Pilsen Brewery Museum Diary

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There are a lot of eclectic sights to visit in the west Bohemian town of Pilsen (Plzeň) from apartments featuring the architecture of Adolf Loos to St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral on the main square to the Great Synagogue nearby. Pilsen’s Brewery Museum is an intriguing sight for beer lovers and for people who want to learn about how significant a role beer played in the history of the Czech lands generally and in Pilsen specifically.

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I strongly recommend that you supplement a tour of the Pilsen Underground (see my post about this sight) with a look at this museum. It sure is convenient; both are located in the same building. Also, a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (see my post about this sight) is a must-see for visitors. The Brewery Museum adds a more general historical perspective to the tour.

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Some of my favorite exhibits at the museum are the displays of beer mugs, glasses and jugs throughout the centuries. The handmade painting and detailed designs are exquisite. Many installations that offer insight into the history of beer as well as panels to read in English.

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To prepare for a visit to the Brewery Museum, let’s take a look at the history of beer in the Czech lands. The first beer made in the Czech lands existed even before the Slavs arrived in the sixth century, but it used different ingredients.

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The oldest brewery was at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery, which was established in 993, and, by the way, also deserves the attention of tourists. In the 11th century, the Canons of Prague’s Vyšehrad (the name of a hill which included a castle with cathedral) were given the right to brew beer. The oldest document about harvesting hops was drawn up in the 11th century. Czech beer was first exported in the 11th century, when the town of České Budějovice sent its brew to Bavaria and other places abroad.

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In the 12th century, the brewing of beer flourished and was a significant part of people’s diet. Women made beer at home, using it not only as a beverage but also as a soup and sauce. That same century the first royal towns received the privilege of making beer, though many did not get permission until the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 13th century, King Václav (Wenceslas) II proclaimed that only townspeople living in royal towns inside the town walls had the right to brew beer. Pilsen was granted this privilege when it was founded, in the late 13th century. Monasteries also were allowed to make the alcoholic concoction.

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In the 15th and 16th centuries, a heated conflict between nobles and towns ensued over whether the nobles should have the right to brew beer. They argued over the matter for 33 years, from 1484 to 1517. The nobles won the legal battle, and, as of 1484, nobles, townspeople and monasteries had the right to make beer. From 1517 to 1869, the Saint Wenceslas Agreement (Svatováclavská smlouva) was in effect. It put in writing specific rules for the brewing of beer.

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From the 16th century to the 18th century, Pilsen alone had 36 malthouses and 26 small town breweries. At the end of the 18th century, barley and hops replaced wheat as key ingredients. Czech beer was lauded at an international exhibition in Paris during 1837, when the Pilsner Prazdroj and Pilsen town brewery (Městanský pivovar) were recognized for their high quality of beer.

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The city of Pilsen has played an extraordinary role in the history of beer through the ages. The most common beer is the pilsner lager, easily recognized due to its golden color and light flavor. Perhaps the most significant date in Pilsen’s beer-brewing history is October 5, 1842, when German beer guru Josef Groll, inspired by Bavarian lagers, invented Pilsner Urquell, which holds distinction of being the first light-colored beer in the world.

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Fourteen years later, Pilsner Urquell beer began to be exported abroad, as trains transported it to Vienna on a daily basis. The tasty concoction was introduced to the United States in 1874. Pilsen’s beer-making ability won many prizes, including first place at Prague’s Jubilee Exhibition in 1891. A million hectoliters of beer were manufactured in 1913. The Pilsen brewery became the biggest in all of Europe, and its beer was sold in 34 countries.

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Beer-brewing continued to flourish in Pilsen, but then in April of 1945, more than a hundred bombs fell on one of its breweries. It was rebuilt, but in 1946 both Pilsen breweries became the property of the state. That did not impede the breweries from continuing to receive worldwide recognition, though. Pilsen’s beer achieved success after success in the following decades. In 1990 cylindrical tanks were installed. Now Plzeňský Prazdroj can be found in more than 50 countries. It encompasses the Czech beers Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Velkopopovický Kozel, Radegast and others. The enterprise runs four breweries in the Czech Republic.

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However, Pilsen is not the only city where beer has a long and impressive history. Take České Budějovice and its Budějovický Budvar beer, for example. The town brewery there was established in 1795, when České Budějovice was  a mostly populated with Germans. Czechs, however, founded the Budějovický Budvar brewery during 1895. The beer had reached worldwide acclaim by 1913.

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In the 20th and 21st centuries, Budvar has continued to earn recognition throughout the world. Now it is sold in 76 countries and is especially popular in Germany, Austria and Britain. It officially became known as Budvar beer in 1930. During World War II the Nazis took over the brewery, and, later, with the onset of Communism, the brewery became the property of the state. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, it was privatized.

Please note that this is not the same as the American Budweiser beer! There are many legal battles over the patent between the Czech brewery and the American Anheuser-Busch brewery, which makes another beer called Budweiser.

While I was at this museum, there was also a small, intriguing exhibition of abstract sculpture inside. Although I rarely drink alcohol, I did not want to pass up the opportunity to familiarize myself with the beer-making success of this city and in the Czech lands.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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