Monday, 12 May 2014

Pilsner Urquell

Is it heretical to admit to liking a big brewery beer? Well if it is then I don’t care, as I really like the beer in question and have been drinking rather a lot of it later. It’s one of those beers where the more of it I drink, the more I find things to like about it. One of the advantages of having previously owned and run my own off-licence is not only do I still have my own Personal Licence entitling me to sell alcohol to the general public (must remember to renew it next year), but more importantly I also still have a Cash & Carry Card.

The brewery entrance in 1984
The latter enables me to buy cases of beer, and other items, at wholesale prices, and the other week I took advantage of this by treating myself to a case of the beer I am talking about; 24 x 330ml bottles to be precise, and the beer, why Pilsner Urquell of course!

A similar view taken in 2012
Pilsner beer maturing in oak casks
Pilsner Urquell hasn’t always been a big brewery beer, and certainly not in the accepted meaning of the term “big brewery” that is used today. By that I mean large, multi-national conglomerate. That isn’t to say then that Pilsner Urquell hasn’t been a large brewery, as for much of the last century it was one of the largest breweries in what is now the Czech Republic, and previously Czechoslovakia and before 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was also the brewery where the original golden lager was first produced, hence the name Urquell, which in German means “original source”. Small coincidence then that nearly all  golden lagers are termed “pilsners”  “pilseners” or just plain “pils” in reverence to the east Bohemian city which gave birth to the style.

I am privileged to have visited the brewery twice; the first time being in 1984, when Czechoslovakia, as it then was, was firmly in the communist camp. The second was some 28 years later, in 2012, 23 years after the collapse of communism, and 19 years after the Czechs and the Slovaks went their separate ways.

Back in 1984, the Pilsner Urquell brewery was high volume, low tech high in man-power and owned by the Czechoslovak people, (well the government actually, as you surely don’t believe the communist line about "the people" actually owning things like breweries, do you?).  You can read all about my visit here.

By 2012, the brewery had gone all hi-tech, had expanded in size considerably, and was now owned (and still is) by global brewing giant SAB – Miller. I must admit I was sceptical at first about the new owners, but after watching a presentation and enjoying a trip round the brewery I trust I am right in saying this jewel in the crown of Czech brewing is in safe hands. In 1984 western visitors must have been as rare as hen’s teeth; today they’re shown round the plant in an almost conveyor-like fashion, with several trips a day conducted in English alone.

Apart from the extensive cellars under the brewery, which I will describe in more detail shortly, I don’t remember much about that original tour. I do recall being entertained with lots of free beer afterwards in a very nice hospitality room by someone high up within the brewery; possibly the plant manager? This time an American employee of SAB Miller conducted us round the brewery. He could speak Czech (hats off to him there as it’s a notoriously difficult language to learn), and was very knowledgeable about the company, telling us all about its history and showing us various exhibits on the way. These included the original copper in which the first golden pilsner was brewed, back in 1842, and a special cut-glass tankard produced to commemorate the visit to the brewery, of Emperor Franz Josef. I won’t repeat the history of the brewery and how the worthy burghers of Pilsen hired Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll to produce the world’s first golden lager here, as it is well known. If you are that curious, then click on the link here to the brewery website.

We were bussed around the huge site; starting at the sparkling new, multi-million Euro bottling hall. The after the audio-visual presentation about the brewery and its history, we were shown the brew-house; a careful fusion of old and new, but despite this much of the brewing process is still very traditional.

Pilsner Urquell are proud that they use a triple decoction mash regime; something which is very rare these days. The brewery claim that the third decoction helps extract the last amounts of malt sugars from the grain and that this is what gives the beer its full-bodied taste. “It gives our beer its unique caramelised flavour and round, rich mouth-feel from the malt which we produce in Plzen.” I am not certain they still use whole hop flowers, although they were at pain to inform us about the choice Saaz aroma hops used in the beer. They malt their own barley, which is petty rare for a brewery these days, although perhaps not that uncommon in the Czech Republic.

Rather less traditional though is the forest of tall conical fermenters which has sprung up around the site, replacing the time-honoured tradition of fermenting in large, round open, wooden vats, before maturing the beer for a lengthy period in huge, pitch-lined, wooden casks. These were housed underground, in a maze of cool and slightly damp tunnels beneath the brewery which extend for a distance of some 9 km in total.

This was where our tour finished up, back in 1984, and being shown around these tunnels was the real highlight of the tour. It was also where our tour finished in 2012, and whilst just a fraction of the tunnels still retain their original purpose, it remained a fitting highlight twenty-eight years on. A small proportion of beer is still fermented and matured in the original wooden vessels; partially as an obvious tourist attraction but, more importantly from the brewery’s point of view, to enable taste comparisons to be made between beer brewed the traditional way, and the bulk of the production brewed in the conical fermenters.

We were given a taste of the unfiltered beer drawn straight from one of the maturation, or lagering, vessels, and it was excellent. I would have liked some more, but our guide had to get back to meet his next tour group, so that was that. I had read about a pub somewhere in Pilsen which serves unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, but we had a two and a half hour train journey back to Prague ahead of us, so decided to leave that experience for another time. Recently, Pilsner Urquell have held a series of promotions in selected London pubs, show-casing their beer drawn direct from brand new oak casks. What’s more the beer is unfiltered and un-pasteurised.

I was unable to attend any of these events, but I’m pleased to report un-pasteurised Pilsner Urquell is quite widely available in Prague in the form of tankovna, or tank beer. Basically large stainless steel tanks are installed in the pub cellar, and the beer arrives fresh from the brewery, by means of road tankers, and is pumped straight into the cellar tanks. Only selected pubs are allowed to sell this type of Pilsner Urquell, because the beer that goes into the tanks is un-pasteurised, meaning it is fresher than pasteurised beer. However, the shelf-life for tank beer is just three weeks from leaving the brewery, and only one week once the tank is first opened, so pubs must be able to prove a sufficiently high turnover before they are allowed to stock tankovna. The freshness of the beer means you get a fuller flavour and a deeper taste, so it is well worth tracking it down when visiting the Czech Republic.(Closer to home, tankovna Pilsner Urquell has recently been installed at the renowned White Horse, Parsons Green, London).

Looking back to that first visit, I recall that after our tour we had lunch, plus yet more beer, at a pub-cum-restaurant adjacent to the triumphal arch which forms the entrance to the brewery. I looked for it on our return visit, but it seems to have closed. The configuration outside the brewery seems to have changed out of all recognition too. One possible reason for the pub’s closure is the provision of a vast new restaurant, constructed in part of the old cellars beneath the brewery. We had a couple of glasses of beer there, plus a light lunch, whilst waiting for our tour to start.

I’m not certain I tried Pilsner Urquell before my first visit to Pilsen; even though I believe it may have been available in the UK via specialist beer shops. Today though, the beer is readily available locally, with most of the major supermarkets stocking it, quite often at a discount. Like many of the beers I buy for home consumption, I normally wait until I see it discounted, and then buy it.
With all this talk of history, tradition and brewing, it would be easy to forget the actual beer. Pilsner Urquell though is very memorable. Unlike most continental lagers, which are brewed to a strength of around 5%, Pilsner Urquell weighs in at just 4.4%. However, the beer packs in loads of juicy, caramel malt flavours, probably as a result of the triple decoction mash carried out at the start of the brewing process. Also it is possible the yeast does not attenuate the beer as much as modern strains.

A video on the brewery website demonstrates three different ways of pouring the draught version to produce the thick creamy head, so beloved by Czech drinkers, but none of these techniques work properly when pouring the beer from a bottle. What is important though, is not to over-chill the beer. The brewery recommends serving Pilsner Urquell at between 5˚ and 8˚ C, with 7˚ C as the optimum. Whilst sitting in the brewery restaurant, waiting for the tour, I couldn’t help notice a large digital display indicating that the temperature of the beer being served was hovering at around this figure. Americans and Australians please take note; pilsner-style beers should not be served at sub-zero temperatures, and certainly gain nothing when this is applied to them.

A few final points to end up on

The switch to conical fermenters from the open wooden ones, happened in the early 1990’s, when the recently privatised company was owned by a consortium of Czech banks and share funds. This was before SAB-Miller acquired the company, so the current owners cannot be blamed for this loss of tradition.

Although conical fermenters are known to speed up fermentation times their effect on the taste of the beer is probably a lot less than many traditionalists would have us believe. Brewers such as Adnams and Fullers use them, and I can’t say I’ve noticed any deterioration in taste or quality with the products of either of these brewers. If, as the company insist, there is no noticeable difference between Pilsner Urquell fermented and matured in stainless steel conicals, compared to the old method of open wooden ones, then there was no point in persisting with the old system. Not only was it costly in terms of materials and manpower, it was also difficult to maintain.

Roger Protz, writing in the Morning Advertiser, claims otherwise, stating the pitch used to line the huge oak casks in which the beer was matured added a “rich vinous flavour to the beer”. Personally, I think this statement is a fallacy as pitch has been used for waterproofing buckets, barrels and even small boats, since time immemorial. I'd like to believe pitch is inert, but if it's not then I’m very much relieved that pitch-lined casks are no longer used, as organic compounds leached out of the lining, possibly by the action of the alcohol, are the last sort of substances I wish to be drinking with my pint!

There is one thing though which SAB-Miller have done, and which in my mind, is blatantly wrong. That is allowing Pilsner Urquell to be brewed in a location other than Pilsen, because in 2002 the company announced plans to open a satellite brewery in the Polish town of Tychy, in the heavily industrial Katovice area of the country. They claim this move is in response to local demand, and whilst the demand may well be present in Poland, this decision has instantly devalued everything which was unique about Pilsner Urquell. How can a beer, whose name means “pilsner from the original source”, be brewed anywhere else apart from at the “original source”, which is, of course, the won of Pilsen? It’s like trying to produce a top notch burgundy in Portugal, or a Grand Cru Bordeaux in Greece!

Madness! So after full marks to SAB-Miller for sticking with triple decoction, malting their own barley, and selecting the finest aroma hops for use in the beer, a huge minus for debasing a world heritage beer by trying to turn it into just another “international brand”.


RedNev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RedNev said...

I've only ever had Pilsner Urquell in bottles, but I've always enjoyed it, which is not something I usually say about lager. The argument about public demand for the second brewery doesn't really work, because the Czech Republic presumably has a transport network capable of moving beer from the original brewery in good time. Or did the people of Tychy demand that it be brewed locally? Highly improbable, in my view.

Cooking Lager said...

It's a great lager and a good gateway lager to get people off pongy beer and into good honest cheap cooking lager.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, - I'm not sure what the argument behind the Polish brewery was about. I know at one time the Poles were imposing high import duties on foreign beers, but that won't apply now that both countries are in the EU. Come to think of it, it wouldn't have applied during Commecon times either.

It's doubly puzzling in view of the amount of beer Pilsner Urquell are shipping to the UK now; especially with the tank beer that's being roled out.

Cookie - you know what you can do with your good honest cheap cooking lager, a misnomer if ever there was one!

Leigh said...

One of my favourites, actually! A desert island beer for me.

Gary Gillman said...

Very well put, Paul. It is one of the best beers in the world in any form. New York gets a cold-shipped version, perhaps the unpasteurized tank version you mention, which is outstanding, but even the regular draft and canned is excellent. We get the canned one in Toronto within 8 weeks of packaging and it is great, very fresh. In truth this beer is very good because the taste is, which sounds obvious, but it takes more than just packing a lot of flavor from hops and malt into a beer to make it great. It has to have a particularly fine savour, and this one days. It is the original craft beer, in a word.


Gary Gillman said...

Sorry, I meant, "...this one does".

One further thought: I never liked the green glass one nearly as much as the canned one; I do feel some light always gets into it and you can taste a slight light-struck quality. The canned one is always immaculate if fresh again.


Paul Bailey said...

I'm not certain I've seen the canned version here in the UK, Gary, but then I don't normally look in the canned beer section of our local supermarket.

I do remember reading though that Pilsner Urquell are contemplating switching to brown bottles, to minimise any possible light-struck effect that may occur with green ones.

Gary Gillman said...

Paul, thanks, and I saw that too about the looming switch to brown glass. Perhaps for the U.K. it doesn't matter (even the green glass that is) given the shorter haul from brewery source, but a change like this is only for the better. Budweiser Budvar is very good too. Few craft lagers can equal these in my experience.


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