Thursday, September 10, 2009

An ode to Czech beer, part two; Plzen.CZ

Likely one of my last Prague posts (still thinking of a proper Korean title, the question mark must go), I hope it goes down as a favorite.

If ever there were an opportunity, here it is. I think my enjoyment of beer is well known, and I should make it clear that it is not a matter of consumption, it is a matter of savory appreciation. Who else gets this excited about hops fields?

We had a beer tasting that lasted for a very long time mostly because Ryan stinks at drinking. Here are a few of the 16 beers we tried (don't worry, we shared):
Picture slightly out of focus. Czech beer just as I remember it.

Plzen, CZ

A mere hour bus ride southwest of Prague, Plzen is yet another Bohemian gem. Not nearly as picturesque as Cesky Krumlov, it has perhaps an even more appealing draw - The Pilsner Urquell Factory.

The sad reality is that there would have been no other reason to go to Plzen besides to make a Pilsner beer pilgrimage, but I am in the company of many that go, and I would have to say it would be worthwhile even for the casual beer drinker.

On first impression, the factory is more theme-park super-complex than production facility (minus the mascots). The tour only reinforced this.

Ryan and I file towards the bus for the first leg.
A brewery tour would never be complete without a peek at the bottling and canning process. It felt something like an episode of how its made...
The now-defunct water tower. Today, it remains as one of the several antique symbols of the Pilsner Urquell factory.
Antique copper vats. Like the water tower, they are no longer used in the brewing process.
The modern day brewing tanks. A complex series of pressurized pipes connect two copper vats and one of the steel vats. The wort (malt and water) are passed between the copper and steel vats during various stages of the brewing process. Later, the hops and yeast are added before fermentation takes place in huge towers adjoining the building. The production capacity of this facility is about 1,000,000 liters per day (that makes around 2,817,000 12-ounce beers, oh shoot).
The copper container that produced the very first batch of Pilsner Urquell.

Eventually our tour guide led us into the original tunnels below the brewery. It took 90 years to dig these cellars by hand and they remain only partially in use for the tour. As we made our way further and further underground, the temperature dropped to a cold, damp 50 degrees - ideal for brewing. This was a real contrast to the warm 80 it was outside.

The real treat of the entire trip - young Pilsner Urquell fermenting in the open air. Brewed exactly to all specifications of the original, this beer is a labor of love. Fermented in hand-made barrels, there are no mechanized pumps or technology at work, only experienced brew masters that see the process through by hand.


After fermentation for around 12 days, the young beer is transferred to these stacked casks to complete the aging. Single file, our group moved towards an old brew man with a little spigot connected to one of the casks. Out poured a slow stream of golden pilsner. It was captivating.

Ryan and I enjoy that sweet nectar. What is special about this beer in addition to the labors taken to recreate the original process is that it is both unfiltered and unpasteurized. As a result, once ready, it only keeps for 5 days. This makes it impossible to transport, as any change in temperature or disruption to the unfiltered yeast would spoil the brew. Therefore, you can only get it at the Pilsner factory.

The difference can really be tasted, as the flavor is more fresh, full and complete. Even as a light, bottom-fermented pilsner, there is real substance. I've said it before, beer is a delicate thing and none more than this.

One last shot of the famous gates before we set off.
Plzen is not only known for Pilsner. It also is home to the 3rd largest synagogue in the world. Who would have thought?