London 1968: Urquell is hip

Keller in South Ken

Pilsner Urquell beer is not craft, exactly, but certainly a progenitor and inspiration for the craft movement including the revival of quality lager.

By July 1968 Urquell had been made for generations in its birthplace of Pilsen, in then Czechoslovakia.

While long an industrial enterprise, it’s production in the Sixties warranted in many ways the appellation craft. I described in an earlier blog post features of the production in 1910, some of which still applied in 1968.

These included open fermentation in wood vessels, and below-ground lagering in pitch-lined wood tuns.*

The controlling firm in 1968, an organ of the Communist government, still used a complex multi-yeast process, which favoured beer stability and consistent flavour. See Peter Emsinger’s article some years ago in More Beer.

The company was privatized in 1992 with the onset of modern Czech and Slovak independence, and is now owned by the Asahi Group of Japan.

Through all the changes Urquell remains today a Sirius of the beer firmament, a remarkable survival (it emerged in 1842) that is virtually unique for a widely-marketed beer.

It delights drinkers who delve beyond the “refreshing” to discover the real mojo of beer. It inspires craft brewers worldwide come up with a similar taste or at least something parallel in quality.

 

 

In 1968, more precisely in early summer that year, Czech diplomats and Urquell brewery decided to showcase the beer in London.

London then enjoyed world influence due to The Beatles and the rock scene, Mary Quant and London fashion, British car design and engineering, and much more.

Establishing a London showcase would have knock-on effects, to use a British expression.

To present Urquell in an optimum light the Czechs set up a Czech-themed bar in South Kensington, the Bauernestube, or Farmer’s Den. It means a dining enclave at an inn or gasthaus. The German term was no naīve error, but rather an attempt to entice those who might be familiar with the Bavarian bar scene in the city.

It was a period when the German beer hall or keller was enjoying one of its periodic revivals in the capital. This was noted in a February 1968 American news column sponsored by a state brewers’ association.

The Bohemian Farmer’s Den was a riff on the idea. It was located at 28 Thurloe Street in South Kensington,  the building now houses a noodle shop. The Brewing Trade Review & Bottling covered the development in July 1968.

 

 

While not a detailed account, it seems likely the furnishings rendered some idea of the Bohemian beer bar, probably the food, too.

Draft Urquell is not mentioned. Bottled beer was probably the only form sold. And so, Urquell had a special stage on which to declaim its special merits, in a city swinging like a pendulum do.

Of course, the beer had long been imported to Britain – it had spread across Europe by the late 1800s. In 1939 Prunier’s in London, a resort of jeunesse dorée and the carriage trade, listed it with other quality brands.

In an earlier post I linked via NYPL menus its stunning wine list of that year.

 

 

Note how Urquell fetched the highest price listed for beer. People were expected to pay for quality of its scale. Today, at least in Ontario, Canada it is priced no more than many beers of far lesser quality. A boon for the discerning imbiber.

We know what happened to Czechoslovakia later during the summer of ’68. The Warsaw Pact led by the Soviets rolled in with force to undo the liberalization inaugurated by Alexander Dubcek, aka the Prague Spring.

Did the Thurloe Street bar, likely a manifestation of that Spring, survive Russian diktat? I don’t know, maybe others can trace the bar’s fate after.

Of course, Urquell continued to be available in the West; it was sold in Montreal where I first sampled it in the 1970s. It was in a Czech restaurant** near McGill University, almost certainly founded by emigres from the first Velvet Revolution.

Customers would order pilsener beer (versus ale) this way:

Customer: “A pilsener, please”.

Server: “Czech or Canadian”?

Customer states preference. If Canadian, Labatt Blue Pilsener was served. If Czech, Urquell came.

So I adopted the ritual when ordering a beer with schnitzel. Sometimes the Urquell was murky, or a little weathered, but at its best the quality shone just as today – deep malt against flowery Saaz hops.

And what of Urquell in London today, some 55 years after being launched with its own bar in tony South Ken? It is available all over London, and in one or two places, in the select tankovna form, unpasteurized and shipped cold from Pilsen.

I last had tankovna in the Draft House, next to Brewdog’s gonzo brewpub in Seething Lane. I think Draft House, or that location, is now called Seething Lane Tap but is still part of Brewdog.

Tankovna Urquell just now can be found in London at an Asian-themed pub, The Duck & Rice, in Berwick Street, Soho, while it seems the Tap doesn’t carry it at present.

Note re images: Sources of last two images are identified and linked in the text. Intellectual property in the sources is sole property of lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Mark Dredge, in his A Brief History of Lager has recorded that steel vessels, both for fermentation and lagering, began to supplement the traditional wood at Urquell from the late 1950s.

**At this remove, I have to say, it may have been a Hungarian restaurant. Montreal had numerous of the genre, founded in the wake of the 1957 refugee influx. But the verbal exchange as I recorded it is etched in my memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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