Easter: Pilsner for the Pope, green beer for Czechs

Photo: archive of Plzeňský Prazdroj

Pope Francis could be well enjoying a cool one right now – a golden Czech lager, that is, straight from the source: Plzeň. In March, as has become the tradition, the Vicar General of that Bohemian city blessed ingredients for a special Easter batch of Pilsner Urquell. The pale lager was then dispatched to the Vatican, to be handed over to the Pontiff by the brewmaster himself. One thing’s for certain, many Czechs celebrated Easter holy week in part by drinking … green beer.

The blessing of the Easter batch of Pilsner beer

“We pray that all who drink this beer be healthy in body and soul, with the protection of our lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

And with that, Father Jakub Holík blessed the raw materials which for the past 177 years have gone into making Pilsner Urquell, the world’s very first pale lager: soft spring water, malted barley, yeast, and noble hops from the Saaz region.

“The tradition was revived a decade ago, but of course beer was sent to the Vatican before, in the late 19th and at the start of the 20th century.”

Pilsner beer was first sent to the Holy See in 1890, upon the request of Pope Leo XIII, who regularly drank the Bohemian light lager upon the advice of his physician, believing it served medicinal purposes.

The modern Czech tradition of sending blessed beer to the Vatican at Easter arose during the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, in 2011. Václav Berka, chief brewmaster emeritus of Plzeňský Prazdroj:

“The handover of this beer is quite symbolic, because at the same time we are also informing the Holy Father of the charitable actions we have taken over the past year. So, it is truly a great celebration for us.”

Photo: archive of Plzeňský Prazdroj
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who grew up in Germany, is known to enjoy the occasional beer. A few Easters ago, he knocked back a stein in celebration of his 90th birthday. Father Jakub Holík again:

“I don’t think beer is sent to the Vatican now from anywhere else in the world. Of course, Pope Benedict, who comes from Bavaria, definitely received some from there. But these days, I think we’re the only ones.”

Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, hails from Argentina, and has gone on the record as saying wine is “necessary for celebrations”’ that not to have it at a wedding would be an “embarrassment”. His position on beer – and believe me, I’ve looked – is not clear.

Whatever the case may be (pun intended), Pope Francis received 2,020 bottles of the special Easter batch Pilsner Urquell (a bottle for each year since the birth of Christ), along with a limited edition one-litre bottle crafted by renowned Czech glassmaker Lukáš Jabůrek.

Maundy Thursday, green beer

Photo: Dezidor,  CC BY 3.0
Meanwhile, back in Bohemia (and beyond), believers yesterday marked Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper.

In Central Europe, the day has long been known as “Green Thursday”, possibly because centuries ago priests wore green vestments to celebrate Easter Mass, and sinners doing penance wore sprigs.

In the Czech lands, the name inspired a tradition of eating fresh greens, such as spinach, salad and even nettles. Back in 2005, the Starobrno brewery in the Moravian capital took it a step further – releasing a special 13-degree green brew for sale during Holy Week.

While this year the accompanying green beer festival and distribution of the brew has been postponed due to restrictions on public gatherings, enterprising patriots concocted their own versions. For as the saying goes in Czech, Kde se pivo vaří, tam se dobře daří (Where beer is brewed, things go well).