A tale of two breweries
As a part of our Remote Year they organise ‘Local tracks’, organised activities designed to immerse us in the culture of our current environment. They are loosely based around tourist activities but ones that are not so common or as easily accessible.
For example this week we did a walking and eating tour around little Hanoi in the outskirts of Prague - a good primer for when we visit actual Hanoi later on in the year. We got to experience a number of different Vietnamese dishes served by and for the local Vietnamese population.
On another day we visited the site of Lidice, a town the Nazi’s physically removed from existence in reprisal for the assignation of Reinhard Heydrich - the highest ranking German officer to be killed during the war and general all around shit-bag.
However, last week it was all about Beer. Beer is a large part of Czech culture, they are known around the world for it. The place where it all started and still continues to be produced today is the town of Pzleń. Pzleń is around an hour by train to the west of Prague and is home to two of Czechia’s largest and most well known exports Pilsner Urquell and Skoda.
The Pilsner Urquell brewery has been in continuous operation since 1859, surviving the rule of both Hitler and Stalin - both dictators acknowledging the value in a well sauced populous, wisely kept the beer flowing. The place is steeped in tradition and historical significance. Our burly tour guide - lets call her Gretchen, took pride in proclaiming that the recipe and production method has remained unchanged for over 150 years. They do produce some other minor, obscure and unheard of brands but their flagship Pilsner Urquell accounts for 99% of the production.
Whilst the production process has been modernised and scaled up to take the title of the largest bottling plant in Europe, the old infrastructure has been kept in place for groups such as ourselves to experience, subtly proclaiming what can be achieved by sticking to one thing you are good at. The highlight of the visit was wandering some of the 20km of tunnels beneath the brewery complex which were the old Lagering and storage caves - started in the days pre-refrigeration. It was here we had the chance to taste Unpasteurised, Unfiltered beer poured directly from 10,000L barrels - amazing.
After a hearty traditional Czech meal as usual consisting of Meat, Gravy and Potato in some form (no other vegetables seem to exist in Czech cuisine). The food, albeit a little heavy, makes for a great base if you are visiting breweries all day.
Leaving the sprawling Beer Mecca we make our way to the next stop on our itinerary, the newly formed Raven Microbrewery. Located in the outskirts of Pzleń, a ramshackle building behind an abandoned pub, no signage to speak of and secured behind a large locked fence.
You couldn’t find an operation more diametrically opposed to our previous experience, Raven is a three man operation in what can best be described as a bathtub brewing operation. Every corner of the brewery was crammed with equipment and ingredients. The small batch production allows for experimentation and trying out all sorts of crazy approaches and brews. Our guide was an American born Czech resident who was clearly very enthusiastic about his craft. He split our group into two smaller groups necessitated by the fact the whole group couldn’t physically fit in the building.
He guided us through the main area’s of the operation, the store room where we tasted the various malts used for different tastes, the brew room (fed by three large residential water-heater boilers) and finally fermentation and cool rooms where previous batches undergoing the chemical reaction which produces the alcohol content and turns constitute ingredients into ‘Beer’. Some of the vat’s were overflowing with an alien like froth a result of the fermentation process.
Completing our detailed but not particularly elaborate tour we swapped with the other group and proceeded to drink the entire supply from the ready to drink fridge - turning the entire brewery into a Kaizen party. We spent a number of hours there enjoying all the different weird beers they were so proud to show us. I am not sure as to the alcohol content of these beers as the rest of the Pzleń trip is a blur of music, singing and dancing (yes on the train). Again I find myself landing heavy into Prague and launching head first into the weekend.
The comparison of these two breweries is an analogy for the Prague tourist industry as a whole. On one side you have the way things have always been, impressive, practical and following a tried and trusted method - Beer, Traditional food, Art and Historical Architecture. On the other hand you have a small group of misfits doing some seriously crazy shit, throwing caution, tradition (and sometimes safety) to the wind - providing events and experiences between the cracks of ‘Traditional Prague’ that will blow your mind and leave wondering ‘did that really happen’. For my part I love finding and living in these cracks.