A Pilgrimage to Pilsner Urquell

Pilsner occupies a rather unusual spot in the pantheon of beer styles.  When people first get turned onto craft beer their instinct is to gravitate to something dark or hoppy or fruity.  Lagers are generally none of those things, in fact they are almost the antithesis of what casual observers think craft beer is about, so craft beer newbies are often dismissive of pilsners.  It’s an understandable reaction given the misguided notion that soulless macro lager = pilsner.  Then after years of idolizing IPAs, standing in line for sours, entering but never quite leaving a Trappist Beer phase, a funny thing happens in the cerebral cortex of some beer lovers, an appreciation for lagers emerges.  Ask a brewer their favorite style and you would be surprised how often styles like helles lager and pilsner come up.  When you have this conversation with your favorite brewer don’t be surprised if some variation on the phrase “there’s no place to hide mistakes” comes up somewhere in the conversation.

Lagerland is not monolithic.  Though not the oldest style, helles lagers always seems like the archetypal lager to me.  Vienna lagers and dunkels are a bit old fashioned, like I imagine the Austro-Hungarian empire would be if it were still around today.  Doppelbocks come across as a little heavy handed and plodding, cloying when not done correctly.  If you listen to early Black Sabbath, Type O Negative, or Gregorian chants while enjoying a pint, doppelbocks are probably your lager of choice. Festbiers and märzens can be a real treat, but they always seem a little out of place if there’s not an accordion playing in the background and some roasted pork or grilled sausages in the offing.

Finally we come to pilsners, which I would assert are the rock stars of the lager world.  They feature a distinctive grainy malt profile. It’s permissible to hop them to levels that other lagers can only dream about.  They are usually dry and highly quaffable. If all that isn’t enough, pilsners are unquestionably the most disruptive beer style ever created.  Not long after being introduced in Bohemia, they spread to Bavaria where the concept of a pale lager almost started a brewing civil war. Soon thereafter their popularity spread to America, where pilsner displaced porter as the most popular style.  Over time pilsner, and the copycats it spawned, became popular just about everywhere.  Drawing a parallel to biology I think of pilsners as the most successful invasive species of the beer world.

The history and origins of pilsner are also unusual for the specificity with which they are known. The oft repeated story starts in the city of Pilsen (Plzen in Czech) where in 1838 the citizens became so dissatisfied with the local ale that they rounded up 36 barrels of beer and emptied them on the streets.  Even a Political Science 101 student knows that when people start protesting about alcoholic beverages, you’ve got a serious problem. In response the town fathers built a new brewery and brought in the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll in 1842. Groll combined his experience brewing lagers with recent advances in malting to create the world’s first pale lager.

The Pilsen brewery where everything started became known as Pilsner Urquell and is still brewing pilsner today.   Not just a little beer either, but over 1,000,000 liters every day.  As an unapologetic fan of pilsners how could I go to the Czech Republic without visiting Pilsner Urquell?  What follows are a few things I learned on the tour, a few that I learned later, some photos from the trip, and a few practical tips for anyone who wants to undertake a similar pilgrimage.  If you are more interested in making the best of a visit to Prague, including a longish tangent on tankovna pubs and the pros and cons of ordering different levels of head on your Pilsner Urquell, see my previous post—Pursuing Pivos in Prague.

Pilsner Urquell Brewery

Getting to Pilsen

If like me you find yourself in Prague without access to a car, the first obstacle is to find a way to cover the 60 mile distance between Prague and Pilsen on public transport.  There are a few different ways to do this, but I think the best way is to take the subway to the very last stop on line B, Zlicín, which lies in the far western suburbs of Prague next to a large shopping mall and an Ikea. Upon exiting the subway take a right and look for the RegioJet ticket office, where you can purchase a round trip bus ticket to Pilsen for 200 Czech crowns (about $10).  The bus ride takes about an hour, and leaves at the top of every hour (or at least it did when I visited).  It’s slightly confusing that a company called RegioJet is actually a bus company, but then again the bus is a cut above average and features a stewardess and a beverage service.

The road to Pilsen cuts through the rolling hills southeast of Prague.  Despite the overcast skies and intermittent drizzle, the landscape is a mix of fields and forests which makes for a scenic journey.  When entering Pilsen the bus goes right by the entrance to the brewery, but doesn’t stop.  Instead you’ll need to backtrack about 30 minutes on foot to get from the Pilsen bus depot to the brewery.  Alternatively you could take a cab, or try to figure out the local bus route, but I had sufficient time so I decided to walk.  Though it’s no match for Prague, Pilsen seems a pleasant enough place with an interesting history in its own right.  The walk from the bus station takes you past a rather grand opera house and an art museum, that was displaying a collection of Bob Dylan paintings.  The Czechs have a deep affection for rock/pop music from the west, at least those who lived through the communist years when the authorities did everything they could to suppress it.  Had I known about the Dylan exhibit I would have come earlier, but I have a ticket for the 1 pm tour and need to remain focused.  Not long after you come to the museum you have to cross the Radbuza River (there’s a bridge) and then navigate a busy intersection before reaching the brewery.

When all was said and done it took me a little over 2.5 hours to get from my hotel in Prague to the brewery.  One final note, the tour costs 200 Czech crowns and is given in four languages (Czech, English, German, and Russian).  You’ll want to check ahead and time your arrival for one of the tours in English, given at 1 pm, 2:45 pm and 4:30 pm at the moment .  It’s probably a good idea to buy a ticket in advance online, it’s a long way to go to find out the tour is sold out.

PU Brew Kettles
Shiny copper brew kettles in the traditional brewhouse.  The modern brewhouse looks amazingly similar.

The tour

The tour itself takes about 100 minutes and has all of the essential elements of a brewery tour, and then some.  You taste malted barley and smell hops.  You learn the basic steps in the brewing process.  You get to see shiny metal vessels for heating wort, and you finish with a beer tasting.  In addition, there are few things about the Pilsner Urquell tour that set it apart from any brewery tour I’ve done in the past.

The massive packaging facility has four separate lines one each for cans, new bottles, recycled bottles, and plastic bottles.  Pilsner Urquell doesn’t go into plastic bottles, but beer from one of its sister breweries does (Gambrinus I believe).  The recycled bottling line is for bottles that are being cleaned and reused, not bottles that were made from recycled glass.  That a system exists to collect bottles and refill them is a nice nod to the environment that you don’t see in the US or the UK.

Pilsner Urquell Bottling Line
It takes 70 minutes from start to finish for the reused bottles go through the system.

There are two brewhouses, a stunning traditional brewhouse full of large copper kettles that has been maintained as a sort of museum, and a modern brewhouse where the beer is now made.  To be honest the two brewhouses are pretty similar, and both feature an unusual piece of equipment called a grant.  The grant serves as an intermediate stop for the wort on its way from the lauter tun to the boil kettle. Its purpose is to allow the brewer to evaluate, even sample, the wort as it exits the lauter tun.  As Pilsner Urquell the grants are recessed copper troughs fed by elegant swan neck faucets.  Our tour guide didn’t mention these, so I sent a picture to Jeff Alworth, who blogs about beer at the Beervana website, when he’s not writing books or podcasting about beer.  Jeff sent me a link to a story about Czech beer and his visit to Budvar, which provided some interesting insight into Czech thinking about grants.  In most other countries grants were phased out long ago because they introduce oxygen into the hot wort, and the general consensus in the brewing community is that aerating hot wort is something to be avoided.  However, the Czechs maintain that the introduction of low levels of oxygen between mashing/lautering and boiling leads to chemical reactions that are in fact beneficial.  When you taste a fresh glass of Pilsner Urquell it’s hard to argue. As a homebrewer it’s nice to know that I shouldn’t sweat it if a small amount of splashing occurs while draining the wort off the grain bed.

Pilsner Urquell Grants
Shiny copper grants in the traditional brewhouse.  Nearly identical grants are featured in the modern brewhouse.

The piece de resistance of the tour is a chance to walk through the maze of underground lagering tunnels. The tunnels were dug by hand in the days when labor was much cheaper than it is today.  Until 1991 when a large installation of cylindroconical fermenters was installed, nearly all of the beer was fermented and lagered in large wooden barrels in these tunnels.  These days they continue to produce some beer down here, predominantly to serve to people like me who take these tours.

The tunnels are damp and cool (5-7 °C), something you might want to consider when dressing for the tour.  Small troughs are cut in the stone along the center of each corridor, to allow the water that drips from the ceiling a path to drain.  Our guide mentions that if anyone gets lost they can follow the flow of water to find the exit.  Given the miles and miles of dimly lit, winding tunnels and side chambers, losing a tourist or two seems plausible.

Pilsner Urquell Tunnels
The lagering tunnels at Pilsner Urquell.  Another tour group can be seen in the distance.

While the amount of beer still fermented and lagered in the traditional way is a tiny fraction of their total production, there are still hundreds of barrels of beer down here.  Primary fermentation occurs in barrels near the entrance to the tunnels, where it is presumably a little warmer.  After 12 days the beer is transferred to barrels deeper underground where it is lagered for a month.

Eventually we come to a cavernous room off the main corridor where a man is filling glasses of beer poured from a spigot inserted directly into one of the wooden barrels. The unfiltered, unpasteurized beer is hazy, approaching New England IPA levels.  The hops are a bit more expressive, and the suspended yeast changes the taste and mouthfeel in ways that are difficult to describe, though the term rustic is certainly appropriate.  The Germans call beer served in this manner kellerbier, and I can attest that it’s delicious.  The only other place you can get unfiltered, unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell is in the gift shop here, where it sells for 175 Czech crowns (~ $8) per bottle. Lest you are thinking about muling some back to the US, you better get your consumers lined up in advance, because the shelf life is only one week.

Pilsner Urquell Kellerbier
The moment we’ve all been waiting for, a glass of unfiltered, unpasteurized kellerbier.  This is as close as you’re likely to get to the origins of the pilsner style.

Six things I learned on the tour

The Czech’s pronounce the second word in the name “ur-kwel” not “ur-kel” like most people in the US do.  By the way urquell is the German word for “ancient source” its Czech equivalent is prazdroj, hence the Czech name for the brewery is Plzeňský Prazdroj.

When asked why a company that builds a facility capable of filling 120,000 bottles and 60,000 cans of beer per hour still chooses to use skunk-o-matic green bottles I was told it was a historical decision based on marketing (I may have asked this question in a less confrontational way).

Despite the massive scale on which Pilsner Urquell is made they still adhere to the old ways of brewing, including triple decoction mashing (almost no one in the world does triple decoction in the 21st century) and three hop additions, including first wort hopping (admittedly much easier to execute and a good idea to boot).

Pilsner Urquell doesn’t buy malts, they buy Czech barley and do the malting in-house.  They use only whole flower Saaz (Žatec) hops.  They get their famous soft water from a 100 meter deep well near the brewery.

It takes five weeks from brew day to packaging, divided roughly into 12 days of primary fermentation and four weeks of lagering at 5-7 °C.

The water tower that is an important part of the imagery of the brewery was modelled after a Dutch lighthouse.

Pilsner Urquell Water Tower
The iconic water tower can be seen from miles around, although it’s no longer functional.

Four things that weren’t mentioned on the tour

Pilsner Urquell has been owned by a large conglomerate since 1999.  They were originally owned by South African Breweries (SAB), which then became SABMiller, and then following the consolidation between SABMiller and AB-InBev they were sold to Asahi within the past year.  In my opinion Asahi makes one of the best macro lagers in the world, so if they have to be part of an international brewing conglomerate Asahi seems like the closest thing to a benevolent dictator they are going to find.

Josef Groll was sent packing back to Bavaria just three years after he was hired.  Apparently, he was much less amiable, but decidedly more creative, than his 21st century pseudo-namesake, Foo Fighter’s frontman Dave Grohl.

Despite boasting a café/beer hall that is one of the largest in the Czech Republic, Pilsner Urquell only serves two beers there—unfiltered (but pasteurized) Pilsner Urquell and unpasteurized (but filtered) Pilsner Urquell.  Say what you want about them, but lack of focus is not a valid critique.

It’s rare to come across a sentence in the Czech language devoid of letters with accent symbols.  This makes me wonder if Mötley Crüe sold a lot of albums here after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Pilsner Urquell Unfiltered
A mug of the unfiltered (but pasteurized) Pilsner Urquell at the on-site beer hall/restaurant.  The Saaz hops feature more prominently in the nose and taste compared to the conventional Pilsner Urquell.  It’s worth checking out on your visit because it’s distinct from the unfiltered, unpasteurized stuff they serve at the end of the tour, and only 30 Czech crowns (~ $1.50) for a 0.3 L serving. 

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