Pilsner Urquell is 170 years old today

Pilsner Urquell is 170 years old today

It may be 170 years old, but the “original golden lager” is getting a new lease of life from the explosion in popularity of craft beer in Europe.

Pilsner Urquell celebrated its birthday in its home town of Pilsen on Friday (5 October) with a horse-drawn parade, a spectacular light show and 170-litre barrels of beer. It was an old-time feel, and a long way from the ultra-modern craft beer pubs and micro-breweries of London, Paris and Stockholm. However, it is the interest generated by the craft trend that is driving the SABMiller-owned brand into new territory, the company says.

“What plays in our favour is the expectations through the craft movement, where the consumer is being educated to understand different tastes,” Pilsner Urquell global marketing manager Robert Lobovsky told just-drinks last week. “This is perhaps the state Pilsner Urquell can benefit from - the desire to learn more about the brand, the craftsmanship of the brand. That can only play well for us.”

Lobovsky said the craft beer presence is growing in countries such as Italy, France and Sweden. In the UK, even younger consumers are starting to enter the super-premium category that Lobovsky places Pilsner Urquell in, he said.

“That's the exciting bit in the beer category at the moment, that we've been able to shift it in Western markets from a drink that you consume in large volumes to an area where people want to try different tastes and talk about those different tastes.”

The US holds different challenges for Urquell. After three years of declining sales, this year the company decided to change its shipping system in a bid to keep the beer fresh. It is now transported in fully- enclosed, temperature-controlled containers to protect it from light and heat.

“We've always struggled on long distances, on how to get it out to the US,” Lobovsky said. “How do we keep the product fresh?”

The results have been beyond the company's expectations. “Whereas in the past, our sales team in the US that wanted to get into craft bars would have been rejected, today bars are actually asking for us. That's an enormous success.”

Lobovsky said the birthday celebrations marked “an important milestone in the brewer's history” that allows his marketing team to show where Pilsner Urquell differs from the new wave of craft beers. As part of the 170th anniversary, a group of international bartenders competed against each other to be crowned champion Pilsner Urquell pourer and learn about the brand's history.

Lobovsky said there's “a sparkle in their eyes” when they learn about Pilsner Urquell's roots as the original golden lager. But he added that it is a story that can be difficult to tell in a market where every other product claims the original tag.

“The question is, how do we tell that story and make it believable,” he said. “We live in a world where every brand has got a story, but just how grounded it is in truth is questionable. For Urquell, that is the opposite. We have so many true roots all the way to the origins of the lager category but it feels that, in today's society, it's almost impossible to believe this.”

The challenge, for the future, according to Lobovsky, is to hold on to those roots, and steer clear of the technological advances brought in by craft beer makers even as Urquell chases their customers.

“Across our markets our message is that this is the pure Pilsner from Pilsen,” Lobovsky said. “That has been the campaign for the last three to four years.”