Pilsner is the world's most popular beer, by miles and miles. It's made in every country where beer is allowed, and owns something like--just spitballing now--90%+ of the total world production. It's almost never the case that we can trace some seismic event back to a single place and know the single moment, but with pilsner's birth, we can. No doubt everyone in blogland knows the story, but here's a few sentences to set the stage.
Back in the late 1830s, the beer in Pilsen (about sixty miles southwest of Prague) was bad. So bad, in fact, that in 1838, local officials rounded up 36 barrels of the stuff and dumped it. For the most part, Czechs made ales then, but they were aware of lagers and wanted some of their own. Local burghers--citizens with special rights to brew--decided to take action. They hired a local architect and sent him off to Munich to learn about how lager breweries were built, because they aimed to step up their game and make it as well as the Bavarians. To make sure the beer was properly made, they even hired a Bavarian brewer to make the beer. As a final touch, they built a kiln at the brewery "equipped in the English manner" that could produce pale malts.
The rest is history. That brewer, Josef Groll, brewed his beer on October 5, 1842, and it was released on November 11. (We even know the date!) The first truly pale lager was born, and the revolution was under way.
The brewery itself should be considered a world heritage site--at least to those of us who value such things--and is one of the prettiest breweries on the planet. The last time I traveled through the Czech Republic, I didn't really blog about it. (Budvar got a better account.) So when Mark Dredge sent me an email about a month ago asking if I'd like to go tour it again--on Pilsner Urquell's dime--what do you think I told him? It gave me another chance to give a proper account of it, one I wasn't going to miss.
It sometimes happens that a beer has such dominion over a style that subsequent examples are a half-step back from the original. Eventually, the original can start to seem slightly out of step with what is "typical." It's the case with dark, spicy Schneider Weisse, and it's the case with Pilsner Urquell.
Compared to other světlý ležáks, Pilsner is an odd duck. It's roughly a 12-degree beer, but comes in at just 4.4% alcohol. Yet it's also quite hoppy, with IBUs in the upper 30s. It's got a caramelly backdrop and comes, at least in Czech, with a two-inch pile of snowy foam. The most curious thing, though, is that dollop of diacetyl in the middle that is key to the beer's character. For contrast, Budvar is 5%, but only has 22 IBUs--and no diacetyl. This odd balance point--lots of residual sugar, lots of hops--makes for a rich, full-flavored beer. That diacetyl center adds a sensual creaminess that makes it such an easy drinker. It's altogether an unusual beer, even for the Czech Republic. As I sampled my way around, I found that dryness was by far more characteristic of the pale lagers there--indeed, I think of dryness as being a hallmark of that type. But not for Pilsner Urquell.
If you arrive in town by train, as I did on my first visit, you can be fooled into thinking Plzeň (let's go with Pilsen henceforth, shall we?) is a tiny town. In fact, it sprawls out distantly beyond the town square and has 170,000 people. But the inner core is compact and contained, and you can walk from the train station to downtown in ten minutes. The two central landmarks are the spires of St. Bartholomew Cathedral, begun at the end of the 13th century, and the minaret-like water tower at Pilsner Urquell--and they seem to wave at each other from across the Radbuza river. (I'm not totally up on my religious history--with the Prague twice serving as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and also the earliest Protestant rebellion, it's rich--but Pilsen is known as a Catholic town. You see crucifixes in the brewhouse.) It's a great town for strolling, and beer geeks might find themselves drawn again and again from the town square back to the brewery.
Pilsner Urquell rests on a plot of land that stretches for acres. Bound by buildings and gates, it forms a cloistered, spacious campus, with different functions located distant enough from one another that the guides whisk tourists around on buses. The brewhouse is at the center of the action, both physically and psychically. Once, rail cars came right into the center of the campus, and you follow the tracks from the visitor's center toward the brewhouse building like it's a trail.
If you take the public tour, they walk you through the process and ingredients before you arrive at the active brewhouse. I'll skip most of that except for offering a couple notes. One of the coolest things on the tour is the original kettle used by Josef Groll, which was twice hidden by burial during wars to protect it from pillaging. In the photo of it, you may apprehend for the first time why it must have been so hard to make delicate, pale lagers. Look at that thing. Leaving aside the rivets and seams, look at how wide and flat it is. If fire was underneath that whole thing, it must have gotten heavily caramelized. (I don't doubt that some of the 19th century batches were probably sublime, but let's dispense with the romance of age: beer now has got to be miles better than it ever was when brewers had to work with such crude, imprecise equipment.)
Pilsner Urquell still decocts their beer three times and uses open flames to fire the kettle and mash cookers. As I understand it, most Czech breweries now use single or double decoction. And for good reason. We know so much more about malting now that there's no reason to use such a laborious process. It's expensive, time-consuming, and except for subtle effects on the beer, mostly unnecessary for most breweries.
Nevertheless, the brewery's Robert Lobovsky says triple decoction is still critical to the profile of Pilsner Urquell. "We need to do triple decoction for two reasons. One, to get the golden color out, and then to get the caramelization to take place." He added this fascinating tidbit. "They've got the copper chains inside--you saw them in the old brewhouse when you looked in--and they [scrape] them on the bottom, so when you're 700 degrees from your heat, you're scraping up the caramelization so you don't burn the sugar." (If he means celsius--sorry, I didn't clarify!--that's 1300 degrees F.)
One of the more amazing things about the brewhouses is that there are actually two, side by side. The old one is no longer in service, but the brewery keeps it polished and in perfect shape. They currently produce about 2 million hectoliters, and could expand capacity up to three million if they brought the old brewhouse back on line (a real possibility). Both are gorgeous, but the older one is, purely from aesthetics, the prettier of the two. I've toured dozens of old breweries, and few have a brewhouse as beguiling as the old one at Pilsner Urquell.
|The new brewhouse.|
|The old brewhouse|
Pilsner Urquell has a fully modern building for fermenting and conditioning their beer, but no one ever cares about seeing it. The place to go is down, to the mostly-obsolete cellars that honeycomb the earth underneath the brewery. A hundred years ago, Pilsner Urquell was brewing a million hectoliters of beer, and it all needed to sit for weeks in wooden casks to ripen. At one time, there were over five miles of cellars devoted to the purpose. It was an amazing operation, with coopers and cellarman rolling gigantic barrels in and out while other wooden giants sat silently, burping slowly as their worty bellies turned to rough beer and rough beer turned to liquid gold.
The cellars alone weren't cold enough to keep the beer at the right temperature, so the brewery used a form of crude refrigeration. They filled up these enormous caves with ice, and circulated air over them and throughout the cellars. (It's icy down there today, but they use modern cooling, not ice.) When you visit now, you can still see the high-ceilinged rooms with apertures at the top where ice came in. Elsewhere, walls are painted white in lime to retard the growth of mold (it works, too--the place doesn't smell musty), and everything is damp and moist. The cellars are like a labyrinth, and it wouldn't take a lot to get lost if you wandered off in the wrong direction.
For most people, this is the pièce de résistance, not least because the tour ends with a sample of beer from the wood. There are a number of ways in which that tipple delivers something different than the beer made 150 years ago. Changes in agriculture have brought improvements to barley and hops, and the brewhouse enjoys the benefit of modern technology. (The yeast, though, which was first tested by a lab in the 1870s, is the same.) It's easy enough to fool yourself when you see that fresh, foamy beer cascade from the barrel, though. Many people claim moments of transcendence when they taste that beer, but I think it's mostly due to the transporting experience they've just enjoyed. (I prefer a fresh pint of unfiltered at a pub, personally.) But I'm not going to argue with them.
This time around, rather than descend into a reverie about what the beer might have been like, my mind turned to the remarkable way it has more or less stayed the same. There are older breweries in the world, and perhaps a few older beers. But Pilsner Urquell has been making just one beer at that site since it was ruled by the Austrian empire. Over 17 decades, it has continued to make just a single beer, the same beer (more or less), as world events have crashed across the country like a wrecking ball. The Czech lands became independent, then suffered under the oppression of two terrible empires, but all the while, Pilsner Urquell continued to make that beer.
It's a remarkable tale of continuity and even more remarkable to experience first-hand. Beer lovers should put the Czech Republic at or near the top of their wish list (it's as cool as Belgium, honestly), and if you have the good fortune to go, definitely stop in and see this brewery.