The coopers swarm around the giant oak barrel, amidst the smoke and hot resin, and cautiously start to roll it forward onto a shallow platform, balanced on its bottom edge...
As the barrel – almost twice the height of the men below it – is eased over, there’s a crescendo of warning shouts, until the behemoth topples forward. Three coopers scamper after it, pushing and hustling the vast receptacle as it rolls ponderously onto its midriff bulge, before momentum sends it onwards into a series of slow-motion tumbles.
Coopers outside their workshop at the Pilsner Urquell brewery in the town of Plzeň, Czech Republic.
This remarkable scene takes place twice a year outside the coopers’ workshop at the Pilsner Urquell brewery at Plzeň, in the Czech Republic. The huge barrels – some of them more than 100 years old – normally live in the cellars deep below the brewery, and are used to make traditionally-brewed batches of the world-famous golden beer, which can then be compared against Pilsner Urquell brewed using steel vessels and modern technology.
The idea, of course, is to ensure that the Pilsner Urquell you drink today is totally authentic, and up to the high standards set when the first batch was brewed more than 170 years ago.
The twice-yearly trip to the open air happens as a result of the need to re-coat the insides of the barrels with a protective layer of ‘pitch’, which stops the oak transferring some of its own flavours into the beer.
This pitch is made to a secret traditional recipe, closely guarded by the coopers. They will reveal only that the ingredients include resin from pines and other conifers, paraffin and oil. The pitch is heated up to 200 degrees Celsius over several hours, while each barrel has heated air blown into it to help the pitch spread better during the rolling. Once the hot, black pitch is carefully poured into the barrel, the bung is hammered in to seal it and the barrel-rolling begins, spreading the pitch evenly across the entire barrel interior.
The whole exercise is overseen by Head Cooper Josef Hruza, who leads the eight-man team. They are called upon to create barrels of all sizes made in the traditional manner, ranging from the giant lagering barrels to small souvenir barrels made for sale in the Pilsner Urquell shop.
Josef recalls: “The whole brewing industry started to change over from barrels to metal kegs back in the 1970s. Of course, there were good practical reasons for this – [metal] kegs are more durable and better at nullifying the bad effects of oxygen on the beer.”
But Pilsner Urquell’s unique ‘parallel brewing’ using both modern and traditional methods means that coopers, and their specialised tools and techniques, are still needed at Plzeň – and each new recruit is taught the ancient practice.
We're ensuring the craft of coopering survives.
|Head Cooper, Pilsner Urquell brewery at Plzeň
“It’s pretty much one-out, one-in, so if one of us leaves or retires then we have to look around and train up another young carpenter. I’ll be retiring myself in a few years’ time, so we’ll be looking for my replacement. These young guys will be the next generation – keeping it going just as we are now.
“When I went to Poland we found just one old man who was working as a traditional cooper. It’s a real problem for some countries because these ancient trades are just dying out. This is a shame as I think that a wooden barrel is a beautiful thing – it’s important that at Pilsner Urquell we are continuing this tradition and trade.”
The Guardian has listed Plzeň (or Pilsen) and the Pilsner Urquell brewery as one of their holiday hotspots for 2015. Read the article on the Guardian’s website, or find out more about the Pilsner Urquell brewery tours.