31 May 2013

Interview in Pilsen


Last Wednesday I was assigned by the magazine Beer Connoisseur to go to Pilsner Urquell to interview Václav Berka and I had a great time.

Berka, of course, is pretty well known personality here, almost a celebrity, in fact. He's the most visible face of the most iconic Czech beer brand and he's a pretty cool bloke! He showed me around the brewer, starting with the maltings, which aren't open to visitors, and he let me peek into the decoction kettles, something that visitors don't get to do, either. All while he answered to all my questions. Thanks to it I was able to learn a few things I didn't know.
  • The bottling line has a capacity of 1m bottles/day, and it's used not only for Pilsner Urquell, but also for Gambrinus and Kozel, which is brought by tank lorries.
  • In 1913, Pilsner Urquell was brewing 1 million hl, today production is bit less than 2 million.
  • There's a curious story about the establishment of Gambrinus. Urquell was already quite successful in the late 1860s and group of investors from the local German community wanted to compete making a beer as similar as possible. For that, they wanted to have the same water source as PU, so they decided to build their brewery next door. To prevent any objections from Urquell, in their building permit application they said the intended to build a distillery.
  • In 1913 there were four large breweries operating in Pilsen. Besides Urquell and Gambrinus, there were Prior and Světovar, that opened that year. Gambrinus would buy (and shut down) those two, and in 1932 they would merge with Urquell.
  • The maltings produce 85,000t a year. Most of that is used by PU, the rest goes to Kozel and Gambrinus. Radegast, the other brewery of the group, has its own maltings.
  • Pilsner Urquell was first filtered at the end of the 19th century in response to the competition. The owners were adamantly against filtering, but they had no choice but to vow to the trend in the market and started to filter some of the production to satisfy the demand. This is interesting because it is the exact opposite to what happens today and Berka was wondering when will the tide turn once more.
  • The cellar complex is 9km long and and it's always pretty chilly in there.
The best thing of the whole day, by far, was to share a few beers with Berka in the cellars, right next to the wooden barrels. We talked for over an hour, not only about Pilsner Urquell, but also about pubs, beer in general, beer culture and shared a few stories, too; it was almost like starting a casual chat with a stranger at an old school pub.

Of all the chat, what made me think the most was the importance Berka gives to the way the beer gets to the patrons at a hospoda, how much he knows about the subject and how much he wants to improve all that. He wants to implement a system to reward and motivate those who see that the beer reaches the glass in the best possible conditions.

Some of you will say that all that is marketing and PR, and you will be right to some extent. However, we must not forget the old Czech saying "Sládek pivo vaří, hospodský ho dělá" (beer is brewed by the brewer, but made by the pub owner). There's so much truth in that! As I said a few weeks ago, to me, a beer is not fully made until it gets into my glass. That is where all the bollocks end. All the stories, the words, the marketing, the passion, the debate about filtering/pasteurising or not will mean fuck all if I get a beer in bad shape. There should be more small brewers who pay more attention to this part of the process, which is perhaps the most critical of all.

My opinion of Pilsner Urquell has not changed since last October. It's still not my favourite and I don't like the company that makes all that much. But there is no doubt about the attention they give to some details, something that deserves praise and should be an example to many of those who consider themselves craft brewers.

That aside, though, having the chance to meet and share a few beers with someone like Václav Berka was a great experience, one of the most interesting I've had as a beer writer/blogger.

Na Zdraví!

5 comments:

  1. If only I could say this easily, it would become a new mantra of mine: "Sládek pivo vaří, hospodský ho dělá"

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  2. PF, you like I have been in CZ for around 10 years. IMHO, PU has gone significantly downhill flavor wise in the past five years or so. Every year it seems to get less distinctive tasting from Gambrinus. Even from the tank or unfiltered, it just doesn't taste as sharp to me as before. It seems the price keeps going up while the quality keeps going down. Someone who reads Czech beer websites told me they keep shortening the lagering time for PU and use specific methods to rush it out to market. I wish you had asked him about these rumours or even possible facts. Meanwhile, if I'm at Palmovka and thirsty and I've got a choice of drinking at Na Palme or U Jagusky, you know which one I would choose. What about you? JKAnPRG

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    1. I didn't ask about those things, firstly because the interview was more focused on the 170th anniversary thing, secondly, and more importantly, because I knew I wouldn't get an answer, or at least not a truthful one. It's well known that they use HGB, that they ferment in a couple of days. As for the lagering, they keep the official line "we lager for 5 weeks" (or something like that) and I doubt Berka would have changed it.

      That said, I agree with you, PU is not what it used to be, yet I still like going to some pubs to drink it, but more for the pub than for the beer itself.

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  3. Pivnizub: Only 2 million hl a year???

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    1. Of PU, yes... All the rest in Gambrinus, Kozel and Radegast

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