City built on beer
water source, pump room and even locomotives. Each of these helped sustain the city through Nazi occupation and each is still present in some way. The pretty old water tower, the high point of the site, is home to a confection of bubbling glass vessels, refurbished for show. The pump house (not part of the standard tour – we got lucky) has been repurposed as a working cooper’s shed, where nearly 300 wooden barrels are crafted by hand each year.
Most of the wooden barrels are essentially promotional items, filled with unpasteurised beer and dispatched to premium bars around the continent. But the giant lagering barrels in Urquell’s network of cellars play an intriguing role in the way the modern brewery operates. They contain beer produced in parallel with the bulk brew in the towering stainless steel lagering tanks, acting as a constant local reference for the international product.
Elsewhere on the site, the old summer pavilion built for the VIPs who flocked to the brewery in the 19th century is both the employees’ pub and a stop on the tour.
‘‘The brewer brews the beer – but the guy behind the bar makes the beer,’’ intoned pourmaster Vojtech Homolka as he took us through the three styles of pour: Na dvakrat (crisp), which New Zealanders would recognise as closest to the ‘‘normal’’ way to pour a beer; Hladinka, with a tall, creamy head and less carbonation in the glass (the favoured style among Czechs, and yours too if you have any sense); and Mliko, which comes off the tap looking like a big handle of milk, then settles as it’s consumed.
They should all contain the same quantity of beer – and, indeed, the government employs inspectors who visit bars and sit on their drinks to make sure that’s the case. All of our group took a turn at pouring: it’s trickier than it looks.
The tour passes through the big, modern bottling plant and a multimedia ‘‘experience’’ showcase of the brewery’s history before it culminates in a visit to those dank cellars and a generous sampling of the unpasteurised beer. It’s a fascinating taste experience: fresh, supple and literally alive.
Part of the original cellar complex has been repurposed as Na Spilce, the on-site restaurant which, when an adjacent dining hall is lit up (typically when there’s a big match on at the adjacent Doosan Arena football stadium) can seat 700 diners.
The fare at Na Spilce is as robust as the surroundings. Central European food sometimes gets a bad rap, but this is the most comforting of comfort food. Dumplings, duck confit, goulash, smoked pork and crackling spread arrived at our table, along with the best-presented steak tartare I’ve ever had served to me. There are fewer delights for vegetarians, and smokers can still smoke where they please, but as a place to sit at long tables and eat yourself into a happy stupor, it’s hard to beat.
Urquell isn’t the only beer tourism stop in town. The city’s Brewery Museum, in a 15thcentury building in the old town, showcases the region’s brewing history and takes in an old Gothic malt house and a tour through the labyrinth of tunnels and cellars built under the city from the Middle Ages. You can literally bathe in beer (with as many as 16