Pilsen – a city that inhales beer and swallows culture

Pilsen is well known for its beer, but now that it has earned the distinguished title “European Capital of Culture 2015”, it has more to offer. 

Unfiltered Beer

Vaclav Berka pours a beer from one of the wooden barrels in the brewery.

Pilsen will be the European Capital of Culture in 2015. It’s a prestigious title given to two cities a year to support cultural development. Because of the title, the city of Pilsen is given a fund so they can pay for new cultural projects. This project is called: Pilsen 2015. Surprising is that the senses are more stimulated by the smell of beer that comes from the brewery and pubs than by cultural and artistic happenings. What kind of role will beer play next year? 

Walking through the city, it’s hard to find a café where they serve good coffee rather than beer. The beer section in the supermarket is bigger than the one of the juices. You can visit the beer spa, the beer museum and the brewery. If this city will be the Capital of Culture, it’s well hidden. Although it’s not at first sight, Pilsen does have more to offer. Jiří Sulženko supports this fact, as he is the program director of Pilsen 2015. 

The Pilsner Urquell Brewery has produced beer since 1898.

The Pilsner Urquell Brewery has produced beer since 1898.

“Nobody can overcome the history of Pilsen. Because of its tradition of beer, Pilsen can be considered as a small paradise. It’s a pleasant city. Our story of beer is very important, not only because of the beer culture, but also about the craft. Beer making is a craft related to the creative industry. Pilsner Urquell is one of the only breweries that kept their wooden casks. However, as a city we want to open up. We want to invite people to Pilsen and also be inspired by the world outside. Because of our title we have the chance to show that the program gives Pilsen also the possibility to innovate. We are starting new projects and events with the money that is given to us.”

One of the remarkable developments is Světovar. This area in the south of Pilsen was utilised as a brewery and later as an army compound. Now they are changing it into a culture factory. The location will provide four multi-functional halls, a café, band practice studios, art studios and administrative spaces as well as residential apartments for artists. This is an example where history and innovation are covering each other: an old brewery that will get a new cultural function. 

Sulženko explains: “We are creating a platform for local creatives. We have 115 graduates per year from the art academy. We want to create a place where they can stay, but also give them a chance to go abroad. That’s the reason we want to build up international partnerships. This is all in favour of the cultural growth of the city. And we hope that besides the program, this will attract not only students, but also the cultural tourist.” 

The main square of Pilsen

The main square of Pilsen – where old and new come together

One of the art academy students is Jana Travnickova. While she is utilizing the chances she has now that Pilsen will be the capital of culture, she is not that optimistic about the idea that graduates will stay in Pilsen. ‘’Světovar is a nice project, but it’s not near the city centre, it’s an old abandoned place. I’m questioning if people want to go there. Also, nowadays, students are moving to Prague because they think the chances they have in the city are bigger than in Pilsen. There is a possibility that because of the program things will change and students have a motivation to stay.’’ 

In 2015, each month will have one big weekend event. The program that’s being prepared covers eight flagships — eight themes that are a combination of stories connected with Pilsen. Tradition and innovation are working along side each other. For example, there will be exhibitions of Jiří Trnka — a Czech puppet maker — and Bohumír Lindauer — a Bohemiam and later New Zealand painter, who painted many Maori. Besides the exhibitions from old famous artists, the season of Le Cirque Nouveau is also being prepared. It’s a modern concept where only human artists, like acrobats and tight-rope walkers, will engage the public.  

Sulženko says, “Everyone needs to keep in mind that the program for 2015 isn’t a festival. It’s not only for one year, but an on going project. Because Pilsen has the title of European Capital of Culture, the city can set up new traditions and offer cultural investments on a sustainable level.  The program helps to come up with new ideas and new opportunities for not only 2015, but for many years.” 

Although the investments in new cultural projects are rising, beer still seems to play a very important role for the city of Pilsen.

Tomas Raboch from Pilsner Urquell claims that the brewery reached over 300,000 visitors last year. “People are already coming to Pilsen because of the beer culture. That’s what the city is known for. As an organization, we are in close cooperation with Pilsen 2015. We are doing the marketing and merchandising for events and supporting the grand opening.” Although the city will offer more on cultural projects and events, the brewery finances most of them. So it seems that beer does play a sufficient role, today and in the future.  

“Beer is part of a tradition, so it will always play a big role,” says Sulženko. “If you ask yourself: what’s the identity of Pilsen? Then you will always cross the topic about beer. But you have to look carefully for what’s there, but not immediately at first sight. Than you’ll recognize the cultural development the city is going through.”

Berka Vaclav, current master brewer, samples a beer.

Vaclav Berka, current master brewer, samples a beer.

The Brewery

A trip to Pilsen can’t end without visiting the brewery. Plzeňský Prazdroj is the foundation of beer in the Czech Republic. Vaclav Berka, the 6th master brewer of Pilsner Urquell, tells his story:

His father, who worked at the fermentation room, brought him often to the brewery. Berka knew what he would become when he was older. He has seen a lot of changes in Pilsen and also in the brewery. One thing never changes: the beer. The lager has always been brewed by the same recipe.

Even with new technology, the beer tastes the same as in the 19th century. “Every two months the old master brewers, who are now in their eighties, are coming together. They taste if the beer made in copper kettles still tastes the same as made in wooden casks.” Inside the cellars the tour in the brewery ends with a taste of unfiltered beer from the wooden casks. It’s beer in its purest form, and it’s the beer that makes Pilsen so popular. History became tradition and nowadays the Czech can’t imagine a country without beer, like the Dutch can’t imagine a country without cheese or the Italians a country without pasta. 

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