Tuesday 3 December 2013

Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tour!


You may have never heard of the town of Pilsen in the Czech Republic, but I know for sure that you are familiar with their famous export: Pilsner Urquell. They have been brewing beer here since 1842 and they are the original pale lager.  The popularity of this crystal clear beer led to the towns name being co-opted as a style moniker, Pilsner. Today, most big commercial beer brands base their recipe on the original Pilsner, but please do not compare the two.


Friday Morning we took a 90 minute train ride through the Czech country side and arrived in Pilsen, a charming little town that felt like a mini-Prague. We made our way over train tracks to the famous brewery; itself a small town. As you walk up to the main entrance you are immediately welcomed by the famous gate that is immortalized on the red emblem on every bottle of Pilsner Urquell. We could not be more excited!

After entering through the main gates we walked towards the main tourist building, where the tours begin. We bought our tickets and since we had enough time to get a bite to eat, we crossed the road and entered the cavernous beer hall, situated right below the gift shop. And, as was our ritual, we had to try at least one new beer at every restaurant. Here, we enjoyed a Master, a Dunkel Bock - pictured below.

These barrels are made on site by coopers employed by Pilsner Urquell; they are even for sale but we only need something about a 100th the size so we passed. We watched a shortened version of how they are made using techniques that have been employed for hundreds of years.

After our delicious meal and beer we headed back to the tour office. There we met with our awesome tour guide and together we set off. The grounds are so vast that we had a shuttle bus take us to the bottling factory, where our tour began. At the bottling factory we witnessed efficiency in motion, it was a fast paced blur of greens, lights, and foam all whizzing by on conveyor belts carrying off liquid gold. But, maybe watching bottles pass on a conveyor isn't your idea of a good time. We couldn't help but admire the large scale and efficiency of these machines as they worked to allow Pilsner Urquell to uphold their high standards at such a high capacity.

After the bottling factory we took a bus ride to the interactive studio where we watched a short video on how beer is made (but we already knew that) and got some background on where their famous ingredients come from. Here the exhibit was multisenory, we were able to touch, taste, smell, and see all the wonderful ingredients. With one exception, the Yeast. As our tour guide explained to us: every ingredient, from the water to the hops and barely, is common property, except the yeast. Even the process used to create this wonderful beer is known to the public. However, the yeast remains to this day the sole of property of Pilsner Urquell. And that is why there are many Pilsners but only one Pilsner Urquell.


Our next stop, the original brewery. Our tour guide brought us to where they used to make their beer. Within, were a few massive and beautiful copper mash tuns and kettles, today they are just used for display and no longer to make beer. Copper was used back then because it was the best material for heat conduction at the time. To produce Pilsner Urquell they use a very intricate process, which, along with the fresh, local ingredients, is the reason behind their success.

Today stainless steel is more commonly used for many reasons but mainly because it is more cost efficient. Below you can see what is used today, massive stainless steel mash tuns with electronic controls. I wonder if anything is lost to the increase in efficiency, the charm for sure. But what about the quality?... if only we could go back in time!

Our second to last stop, the Museum. The small Pilsner Urquell museum housed some important artifacts from their long history. From beautiful Bohemian Crystal beer glasses, which were unfortunately not for sale in the gift shop, to a large copper tub, the museum was filled with rich artifacts. We admired the intricate design and workmanship of the Bohemian Crystal beer glasses. And found out that the large copper tub that you see me leaning on was a piece that was sparred from the Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia; during WWII all the metal from the breweries was confiscated by the Nazis to be turned into ammunition. This piece was hidden away during the duration of the war and now sits on display. 


Here comes the highlight of the tour. We got to go down into their underground cellar built in 1839, as you can see from the year dated over the entrance way. It was explained to us that the only way to make a crystal clear lager year round in 1839 was by tunnelling. Lager yeasts require a certain temperature range that is between roughly 15-5 degrees Celsius. The only way they could achieve this was by tunnelling. So they created a huge maze of passages that go deeper and deeper under ground which allow for a range of temperatures. The cellar was cold and humid - perfect conditions for a good cellar. The further we went in the more we had to bundle up; we were told that the humidity can reach 100%. Along the way we were instructed to gaze upwards, what we saw gave us a real sense of how deep underground we were, we were staring up into a shaft that went all the way up to ground level.  It was in this room that they lowered blocks of ice to maintain the cellar conditions.

As if this tour couldn't get better, we were given a glass of unpasteurized and unfiltered beer that is made and served for the sole purpose of the tour. To answer my previous question of: how does quality become affected by modern ideas, in this case efficiency. The answer is greatly; the beer fermented in the barrels depicted above, was a revelation. It was the best beer ever!! And, I found out that ratebeer.com, a great resource for all beer rating, has it rated as the #1beer in all of the Czech Republic. So I think I make my case on why you should visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery if you ever visit Prague. 

If you do go try to get an early start to your day, especially if you are short on time you won't have to devote the whole day to visiting the brewery, or maybe you can take the time to explore Pilsen a little. Thank you for joining us on our tour of the Pilsner Urquell factory. Do make sure to check it out, it is truly a great experience!

Na Zdravi!

- Adri

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