OK so the live blogging experiment was only partially successful (what can I say? I had a cold). But here, better late than never, is another post from our recent beer bloggers’ Czech trip.
In retrospect, some places seem fated to become what they are, drawn hopelessly to their destiny. I thought I knew the story of Plzen, but as with so many stories, the narrative is geological. Sometimes I’m a historian, but sometimes you have to be an archaeologist: if you gently scrape away the story on the surface, you find another one beneath, and maybe even one below that.
|Wonder if this is where my publisher got the idea for the horrid old cover of Man Walks into a Pub from?|
Plzen (places in the Czech Republic have both German and Czech names, and when you’re there it starts to feel appropriate to use the Czech spelling) is synonymous with beer, and with the date 1842, when Josef Groll allegedly brewed the first golden lager, the style which eventually became known as Pilsner. That’s bollocks of course – there was golden lager before Groll – but there’s no denying the astonishing impact his intervention had on the beer world.
Legend has it that the circumstances leading up to Groll’s appointment saw the quality of the town’s beer deteriorate so badly that it was ceremonially poured down the drain in front of the town hall. Prior to this, the people of Plzen had had the right to brew themselves – a privilege not given lightly. After the ceremonial dumping of the beer, the city formed a burghers brewery, a collective venture that employed Groll and made history.
The clues to the layer beneath are there for all to see in that story. Why was beer so important to the citizens of Plzen? Why did they all have brewing rights?
And so you come back to fate and destiny.
Plzen lies in rolling, tree-lined Bohemian countryside. Naked, in the thirteenth century, it would have been one of those locations that screamed “Build on me!”, especially if you were looking to build a gaff that could be easily defended during centuries of almost constant warfare. Amid a confluence of rivers, stands a gentle, dome shaped hill. Town square on top of the hill, a cathedral in the middle of that with a 100-metre-high tower for observation, nice grid system of streets, a network of walls and moats at the bottom of the hill, and you’ve got a town that withstood fairly regular assault until 1618 and the opening exchanges of the Thirty Years War.
Why is this relevant to beer? Because that gentle hill is made of sandstone, easily excavated. And as soon as the town was granted its charter in 1295, the citizens began to dig. First cellars, then tunnels joining them up, and soon there was a 19km underground network inside the hill.
And according to the tour guide (not always reliable, but in this case very plausible), the initial reason for digging was storage for beer – in other words, lagering. All burghers had brewing rights, and it seems many used them. It backs up what Protzy has discovered talking to historic German breweries, that lagering goes back much longer than we thought. In the labyrinth beneath Plzen, there are even underground bars and restaurants, where people who brewed better beer than their neighbours sold it to them though holes in their cellar walls.
You can now go on a tour of the ‘Plzen historic underground’ starting at the town’s brewery museum. Thankfully the old man in Czech trousers who greets your hangover with traditional songs played on an accordion remains on the surface, and a sexy-librarian type tour guide issues hard hats (this is not just health and safety gone mad – you will smack your head) and guides you through 800 metres of tunnels and caves.
The sound of running water is constant. There are about 360 wells down here, providing the famous soft water that’s so important to Pilsner beer. The natural temperature is around five degrees Celsius. Among the many museum pieces are drinking vessels from down the centuries. Tin steins from the fifteenth century look pretty similar to anything you see in souvenir shops today.
|OK, the table's from IKEA, but the tankard is over four centuries old.|
All these factors – along with the treasured Saaz hops grown nearby – come together to make brewing great beer seem inevitable. Beer came to the Czech Republic with its first inhabitants – evidence of brewing and drinking has been found in the dwellings of early Teutons, Slavs and Celts, and by AD 922 the newly consecrated Bishop Vojtech was complaining about the scale of brewing in Brevnov monastery in Prague.
So Plzen was a hugely significant brewing city before Groll came along. In fact, that’s why they hired him – it was inconceivable that the city should have substandard beer after such a long brewing history. Plzen literally stands on its brewing heritage. The question is, what really happened to make such dramatic intervention necessary? Why did the burghers pool their collective brewing rights? Did the beer really deteriorate so badly it had to be poured away, or was the move simply a less dramatic reaction to the Industrial Revolution, an acknowledgement that brewing needed to happen on a bigger scale?
I don’t know, but in Plzen, nobody is saying anything to spoil the legend.