Plzen festival: You're in beer country now
I don’t know much about Czech rock apart from half-remembered memories of a dissident band called the Plastic People of the Expanding Universe. They apparently looked to the likes of Zappa and the Velvets for their inspiration during the days of the Iron Curtain. Grim but necessary I suppose.
Standing at the back of the crowd at the annual Plzen festival last month I reckoned that the days of arty, committed Czech rock were long gone as I watched a bloke on stage with his guitar going through the sort of motions that the word tedious was especially coined for. He was inoffensive, bespectacled and neatly coiffured. Fair play.
He looked like the owner of a hardware shop who had divested his brown coat for a stint on the stage. Fine. But when he started trying to whip up the crowd into something that appropriated excitement, I knew he was floundering in the heavy seas of his own sense of importance (he apparently was famous a few years ago). When he dropped into a whiny, nasal voice beseeching (for all I know) some invisible girl to join him in a spot of hardware shop empire building then I knew it was time for a drink. Which wasn’t that difficult given where I was.
I was at the Plzen festival, a weekend-long jamboree of music accompanied by boozing some of the finest beers known to man. After all, Plzen was where golden lager first appeared in 1842, when the city father hired a grumpy Munich troll called Josef Groll, who also happened to be a brewer.
In a country where beer is what wine is to the French, Plzen’s beer was the laughing stock of Bohemia — Groll was the man to put things right. He did (though such was his peevish personality that he was soon fired and disappeared into the backstreet boozers of history) and ever since then when we talk of Pilsner beer, it’s Groll’s handiwork that we have to thank — even if some of the beers around the world masquerading as Pils, Pilsener or Pilsner are not fit to wash your feet in.
"In a country where beer is what wine is to the French, Plzen’s beer was the laughing stock of Bohemia — Groll was the man to put things right."
To make matters even more enjoyable the festival was held on the site of Plzeňský Prazdroj, the brewery where Pilsner Urquell is brewed and then sent around the world (you might have seen it on draft in your local style bar or on sale while wandering down supermarket aisles). On the day I visited thousands of eager Czechs (and probably a few Germans) passed through ornate Gothic gates (think a miniature Brandenburg Gate) to revel in the brewery’s illustrious past — sorry, I mean to drink lots of beers, eat stodgy but delicious Czech food and listen to a man singing his dreams of hardware shop imperialism into life. There were also Czech rappers, heavy metallers and drum’n’didgeridoo types on display as well, but I’m just not going there.
The old brewhouse, now converted to a visitor centre, was packed to the gills as serious looking chaps with Franz Josef moustaches perused a mockup of a malt store house, venerable cooling tanks and plenty of old burnished copper equipment. If you wanted a plate of grub and a sit-down then you made a beeline for Na Spilce, a restaurant-bar within the brewery complex. Here in this cellar where barrels of beer used to be matured (or lagered hence the name lager), there was a bustle, as people came and went, their voices lifting to the ceiling giving the place the ambience of a beer hall.
On the menu: perhaps you would have gone for a half roast duck or a massive plateful of roasted pork knee. This is not a place for food faddists. Czech dumplings are also kings of the dining table. The beer is — unsurprisingly — Pilsner Urquell, but it’s unfiltered, served straight from massive tanks — graceful, elegant, spicy, toasty and bitter. Who needs food when you have a full glass of this little beauty? And then another…
And there was more outside as the crowds kept coming. The brewery is monumental, its main road a broad thoroughfare passing through a mixture of old and new architecture: mock medieval, high gothic, baroque and modern minimalism. An old steam locomotive is parked to one side of a shed, a memory of the time when railways were specially diverted to the brewery — it is said that a fully loaded train would depart for Vienna daily at 4.55am during the early years of the 20th century.
When I visited, a stage had been built next to it and a rather glamorous mum laid down a hypnotic trance of words over a constant drumbeat. It was pretty beguiling or was the good-natured effect of so much good beer? Beyond the shed, a water tower masqueraded as a minaret from The Arabian Nights, while below the site there are nine kilometers of subterranean tunnels where the beer used to be matured. I tried a glass of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell that was matured in wooden vats. It was served by a grumpy-looking fella who beckoned people forward with an impatient wave of the hand. All this was beer as tourism and brewing as Disneyland.
"The beer is Pilsner Urquell, but it’s unfiltered, served straight from massive tanks — graceful, elegant, spicy, toasty and bitter. Who needs food when you have a full glass of this little beauty?"
I love the Czech Republic. The beer is wonderful as is the food (providing I eat salads for a month when I come back). The women are some of the most attractive in Eastern Europe (sorry Poland), while there are enough styles of bar and pubs for everyone to be happy with. One of my favourites in Plzen was Klub Malych Pivovaru — a ground level, brightly lit boozer based in a shabby tenement down a sidestreet just across the road from where Pilsner Urquell is made. This was a buzzy bar with a youngish, slightly hipster, slightly indie kid clientele (plus a table of Status Quo look-alikes on the evening I visited).
There are two rooms, one bar, beer bottles as décor, bare brick walls, and the hum of conversation as drinkers devoued the latest examples of the new wave of Czech brewing. Kout 10˚ was light and delicate in the mouth; Herold’s Wheat Beer had bananas and cloves on the nose. I also visited the Pivovar Groll, a small independent brewpub producing some impressive beers. It was cheekily sited right on the doorstep of Pilsen Urquell.
Prague is wonderful, especially if you go off the beaten beer track (try the Zly Casy bar for instance), but for the serious beer connoisseur a trip to Plzen also pays a whole basketful of beery dividends. Not only will you be drinking a beer that changed the face of brewing (a rubbish version of which also helped to fuel lager louts across the home counties in the 1980s and has done ever since), but there’s a sense of history to this wonderful place, and it’s not full of Brits on the piss (at the moment). Just avoid anyone who starts telling you about their dream for a hardware store empire.
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