The town with a hazy golden glow

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Eastern Europe -

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 (stu­den­t­a­; 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; mar­ can be found on the eastern edge of the city cen­tre. Dou­bles from £50.

U Salz­mannu at Prazska 8 (377 235476; us­alz­ 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; purk­, 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: 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

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