In the United States, the term “pilsner” is used to describe an array of beers. But, in the Czech Republic, “pilsner” is reserved for one beer – Pilsner Urquell, the original pale lager. Since 1842, the brewery in Plzeň has maintained the same recipe, the same triple decoction method, and the same wooden barrel aging process. I’ve had a can of Pilsner Urquell in the United States – and then once in Rome on tap. But never in the Czech Republic, poured the way the brewery intended.
My first taste of Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic was at the U Zlatého Tygra (The Golden Tiger) in Prague where Pilsner Urquell is the only beer served. You don’t even really have to order – if you’re sitting down, one will be placed in front of you. Lifting the glass to my lips, the white froth coated my upper lip as the cool liquid slid down my throat. The beer expanded in my mouth, filling every crevice with the classic Saaz hop bitterness.
I sat in silence while small groups of tourists and locals chatted at the surrounding tables. But, oddly enough, they weren’t chatting about the beer. It’s a stark contrast to the United States where taprooms are “buzzing.” People moving in and out with cases of the latest release. Standing in line, grappling with the decision about which of the 20 beers on tap to try. Racing to finish it so you can try another one. Untapped check ins. Tedious dissections about how this batch is different than the last batch. What the best batch ever was. Who in the group missed out on that batch. And on and on. There’s really none of that in the Czech Republic. When there’s one option (one really great option), the experience, oddly enough, isn’t about what you’re drinking.
My second taste of Pilsner Urquell was at Pilsner Urquell – THE Pilsner Urquell. In Plzeň. As soon as I learned we would be traveling to Prague I booked the tour, figured out how to negotiate the train system, and then eagerly counted down the days until I had the chance to see where this classic pale lager was born.
A well known finale of the tour includes a visit to the cellars where the unfiltered version of the beer is stored for 3 months in wooden lagering barrels. As our tour guide lead us through the meandering pathways, ahead we saw a man in the distance. Backlit by fluorescent lighting, he stared at one of the barrels, patiently waiting for us. He reached out his hand for our glasses and silently filled them one-by-one. The beer had an incredible amount of flavor and body. Amongst the tour group I heard quiet chatter about how they didn’t realize pilsner could “taste like this.” It’s the most I would hear anyone talk about the beer they were drinking during my entire trip.
Throughout the rest of my travels, the experience was the same – little to no conversation about the actual beer beyond an initial “hmmm, that’s good” once the first sip went down. That’s not unique to Pilsner Urquell – it’s Czech beer culture in general. And that’s not to diminish the quality and taste of Czech beer – it’s some of the best I’ve ever had. But, beer isn’t the star; it’s like scenery – beautiful and crucial to the experience, but rarely the focal point of the moment.
I spent hours lazily finishing a beer – and then ordered the same one again, feeling no pressure to drink my way through the offerings. I chatted with other patrons about travel, food, US politics, and family. I sat outside watching a family enjoy lunch, the parents taking turns watching their small children while they exchanged chances to eat and sip their beer.
When you ask people what they love about beer, it’s rarely a breakdown of their favorite hop or which batch of a NEIPA release they loved. They recall moments of real meaning and connection, and then in aggregating those moments discover that beer was often a common thread. Beer then is a means, not an end.
For me, revisiting this classic wasn’t just about drinking an incredible beer that defined the world’s most popular style and still holds up today. Drinking Pilsner Urquell pushed me to remember what it is I really love about beer, and that’s hard to do if you’re so focused on the beer itself.
I had my last pour of Pilsner Urquell the evening before we left. My partner had worked a conference for the last few days and barely had a chance to enjoy the city. We walked to one of the many Pilsner Urquell bars scattered throughout the city, sat down and ordered two. It’s the same beer I had all week, but somehow this one tasted better than any of the ones before.
Kristen is a Boston-based newcomer to beer writing and photography. A Baltimore native, her interest in beer grew when she moved to New England 15 years ago. Her passion for sharing beer and food with people has taken her to destinations across the United States and globe – she’s likely planning her next adventure right now.
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