Tastings School - Czech Republic - Thank you for the pilsner

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Czech Republic - Thank you for the pilsner

The Czech Republic gave the world its most popular beer style. Alastair Gilmour sends his thanks

The house lights dim; a ripple of applause sweeps the auditorium; a familiar tune begins as Tony Bennett raises the microphone. Spotlight, anticipation, the moment.

“I left my scarf... in Cesky Krumlov...” The celebrated crooner may not have mislaid his muffler, but I certainly did earlier this year. We had been attached for some time but drifted apart in Na Ostrove, high on a hill in the heritage town in South Bohemia in the Czech Republic. The bread with chunky pork fat and smoked bacon had been a distraction, or was it the pork cutlet and potato pancake? Could it perhaps have been the slivovice – plum brandy – or the local Eggenberg Svetle Lezak, a powerfully floral beer with sweet butterscotch notes and a zesty, firm, delightfully balanced character? Or was it the classic Budweiser Budvar, that attractivelyheaded beer with its nasal grapefruit sharpness, viscous, bittersweet body and dry biscuit malt palate?

Cesky Krumlov is a World Heritage Site, effectively two towns which merged into one after centuries of brewing disputes. Bickering over wheat beer privileges were solved by simply uniting neighbours Latran and Krumlov – and their breweries, which have been passed from the Eggenberg family to the Schwarzenbergs and on to present owners, Dionex. (You don’t have to delve far into Czech history to uncover an Eggenberg hand or a Schwarzenberg influence somewhere along the line). Czechs take immense satisfaction at being regarded as the world’s greatest brewing nation – and the world’s biggest beer consumers per head of population. They were the first to use hops – more than 1,000 years ago – and the pioneering golden lager from the city of Plzen has developed into the most popular beer style in the world.

When young Bavarian brewer Josef Grolle presented his first Pilsner Urquell on October 4 1842, it spread across Europe like wildfire to be absorbed by various nations such as Germany and Holland virtually as their indigenous style. It has spread so far and brewers have got so good at replicating it that the gold medal for ‘Bohemian-style lager’ at this year’s World Beer Cup in San Diego, California, went to the Malt Shovel Brewery in Sydney. The silver was awarded to Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon, with in bronze position, Gambrinus Premium, the sister brewery to Pilsner Urquell, both of which operate under the Plzensky Prazdroj umbrella.

Maybe it was just a matter of time that the rest of the world caught up – although 164 years isn’t exactly sudden – but the news has been met by an ambivalent attitude and a shrug that suggests “does it matter, anyway?” Vaclav Berka, senior trade brewmaster at Plzensky Prazdroj – who oversees production of both Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell – believes that with so much pilsner consumed around the globe, the awards demonstrate that it doesn’t matter on which continent the style is brewed. And Tomas Maier from the Czech Beer Consumers’ Union, says: “It’s no surprise that an excellent Bohemian-style pilsner can be brewed elsewhere.” Fine reactions delivered with consummate politeness – if through gritted teeth – but when it comes to beer, number one is where Czechs want to be. They claim to have had the first beer museum in the world and the first brewing textbook – published in 1585 by Tadeas Hajek – plus in Vaclav Havel, the only president to have written an absurdist play based on experiences of working in a brewery (Pivovar Krakonos in Trutnov, 1974).

Even the first Czech cookbook in 1826, A Treatise on Meat and Fasting Dishes for Bohemian and Moravian Lasses, by Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova, included a recipe for beer soup.

The first Budweiser is also a source of national pride and lawsuits have flown back and forth for more than a century between America and Central Europe as to who has the rights to the name, the US giant Anheuser-Busch or the Czech Budweiser Budvar (Ceske Budejovice has been known in German since time immemorial as ‘Budweis’). A lunchtime presentation by Jiri Bocek, Budweiser Budvar’s general director, to a group of British journalists earlier this year raised some interesting points on the subject.

“Everything in our brewery is original and the American brewery is a copy,” he said. “We have evidence in the American National Archives.

When it comes to beer, Czechs want to be number one “A US legal dispute between Anheuser-Busch and Miller in 1895-96 was about who is brewing the bettercopied Budweiser – who is nearer, or on the other hand, is Miller a better copy? If the copy was near to the original beer from Bohemia, it is evident Miller was the better copy.

“Our main focus is to produce the beer with the highest quality, not the lowest price; to only use the best raw materials and to produce excellent beer – which is good for beer lovers, for connoisseurs. Our biggest market is, of course, the Czech Republic; second is Germany; third, your country, the UK, thank you gentlemen.

“The legal dispute with Anheuser- Busch takes up some money, but sorry I can’t tell you how much. We have an in-house legal department and still use a domestic legal company, but Czech law can’t be used in different jurisdictions, so in the US and New Zealand for example, we have to use their local lawyers.

“We are still owned by the Czech state and for a long time in the international newspapers there has been a running discussion about privatisation. We Czechs would like to start the transformation of our brewery from a national corporation to a jointstock company. The main value of this company is its intellectual property; the trademarks, the geographical indication and so on. We are different because an excellent product doesn’t need such huge advertising – the best advertising is the taste and the quality of the beer. You can drink our beer in 53 or 54 countries.

“An adviser will analyse the legal situation of transferring to a jointstock company. It is very important it is to be done without any mistake. It could take six or seven months and take us into 2009 then we should receive the results of the analysis. This should say transfer is possible or transfer is not possible. If it is possible, the Ministry of Agriculture has to prepare some special acts, new laws to transfer a national corporation into a joint-stock company. Nowadays, legal acts and regulations don’t know this kind of transfer.” On being asked about the possibility of a management buy-out, the everdiplomatic Mr Bocek said: “According to my opinion, a management buy-out is too early for discussion. The legality will change but the state will still be the owner, but after the transfer the state will discuss who will be the potential owner. Just now nobody can discuss the situation.” Of course, not all beer in the Czech Republic comes from Ceske Budejovice or Plzen and not all Czech beers are pilsner-style. Dark beers (cerne) and light ones (svetle) are very popular with some of the best examples of the latter coming from Velkopopovicky Kozel, Herold and Krusovice. Because of their relatively low alcohol content, dark beers such as the drier Branik, the sharper Rakovanka, the caramelly Regent and the splendidly malty Krusovice, are often referred to as “ladies’ beers.” Low-alcohol beers are becoming popular, too. Pardal (3.7% alcohol by volume) the new line from Budweiser Budvar fills a gap at the cheaper end of the Czech supermarket offer, making six products in all that fit every segment of the drinks sector. Pardal means “panther” in popular slang and refers to someone who, according to Petr Samec, the company’s public relations manager, “is respected or highly experienced, someone who is relaxed and who has natural authority and a lot of life experiences”.

And, according to the experts, the best temperature to drink beer is between 7ºC and 10ºC. The 1987, Oscar-nominated Czech film, My Sweet Little Village – also voted the country’s favourite comedy movie ever – reveals the best method of retaining this temperature. Its advice is to store it on the seventh step in the cellar.

Somewhat deeper down, in the extremely cold Budvar cellars, secondbrewer Ales Dvorak draws unfiltered Budvar from one of scores of horizontal tanks stacked to the ceiling.

The beer in this one has been sitting, slowly conditioning for three months and will be ready for its first steps into the outside world the next day. Its blend of water from the brewery’s 300- metre deep well, Moravian malted barley, Saaz hops from North Bohemia and the brewery’s 100-year-old yeast strain, has been allowed to “round” and mellow into golden perfection.

We agree across the language barrier that it’s fairly easy for those who appreciate good beer to communicate via their specialist subject.

“This is our Esperanto,” he says, taking a long draught before passing the litre-sized jug. We later accompany another with a very salty, creamy (and decidedly smelly) beer cheese, served with rye bread in a union known as “a miner’s breakfast”.

The combination is an acquired taste. Cue lights, microphone, intro, “I left my cheese...”`