Tastings School - Czech Republic: It's Czech, mate

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Czech Republic: It's Czech, mate

The beers of the Czech Republic have long been revered but in recent years they have become widely available, too. Are they still as good? Ben McFarland reports

The Czech word for beer is pivo. If you’ve been to Prague it’s a word you’ll no doubt be acquainted with.

Not knowing the word for beer in the Czech Republic is akin to not knowing the word for sun block in the Sahara. In terms of vernacular, it’s vital.

Pivo is a Slavonic word meaning ‘the most ordinary and widespread drink.’ Czech modesty, it seems, knows no bounds. It may be widespread; the Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world. Three-quarters of men and 30 per cent of women drink beer regularly and every citizen, on average, polishes off a staggering 350 litres a year.

But ordinary? Hardly. In terms of history and natural resources, few nations can rival the richness of the brewing region now known as the Czech Republic.

Situated at the crossroads of Europe, the Czech Republic has had a tumultuous history. In school essays, it was always a safe bet to describe it as being “in a state of flux.” Its rule has swapped hands more often than a dog walker on a frosty morning and its borders have for ever shifted. But in the latest geo-political skirmish in 1993, when Slovakia made its excuses and left, the Czech Republic managed to retain the regions of Moravia in the south and Bohemia in the North.

Whoever brokered the deal was undoubtedly a beer lover as, respectively, Moravia and Bohemia are to barley and hops what Brazil is to soccer and skimpy beachwear.

Throw in sources of water softer than a baby’s proverbial and it’s little wonder the two lands were kept as one. The succulent, sweet and rich barley malt sourced from Moravia, especially that hailing from the wide, flat Hana plateau alongside the Moravia River, is widely regarded as the finest in the world.

Favoured by numerous Czech brewers, not to mention those in Europe and the United States, the Hana barley is often regarded as the Rolls-Royce of hops – furnishing beer everywhere with a velvety smoothness and fabulous drink-ability.

Bohemia, meanwhile, boasts the world’s most sought-after variety of hop in the shape of Zatec. Such is the delicacy and wondrous aroma of Zatec, also known as the Saaz hop, that the various Kings of Wenceslas – and there were several – forbade the export of cuttings.

Not that replication of the Zatec hop would be that easy elsewhere. Where else would you find the glorious coming together of Bohemia’s dark red soil (rich in water-retaining ferrous oxide) and undulating hills that safely shield the hop vines from harsh winds and rain?

Not content with an abundance of natural resources, the Czech lands also lay claim to a fertile brewing heritage which dates back to the 10th century.

Yet it wasn’t until 1842, October 5th to be exact, that the Czechs really planted their mash fork on the world brewing map. Prior to this date, all beer had been dark and cloudy. But in 1842, a fire was lit under the rocking chair of traditional European brewing with the production of the world’s first ever golden lager in the town of Pilsen.

Pilsner Urquell, pronounced ‘urkwell’ and the German word for ‘original source,’ was the brainchild of a notoriously grumpy yet wellrespected Bavarian brewer named Joseph Groll.

His arrival in Pilsen had been masterminded by a bevy of bar owners who, fed-up with the lamentable brews available locally, decided to set-up their own brewery and bring in someone who knew his brewing onions – especially one renowned for pioneering the lagering process.

The folk at the ‘Burghers Brewery’, where Pilsner Urquell is still produced today, love to spin a yarn describing how the advent of golden lager was an accidental one and that the cantankerous Joseph was inadvertently given pale malt by mistake.

This is almost certainly not the truth. At a time when all beer was darker than your worst nightmare, the prospect of a light beer was a genuinely exciting one.

Okay, so they may not have had Powerpoint in the 17th century, but the fundamental principles of marketing still rang true.

Golden lager was a unique selling point if ever there was one. Beer drinkers throughout Europe discovered the light after years of darkness and before long everyone was taking the pils.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1898 that the Pilsner Urquell name was registered, by which time, numerous imitators had followed.

More than 100 years later, its credentials as the original source are now eagerly played as trump marketing cards. However, aspersions have been cast about whether today’s Urquell bears a loyal resemblance to that of yesteryear.

It’s not a controversy unique to Urquell, however. When The Wall fell, so did some notions of traditional Czech brewing. Under the Communist regime, money was sparse and yet the authorities refrained from taking a hammer or sickle to the revered brewing methods.

Yet, no sooner had the dust of democracy settled, than the international brewers arrived and began to look at long-established brewing methods.

Western investment has been welcomed but the realities of the open market less so.

In 1994, Bass acquired the Staropramen brewery in Prague. It pledged to stay true to the traditions of the ‘Old Spring’ brewery, formed in 1871. It stayed true to its pledge but when it handed over the reins to Interbrew, the Belgians decided to brew Staropramen under licence in the United Kingdom. A beer drinking backlash ensued followed by a widely welcomed Belgian U-turn.

Staropramen is now brewed firmly back where it belongs in the Schimov quarter of Prague. Its flagship lager resembles a pilsner, but natives would never describe it that way.

Its rich, buttery nose and fine, resiny hop finish has found huge favour abroad yet only a lucky few will have had the good fortune to sample the other brews in the Staropramen stable.

Be sure to introduce yourself to Staropramen Granat on your next visit to Prague.

The name translates as ‘garnet’, a nod to its cornelian colour generated by the presence of light and dark malts and a smidgeon of sweet caramel.

It is a flavoursome stepping-stone to Staropramen Dark, a light-bodied mahogany-tinted lager that proves the Czechs can successfully venture back across to the dark side.

Along with Pilsen and Prague, the town of Ceske Budejovice is the third leg of the Czech Republic’s beer stool.

Budweis, to give it its Germanic name, is located deep in the Bohemian south and was once home to the region’s royal court brewery.

Back then, there were more than 40 breweries in and around Budweis and their beers were known as budweisers.

Today, the Budweiser name is synonymous with something entirely different. Meanwhile, only two genuine Budweis breweries remain of which Budweiser Budvar is the more well known.

Its fame, sadly, owes as much to its on-going brouhaha with its American namesake as it does to its mighty fine beer.

It’s been nearly 150 years since Eberhard Anheuser embarked on a mission to replicate the wonderful Budweiser beers in St. Louis, Missouri, yet the struggle between Anheuser-Busch (A-B) and Budweiser Budvar for control of the Budweiser moniker is still on-going.

Bouts of legal fisticuffs have been taking place in various places around the world for the best part of a century now with varying outcomes. In some countries, such as the United States, Budweiser Budvar is known as Czechvar.

In others it takes precedent over A-B’s brand, known simply as Bud, while in markets such as the UK the two co-exist in relative harmony.

Though, to be honest, the name is of no real consequence for the flavour of the respective liquids are simply worlds apart. Budvar boasts a blooming biscuit-like malt aroma, touches of butterscotch, a dry and dainty hop character and a finish sweeter than a baby chimp in a dress.

Budvar’s government-owned brewery is a temple to state-of-the-art brewing gadgetry.

Under Communism, the authorities really flashed their cash in an effort to maximise export success and it continues to produce most of its beer for beyond Czech borders.

The Zatec brewery, situated on the site of a castle overlooking the eponymous hop gardens, was one of many that suffered from neglect under state rule. Having been run down to the point of closure for 40 years, however, life has been breathed back into the brewery by Rolf Munding, a British entrepreneur, restaurateur and beer lover.

In 2001, he purchased the brewery and installed new fermentation vessels, filtration systems and a brand spanking new bottling line. Under the stewardship of head brewer Tomas Lejsek, a handful of new craft beers were created.

They’re crisp and clean, thirst-slaking lagers made with native malt, nearby hops and water from a neighbouring river. After double decoction – where the wort is transferred back and forth between mash tuns to release as much brewing sugar as possible – the lagers are plunged 80ft underground where they’re stored for between 21 and 45 days in the most nippy of conditions.

Kozel is another Czech brewery on the up. Kozel means ‘goat’ in Czech and a comical image of one clutching a frothing tankard adorns the packaging.

Historically, the goat symbolises strength and power and is traditionally associated in Germany and Bavaria with the Bock style of lagers. Yet the trio of brews produced at the Velkopopovicky brewery, just 20 km east of Prague, is made up by a sweet and subtle Bohemian-style pilsner, a deeply fermented pale lager and a low gravity but high flavoured dark lager – all three worthy of greater recognition.

The same could be said of the Krusovice beers brewed at the Imperial Brewery, 30 miles west of Prague.

In 1583, the brewery was bought by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, yet now it’s under the control of Germany’s Radeberger Brewing Group.

It’s the fourth largest brewery in the Czech Republic but not enough people are acquainted with the full-bodied glory of Imperial nor the mild hop bitterness and sweet caramel and blackberry allure of Krusovice Cerne, the Czech Republic’s biggest selling dark beer.

Try the two together, with the Cerne layered on top of the Imperial, next time you’re in Prague and on the hunt for a pivo with a difference.