So there are a few things you should know about Czech beer. It's not all golden. It's not all lager. They don't call their Moravian malt "pilsner" malt--it's just pale. And at the original Budweiser, from Budweis (which only later became Ceske Budejovice), they don't call their beer a pilsner. That appellation is reserved for the big brewery to the northwest. But more on styles in a while.
We'll get back to that in a moment, but let me step back and mention that I just spent the day at Budvar--and on the first snowy day of the year (!). It was sadly not warm inside because I visited not only on one of the only days of the year the brewery's not in motion, but on a day when the electricity was off for maintenance. So head brewer Adam Broz and communications chief Petr Samec (the man who graciously set up my visit) and I charged around the brewery with a flashlight for a most rare tour. You have to work pretty hard to find the brewery in this state, but I'm just lucky. (In Czech they don't celebrate Halloween, but walking around a silent, dark 1.3 million hectoliter brewery reminded me of the spooky season. It was especially atmospheric to roam the cellars in complete darkness zwickeling beer into an old-timey copper mug.)
Budvar is a big brewery, but it has done an impressive job of holding onto old traditions. The brewhouse is a typical four-vessel system (mash tun, mash cooker, lauter, kettle), and they do a double decoction. Interestingly, while most of the beautiful copper equipment is lined with stainless, a bit is not. Similarly, Budvar uses a grant during lauter--that's theregulator you see in some old systems where a bank of small spigots pour into an open trough before heading to the kettle. To adjust flow out of the lauter, brewers turn the spigots off or on. (Budvar's is computerized.)
This interested me because 1) copper can introduce chemical reactions leading to staling, and 2) any time wort is exposed to air, especially when it splashes, it can pick up staling oxygen. Of course, Budvar knows about this, and Broz has had the system tested--the copper content is too low and the grant not splashy enough to appreciably affect the beer. (Pilsner Urquell's system--just five years old--also uses a grant. Seems to be the Bohemian way.)
Budvar gets its water from a well 300 meters down and they use the water untreated. They use only Moravian malt and whole flower Saaz hops. Interestingly, they let primary fermentation go on for a day for every point of Plato--so 12 days for their standard beer. (That's twice as long as many other lager breweries.) They really lager the beer, two--three months for the regular beer and six (!) for their special strong beer (16 Plato, about 7%). They lager the beer in horizontal tanks rather than cylindroconicals because the pressure is less--and therefore better for the beer. I noticed that 5-month-old strong beer was still bubbling away with healthy yeast activity.
I got to zwickel all three of their beers, and that was a treat. I've long been a Budvar partisan, and especially a day after having the vaunted Pilsner Urquell from the wood, it was a revelatory experience. Budvar is considered less hoppy because, at 22 BUs, it's less bitter than Urquell. But it has tons of flavor and aroma and to me this makes it hoppier overall--if less bitter. From the tank, those qualities were accentuated and it was a wonderfully spicy beer. The "16" (as they call the strong) was also amazing. Alcohol pops more in slender lagers, and it was boozy--but also delicate from both the soft malt and peppery hops. The final beer, a tmave (dark) was surprising roasty and Broz agreed that it bore some resemblance to an Irish stout.
Okay, the style question. It seems Budvar eschews the "pilsner" name out of deference, but that's not all. Broz quickly described the ways in which the beers differed. To international tastes, this may be hair-splitting, but I think it reveals something deeper about Czech brewing. This is the land pilsners were born, the place, thanks to the water, malt, and hops, where their spirit resides. It's no wonder breweries notice the differences. The rest of the world is probably justified In collapsing them into one group--but we should also appreciate why the Czechs resist following suit.