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Plzen: Built on Beer

OK so the live blogging experiment was only partially successful (what can I say? I had a cold).  But here, better late than never, is another post from our recent beer bloggers’ Czech trip.
In retrospect, some places seem fated to become what they are, drawn hopelessly to their destiny.  I thought I knew the story of Plzen, but as with so many stories, the narrative is geological.  Sometimes I’m a historian, but sometimes you have to be an archaeologist: if you gently scrape away the story on the surface, you find another one beneath, and maybe even one below that.
Wonder if this is where my publisher got the idea for the horrid old cover of Man Walks into a Pub from?
Plzen (places in the Czech Republic have both German and Czech names, and when you’re there it starts to feel appropriate to use the Czech spelling) is synonymous with beer, and with the date 1842, when Josef Groll allegedly brewed the first golden lager, the style which eventually became known as Pilsner.  That’s bollocks of course – there was golden lager before Groll – but there’s no denying the astonishing impact his intervention had on the beer world.
Legend has it that the circumstances leading up to Groll’s appointment saw the quality of the town’s beer deteriorate so badly that it was ceremonially poured down the drain in front of the town hall.  Prior to this, the people of Plzen had had the right to brew themselves – a privilege not given lightly.  After the ceremonial dumping of the beer, the city formed a burghers brewery, a collective venture that employed Groll and made history.
The clues to the layer beneath are there for all to see in that story.  Why was beer so important to the citizens of Plzen?  Why did they all have brewing rights?
And so you come back to fate and destiny.
Plzen lies in rolling, tree-lined Bohemian countryside.  Naked, in the thirteenth century, it would have been one of those locations that screamed “Build on me!”, especially if you were looking to build a gaff that could be easily defended during centuries of almost constant warfare.  Amid a confluence of rivers, stands a gentle, dome shaped hill.  Town square on top of the hill, a cathedral in the middle of that with a 100-metre-high tower for observation, nice grid system of streets, a network of walls and moats at the bottom of the hill, and you’ve got a town that withstood fairly regular assault until 1618 and the opening exchanges of the Thirty Years War.
Why is this relevant to beer?  Because that gentle hill is made of sandstone, easily excavated.  And as soon as the town was granted its charter in 1295, the citizens began to dig.  First cellars, then tunnels joining them up, and soon there was a 19km underground network inside the hill.   
And according to the tour guide (not always reliable, but in this case very plausible), the initial reason for digging was storage for beer – in other words, lagering.  All burghers had brewing rights, and it seems many used them.  It backs up what Protzy has discovered talking to historic German breweries, that lagering goes back much longer than we thought.  In the labyrinth beneath Plzen, there are even underground bars and restaurants, where people who brewed better beer than their neighbours sold it to them though holes in their cellar walls.
You can now go on a tour of the ‘Plzen historic underground’ starting at the town’s brewery museum.  Thankfully the old man in Czech trousers who greets your hangover with traditional songs played on an accordion remains on the surface, and a sexy-librarian type tour guide issues hard hats (this is not just health and safety gone mad – you will smack your head) and guides you through 800 metres of tunnels and caves.
The sound of running water is constant.  There are about 360 wells down here, providing the famous soft water that’s so important to Pilsner beer.  The natural temperature is around five degrees Celsius.  Among the many museum pieces are drinking vessels from down the centuries.  Tin steins from the fifteenth century look pretty similar to anything you see in souvenir shops today.
OK, the table’s from IKEA, but the tankard is over four centuries old.
All these factors – along with the treasured Saaz hops grown nearby – come together to make brewing great beer seem inevitable.  Beer came to the Czech Republic with its first inhabitants – evidence of brewing and drinking has been found in the dwellings of early Teutons, Slavs and Celts, and by AD 922 the newly consecrated Bishop Vojtech was complaining about the scale of brewing in Brevnov monastery in Prague. 
So Plzen was a hugely significant brewing city before Groll came along.  In fact, that’s why they hired him – it was inconceivable that the city should have substandard beer after such a long brewing history.  Plzen literally stands on its brewing heritage.  The question is, what really happened to make such dramatic intervention necessary?  Why did the burghers pool their collective brewing rights?  Did the beer really deteriorate so badly it had to be poured away, or was the move simply a less dramatic reaction to the Industrial Revolution, an acknowledgement that brewing needed to happen on a bigger scale?
I don’t know, but in Plzen, nobody is saying anything to spoil the legend.



Shenan Hahn

Really enjoyed this post! As a former archaeology student, I love learning about the ties between beer and history- and it seems like something Europe in general is steeped in, with more to dig into (archaeological pun intended) than the younger brewing traditions of the States.


Well Hardy & Hansons in Nottingham, England was built over the Bunker sandstone hills, where they stored the beer for many month at 0'C. I wonder were they lagering? The Pilsner story is all too convenient – and sounds like one of the too many pr brochures I've written. I think the narrative has more to do with the ability to control malting (and not burn the barley) and the beginning of cost accountancy and people started to recognise that lightly kilned malts were cheaper to use.

Paul Bailey

Had a tour of Pilsen's underground tunnels back in 1984, when they were still used for lagering the beer. Wish I'd taken some photo's now, but the footage in Michael Jackson's pioneering Channel Four "Beer Hunter" series does them justice.

Martyn Cornell

Some Czech sources say that the “svetlejsímu”, pale or blond malt at Groll's new brewery in Plzen was made using “anglickou technologií” – English technology. More research needed!


English beer was the most heavily hopped beer in the world at the time. Is it coincidence that Groll put a significantly larger dose of hops in the beer than other German and Czech brewers were using? As Martin says, more research needed!

Gary Gillman

On the Wikia web site a propos pilsener beer, it is stated that the Czech scientist Frantisek Ondrej Poupe (apologies for not placing the diacritical symbols) wrote a text which expounded the principles of methodical bottom fermentation. The entry states the book was written first in German, later in Czech, and influenced the citizens who planned the lager fermentation brewery (Citizens Brewery) which created the famous Urquell in 1842.

The following is the only English reference online I could find on Poupe:


This link is interesting because it shows a picture of the kind of fermenter (not dissimilar to some English fermenters of the 1800's) used to produce top-fermented beer in Pilsen before Joseph Groll. Also, this entry states that ice was cut from ponds and placed in the wort, on flotation devices, to cool the wort, after which the beer was "lagered" in cellars.

Therefore, there seemed some type of hybrid ale-lager beer which preceded the classic bottom-fermented Urquell. Cellars similar to those dig for the Citizen's Brewery seem to have existed before in which beer was stored cold. presumably, the stability of the beer was not assured thereby, hence the switch to bottom-fermented yeasts.

Those who pursue research in pre-1842 Czech brewing traditions should in my view consult Poupe's works, these might shed light on the thinking which led to the creation of the famous original pilsner beer.

Considering the numerous non-Czech influences on its creation (Bavarian practice and Groll himself, and possible English influence on the malt type used as Martyn has noted), it is good to see that a Czech brewing scientist was connected to the creation of Urquell (albeit he died, in 1805, years before it appeared).


Best Beer

Really there is a bond between history and our favorite beers. One thing is for sure about this, both of them are aged and from the past.


Nothing to do with Pilsner, I'm afraid, but I was at your talk for the Kilvert's Beer and Literature Festival in Hay-on-Wye earlier, and you mentioned the possibility that the Saxons at Hastings might have been drunk. Not convinced about that (knackered, after dashing down from Yorkshire, maybe) but you might be interested in an earlier battle. This was Catraeth, Romano-British vs Saxons, around what is now Catterick. The poem commemorating this claims that the Romano-British/Celts spent a whole year before the battle drinking mead!
No wonder they lost.


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