Pilsner Urquell

Only a five minute walk from the main train station in Plzen lies the monument to world class Pilsner style beer, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. Two arches of the main gate first greet visitors merely with the dates 1842-1892 in Roman and Arabic. The brewery gives tours throughout the day, but "walk-up" visitors are only accommodated at 12:30. This fact is not well publicized, so beware. The Gambrinus brewery is also located here but not open to public tours. Multiple guides greet the walk-up visitors inside the main gate at a waiting room. Groups are organized by language preference, with German, Czech and English easily accommodated. The tour lasts about 60 minutes and costs 70 kr, about $2 USD. Student tickets are 30 kr and kids are free. The tour begins with a 10 minute "kaleidoscope" movie covering the history of the brewery. The tour proceeds past a picturesque 28 meter high tower. Built in 1904, it holds 700,000 liters of water destined for some phase of brewing activity. Inside, a wall illustration shows the steps of the current brewing process. Today, 13 sets of copper brewing vessels use a triple-decoction mash regimen followed by a two hour boil. The brewhouse is capable of 24-hour operation if required. Next, the batch of beer begins its primary fermentation in an 800 hecto liter (hl) stainless steel cylindro-conical tank (CKT). A secondary fermentation later takes place in three 300 hl (250 barrel) CKTs. The use of stainless steel was a major change the brewery made in 1992. By eliminating over 800 primary and 6000 secondary vessels the business reduced the overall production cycle time from 3 months down to two months.

A short videotape shows visitors the amount of craftsmanship that goes into the lagering vessels and the muscle power needed to move them throughout the lagering cellar. Until 1992 150 cellar workers were required to move the beer through the nine kilometers of corridors in the three-story cellar system. Today the beer rests in 800 kilogram oak lagering tanks at 2 degrees C for 30 days. The tour turns interactive as it next stops at 12 open and very active wooden fermenters. Here, amongst the surrounding sandstone walls, visitors can experience the famous beer in its traditional setting. With the dampness condensing on everything in sight, the guide stops the group and pours everyone a small sample directly from one of the wooden vessels. This "original" 12 ° Pilsner Urquell features a full mouthfeel with a very slight but benign sulfury flavor, where the rich hops dominate the flavor profile with a very smooth bitterness. This version has yeasty notes and fermentation by-products evident in the final flavor that you'll never find in any of the 50,000 bottles that leave the bottling line each hour. 5 million hl a year now reach internationally into 52 countries.

Since the subterranean sample is just a tease, it's time to locate a site for some serious sampling. The closest is the restaurant Na Spilce inside the brewery compound. Ornately decorated, it offers fresh beer in an elegant setting. For something a little more casual, the Pivorsky Restaurant just outside the gate should do the trick. A long "full bar" features Pilsner Urquell along with Gambrinus Light and Dark. Serving sizes are .5 and .3 liters, poured from ornate circa-1900 tap towers underneath a large shiny copper dome. Seating includes tall tables and chairs at the center of the long room, with four padded booths toward one end. A souvenir section fills the opposite end of the room. Black & white prints, framed and lit, highlight historical scenes of the city. Stained glass and frosted windows mute the bright sunshine while English Pop music sets an upbeat mood. The light menu offers traditional Czech fare, with the Urquell Goulash simple and well matched to accompany the fresh pilsner. Prices are reasonable and the service very friendly. The perfect setting to reflect on the progress that brewing has made in Pilsen since 1295.

Travel Tip : Multiple non-stop trains run daily between Prague and the fares run just a few dollars.

 Prazdroj  long view  welcome landmark
 corner sign  hold that barrel  so much beer, so little time freshness
 tastes waiting  fill 'er up  the beer stops here open fermenter

Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - September, 1999

Pilsner Urquell
U Prazdroje 7
304 97 Plzen, Czech Republic
420/19/706 11 11 FAX 420/19/706 27 15

Restaurant NA SPLICE
U Prazdroje 1
Tel 420/19/706 27 54 FAX 420/19/706 27 03

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