It might seem strange to think that the Pilsner Urquell brewery still has a working cooperage. Many businesses as large as this might see it as an unnecessary expense. But the reason this cooperage still exists, which produces everything from oak barrels for fermentation in the cellars beneath the brewery, to the ornamental hand-engraved tankards you find in the gift shop, is simple – because it always has.
The cooperage, which now resides in a former water pumping station just behind the main brewery building in Pilsen, has been producing wooden barrels for the storage, fermentation, transportation and dispense of Pilsner for over 170 years. Once upon a time there were well over 100 coopers employed by Pilsner Urquell to manufacture these barrels. Now there are just eight, and although some of their tools have become modernised, much of this work is still carried out by hand.
These days the cooperage still turns out the large barrels used to ferment and store beer, although this makes up a miniscule portion of the breweries actual output. But the existence of these barrels is vital. In 1992 when the brewery moved from fermenting and lagering its beer in wooden tanks to stainless steel, it continued to produce a small amount of beer that had been fermented and stored in wood. This essential practice is to ensure that today’s Pilsner tastes as good as it always has done and will continue to do so.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit the brewery and tour the cellars, or attend one of its special events where a wooden barrel full of this unfiltered, or nefiltrovaný pilsner is tapped, then you’ll know just how special it tastes. It might also give you some understanding of why Pilsner Urquell still treasures its cooperage, and the skilled craftsmen it employs to work there.
When I arrive at the cooperage on my tour of the brewery, the coopers are all hard at work producing these small wooden barrels, which began to be replaced commercially by steel kegs in the 1960’s. Large windows let in plenty of light as the coopers work in the open plan facility. Staves of wood are expertly being curved and sanded down and the metal rings that hold them together are being skillfully hammered into shape.
I’m introduced to Jiri Fiala, one of the head coopers. With his long moustache and large, calloused hands, Jiri could be a craftsman right out of the history books. Jiri is one of the more specialised coopers at the brewery though. His particular set of skills are tuned to creating the finely carved emblems and livery that adorn Pilsner Urquell’s barrels, as well as the ornamental wooden goblets and mugs that are sold in the tourist centre. Each of his creations is adorned with a metal crest baring his name, so you can be certain of owning a particular piece of his artful work.
“For anyone born in Pilsen working for the brewery is a life mission, it’s not just a job.” Pilsner Urquell Head Cooper, Jiri Fiala
Jiri doesn’t speak much English, but thankfully Pilsner Urquell’s resident beer master Robert Lobovsky is on hand to translate from Czech for me, as I ask a few questions. My first question was to ask why he chose to become a Cooper, and his answer was refreshingly simple; “Because I love to work with wood.” He tells me how he first came to work in the cooperage when he was 23 years old. After his first five years he left to pursue a career elsewhere but the lure of the cooperage was too great and eventually Jiri returned to Pilsner Urquell, where he has now worked for a total of 18 years.
I asked Jiri what it meant to him to work for the brewery. “It’s a good feeling,” he says. “For anyone born in Pilsen working for the brewery is a life mission, it’s not just a job.” He’s far more interested in showing me his work than talking about it though and he’s quick to pull out the his latest set of hand engraved tankards that he had recently finished varnishing. There is an obvious pride in his craft, as his face beams with a grin big enough to be visible beneath his equally large moustache when we compliment his work.
He then picks up a disused stave from a barrel to show me its underside. The barrels are lined with a thick, black pitch that, once dry, creates a barrier between the wood and the beer, so that one does not impart any flavour to the other. It can be all too easy to take for granted how important the work of coopers was before stainless steel revolutionised the transport, storage and fermentation of beer. Thanks to the hard work of people like Jiri this work will continue to be remembered and respected for a many years to come.