Pilsner Urquell is the world’s original golden lager, first brewed in 1842 in the Czech city of Pilsen, 56 miles (90km) west of Prague. It’s perhaps the greatest and most important beer ever brewed, and to visit the brewery and drink the unfiltered beer straight from huge wooden barrels in the underground cellars is undoubtedly one of the Top 10 most essential world beer experiences—and I’d probably put it at number one.
The story begins in 1838. There were 250 people with rights to brew in Pilsen, using a communal brewhouse and then drinking their beer or selling it (like Zoiglbier—see post 114). But much of the beer was undrinkable and the local tavern owners were sick of bad beer and worried about the growing imports of cheaper, tastier Bavarian dark lagers. Then one day, 36 barrels of disgusting dark ale were dumped into the city’s drains.
Drink Pilsner Urquell, The Original Golden Lager And Drink It Unfiltered In The Brewery Cellars In Pilsen Photo Gallery
It was one of the most significant moments in beer’s 10,000-year history because this expedited discussions to build one large brewery for the town, to be owned by the people of Pilsen, and one which could make excellent beer that was also affordable—it was an early shift from small-scale communal brewing to industrial brewing.
The people of Pilsen hired a young architect, Martin Stelzer, who traveled to Bavaria to learn about their breweries, while a Bavarian called Josef Groll got the job of brewmaster. What makes the story really interesting are the processes and decisions made by Stelzer, Groll, and the Pilsen citizens, plus the unique geographical quirks, which all combined to create the world’s first golden lager.
They built the brewery on soft sandstone, so were able to dig deep cellars beneath the brewhouse where the beer could be stored in large wooden barrels at cold temperatures (to make great lager, you need these cold temperatures); they had a natural and very soft water source, which was virtually mineral-free and perfect for brewing lager; they received a good batch of lager yeast from Bavaria, probably thanks to Groll; they were able to get local Czech hops which were deeply aromatic; and, fundamentally, they used a new malting process, something pioneered in Britain and which was slowly being used in Germany and Austria, to produce pale malts instead of dark ones.
Put more simply: soft water, pale malts, fragrant hops, clean lager yeast, cold cellars, and knowledge of Bavarian lagerbrewing techniques. All of these factors had to come together to create the world’s first golden lager and that happened on October 5th 1842 when Josef Groll brewed the first batch of beer at the new Citizens’ Brewery in Pilsen. It was ready to drink on November 11th 1842 and was an immediate success in the town.
We take bright golden lagers for granted today because the style has been aped around the world, but over 175 years ago this was an industry-defining moment that quickly spread change throughout Europe and then America. By the end of the 19th century, pale and amber lagers were known worldwide.
What’s great is how the brewery has preserved its heritage, continuing to brew as closely as possible to the way Groll did, meaning the original Pilsner is still brewed in the original way. For example, they still use copper kettles when most other breweries use steel; those kettles are wood-fired, creating a hot spot that gives a caramelized quality to the malts, which is amplified by the brew going through a triple decoction, taking a portion of the wort and grain out of the mash tun and rapidly boiling it before returning it to the rest of the mash. They still use Czech Saaz hops, where the beer’s 39 units of bitterness require a very large amount of these subtle, fragrant hops to be added. They still have a similar timescale from when the beer is brewed to when the beer is ready to drink (about five weeks). The brewery still employs a team of coopers to produce and repair the wooden barrels. And, while most of the Pilsner might now be matured in steel instead of wood, they have maintained that traditional wood-fired element of the beer’s history and this is the part that’s the truly unmissable world-beer experience.
Today when you visit the brewery and go on the tour, you end up in the old brewery cellars—at their peak there were 5^ miles (9km) of cellars cut under the city, where everything after brewing and before drinking took place. To preserve the history, the brewery still ferments and matures beer in large wooden barrels down there, and to stand in the cold, damp cellars, to be deep underground surrounded by history and old wooden barrels filled with beer, is to get a very rare insight into what beer would have been like in the 19th century. The unfiltered Pilsner Urquell in the brewery cellars is lightly hazy; it has a thick, white foam that holds all those wonderful Saaz hop aromas; the body is smooth, rich, yet very bitter and refreshing. This is the closest we’ll get to drinking what Josef Groll presented to the people of Pilsen in 1842.
If you have to chose just one experience to try from this my blog, make it this one.
It’s the setting and the story that make Pilsner Urquell brewery so special: thousands of people have worked underground there, while millions more have drunk the original golden lager they produced—the brew that changed beer forever. It’s a special beer, a hallowed brewing location, and the ultimate Beer Bucket List tick.
WHAT: Pilsner Urquell Brewery
HOW: Guided 90 -minute tours throughout the day. Pilsen is a 90-minute train ride from Prague’s central station. If you want more of the unfiltered beer, then Na Parkanu, in Pilsen, serves it year-round (www.prazdrojvisit.cz).
WHERE: U Prazdroje 7, 304 97 Pilsen, Czech Republic
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