April 1st, 2015
Easter holidays. Spring. A time when flowers starts to bloom and snow...continues to fall. No, that’s not an April fool. The first two days of April in the Czech Republic saw a deluge of the white stuff crash from the sky. Just the kind of weather that makes most people want to stay inside…
But not me! It’s the holidays, which means adventure time. A desire to save for a bigger, more extreme trip in the summer has meant that I’m staying put in Prague for the majority of our two-week break. However, there was one day trip which I could easily justify. The Czech Republic’s spiritual home of the amber nectar it is famed for across the globe. A pilgrimage to Plzen.
The country’s fourth-largest city is often referred to in negative terms; an industrial cesspit when compared to other, prettier towns in the area such as Karlovy Vary. The weather, a swirl of bitter wind and driving rain/snow, didn't help to dismiss this notion.
It is famous for two things, both of which are visible around the Czech Republic. It is the home of the Škoda Engineering Works (you may know their cars) and is also the original, undisputed source of Pilsner beer, which is one of most commonly copied types of the product across the world.
Chances are you will have tried a pilsner beer at some point, though not necessarily a Czech variety. It is a type of pale lager which is the basis of many popular European beers, including Heineken, Beck’s and Stella Artois. We were told that 70% of all beer manufactured is derived from the ‘pilsner’ idea. The original recipe, created on October 5th, 1842, is for that of Pilsner Urquell, created in…Plzen!
The main reason to visit Plzen is thus to take a tour of the famous brewery (known in Czech as Plzenský Prazdroj) on the edge of town. A slight lack of planning and definite lack of signposts meant it was actually harder to find than anticipated, to the point that we were too late to get on the first English-spoken tour of the day. In hindsight, this was a good thing, as it allowed us to see Plzen’s main square and large church; more importantly, it allowed us to have lunch and line our stomachs. Oh, and try a Pilsner from Plzen, of course.
The tour itself takes in the history of brewing in the area (lots of people, lots of recipes, all combined together like a modern-day BandAid to make one killer recipe) and the importance of Joseph Groll, the brewery’s first leader who commissioned the first batch of Pilsner Urquell in 1842.
The tour is surprisingly impressive, fun yet informative at the same time. Some of the numbers thrown at you as you walk through machine-led packaging blocks are mind-boggling: 60,000 bottles per hour, the potential to produce in excess of one million litres of the amber nectar over a 24 hour period, and so on. We felt a bit sorry for the one aspect of the packaging which wasn’t controlled solely by machine, a man staring at thousands of recycled green bottles crawling along a conveyor belt and removing any damaged beer holders. 9,999 green bottles, sitting on a wall…
The tour wasn't just a case of walking around and being bombarded with facts; it included a short film (during which you are rotated 180˚ and don’t really notice), the chance to taste different buds of barley and studying microorganisms. These are combined with the water (Plzen’s water is ‘good quality’ apparently) and, over a five to six week period, ferment and mature to create the beer.
The final, most anticipated part of touring the brewery takes place in the damp, chilly cellar, which is 32,000 km2 in area and has numerous dark tunnels. Though it used to house 10,000 oak barrels, it is now almost exclusively used to impress tourists. In the cellar is where you get to try Pilsner Urquell’s most natural beer. Unfiltered and unpasteurised (most beers tick neither of these boxes as they would go off very quickly): delicious.
This was a whistle-stop tour to Plzen, specifically a journey around its most famous export. I'm sure Plzen would seem nicer in sunnier, warmer weather. However, if the result of this is to enjoy and savour more Pilsner Urquell from its original source, I'm more than happy for it to keep snowing. Na zdravi!
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