Brews of the ages

Beer-loving sibling in tow, Steve McKenna leaves crowded Prague behind for a pilsner pilgrimage.

The illustrated poster proudly flaunts the feats, and Guinness records, of some esteemed Czech drinkers. Take Jiri Bartoska, who sank a half-litre of lager in 12.66 seconds - while underwater. Or Fero Vidlicka, who consumed the same amount in a third of the time - while doing a handstand.

Strongman Jozef Teslar is there for bench-pressing a 50-litre keg 52 times in one minute. The fairer sex is represented, too. Kamik Simonkova bit into a staggering 55 paper pub coasters, all at once.

As I try to picture these achievements, I can see, from the corner of my eye, my brother, James. He's poking his grinning face through a hole etched into a cardboard placard of a draught-lager-pulling Czech barman. "Time for a drink?" he says.

We're in the silly section of the (mainly serious) Brewery Museum in Pilsen. Located in an earthy-smelling 15th-century malthouse, strewn with underground tunnels, and furnished with vintage brewing equipment, collectors' paraphernalia and, naturally, its own tavern, the museum traces the origins of beer production (and consumption) from ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day Czech Republic, a country famed for the quality of its pivo (beer).

Ninety kilometres west of Prague, Pilsen lacks the capital's tourist crowds but is a revered spot for pivo pilgrims. Grog has been brewed here for centuries - though not all of it top-notch. Such was the derisory quality in the early 19th century that angry locals poured dozens of barrels of it down the drain in a public display of dissatisfaction.

Determined to improve their product, Pilsen's brewers and burghers formed a new guild, built a new brewery and, to commandeer it, hired Josef Groll, an expert brewer from Bavaria.

Using new fermentation techniques, Groll invented Pilsner Urquell, a lager of brilliant clarity, golden colour and light body. It was an instant success in a world accustomed to dark, heavy, cloudy beers, with Urquell - meaning "original source" in Czech and German - said to have inspired more than two-thirds of the pilsner, pilsener or pils brewed in the world today, including other famous Czech exports Budweiser Budvar (cultivated in Ceske Budejovice) and Prague's own Staropramen.

Highlights include the sleek modern bottling hall, which claims to rattle out 120,000 bottles an hour. There's a cool selection of Pilsner adverts past and present, and you can try unfiltered beer in the dank, old, oak-barrel filled cellars. Seating 550 people, the brewery's Na Spilce restaurant bills itself as the biggest beerhouse in Bohemia, but we prefer drinking in the more atmospheric pubs scattered around Pilsen's scenic historic centre, where the average price for a half-litre is just 27 koruna ($1.25).


Our favourite is the traditional U Salzmannu; the perfect spot for soaking up pilsner with home-made Bohemian classics such as bratwurst, roast knee of pork, goulash and apple strudel.

We break up the pub-crawling with some sightseeing around a city founded in AD1295 by King Wenceslas II.

Framed by pretty gabled houses and a Renaissance town hall with a gloriously ornate facade, the main square is home to the striking, Gothic, St Bartholomew's Cathedral (whose 102.6-metre-high tower can be climbed for stirring views of the city). In the surrounding blocks, we find tree-shaded pedestrian stretches lined with cafes (and more pubs), street musicians, a vintage theatre and opera house with rich cultural pickings, child-friendly museums about fairytales, ghosts and puppets, and what is said to be the third-largest synagogue in the world (after the ones in Jerusalem and Budapest). With a sprinkling of decent hotels, many set in grand 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, Pilsen isn't a bad place to bed down for the night. But we decide to stumble back for the last train to Prague.

When we reach the station, we see passengers heading to the platform armed with plastic glasses of amber nectar.

"A wise move," says my brother, one eye on them, and the time, the other towards the station bar.

Cheap, fantastic beer can be had all over the Czech Republic, but the tipples in Pilsen are just that little bit special.

Three other day trips from Prague

1 Kutna Hora In the Middle Ages, Kutna Hora rivalled Prague for affluence. The source of its wealth lay in its now-defunct silver and copper mines. Don a hard hat and plunge underground for a tour of the mines, or stay above ground and admire the photogenic buildings that the mineral riches funded.

2 Karlstejn Castle Founded in 1348 by Czech king and Holy Roman emperor Charles IV as a place to safely keep the crown jewels and holy relics, Karlstejn is the archetypal hilltop fairytale castle, sporting a mish-mash of architectural styles. Tacky souvenir stalls dominate the village below the castle. To get away from the hubbub, take a hike in the unspoilt surrounding forests.

3 Tabor A key battle zone in the Hussite Wars, Tabor's Hussite Museum traces the origins and outcomes of the religious conflict that tore Bohemia apart in the 15th century. It's housed in the town hall of a pretty old centre laced with cobblestone streets, attractive Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and neat places to enjoy coffee and cake. And, of course, pivo.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies from Sydney to Prague via Dubai.
From Prague, trains go direct daily to Pilsen.

See + do

Pilsen Brewery Museum,
Pilsner Urquell Brewery,
U Salzmannu,

More information,