Pilsner Urquell Experience: Top Czech beer gets new Prague attraction

Pilsner Urquell was created in Pilsen in the 1840s and is today the best known Czech beer around the world. Its producers Plzeňský Prazdroj run a fine museum in the West Bohemian city. Now, however, visitors to Prague can also learn a lot about the classic pale lager at the Pilsner Urquell Experience, which is intended to be analogous to the likes of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

The new attraction is located on 3,000 square metres across three floors in a magnificent Art Nouveau building just off the bottom of Wenceslas Square.

Nick Penny is the general manager of Pilsner Urquell Experience, which is operated by his Original Experience Company in cooperation with Plzeňský Prazdroj. We meet at the entrance, just days after the opening of the attraction.

Nick Penny | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“We’ve created this kind of ‘moving river of beer’. You come into the Pilsen Gate and then enter the first section.

“The tour itself is divided into three sections. The first is what I would call the pre-history of beer.

“It starts with beer in ancient civilisations and then tells the story of beer in the Middle Ages in, let’s say, Central Bohemia.

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“It talks about the great Czech kings and the impact they had on the beer industry, and then leads us into the moment when the burghers of Pilsen cast the beer onto the city’s square and took the decision to do things completely differently – and that’s what created Pilsner Urquell.”

Jubilee gate in the Pilsen Urquell brewery | Photo: Miroslav Chaloupka,  Plzeňský Prazdroj

And the gate refers to the actual gate in the city of Pilsen?

“Yes, it’s a graphic reproduction of the gate in Pilsen.

“You learn about the beer but at the same it’s above all about having some fun.”

“What we have here is not a reproduction of Pilsen in any way.

“This is a story, it’s quite fun, it’s delivered in a very light-hearted and immersive way, so that you see the exhibit and you learn about the beer, but at the same it’s above all about having some fun.

“Everything here is completely factually correct, but we then brought it to life with the help of a company called BRC Imagination Arts, which is based in California.

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“They’re Californian storytellers. They describe themselves very much as storytellers, so this is delivered in a completely immersive way.

“So we use different technologies, we use different projections, headphones and so forth to deliver it in a fun way.”

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

Is the company from California also behind other similar tours elsewhere in the world?

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Yes, they’re very much specialists in this kind of tour, particularly brand homes.

“They recently worked on Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh, which is very successful.

“I think they understand their clients’ stories and they are very much about delivering an exhibit.”

This building here is really amazing – it’s beautiful. What was here before?

“It was originally built as the Prague Credit Bank, and when you walk into the main hall you’ve still got the great arches where the bank tellers sat.

“It’s a lovely Art Nouveau building and we’ve kept all the features – we’ve integrated the exhibition into the features of the building.

“I think that’s added a lot to the whole story. You end up with both a beautiful building and a fun story.”

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

There’s also the location. It’s just off the bottom, really at the bottom, of Wenceslas Square. How important was it for you to find a place like this building?

“Incredibly important. There aren’t many buildings as large as this where you could do something like this in Prague at all – most of them are much older buildings.

“So this was both an ideal building and an ideal location.”

Who is it targeted at? Are you trying to attract serious beer buffs, or more the general public?

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Both. I suppose it’s targeted slightly younger, rather than older.

“It tells a story, completely accurately, but it’s also for people who don’t know nothing about beer.

“So there’s not a very in-depth discussion about brewing techniques or anything like that.

“It’s much more about understanding what’s behind the culture of beer and understanding a bit about Pilsner Urquell.”

How much has the company Plzeňský Prazdroj, which brews Pilsner Urquell, been involved in this whole project?

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Completely. We are a window for them.

“We’ve worked together on everything that’s here, so I would call it a very, very close partnership.”

As our tour continues Nick Penny explains some of the colourful exhibits around us.

“This, for instance, is the room which tells the story of the breaking of the barrels on the square in Pilsen, which was really the critical moment when the Pilsen burghers – instead of everyone doing their own thing – got together and said, Right, we’re going to make something special here.”

Do visitors get to pull a half-litre themselves?

“We have two tours. The first tour is the Experience tour, which tells you the whole story and is, let’s say, the bulk of the building.

“During that tour you have a tasting beer, so you have a hosted tasting.

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“Then the tour ends in the Beer Hall, where we have a bit of a show and you get two beers within the price of the ticket.

“There’s another tour, which is called the Tapster Academy, and that is specifically about learning how to pour beer.

“The Tapster Academy tour is 12 people sitting around a bar.

“We tell you the story of the beer, we tell you everything about the beer.

“Then each person gets a couple of chances to pour the beer and to do the three different Pilsner Urquell pours: the hladinka, the šnyt and the mlíko.”

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

And the last two are smaller beers but in a half-litre glass?

“If you speak to anybody in the Czech Republic they will tell you the most important thing is the foam.”

“It’s all about the foam and how it affects the taste and you get a proper explanation of that.

“I’m English and English people don’t know anything about foam, but if you speak to anybody in Czechia they will tell you the most important thing is the foam.

“That’s why we focus on it so much here.”

On your website you say that visitors can discover the famous Czech beer culture. In what way are you explaining beer culture here?

“All the way through the tour there are references to both the history, and therefore how we came to get to Pilsner Urquell, and also about how we drink beer.

“So it’s in that way that you get an understanding of what Czech beer culture is all about.

“Also downstairs we have our own výčep [taproom] on the ground floor, which operates as a typical bar.”

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

So people can come and have a beer downstairs without actually visiting the whole Experience?

“That’s right. They can come into the main Experience hall, they can see the old banking hall where we have an amazing light sculpture, which is a representation of a brewery mash tun.

“So if they want to just come and have a look they can do that.

“We have a retail shop on the ground floor as well.

“Plus we have the taproom, the výčep, U Zvonu, which operates as an ordinary bar.”

Where did the original idea come from for the Pilsner Urquell Experience?

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

“It basically came from the simple thought that so many tourists come to Prague to see the city – and to discover the beer.

“But actually until now there hasn’t really been a place where they can come and find out about the beer.

“There are lots of pubs and small tours, but there’s no big-scale activity.”

What about tourist numbers after Covid and all of that? Did you wait till now, or was it just a coincidence that you’ve started now?

“We didn’t wait at all. In fact the whole concept was pretty much born in Covid.

“We were asking ourselves what would be happening to tourism after Covid and I think our answer is that people would definitely want to travel again in a big way – and that seems to be coming true – and they would want to do more and more interesting things.

“I think what is unusual about Prague is that it’s extremely popular tourist destination, but it has a relatively small number of large-scale experiences or even museums.

“It’s got a lot of smaller museums, but not many big places.

“Take a city like Amsterdam, which has a similar number of tourists – maybe even fewer in fact – but it’s got five or six very big museums, I think seven or eight major experiences: the likes of Madame Tussauds, the Heineken Experience, and various other things.

“So Prague could easily support five or six of this kind of activity.”

Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

How many visitors a year do you need to make this work economically?

“We have a capacity to do about half a million, so if we can get 60 percent of our capacity we’ll be very happy.”

Nick Penny then leads me into a brightly coloured, coolly lit interactive section of the Pilsner Urquell Experience.

“These are the ingredients stations, so we tell the story of the ingredients in the beer.

“There are pots underneath where you can see what malt is. A lot of people don’t know what malt is – malt is germinated barley.

“It tastes very sweet, so we give people the chance to try what malt tastes like.

“Then there’s the hops. We don’t advise people to taste it, because it’s very, very strong, but you can smell it; it’s delicious.

“Then we have a film which tells visitors all about how we create the ingredients and what’s specific about the Pilsner Urquell experience.”

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

A little further on Mr. Penny shows me a small circular room with constantly changing lighting and visuals.

“This is the mash tun. This tells us the story of the hot part of the brewery.

“It tells us what is mashing, what is decoction and what the steps to actually brew the beer are.

“We try to do it in a way that is completely innovative, so you’re inside the pot still and you get the effects of the heat and so forth.

“And there’s a mirrored ceiling, which makes a great photograph.”

Have you give a lot of thought to photography when you’ve created this place? Are there kind of “Insta” spots around the building?

“Very much so. From the very first moment you walk in we want to create a very photogenic experience and almost the whole way through you can take a really fun photograph.

“It’s actually fun to see what people are posting and to see how different they are.”

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

A few metres further on, the temperature drops perceptibly.

“We’re not stepping out of the hot part of the process into our reproduction of a beer cellar.

“We have on the walls the story of what yeast does and how yeast turns sugar into alcohol, which after all is the essential ingredient in great beer.

“As we come out of the beer cellar there’s the final part of the beer production story, which is the story of the pouring of the beer.

“Because you only make the beer when you put it in the glass.

“And we have the three pours – the hladinka, the šnyt and the mlíko – and it tells the thinking behind those three pours.”

I know people associate this country with beer in general but do you know how much name recognition Pilsner Urquell has internationally?

“There’s a big benefit for the brewery, in terms of getting people to understand that this was the beer that invented pilsner, which is now 70 percent of the beer in the world.”

“I think it’s very famous in some countries.

“If you go to Germany, everybody knows Pilsner Urquell. Other countries, less so.

“And I think there’s a big benefit for the brewery, in terms of getting people to understand that this was the beer that invented pilsner, which is now 70 percent of the beer in the world.”

Before I say goodbye to the general manager of the Pilsner Urquell Experience, I ask Nick Penny about his own connection to one of Czechia’s most famous exports.

“I first came to Prague in 1992, fell in love with the beer, and spent many years working in different countries in Central Europe.

“I actually ran breweries, in Romania and Bosnia.

“So it’s kind of a homecoming, I think, to come back to Prague and be deeply involved with the Czech Republic’s ‘crown jewels’ in a sense – the most beautiful product that they produce.”