Coming to America

Well, Actually — Why the Pilsner Urquell Story is still Coming to America

There’s something bizarre about a beer with a groundbreaking 175-year history that has to go around introducing itself.

“The most difficult thing is that the brand’s awareness is just really low,” says David Schmid, director of high-end imports for Tenth and Blake, about Pilsner Urquell, one of his company’s premier brands. “It’s a great beer. It’s got a great story. But very few people know about the beer and know the story.”

Schmid is talking about the situation in the U.S., of course, far from Pilsner Urquell’s homeland of the Czech Republic, but you’d still think that most Americans wouldn’t need an explainer for a brewery that gave its name both to a type of beer and a kind of malt, not to mention the traditional fluted Pilsner glass. Pilsner Urquell was being imported to the U.S. by 1873, three years before Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch launched their American Budweiser, and it had become the best-selling imported beer in the U.S. by the time Prohibition darkened our taverns in 1920.

It’s an easy sideways sell for our Bud and Miller drinkers.
— Zak Rotello

Imports started up again in 1933, right after ratification of the 21st Amendment, and the importance of the American market makes repeated appearances in the brewery’s archives. Back in 1883, the brewery’s coopers were told to start making a new line of barrels in non-European sizes which they even called “Americans,” specifically intended for export to the U.S. market. By 1891, the board of directors were hailing the brewery’s great success in the U.S. which, by then, constituted 17% of Pilsner Urquell’s overseas sales. And yet, even after almost 150 years on the market, awareness of the original Pilsner in one of its favorite destinations remains “really low” today.

Part of the unfamiliarity comes from the crowded current beer landscape in the U.S. Part of it is due to a remarkable number of setbacks the brewery has suffered throughout its history. (This is a brand that’s been around long enough to have seen its country invaded not just by Nazis and Communists, but by actual Prussians.) The latest? Right before its 175th birthday party, the brewery was forced to change hands as part of the AB InBev takeover of SABMiller, ultimately ending up as part of Asahi after a convoluted bidding process that included Mitt Romney’s former company, Bain Capital. That pales in comparison to the worst calamities the brewery has seen over time, like being bombed—by the Allies, no less—repeatedly during WWII, or simply having beer writers get the brewery’s history wrong—over and over again.

This is something I took rather personally. After I published Good Beer Guide Prague & the Czech Republic in 2007, I kept encountering incorrect stories about the brewery, which caused me to spend a lot of time studying the brewery’s history in various dusty archives around the Czech Republic. I wrote a long blog post listing the mistakes in the Czech entries of The Oxford Companion to Beer, many of which were about Pilsner Urquell, and wrote another three posts about the founding of the brewery in Pilsen back in 2012, including the first English translation of the brewery’s original founding document of 1839, as well as posts on the intentions of the Pilsen brewery founders (including their backgrounds—contrary to many reports, they were predominantly Czech, not German), and a list of other mistakes and misunderstandings about the brewery’s history. See what I mean? Personally.

[A quick disclosure, while we’re on the topic: after my posts on the brewery’s history, SABMiller hired me to research and write several internal documents about the origins of the brewery, and asked me to give three talks about Czech beer culture and the founding of the brewery in the U.S. in late 2015. I have not worked for Pilsner Urquell or SABMiller since the brewery was taken over by AB InBev and sold to Asahi.]

Compared to having someone get your brewery’s origin story completely wrong, maybe not being very well-known is a step up. In any case, that’s where Pilsner Urquell is in 2017, currently selling just a smidgen of its production into the U.S., though also experiencing relatively strong organic growth every year. “We’re currently growing in the 5-10% range, and that’s kind of a nice place for us to be,” Schmid says. “It’s never going to be the million-hectoliter brand, we don’t think, but if we can stay true to ourself, we’re going to do fine.”

Much of the recent growth came after changes were made with the modern American market in mind. Under SABMiller, Pilsner Urquell switched to brown glass bottles instead of green for US imports and introduced 100% cold-chain shipping, both of which helped substantially with beer quality. (In its earlier, pre-refrigerated-shipping years, the beer sometimes had a nasty reputation for cardboard aromas among US drinkers, many of whom were shocked at how clean, crisp and delicious it was when sampled in its country of origin.) In addition, the brewery has seen surprising success with cans of late, especially following the introduction of cans and boxes bearing a series of changing designs based on the brewery’s 175-year history of promotional material.

At first, the sale of Pilsner Urquell to Asahi sounded like it might mean the end of those welcome improvements. The good news? None of those changes are going away. The brewery might have new owners, but Tenth and Blake remain the US importers, just as they were under SABMiller, and the same Pilsner Urquell reps who originally helped get things moving are still backing the brand today.

“It’s a significant investment, that cold chain, and we’re sticking with it,” says Schmid, who recently greenlighted the latest set of Pilsner Urquell’s historic can designs, due out later this year. “We keep trucking in the US, we keep moving forward as if nothing’s changed, because in many ways it hasn’t.”

How, exactly, does a 175-year-old imported beer find its way in the modern American beer landscape? In part, by relying on its past. When the brand first launched in the U.S. in the early 1870s, it surprisingly tapped Racine, Wisconsin, for its New World launch. That might look like an unlikely destination today, but the area had the largest population of Czech immigrants in the U.S. at the time, only later surpassed by Chicago.

Similarly, Pilsner Urquell has gained a more recent foothold in many of the new, European-style beer halls in America, places like Radegast Hall in Brooklyn, Pilsener Haus in Hoboken, and the Queen Anne Beerhall in Seattle. In those joints, Pilsner is usually sold as a high-end brew. A “mug” of Pilsner Urquell at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Queens is $7, with Manhattan prices usually well over $8.

But because Urquell is ostensibly made in the same style as American Pilsners, the beer can also serve as a stepping stone for mass-market consumers. “It’s an easy sideways sell for our Bud and Miller drinkers,” says Zak Rotello at his pub, the Olympic Tavern in Rockford, Illinois. He adds that he’s partly been keeping Pilsner Urquell on full-time because he likes to drink it himself. Initially, he said, he was inspired by the brewery’s new line of historic cans. “They’re snazzy as hell, man.”

After sampling the beer in cans, Rotello decided to get it on draft, which seemed to work well with his clientele of both the geeky and BMC-drinking varieties. “My grandpa started the Olympic Tavern in 1945,” he says. “I have to take care of my little old ladies, as well as my young beer geeks, as well as the factory worker wanting a draft after work. It’s been very well received.” For Rotello, Pilsner Urquell fits on a list next to Firestone Walker Pivo Hoppy Pils, Prairie Apricot Funk, and Stone’s Enjoy By brews, as well as Bud Light and PBR.      

That’s not too different from how the beer plays in its homeland, where working-class pubs might have Urquell as their “good” beer, and where good-beer bars like Prague’s První Pivní Tramway might offer IPAs from craft breweries like Pivovar Zhůřák right next to Pilsner Urquell.

The difference is that Zhůřák only occasionally show up on Tramway’s rotating taps, while Pilsner Urquell is available 365 days a year. Similarly, the classic Prague hospoda U Šumavy currently offers eight rotating taps of beer from Czech microbreweries you’ve probably never heard of—and permanently sells both Pilsner Urquell and Budějovický Budvar, one of the two Budweisers that are actually brewed in the Czech town of Budweis.

It’s authentic. It stands out. If you serve it with 10 other pilsners in a blind tasting, you can always tell which one is Pilsner Urquell. I know this is true, because they once made me do it live on German TV.
— Adam Vlček

In Pilsen (which is to say: the brewery’s hometown), “beer café” owner Adam Vlček has always offered Pilsner Urquell alongside rotating Czech and Belgian micros at his craft beer pub Francis. In fact, he’s become such a well-known advocate for the beer that he recently signed up for a tour of duty as an ambassador for the brand in Asia. Just like he taps Pilsner Urquell in his own pub in Pilsen, Vlček will spend the next year tapping the beer at special events in places like Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

“My view of the beer is that it is just a solid, great beer. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t serve it in my bar,” Vlček says. “It’s authentic. It stands out. If you serve it with 10 other pilsners in a blind tasting, you can always tell which one is Pilsner Urquell.” 

He laughs. 

“I know this is true, because they once made me do it live on German TV.”

It is a unique beer, with a one-of-a-kind backstory that only comes after almost two centuries. Stick for the same amount of time and you’ll see a few things yourself. You might get a trademark on the phrase “Pilsner Beer” in 1859, only to see a court decide that it’s a generic term for a common beer style just 50 years later. You might see Nazis, Communists, Prussians, and even Americans waltz through your gates like kings at various points in time. You might hear people complain your beer tastes like cardboard after 5,000 miles of unrefrigerated travel. You might struggle to get your exports back up to the same volume they were at 100 years earlier, just in time to see your brewery sold off right before its birthday. You might see all of these things, and you might be okay with them. Because the only thing you don’t want is for people to forget who you are.

[Thanks to Pilsner Urquell and Mark Dredge for organizing the trip that brought GBH founder Michael Kiser to the Czech Republic a couple years ago. These photos of the brewery and contracted hop farms would not have been possible without their help.]

Words, Evan Rail Photos, Michael Kiser