Beer has been brewed in Pilsen for more than 700 years. Around 260 residents of this West Bohemian city had beer brewing priveleges, and that privilege was always passed around . The city council decided whose turn it was to brew. This person then obtained the brewer’s malt from specialized craftsmen, began brewing and subsequently fermenting the wort in open wooden barrels, and hung a wreath in front of the door indicating that beer was being served here.
Brewing was an empirical science. In particular, fermentation, in which yeast converts the sugar of the malt into alcohol, was considered a type of magic until Louis Pasteur began to shed light onto this process in 1854. Until that time, the quality of the beer was left to numerous coincidences. As a result, sometimes the beer was good and at other times it was of poor quality. The beer quality dropped in Pilsen’s breweries in 1838, whereupon the beer drinkers’ rage bubbled over, leading them to pour 36 barrels into the gutter. Their eyes turned longingly toward Bavaria, where the amber nectar left the breweries in consistently high quality and was even exported. But could they really drink Bavarian beer and let their money leave the region? It was a classic dilemma. The residents of Pilsen resolved it with a masterstroke. While many cities enacted protective tariffs to protect the poor quality of their own beer and the profits of their brewers, tavern keeper Václav Mirwald assembled ten of his fellow brewers in his tavern U Zlatého orla (At the Golden Eagle). “What Pilsen needs most is a good and inexpensive beer!” he declared.
Glittering gold in the glass
Fortunately, the starting capital for a modern brewery was available. The brewers had been paying one quarter of their income to the city since 1831, which even then had recognized that leaving the matter to the private backyard breweries just couldn’t continue. The new brewery was completed four years after the memorable dumping of the beer into the city’s sewers, and Josef Groll from the Bavarian town of Vilshofen assumed his position as brewmaster in the spring of 1842. On St. Martin’s Day of that year, the first glass of Groll’s beer was poured. The beer that would later come to enjoy a global reputation as Pilsner Urquell prompted the following comment from a contemporary connoisseur: “How we looked in amazement at the glittering gold in the glass, crowned by a snow-white head! And how we enjoyed the fresh, incomparable flavor that surpasses all previous beers!”
“That is the tradition to which we remain dedicated today, from the selection of the ingredients to the tap,” says Pavel Průcha as he strokes one of the copper kettles in the brewhouse. Průcha, the trade brewmaster and a member of the latest generation in a long line of successors of Josef Groll, knows all the secrets involved in making beer — a process that is carried out in Pilsen with a combination of skilled craft and passion, but also a considerable dose of science. “Recently,” says Průcha, “we sent the oldest extant analysis of our Pilsner Urquell, from the year 1897, to an external lab and asked the technicians to compare the beer with what we brew today.” The technicians concluded that the beer hasn’t changed at all in the intervening 110 years, in terms of the key characteristics that make it such a treat for the senses. And the production process hasn’t changed either — at least in principle. We can therefore state with pride that the current generation of beer lovers is drinking Pilsner Urquell of the same quality as did their great-grandfathers 110 years ago.
The cradle of Pilsner Urquell
In the cold dampness of the malthouse, selected varieties of Czech malting barley germinate for several days in containers 50 meters long and 1.2 meters deep until enzymes have converted the barley’s starch into sugars. This process is then interrupted by the kiln-drying process, which takes place at the relatively low temperature of 82°C - 84°C and includes the removal of the barley sprouts. The brewer’s malt is then milled to grist, mixed with soft Pilsen brewing water to make a mash, and decocted three times over an open gas flame. “This results in the caramel-like flavor, which also affects the color of the beer,” says Průcha as he closes the sliding window in front of the copper pan. The extract obtained from the malt grist, which is called the sweet wort, is now cooked together with the famous Saaz hops. The alpha acids and hop oils in the cones of the Saaz hops make the beer bitter, give it an exquisite hop aroma, and serve to extend its shelf life. After boiling the sweet wort with the hops, the rest of the hops and the trub (the proteins, oils, and tannins suspended in the liquid) have to be removed. The clear hop wort is then cooled and inoculated with the unique H-strain yeast, which turns the sugar into alcohol. Průcha points to a vial that is displayed like an icon behind glass in a vault in the brewery’s museum. “Some of us assume that we are still using the same H-strain yeast with which it all started here back in 1842,” he says.
The next step is eleven days of fermentation at temperatures below 9°. After this the yeast sinks — and the beer is “bottom fermenting,” in contrast to “top fermenting” beers whose yeast rises upward at higher temperatures around 20°C. But it still takes 23 days of slow maturing at minus-1°C before the beer is ready for drinking and suitable to be served in its original, unfiltered form in only one pub in the city. Why not elsewhere? Because, unfortunately, it can only be stored for three weeks under perfectly cool conditions due to the yeast it still contains. With beer that’s destined for customers at locations farther away, the brewers therefore filter out the trub before the beer is poured into bottles, cans, and kegs, in addition to pasteurizing it to ensure its shelf life.
What also has had a long life is the success of this beer, which today is exported to more than 50 countries worldwide. “Pilsner Urquell,” says Průcha, studying the fine-pored head of a fresh draft, “is still the original that all other ‘Pilsners’ emulate. Prost — or, as we say in Czech, Na zdraví!”