the style, expect a sweet, fruity stout with a smooth roast character –– somewhere between a stepped-up milk stout and a restrained imperial stout. Opaque ruby-violet black with a brooding brown foam cap concealing 8.8 percent of alcohol, Lion Stout is not for the faint of heart. Fruit aromas of currants, burnt raisin, and prune combine with a vinous character not unlike a tart-cherry Chianti. Underneath it all lurks a smoky-roasty bass note that keeps company with licorice, acidic dark chocolate, and mocha. The dark chocolate and vinous acidity carries over onto the palate, balanced by creamy mocha and velvety alcohol. Rum-soaked cherries strike a pose with earthy licorice, while mild notes of roast-smoke intertwine with cocoa-dusted milk chocolate and dried currants. Surprisingly buoyant for its alcohol and malt heft, this is one dangerously drinkable beer. One Tankard.

Royal Dark (Biermanufaktur Loncium, Austria). What would a “lucky seven 6-pack” of stouts be without an entry from the lands known more for their lagers and wheat beers? Even if Austria isn’t legally bound by the Reinheitsgebot, many Austrian brewers proudly proclaim their allegiance to these strictures governing beer purity.Loncium - Mtn Toast Not a bad thing, but more often than not, adherence to the Reinheitsgebot translates into a limited selection of beer styles in Austria. Up until recently, home-grown stouts and porters were rare birds indeed. Enter Loncium, a pioneering brewery hailing from the southern province of Carinthia noted for its dramatic Alpine scenery. Loncium’s pleasant milk stout features a dusting of cocoa powder, a dollop of caramel, a touch of dark cherry, and a hint of bread crust. Scents of fresh-ground coffee, mocha, and a suggestion of smoke from the roasted malts round out the aromas. Coffee with cream gives way to baking spice and dark berry notes on the palate. Smooth, off-dry, and with the mildest bitterness, you could almost call this beer a café-au-lait stout.

Imperial Stout (Midtfyns Bryghus, Denmark). Overture: Onyx, with tinges of ruby. Waves of malt and a judicious hand with the oak. Act I: Toasted toffee, crème caramel, and smoky dark chocolate opening out onto cookie dough, bourbon vanilla bean, cocoa-spiked molasses, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and Vollkornbrot.Vollkornbrot (www-quora-net) Intermission: Full-bodied and silky –– right on the border between whole milk and light cream. Act II and aria: Black Forest cherry cake and a buttery pecan nuttiness countered by a splash of rum. Curtain call: Off-dry and fruity-jammy, with raisin and juicy prune lingering well into the sunset. Expansive and stellar. Three Tankards.

With that I say cheers! And vive la sybaritic search for la perfect pint of stout!

Further Reading:

Ron Pattinson, “What’s the Difference between Porters and Stouts?All About Beer (August 27, 2015).

Martyn Cornell, “Imperial Stouts: Russian or Irish?” posted on his Zytophile blog (26 June 2011).

Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1996).

For a fleeting hint at the colonial history behind stouts in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Jamaica, see Jenny Pfäfflin, “Chicagoist’s Beer of the Week: Lion Stout,” Chicagoist (July 10, 2015).

Consult the links contained in the text above for more information on the individual breweries.

Images

Brouwerij de Molen banner: http://brouwerijdemolen.nl/beers/

Loncium brewers in the Alps: www.loncium.at

Vollkornbrot: https://www.quora.com/

All other images: F.D. Hofer

Related Tempest Articles

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie, Goose Island, Victory

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Bourbon Squared: Maple-Glazed Pork Belly Meets Barrel-Aged Beer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.