Vaclav Berka, the head brewmaster from Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, wants you to understand a couple of things about his beer.
For starters, it’s made with the same three ingredients used in 1842 when Josef Groll created the world’s first pilsner: Water, hops and malted barley.
And the beer, one of the world’s most iconic brands, tastes today just like it did back then.
He knows this because the brewery has records dating to 1897 and the “parameters” – as the 57-year-old Berka calls them in his accented English – are nearly the same. So is the brewing process, some of the equipment and the strain of yeast used.
Retired brewmasters, including Berka’s 86-year-old father, even descend upon the brewery every two months to sample the beer and make sure it hasn’t changed. (His grandfather also was a brewmaster there, making him a third-generation Pilsner Urquell brewer.)
“There are thousands of pilsners and beers named pils but only one is original,” Berka said Wednesday over a beer at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Lakewood.
He visited the Winking Lizard because the Bedford Heights-based chain won a contest in Draft Magazine naming it one of America’s freshest bars. Berka is spending a week in the U.S. traveling to New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and Phoenix to share the story of Pilsner Urquell.
As part of his visit, beer drinkers got a special treat. The brewery shipped fresh, unfiltered, unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell to the Winking Lizard. It’s the same beer that’s served from wooden barrels at the brewery in Pilsen. And you can’t get it outside of the brewery and another bar in the Czech Republic.
“We wish to bring to the consumer in the bar the same experience we have in the cellars of the brewery,” said Berka, who has worked at the brewery for 33 years.
Indeed, the unfiltered, unpasteurized beer is outstanding and more robust in its flavor than its filtered, pasteurized version.
The best beer is unfiltered, Berka said. The only reason that Pilsner Urquell -- which is owned by SABMiller -- is filtered now is because it bowed to pressure from beer drinkers who started demanding clarity.
“It was not our idea,” said Berka, who also spent time Wednesday demonstrating how to properly pour a mug of Pilsner Urquell.
The pilsner style seems so overshadowed today, given the rise of U.S. craft breweries, more flavorful ales and high alcohol brews. Pilsner Urquell, with its Saaz hops and 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, is tame by comparison.
Last year, Pilsner Urquell started shipping its beer cold as part of a new freshness initiative. The Saaz hops used are sensitive and the aroma and flavor can break down if the beer is not cared for in its transport.
"It's the reason we train people in the supply chain to care for the beer so properly," Berka said.
That’s also one of the reasons that Pilsner Urquell will abandon its signature green bottles next year for brown bottles, which protect the liquid better from light. The beer also is available in cans.
Those cans will show up on the 2014 Winking Lizard World Tour of Beers, the annual tasting that encourages customers to sample at least 100 beers from around the world during a calendar year.
“It’s nice to see they are cold-shipping it,” Winking Lizard co-owner John Lane said. “It’s a delicate beer so it’s going to be best freshest.”
He has visited the brewery three times and Berka provided one of the tours when he was there. About a decade ago during one of those trips, Lane also learned about a valuable way to better care for his beer.
He noticed that the brewery used yellow lights because it had studied different lights and determined that yellow light would least damage the beer. Now, all the Winking Lizards feature that yellow light.
Speaking of fresh, the brewery also did a blind taste test – allowing people to sample Pilsner Urquell that was shipped fresh directly from the brewery on a plane alongside Pilsner Urquell that was cold shipped. The fresh shipped was five days old. The cold shipped was five weeks old.
So there I stood on the stage at the Winking Lizard with about 30 beer reps, distributors and bar owners. In one hand, a Pilsner Urquell mug with the letter “A” written in black marker on it. In the other, a Pilsner Urquell mug with the letter “B” written in black marker on it.
The goal was to decipher which was which.
There was a slight difference. One had a bigger aroma and more hop character to it. A beer steward from Giant Eagle and I started debating. That aroma and hop character could be just oxidation and our minds playing tricks on us. We had just sampled the unpasteurized, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell from the bar and that taste was still lingering for me.
In the end, we both agreed on the wrong one.