Monday, 13 July 2009

Pilsner Urquell brewery tour

Plzeň is the second largest city in Bohemia and a good place to visit for lots of reasons. The single thing that draws most international travellers is the city's connection with beer and brewing. In Plzeň ('Pilsen' in German) in 1842 bottom fermented lager was brewed in a commercial quantity for the first time ever. This style of beer became so popular that most of the world's beer is made this way and Plzeň is usually considered to be the birthplace of modern brewing.

Within Plzeň, there are two main attractions connected with the art and science of brewing; the museum of brewing history (in a former brewhouse right in the historic old town), and the tour of the current Pilsner Urquell brewery (just across the river not far from the train station).

The current brewery produces Pilsner Urquell and other beers that are known and available across the world. The double arched gate of the Plzeň brewery features on many of the labels and just inside it and about 100 metres along on the left is the visitors' centre where the brewery tour begins.

The ticket office is inside a former malthouse and features a full size three storey cross section replica of an historic brewery, showing not only the brewing and fermenting rooms but also the living quarters of the workers.

The tour begins with an introduction from the guide and a brief description of the history of the Pilsner brewery, from the founding in 1839 to the purchase by the multinational company SABMiller in 1999. In the foyer, a display case shows dozens of different bottles of beer from SABMiller breweries across six continents.

The tour then moves outside to wait for the bus to the packaging hall, and the guide talks more about the hsitory of the Pilsner brewery including the famous gate and the distinctive water tower that is the other easily recognisable symbol of the brewery.

After the short bus ride the group climbs the stairs (or takes the lift) to an upper floor of the packaging hall where there's a long wide walkway and full length plate glass windows overlooking the factory floor. The guide explains about the recycling and double steam cleaning of bottles and the capacity of the plant (60,000 bottles an hour) then leaves the group to watch the green and brown bottles jangle their way along conveyor belts and through the filling, sealing, labelling and packing machines, while white uniformed workers on the floor either chat in groups or stack filled crates onto pallets and trolleys.

Back on the bus the next stop is the old malthouse, which has an elevator the size of a small hotel room, a malty smell that hits you like a wet piece of bread as soon as you walk in, and a small cinema with a revolving platform and a semi circular screen. The film though was quite simple and followed the four ingredients of beer from their origins and selection processes right to the brewery. The film is clear and informative but descends almost into advertising when 'unique' colours, tastes and aromas from ingedients of 'unmatched quality' combine to create the 'inspiring legend called Pilsner Urquell.'

After the screening room was a long, narrow and darkened room dedicated to the four raw ingredients of beer. Sacks of barley stood open for people to run their hands through, multi-headed microscopes examined live yeast culture and hand grinders filled with complete heads of hops awaited their chance to be ground into opened hands. Water was represented by a dark passageway in which the floor was water and the stepping stone floor slabs floated and sank slighty as people stepped from one to the next. Quite a few people said afterwards that this was their favourite part of the tour.

From the interactive displays of ingredients, the tour moved through a steamy room of colossal copper and stainless steel kettles, then downstairs to the Hall of Fame, with information about the historic origins of Pilsner Urquell including a portrait of the first brewmaster Josef Groll that some enthusiasts had themselves photographed beside. Also displayed here were the many awards and prizes won by the Pilsner brewery and its products over the last century and a half.

From there it was down into the fermenting cellars which on a warm day in early summer had an air temperature of around 6*C (43 *F). There are 9km of tunnels and cellars beneath the Pilsner brewery, but only a few hundred metres are visited on the tour. The two main parts of the cellars were the tunnels with the open-topped vats of slowly fermenting beer, and the arch-roofed cellars used for maturing the beer in sealed barrels of oak.

After inspecting a couple of barrel-lined cellars it was time for everybody else's favourite part of the tour; the tasting of unfiltered and unpasteurized beer straight from the oak barrels. The group stood around tables made from barrels and savoured the amber fluid for ten or fifteen minutes before it was time to head back out into the sunshine and make the short walk back to the visitors' centre where the tour ended.

The whole visit took about 90 minutes and is among the best guided tours that I know of in the Czech lands.

The entry price is 150Kč (about 5 Euros) for adults, and the tours run in English at 12.45, 14.15 and 16.15 each day, in German at 14.30 each day and in Czech at 12.30, 14.00 and 16.00 (2009 schedule). There were also printed texts available in several languages including French, Chinese and Russian.

There's plenty to see and do in Plzeň for two or three days but if you are really pressed for time, the Pilsner brewery tour should probably be the one thing you really make time for.


Sue Hayton said...

Thanks for reminding what a great trip it is at the Brewery! The first time I tried to get in was in the early 90s when we were turned away at the gates!

I would also recommend the charmingly idiosyncratic Hotel Slovan in Plzen which I booked a group of 20 odd from GB two years ago. They asked for no deposit nor credit card but just handed over the bill as we left.

Love your recommendations.

Best wishes

Captain Oddsocks said...

Cheers Sue!

Frank said...

I did the Pilsner Urquell brewery tour May 2008 with a Czech friend. We had a great time. Our tour guide (Tomas,a nice guy)seemed very happy that I asked to go back to the big barrels for a refill. The Na Splice restaurant had very fresh beer and excellent Czech food. I look forward to returning to the Czech Republic.
Nice blog.

Na Zdravi
Newfoundland Canada

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thanks for your comment Frank, and especially for mentioning the Na Spilce restaurant, which I had intended to write about but somehow didn't find space for.

For anyone thinking of visiting the brewery Na Spilce is almost opposite the visitors' centre in the brewery grounds and I'd agree with Frank that the food is very good.

The atmosphere is also quite good if you manage to avoid the bus tour groups lunching there.