In 1838, the brewers of Plzen, Bohemia did something that would make the hardiest of beer drinkers shed tears in their brew. They rolled out 36 barrels of ale into the street, opened them, and watched as it all washed down the village streets and in to the Radbuza River. The ale, it is said, had become infected and was undrinkable. The brewers decided then and there that those would be the last kegs of spoiled brew to wet the streets ever again.
Over the next few years, plans were made to switch from brewing ales to brewing lagers in the style of the German brewers. In 1840, legend has it that a monk smuggled some Bavarian lager yeast to the small town in what is now The Czech Republic; shortly thereafter, Josef Groll was hired to pioneer the brewing of lagers in Plzen.
When Groll arrived in Plzen he found caves dug for lagering the beer and a ready supply of Saaz hops. He also found that the brewers had access to a well with remarkably soft water. With these ingredients in place Groll needed only to decide on a type of barley to use. He decided to break with tradition and use partially malted, light barley instead of the darker roasted or smoked malts favored by German brewers.
This year, on October 5th, Pilsner Urquell celebrated the 170th anniversary of the day Groll and the brewers of Plzen first tapped the brew that became so popular, the brand name became the name of an entire style of beer. The beer poured from the keg a clear, light straw color that was completely unlike any ale they had brewed in the past.
Recently, local beer lover and the brains behind Team Hopheads, David Rigdon had an opportunity to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzen and experience the process first-hand. He described a town rich in its traditions and architecture. He also described the brewing process as nothing less than amazing.
He also met with Vaslav Burka, head brewer at Pilsner Urquell who, along with a company “story teller,” presented the story of how this classic lager is brewed still using traditional methods. Upon entering the brewery, Rigdon described it as, “Like entering Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.”
His visit included a stop at the Pivovarské Muzeum, or brewery museum, where he was treated to the brewery’s brew, but in unfiltered form. “This museum,” he said, “Is the only place you can get their beer in the unfiltered state.”
During his exploration of the brewery, Rigdon learned that all the wooden kegs used by Pilsner Urquell are hand-made by their own in-house coopers, that the brew is fermented in open fermenters – but, it is not spontaneously fermented, and that the brewery uses a triple decoction method to brew their landmark beer.
But, perhaps the most memorable moments of Rigdon’s visit to the Czech Republic came when he learned about the different methods of pouring Pilsner Urquell. Like Belgians, Czechs take the pouring of beer very seriously. Pilsenr Urquell can be ordered four distinctly different ways which imparts three very different flavors to the brew. The first way is Neat; this means the beer is poured with no head and imparts a more bitter flavor. Secondly is Crisp or International; this is one of the most common ways to pour the brew and provides the drinker with a balance of bitter hops and sweet malts. The third way to pour is called a Slice or Smooth; this is a creamy mixture of beer and foam – four fingers worth – that presents a smooth, creamy, almost nitro-like, and slightly sweet flavor. Finally, the fourth pour is the Mliko; this pour is traditionally for the last beer of a session it is poured with approximately three-quarters foam and just a little beer at the bottom.
Any way you pour it though, Pilsner Urquell is a winner that forged the way for pilsner brews across the globe. It is also, one of the best examples of the world’s most popular beer style.