Pilsner is far and away the most dominant style of beer on the planet. By volume, as much as 90% of beer consumed across the globe fall into this archetypal category of lager. Improbable as it seems, this now-ubiquitous commodity can trace its origins back to a single brewery in 19th Century Bohemia. The birthplace of Pilsner Urquell has grown exponentially since it was founded in 1842, but, for any self-respecting beer connoisseur, a pilgrimage to the city of Pilsen is less a journey, more an obligatory ritual.
Beer-drinking was a precarious experience 200 years ago, in what is now the Czech Republic. According to historical record, spoiled suds were getting people sick. In 1838, 36 barrels of the swill were unceremoniously dumped in the Pilsen town square after being deemed undrinkable. This was the final straw. The city responded by pooling resources into a Bürgerbrauerei (town brewery). New equipment was purchased, standardized methods of production and storage were established, and talent was imported from Bavaria.
The talent arrived in the form of Josef Groll, "The Father of the Pils". It was his idea to cultivate bottom-fermenting yeasts for the purpose of lagering. The method resulted in a more consistent beer with a longer shelf life. But it also required cooler temperatures, meaning a network of labyrinthine tunnels would have to be dug under the brewery to provide a suitable climate for production and storage.
Today, those underground cellars are the highlight of tours across Pilsner Urquell’s property. Visitors descend into the darkness, flanked by large oak casks, before being served a pint of unfiltered, unpasteurized lager straight from the vessel that birthed it. Although the production of above-ground Urquell has modernized over the ensuing century-and-a-half since Groll first brewed it, this particular cave offering is engineered as a near-identical replica of the original.
To achieve that accuracy, Pilsner Urquell is one of few facilities in the world practicing parallel brewing. “The brewery still employs a group of coopers who keep the tradition of using wooden barrels in the brewery,” explains senior trade brewmaster Kamil Ruzek. “This traditional way of beer fermentation and maturation gives [us] a chance to compare it to [the modern] process. The beer served in the cellars is only for brewery visitors and can’t be commercialized due to its short shelf life.”
Fermented in wood and left to carbonize naturally, a sip of this slightly bitter elixir is a precious portal into how the world’s most popular style of beer was originally meant to meet the mouth. Enjoy it in this dank, dimly lit setting—the smell of fresh yeast hanging in the air, ambient moisture dripping sporadically from an earthen ceiling; this moment alone is enough to merit a lengthy jump across the Atlantic.
There’s still much more to see beyond the brewery gates. A fifteen minute walk from the Pilsner Urquell campus brings you to the Square of the Republic. At its center is the Gothic marvel known as St. Bartholomew’s cathedral—the tallest church spire in all of the Czechia. The impressively preserved medieval space is the very same tract where all that skunked beer was tossed aside 180 years ago.
Today, the square is lined with outposts serving a far more quaffable commodity. Places such as Pivotečka and Na Parkanu, offer up as fresh a pour of Pilsener as you’re likely to ever taste. The pubs are so close to the brewery that a few of them even receive their beer deliveries by way of horse-drawn carriage, a weekly spectacle highlighting the city’s commitment to tradition.
It was in that same pursuit of preservation that Pilsner Urquell convinced many local bars to install tank systems. Known locally as “tankovna”, these establishments are stocked with unpasteurized pilsner, unsuitable for keg distribution. “It only has a three week shelf life and it’s directly delivered from the brewery to bars, restaurants or retailers, using road tankers or mobile tank containers,” Ruzek says. “Only [places] with a high beer output and a high passion for the brand can afford these vessels. The beer is fresher. Plus, the tanks look really cool.”
The apparatus also allows servers to carefully regulate the amount of foam coming off the line. This is hardly trivial, as Czech beer drinkers have a far different relationship with head than their American counterparts. “Foam works as a natural cap on the beer and reduces beer oxidation, loss of carbonation and loss of beer flavors,” Ruzek explains. “The creamier and denser the foam is, the longer it stays on the beer and protects it from negative impact. This is very typical for Czech lager-style beers.”
A standard pour in Pilsen—a hladinka—is about three-parts liquid to one-part frothy head. Ask for a šnyt and you get a slightly smaller serving with equal parts beer to whitecap. It’s ideal for midday consumption. But go Mlìko and you’re greeted with an entire glassful of sudsy foam. The name itself refers to the milky presence it assumes in the vessel. It’s an ethereal drinking experience akin to swallowing a cloud.
Pilsen’s food pairings are nowhere near as delicate. Diners enjoy their pilsner alongside Ceska klobasa (sausage), schnitzel and heavily pickled krauts. Locals get their fix at Restaurace a vinárna U Mansfelda, one block east of the square. “The characteristic Czech cuisine is mainly meat-based and is a bit heavy to digest,” Ruzek says. “But pilsner helps with digestion because of its bitter acids. [It] also stimulates your appetite, and thanks to a lower alcohol content, you don’t get full.”
If you’re thirsty for more, PIlsen’s beer legacy weaves its way through the streets, spotted on every corner in the guise of a beer cafe. Few places is it more visible than at Prazdroj, the Czech Republic’s only dedicated brewery museum. Tucked into a 600-year-old courtyard, the site is home to the city’s first brewing house and today preserves a Gothic malt house as well as a malt kin held over from the Medieval era. Daily tours conclude with a tasting of Pilsner Urquell, naturally.
Afterwards, Francis Brewhemian Beer Cafe is a cozy drinking den that looks more like a living room than a bar. It offers a lengthy list of beers, board games and vintage adverts beneath low-hanging, rounded ceilings. In addition to the region’s eponymous lager, this is a great place to sample the more experimental brews coming from this part of the world. Brewery Zhůřák, for example, is a craft producer just south of the city. On tap here is its take on a New England-style IPA, aptly named Vermont Ale.
The Mže River winds its way through the heart of Pilsen, abutting the northern edge of the town square. A block south of its banks you’ll find the Beer Factory—a boisterous gathering hall that includes a microbrewery and kitchen. The grog comes in all variety, straight from the fermenters to the tap system. A descriptive menu breaks down each style by ABV, IBU and even SRM. In other words, it’s built for beer geeks. And carnivores, with local specialties such as vepřové koleno (roasted pork knee) providing the perfect pairing to its light lager and IPA.
Walk southeast to the opposite end of the square for a proper pour of pilsner at Lokal Pod Divadlem. This funky parlor, with Simpson-like illustrations sprawled across its interior walls, provides a seemingly endless parade of the local beer directly out of its sizable stainless steel tank. Whether you fancy yours hladinka, šnyt or Mlìko, this is where you come to taste the town’s rich tradition in a surprisingly modern space.
If you’re spending the night in Pilsen there are a handful of experiences geared specifically towards beerlovers. U Salzmannů is the oldest continuously operating guesthouse and restaurant in the city. Vintage posters and wood-lined interiors evoke the properties four hundred-year history. Rooms feature antique furnishings and provide easy access to both the square and the public green (Křižíkovy sady) one block in either direction. But you might not even make it past the ground floor bar, where unpasteurized pilsner flows from the tank, arriving tableside next to the best goulash you’ll ever eat.
Far more famous these days—or infamous depending on your personal proclivities—is the Hotel Purkmistr. It’s home to the country’s first beer spa, where you can literally bathe in your favorite adult beverage. For $40 you get to soak for up to an hour in the house pilsner, warmed and mixed with other soothing botanicals. The experience supposedly offers “healing effects”. but that could be owed to the big tubside barrel of lager that’s included with admission. The four-star hotel and brewery is hidden on a small road about 15 minutes south of town, so plan ahead and pack your swim trunks.