We’ve already learned about how important history is at the Pilsner Urquell brewery when we took a tour of its archives. We saw that history in action when we visited its working cooperage. And in stark contrast to that, we saw the modern technology that’s used to ensure that the Pilsner malt the brewery produces is made to exacting specifications each and every time.
Now we enter the brewhouse to meet Brewmaster Jiri Fusek, who is charged with the arduous task of overseeing the brewing process at Pilsner Urquell. Pilsner is one of the most popular beers in the Czech Republic, let alone the rest of the world, so you can be sure that the Czech’s would be the first to complain if the beer that landed in their glass was anything less than perfect. So how does someone like Jiri cope with that kind of pressure?
“It’s not a job, it’s a habit!” Laughs Jiri. “I started this job because I love beer, I love Czech people and I love making them beer.” I met Jiri in the cellars that sit below the main brewing facility in Pilsen. There are nine kilometres worth of tunnels here, that run beneath the modern buildings that make up the Pilsner Urquell complex. These cold, damp and twisting corridors were once used to store the barrels that were historically used for the fermentation, conditioning and storage of Pilsner.
These days most of the tunnels are empty, but eventually we reach a room that contains a handful of tall, stout barrels full of fermenting beer. The foam or “krausen” that sits atop the fermenting beer and is created by the active yeast is made visible by standing on a platform opposite. Here a tiny amount of Pilsner is made in the traditional way, fermented and stored in the oak barrels still made here at the brewery’s cooperage.
This beer is not brewed for public consumption, although you might have been lucky enough to try some unfiltered or nefiltrovany Pilsner at one of Pilsner Urquell’s occasional barrel tapping events. Today we were lucky enough to try it straight from a conditioning barrel in the cellar, served unfiltered so it pours hazy instead of bright and golden as you would usually expect. It’s softer that the usual Pilsner, with a gentle carbonation and a flavour that seems to be intensified by the presence of live yeast. It’s not a beer for everyday drinking, but it is a very special treat.
The reason they still make a small amount of Pilsner this way is simple, because they always have. Once a month, former brewmasters and brewery employees will gather in the cellars to taste the beer and compare it to the Pilsner that’s being produced in the modern facility above. As Pilsner has been brewed to the same recipe for 174 years, it’s imperative that it meets the impeccable standards of the people who have been drinking it for the longest amount of time.
"I love Czech people and I love making them beer." Pilsner Urquell Brewmaster, Jiri Fusek
The modern brewing facility that’s used today is as striking as it is sleek, a polar opposite to the crumbling cellars below. It is almost cathedral-like in size and feel, a modern, opulent temple of brewing. It’s quite simply, breathtaking. There are actually two brewing facilities in this building. The former, smaller one is no longer in use, but its bright, copper vessels remain as polished as the day they were installed. It remains here as a museum piece so that visitors to the brewery can see it up close.
The current vessels are more than twice the size of these previous ones and Jiri and his team are able to brew multiple batches of Pilsner Urquell simultaneously using its famous triple decoction brewing process. Most modern brewers use a brewing process known as “infusion mashing”, where grains are steeped in hot water to extract the fermentable sugars before being boiled with hops to impart bitterness and flavour.
Decoction mashing involves the transfer of the steeped malt from the mash tun to be boiled in the kettle and then back to the mash tun, raising its temperature slightly. This is a single decoction, and as the name suggests, the process of making Pilsner Urquell involves this being repeated three times. Historically, this process was used by Czech brewers to ensure that the starch in the malt was successfully converted to sugar for fermentation. This method has since become a fundamental part of Czech brewing.
The effect of decoction mashing is twofold. Each decoction results in some the sugars from the grain becoming caramelized. The first effect of this is that it imparts the beer with a sweet flavour not dissimilar to butterscotch. The counter to the bitterness imparted by the Czech Saaz hops used in the boil. The second is that this caramelization gives the beer its characteristic golden hue.
Jiri has worked in the brewing industry for over 20 years, starting as a trainee and working his way up the chain, from technologist to fermentation specialist, right the way to becoming Brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell. Eventually he answers my question about whether this responsibility ever makes him feel under pressure. “ I became Brewmaster because I wanted to do something for the people and this job means I am.” He laughs again. “It means I do my best for the Czech people and all of Czech culture. I don’t feel under pressure – this is my job!”