We arrived in Pilsen, Czech Republic not speaking a word of Czech. Not one single word. Not even “hello” or “please” and “thank you.” My handy guidebook with useful Czech phrases with an earmarked page about ordering vegetarian food in Czech? At home on the coffee table I suspect, where I put it so I wouldn’t forget it.
What brought us to Pilsen (or Plzeň) instead of the more popular destination of Prague? In our household, we are a brewer and a baker. The brewer wanted to celebrate his birthday with a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. So we did!
The tour began with a stop in a little exhibition of photos and artifacts. My eye of course zeroed in on the sparkling cut glass pilsner glasses. I bet drinking out of one makes beer taste even better. From there they loaded us on a bus to zoom down to their bottling line. Conveyor belts shuttled used bottles through cleaning, inspection, and filling. I learned the “inspector” is actually a machine that takes lightning fast photos of the recycled bottles to do quality control. If any bit of label didn’t come off in the wash or any structural defects are present, the inspector kicks the bottle out of use. The tour guide explained there was a separate line for beer going to the United States. Most of their bottles get reused over and over, yielding up to 20 uses per bottle. The ones going to the U.S.? Get used once. This was not a moment I felt national pride. [I found an interesting write up on why the U.S. stopped doing bottle deposits here.]
After bottling, they took us to an interactive room with mountains of grain people ran their hands through, a sort of water feature, and an armada of microscopes in which you could see their “special cultured yeast.” This tour was naturally geared more towards people with no brewing experience, so there were no ground breaking revelations for us, but it was nice to see all of the various parts of their production. Their massive copper boil kettles were a thing of beauty. We saw the ones actually in use from afar, and they turned us loose on several retired models. Noticing that I was photographing a section of copper that was severely dented, the tour guide lit up and came over to me. She confirmed that English was my native tongue so she could describe what I was looking at so I’d understand. “The grain comes through the pipe, and sometimes it causes a traffic jam.” She pantomimed banging on the pipe to try to knock the clogged grain inside loose, I could instantly imagine the string of curse words that might have been used by workers trying to dislodge grain over the years.
We moved on to their cellar, where the beer is fermented in large wooden barrels. Our guide was watching everyone like a hawk and keeping us on the designated path to make sure nothing ended up in the product, but if you craned your neck you could just see the foam in the top of the barrels. We paraded through hallways lined with massive wooden barrels of beer, and the tour culminated in a tasting of their unfiltered beer. Fresh off the cask, right at the source, it was pretty stellar. The highlight for me at least though, was learning that they have 9 kilometers of tunnels in their underground cellar, most of which was not in use and not visible for tourists. 9 kilometers of secret underground tunnels?! I wanted to covertly explore every inch, my imagination racing with possibilities of what I might find.