Back in September, I was invited to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery by Mark Dredge. Whilst there I had a number of Beer Moments, and one of the biggest was had at the brewery itself in Plzeň, Česká republika (from here on: Pilsen, Czech Republic).
The cellars below the Pilsner Urquell brewery seem to go on forever. Some are collapsed, some chained off, others perfectly intact. One cavernous room once held tonnes of ice, the meltwater flowing through the cellars and the air recirculating to maintain the ideal lagering temperature. These cellars, covering the same area as the town-sized brewery complex itself above ground, would have been just as busy if not busier than the brewery above. A hundred years ago, the thunder of rolling oaken vats would have been the soundtrack to the work of 7000 coopers making 5000 wooden barrels a day below the earth.
Back in 2014, it feels like walking through the bones of some dead leviathan. There are five miles of these tunnels, twenty metres below the ground at their deepest. It’s so easy to think of breweries as a living thing – their veins and arteries pumping lifeblood from one metal organ to the next, procreating in its own unique way – but down here in the cellars, there’s something more crypt-like and supernatural in the atmosphere. Not a sense of death, but of life after death, returning ever stronger, keeping some spirit of what it means to be Pilsner alive in the soul of every oaken timber of every 40 hectolitre barrel. We are warned about the Devil In The Cellars – a ghoulish rock formation down here that’s currently chained off for undisclosed safety reasons.
Our group is led through the darkness by Robert Lobovsky, a native of Pilsen who, after spending his formative years abroad, returned to his homeland and petitioned Pilsner Urquell to give him a job. His job now (Beer Master) is to tell the beer’s story around the world, the story of a beer that to him was part of his Czech identity when he was growing up in Australia. To be Czech means to be from a nation of brewing, and the creation of Pilsner is the Czech’s gift to the world.
On a hill at the highest point of the brewery site, and the city itself, stands a 100 metre high water tower, containing two vast metal tanks that once held the brewery’s water. Below that tower, the ground is seeped with ancient blood. As the highest point in the city, it was the favoured spot for public executions in bygone ages. The brewery’s water is still drawn from the same 100 metre deep well nearby. We joke that the blood and bones of traitors gives the beer its distinct taste but it was that simple, soft water, drawn from 100 metres below ground to sit 100 metres above it, which became the body of one of the world’s most important beers.
Pilsner’s beginning is an unusually precise one in comparison to many other beer styles. I’m so used to bookending historical accounts of beer’s origins with ‘Sources indicate…’ and ‘…or so it is believed’ that Pilsner Urquell’s story seems starkly rigid and underlined in fact by comparison. For one, we have an official origin story for our opening scene: the burghers (property owning citizens) of Pilsen pouring away 36 barrels of beer in the town square in protest against the poor quality brews being made, and forming a co-operative venture that built the brewery used by Joseph Groll to brew the first pale lager beer. We even have an exact date when the first batch was ready and tasted: 11 November 1842. It all seems so black and white – and I have read criticism of this origin story – but as stories go it remains compelling.
Back in the cellars, it’s with barely concealed excitement that I pour myself a glass of unpasteurised, unfiltered Pilsner from the 40 hectolitre wooden vat. These things weigh a few tonnes even when they’re empty, and every gram of that weight and every year of this beer’s history is weighing down on my mind and on my fingers as I turn that tap handle. It pours like frothy milk at first, eventually churning into a hazy, golden syrup-coloured liquid bright with life. I hold the glass to the dim lights in the cellar, peering into its thick, cloudy, burnished gold colour, topped with an ice-cream scoop of foam the texture of whipped egg whites. I’m expecting something special. Of course I am. Its silky, luscious palate disarms me, that dab of butterscotch so important to its character becomes caramel, then lemon tart, but there’s also a gripping, oily, herbal bitterness that lifts the entire palate up to meet it. It’s raw and alive. It’s perfect.
So much is said about the authenticity of the beer, how closely it compares to its original iterations, with the same culture of yeast, triple decoction, wooden vat maturation and so on. Up until the moment I tasted the beer, it was all I could think about: I wanted to be sent back in time with a sip, to understand and truly comprehend a moment of flavour from a bygone age.
When I tasted it, all those daydreams were shattered, blown to pieces by the sheer excellence of the beer in the glass. We returned later for more, and all I could think about that second time was not how amazing that beer must have seemed the first time it was made, but just how amazing it tastes right now. That’s why a portion of Pilsner Urquell is still matured this way, to taste-match the conventional batches matured in metal, so that they know it still tastes the same.
Like the cellars, this beer’s legacy seems to go on forever. It was the first pale lager beer, so it had little competition at the time, but in the lager-soaked present, it remains head and shoulders above so many lesser Světlý Ležáks (other Czech pale lagers) it shares a country with and the hundreds of foreign imitators. It remains The Pilsner. It’s buried deep.
Of course, there’s a great deal more to Czech beer culture than just one beer, and I’ll try to cover more of it in a couple of future posts. Thanks to Mark Dredge and Pilsner Urquell for their hospitality.