Pilsner Urquell: Still The Original

by Jack Curtin
ALE STREET NEWS
April/May 2007

The last pint of Pilsner Urquell I had before the one just prior to sitting down to write this piece was enjoyed in the sun-dappled town square of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic on April 7, 2005. I was in the Republic along with a group of American beer writers as guests of that nation's other world-renowned brewery, Budweiser Budvar, and its then US importer. We had been steered exclusively toward Budvar venues until this, our first afternoon of free time and first chance to exercise the "prime directive."

Quite simply, one must have a Pilsner Urquell when in the Czech Republic, to acknowledge its place in history if nothing else. My friend Brian O'Reilly, the lager-loving brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing in Pennsylvania, insists that any true beer aficionado should enjoy that pint while standing on the famed Charles Bridge which connects Prague's Old Town with the picturesque Malá Strana (or Lesser Town), proving that he's a hopeless romantic who hasn't been on the Charles recently to experience its depressing flea market ambiance.

Created by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll in 1842 in the village of Plzen (then part of Bohemia), Pilsner Urquell ("Urquell" is German for "original source") was a new sort of beer, a clear golden brew which must have seemed almost miraculous in comparison to the heavy, dark ales which were the standard in those days. Naturally soft Plzen water and Saaz hops combined with lager yeast (reportedly smuggled in from Bavaria by a monk) to produce a beer so striking and different that the brand name became the style name and the style became the most popular in the world.

I needed to taste this sui generis brew one more once before writing because a lot of people will tell you it has changed considerably since SAB bought the brand in 1999 and began brewing it in additional venues as well as at the original Plzen brewery. I heard that often in the Republic (though, honestly, there was almost always an underlying price issue behind the comments), I've read it from Michael Jackson ("decidedly less hoppy") and, most recently, listened to a fellow beer writer moan that he'd found his birthday pint disappointing.

My pre-writing pint was crisp, clean, pleasantly bitter and slightly malty, a classic pilsner in every sense. I should note that it was also the very first pour from a newly tapped keg, and thus at its optimum point of enjoyment. In short, Pilsner Urquell might not be what it once was--I can't really say--but it's a very good beer as it stands. One thing that has definitely changed is that the beer is now aged in stainless steel rather than the pitch-lined oak barrels used until the early '90s. A few of those are still in service in Plzen, and tourists are given a chance to compare today's beer with an unfiltered, unpasteurized version which is true to the original. Sounds like a road trip? Count me in.

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin


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