Lager than life in the Czech Republic
LUNCHTIMEatNaParkanu, a restaurant attached to the Museumof Brewing in Plzen (or Pilsen). Aglass of Pilsner Urquell, served unfiltered and unpasteurised from a tank beneath the bar: graceful and golden, elegant, spicy, toasty with a bitter finish.
Onmyplate: 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 dumplings.
It is all excellent, but Czech food is not for the faint-hearted or the fastidious.
The Bohemian city of Plzen 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 visitors bother to take the train westwards to the ancient city of Plzen. More fool them, as they miss a special place. The city has a faded elegance: European Union 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 bluecollar character in places (Skoda is 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. Onmylast visit the place was heaving as the annual Plzen Festival took place on the brewery site. Bands play while booths dispense Pilsner Urquell as well as beers from its next-door neighbour Gambrinus (SAB- Miller owns both), one of the best-selling 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 guy drinking PUblurts out to me when he hears myEnglish: ‘‘This good,’’ he says, pointing at his drink. ‘‘Gambrinus crap!’’
Pilsner Urquell’s manufacturing 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 locomotive. 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 museumattached to its brewery. It’s slick and professional, which is the nicest thing I can say about the beer.
As you might imagine, Plzen’s pubs and bars are temples to the joy of beer (and dumplings).
Pivovar Groll is an independent brew-pub that had the nerve to set itself up very close to Pilsner Urquell. Its Lotr 11 is a gorgeous pale lager beer (svetly lezac in the vernacular), bittersweet with slight herbal notes; its amber is pretty damn fine and goes down a treat with pretzels.
Further out of town, USladka is a neighbourhood bar that also happens to brew its ownbeer. Enough of dumplings, I wanted something less heavy and meaty.
I should have known better, as a goliath helping of deepfried cheese and chips arrived: as I said, Czech food is not for the faint-hearted or the fastidious.
Old copper brewing vessels in Pilsner Urquell’s brewery