London ’68: Urquell is hip

Keller in South Ken

Pilsner Urquell is not craft exactly, but certainly a progenitor and inspiration for the revival of quality lager in recent decades. In July 1968, period under consideration, Urquell had been made for generations in its birthplace of Pilsen in then Czechoslovakia.

While long an industrial enterprise, production at the time warranted in many ways the appellation craft. Many features of production in 1910, say, as described in an earlier blog post, were still in operation in 1968.

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

The owning firm in ’68, an organ of the Communist government, still used as well a complex multi-yeast process, likely to favour beer stability and a consistent flavour. See Peter Emsinger’s article some years ago in More Beer contrasting old and newer techniques at Urquell.

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

Through all the changes Urquell remains a Sirius of the beery firmament, a remarkable survival from the 19th century that is virtually unique for a widely-marketed beer.

It delights drinkers who delve beyond the refreshing and (always somewhat suspect) “bite” of beer to discover its real mojo. It inspires craft brewers no less to come up with a similar taste or at least something on a parity of quality.

 

 

In 1968, more precisely early summer that year, Czech diplomats and Urquell brewery people decided to showcase the beer in the capital. London was then a centre of world influence due to The Beatles and the rock scene, Mary Quant and London fashion, British car design and engineering, and so much more.

Urquell did this by establishing a Czech-themed bar in South Kensington called the Bauernestube, rendered in English as the Farmer’s Den. It means still in Germany a dining enclave at an inn or gasthaus. The German term, ineluctably, was no naīve error, but rather an attempt to entice the London denizen familiar with the Bavarian bar scene in the city.

It was a period, in other words, when the German beer hall or keller was enjoying one of its periodic revivals in London. This was pointed out in a February 1968 American column sponsored by a state brewers’ association.

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

 

 

While not a detailed account one can conclude the furnishings rendered some idea of the Bohemian beer bar, probably the food too.

Draft Urquell is not mentioned. Bottled beer was probably the norm although perhaps a keg of draft was sometimes available. And so, Urquell was given a special stage on which to declaim its special merits, in a city then swinging like a pendulum do.

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

In an earlier post I linked to the source, NYPL menus, of its stunning wine card that year.

 

 

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

We all know – especially in light of current developments – what happened in Czechoslovakia later in the summer of ’68. The Warsaw Pact led by the Soviets rolled in with arms to undo the liberalization inaugurated by Alexander Dubcek, aka the Prague Spring.

Did the Thurloe Street bar, likely one manifestation of that Spring, survive the Russian diktat? I don’t know, and available research takes me no further. Maybe one of my friends in the UK and Europe beer historical communities can find more.

Of course, Urquell continued after Dubcek to be available in the West; it was in Montreal when I first drank it in the early 1970s. It was in a Czech restaurant** near McGill University, almost certainly founded by emigres from the first velvet revolution.

I heard customers order beer this way:

Customer: “A pilsener, please”.

Server: “Czech or Canadian”?

Customer indicated preference. If Canadian was indicated, Labatt Blue Pilsener was served.

So I adopted this ritual when ordering a beer with the schnitzel. I must say sometimes the Urquell was murky, a little weathered, but at its best the AAA pedigree was undimmed.

The bottled or canned one we get in Canada today is very good, as I have often said. I am not a great fan of state-controlled liquor distribution, but an advantage in Ontario is the logistics control exercised on imports.

Urquell and most imports come in fast and fresh, put it that way. I have consumed Urquell in different parts of Europe including the Czech Republic and it tastes pretty much the same there.

And what of Urquell in London, some 55 years after being launched with its own bar in tony South Kensington? It is available all over town, and in one or two places in highly select tankovna form: unpasteurized and shipped cold from Pilsen, for an optimal presentation of palate.

I last had tankovna in Draft House next to Brewdog’s brewpub in Seething Lane. I think Draft House, or that location, is now called Seething Lane Tap, owned, as then, by Scotland’s mighty Brewdog chain.

Last checks show no Urquell at the Tap though, rather Budweiser Budvar is carried. Another worthy Czech beer although not in the Urquell class, in our view. Tankovna Urquell can still be found in London, currently at an Asian-themed pub, The Duck & Rice, in Berwick Street, Soho.

In 2022, to London’s lager mavens, to visitors with the right ken, Berwick Street is the happening place for Pilsner Urquell, the legendary golden lager.

The ken conducted to South Ken almost 55 years ago. The point is, it existed then, existed long before, will always exist. The craft brewing revolution, salutary as it is, did not not reinvent beer, but simply is the latest stage of its evolution.

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, both for fermentation and lagering, started to supplement wood at Urquell from the late 1950s.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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