Article By: Lew Bryson
The first was last September. I was at the brewery in Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. We saw the huge, modern brewery with the big copper brewing kettles (heated by direct fire) and the massive stainless fermentation and maturation tanks . . . all aboveground. Then we were led below ground, into nine kilometers of tunnels cut through the native sandstone. Down here, in the dim, wet halls where all Pilsner Urquell used to be lagered in great wooden barrels, they still make a small amount of it in the old, traditional way: fermented in open vats, aged in the big barrels that are still made by an onsite cooperage, and cooled by the natural temperature of the earth. They do that to make sure the beer made the modern way tastes the same as the old school stuff.
And there I was, in the very birthplace of pilsner, drinking fresh-as-life beer tapped directly from those barrels, with none other than the Pilsner Urquell brewmaster, a huge blond bear of a man named Vaclav Berka. It was cool, deliciously zingy with Saaz hop aroma and bitterness, and fantastically fresh.
The second moment was in mid-October. It was my son’s 21st birthday, and I managed to get him to hold off having a drink until 4:3O in the afternoon. That was when we went to a Pilsner Urquell event, and my son’s first legal beer was a Pilsner Urquell, tapped and handed to him by a huge blond bear of a man . . . named Vaclav Berka. I got the next one, and it was cool, deliciously zingy with Saaz hop aroma and bitterness, and fantastically fresh.
Is that hype? Or was I just starstruck? No. I drank a LOT of fresh Pilsner in the Czech on that trip, and really got the taste set in my mind. (I even got to drink “Tankova”, an ultra-fresh, unfiltered version that they’ve been supplying to bars in Pilsen and a few in Prague; don’t expect to see it here except for a few limited special events…maybe.) And the stuff my son and I got was really pretty close. That wasn’t always the case with Pilsner Urquell, but things have changed.
It’s all about what they call Express Shipped Cold. Vaclav explained that heat and time are the enemies of beer freshness. “Pilsner Urquell is sensitive to bad storage time, temperature and light because of the high amounts of Saaz hops,” he said. “We are shipping direct to Hamburg (Germany) by train, then in cooled containers at O°C (32°F) into New Jersey. It takes about 21 days; in 31 days it is on the street.”
They’re shipping kegs, bottles (in new light-shielding wraparound packs) and cans the Express Shipped Cold way, as of late June, so pretty much everything that’s currently in the pipeline was shipped cold. Chad Wodskow, US brand manager for Pilsner Urquell with Tenth & Blake (MillerCoors’ specialty beer house), explained that “We have a 9 month shelf life on packaged products and 6 months on draft. The boat doesn’t go faster, but the other aspects of the delivery chain have been streamlined. We’ve dramatically decreased the time from brewery to retail shelf.” Less time in the chain means a wider window of freshness on the shelf.
It also means fresher at the bar. Marc Kadish goes back a long way with Pilsner Urquell at Sunset Grill in Allston. “I’ve been selling Pilsner Urquell since 1992, when it first came into the market. It was a pretty big deal, and it’s still a pretty good beer. There’s so many good beers to drink, it’s hard to keep up. But since this new shipping thing, I did have some people say, hey, that Pilsner Urquell is tasting as good as ever. We sold two kegs in about three days at Sunset Cantina.”
Drinking it, like my son and I did, will sell it at the bar; without a tasting, how do you sell it in your store? David Park, beer manager at Gary’s Liquors in Chestnut Hill, doesn’t even have to think about it. “We’re on the edge of Brookline here, and it’s a big Eastern European community: Russians, Czechs, Pole, Ukrainians,” he said. “They’re very familiar with the Czech beers, and they love Pilsner Urquell.”
You probably don’t have that edge! So Wodskow advises: “Store it cold. That’s not a mandate, but keeping it cold keeps the aging to a minimum. Manage your inventory levels. If you have a place that can get a quantity discount for three pallets, they’ll buy three. But then it’s not going to be brewery fresh. That’s the important piece: education. Have someone who can speak knowledgeably about why it is where it is – in the cooler – and why it costs what it does.
“We’re spoiled in America on import pricing,” he continues. “We buy something from Ohio and it costs more than something from China! It’s different for beer, and you have to explain that. ‘This beer came across the ocean!’”
Ryan Murphy, the Tenth & Blake rep in Massachusetts, notes that education helps explain the price increase, too. “We just had the price change in the summer, and people are getting used to that, because they’re getting the story on the measures taken,” he says. “In turn, we’re re-assessing the accounts. We have what are called Embassy Accounts: if they have an educated waitstaff, clean the lines, turn their kegs, we’ll go in and explain that to them the benefits of being an Embassy Account, and they usually want to be on the program.”
Wodskow believes that the prestige of being an Embassy Account is better than buying a Super Bowl commercial for the brand, and for the accounts. “The people who are doing this right can almost leverage serving proper Pilsner Urquell as its own advertisement,” he promises. “They can say, ‘We proudly serve Pilsner Urquell the way it’s meant to be served,’ and customers will look at that and think, ‘Hmmm, they probably have clean lines, I might want to try something else, too.’”
Kadish is impressed with the attention to freshness the Express Shipped Cold program and its attendant POS represent. “They’ve come in with some cool things to keep the beer fresh,” he said, “little chalkboard things to hang on the taps to let [customers] know when it was tapped. We have our own system, but I like to see that.”
“It’s great that they’re putting that much work into getting fresh beer over here,” said Park. “Some other ‘imports’ are being made over here now, and my customers don’t think they taste the same. They should let people know about this.”
The shipping, the cooling, are the only things that changed. Pilsner Urquell is the same classic it always was, and it’s all made in Pilsen, using the same water, Czech Saaz hops, and triple decoction brewing it’s always used. “I have laboratory analysis of Pilsner Urquell from 1897,” Vaclav told me. “It matches today’s beer to 2 decimal places.”
But then he smiled – grinned, really – and skillfully poured us each a fresh mug. “The best way to know the difference cold shipping makes is to taste it,” he said, and we clinked glasses – eye to eye, Czech-style – and drank. “It’s as fresh as Pilsner Urquell tastes in the best pubs in the Czech Republic, in my hometown.” He may have been exaggerating a bit . . . but only a bit.