Not far from Strakonice is the city of Plzen, which, when under Austro-Hungarian rule, was spelt Pilsen. The city has given its name to a particular brewing technique which developed there in 1842. Previously, like in many towns, families had brewing permissions and beer, often quite weak, was cleaner to drink than standing water. In the early 1840s so many of the homebrews were undrinkable, that a group of families got together to build a “citizen brewing house” (Bürgerliches Bräuhaus) on a larger scale to harmonise the approach and (hopefully!) end up with a better beer. To make sure they did a good job, a Bavarian Brewer, Josef Groll, was invited to Pilsen to teach the citizen brewers how to brew well.
The families in Plzen had been brewing top-fermenting beer which fermented while in storage, the German word “Lager”, meaning storage giving its name to the style. Josef Groll introduced the “Bavarian method” of bottom-fermenting the beer and from the local ingredients produced the golden beer which carried the name of its city of origin around the world.
This brewing style spread fast and breweries worldwide produce Pils, Pilsener or Pilsen beers. It became impossible to trademark the style, however, the original brewery has trademarked “Pilsener Urquell” which translated means “Original Spring from Pilsen”. You can buy that the world over too; it remains the only Pilsen beer brewed in Pilsen itself.
The brewery site is now a small town of its own, with large entry gates and a range of administrative and brewing buildings.
Tours of the brewery take place in English, German and Czech throughout the day and I couldn’t resist taking a guided walk around, starting with the mash tuns and kettles, first the old ones in a low ceilinged two storey room,
Then the new ones in a larger more spacious room which was very warm from the heat of the kettles.
After explaining the whole process of brewing to us, our guide took us into the cellars, where the beer is kept until it is ready to drink.
The cellars are far-reaching and although laid out in a grid style, it is difficult to tell one passageway from another without experience, we were therefore given strict instructions not to wander off or we may never find our way out again… There is however an easy guide, cold water runs along the side of most corridors and if you follow the direction in which it flows, you will end up at an exit from the cellars.
While we stood on a ledge allowing us to see into the barrels, our guide was giving us instructions on the process of collecting our sample of beer for tasting, handed to us by a brewery master from one of the barrels held in this corridor. All the barrels are dated made by Pilsener Urquell, they employ 7 coopers. It is pretty much a job for life, the apprenticeship takes a long time, and there are few other employment opportunities with that training so when someone retires, there are many applications.
Having been rewarded for our visit with a glass of freshly brewed beer, we made our way back out of the cellars using a modern lift, although they are the home to the oldest lift in Europe, used for lifting barrels up to the train carriages.