Being surrounded by all seven of Pilsner Urquell’s full-time team of coopers was an intimidating experience – like walking into a Hells Angels clubhouse then suddenly realising you’re wearing a ‘I Hate Harleys’ T-shirt.
All of them looked liked they’d lived hard lives and would sooner hit you with one of their very large wooden mallets than break into a smile.
But fortunately appearances were once again proven to be deceptive as these hard-working humble giants warmly welcomed Pelle and I into their workshop where they still make barrels in exactly the same way they have for generations.
Other parts of the brewery may have welcomed change but here time has been allowed to stand still. These burly guys use tools that look like they’ve come from the shop window of an antiques store with skilful precision to shape, shave and hammer the specially selected lengths of wood into barrels, which are then lined with boiling pitch prepared using a secret recipe before being filled with beer.
Each cooper starts life as an apprentice and works their way up. For some coopering has been in their family for generations They’ve paid their dues and it shows on their thick calloused hands. I could only imagine the number of times those fingers have been struck by a misplaced hammer blow.
Coopers are clearly a tough lot and beer bloggers are not, so it was soon time to leave to do something beer bloggers are good at – drinking beer.
As our tour reached its climax we headed back to the brewhouse where the entrance to the underground tunnel complex beckoned us deep into the earth below. Within a few steps the temperature dropped alarmingly. This dank misty labyrinth always stays a constant 7 degrees regardless of the weather above.
Recreated by Groll and Stelzer to mimic the conditions of Bavarian caves these tunnels were once lined with row upon row of wooden vats filled with slowly fermenting beer in all its unfiltered and unpasteurised glory. Only a few vats and barrels remain today and represent the finishing line of the brewery’s regular brewery tours.
It is here as a visitor you can get to sample a glass of Pilsner Urquell the way it looked and tasted almost 170 years ago. It’s impossible not to be influenced by the historic surroundings and swept away in the sense of expectation that flows through these passageways, pushing you towards this moment.
Some people say you shouldn’t let such factors sway you when assessing a beer. I say just the opposite. Every drip of water splashing onto the cobblestones around my feet, every musty waft of cold wet barrels and every echoing click of a tourist’s footsteps found its way into that first sip of Pilsner Urquell.
It was a special moment for a beer lover like me. A moment when I understood why so many people I’ve met throughout the years are so fond of the world’s first golden beer.
Down here, stripped back to its naked form, was the original pilsner I had come so far to taste.
Down here the brand counted for nothing and only the beer mattered.
It was the answer to the question I had asked myself at the beginning of this journey; whether breweries like Pilsner Urquell could still be relevant in a modern beer world intent on looking forward and rarely looking back.
It was a cloudy, honey-coloured, frothy-headed yes.
Transparency Statement: This post is the final installment in a series of articles about my recent trip to Pilsner Urquell as a guest of the brewery. Together with Pelle from Allt om Öl we were the first Swedish beer writers to participate in the brewery’s ‘Origins Tour’ – an immersive two day experience during which we were given a unique ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how one of the world’s most famous beers is made.