The Malthouse Blog
Summer Wine: The Beer Evolution starts in Yorkshire, apparently
Wednesday, 17 December 2014 11:48

“The Last of the Summer Wine” was a British sitcom which ran for 295 episodes over a staggering 31 seasons (1973-2010).[1]

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Malthouse becomes Ciderhouse: Appley goodness runs rampant
Thursday, 04 December 2014 14:23

It is time for the now annual tradition of Malthouse being reinvented as Ciderhouse for ten days. From noon on Friday 5 December right through to 15 December, Colin the Handsome yet Softly Spoken Scottish Proprietor is promising at least ten ciders on tap at Malthouse.

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Pilsner Urquell: “It is not hard to make beer, it is hard to make good beer and hardest to make good beer every time.”
Thursday, 27 November 2014 10:53

The title of this week’s blog is an old Czech brewers’ saying which was related to our tour group by Jan “Honda” Dientsbier, our energetic and knowledgeable guide at the fabled Pilsner Urquell brewery


 in the Czech town of Pilsen. From the moment we stepped though the huge ornate gates, the group became immersed in the history, culture and passion of Pilsner Urquell brewery, which in many ways resembles a small town within a town, rather than a place where beer is made. [1]

 

Pilsner Urquell is now being cold shipped all the way from the brewery direct to New Zealand outlets. This investment is designed to improve how the beer travels to the extent that it should be very similar to the product enjoyed in Czech pubs. In the first part of this blog, the Oxford Companion to Beer (edited by Garret Oliver) provides a potted history of Pilsner Urquell from the legendary Roger Protz. Then, I will share some highlights from my recent visit to Pilsen. [2]

Protz wrote “Pilsner Urquell originated after disgruntled tavern owners in the Bohemian city of Pilsen (now within the Czech Republic) poured 36 barrels of local beer down the drains in 1838 and sparked a revolution in brewing. The beer, probably wheat beer… was sour and undrinkable. Beer drinkers demanded better beer and they had heard of the new method of brewing in neighbouring Munich, where so-call Bohemian beer made with the aid of newly invented ice-makring machines was meeting with approval.

Local businessmen and tavern owners in Pilsen committed to raise funds and build a new brewery, to be called Burghers’ (Citizens’) Brewery. A leading architect, Martin Stelzer, was hired to design the brewery and he toured Europe and Britain to study modern breweries that used the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution – pure yeast strains, steam power, and artificial refrigeration – to make beer.

He returned to Pilsen to design a brewery on a site in the Bubenc district with a plentiful supply of soft water and sandstone foundations whether deep cellars could be dug to store or ‘lager’ beer. He also brought with him from Bavaria a brewer called Josef Groll [3] who had the skills to make the new cold-fermented style of beer.

The brewery was build rapidly and its first batch of beer was unveiled at the Martinmas Fair on November 11, 1842. The beer astonished and delighted the people of Pilsen. It was a golden beer, the first truly pale lager beer even seen in central Europe, for the lager beers brewed in Bavaria were a deep russet/brown in colour as a result of barley malt being kilned or gently roasted over wood fires.

A legend in Pilsen says the wrong type of malt was delivered to the brewery by mistake but this seems fanciful. [4] It’s more likely that Martin Stelzer brought back from England a malt kiln indirectly fired by coke rather than directly fired by wood. This type of kiln was used to make pale malt, the basis of the new style of beer brewed in England called pale ale. A model of a kiln in the Pilsen museum of brewing supports this theory.

The clarity of the beer, the extremely soft water of the Pilsen region, and the floral, spicy Saaz hops from the Zatec region all combined to make this beer something special and an instant sensation. It coincided with the development of glass on a commercial scale; before then, glassware was all handmade and therefore the province of the wealthy. Now, staring at the beer in clear glasses, consumers could finally see what they were drinking. They revelled in the sparkling, golden nature of the new beer from Pilsen, so different from the cloudy beers they had been drinking from their earthenware tankards.”

It was actually the Communist regime which changed the name of the brewery to Pilsner Urquell, though the brewery methods remained virtually unchanged. Until the 1990s, the beer was made in open fermenting vessels of Bavarian oak and matured in large wooden barrels in the extensive cellars. As the free market kicked in, most production was moved to closed stainless steel vessels although a selection of their famous barrels, made on site by a team of coopers, are still used. Giant SABMiller bought the brewery in 2005 and Protz notes “by 2010 it seemed the beer had returned to something like its original aroma and flavour.”

Last week I spent a long and enjoyable day at the Pilsner Urquell brewery. It sprawls over 130 acres and employs 600 staff, including their own security, firefighters and bus drivers. [5] It was once completely self sufficient with its own power plant, maltings, water tower, [6] coppers and railway station. The coopers remain, making and restoring barrels the traditional way using hammers, flax, pitch and plenty of muscle. Pilsner Urquell may be the only brewery left with dedicated coopers on site.

Malthouse #5 is massive. The first thing you notice is the football field sized vessel filled one metre deep with warm, fragrant barley. However, there are three more next to it. The packaging line can process 60,000 bottles or cans an hour, and the new brewery, installed in 2007, is expanded, modernised but still features traditional coopers. It uses the traditional triple mash method and heating by natural gas flames (600 degrees) creates some caramelisation. Saaz hops are also added three times.

Our guide, Honda, explains they had to bring a whole lot of 80-year-olds out of retirement because the young tradesmen did not know how to work with copper. 50% of all Czech beer is produced at Pilsner Urquell and their neighbouring sister facility of Gambrinus. [7]

The absolute highlight was the last act of the tour – a glass of unfiltered, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell poured straight of the barrel in the historic tunnels. [8] It was almost a spiritual experience.

Understandably, this rare version is not the one coming into New Zealand but the careful cold transportation and focus on correct serving temperatures and techniques means the Pilsner Urquell here tastes like it does in most Prague pubs I tried. It looks gorgeous in the glass, is crisp, clean, fresh with a hint of caramel, a twist of spice, some grass then cleansing bitterness.

The main difference in the Czech Republic is the pour – it can be virtually all foam (Mliko or creamy), two-thirds foam (Snyt or small drink in a big glass) or a thick head (Hladinka or International). The first two service methods will probably not be popular with Kiwis who like their beers nice and full, but they really change the character of the beer. I learned how to pour all three styles at the brewery but that may well be a story for another day.

Next time, we drink to Daniel Vettori, great to see the champion spinner back in white for the Black Caps, even if it may be a one-off.

[1] Disclaimer: I visited the Czech Republic as the guest of Pilsner Urquell/SABMiller. I’d like to thank them for the wonderful opportunity.

[2] I’m not sure everyone initially believed me when I said in the last blog that I was going to fly halfway round the world and back just to check the quality of Pilsner Urquell in its hometown.

[3] The brewhouse has a gallery of portraits featuring every head brewer from Groll to the present day. Several people commented on my resemblance to him…Poor guy.

[4] “Fanciful” is strong language indeed from the famously polite and well-mannered Mr Protz.

[5] It can be a long way between buildings after a few lagers.

[6] Fun Fact: The water tower is the same height as the Statue of Liberty.

[7] Unsurprisingly, there is a good natured rivalry between the two breweries. Our tour guides, who all work at Pilsner Urquell, hinted that their side always won.

[8] There are more than 9km of tunnels and 32,000 square foot of cellars, virtually all built in the 1820s and 1830s.

Cheers

Neil Miller

Beer Writer

Beer and Brewer Magazine

Cuisine Magazine

TheShout Magazine

New Zealand Liquor News Magazine

Links

Pilsner Urquell – www.pilsnerurquell.com

Malthouse Facebook - www.facebook.com/pages/Malthouse/7084276173

Malthouse Twitter – www.twitter.com/#!/malthouse

Malthouse Taps on Twitter – www.twitter.com/#!/MalthouseTaps

Neil Miller on Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/#!/beerlytweeting

 
mike’s – “We are going to need a bigger brewery”
Thursday, 13 November 2014 10:29

mike’s Organic Brewery was founded in the Taranaki hamlet of Urenui in 1989 which makes it one of New Zealand’s oldest craft breweries.

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Time for another session of Session Beer Session
Friday, 07 November 2014 08:51

From today, Friday 7th November 2014, Malthouse will kick off the second Session Beer Session which I guess means it is now an annual fixture.

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Colin’s grab bag of assorted goodies
Monday, 03 November 2014 13:05

Although it may be occasionally nigh impossible to tell, each of the 285 Malthouse blogs to date have nominally had a theme. It might have been a particular beer style, an event, a brewery or a new beer list.

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