En route to Prague
Pilsner Urquell brewery tour
The group spent one last night in Milan, eating once again at our favorite restaurant, Restaurante Romani. After a few hours of sleep and a quick breakfast, we departed for the airport at 7:15. It was an uneventful journey until one of our group paid 250 euros for their overweight bag. The group grabbed coffee and many shopped the duty free. The Milan airport appeared rather dark and limited in terms of amenities when we arrived but that was the routing to exit the gate. The departure area is actually quite well equipped with food, shopping, and even a baby pit stop for nursing mothers. We waited in an upper area for the red ‘waiting’ light to turn to ‘green’ indicating boarding. Then we descended to the gate and took a shuttle to the plane. We boarded the AirOne flight, a low cost carrier comparable to Southwest, boarding from both ends of the plane via stairs. Interesting note while on board…sodas and waters were not free.
Then it was off to Prague!
Veronica and Mickel greeted us at the Prague airport. Veronica gave us a brief language tutorial on the bus while we waited for the bus to leave the parking area and then a full introduction to the Czech Republic, Prague and Pilsen.
Prague is the largest city with 10.3 million people and hosts about 8 million people visitors each year. Pilsen is the third largest population with 400,000. Each year it holds an annual celebration for the liberation of the town by the American Army during WWII, the last liberated town in CZ. Mountains surround the Czech Republic and provide natural borders. Most residents are in industrial positions like auto and train manufacturing, metallurgy, and food manufacturing, followed by the service industry including tourism, and about 3 percent are in agriculture. The salary is increasing but averages about 25,000 koruna annually. Unemployment is lower than in most European countries but has increased with the economic crisis. Tasting tourism has recently increased, both in brewery and winery tours. The southern portion of Moravia is becoming well known for white wines, as well as fruit production like apples, plums and pears.
We would be visiting Pilsen, the producer of 50 percent of the beer made in CZ. Others include budveiser (the real one-not the American version) and several midsized breweries. There are also about 150 mini breweries around CZ that can adapt their styles of beer by the season and the tastes of the public. Light lagers with a bottom fermentation are the most popular. Beer was originally consumed due to the fact that the boiling process guaranteed the sterility of the water. In the 13th and 14th centuries, citizenship and home ownership gave the populace the privilege of brewing beer. Cities soon realized that city halls could brew and realize revenue. This laid the foundation for what are now the breweries in the country, such as Pilsner Urquell founded in 1841.
After about an hour of travel through the countryside, we entered the town of Pilsen (Plzen). It is a medieval town with a checkerboard style layout surrounded by apartment buildings, gas stations, grocery stores and car dealerships. We pulled in to Pilsner Urquell
and walked into Na Spilce, the basement restaurant on the factory site. It was a gigantic beer hall complete with servers dressed in traditional folk costumes. Some of the items ordered included: goulash, rabbit in gravy with bread dumplings, pork tenderloin with sauce and broccoli potato cakes, gnocchi and chicken in cream sauce and more. It was a filling meal to prepare us for our tour and tasting.
We crossed the road to the visitors’ center to start our tour, with some paying $100 koruna to take photos. Our guide, Libor, started us on the tour with the history of the brewery. The first Pilsner Urquell was brewed in 1842. The company is now owned by SAB Miller. We started at the Jubilee Gate, which was built in 1892 and moved to the historical brew house, which now contains their theater and raw materials exhibition, as well as the largest elevator in the Czech Republic. We learned about the beer brewing process including high importance of the quality of the barley and water. Pilsner Urquell still uses the original yeast specimen from 200 years ago, which is stored in yeast banks in Pilsen, Prague and London. We tasted local Saaz hops which are used in the beer. Then we moved downstairs into the historical brew house and saw the large brew kettles, made from copper due to the heat conduction. The brew house was used up until 2004 when the new glass brew house was built next door. Over into the new building where we saw what is called the heart of their brewing empire. They can brew 2 million beers per day there. Then we saw a short film on the history of the brewery. The last stop was down in the cellars for a tasting, staying together as the cellars include 9km of cobblestone halls that go to depths of 21 meters. This was the site for aging beer in the past but today is only used for brewing beer for visitors on the tour and one local restaurant. We were served beer fresh from a wooden keg at least 10 feet high and escorted into a rather chilly cellar bar area. Libor walked us through how to taste the beer and we wandered up to the gift shop to pick up souvenirs for home, enjoying the great exchange rate.
Written by: Elaine Bixby