30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: Worshipful pilgrimage to the Pilsner Urquell birthplace shrine.


Previously: 30 years today on THE BEER BEAT: The Automat Koruna, one of my favorite pubs (?) in the world.

For as long we’d been talking about visiting Czechoslovakia, Barrie and I had considered only two firm itinerary prerequisites. Prague obviously landed at the top of the chart. Perhaps less easy to understand at first glance was the city of Plzeň (or Pilsen), 65 miles southwest of Prague, with a present-day population of 178,000.

As a recorded settlement, Plzeň goes back to the year 976. The city remained Catholic during the Hussite wars and became an increasingly important trading center on the route to Germany. In 1869, the founding of the Škoda Works kicked off an era of rapid industrialization, which made Plzeň one of the arsenals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

All those Škoda automobiles we saw in Czechoslovakia? They were manufactured in Plzeň, but we weren’t gearheads, and preferred to take the train, not drive, because drunk driving isn’t good, and our plan for Plzeň involved drinking a great deal of Pilsner Urquell beer — or as it was known in Czechoslovakia, Plzeňský Prazdroj.

The very word “Pilsner,” as it has come to English speakers, is both an adjective and an appellation: Beer from Plzeň. Obviously, beer has been brewed in Plzeň for centuries, though the current Pilsner Urquell brewery dates from 1842.

The story goes something like this: Certain families in Plzeň had been granted brewing rights during medieval times, and this functioned as a monopoly of sorts, with no incentive to improve. Consequently, the quality of beer in the city deteriorated during the early 1800s, ironically at the very same time as modern brewing techniques were being harnessed to the scientific method elsewhere in Europe – significantly, in nearby Vienna and Bavaria.

In Plzeň, it gradually dawned on the diverse stakeholders that the spirit of the age, and the “higher tech” direction being traveled by beer and brewing science, suggested a pooling of resources to achieve better quality and competitiveness. The Pilsner Urquell brewery was capitalized and born from this revelation, at an indisputably ideal juncture.

Modern malting processes now yielded consistent, pale malts. The water in Plzeň was soft, and hops grew in abundance nearby. The notions of selectively standardizing yeast strains and aging (“lagering”) beer resulted in a mellow flavor profile. It was clear, not cloudy, and brilliant gold. Glassware was becoming affordable for all, and the color and clarity were accented by glass rather than submerged by dense ceramic or wooden mugs.

The new beer’s body was lighter and less sweet. A generous hopping rate helped make the beer crisp, and renewed the palate. Pilsner Urquell represented modernity, and became the prototype and yardstick. Soon dark, heavy beers were all but obsolete. The world wanted golden lagers brewed more or less (mostly less) like Pilsner Urquell.

Needless to say, we’d come to adore Urq, as Barrie called it.

The red star is no more.

When Barrie and I graduated from high school in 1978, Cut Rate Liquors in Jeffersonville was the only package store in Southern Indiana with a selection of imported beers. What we now categorize as craft barely existed, even in California.

Regular examinations of the wares at Cut Rate revealed the existence of exotic, unexplored modes of thinking and drinking. Most of them were golden lagers from around the world, but there also were dark lagers, British ales and even a few Belgians.

Money was tight, and sampling meant splurging. There was no source of information, apart from bottle labels and six-pack cartons. Still, every now and then we took the risk and tried a new beer. The flavors were different, and hinted at broader horizons.

In 1982, two of my good friends intervened with essential personal testimony. Both of them had “gone away” to college, to study in places less parochial than Floyd County. Larry returned to the fold singing the praises of Guinness Extra Stout, and Dave introduced me to Pilsner Urquell, then sold in four-pack cartons for a lofty $3.99 plus sales tax.

I was intrigued. I’d had Molson, Labatts and Beck’s, but what was the spicy character in Pilsner Urquell, that piquant bitterness cutting through creamy grain flavor? It was something I hadn’t experienced in Blatz. Dave wasn’t sure, but he thought it had something to do with hops. Guinness was black like coffee. It was dry, roasty and daunting in a way that defied categorization, and completely unlike any “dark” beer I’d had before.

Insight: You mean there were different sorts of dark beers, too?

These always had intrigued me, along with pumpernickel, rye and other departures from the Wonder Bread norm. Finally, liberated from the longnecks of our fathers, the notion of beer was starting to make better sense.

All I needed was a lot more money and a plane ticket.

It was left to Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson’s original book “World Guide to Beer” (1977), as culled from the remainder table at a mall bookshop, to become the cosmic text that wove all the threads into a coherent whole. An updated “New World Guide to Beer” was published in 1988.

Jackson offered the saga of beer as a long and fascinating one, ranging across all aspects of the human experience.

To him, beer is about science and art, farms and cities, social history, local culture and geography. It’s about the places you’ve gone, and the ones you’d like to go. It’s about different textures and flavors to match your mood, the time of day, the season, and the task at hand.

With Jackson’s book as a guide, the obscurities of these imported beer brands gradually became comprehensible. I began working at Scoreboard Liquors, a small store in New Albany, and was allowed to replicate Cut Rate’s import selection just so long as it was kept to one door of the six opening into the walk-in cooler.

Barrie and I drank bad beer often, but when the stars aligned and finances allowed, we drank better ones. My work discount helped, and after returning from my first European excursion in 1985, it became ever more difficult to return to the everyday Bud this, Miller that.

I wasn’t a snob so much as a flavor junkie.

(As an indication of the way one’s memory plays tricks, I was about to add that Jackson’s television series The Beer Hunter was an inspiration for our Ur-Quest in 1987, but it couldn’t have been. The series debuted in the UK in 1989, and in America the following year.)

July 15, 1987

We caught a train from Prague to Plzeň, got there well before noon, and reconnoitered. From the station, the Pilsner Urquell brewery was easy to see and smell, although we knew to inquire at the official state-run Čedok travel agency (actually established in 1920, prior to communism), which surely would be located somewhere in the center of the city.

It was. This task was accomplished in due course, and we were summarily rebuffed. No one at Čedok had the slightest interest in helping us score a brewery tour. The lone English speaker we found was exasperated; didn’t everyone on the planet know that Pilsner Urquell brewery tours only took place once a week on, well, any day except today?

It was frustrating, but this was the nature of things during Czechoslovakia’s final years of erosion prior to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. There was no benefit for a travel agency employee to go out of his way to help us; perhaps a bribe might have helped, but our lone English speaker had a very hard face, indeed.

Plan B was commenced. We walked to the Pilsner Urquell brewery and made tepid inquiries at the guard shack. No English was spoken; at least the rejection was friendlier.

For years afterward, Barrie’s version of what happened next remained consistent and only slightly exaggerated:

“We couldn’t get inside the brewery, so I went over, kissed the lock on the gate, and we went to the tavern instead.”

The forbidden city.

Fair enough. To the left of the gate was the brewery’s “official” tavern. It seemed appropriately upscale, at least in contrast to the next closest Pilsner Urquell outlet, located across the street, which was on the ground floor of a 1920s-era structure, smaller and shabbier, and alluring in a counter-intuitive way.

We opted for the well-appointed “official” brewery tap first, probably because the odors of pork and dumplings were leaking through the windows and clinging to our clothes, and we needed to eat immediately. Once inside, we admired the wooden interior and beautiful windows.

Drinking, dining and pervasive deliciousness was the result, and there even was an inadvertent floor show, showcasing the intoxicated antics of a visiting delegation of North Koreans, who were having far too much fun in a communist country that actually had drinkable beer.

It transpired that using the restroom meant passing the Czech restaurant-standard coat check desk. There were few coats to check in high summer, but full employment meant staffing irrespective of the need, and at one point when the two of us walked past, the coat check attendant addressed us and sidled over.

In a low voice, she asked if we were American, and we nodded assent. She beamed, and proceeded to tell us in passable English that she still remembered the liberation of Plzeň by General Patton’s 3rd Army at the close of WWII.

The 40th anniversary had been only two years before our visit, and she cheerfully recounted the appearance of a handful of Patton’s elderly soldiers for the city’s commemorative event.

In late 1945, US troops withdrew from Czechoslovakia, which had been determined to fall within the Soviet sphere of influence, which of course became the Iron Curtain as coined by Winston Churchill.

The coat check woman preferred to remember how nice the American G.I.s had been, helping to rebuild Plzeň in the months before being withdrawn, and frequently gifting her and other children with chocolate bars.

Before we left the premises, she surreptitiously pressed coasters and postcards into our hands, as if to pay back those favors from so long ago.

It was sincerely moving, and I’ve never forgotten her hospitality.

It was time for a visit to the dive bar, and as we emerged from the restaurant, things were heating up across the way.

Sadly, when I returned to Plzeň in 1989, the entire building was gone, demolished for a street widening project. Looking closely at the photo from 1987, there seem to be few signs of life in the upper three floors, so perhaps the tavern’s demise was a done deal even as we were drinking there.

At any rate, the pub with no name was a delight, and the regular crowd was shuffling in.

When Frantisek and the lads arrived, the party started. He was a cabbie playing hooky, rejecting an afternoon’s fares so he could drive himself and four of his finest friends from one tavern to the next. As long as his communism-pretend credentials were in order, it probably wouldn’t matter whether he worked or not, and if you’re not working, why not have a few beers on a lovely summer’s day?

They spoke no English and we spoke no Czech. Some German words could be shared. The longer we remained, the easier it got. Seasoned drinkers understand that communication becomes immeasurably simpler once all participants have reached the stage of “universal second beer language,” wherein thoughts and concepts expressed in otherwise indecipherable tongues suddenly make perfect sense.

Eventually Franta reckoned we needed an education in the merits of Czech rum.

Tuzemák, formerly called Tuzemský rum (English: domestic rum), is a term for a traditional Czech distilled beverage. It is a substitute good (ersatz) for true rum which is produced from sugarcane mainly in the Caribbean and Latin America. Since the 19th century, Tuzemák became one of the most popular spirits in the Czech lands.

Tuzemský is produced from potatoes or sugar beets, diluted and flavoured by various rum essences. In the 19th century similar substitutes were produced throughout the crown lands of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which had no access to tropical colonies; they were named Inländer-Rum (like Stroh in Austria, today produced from sugarcane molasses and therefore a genuine spiced rum), Domači or Čajni (Croatia) etc.

In 1987, it was simply called rum, and the less said, the better. After a couple belts of it, I undertook a laborious examination of the time, and came to a reckoning of my own: we needed to get back to Prague. As we departed, so did Franta and the gang, motoring toward the next pub on their taxi crawl.

As a final aside, a few architectural details on the brewery’s exterior …

 … and the early evening return to our sports club hostel beds in Prague.

Next day, we caught the train to Munich, and a meticulously planned meet ‘n’ greet with our friend Bob and my cousin Don.

Ironically, there was to be beer in Munich, too.

Next: 30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: Meeting the gang at the legendary Imbiss by Gleis 16 at the Hauptbahnhof in Munich.