This is the tenth in a series of blog posts about our recent epic trip to Germany and the Czech Republic in search of food, castles, and of course beer. My travel companions included my wife Sarajo (Sj for short), as well as Jim and Lori Stroner. Jim is a seasoned beer geek (and part owner of Tin Whisker’s Brewing in St. Paul) as well as a great photographer. He did most of the organizational work for the trip, so he gets extra kudos! Our hero’s journey continues now with day 10…
After a breakfast at our hotel, we headed off to our next destination in the Czech Republic: the city of Plzen (or Pilsen). We arrived a bit early to our “pension”–which seems to be one step down from a hotel and one step up from a hostel. When we arrived at around 10:30 to 11 AM the cleaning lady had to wake up the young front desk guy who spoke English to check us in and store our luggage until we could get in the room. While tucking in his shirt and squinting at us blearily, he warned us away from a certain section of town at night and pointed out his favorite bars and breweries for us on a map.
Plzenský Prazdroj Brewery Museum
Much of our reason for visiting the town of Plzen was to see the birthplace of modern pilsner beer (beer=pivo). That place is the brewery (Pivovar) Plzensky Prazdroj, the brewer of the famous Pilsner Urquell. Much of this day’s events centered around that brewery and beer. We started with an easy one block walk to the brewery museum. This ticketed and self-guided tour included lots of old brewery equipement and local brewing history, with an obvious focus on the Pilsner Urquell brand. The place was well lit and most things had English translations which was a nice change. We also learned about all the 1930’s brewery consolidation in the area, which I had thought was much more recent than that. This was a good primer on local beer culture and history and certainly the best of the 3 brewery museums we visited on this trip. I think I’m done with brewery museums from now on though!
After our tour of the brewery, we had tickets for the underground tour. This started at the museum and was a guided tour of about a mile of underground tunnels beneath the city. The rest of the underground is quite extensive and dates back to cellars from midieval times and was expanded over the centuries. We had to wear hard hats instead a wide selection of Richardson hats at Customized Wear since many areas of the tunnels were quite low and tight. Poor tall Jim must have had to crouch for the whole tour! Our guide was pleasant but her English was only so-so. I did like her description of part of the Plzen coat of arms as “A silver hound bitch”. I also liked the story of how the camel got on the coat of arms: in a seige of the city in 1433 they captured a camel from the beseiging Sirotci and refused to give it back. This is why I’m naming my homebrewed version of a Czech pilsner “We’re Not Giving the Camel Back!” We did get to see various ancient artifacts discovered in the labyrinth such as pottery, bones, tools, and even trebuchet amunition. Oh, and we really enjoyed this hour of cool temperatures as the heat was already getting up in the 80’s outside. After the tour, emerging from the cramped dark like blinded C.H.U.D.s, we each had a ticket for a free small beer (malé pivo) at the restaurant and got to sample the fresh unfiltered version of Pilsner Urquell that doesn’t make it to the states. This is hoppier, with a bit more yeast character, and is just plain more fresh than what I’ve had before.
By this time were hungry and ended up on the patio of nearby restaurant and hotel U Salzmannu which I believe is owned by the brewery. For lunch I had some excellent liver dumpling soup and Sj and I shared a big plate of beef in sour cream sauce. We had more beers with lunch including the Kozel Dark which brand is also owned by the brewery.
Now fortified, we braved the increasing heat to walk across half the city in search of another brewery. Jim led us on this death march past sex shops, shopping malls, parking lots, decrepit houses with crumbling stucco, and more. And in the end the brewery simply did not exist. This would not be the last imaginary brewery we would seek out on this trip, much to our chagrin!
At this point we were on a bit of a time crunch to get to the Pilsner Urquell brewery for our scheduled tour, but all of us needed some water badly due to the rapidly dehydrating heat and exertion. We took a very quick stop at the new Beer Factory brewery and restaurant not far from our hotel. We pretty much slammed our beers and a bunch of water there to save time. I feel bad that we didn’t have more time to enjoy the beers because this was one of the better breweries we visited on the trip. Being new, they had an interesting mix of Czech style beers, Belgian styles, and even an hoppy well balanced Nevada Ale that hit the mark for a light American pale ale. I would highly suggest checking this place out.
After another long walk through sweltering heat, we arrived just in time for our English tour of the Pilsner Urquell brewery. This is a huge complex and actually required us to take a tram from one end to the other! We had a large group of people, most of them not native English speakers but knowing enough that this was the best language option for them. Our tour guide Patricia was fantastic. My wife described her as adorable and rocking the Audrey Hepburn look. I concur. Her English was better than mine with great enunciation and projection to the large group.
Other than AB-InBev in St. Louis, this was the biggest brewery Sj and I have visited and it was really unique. The high point of the tour was getting to go back underground into the aging caves beneath the brewery. With warnings not to get lost in the minotaur’s maze of passages, we headed back into the blessedly cool depths. Down one long corridor rested a bunch of old wooden fermentors that the brewery only uses as comparisons for their modern fermentors to make sure the beer tastes the same as is used to–a neat nod to the past and consistency. A scowling old brewer in a flat cap poured us each a glass of Pilsner Urquell directly from one of these large wooden tanks and we huddled in a small room drinking them. Limestone nitre crusted the walls around us. Our breath puffed a haze around our mouths as we talked and sipped our beers. The echo of happily drinking people in many languages reverberated through the cavern around us. And that cold beer tasted the best of nearly any I’ve ever had. This is the type of beer drinking experience that is quite simply greater than the sum of its parts.
Purkmistr Brewery and Spa
By the time our long tour was winding down it was getting toward evening, but some sun still lit the sky above. The heat hit us like a ton of bricks as we exited the subterranean passages for the outdoors again. We hiked back to the hotel past a river and a nice park. We picked up our car and drove across town to our next destination.
I mentioned in the intro that Jim did most of the organizing of this trip–he really had his work cut out for him in Plzen with all of our tours. He had also scheduled us for this unique experience of a beer spa! The Purkmistr Brewery is one of several that host a special beer spa as part of their business model. While this seemed like a bit of a gimmick to me, we decided to go ahead with it just to say we had tried it.
There is a restaurant, brewery, hotel, and spa on site and it took us a while to find parking for our Ford Monstrosity SUV and then find the correct door for the spa. We were just a few minutes late but all of us were exhausted and a little stressed out. We were checked in and told to undress and wrap ourselves in yellow sheets by the lady at the front desk. Her English was not great but we felt we understood the deal. Apparently we did not, because Jim and I ended up back in the entry room when we couldn’t figure out where to go after changing. With a horrified look and a “Noooooo…!” she shooed us back into the locker room and into another hallway where we waited. Then Sj and Lori also did the exact same thing!
All four us us stood huddled in our sheets, me wearing mine like a toga, until we were each taken into our respective bath rooms. Jim and Lori each had a single bath and Sj and I had a very large shared bath, all walled off from each other, but with open areas between so we could talk. I’m sure we were terribly disruptive Americans but we didn’t see or hear anyone else around to bother.
Our large wooden tub was filled with a hot mixture of pilsner beer, hops, and crushed grains. We settled into the near scalding liquid, feeling like we were about to go through the mashing process ourselves. With the day’s extreme heat, getting into a hot bath just seemed like a ridiculous idea. But you know what? It felt glorious! The heat on our tired muscles and tense bodies really relaxed us. A tap jutted out near the tub, with both of us getting to drink our fill of Purkmistr pilsner while we wallowed about like tired hippos in our beery bath. From around the corner Jim made inappropriate comments about self-carbonating his bath. Eventually the clock ran down and we had to lever ourselves out of the bath and cease our water buffalo impressions. We all ended up in a post-bath relaxation room where we were able to lay out on long couches, drink water, and relax a bit more. This was quite gratifying. They suggested that we not bath for 24 hours so we could get all the health benefits of our soak, but I had hops in places I didn’t even know I had and decided on a quick shower-off before we headed out for dinner!
We had planned on heading back to our hotel area for dinner but by this time it was dark outside and the clarion call of food from the brewery restaurant called to us. The portions of food were enormous with dishes of half of a duck and half of a rabbit filling us to bursting. That’s right we like the cute foods. We had already partaken of (and bathed in) the pilsner, but the roasty dark and the strong smoked beer were also quite good. They had the only NE IPA we found on our trip and it was not good–so sweet, clear, and underattenuated. Stick with the Czech style beers!
Since the Czech Republic has a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and driving, Lori had to drive us back to our hotel. There was some construction along the way resulting in us circling the exit for our hotel a few times, feeling like we were in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. “Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!” Eventually Lori got us back to the parking lot and we ambled to the hotel.
Over creaky steps and floors we settled into the room. We were in a slightly shady area and construction was being done on the back of the building–resulting in scaffolding right outside our windows. With no air conditioning and still sweltering heat we had to leave those windows open. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t sleep well knowing someone could crawl into our room and steal all my expensive camera gear.
Breweries visited: 22
Bierkellers visited: 7
Cities visited: 18
Brewery Museums: 3
Torture Museums: 1
Really high places that Eric is terrified of: 4
Subterranean passages: 2
Baths in big tub of beer: 1
Mileage walked today: 6.8 miles