Pilsner Urquell. The Beer Behind the Brand. Part 1

| september 24, 2012

Some beers become so massive, so popular, so available and familiar and just so….big that it’s easy to forget where they came from and lose sight of where the story started.

For me Pilsner Urquell is one such beer – a sensation when it was first served to thirsty residents of the royal brewing city of Plzeň back in 1842 and the beer that is arguably the DNA of the vast majority of beers being sold around the world right this second.

Pilsner Urquell’s famous gates were built to mark its 50th anniversary in 1892.

Legend is a word that advertising people use all too freely these days but in terms of its contribution and influence on the global beer industry Pilsner Urquell has a rightful claim to it.

However for many beer drinkers in today’s fast moving craft beer revolution legends are considered things of the past. And right now the past is definitely not cool.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to revisit Pilsner Urquell recently as one of first two Swedish beer writers (the other being this gentlemen) to be invited on a very special ‘origins’ tour of the iconic Czech brewery.

The idea was to get a different take on the beer known among fans as PU, to break away from the regular guided tours, to open a few of those doors with the signs that say ‘Do Not Enter’ and to try to scratch some of the polish off the brand and see what really lies underneath.

After a fascinating day at the hop fields (with the sticky smell of freshly picked aromatic hops still clinging to my clothes) we arrived at the brewery’s famous gates to begin our tour lead by our guide Jan together with the brewery’s Marketing Manager for Innovations and Quality Kamil Růžek and Marketing Manager Kenneth Hansen.

But before we stroll off to the first (and highest) stop on our journey – the brewery’s ‘lighthouse’ water tower – we really should go back to where this story started. Not to the often quoted year of 1842 but slightly further back to 1838 when the furious citizens of Plzeň dumped 36 barrels of undrinkable swill into the city’s gutters in protest at the declining quality of the city’s beer.

This lead to the appointment of a young architect called Martin Stelzer who was charged with the job of building a brewery capable of reclaiming the city’s brewing reputation. On his travels Stelzer met the man who is now known as the ‘Father of Pilsner’ but was then just a talented young Bavarian brewmaster with big ideas called Josef Groll.

Coming from Bavaria Groll was well aware of the success other Bavarian brewers had had in fermenting their beers in cool Alpine caves. He knew that the colder temperatures kept other unwanted yeasts out and caused the yeast to drop to the bottom of the fermenting vessels, resulting in a cleaner, more stable beer.

Josef Groll. By the sounds of it not someone you’d ever have invited round for dinner.

Groll wanted to replicate these conditions in Pilsen and with Stelzer set about building a brewery that to this days sits on top of a network of dank, misty and cool sandstone tunnels. It was here in the bowls of the brewery that Groll developed the world’s first clear golden beer.

Or so the legend goes. In fact it was the malt that played an equally crucial part in Groll’s success. Most of the ‘cave-conditioned’ beers being brewed in Bavaria around the same time were deep brown in colour due to the darker kilned or wood smoked barley malt used.

But Groll, as well as being one of the grumpiest people on earth – his own father said of him he “was the coarsest man in the whole of Bavaria” – was a clever brewer and used the latest advances in brewery techniques and ingredients to his advantage. His kilning of high quality Moravian barley was every bit as instrumental in helping him crack the code of lighter coloured beer as the yeast was.

His golden beer quickly won over the citizens of Plzeň. Within months it was being sold outside the city gates and 14 years later it was exported for the first time to Vienna.

Can you see those steps at the very top of the tower? I was there. Secretly crapping myself.

With the help of the railroads and ‘market-shrinking’ technology like the telephone by the end of the First World War the brewery was booming, producing a over a million hectoliters of beer a year and selling it to 34 countries around the world.

The brewery’s success inevitably spawned imitators and if you’ve ever drunk a Budweiser or Falcon Export you’ve probably got the grumpy Josef Groll to thank. Or not, depending on which way you want to look at it.

But that’s enough of the back story for now. In part 2 we head off to climb the water tower for a dizzy view over the sprawling brewery below, discover why baby trouts are a vital part of the beer’s quality control process and indulge in a memorable spot of ‘cave-drinking’ with Pilsner Urquell’s larger-than-life Brew Master.

Transparency Statement: This post is the second in a series of articles about my recent trip to Pilsner Urquell as a guest of the brewery. Together with Pelle from Allt om Öl we were the first Swedish beer writers to participate in the brewery’s ‘Origins Tour’ – an immersive two day experience during which we were given a unique ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how one of the world’s most famous beers is made.



Category: Articles in English, Öl & Resor