The world's first golden lager beer remains in excellent shape today — but its traditional taste is worth remembering, says Roger Protz.
My first visit to the Pilsner Urquell brewery left me desperately needing a drink. Clearly, I'd come to the right place to slake my thirst. However, I was shaking not with the DTs, but fear.
It was the late 1980s and the world-famous brewery that had produced the first golden lager beer in 1842 was under Government control in communist Czechoslovakia. It was difficult to get permission to visit most Czech breweries in those days but Pilsner Urquell was always open to tourists, who brought much-needed hard currency to the country.
I was shown a film that covered the history of the brewery and was then taken on a tour of the plant. It ended in cold, dank sandstone cellars where the beer matured in vast wooden casks. As I stood admiring a cavern filled with casks, I heard shouts and yells. I turned and saw a wooden lager tank hurtling down the corridor towards me. Was this how I would meet my end: flattened by a beer barrel?
At the last moment, the vessel swung to the right and careered down another corridor. I could now see there were two workmen behind it, expertly controlling its passage. Incapable of coherent speech, I returned to the surface and hurried to the visitors' tavern for a swift gallon of beer.
And what beer it was! Pilsner Urquell was astonishingly complex. It had a high level of hops, but the bitterness of the beer was offset by a rich juicy malt character. It was not only matured in wood — primary fermentation also took place in wooden vessels. And it was the beer that transformed brewing on its head in the 19th century. Until the golden beer appeared in 1842, lager was dark in colour — the result of curing malt over wooden fires.
When a new brewery was planned in the city of Pilsen, Martin Stelzer, the architect hired to design the plant toured other brewing nations to study new methods of making beer. He returned with a malt kiln from England, where the first pale ales had been developed. He also brought back to Pilsen a German brewer called Josef Groll who was experienced at producing cold-fermented lager: at the time all the regular beers in Pilsen were brewed by the ale method of warm fermentation.
When Groll's first brew was launched in 1842, it was a sensation: a golden beer with a rich collar of foam, a fascinating aroma of malt and hops and a wonderfully quenching character. Pilsen in those days was the industrial centre of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Within a few years, the beer from Pilsen was the empire's biggest brand, exported throughout Europe, then to Scandinavia and finally to the United States.
With the exception of the British Isles, where brewers stuck doggedly to ale and stout, the rest of the world rushed to emulate the beer from Pilsen. The Bohemian plant had first been called the Citizens' Brewery but, under the onslaught of global competition, changed its name to Pilsner Urquell. In German it means "Original Source of Pilsner".
When the communist regimes of central and eastern Europe collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the Pilsen brewery was privatised and within a couple of years the wooden fermenting and lagering tanks were replaced with modern steel conical vessels.
When I toured the brewery in the mid-1990s I wept at the tragic loss of a great brewing tradition and said I thought the new beer was a travesty of the original. I was told by the new owners that Czech consumers were happy with the new beer. I pointed out that the Czechs weren't used to complaining: it had been a capital offence until 1989.
Pilsner Urquell was taken over by the global brewing giant SABMiller and the London office of the company told me it was upset by my criticisms of the beer, in particular in my book, 300 Beers To Try Before You Die. After many delays, I returned to Pilsen this month and entered, via an imposing Napeolonic arch, one of the world's iconic breweries.
I was taken round by brewmasters Vaclav Berka and Pavel Prucha, men who burst with pride for their brewery and its end product. The brewery has not departed from the original method, known as triple decoction mashing, where the malt is heated three times with pure soft water to extract the maximum sugars from the grain.
The major difference lies in the cellars, where fermentation and maturation take place in metal vessels. Messrs Berka and Prucha told me lagering takes 35 days and felt I was misinformed in the 1980s when I was told maturation lasted for 70 days.
I was delighted to see a few of the old wooden tanks on display: the brewery continues to ferment and mature small batches of beer in wood as a control. This beer is not available to the public, but I was given a sample — I raised a glass to my lips and recalled yesterday.
My verdict is as follows: after almost two decades of change, the modern version of Pilsner Urquell is now an excellent beer, deeply refreshing, with a good hop character and delicious toasted malt.
But it's a different beer, as the sample from the wood proved. I'm probably the only person on the planet who cares, but I do mourn the passing of a noble tradition in a brewery that turned beer on its head in 1842.