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Pilsner, circa 1842, in Pilsen, The FT Magazine

‘…the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea.’

We walked through high wooden doors and along a wide, sloping tunnel, British beer lovers dipping into Czech history. Above ground sprawled the Pilsner Urquell Brewery: huge copper vats like upturned champagne glasses; tiled, Art Nouveau meeting rooms; the sampling room, where tasters clear their palates between sips with bread and cheese.

No nation reveres its beer like the Czechs. Old brands such as Pilsner Urquell and Budvar are potent symbols, constants of a Czechness that endured the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation and Communism. Ninety nine per cent of the beer Czechs drink is Czech.

Our thirsty party was on a purists’ mission. Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner, was created in 1842 by Josef Groll, a genius headhunted by the burghers of Pilsen and “the rudest man in Bavaria” (to quote his father).

But since the 1930s, yeast has been filtered out before bottling. We were to drink unfiltered Urquell; the original pilsner in its original form, still made in small batches for comparison’s sake and, you can’t help feeling, love.

The tunnel branched, the arms leading into a five-mile network of arched, white-walled cellars, their sandstone floors grooved for rolling barrels. At the end of a branch line, we came to the place: twelve, six-ft. high wooden vats of Pilsner Urquell in its original form fermenting against a wall.

From a platform, we caught glimpses of the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea. We followed the pipes to the next cellar and stood dwarfed between double banks of oak barrels, each six ft. in diameter, containing unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, quietly maturing. The cellar man selected a batch he felt was ready. He firmly knocked a spiked tap into the barrel. We queued up, trying not to push.

In the glass it was a clouded gold, pale fragments of yeast floating within, the head thick but loose. The taste was sublime: elegantly light but rich, the bitterness rounded, velvety as stout but with the body of ale, the unfiltered yeast giving it punch – beer circa 1842. We murmured delightedly, and drank more.

23 July 2005

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