The world of Czech lagers is mostly hidden to Americans. We know of "Bohemian pilsners" and assume that's all there is to the country that invented the world's most famous style. But the Czech Republic has a brewing tradition as rich as Germany's and if you have the good fortune to visit, you will find more than golden lagers there. The thing we know as pilsner is called "light lager" in the Czech Republic--světly ležák ("pilsner" is reserved for the beer made at Urquell). But you'll also find things called tmavé, černé, and polotmavé in hues ranging from light amber to black.
The Czech system for producing beer runs along two axes--strength and color. On the one side you have beers of different strength categories based on original gravity (they've changed, so old hands need to update their vocabulary): stolní (table beer up to 6° P), výčepní (7° to 10°), ležák (11° to 12°), and speciál (13° +). On the other, the definitions run from pale to black: světlé (pale), polotmavé (half dark), tmavé (dark), and černé (black). Anything on one side may be matched to anything on the other, so you could have strong pales or table darks--or anything in-between.
This all seems academic to the average American, though, right? When was the last time you saw a tmavé in the grocery store? It might have been more recently than you know.
When Session Black was released, I described it as a schwarzbier--and was later corrected. Last week I called and asked Jamie what he saw as the difference was between German dark and black beers and the Czech versions:
For my money, that last point is really the key. Czech beers are made with very different malts than German beers. Czechs use floor-malted grain that is less modified than German malts. Most larger German breweries have abandoned decoction (though it's more common in Franconia and Bavaria), but it's typical in Czech breweries. The combination of the less-modified malts and decoction create that creaminess--a quality that runs through all the Czech lagers I tried. He agreed:
The difference between a dunkel, schwarzbier, and tmavé style is the Munich dark being really malt forward in that Munich malt character. The schwarzbier being drier with that roast character. And then the tmavé was an interesting balance, with that roast being subdued and that malt-forward character wasn’t so surrounded by the Munich malt character. Maybe it’s a different brewing philosophy. The Czech beers in general have a really nice creaminess that [is] different than say the kind of malt character that came from a Munich beer.
Full Sail first released Session Fest last year, and it is probably the country's only regular-rotation polotmavé. Emmerson: "No roast in it all all—it’s all caramel malts, Munich, and pale malts. It’s got that same kind of creamy mid-palate again. After bringing the Session Black, then, the idea of a polotmavé for Session Fest was a natural."
Certainly when you’re using the kind of malt they’re using, it lends itself more to decoction than the kind of malt we’re using. The degree of modification here does a lot of the work for you, but it takes away some of the opportunities as well. The challenge for us it to use American malts and specialty malts to try to recreate those flavors. Is it the same? Probably not—but it’s pretty close.
Okay, we have the half-dark and dark, what about black? That would be the LTD 06: "The černé is one I’ve always wanted to do, and the LTD 6 allowed that, because it’s a much larger beer. It’s very dopplebock-y, but that whole dark-roasted thing at the top created an interesting character to that beer." If you haven't tried it yet, go buy a sixer. It's pretty spectacular beer. The balance between the burnished smoothness of the malt with that twist of roast is fantastic, and it's a perfect winter beer.
Emmerson has also made a strong Czech beer, inspired in part by Budvar's Speciální pivo called Bud (not sold, as you may have guessed by the name, in the US). Emmerson wanted to create "an homage to the Czech thing of super-simple," and LTD 04 was just pilsner malt and Willamette hops.
Of course LTD 03 was the one beer people might have recognized as a Czech beer--it was a pilsner. Or, as Jamie probably wished to call it, a světly ležák.
So that's pretty much the full range of Czech beers, and you can find them right here in Oregon. I still think it's worth that trip to Prague you were always planning on taking, but maybe these beers will tide you over in the meantime.