Pilsner Urquell, the Czech brewery that literally put pilsner on the map, celebrates its 170th birthday in October. We asked brewmaster Vaclav Berka—only the sixth man in Urquell’s history to hold the title—about how the brewery’s changed, and why the beer never will.
Your father worked in Pilsner Urquell’s fermentation department. Did you always want to work in the brewery, too?
I have been visiting the brewery ever since I was a little boy, and every time an opportunity arose to spend time there, I took it. The vast premises of cellars and fermentation rooms lured me with their coldness and the sacred calmness of fermenting and maturing beer. My career decision was clear.
Were there any secrets passed down from the other brewmasters?
Beer brewing is a live process that is very well described and precisely managed. Yet, besides all that, every brewmaster must instill his own soul into the beer and leave his imprint in it. That’s the only way beer that has tempted consumers for millennia can retain its charm. And that has, for the past 170 years, been the case for Pilsner Urquell. There is no method for instilling your soul into beer described in any manual: A brewmaster has to learn that from his predecessors. And I admit that I had great teachers.
Does the brewery itself have any secrets?
Yes, there are places there that hardly anybody knows. I was in charge of the lager cellar for a couple of years; this cellar is quite amazing in its expanse. It is a maze of over 9 kilometers of underground tunnels, and I do believe that I could find my way down there even if I was blindfolded.
How do you reproduce the same pilsner brewed in the 19th century with the changes in equipment and technology?
I have so much admiration for all my predecessors who have managed to retain the Pilsner Urquell brewing process and, for 170 years, keep it at a standard that makes a swig of freshly tapped Pilsner a one-and-only sensation. Modern facilities enable much better management of the technological brewing procedure from 1842.
Over the summer, you started shipping Pilsner Urquell to America in refrigerated cars within 30 days of brewing. Why the change?
Due to its makeup—a higher content of residual extract and higher content of hop substances—Pilsner Urquell is much more sensitive to poor handling than other beers. It is much more easily damaged by poor storage at unsuitable conditions and for a long period of time. In bottles, it is damaged by light and omnipresent oxygen, which accelerates changes in taste. That’s why it’s so important for us to maintain the low temperature; we want to provide our consumers with the beer they would taste in our brewery cellar in Pilsen.
This summer, you judged the Master Home Brewer Competition. Are you a homebrewer?
The Pilsner brewery is my second home, so my answer is simple: I am a homebrewer.
What’s the best American beer you’ve tasted so far?
There are many beers in America, and it would be unfair to highlight one. I must, however, emphasize that if you really want to get to know the taste of beer, the best idea is to go see the brewmaster and taste the beer right from the source.
What are your favorite pubs, at home and abroad?
In the Czech Republic, we supply beer to over 25,000 restaurants, pubs and bars—and each one of them is interesting in one way or another. I judge pubs on the quality of beer they serve customers, so I recommend restaurants marked with a Quality Certificate issued by Pilsner Brewery. Restaurants can acquire the certificate only if—in addition to taking care of the beer—they duly look after the tapping facility and beer glasses and, furthermore, are capable of properly pouring and serving the beer. I am glad that we have many such restaurants, and the number keeps growing.
What would we find you snacking on with a glass of pilsner?
Generally, Pilsner Urquell is suited for pairing with a roasted duck, roasted pork with dumplings, and sauerkraut or a good goulash.
How will you celebrate the brewery’s 170th anniversary? A big party?
170 years isn’t celebrated every year, and I can assure you that our celebration will reflect this. I cannot reveal everything, though. What I can recommend is making a trip to Pilsen in those days and participating in the celebrations. I can only disclose that there will be a very good beer there.