Pilsner Urquell. The Beer Behind the Brand. Part 2

| september 25, 2012

Climbing up the spiral helter skelter inside Pilsner Urquell’s historic water tower in the semi-dark I recall feeling rather glad I’d eaten breakfast several hours earlier.

Looking down on the Pilsner Urquell brewery from the historic water tower.

We were on our way up to the top to get a birds-eye view of the brewery, passing through the centre of two massive cylindrical reservoirs which once held a combined total of 806 m3 of water destined for the brewery kettles.

Built in 1905 on top of the city’s execution site in a style reminiscent of a Dutch lighthouse the water tower is a curious affair, with a collection of snaking glass tubes, dials and levels at its base that would make the perfect film set for a mad scientist’s laboratory.

But climbing out onto the narrow viewing gantry almost 50 metres above the ground the nerve-wracking ascent suddenly made sense, for it is really only from way up high that you begin to get a sense of the size of Pilsner Urquell.

Below you is the sprawling brewery complex, each part representing a new epoch in the beer’s development. There are the huge stainless steel fermenting vessels, the largest ones capable of storing up to 3,300 HL of maturing beer bolted alongside the brewery’s original brewhouse with its chimneys towering skywards.

There in the centre is the brewery’s own covered railroad siding, from where at its busiest at the turn of the 20th century no less than 258 beer-cooling carriages pulled in and out of.

From this dizzying vantage point I got that sense of the passing of time you only get from visiting historic breweries. Pilsner Urquell has adapted, grown, torn down, rebuilt and reinvented itself throughout generations to keep up with demand but much of the original fabric of the brewery, imperfect as some of it is, is still clearly there to be seen.

Although the water tower is spectacular there isn’t actually any water in it. For that we had to move to a slightly more modern building where I first came face to face with the fish.

No this isn’t modern art. They are very happy trout. Which means you should be happy too. Click to enlarge.

In the past miners would take caged birds down with them into the pits to check for harmful gases. If the birds passed out  – or died – the miners knew it was time to head up and out.

Pilsner Urquell employs a similar tactic at its water treatment plant, swapping birds for baby trout. As the water from the Plzeň Basin comes into the plant some of it passes through a small fish tank teeming with trout. Happy trouts (trouts are particularly sensitive to impurities in water) make for happy brewers here.

In our modern world of impersonal automation and touchscreen technology it was good to see those fish. Looking back they were one of my absolute favourite parts of the brewery. For me they gave Pilsner Urquell the kind of personality I was searching for.

Cans of PU flying down the packaging line.

Next stop was the very unpersonalized but ultra modern packaging line. In fact it isn’t one but four lines running parallel to one another in a hall that continuously hums, hisses and clinks to the sound of the thousands of bottles and cans that pass through here every hour.

Here not only is Pilsner Urquell packaged in a variety of different ways for different markets but its sister brewery Gambrinus and a range of lesser known company brands such as Master and Kozel pass through here too.

Impressive as it was bottling lines are probably my least favourite part of any brewery. They represent the functional but characterless end of the story. For the beginning of it I knew we needed to go underground.

In Part 3: In the final part of this series of articles I meet large men with wooden mallets before heading underground into the dank, dark caves beneath the brewery to drink Pilsner Urquell the way it tasted when it was first released almost 170 ago.

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

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