Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Visit to Pilsner Urquell

During my recent stay in Prague I made a point of making a journey to the city of Pilsen, in order to re-visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. My previous visit had been back in 1984, as part of a trip to what was then Czechoslovakia. The trip had been organised by CAMRA, and consisted of an overnight stay in Pilsen, with a trip around the brewery the following morning, before moving on to Prague where we spent a further two nights. This was my first and, as events turned out, only trip behind the Iron Curtain, and it proved to be quite an eye-opener.

Twenty-eight years ago the communists were still very much in control, but the in-efficiencies of a "command-economy", together with an overall lack of investment meant that Czech  industry relied heavily on traditional ways of doing things. Nowhere was this more evident than in the country's brewing industry where traditional methods, such as open or horizontal fermenters, lengthy lagering times and even dispense from traditional two-holed casks (by air pressure), ensured a pint that was full-bodied, well-matured, nicely-hopped,  free from excess gas and topped by a thick, creamy head. The Czech lands, and Bohemia in particular, were home to a tradition of brewing excellence that stretched back hundreds of years, and nowhere was this more evident than in the town of Pilsen where in 1842 the world's first golden-coloured, bottom-fermented lager beer was produced.

That original trip round the brewery enabled us to see this tradition, and taste the excellence of the finished product at first hand, so it was with mixed feelings that my son and I boarded the 11.07 train to Pilsen to see how much had changed over the course of the last quarter century or so. I was expecting some changes, especially as Pilsner Urquell is now owned by global giant SAB Miller, and knew, for example that the old system of fermenting the beer in open-top wooden vats and then maturing it deep underground in huge, pitch-lined wooden barrels had long been abandoned in favour of more modern, tall, cylindrical fermenters, but having tried the beer at home from time to time, as well as enjoying it on my more recent visit to Prague, back in late 2010, knew it was still a first class pint.

The train journey took an hour and 45 minutes, during which time we passed through some very pleasant countryside which grew increasingly hilly. The sun that had been shining brightly when we left Prague was replaced by dull-grey leaden skies as we pulled into the industrial city of Pilsen, and after alighting from the train and making our way out of the station we eventually found ourselves at the triumphal-arched entrance to the brewery; a place I had last passed under some 28 years previously.

We quickly found our way to the visitor centre and booked ourselves a couple of places on the next English language tour, commencing at 14.15. This left just enough time for a quick bite to eat, plus, of course a well-earned beer. There is a huge, cavernous restaurant situated in the old cellars underneath the brewery and although the place was heaving, we managed to find a spare table and order ourselves a beer, Pilsner Urquell naturally and un-pasteurised at that. We also ordered some soup and bread each, working on the premise that it was a dish that needed little preparation and would therefore arrive that bit quicker.

Beer, bread and soup weer all good, and duly satisfied we arrived back at the visitor centre in good time for the tour. Unlike some of the groups we saw going round the brewery, our party was relatively small. Our guide was from Seattle, and after a short introductory talk about the company, plus their corporate global owner, we were ushered aboard a bus which took us to the far end of the site where the vast packaging hall is situated. Although all hi-tech and costing millions of Euro's, this part of the trip was the least interesting for me Being a Saturday only one bottling line was operating, and whilst it all looked and sounded very impressive I was glad to get this part of the tour over and out of the way
Back on the bus and we were whisked back to the central part of the site, passing en-route the impressive and attractive water tower, completed in 1905 to ensure a constant supply of clean fresh water to the brewery. The tower was built to resemble a Dutch lighthouse; why Dutch, I'm not exactly sure, but the construction certainly is most pleasing to the eye. A full-on audio-visual presentation about the ingredients used to make beer then followed, after which we were led through an area showing examples of the four ingredients used in brewing, namely water, barley, hops and yeast.This led nicely into the old-brew-house which was still in use up to 2005.  There is nothing quite like a traditional brew-house, especially a European one, resplendent with its gleaming copper mashing vessels and brewing coppers;  all nicely tiled as well. Memories of my first visit came flooding back. The adjoining new brew-house looked equally resplendent, with the mash and lauter tuns once again constructed out of copper, and the wort kettles out of stainless steel. Our guide made great play of the fact that the brewery still uses a triple decoction mash, claiming they are the only large-scale brewery still to do so. I'm not 100% certain of the validity of this statement, but it's good to learn that SAB Miller have not been tempted to cut corners in relation to this.

Our penultimate point of call was the museum section of the brewery where, amongst other exhibits, we were able to see the original, oblong, open copper brew-kettle, used to for the very first brew of Pilsner Urquell. We were also shown a number of large goblets, made out finest Bohemian crystal-cut glass made for visiting dignitaries to the brewery. Foremost amongst these was Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria-Hungary whose territory at the time included what is now the modern day Czech Republic.

Finally came the part we had all been waiting for; a trip down into the old cellars beneath the brewery and a chance to sample the finished product. Our guide warned that it would be chilly, and somewhat damp underground, and also advised us not to touch, or brush up against the cellar walls. This is because they are regularly painted with a lime wash, to discourage mould growth. As we began our descent, we could feel the temperature dropping steadily, until it reached a level of around 5 degrees Celsius. We were told that the cellars were once much more extensive; a fact I already knew from my previous visit. Back then, all the beer was fermented in these underground passages, initially in large, open-top oak vats. followed by a lengthy maturation, or lagering, period in huge oak casks. The latter were coated on the inside with a lining of pitch. Wine can be fermented in direct contact with oak, but beer needs the protection afforded by the pitch lining. Once the maturation was complete,and the finished beer emptied out for kegging or bottling, the casks were brought to the surface for the old lining to be literally burnt out, before being re-coated with fresh pitch ready for the next batch of beer. This process, along with a general overview of  just how traditional things were at Pilsner Urquell back in the 1980's,can be seen on this clip taken from the Beer Hunter series, made for Channel Four by the late and much missed father of  all beer experts, Michael Jackson.

A number of the old oak vats, together with some pitch-lined casks have been kept in use, partly to show visitors  how things used to be done, but also to allow taste-matching to be conducted with brews fermented and matured in the new, hi-tech, stainless steel tanks.This is important to ensure the character of the beer remains un-changed, despite the switch to more modern methods of production, but it also allows guests to actually taste beer produced by the old method for ourselves. We were each given a glass (ok not a glass glass, but a plastic one), of beer drawn direct from one of these huge casks. Not only was the beer un-pasteurised, but it was also un-filtered. It tasted absolutely superb, being extremely well-conditioned and  well-hopped. It was a fitting way to end our visit to this pioneering brewery that is the home of  what is now the most popular style of beer in the world, by far.

Unfortunately our itinerary only allowed for a limited amount of time in Pilsen. I would liked to have visited the Pilsner Brewery Museum  and also sampled the un-filtered Pilsner Urquell again. According to the lady in the brewery shop, the beer was available at a bar called Na Parkanu, close to the museum in the centre of town. Unfortunately we had a train to catch, back to Prague, so a visit there will  have to wait for another day.

All in all though, I am glad we went. They say every serious beer lover should make a visit to Pilsen; I am proud to say I have now made two!