The Czech town of Plzeň is the birthplace of the world’s first golden lager, and both are elegant, spicy and hugely enjoyable. Adrian Tierney-Jones visits brewing Disneyland
Lunchtime at Na Parkánu, a restaurant attached to the Museum of Brewing in Plzeň (or Pilsen). A glass of Pilsner Urquell, served unfiltered and unpasteurised from a tank beneath the bar: graceful and golden, elegant, spicy, toasty with a bitter finish. On my plate: a massive joint of pork knee, skin glistening with fat, wispy strands of steam carrying the mouth-watering aroma of the cooked meat upwards; the waitress then plonks down the accompanying bowl of horseradish, mustard and spicy cabbage. I also have a helping of ‘hairy’ dumplings (see recipe). It is all excellent: but Czech food is not for the faint-hearted or the fastidious.
The Bohemian city of Plzeň is at the heart of the Czech lagerlands. Here in 1842 the local burghers hired Bavarian brewer Josef Groll in an attempt to put an end to the bad reputation of the city’s beer (loads of the stuff had been symbolically poured down the drain not long before). The result was a sparkling blonde bombshell of a beer, the world’s first golden lager — Pilsner Urquell. For better or for worse, this was the beer that would go on to conquer the world.
Prague has its beery attractions, but few Brits bother to take the train westwards to the ancient city of Plzeň. More fool them, as they miss a special place. The city has a faded elegance: EU money has poured in, but it has not been too prettified. Stag parties are also conspicuous by their absence and there’s a robust sense of blue-collar character in places (Skoda remains one of the biggest employers). Then there’s the beer: the Pilsner Urquell brewery is one of the biggest tourist draws in the Czech Republic. On my last visit, the place was heaving as the annual Plzeň Festival took place on the brewery site. Bands played while booths dispensed Pilsner Urquell as well as beers from its next-door neighbour Gambrinus (SAB-Miller own both), one of the bestselling beers in the country. This inoffensive lager tops the league due to its relative cheapness, rather than quality; this is a point underlined when a leather-jacketed guy drinking PU blurts out to me when he hears my English: ‘This good,’ he says pointing at his drink, ‘Gambrinus crap!’
Pilsner Urquell’s brewery site is brewing Disneyland. People pour through the double-arched stone gate built in 1892 (a dead ringer for the Brandenburg Gate), while a makeshift stage featuring a didgeridoo’n’bass ensemble stands in front of the old engine shed which houses an ancient loco. Inside the main brewery, the old copper brewing vessels still stand, glistening and shining icons, while you can view the current ones — stainless steel, massive, space age — from what feels like the deck of the USS Enterprise. Gambrinus also has a museum attached to its brewery. It’s slick and professional, which is the nicest thing I can say about the beer.
As you might imagine, the pubs and bars of Plzeň are temples to the joy of beer (and dumplings). Pivovar Groll is an independent brewpub that has the nerve to set itself up very close to Pilsner Urquell. Its Lotr 11˚ is a gorgeous pale lager beer (or Světlý Le
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 9, 2011Tags: Czech, Food, International cuisine