27 July 2010

The Disneyland of Beer

This is the Radbuzy River that runs through Plzen.

This river, and the natural springs underground, are world-reknowned for having incredibly soft water, i.e. water with very few metallic impurities.

It is from this river that some ninety percent of the world's beer produced by volume stems. It is from this source that all American macrobrews and most large breweries around the world get their style guidelines.

This tiny little water source, barely a trickle compared to the world's largest rivers, has had amazing impact on the world of beer.

Because this river flows along the site where, in 1842, German brewer Joseph Groll was hired to make quality beer in Plzen, in what is now the Czech Republic. And because of the nearly unique water chemistry in this river and the springs nearby, it was possible to make crisp, clean, golden lagers for the very first time.

The guided tour didn't mention it, but to set eyes on this location was to be at one of the very centers of the history of brewing in the world. This may be the single most important location in the last two centuries of brewing.

But let's get back to that guided tour, shall we?

Standing in front of the visitor center
Getting to Plzen wasn't a huge deal. We ended up taking a Student Agency bus, two tickets on the 11:00 to Plzen ran about 100 crowns each, so for less than ten bucks and an hour of our time we were in Plzen. We hopped a cab from the bus station to the brewery, me using the extremely limited Czech I had to supplement the cab driver's limited English.

"Pivovar Pilsner Urquell?" I queried.

A nod.

"Kolik to stoji?"

"One hundred crowns, more or less."

Five bucks. We could handle that. Along the way the driver pulled out a map, spread it across the steering wheel. "You want Museum or Pivovar?"

I hadn't realized they were separate. "Uh... pivovar... Pilsner Urquell."

The guy nodded, folded up his map, took us the rest of the way. We pulled in through a metal gate and he looked back at me, "One hundred twenty crowns."

Wouldn't you love to drink that beer?
I paid him,  then said in careful Czech, "Vy... anglickty je dobre. Dekuji." He smiled, nodded, and went about his day. I find that complimenting the English of the locals is usually the kind of thing that gets karmically rewarded, and since even the most rudimentary English is better than my Czech, I tend to err on the side of gratuity when complimenting the English of others.

Anyway, we went inside and found a large gallery of Pilsner Urquell advertistements from decades past. We also signed up for the tour, in English, which was cheaper if we paid in Czech crowns than in Euros. Definitely worth keeping Czech crowns, at least as of now. The tour was to begin in about twenty minutes, so at the advice of the woman behind the desk, we both used the restroom and sat on a bench waiting for our tour guide.

The tour group.
Soon, the guide appeared, greeted us in English, and bade us outside. We then were given a brief outline of what we were to do. First we'd visit the bottling plant where we could see, well, the bottling and canning line. Then we'd take a quick walk over to an area where we'd see what kinds of ingredients were used in the beer. Third we'd see the old brewery, no longer in use, but kept in condition for historical purposes, then we'd go and see the new, working brewery.

Sounded good to us. First we got on a packed bus over to the other side of the brewery to visit the bottling

On the way over I started to get a strong aroma of boiling wort and crisp Saaz hops. It smelled like a brew day in my garage, but ten thousand times stronger. It's clear that the brewery operates basically 24/7 to keep up with demand, but it definitely set the mood well to be able to get that kind of whiff before even getting to the tour itself.

 The bottling facility was about as interesting as bottling facilities are ever going to be, lots of industrial moving of green bottles and a few bored workers trying to keep their quotas up.

Bottling is probably the most visually interesting part of the brewing process, and it works well at impressing those uninterested in the details of brewing, but it's actually pretty dull. Lots of loud machinery moving moving around, lots of clanking glass. I haven't see the bottling operation of a small brewery, but Pilsner Urquell is a monster, a large industrial brewery that makes enough beer to quench the thirst of a large proportion of the world. I'm sure it's small potatoes compared to what we could find in St. Louis, but it's clear that current owners SABMiller really get their money's worth out of this facility.

The water tower in the center of the brewery, now unused
Next we went into the "ingredients used in making our beer" facility. I'm about ninety percent sure I was the only person who'd ever brewed in the group, as this was by far the least interesting part of the tour for me.

There was a large stone wall from which dripped "pure Plzen water" from which the beer is made, and they had huge amounts of pilsner malt in pits on the floor that you could handle. I took a nice sniff of the malt, and am pretty sure that if the tour is accurate, they're not using any specialty malts in the brew.
They also had a large barrel of leaf hops, dry with age, but still fairly aromatic. I'm pretty certain it's only Saaz used in the brew. I ended up taking a few of the leaves and rubbing them into my hands and forearms as a kind of beer cologne.

They also has a litle bit where you could "look through a microscope" at yeast, but they were just little eyepieces attached to video feeds of yeast cells. Not that I'd necessarily expect a random tour group to know how to handle a microscope, but it'd have been nice to actually have to exert some slight bit of effort.

Um... I'm just gonna hang out here, okay?
Going to the next building we really got into "Disneyland of Beer" territory, as there was a short video displayed on a panoramic screen describing the history and making of Pilsner Urquell beer. The whole process reminded me of nothing other than that scene in Jurassic Park where you see John Hammond do the big audio-visual spectacle version of how cloning works in context of the movie. This, plus the chirpy tour guide and the cardboard displays, is really the impetus for the whole "Disneyland of beer" title we've beststowed on the place.

The most interesting part of the presentation was the claim that Pilsner Urquell is "triple-mashed" and "triple-hopped." Marketing hype, or something real? They claim that the wort is drained from the mash three times, but is that to make a kind of decoction mash, or are they just doing it in stages for eventual re-mixing and boiling? The triple hopping makes a bit more sense, as Urquell is by far the hoppiest beer I've had from a mainstream Czech Lager perspective while here. Attempts to glean information from the tour guide were unsuccessful, as her knowledge of the technical aspects of brewing were minimal.

Next it was time to visit the old brewery. Rows of old brew kettles, all copper, currently unused. The tour guide claimed that the particular roasted taste of Pilsner Urquell comes about because of the extended boil in copper kettles. Since seeing the actual boil kettles, I have started noticing a bit of roasted caramel way down at the bottom of the flavor profile of Pilsner Urquell, but that could easily just be me fooling myself.

After the old brewery, we got the chance to see the new state-of-the-art industrial brewery. Upon stepping inside it became obvious that brewing was going on (had it not been obvious already), not only because of the amazing smell of boiling wort filling the air, but the steam-room like conditions. It was definitely above a hundred degrees, humid as hell, and we were a good twenty feet above the actual kettles.

Then it was time for the historical portion of the tour. We saw numerous documents relating to the history of the brewery, namely the original proclamation giving the brewery the right to make beer, that sort of thing. We saw a huge iron sandbox-looking thing that I'm assuming was either a mash tun or a malting bed.

And we saw a piece of exposed wall, a hundred-and-fifty years old and more, that was one of the original walls of the brewery. While the rest of the group was filtering out I took a momentary opportunity to get a shot of myself standing in front of it. Such a piece of brewing history doesn't come along every day, you know, even if it's not so visually impressive.

Then it was time to go into the cellars. We were warned it was cold down there, but after the ninety-plus degree heat we'd been living through for the last couple of weeks, it was actually quite welcome. I got a shot of Shana standing next to the marker of where the most recent flooding filled the caverns, way back in 2002. Such markers are all around Prague, as that was truly a hundred-year flood, and it seems that everyone in the Czech Republic has commemorated it in some way or another. Seeing it in the cellars here made me wonder how much beer was lost to the flood....

To the left you see the tour group standing in front of large wooden lagering barrels. It turns out that while these caverns and these wooden barrels were used for nearly a century and a half, modern-day brewing at Pilzensky Prazdroj is done with more modern equipment, with lagering done in refrigerators instead of in this more traditional way.

So what's going on in the barrels? Well, as it turns out, visitors to the brewery get a bit of a special treat. They actually make a small amount of Pilsner Urquell in the traditional way, aged in the oak barrels, and served unfiltered and unpressurized. The only way to get ahold of this substance is to (wait for it) go on the tour we'd just been on.

This is me standing in front of the fermenter. That's right, an open fermenter in a dank cavern, with a nice thick layer of yeasty scum on top. Looks disgusting, right? Well, not so much to the eye of one who has made beer themselves, as we're all too familiar with how the yeasty nasties actually make great stuff.

Still.... an open fermentation process? Wouldn't that make the beer... sour in the absence of strict environmental control?

And well it did, as the sample I got had very slight but distinct sour notes, alongside a strong yeasty quality. I shot a quick-and-dirty review of the sample on Shana's digital camera, but I haven't had the chance to edit it and upload it yet. Suffice to say that it was a fascinating sample, and I would have loved to have spoken to the brewers at the facility to pick their brains about how it was made.

Then, after a quick trip to the old ice cellars to see how brewers handled lagering without refrigeration (and which wasn't really interesting enough for me to take photos of), it was that time again. That's right: time for lunch.

To be honest, I don't even remember what we ordered, but I remember it was simple, hearty, and reasonably priced. And when I was asked what I wanted to drink, my response was, "Pilsner, of course," as we were eating in the restaurant attached to the brewery.

Then it was time for the brewing museum, which as it turned out was only a few minutes' walk from the brewery itself. Along the way, we saw some pretty cool street art pieces and some great old architecture, photos of which you can see in the Facebook photo album I posted a few days ago.

The museum staff didn't seem all that happy to help us, probably because it was a slow period and we were about the only ones taking any of their time, but they gave us a couple of English-language comb-bound guides and we were on our way well enough. The guides were decent, but not organized very well, and I found myself just disregarding them and figuring stuff out for myself most of the time.

I was looking through my photos and I thought I took more from the museum, but I really only got about ten or so. It was an interesting museum, I guess, but just not a whole lot worth taking photos of. Lots of old brewing equipment and some brewerania from Pilsner Urquell and other, now defunct, Plzen breweries, but not much else.

After the museum we stopped by the attached "1930s-style" pub (Pivnice Na Parkane), where I picked up a half-liter of the unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, which is naturally yeastier and a bit drier than the normal stuff. I haven't seen the unfiltered in bottles anywhere, but it's quite a nice beer if you can get it.

Shana ordered the garlic soup, which is a nearly perfect dish you can get in many Czech restaurants. Perfect because it's basically just broth infused with tons of garlic, with maybe some onions and bread to top it and give it some substance. This bowl had the added surprise of having cheese slowly melting at the bottom, which after it had picked up the huge amounts of garlic was simply amazing.

This pub was actually a really great experience overall. You'd expect such a place to be tourist-heavy, but about half of the patrons there seemed to be locals visiting the corner pub, and the server was one of the nicest guys I've had wait on me while I've been here. He asked us where we were from, seemed genuinely interested, and after we paid our (small) bill, offered to call us a cab so we could get back to the bus station and thus to Prague. I'd definitely recommend stopping by this pub to anyone visiting the museum, if nothing else for the garlic soup and the unflitered Pilsner.

So that was our trip to Plzen. Not exactly the most stunning prose I've ever produced, but hopefully interesting nonetheless. Soon I'll put up posts detailing the other brewpubs and breweries we've visited, as well as a beer bar or two.

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