After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.
With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.
Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.
Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.
Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.
To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.
Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.
I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.
From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.
Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.
Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.
Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.
This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.
Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)
This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.
The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.
I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.
Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.