Pilsner Urquell, that ubiquitous, golden and caramel hued lager beer, that’s poured the world over. With its delicate balance of oily, herbal tones from Czech Saaz hops, creamy, butterscotch flavoured body and crisp, bitter finish, it’s one of the easiest beers in the world to enjoy.
Since 1842, Pilsner has been produced in Pilsen, Czech Republic, in what is now known as the the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery. The beauty of Pilsner is its simplicity. It’s a beer that softly commands you to take another sip, and in turn order another pint. However there’s much more to this disarmingly simple beer than meets the eye. It has a story that’s been told a thousand times but is always worth telling again.
At Total Ales we’ve teamed up with Pilsner Urquell to tell you Pilsner’s story in our own way – through the people that work hard to make it. But as we’ll learn over the next six weeks, the people that work to preserve this beer’s incredible legacy and those that tirelessly pour perfect glasses of Pilsner, each and every time, are every bit as important as the brewers who create it.
Before we meet these hardworking people though, we first need to remind ourselves of this beer’s remarkable history and there’s no better way to do that than by telling you about the city where it all began. Pilsen, or Plzeň as it’s spelled in Czech, lies about 60 miles to the southwest of Prague and takes about an hour to reach by either road or rail. This modestly sized city has a population of just over 160,000 people and even more so than in most Czech towns, beer is the cornerstone of its culture.
There’s been a settlement where Pilsen exists now for many hundreds of years, but in 1295 the city was officially established. It wasn’t long before the first mention of a brewery, complete with its own malt house just like Pilsner has today, was etched into the history books in 1307. There eventually came to be over 250 houses with brewing rights in Pilsen. Brewers often shared ingredients and equipment and the beer created was mostly for personal consumption rather than sold on. Much of Pilsen was actually quite wealthy, family houses proudly displayed their crests above the arched doorways at the entrance to their homes. This relative wealth is reflected in the striking architecture that lines the town square.
“This town was born to brew beer and drink beer.” - Pilsner Urquell Beer Master, Robert Lobovsky
In 1839 a dozen of the town’s most prominent citizens announced their decision to unite the brewing houses and began to build a single production brewery. Completed in 1842, the Měšťanský pivovar, as it was then known, was the forerunner to what is today’s Pilsner Urquell brewery. It was in this year that Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll created a bottom fermented, pale lager or ‘světlý ležák’ as it’s known in Czech that would eventually evolve into the beer we know and love today.
Brewing equipment and knowledge may have advanced, but Pilsner Urquell is still brewed to the same recipe today as it was in 1842. In the 9 kilometres of winding tunnels that run beneath the brewery floor, a very small amount of Pilsner is still fermented and aged in oak barrels as it was historically. This is an effort to not just preserve this history, but to provide a grounding point for the people that work hard to produce Pilsner today. This parallel brewing process also aided the transition from wooden tanks, to the steel tanks that are used in the modern brewery.
“This town was born to brew beer and drink beer.” I’m told by Pilsner Urquell’s ‘Beer Master’ Robert Lobovsky as we make our way through old town. We’ve just ascended and descended the 301 steps inside Pilsen Cathedral and despite it being early in the day we’re ready for a beer. So are the people of Pilsner it seems, as there are already plenty of others inside already enjoying their first beer of the day.
Lobovsky heads to the bar and orders us each a snyt, a short pour with more than twice as much tightly packed foam than beer. The tapster, who’s responsibility it is to pour each beer as perfectly as the last, as well as maintain and clean the draught system, ensures to the most minute of details that each pour is the same as the last. “A snyt is a worker’s beer.” Lobovsky informs me. “A tapster should start each shift by pouring one of these to make sure the beer is exactly as it should be.
It’s an attention to detail I wish bar staff in the UK would take would take when pouring beer over here. And as we’ll learn over the next few weeks, Pilsner Urquell are investing in bringing UK servers over to Pilsen in order to learn the art of the tapster. It’s just one of many investments the company are making to ensure it retains its status and identity in a world full of increasingly varied and accomplished beers.
After a few beers we make our way back towards the brewery. The stone arches at the entrance are a welcome sight, and beyond this is a mixture of modern and historic brewing structures. I’ve visited a lot of breweries, and it’s not something I ever tire of, but Plzeňský Prazdroj is one I can’t wait to get inside. Here I am to meet some of the people who are crucial to the production of this beer and the preservation of its legacy – I call them The Pilsner People, and I can’t wait to tell you their story.