An underground tour of Pilsner Urquell, brewers of the world’s first pale lager

There is only one place in the entire world where you can drink Pilsner Urquell – the very first pale lager known to man, invented in a happy accident 176 years ago – unpasteurised, unfiltered, and straight from an oak wooden barrel. At the source. I went on a guided tour with Tourism and Heritage Manager Rudolf Šlehofer to learn the history behind the famous Czech beer, and its traditional brewing methods of triple decoction and parallel brewing in oak lagering barrels.

Photo: Ondřej TomšůPhoto: Ondřej Tomšů So, we are now in the visitors’ centre in the yard of the Pilsen brewery, the place where Pilsner Urquell – the first pale lager in the world – was brewed. Beer and Pilsen have been connected together for more than 700 years now because all citizens in Pilsen have had the right to brew since the 13th century. But during that time, because everybody brewed their own beer, they discovered that the quality of the beer was poor and they needed to change. So they invested in a new brewery, and in 1842 they brewed the new beer. Because they had the newest technology – an English kiln and special raw materials, they invited Josef Groll, the famous Bavarian brewmaster – and they brewed the first pale lager. A little bit by mistake. But they discovered that the beer is tasty, refreshing, with a rich foam, and is tasted so good everyone started to copy it.

What was the ‘mistake’, actually?

They had planned to brew Bavarian-style lager. Something like a semi-dark or red beer, because it was very popular in Bavaria in those times, and because they produced the Pilsen-type malt – a very, very pale malt – and from pale malt you basically brew pale beer. So they brewed something different than they expected.

You were talking earlier about the raw materials. Could you elaborate a bit – were they using the same hops from Saaz (Žatec) that are so famous around the world?

Rudolf Šlehofer, photo: Ondřej TomšůRudolf Šlehofer, photo: Ondřej Tomšů What is practically still the same from the beginning, when we established the brewery and brewed the first brew is that we use the best raw materials ever. For the majority of our beers, we use just the basic ingredients – water, barley, yeast – for Pilsner Urquell, it’s a special strain of yeast called the H-strain – and hops. The hops are from the Saaz region. It’s a very famous Czech type of hops. Very hop-y.

So, every tour starts with the history of the brewery so that every visitor can see a picture of the original brewhouse, when Mr Groll brewed the first Pilsner Urquell and how the brewery was successful in the 19th century and grew over 50 years from the one small brewhouse to the 55 hectares of the industrial brewery.

How did the original building from 1842 compare in size, in scale, to other breweries in the Czech lands?

The first brewery was something like a villa in a garden. A small building with other small buildings around it. But in the quite early history of the brewery it became very, very big. And in our brewery, we really value the history and own every document which is connected with the last 176 years, and visitors can see the original of the documents which established the brewery in 1842.

Could you tell us what we’re looking at now?

We’re looking at a document that was undersigned by 256 families which invested their money in 1842 and decided to build the new brewery.

How much would a family need to invest? Was it all the same amount? And how did this come about?

Yes, the money was equal for every family, because every family owned one right (share) in the future brewery.

And at that time was it not common to turn to banks? Or was this a community effort?

Honestly, I don’t know. But this type of business was unique in those times and even now because there were the rights to brew the beer and one way, particularly in the Industrial Revolution, was to setup a new industrial company. So they invested their rights and their money to build it.

Home to the biggest pub in the Czech lands

We are now in the main yard of the Pilsen brewery. It’s a public place, open to the public minimally 19 hours per day. We organise concerts, summer cinemas and fairs for our visitors. Here is the biggest pub in the Czech Republic – 550 seats – and also a brand new bar, where we offer the beer to our visitors.

From what time in the morning?

From nine o’clock! These premises of the brewery yard were used for the normal production of the beer before it became a public place. And this road in the middle of the yard was the main road to Prague, but the owners of the brewery had to buy it from the city because they needed to expand the brewery.

What year was that?

Around the year 1870 – something like that.

It almost looks like a town in itself. But that came much later, many years later?

It came much later. What it looks like now is from the beginning of the 21th century. Before that, it was really used for the production of the beer, and at the beginning of this century it was decided to open to the public and invest in improving the condition of the yard.

Water as soft as newborn

Photo: Ondřej TomšůPhoto: Ondřej Tomšů Now, we are in an exhibition of the raw materials. And here in the first place is the malt – we have our own Malthouse and make all that we need for the production of the beer. And we use only Czech barley, which we source from 140 to 150 local farmers because we want to have full control over the quality of the malt. With high-quality malt, we can brew high-quality beer.

And the water itself is also from local springs?

The water is from our wells. We have five well, 100 metres deep, and we brew the beer just from this water, just from these wells.

So, we are now at the bottom of our wells, and we use this water for all the beer we produce here in Pilsen. It’s very soft water, high quality, practically the quality of the newborn child water.

And here you can see the Saaz hops. It’s the last ingredient that we put into the beer. You can taste it – it’s really, really bitter. It’s the original variety which was used since the beginning to brew Pilsner Urquell.

And this machine is for –

You can mill a little bit of the hops that we use and taste it. Yes – it’s really bitter. [laughs] It’s something like the spice of the beer because you don’t need so much hops for the beer. You need a lot of malt but a little bit – only a little bit of hops. It’s really the spice.

Just for the flavour…

For the flavour and the aroma. Hops were not part of beer in the beginning. It was discovered in the Middle Ages that it helped to conserve the beer and also to support the taste.

The Hall of Fame (and Shame)

Photo: Anders Adermark on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-NDPhoto: Anders Adermark on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Here we are in the Hall of Fame. You can see pictures of all brewmasters – all 16 are on the wall, including the first one, Mr Groll. He was here only three years because he was very, very hard on the people and they didn’t like it. He brought the German ‘drill’, I would say. And the Pilsen citizens and brewers weren’t so happy about this.

And this is very, very interesting – it’s Kettle No. 1. So, in this kettle, made from copper, Mr Groll brewed the first Pilsner Urquell. It’s the biggest artefact that we have on the tour, and we were quite lucky because at least twice in history it had to be hidden, because of world wars. If we were not lucky, it would probably be some gun.

Melted down into a gun…

Melted down into some army stuff.

Now we are in an old brewhouse, where we still brewed the beer until 2004. And this kettle shows what is really special about the Pilsner Urquell beer. We still use direct heat, which is definitely not usual on the industrial scale. So there is a flame – now a natural gas flame – and there is a copper bottom. And the reason is that at the bottom there is 680 degrees Celsius. This means that the sweet content in the vat caramelizes a little bit. So at the beginning, you have the bitter taste of the Pilsner Urquell, and at the end, it’s a little bit of the sweet.

Is there some property of copper than is more suited to the production of beer than other metals?

Honestly, nobody knows. The biggest advantage of the copper is that it leaves the heat in a proper way. In the 19th century, it was standard material for brewing, Nowadays, the standard is stainless steel, for many reasons. But for Pilsner Urquell, because it is the traditional beer, we use three machines. A normal beer has one or maybe two. Three is unique. So we use the direct heating, like in the beginning, because we want to maintain the same brewing procedure as 176 years ago.

So all those years ago, it was also done in three steps?

Definitely. From the beginning it’s the root origin of Pilsner Urquell – the triple machine process.

Some like it hot – then cold

Photo: Ondřej TomšůPhoto: Ondřej Tomšů Could you tell me where we are now – and how hot is it?

So, we are now in a place we’re really proud of. It’s our new brewhouse, the heart of the brewery. We have here close to 40 degrees Celsius. It’s where Pilsner Urquell is brewed for the whole world. It’s the only place where we brew it.

What’s that sound signal?

This bell means that the brew is done. The brew is finished and it’s ready to be moved to the cellars.

Please be careful because the floor can be a bit slippery. There’s a constant temperature throughout the year of something between 8 and 12 degrees Celsius. Now we are something like 8 metres under the surface, and it’s sandstone. The deepest point is something like 20 metres underground.

We’re in the brewery cellars, and on the door is written 1839. It’s the same year when the citizens of Pilsen decided to invest their money into the new brewery. Three years before the brewery started operations, they started to cut the cellars. We have nine kilometres of cellars and the brewers needed 50 years to cut it, in the sandstone, and it was finished in something like 1896. On the surface, just the brewing process is done, then the brew is moved to the cellars for the fermentation, maturation and also filling of the kegs.

We use only several hundred metres of the cellars for the tour – and also for some production of the beer, because as you will see in a second, we still produce the beer in the original way. And I think it is the last place in a modern industrial brewery where beer is produced in oak barrels in the traditional way.

And that deepest point that you mentioned, of 20 metres below, is that used for anything in particular?

No, it’s just because of the surface – because the brewery is on a hill. Now we are very close to the river, so there is not such a deep cellar underground, but on the hill there is a lot of sandstone.

But still, the temperature would change a bit – doesn’t that affect the storage?

Practically not because it is an open system. So because it is so large – and it was cooled down by ice melting, because we harvest the ice on the ponds and rivers around Pilsen, and later through artificial cooling, the temperature was very stable. Practically the same in all of the system.

Photo: Ondřej TomšůPhoto: Ondřej Tomšů Here you can see how we brew the beer in the old traditional way. We brew it in the brewhouse, which you saw earlier, and ferment it in these open, oak barrels for 10 days. After 10 days, it’s fermented, and the temperature of the beer has increased every day by a half degree. And after the fermentation, we move the beer to the maturation vessels in these oak barrels, and mature the beer for a further 25 days.

And the temperature increase results from the fermentation…

Yes, as a result of the work of the yeast, which consumes the sugars in the beer and extracts the C02 and some alcohol.

So, now let’s take a glass and taste the beer that we produce here in the cellars. It’s the only place in the world where you can taste the non-pasteurised, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell from an oak wooden barrel.

The only place in the whole world?

The only place in the whole word!

Na zdraví!

Na zdraví!