As soon as I took my seat in the blacked out mini bus a pint size can of Pilsner Urquell was put in my hand, it was the first of many, the start to my first visit to Prague and the beginning to 24 hours in the Czech Republic. After a slight delay on our outbound flight we were picked up by our guide Marketa Cranfordova and taken straight to Čestr Restaurant in Prague for dinner with Pilsner Urquell’s Beer Master Robert Lobovsky.
Čestr is an impressive slick steak restaurant which serves perfect pints of Pilsner Urquell. Pale wooden colours surround the room, tables, floors, walls, chairs all light shades of brown, almost giving it a feeling of being covered in gold. A huge diagram of all the different cuts of beef hung over us, informing everyone in the restaurant which cut of steak comes from where. The restaurant prides itself on rediscovering maturing processes and different cuts of meat which rarely can be seen today. The restaurant has an in house butchery making sure the meat is treated to perfection all the way till it’s on your plate. Glasses of Pilsner Urquell was a constant flow, glass after glass as we chatted with Robot Lobovsky and Marketa Cranfordova. We spoke about the history of the Czech Republic, about times when they had to queue for food and had to follow recipe books, compared to how things are now in a modern day Prague, where new restaurants are experimenting with new flavours and ways of cooking. Robot spoke of his fascinating life, telling us how he was born in Pilsen but was moved to Australia as a child. As he grew up he fell in love with his Czech roots and eventually returning to Pilsen and forcing his way into a job at Pilsner Urquell. It was great to hear the passion he had for his home town and its rich brewing history.
The food was incredible, I enjoyed Beef Sashimi, which was the best pieces of the fresh tenderloin, sake, mirin, apple jam with ginger starter, then for mains I had an incredible skirt cut of beef which had been matured for 28 days, the chips were enough for two but I gave it my all to finish it. Dinner was followed by an after dinner glass of Slivotiz, served in one of the oddest glasses I’ve seen, looking like a candle holder with all the apricot brandy flowing through the steam of the glass.
After dinner we had a short walk to Lokàl, a large modern beer hall. The front of Lokàl is deceiving, although it isn’t too wide as soon as you step in you are standing in front of a very long narrow bar, with tables lining up against the left hand side of the hall. Modern peculiar art dancing along the wooden walls, I can’t help but think there is a student vibe due to the art and younger drinking crowd. Although it was late it was still very busy and the noise of friends talking over glasses of Tankovna Pilnser Urquell echoed down the hall. The Lokàl tapster stood behind his bar with huge tanks of Pilsner Urquell, I had seen the huge tanks in some of the Draft House pubs in London but never really stopped to think about them, with a face on the tank looking like a distressed Thomas the Tank Engine they provide drinkers with an unpasteurised beer that is incredibly fresh and as close to the taste of drinking straight in the cellars as possible. A few beers were drunk as I got to know my fellow travellers, although one main difference was table service I got a feel that the Czech drinking scene wasn’t too far from our own, large groups of friends sat together drinking glass after glass as they chatted and laughed. Time passed and last orders came, our hotel was directly across the street from Lokàl and our guide Marketa retired for the evening.
Although the hotel was a stones throw away from Lokàl, the bright lights of the Prague Beer Museum was a few doors away and drawing us in! It seemed rude to come all this way and not sample some other Czech Republic delights before bed time. The Prague Beer Museum is a darkly lit craft beer bar which was the first bar in Prague to have 30 different beers on tap.
Outside is a large glass window with the bar logo spread across it, exposing the happy customers within. Just like Lokàl the bar is narrow but reaches back further than I explored, the huge long bar to the right grabbed my attention and kept me there. Pilsner Urquell sat among some of Czech Republic’s microbreweries, backing up what we had heard from Robert earlier in the evening about Pilsner Urquell being the country’s most popular drink. It was interesting to hear someone from a large brewery such as Pilsner Urquell talk positively about craft beer as we had briefly over dinner, commenting on how currently people are getting to know beer better and appreciate its quality thus bringing Pilsner Urquell back into the equation for the bench mark of a quality lager.
Different nationalities took seats around the bar and it didn’t take long before we were talking to beer geeks from Norway and America. I was recommended a Double IPA from Pivovar Mordýř by a very enthusiastic group of American girls on a night out and they were certainly not wrong. The Double IPA from Pivovar Mordýř was a perfectly balanced juicy Double IPA, which matched many of the Double IPA’s I have had at home this year. Reuben Gray, beer writer behind the blog “The Tale of the Ale” had previously sampled most the range prior to us arriving and recommended a Black IPA from a brewery that passed me by. Oli Gross from The Morning Advertiser also enjoyed the Black IPA and it was good to talk some beer conversation before hitting the pillow.
After a spot of breakfast at the Hotel Josef and an hour or so drive we pulled up at the main gates of the Pilsner Urquell brewery. After spending most my brewery visits in small microbreweries over the last year or so I thought that the Hook Norton Brewery was big, if that was big then Pilsner Urquell can only be described as a city! It is huge! Buses take visitors from one part of the brewery to another. Marketa Cranfordova was a brilliant guide and showed us around the brewery, first starting with the bottling lines.
In front of us was this huge operation who were busy at work, 60,000 bottles per hour whizzed past our eyes. Green and brown bottles flew past us as 10,000’s of bottle caps made their journey from the bottom of the machine to eye level with us, being carried to a different part of the room to be capped onto the bottles. I can only imagine how different this room would have once looked in times long before this sort of technology. Parts of the tour you are shown the original brewery, which is only for museum purposes now days, but also you get to see the newer working parts of the brewery in all its glory. The brewery flowed well into the different parts of the brewing process making the whole tour interesting for beer geeks and non-beer lovers alike.
They most impressive part of the brewery tour is without doubt the cellars, a huge maze of cave like cellars storing huge wooden barrels of unfiltered and unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell sits underneath the brewery. They are simply stunning. After the warmth of the brewery walking into the cool cellars is heavenly. My mind is blown at the thought of how these cellars were created and once was the main brewery where all the original Pilsner Urquell was brewed. Even more mind blowing was when I am told how they kept the beer cool with huge ice cubes and how they got them into the cellars.
The cellar is the highlight of the tour and to really top it all off you get to sample the unfiltered, unpasteurised, matured Pilsner Urquell straight from the wooden barrels. This glass of Pilsner Urquell is as close to the very first Pilsner Urquell as you will ever get, as close to the first ever pale lager that was brewed. One of the reasons Pilsen Urquell has done so well is down to the water in Pilsen, it is so soft and has hardly any minerals, providing the perfect canvas for Pilsner Urquell to create their beer. As the cellar tapster poured us our beer, in the cool eerie surroundings of the cellar I thought to myself that this here was one of the world’s top beer experiences and would be worth the brewery tour entrance fee alone. The beers are still matured in the wooden barrels down in the cellar so they can make sure that the new Pilsner Urquell still tastes the same as it should. As much as I enjoy Pilsner Urquell, and there is possibilities that I may get to try the unfiltered version again at future events, drinking a lager will never be as perfect as this moment in the cellars of Pilsner Urquell brewery.
Unfortunately, as much as I would have loved to sit under the barrels and pour Pilsner directly from the barrel into my mouth we had to move on! As we walked down the stairs to the brewery restaurant it was impossible not to be taken back by how big it was, a huge food hall with long tables set up for lunch. We walked through the restaurant to the corner of the room where the current trainee tapsters representing their respective London Draft Houses, Robert Lobovsk and the Head Brewmaster Vaclav Berka all sat waiting for us to join them. As we ordered our food we chatted with the tapsters and heard stories from their 5 days training. The food defeated me, as I ordered the sausage for starters I was given a look of “are you sure” from the waitress which indicated that my order may have been slightly bigger than I anticipated, she was correct. If there is one thing I will take back from the Czech Republic it is that they love eating meat, meat on meat with potatoes on the side, I guess it is to soak up all that Pilsner Urquell! My pork shoulder finished me off I could hardly move! Plates of Czech style beef tartar surrounded the table and although I’m not usually a fan of tartar this version was really good, it would do well in London and maybe the guys at Draft House should look at putting it on their menus to pair with their Tankova Pilsner Urquell. Once the food was finished it was time to see the tapsters training in action, we tested each of them on their Pilsner pouring and they all passed with flying colours. To finish the trip we watched the tapsters receive their certification of becoming an official tapster, all passing and leaving with a bag full of Pilsner Urquell goodies including their own tapster apron and tap cleaning kit.
There was one last session with Robert Lobovsk before we made our way back to the airport, we were given a final tour of the staff side of the brewery followed by a mini tapster lesson of our own. It gave us a chance to ask Robert some questions about the tapster programme and get a better understanding to why they invest in tapsters, you can read more about it here. To test us and see if we were listening Robert let us a quick go on the taps ourselves, feeling overly confident I went first, pouring a pretty decent Mliko, my Hladinka however left much to be desired!
I finished with a quick visit to the brewery shop to purchase a tin brewery sign to hang up in my garden bar and we were off back home, some of the group was staying longer in Prague for the weekend but my 24 hours in the Czech Republic was coming to an end.
A slightly delayed journey home gave me time to reflect on the previous day, the Czech Republic beer culture is brilliant, and Pilsner Urquell sits right in the middle of that. I think there is some aspects of what Pilsner Urquell are trying achieve with their tapster training program that us here in the UK Craft Beer scene could learn from. Here in England we have lost the importance of the bar tender, in the Czech Republic the role is celebrated and is also the most paid role in the bar/restaurant, whereas here it can be seen as a quick easy job to earn a few quid. I think it is impossible to be able to guarantee that every beer poured in every pub is 100% as it would be drank from the brewery, but what Pilsner Urquell are doing, with this tapster training and their tank bars across the different Draft House bars, is make that pint of Pilsner Urquell as brewery fresh as possible. If we are paying for a premium product it should be presented and poured to the same level of quality as the beer itself. Draft House are providing this service with their Pilsner Urquell, if you want to sample Pilsner Urquell and its different types of pours then one of the Draft House venues is your best way to sample that beer in the typical Czech style without the short flight to Prague. While walking around the brewery and listening to their staff, one thing that impressed me the most was although it has been through changes ownership wise, and owners that would most likely change the way the brewery works and spends money, Pilsner Urquell have kept the same process and high quality of ingredients. They haven’t cut corners and tried to save money, they have made sure that they have continued to do Pilsen history proud and produce a beer that is as close to the original as possible. Pilsner Urquell changed the world by brewing the first pale lager, I am happy to see that even today they still sit proudly, celebrating its ground breaking beer, and home town, in all its beery goodness.
Disclaimer – This entire trip was complimentary on behalf of Pilsner Urquell, the flights, the hotel, the food and the many many many glasses of Pilsner Urquell was all free. Beers bought in the Prague Beer Museum was bought by myself (or my drinking buddies – cheers guys!) as was the tin Pilsner Urquell sign that sits proudly on the wall of my garden bar! Although this trip was free, I don’t think it affected my opinion on the Czech Republic and its beer scene, nor my views on Pilsner Urquell. I would like to thank Pilsner Urquell, Robert Lobovsk who’s passion and education made the trip, our excellent guide Marketa Cranfordova and Manifest LDN for giving me the opportunity to experience a new beer culture.