Hop on a train from Prague for an hour and a half to find yourself in the ancient city of Plzen, or Pilsen in English, the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic. Here stands the Pilsner Urquell brewery, where the world’s first golden lager was brewed in 1842.
Pilsen – once part of the kingdom of Bohemia – is a city with a rich history that spans back to 1295, when it was situated on the trade route between Germany and Prague. Today, the charming city has examples of breathtaking architecture, including the Gothic St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, which stands in one of Europe’s largest squares, Republic Square. In the picturesque historic city centre, many buildings represent the grandiose Baroque style, standing resplendently among the more modern structures.
Brewing has played an important role in Pilsen’s history and identity. When the city was founded, King Wenceslas II gave permission for its citizens to brew and sell their own beer domestically. One particular incident in 1838, where 36 barrels of spoiled beer were ceremoniously dumped in in front of the City Hall, resulted in the establishment of a citizens’ brewery, Bürger Brauerei. This was eventually renamed Plzeňský Prazdroj – or Pilsner Urquell in English – which roughly translates to ‘the original source at Pilsen’.
Bavarian master brewer Josef Groll was tasked with the creation of a high quality beer using pale malts. He turned to local ingredients and incorporated Bavarian lager yeast to create a beer that was truly unique. Lager yeast has been used in brewing at least as far back at the 1400s, when lagers were dark – such as dunkels in Germany or tmavé in the Czech Republic – and they likely remained so until the 1840s, when the advancement of kilning technology allowed for the development of pale malts. Groll developed a paler malt than what was available at the time, now known as pilsner malt.
In addition to the malt, which produced a spectacularly golden beer, Groll also used local Czech Saaz hops, known for their spicy and herbal notes, and Pilsen’s exceptionally soft water, which is low in minerals and salts, to create Pilsner Urquell. This was the original pilsner. The brightness of the beer captivated drinkers worldwide and many lighter styles of beer followed. The beauty of this new golden beer helped popularise the use of glass vessels (Bohemian crystal at the time), a material that was becoming cheaper to produce and perfectly displayed the spectacular clarity of the beer.
Part of the sweetness that characterises Pilsner Urquell comes from a triple-decoction mashing process, where portions of the mash are heated and boiled separately, and then returned to the mash vessel to gradually heat up the temperature of the main mash. As a result, a rich caramel flavour is developed as more sugars are extracted from the malts and heated by direct flame in copper vessels.
Visiting the brewery, where the methods developed to create Pilsner Urquell in 1842 are still used, provides an insight into how the Czech Republic’s largest brewery maintains tradition while increasing their output to export their beer across the world. Modern practices have been put in place, but are monitored by ‘parallel brewing’, where beer produced on the newer equipment is regularly tested against beer brewed using the original methods, which includes being lagered in oak barrels that rest in Pilsen’s underground tunnel network.
Seeing the brewhouses, both the original and the sleek modern site, and standing above the brewery’s immense and clanging bottle line is impressive. But the indisputable highpoint of the brewery tour is going into the cellars, where visitors are invited to taste unfiltered, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell from the lager barrels. No other pilsner comes close to the creamy, sweet and snappy nectar that is poured in these cellars.
The Pilsner Urquell brewery is located in the centre of the city and easily accessible from the Pilsen train station. Book a tour online in advance, as most will be full on the day – especially the English tours. Given Pilsen’s history, there are plenty of bars that are worth a visit too, including Na Parkanu, where unfiltered Pilsner Urquell is served alongside traditional Czech food.
Yes, there’s something magical about drinking Pilsner Urquell from the source. Often imitated, but never replicated, this beer changed the way that the world drinks. When you sample it in those underground cellars beneath the streets of Pilsen, it’s impossible to not develop a deep appreciation for the original golden lager.