“That doesn’t look like beer,” I think, peeking into the massive open-topped wooden barrels fermenting the latest batch of Pilsner Urquell. The barrels are about two meters high, hold 40 hectoliters of beer, and are covered by a crust of hardened brown bubbles. “It looks like crème brûlée or a burnt cheese.”
I’m from San Diego, a city where microbreweries are sprouting up like mushrooms and it seems like all of us are becoming amateur beer-snobs. But this is unlike any brewery I’ve visited back home.
I’m standing in the damp underground cellars of Pilsner Urquell brewery in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic, the town for which pilsner beer was named. Pilsen’s tradition of brewing has earned it the title of the European Capital of Culture for 2015, and I’d come to pay homage to the supposed birthplace of modern beer. But the final product looked less than appetizing.
“This is the traditional way of brewing,” continued the brewer guiding us through the subterranean cellars where the beer is stored. Beneath my feet, deep grooves are worn into the stone floor from countless wooden barrels rolling out to market. The corridors are carved into sandstone, their arches just wide enough to permit one of these barrels. But this is only one of many tunnels in Pislen, which sits atop a sixteen-kilometer long system of tunnels that functioned as a primitive refrigerator – perfect for beer making.
“We’ve used this method since we made our first batch in 1842,” he said, pointing to the dates carved on the barrels. The barrel before me was made in 1895, back when this was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pilsen has seen many changes since then. The breakup of an empire, invasion by the Germans, liberation by the Americans, and collectivization of the brewery under communism. But even then, the brewing methods were passed on and traditions survived.
I’m told this the following day when I meet with Vaclav Berka, chief brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell. We meet at U Salzmannu, the oldest beerhall in Pilsen, named after its 19th century manager who was the first to send Pilsner Urquell to Prague, from where it spread worldwide. Vaclav orders us two half-liter mugs of his beer, served in the Czech way – with a thick head of foam.
“Nas dravy” he says, raising his glass to mine and taking a long draft. “It’s good, isn’t it?”
It is indeed, and I’m not disappointed that most bars have only this beer on tap. But Pilsen’s beer hasn’t always been so good. In fact, when pilsner beer was first invented in 1842 its most notable characteristic was how much better it was than the junk brewed before.
The town first started brewing when it was founded in 1295, after King Wenceslas II granted 260 families the exclusive right to make and sell their own beer. Quality was determined by the town magistrates, who would pouring beer on oak benches then sit on them with leather pants for one hour. If the pants didn’t stick when they stood up, it was considered undrinkable. But by the 1830s Pilsen’s beer had become so bad that locals refused to drink it. In 1838, 36 barrels were dumped in protest.
Pilsner’s brewers had to do something drastic or risk losing the market to the Bavarian brewers of Germany. So they banded together, invested in a state-of-the-art facility, and hired a young Bavarian named Joseph Groll to make them better beer.
“Joseph Groll used only three ingredients: Pilsen soft water, Pilsen malts, and Saaz hops,” continues Vaclav. “The result was this beautiful golden beer you see here,” he says, holding his mug under the light above our table. “This beer is the same recipe as 173 years ago.”
The recipe worked. This new “pilser” lager spread to Prague, then Paris and the rest of Europe, where it was widely imitated by breweries such as Heineken, Amstel and Beck’s. Eventually, the brewers trademarked Pilsner Urquell to cement its claim as the original pilsner.
Back down in the cellars, our tour moves on to the tasting room where they serve us fresh, unfiltered beer straight from the wooden barrels. The beer is crisp and cold. I finish mine quickly and line up for another, realizing why Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world – 148 liters per person, per year. Double that of Americans, and almost 50% more than the Austrians in 2nd place.
Today pilsner remains one of the most common beer styles worldwide – 70% of all beer is a Pilsner. Not a bad contribution to world culture for a town of 170,000, and little surprise it’s this year’s European Capital of Culture.
Pilser Urquell only recently stopped brewing in the wooden barrels I saw in the cellars. They remain only for demonstration and sampling. Vaclav tells me that beyond that, the brewing process remains largely unchanged.
Nevertheless, my inner beer snob is compelled to ask whether such a traditional lager can compete in today’s craze for microbreweries and innovative ales.
“It is not the size of the brewery that matters,” he replies. “What matters is whether they make good beer, or not-so-good-beer. And this beer is the best in the world!”
That is debatable. But has we raise glasses for our third round, I have to admit that he has a point.