You come to Plzeň (or Pilsen) for the beer, the exquisite, gold-coloured, delicately flavoured Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the most influential beer in the world.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Adrian is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and speaker writing about beer, pubs, food and travel.  Books include Great British Pubs, 1001 Beers to Try Before You Die and the latest Britain’s Beer Revolution.

@ATJBeer
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Published

October 13, 2015

First brewed in 1842, under the aegis of an ill-mannered Bavarian brewmaster (allegedly) called Josef Groll, it went on to become the template for all those golden lagers that have girdled the world ever since for better or worse.

A visit to the Pilsner Urquell brewery (or Plzeňský Prazdroj as it is known in Czech) is a visit to Disneyland seen through a beer glass, as you enter the site through a portal that resembles a miniature of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. As befitting a brewery that is older than Germany and the Czech Republic, its surroundings are larger than life. Take a look around: a massive locomotive from the 1950s sits undercover over there, a memory of time when trains loaded with beer left from here; not far from this relic is what looks like a minaret from 1001 Arabian Nights but is in fact a water tower.

Down beneath the brewery, there are nine kilometres of tunnels, which were dug in the soft sandstone during the 19th century. Here, in these subterranean passageways, pitch lined barrels of lager used to be left to mature before going out to conquer the world. This is brewing as tourism with over 250,000 souls visiting the site each year for a tour that takes in a film, artefacts, a visit around the brew house (the erotics of gleaming copper vessels: discuss) and a tasting of the beer from wooden barrels in the underground hideaways — here the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised, beer taken back to its primal, punch-drunk state and something to be experienced at least once before you die.

Image by Andrew Crump

However, before you become bewitched start the journey at the Museum of Brewing in town: you don’t get Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck but rather men in stove-pipe hats, women in crinolines and a guide who introduces herself with the uplifting message, ‘Beer is healthy.’ Some of the exhibits are decidedly cheesy — such as the model of a traditional Prague 1920s bar with wax dummies, including one of Franz Kafka, drinking, eating and playing pool. Meanwhile a brief show featuring the aforementioned men and women in period dress (I have absolutely no idea what it was about as when I visited nobody thought that it might be useful for non-Czech speakers to get a translation) has a strong whiff of a Britain’s Got Talent audition.

It’s not unreasonable to think that during the years of occupation from 1939-45 these tunnels might have had a purpose.

In stark contrast, you can walk through part of the vast network of tunnels that have been dug beneath Plzeň since its formation in the late 13th century. It’s like stepping back through layers of history and the marks on the sandstone walls are particularly moving, testament to the generations of workers who patiently dug through the subterranean gloom. Throughout the ages the locals used these tunnels as storage but also as hiding places during periods of war and upheaval; excavations have uncovered cannonballs, helmets and pikes, many of which can be seen, along with other artefacts, in alcoves along the passages. It’s not unreasonable to think that during the years of occupation from 1939-45 these tunnels might have had a purpose (incidentally, the city is rare for this part of central Europe in that it was liberated by General Patton’s forces rather than the Red Army).

Image by David Short

However, you also come to Plzeň for more than just the beer, though it’s very hard to ignore its beery culture (there are also a couple of micro-breweries in the city). This west Bohemian city has a history stretching back to the Middle Ages. Its architecture is stunning and it positively drips with culture yet it generally gets passed over in the rush to better-known Prague, from which it is only about an hour and a half by car — three years ago I travelled from Plzeň to Munich for Oktoberfest, talk about taking coals to Newcastle.

Plzeň is a beautiful, mellow city that positively oozes history. It was besieged during the Hussite wars in the 15th century and then sacked at the start of the 30 Years War that devastated central Europe in the 17th century (which of course we mustn’t forget kicked off in Prague with the famous 1618 ‘Defenestration’ — in plain English, a couple of representatives of the Hapsburg emperor were chucked out of the window). Despite these depredations, the city has a knack for picking itself up and dusting itself down.  The centre is pretty well unspoilt with the pleasant feel of a Europe unsullied by fast food joints and t-shirt vendors and of course, along with Mons is this year’s European Capital of Culture.

So why go to Plzeň? For the beer, of course, and a bar such as Na Parkánu where you can feast on roast pork knee and spicy red cabbage.

The Gothic spire of St Bartholomew’s cathedral dominates the main square. It’s worth climbing up for magnificent views of the city and surrounding hills. Far below the faint hiss and clank of the yellow trams can be heard. A patchwork of ancient houses surrounds the square, including the Renaissance town hall built in the mid 1550s. A trio of pagoda-like towers tops its elaborate frontage, while a golden clock marks time’s passage.

So why go to Plzeň? For the beer, of course, and a bar such as Na Parkánu where you can feast on roast pork knee and spicy red cabbage. Or maybe you would like to go to Klub Malých Pivovarů, where you can drink beers from the new wave fo Czech craft breweries. Then there’s architecture, the history, the faded elegance, the subterranean sensibility — and I also hear that they have a football team, whose players have been known to pitch up at various pubs after a good win. Na zdraví!

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