Author: Lucy Corne
They say you should never meet your heroes. They can never live up to your expectations, they will only disappoint. When you’ve truly built something up in your mind to be magnificent and marvellous and, dare I say, perfect, there is just no way it could ever come close in real life. These were the thoughts that were running through my mind as we took the two-hour train ride from Prague to Plzeň.
We were on our way to see the biggest hero of all. Not a rock star or movie actor or Nobel prize-winning author, but a beer. A beer we had built up in our minds as the best in the world. Pilsner Urquell.
I’m not sure when the love affair started. But somewhere along the line, I developed a near infatuation for the original pilsner. For me it’s just the perfect beer: in equal parts malty and hop-forward, perfectly balanced, complex enough to pair with food but quaffable enough to sip all day. It was something my husband and I could always agree on; our go-to beer.
We would buy a case whenever we spotted one and you’d always find a dozen or so cold ones in our fridge, ready to rise to whatever the occasion. And then, in 2017, it disappeared from South African stores. It was the saddest casualty of Anheuser Busch InBev’s buyout of SAB (South African Breweries), with the brand sold to Japanese brewery Asahi as part of the takeover deal.
Pivo in Prague
Ever since, the beer has taken on a legendary status in my mind. It was the best beer there ever was; the best there will ever be. Whenever a friend was travelling they would WhatsApp photos of my beloved PU to me, or if I was really lucky, bring a bottle or two back.
But photos and occasional sips weren’t enough, so when I planned a trip back to my native UK earlier this year, it wasn’t just about visiting friends and family. It was also about taking a flight to the Czech Republic and visiting the birthplace of my beloved.
I usually spend a lot of time planning any overseas trip. I read guidebooks cover to cover, I seek out special restaurants and quirky museums and of course, the best places to grab a beer. This time the plan was simple: walk around the city, see a place to stop for a pint, stop, sip, repeat. We had come armed with a couple of recommendations though, and while I had planned to save my first sip of PU until we got to Plzeň itself, I couldn’t help myself from partaking when we sat down at U Zlateho Tygra.
I’d heard tales of sullen service at this long-established bar, but I rather liked the no-nonsense manner of the waiters as they slammed pints of pilsner down in front of perplexed tourists that hadn’t yet ordered a thing. At U Zlateho Tygra you don’t need to order beer, though you do need to signal when you’re done drinking, otherwise waiters will continue to slam them down, an almost imperceptible twinkle in their eye as they do so. It is a bustling bar filled with locals and tourists tucking into plates of simple but excellent meaty cuisine and washing it down with yet another pint of liquid gold.
The full beer experience
Before we left Prague, we had to indulge in a quintessentially touristy activity: the beer spa. There are half a dozen options dotted around the city, though they really differ only in the beer that they serve. Since none offered Pilsner Urquell on tap, we opted for Lázně Pramen, north of the city and close to the impressive Prague Castle. An assistant prepared the tub with a mix of hot water, beer and a jug of highly-hopped wort poured in at the end, just for show. Once she headed back upstairs, it was time to disrobe, and jump into the warm, beery water. You’re recommended to soak for 30 or 40 minutes, during which time you can swig as much beer as you can manage.
On tap were two options: a pale lager and a dark lager, both from Kynšperský Pivovar. The pale was thirst-quenching enough but lacked bitterness and balance. Luckily we didn’t feel the need to finish the pint regardless, instead pouring it into the tub and replacing it with the superior tmavý ležák (dark lager).Once the bubbles had subsided and we were left with a tidemark of hop residue across our backs, we showered and retired to the bed of hay provided for your comfort. Or more realistically, for you to fidget on while itchily drinking the rest of your beer.
After two days in Prague, it was time. We grabbed a couple of standing room-only tickets to Plzen and took the 90-minute train ride southwest. A friend had suggested that Plzen was a small and unattractive city and not worth the overnight stay, but we like to do things our own way and on this occasion at least, we were right to do so. It is certainly a small town, dominated by an outsized square, lined with ornate and colourful facades. But ugly? Not a bit of it. Narrow, cobbled roads lead off the main square, taking you past taverns and boutiques and the worth-a-visit Brewery Museum with its attached pub serving unfiltered PU.
The Mother Church
But we were saving ourselves for the Mother Church. We had booked an afternoon tour of the brewery and we set off like kids heading for Lapland a week before Christmas. We got utterly lost navigating the town’s busy ring road and ended up wandering into the brewery through the staff car park. It was not the auspicious arrival we had hoped for, but eventually we found our way to the emblematic gates which feature on the brewery’s logo and after a leap of joy, we wandered in.
The 90-minute tour took us through the history of the brewery – where the first golden pilsner-style beer was brewed in 1842 – and then through the process from milling and mashing to the mesmerising site of the bottling and canning lines in action. I’ve done dozens of brewery tours before and as usual I was eager to get to the part that everyone really signs up for – the tasting. Specifically, tasting unfiltered Pilsner Urquell straight from tanks in the cellar. We lined up and grabbed our sample and we ushered into a damp underground tasting room. By the time I joined the tour group, the guide was already moving people along to the next section of the tour but I refused to sacrifice the moment, letting them all trickle away as I remained, taking that first sip of the beer I’d travelled all this way to sample.
It was disappointing. People had spoken of this as a near-religious experience but as much as I wanted to love it, I found the unfiltered version a let-down. I traipsed after the group starting to feel like I had overhyped the whole trip in my mind to a point where it couldn’t possibly meet my expectations. The tour was busy and akin to many others I’d taken, the legendary unfiltered pilsner was great, but not the life-changing experience I had expected. There was only one place left to visit: the bar.
There are three versions of the Pilsner Urquell pour, each meant to offer a different taste experience. Hladinka is the standard pour, with three fingers of dense, moussey foam topping the pint. Šnyt is two parts beer, one part foam and rather bafflingly, one part empty space. Mlíko – often mispronounced as ‘milko’ by foreigners for its creamy white appearance, is essentially a glass of foam with just an inch or so of beer in the bottom. We try them all and while I love the idea – and the Instagrammable nature – of Mlíko, I feel like it needs to be drunk quickly, before the foam begins to fall. Gulping on foam is comedic but tricky and in the end I settle for a Hladinka. And a second. And a third.
We sit, sipping the beer that started a global revolution towards clear, golden lagers, and I realise that this was all we needed. It wasn’t about the brewery tour or the chance to sip in the cellars. It wasn’t about pairing it with goulash or trying to slurp through three quarters of a pint of foam. It was always about this: simply sitting and sipping glass after glass of what I still believe to be the world’s greatest beer.
Pictures: Lucy Corne