Tuesday 28 February 2012

For the love of pilsner: visiting the Pilsner Urquell brewery and the power of nostalgia

'Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent... a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.' These words were spoken by a fictional character on a TV show set 50 years in the past (Don Draper on AMC's Mad Men), but still ring true. For those who are passionate about beer, there may be a particular brand or variety that, through some previous experience, is able to trigger something intangible, beyond the realm of sensory perception. For me, that beer is Pilsner Urquell.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to the Czech Republic for a conference, and was excited to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, about an hour's bus ride from Prague. Before I even got there, though, I was blown away by the ubiquity of beer in Czech culture. It was everywhere, in large volume, and relatively inexpensive (as I recall, about $1.50 or so CDN for a 500 mL bottle at any convenience store). It's really no surprise that Czechs consume the largest volume of beer per person, per year. Also, it was my understanding that drinking in public is permitted, as long as you're not a jerk about it. (It's highly possible that something in that description was lost in translation.)

Prague, Czech Republic - the consummate beer locale.

Standard pop and beer serving sizes.
Really glad we weren't driving anywhere.

Then came time to travel to the brewery in Pilsen. The best way I can describe the brewery is through the following mental exercise:

Picture Willy Wonka's chocolate factory from Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Subtract the annoying children. Subtract the Oompa-Loompas. Add large volumes of fresh, crisp Czech pilsner. Then drink said pilsner in an unfiltered state, straight from a barrel in an underground cave. Think to yourself, 'This must be how Batman drinks.'

The archway marking the entrance to the brewery - featured prominently on
each bottle and can of Pilsner Urquell.  
The grounds are immaculately kept, with a nice mix of modern (like the
visitor's centre, above) and older buildings.
You get to drink unfiltered pilsner from these
massive barrels in the chilly network of
caves beneath the brewery.
Like some kind of beer-producing spaceship.
That's a lot of pilsner.

Truly, the brewery and surrounding grounds were remarkable, not only in their scope and purpose, but also in their ability to 'beerify' everything (it's a verb). Some examples of this 'beerification' below.

Massive chess game, featuring...
... you guessed it, beer bottle pawns.
This was in the visitor's centre. In case you couldn't
wait for the tour (or walk five minutes to the nearest
pub serving Pilsner Urquell)
The Pilsner bus: takes you from the visitor's centre to the brewery in style.
The Pilsner cycle: for lager-loving bad boys.

The tour itself was also very informative. When it first began operation, the brewery in Pilsen represented a significant departure from the more grass roots system that existed previously in the region, in which multitudinous small-scale brewers advertised their latest releases with wreaths on their doors (below). Further, while bottom-fermented lagers had existed previously, Pilsner Urquell really defined the style, and produced it on a sufficiently large scale to lead to its widespread popularity worldwide.

In the days before large, centralized breweries,
beer-makers would place wreaths on their doors
to announce their latest release. We're totally
getting one for the condo brewery.

I left the brewery completely enamoured with Pilsner Urquell, and with a better appreciation for both its production and history. To this day, my experience at the brewery, and with Czech culture in general, resonates every time I pick up a can or bottle of the pilsner, enhancing the overall experience. The interesting thing about nostalgia, though, is that it's not all about the past; it can also guide future judgements and decisions. I enjoy the Saaz hop flavour and crispness of pilsners on a purely sensory basis, but find that even non-Urquell offerings invoke a bit of that same nostalgia, perhaps even to the extent of being 'comfort beer.' Based on this, Halifax is truly a great place to live. Garrison Brewing's seasonal Pils captures a lot of the character of the Pilsen original, and Propeller Brewing's Pilsener is a bit maltier, but still an excellent representation of the style. There have also been rumblings that Steam Whistle, the craft-brewed Toronto pilsner, may be making its way to the east coast this spring.

If you get a chance, I'd definitely recommend taking a trip to the Czech Republic, and visiting the Pilsner Urquell brewery. If you like great beer, you're probably already a fan, but experiencing its production and culture firsthand can add that extra, powerful element of nostalgia.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and glad to hear that you enjoyed your trip to Czech.

    1. Thanks very much for checking out our blog! I really hope to make another trip to Czech sometime in the future - love the beer culture!

  2. Sweet trip. I totally agree about the whole nostalgia thing... a few years ago my wife and I took a trip to Belgium, which started my whole passion with beer and homebrewing. I'll always remember my first beer there, a Tripel Karmeliet... and every time I have one now, it brings it all back. And the hangover.

    1. Nice, I'd really like to travel to Belgium. Just starting to get into Belgian beers now, and they're kind of blowing my mind. Many are pretty potent, so I can definitely understand that hangover!

  3. I visited the Czech Republic and Plzeňský Prazdroj in May of 2008. I loved the place! Went back to CZ in 2010.


    1. Nice! I'm really hoping to make a return trip (and am jealous that you have already done so)!

  4. You lucky Dog!!!!

    doing the best I can without traveling the distance, at least for now....


    1. That's awesome... and pretty ambitious! Really interested to hear how it turns out!