The town with a hazy golden glow
Will Hawkes loses track of time in the bars and breweries of Pilsen, home to the Czech Republic’s most famous beer
There’s something about the damp, cool cellars underneath the Pilsner Urquell brewery that make you lose track of time. That’s my excuse, anyway. Why else would I be pouring myself a drink – my third – just before 11am? In my defence, it’s not as if my tour guide, Michaela, is taken aback. “You are doing well,” she says, clutching her own glass of hazy-golden lager. “Are you looking for a job?”
No, I think, just another beer. After all, that’s what I’m here for. In the year that Pilsen is European Capital of Culture, I’m keen to experience its greatest contribution to world culture: golden lager, born here in 1842. To whet my appetite, I’ve contacted Evan Rail, ace beer writer and long-term Czech resident, to find out what to expect. “Czech beer culture is a world unto itself,” he tells me. “There’s a richness of beer-hall history and tradition unlike anything else I’ve found.”
A mouth-watering prospect. So when I arrive in Pilsen I head immediately for U Salzmannu, a large pub-cum-restaurant close to the city’s central square, Namesti Republiky. Named after the man who first took Pilsner Urquell to Prague, thus sealing its place in history, it’s charmingly unaffected: the wood-panelled walls of the dining room are festooned with hops, a television in the corner shows snooker and the table to my left is occupied by a group of chuckling pensioners.
It’s perfect, but it’s about to get better. A waitress places a fat-bottomed glass tankard of Pilsner Urquell Nefiltrovany Lezak – an unpasteurised, unfiltered version of this famous beer – in front of me. I’ve had it before, on a previous visit to Pilsen, but the experience is still a wonderful surprise. It’s soft and lightly carbonated, and the flavour is a beguiling blend of caramel, biscuit and spicy bitterness. It’s delicious, and totally unlike most pale lagers you’ll find in Britain.
I could stay here all afternoon, but I’ve arranged to meet Filip Miller, an expat Australian who has lived in the city for eight years and knows the beer scene inside out. He’s going to show me what beer culture there is in Pilsen beyond the town’s Four airlines (British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and Wizzair) fly from Britain to Prague, which is about an hour by road from Pilsen. From the airport, a taxi will cost 2,700 Czech crowns (CK), around £80. Alternatively, take bus No 100 to PrahaZlicin from where Student Agency buses go to Pilsen (studentagency.eu; CK100, or £2.90; journey time one hour). It’s best to book, because buses are often full. Note that there is no railway or metro station at the airport.
Hotel Rous at Zbrojnicka 7 (00420 377 320260; hotelrous. cz) is a 30-second walk from Republic Square. Doubles from £60 a night, including breakfast.
Pilsen’s Courtyard by Marriott at sady 5. kvetna 57 (373 370100; marriott.co.uk) can be found on the eastern edge of the city centre. Doubles from £50.
U Salzmannu at Prazska 8 (377 235476; usalzmannu.com/en) is a classic Pilsen pub where smokers and non-smokers are accommodated. Expect hearty Czech cuisine; a half-litre of Nefiltrovany Lezak costs CK38, about £1.
To get to Purkmistr at Selska naves 21/2 (222 539539; purkmistr.cz), take a No 13 bus to the suburb of Cernice. Not only is there beer on offer, but also a beer spa, where you can luxuriate in a bath of beer. A 20-minute session costs CK690, or £19.50.
It costs CK90 (£2.50) to go around The Brewery Museum at Veleslavinova 6 (377 235574; prazdrojvisit. cz/en/brewery-museum).
English tours of the Pilsner Urquell brewery at U Prazdroje 7 (377 062888; prazdrojvisit. cz/en) take place at 12.45pm, 2.15pm and 4.15pm daily. The adult admission fee is CK199, or £5.60.
More information: pilsen.eu famous golden lager.
We start at Francis Retro-Cafe, where, basking in the warmth of a woodburning stove, I drink Beskydy Yellow Leaf, a tasty American pale ale made with hops from the United States. Next, it’s U Kance, where the Stara Skola 12 degrees (Czech beer is ranked by degrees Plato rather than alcohol by volume; 12 degrees is about five per cent ABV) is a little buttery for my liking – and finally U Kostela, a 15-minute walk from town, in a working-class district close to the Skoda factory.
We step through the front door into a fug of cigarette smoke; it’s still legal to puff away indoors here. That’s not the only blast from the past. A half-litre of Kout na Sumave’s 12-degree pale lager (a soft, delicate drop – like drinking a cloud – with a firm bitter finish) costs just 28 Crowns, or 80p. It’s cheap, but it reflects the local attitude towards beer that isn’t Pilsner Urquell, Filip tells me.
“Many locals are convinced that the mass-produced Urquell is the best,” he says. “Often it is sold at higher prices and usually it’s all that’s on offer at the posher places. Bars selling micro rather