To the Source
On November 11 of 1842, in the West Bohemian city of Plzeň, a watershed event took place when the first glasses of Pilsner Urquell beer were served to the public during the annual St. Martin’s Day festivities.
Prior to that date, nobody had seen beer of its clarity or tasted beer of its crispness and balance. Modern beer had arrived.
The beer was an immediate hit locally and had achieved international acclaim within a few short decades. The beer world would never be the same following the introduction of this very influential brand.
Pilsner Urquell was the world’s first pale lager and became easily the most copied beer in the world. Around two thirds of the beers the world knows today were influenced by Pilsner Urquell.
All of this renown and prestige most certainly begs the question of exactly what lies behind this legendary brew that not only enabled it to take the world by storm, but keeps it so respected in the modern age.
Happily, a trip to Plzeň will give you access to the historic Pilsner Urquell brewery. Tours of the brewery run regularly in Czech, English and German languages and give one a very good overview of what makes this beer what it is.
The New Standard
Upon passing through the historic entry gate, we were struck by the mix of historic and modern buildings on the site. This is a company clearly in touch with their roots and they wear their pride on their sleeves.
Individual registration for the 100 minute long tours happens in the clearly marked visitor centre.
The tour starts with a historical overview of how Plzeň’s over 200 independent brew houses were consolidated into a single municipal brewery in the early 1840s under the watch of Bavarian brewmaster, Josef Groll (1813-1887).
This part of the tour also outlines how Groll developed and perfected the recipe for the new beer and the awards and accolades that he, his beer and the brewery had bestowed upon them following the beer’s introduction.
Starting at the Finish
From the visitor centre, our tour group was taken across the brewery area by bus to the packaging facility. Along the way, our guide pointed out the various historic buildings on the site, what they had been used for and the period they were in use for those purposes. The amount of historical preservation here is remarkable.
The packaging hall is immense in every regard. Our group boarded a lift that our guide informed us was the largest passenger lift in the Czech Republic. Once on the upper floor, the guide rattled off some utterly astounding figures for how many bottles, cans and kegs could be filled and sealed per hour here.
From there, the group went out on a balcony that overlooks the floor of the sprawling packaging hall. While workers cleaned one bottling line, a seemingly endless line of bottles were travelling along an adjacent line to be filled.
It should be noted at this point that there is no guarantee that you will always see bottling in progress on a tour.
Fermenting the Revolution
Our next stop on the tour was the brewing hall. It was here that were learned exactly what makes Pilsner Urquell the unique beer that it is.
First, all of the ingredients are Czech in origin. Plzeň’s own water, known for its softness, gives a smooth texture. Special hops from Žatec, in the north west of the country, give the beer low bitterness and notable aromatic qualities.
Special strains of brewer’s yeast and Bohemian barley are also part of the recipe.
Aside of ingredients, special triple malting and cold fermentation processes also contribute to this beer being unique.
As we passed through the modern, computer controlled brewing hall, our guide drew our attention to the large copper vats that dominated the room. In spite of its high material cost as well as labour and time intensive maintenance regimes, copper is still considered the ideal material to brew beer in.
Getting Old School
After looking at the modern side of things, it was time to balance the tour with a look at the historic end of the business.
Keeping things cold is the key to good lager and prior to the advent of modern refrigeration methods, keeping things deep underground was the best way to keep them cold.
The brewery built an extensive network of underground tunnels for keeping things cold in their early days. Our tour finished by taking a look at a small fraction of this tunnel system.
Here, we were shown older brewing methods and told a great deal about the use of oak casks in the brewing process prior to the use of metal containers.
The brewery still makes small batches of their beer by these traditional methods and the tour ends with a free sample of unfiltered and unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell beer tapped straight from an oak cask.
Gifts and Grub
The tour lets off at the brewery’s sizable and well stocked gift shop. Here, you can browse a wide variety of apparel and other gift items emblazoned with one form or another of the Pilsner Urquell trademark.
I would recommend first going to the brewery restaurant, Na Spilce, however.
Not only does the legwork of a 100 minute tour develop an appetite, but if you indulged in the free sample of unfiltered and unpasteurised beer at the end of the tour you might want to get a pint of the modern item for comparison while it’s still fresh on your mind and palate.
We very much enjoyed our post tour lunch at Na Spilce. The beer was as fresh as you would expect for being right at the source and the food was top notch.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
Plzeň is not the easiest of Czech cities to travel to. While there is a direct train between Prague and Munich that stops there, if you’re going to the city from anywhere else in the Czech Republic that is a significant distance away you’ll likely be in for a longish trip regardless of your mode of transport.
That said, once you’re in the city, the brewery is very easy to reach on foot from Plzeň’s historic centre.
If you go there as an individual or only two or three people, you likely won’t need to reserve a spot on a tour ahead of time. Tours run regularly and you can browse the gift shop or have a pint in the restaurant to pass the time if there’s a wait for your tour.
If you’re a beer fan and in the Plzeň area, a tour here is a must. Even if you’re not a beer fan, it’s a fascinating look into one of the most influential products to ever come out of the Czech lands.
This link will tell you all you need to know about tour schedules and prices: