A tale of two cities

Jonny Garrett visits Munich and Pilsen, in search of the world’s most iconic lager styles


I’m queuing canteen-style along a row of trestle tables in a Munich beer garden, watching impatiently as two lederhosed men wrestle with an oak barrel. It rolls drunkenly around its rims as they navigate the uneven wooden platform that supports it. Eventually it thuds into place at the edge, and one man grabs a tap and a huge wooden mallet. He pauses for effect, and I curse under my breath.

We’d walked all the way from the Schneider Bräuhaus taproom – a good forty minutes when you’ve had as much Hefeweizen and dumplings as we’d had – and now there are at least twenty people in between me and my first taste of Augustiner Edelstoff from oak cask. I get my phone out just as I hear the tap go in, and text my friends back at the table to say I might be a while. 

By the time I’ve looked back up, however, countless litre Maß have been filled, and the first in line is already headed back to his table. I watch in awe as the server charges glass after glass without turning the tap off, deftly sweeping the next Maß in when the first is full. A matter of minutes later I’m passed four perfect pours with neat two inch heads and not a drop spilled – until I shakily pick up them up and send beer cascading everywhere.

Back at the table my friends have hardly finished reading my exasperated text when I slam the beers down. There’s little in the world as pleasing as a crystal clear lager in a perfectly clean glass; the contrast between snow white foam and golden body; the steady stream of bubbles making a bid for freedom from the base. We all take a moment to appreciate it, then dive in.

Augustiner Edelstoff, the big brother of the more famous Augustiner Hell is one of the world’s great lagers. A good Helles has lots of honeyed sweetness and fresh grass on the nose, with a crisp but almost bitter-less finish. Edelstoff has all that and more. It’s full bodied and biscuity, but there’s a sweet lemon note that leans into being just a shade funky and dank. Poured from a wooden cask, where it has been lagered and gently carbonated, it’s smoother and softer with a finish so sudden you almost miss it. Lifting the full litre can seem daunting at first, but with a wurst in the other hand you’d be surprised how many you can put away. The beer disappears fast but the memory of that first, glorious sip will last a lifetime.

What’s so brilliant about Munich is that the Augustiner Keller isn’t the only place you can have such a transcendent Helles experience. It is, after all, where Spaten brewery invented the style in the late 1800s as a response to drinkers’ demands for ever paler and crisper beers. Today these two breweries compete with Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Hofbräuhaus and Löwenbräu for dominance of the city. Every pub proudly advertises which brewery is on tap, and it’s rare to find them sharing the bar. Many pubs offer oak casks at their various gardens and cellars, as well as unfiltered and unfined versions of the city’s world-famous beers, next to pork knuckles bigger than your fist and pretzels so salty they cut the roof of your mouth. Drinking in Munich is the kind of event that takes all day; where a few Maß in a garden turns to an early dinner in an oak-paneled pub before an inauspicious turfing out at closing time, having lost count of the beers a long time ago.

Every pub proudly advertises which brewery is on tap

Perhaps that’s why in Pilsen, across the border in Czechia around 200km north, they give you a card that counts exactly how many you’ve had. Lokal is a small chain of bars that serves one beer, and one beer only – Pilsner Urquell. But this isn’t the beer you’re used to picking up in a supermarket. This is the unfiltered and unpasteurised version, served fresh from tanks beneath the bar that are refilled almost daily by trucks that drive it direct from the brewery. This beer has all the drinkability of the German Helles, but in its bones it is a very different beer. 

Czech Pilsner is the original – in fact, the name Pilsner Urquell roughly translates “the source of Pilsner”. The style was invented in 1842, when the townsfolk of Pilsen staged a rather overly dramatic drainpour of all the local beer in the town square. They claimed the beer was all infected, and it was agreed there and then that a new brewery would be built and some outside help brought in. The brewery was built on the edges of town, and a Bayern brewer by the name of Josef Groll brought in. With him he brought the now famous Pilsner Urquell yeast and the techniques needed to produce paler beer – something brought back from the UK to Bavaria by Spaten head brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr just a few years before. The combination of Groll’s experience with Pilsen’s beautiful local ingredients was a seminal moment in beer. The Moravian malt added rich digestive biscuit notes, especially when the malt was boiled in a process called decoction. The beautiful local Saaz hops added sweet floral notes and earthy, spicy tones as well as a smooth and lingering bitterness. The ultra soft water helped give the beer a velvety, soft texture and clean finish. It was a remarkable example of symbiosis between brewer and nature, development that could probably only have happened in that part of the world.

It didn’t stay local for long, however. Demand for such a beer spread throughout Bohemia and beyond, and one by one breweries dropped their own local styles to produce this new, pale lager. Wherever it went it was changed by the ingredients, brewers and the drinkers of that region. In Germany it was made dry, clean and pointed; in America it was made lighter, brighter and more bland; in the UK it was more biscuity, earthier and fuller. Today few so-called Pilsner beers taste anything like those of the Czech Republic, there are breweries all over the world trying to recreate the original character, but few have that perfect balance of big bitterness and caramel sweetness, or floral and earthy aroma, of rich gold colour and pure white foam. To experience it you still really need to go to the original source, and drink it where it is ingrained in the culture like words chiseled in stone.

The name Pilsner Urquell roughly translates “the source of Pilsner”

In the Czech Republic, the tapsters who pour it are carefully trained and even revered. Their skill is undeniable, pouring perfect beer after perfect beer, all into glasses cleaned until they sparkle just seconds before being filled. They will do different kinds of pour too, depending on your tastes or the occasion. The Hladlinka is a full glass with a big inch or so of head – it pops with prickly carbonation and high bitterness to be super refreshing and light. Then there’s the Snyt, a pour of half golden liquid and half creamy head, designed to be as creamy as possible and drunk in a matter of minutes. It’s the beer of choice for those in it for the long haul, but also those who have somewhere to be and are looking to squeeze a few in. Finally there is the Mliko pour – a glass of pure white foam, which drinks like double cream and miraculously is almost free of any bitterness at all.

When you sit down at Lokal, you’re handed a card with no fewer than 140 cartoon beers drawn on it. As you put away the beers, the server crosses them off – half a glass for a Snyt and a Mliko or a full glass for a Hladlinka – and so begins a dangerous game of colouring in. Just like with the Helles in Munich, the beers are designed to disappear without a trace. You could focus on the beautiful rich sweetness and floral character, but it’s better to focus on conversation while ordering small plates of traditional beer cheese, beef tartar and sausages. 

Wherever you go in Pilsen, the rules are the same. No assumption is made about how much you want or how long you’ll stay, only that you’re there for the fresh Pilsner and it will flow until you ask the server to stop. It’s this approach that I love about both Munich and Pilsen as drinking cities – the beers are very different, but both flow with a generosity rarely seen in the UK. In the region we once called Bohemia, synonymous with a free and easy way of life, the taps never seem to be turned off.

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