As you walk through the famous double-arched Jubilee gate depicted in the beer's logo, you are greeted by this sight: a brewery that blends modern glass-and-steel architecture with authentically old school brick chimneys. It's an appropriate analog of the work done within, which is constantly striving to streamline operations through modern technology while remaining true to the flavor and character of the beer.
We were greeted by two men: Václav Berka, the brewery's senior trade brewmaster, and Pavel Prucha, who oversees the brewery's quality control efforts. They would be our guides through the brewery's malthouse, brewhouse, cellars, and packaging facilities.
We progressed through the facilities as every beer-fated barley grain does in this place, starting with the malthouse's 8 germination boxes. Here, an annual output of 85,000 tons of malt is produced—enough to make not just all of the world's Pilsner Urquell, but also several other brands produced at the Pilsen brewing compound (including the lesser-known Gambrinus and Kozel lines).
After several days of germination, the Czech-grown Moravian barley is ready for the kiln.
Once kilned, the moisture content of the pilsner malt is below 10% of its weight, and it is ready for brewing. For more information on the malting process, check out this piece I did on my last visit to a malthouse.
Finished malt in hand, the next stop for a brewer is the mash tun, where water is combined with malt to start the brew day. This is the mash tun used for the original 1842 brew.
Several feet from that dented and worn piece of history is the entrance to the modern brewhouse. Here, Pavel Prucha describes an average Pilsner Urquell brew day, which includes 18 total runs on their three brewing systems. On the right is a row of copper mash and lauter tuns, in which they employ a triple decoction mash. In this process, a portion of the grain is removed and boiled at three different points in the mash in order to raise the temperature of the grain. The brewers at Pilsner Urquell believe that this develops a malt character that cannot be achieved by other means.
On the left are the stainless steel brew kettles in which the pre-fermentation beer is sterilized and Czech Saaz hops are boiled for their flavor and preservative qualities.
Now, this is where this brewery tour got really interesting. We were led 25 feet underground to the brewery's original maturation cellars. Insulated by the surrounding earth, the cellars are remarkably cool and temperature-stable—perfect for fermenting and aging lager.
Until 1992, all of Pilsner Urquell's beer was fermented and matured in wooden barrels such as these, which are housed in the cellars. Today, the brewery still produces a small amount of beer in these barrels for taste comparisons to the beer made in their modernized stainless steel and glycol-jacketed conical fermenters.
They let us taste the beer straight from the barrels. Unfiltered, unpasteurized, ultra-fresh and unabused by the toils of trans-Atlantic travel, the beer tastes nothing like the stuff at your bottle shop. It is remarkable: soft and creamy in texture, with the sharp bite of 40 IBUs of spicy, grassy Saaz hops. I want one of those barrels in my house.
Modern Bottling Space
While the cellars transport you to another age, the packaging room couldn't be a starker contrast. Prucha explained, shouting over the whir of 20,000 square meters of packaging lines, that this building held the most visible influence of the company's acquisition by SAB Miller. Without their financing, he said, this packaging hall would not have been possible. He has little negative to say about the company that signs his paychecks—Prucha says they committed early on to the fundamental quality requirements laid out by the brewery at the time of acquisition, and have only opened doors for ingredient sourcing and expansions such as the one we see here. If there's a common theme that runs through the operations at Pilsner Urquell, it boils down to a phrase repeated to us throughout the tour: "unspoiled by progress."