Mark Ludmon goes deep underground in the Czech Republic to find out about Pilsner Urquell
They call it milk, but it certainly doesn’t come from any cow. At busy restaurant and bar Lokál Dlouhá in central Prague, the waitress puts a round of glass tankards on the table apparently filled with white foam. In Czech, it is “mlíko”, a small measure of Pilsner Urquell lager poured so that the glass is almost filled with a velvety, sweet foam that must be drunk before the liquid settles. Alternatively, there is “šnyt”, where foam fills only the top half, or “hladinka” with only a little foam – or what Britons call a proper pint of beer.
Pilsner Urquell actually comes from a city 56 miles west of Prague called Plzeň or, as it is better known in the West, Pilsen. As the place name suggests, it was the original pilsner-style beer and the word “Urquell” literally means, in German, “the original source”. The first beer was made in 1842, created by brewmaster Josef Groll, and acquired the Pilsner Urquell name at a time when the region was mainly German-speaking but, after Czechoslovak independence in 1918, the brewery became Plzeňský Prazdroj.
The beer we drink today is made to the same recipe as 1842 despite many changes over the years, including acquisition by SABMiller in 1999. It is produced using just three ingredients – Czech barley, Saaz hops and local water – and the yeast used in fermentation dates back to the 19th century. Unlike most other brewers around the world, the barley – which is malted in-house – goes through a triple mashing process, or “triple decoction”, using a direct gas flame that enhances its golden colour, rich flavour and roasted grain aroma. It is then matured in the cellars, making the whole process last about five weeks.
While stainless-steel fermentation and maturation tanks are now used, senior trade brewmaster Václav Berka says this has not altered the final product. “People ask me if the beer is better now than in the past. It’s better because we are able to manage it within very narrow ranges because we have high-tech equipment but we are using the old ingredients and a historical recipe. Like when you cook in the kitchen at home, you don’t use coal or wood, you use induction heating and a ceramic pan.” Every batch is tested against an analysis made in 1897 when the beer was made with traditional equipment.
Václav has worked at the brewery nearly his whole life. “I officially started in 1980 but, because my father worked at the company, I spent all my summer holidays in the brewery. This is the reason I brewed my first beer in 1971 as a 15-year-old. It’s hard manual work but people love working here because it is part of the heritage and they want it to continue for the next generations.”
Now sold in over 40 countries, Pilsner Urquell continues to grow, with the ability to increase production at the site which is also home to Gambrinus beer. It has expanded its visitor centre, which attracts 250,000 people a year, welcoming both the public and trade on tours that include the cellars. Covering 9km, these go as deep as 26 metres, and visitors can taste unfiltered and unpasteurised beer straight from the oak barrels.
In the UK, Pilsner Urquell is benefiting from increased consumer interest in world beers which are growing five times faster than the total lager category. UK distributor Miller Brands is rolling out a new eye-catching brushed copper font and premium branded tankards. Bartender training, which has been supported by the Pilsner Urquell International Master Bartender competition, is being stepped up with a new programme called Taste Akadamie which involves face-to-face sessions with bar staff and an interactive tool kit.
Last year, selected bars and pubs were given the chance to offer brewery-fresh beer, unfiltered and unpasteurised, in traditional 25-litre oak barrels. Slightly cloudy due to the remaining yeast, it has a more full-bodied and sweeter taste. This will be followed up at the Taste of London festival in Regent’s Park from June 20 to 23 when people will be able to sample the “tank beer”, promoted through local media. “Through this activity, we aim to highlight the distinct taste of Pilsner Urquell to consumers and encourage trial in outlets,” explains Sam Rhodes, Miller Brands director of customer marketing. “This, in turn, will allow licensees to trade consumers up, taking advantage of the higher margins world beers offer.”
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Bar magazine.