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Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Brief Primer on Czech Lagers

Sometimes I skip posting information that I know exists elsewhere on the internet, as if the mere existence of information somewhere means people everywhere are consuming it.  You can find descriptions of Czech lagers from people far more versed on the subject than I--Evan Rail and Max Bahnson (the Pivní Filosof) are your English-language starting points.  (Unfortunately, Evan's old blog, a mighty archive of great data, is now offline.)  Nevertheless, it is sometimes useful for a person to gather together and repeat some information for those who are coming later to the party.  In that spirit, here's a brief primer on Czech lagers.

Only One Pilsner
You do not order a "pilsner" in Prague (or anywhere else in Czech).  You could order a Pilsner, though.  In the Czech Republic, the word pilsner is a proper name reserved for Pilsner Urquell.  All other pale lagers are referred to by either their proper name or by category (see below).  I have gotten several different answers for why this is the case, but my sense is that it has mainly to do with tradition.  Josef Groll invented pilsner at the old burghers' brewery in 1842, and other breweries show great deference to this brewery (now called Plzensky Prazdroj, or Pilsner Urquell).  That beer is the ur-Pilsner, the one that begat the rest.  It is also the beer from Pilsen--not the only one, but obviously the big one--and so for these reasons it is the only one people call pilsner.

The Categories of Beer
The Czech system for grouping beer runs along two axes--strength and color.  If you imagine a table in your mind, on the one side you would have beers of different strength categories based on the Plato scale, and on the other a continuum of color running from pale to black.  So you might have a 10° pale beer or a 12° amber or a 14° dark.  But you might also have a 12° dark. (On our tour, Evan Rail mentioned that while there are no hard and fast rules, if you see a brewery list that includes a 10, 12, 14, and 18, the average Czech would assume the two smaller beers are light, the two bigger ones dark.)   

Let's start with the legal designations, which refer to Plato categories.  These changed a bit in 2011, so if you find lehké on an old list, note the change.  Also, those are my best-guess pronunciations you find.  Fluent Czech speakers may offer corrections or denunciations in comments.

Update: Indeed, the wisdom of hive mind is speaking loudly in comments, with corrections, questions, and clarifications.  Definitely have a look.
  • Stolní pivo, table beer up to 6° P.  (I've never seen one of these in the wild.)  The pronunciation is roughly stole nyee Pee voh. 
  • Výčepní pivo, from 7° to 10°.  Strangely, výčepní comes from the word for taproom and the term literally means “draft beer.”  It is applied to all beer in this range, irrespective of package.  Pronounced vee chep nyee Pee voh.
  • Ležák, from 11° to 12°.  Again, to add to the confusion, ležák literally means lager—and again, it applies to all beer in this range whether lager or ale.  Pronounced leh zhak.
  • Speciál, strong beers above 13°.  Pronounced spet zee-al.  
The colors are more straightforward--pale, amber, and dark, though for etymological reasons, I'm going to list them out of order (you'll see why):
  • Světlé, or pale-colored.  Pronounced svet lee.
  • Tmavé, or dark.  Pronounced t’ma veh.
  • Polotmavé, which literally means semi-dark or half-dark, referring to a color in the amber band.  Pronounced polo t’ma veh.
  • Černé, or black.  Pronounced cher neh.
When you're ordering these, you would mix and match.  That 12° amber would be a polotmavý ležák.  A 10° pale would be světlý výčepní.  Of course, you could also just order the beer based on its gravity, which is the easiest for Americans in whose mouths these words gurgle like giant balls of peanut butter.

Bright, Unfiltered, or Yeasted?
So far, so good, yes?  Now comes the more tricky part of the whole thing.  Not only do you have this taxonomical tangle, but you have an additional stratum of information regarding how the beer was prepared.  In addition to just regular old beer like you might find in a bottle, the beer might be unfiltered or served kräusened.
  • Kvasnicové, literally yeast beer.  It is a specific preparation that involves adding yeast or fermenting wort to fully-lagered beer right before kegging.  It brings a liveliness to the beer that has Czech beer geeks in a swoon.  Pronounced kvass nitso veh Pee voh.  
  • Nefiltrované or unfiltered beer.  Slightly confusing because both kvasnicové and nefiltrované will appear less than perfectly clear in the glass, and both may enjoy the benefits of richer, brighter flavors.  Unfiltered beer is not kräusened.  Pronounced ne filtro vanay Pee vo.   
  • Tanková, or tank beer.  Just means it's served from a large, 5- or 10-hectoliter tank underneath the bar.  What's significant is that this beer is unpasteurized, which means the flavors are sharper and more vivid.  Pronounced tank o va.
All right, are you ready to head out to the pubs?


  1. Two more things about tanková, and very important. 1) Freshness: breweries require the tank be sold out quick. 2) no top pressure, the carbonation is natural, and that is what makes the beer smoother

  2. Max, thanks--good update. (And if that's your only major correction, this may not be half bad.)

  3. I am confused by your use of "served kräusened." That's a packaging thing, done before moving to cask/keg/bottle, as in your description of Kvasnicové. Tanková is presumably kräusened as well (and anything conditioned with yeast in the packaging vessel is going to be unpasteurized an unfiltered).

    So I assume that nefiltrované is pasteurized but not filtered? And the export beer is presumably pasteurized and filtered. Whatever the word for that in Czech is.

    And I would also assume Kvasnicové is available bottled, just probably only regionally.

    These words have German equivalents, though I'm not sure anywhere in Germany sells beer based on str plato. 8 and 10 are more common than 12, right?

    The other thing they do in Germany that I'm not sure if they do in Czech is drink young beer. That has a special name as well. Stinks of sulfur, like a heinken mixed with a hefeweizen.

    Brewers' publications needs to seriously rework their literature on Czech and German beer.

  4. The other question I would ask (in unfiltered, unpasteurized tank lagers) is whether there's a version that has been allowed to build pressure or off-gas. That's the difference between kellerbier and zwickelbier, the former has only the co2/volumes of normal atmosphere.

    I made a kellerbier by loosening a disconnect on a cornelius keg, I would assume there's an easy way to do that in tanks built for that sort of thing.

  5. Sorry, I got that backwards, I think. IIRC zwickels are always young and unpressurized, kellers are older and may or may not be pressurized.

    Regardless, are there similar Tanková?

  6. Daniel, unfortunately, the subtlety of your questions are going to be frustrated by the grossness of my knowledge. Someone more educated than I may be able to answer these. However:

    8 and 10 are more common than 12, right?

    No, 12 is by far the most common. There's an 11 as well, and those are pretty common, too. 10s are about as common as 13s and then everything else gets fractional.

    The other thing they do in Germany that I'm not sure if they do in Czech is drink young beer. That has a special name as well. Stinks of sulfur...

    I don't believe that exists, though, by chance, I got to try some young Pilsner. (You see, that's how it's often used in a sentence.) We were in the cellar and there was a nice wood-aged 6-week beer and one that was around three. The latter was rough and full of sulfur, as you noted. The Czechs seem really focused on smooth, finished beer, so I'd be surprised if there was a niche somewhere devoted to foul sulfur beers. But you never know!

  7. "Světlé, or pale-colored. Pronounced svet lee"

    That would be pronounced - 'svyet-leh', the hacek (sorry I have no diacritics on my keyboard) over the e, introduces a 'ye' sound prior to the vowel itself, and the carka on the e at the end makes it an 'eh'. If the carka were over a 'y' it would be 'svyet-lee'.

    Also I would question the idea that 12° beers are the most common, unless things have changed dramatically, 10° beers are more usually drunk, with 12° something of a special occasion drink (unless you're a Prazdroj drinker). 8° is rarer than hen's teeth, I can think of just 1 being made regularly, in Harrachov.

  8. "Also I would question the idea that 12° beers are the most common, unless things have changed dramatically, 10° beers are more usually drunk, with 12° something of a special occasion drink (unless you're a Prazdroj drinker)."

    That's been my experience, too. 10 is the every day, "having more than one or two" sort of beer. My in-laws live in eastern Czech, and we pretty much always have the Radegast 10 on hand in their fridge. In general, we tend to drink the "desitka" everywhere. I think it's probably a factor in why the name for that strength of beer ("vycepni") suggests that it's just draft beer - it's the more standard choice in that format.

  9. The 7-10 range as called "draft" beer could be a hold over from older tax law? I know German law classifies these as "tap beers" but they are never seen. 11-14 are full beers and 16+ is strong. Most things are 11-12, maerzens are 14, bocks are 16. The notation is similar in Austria. Understanding Plato really helps make central european styles make sense.

    The old Michael Jackson stuff from 93/94 said that 8 was the common lunchtime, doing work kind of beer, 10 was the everyday drinking beer. Pretty much a category that didn't (and still doesn't) exist in Germany or Austria. Curious if that still holds based on changing demographics. Germany, like a lot of the beer drinking world, has been moving to stronger and stronger beer over the last 20 years.

  10. On the 10-12 discussion, I should recuse myself. The twelves were more common in my sample, but that was the sampling of a tourist bombing through some of the more offbeat pubs of Prague and Pilsen. Locals should be trusted on this matter.

  11. This system applies to both lagers and ales made in the Czech Republic. When I make a 14 degree(Plato) Amber Ale, I must describe it in Czech as: pivo polotmavý speciál(Strong semi Dark Beer), svrchně kvašený(Top Fermented), nefiltrovaný a nepasterizovaný(Non Filtered and Non Pasteurized). Including this legal description is enforced by the health inspector.

  12. Daniel, regarding the Plato ranges for taxation. Today Czech brewers are taxed by every Plato level and you round up. :-) A 14.5 Plato beer is treated as 15. The calculation is 16 Korona * Plato * Hectoliter. 1 Hecto of 15 Plato beer would be taxed 240 Koruna. The stronger the beer, the greater the tax.

  13. as Daniel Warner said: "served kräusened." Is that right? It was kräusened, as a brewing process, I thought.
    or Kvasnicové, maybe?

  14. Chris--thanks for the comments. It was great fun to see your name come up in my email notifications.

    For those who don't know Chris, he's an American expat living in the Czech Republic and making beer on an idyllic little plot of land just south of Plzen. His brewery, Pivovar Zhůřák is tiny, but he gets some huge flavors out of his beer. (Which have, like all Czech beers, hugely long legal names.)

  15. Thanks Chris. I am still intrigued by the tanková. Pivní said above that they are served with no top pressure--is it essentially real ale in a tank instead of a cask? How do they prevent spoilage? About what psi (or co2/volumes) is the czech version of "real ale?" I would be a little surprised if it was as high as industrial, mega-national lagers.