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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Únětická 12°

Source: Prague Beer Garden
The following post should be treated something like a public service announcement for travelers to the Czech Republic.  The beer I'm about to recommend can't be had for any price in the US, and isn't entirely easy to find even in Prague, near to where it is brewed.  And yet, should you find yourself in Prague, this is the beer you should seek.  Others might guide you to Klášterní Strahov or Kout na Šumavě (or any of a dozen or more reasonable candidates), and I enjoyed those, too--enormously.  But in the end, the one that kept calling out to me--the one that still calls out to me--is a 12° pale lager from a little brewery about 10 miles north of Prague.

The Únětický Pivovar is housed in a building where monks from Prague started brewing beer in 1710.  Brewing activities eventually stopped, but in 2010, local businessmen in the town of Únětice decided to turn it back into a brewery.  The first beers were brewed in 2011, and were instantly popular.  When I visited Prague back in 2012, Max Bahnson took me out to the brewery where we had lunch and a quick tour.  I was incredibly sick and nursing a sore head from the previous day's tour with Max, and sort of shuffled through the brewery tour.  But then we emerged into the restaurant to have lunch, and I sat down and drank a glass of the stuff.  (In the classic Czech meal, you get a meaty entree drenched in gravy and a row of thick, doughy disks which are called, curiously, dumplings.  They're unlike dumplings as we imagine them, but they're spectacular for soaking up beer and gravy.  And, it turns out, battling the flu.  I instantly put them to work that day.)

Production is small enough that they were still at the
grain-sack stage in 2012.

What followed was one of those clouds-parting-and-sunbeam-shining-down moments of transcendence that beer drinkers experience only on very rare occasions.  I think I was actually drinking the 10° that day, though I've since had more of the twelve.  It's difficult to describe exactly why this half-liter had ascended into that rare upper atmosphere of specialness.  There wasn't anything particularly unique at play: it had the same homey, fresh-bread malt base and tangy Czech-malt zing that the best světlý ležáks have.  It was just better.

The restaurant

I've come to recognize Únětická 12° by a rusticity that has something in common--at least in spirit--with saisons.  When the brewery first made the beer, they only let it lager about three weeks in order to get product out to people.  It was unfiltered and had a shimmering haziness.  Through Max's translation, they told me “We realized that if the 12º lagers for longer than a month, it will get too clear and in the pubs they will complain that it is too clear.  They want more yeast.”  As a consequence, they now lager it only three weeks.  Perhaps one of the things going on is that the elements are not quite as smooth as they are in beer lagered over a month--the malts are a bit grainier, the hops a bit more vivid.  The beer is very dry and there's a hard-water mineral note that sharpens those hops.  The best beers have an ineffable (and indescribable) character of harmony, and that's the final element of Únětická 12°. For my money, it's the best beer in the Czech Republic.

Look for it if you go to Prague.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.


  1. That's exactly the conclusion I reached when I was in Prague! It's an excellent beer.

  2. I don't want to come out as a pedant wanker :) but Únětické pivo is not that hard to find in Prague. They seemed to have cornered the market of the hip café-pub hybrid. But don't take my word for it, here's a map.

    Anyway, both of the beers they do year round are truly great and their 10º is my favourite beer, period. And I also love what those people are doing with the brewery and in the community.

  3. What would I do without my pivo pedants to keep me honest? I noticed that it was much more common than when you took me around the first time, but I still looked for it everywhere we went, and it didn't seem as prevalent as I would have liked. Still, I grant you the final word on the matter, of course.

  4. Don't forget who was paying for the whole thing :)

    Seriously now. They've done an amazing job with sales. Shortly after they opened I interviewed them for a Spanish magazine and they told me that their goal was to reach 10.000hl/year in five years. They did it in less than three.

    And one more thing. I've just remembered. What they told is is that they lager 25 days, not three weeks. Originally, they were lagering 30.

  5. Two questions--

    Do they still decoction mash? And what of the typical "sulfuric" note that a lot of young lagers give off?

  6. Daniel,
    Can't tell you about the sulfuric thing, but I can assure you that all Czech brewers decoction mash their lagers, and that double decoction is almost the norm, even among the largest breweries.

  7. Daniel, there's actually a PGI for Ceske pivo, and one of the key elements is decoction. (Max isn't too high on the PGI, if memory serves, but as cultural exotica goes, I love a rule that binds breweries to decoction.)

    As for the sulfur, I can tell you that at 3 weeks, Pilsner Urquell is undrinkable. Or at least the stuff in the wood. We sampled some that was brimstone nasty. Thick clouds of sulfur roiled off it. I've been told by a brewer I respect that there are non-sulfur producing lager strains and they mainly come from Czech. I don't know if that's true or not--they all seem pretty sulfury to me.

  8. I softened my stance on the PGI, but I still think it is half assed. For what I've heard, that's because the biggest breweries high jacked the thing, or so I've heard. However, the fact that even after that decoction remained, speaks a lot in favour of the process.

  9. Well, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell are very invested in decoction, so maybe it was because of them, rather than in spite of them, that the decoction piece got included.

  10. All of them are. Even Staropramen is! And so far, they haven't shown any interest in the PGI. Decoction is something that Czech brewers are proud to still use, and defend. It's no surprise that it's part of the PGI, and it might be a preventive measure. If Standa Bernard is right in his fears, some day the EU might enact some regulations for water and energy efficiency that could make decoction a thing of the past. Personally, I think those fears are exaggerated, but I wouldn't be surprised if I turned out to be wrong.

    Where I think the bigger brewers highjacked the PGI is in the provenance of the ingredients--only a proportion of them has to be Czech--and HGB being allowed, and there's no mention of how long the beers must at least lager. Also, the ABV limits are stupid.

  11. I generally agree--and would add that this criticism could and can be made of nearly every PGI. Once you get bureaucrats involved in quantifying cultural/regional artifacts, you're going to end up with some dubious outcomes. I'm not sure there's a good alternative, though, because what they protect is generally worthy of it.

  12. I have mixed feelings about PGIs--on one hand, I know that it's very possible to create an "authentic Czech Lager or a Kolsch outside of those places, I also know that the corrosive effect of global capitalism is--inevitably--to wipe out individuality. Organizations like CAMRA exist, despite their flaws, to fight that trend. Without a PGI, you need a CAMRA. Which is more effective is hard to say.

    I do know that Bavaria is in a bad situation. Decoction was only a big deal with Bavarians, who don't have the political or economic clout they once did. The RHGB is dead at the behest of the big breweries in the north (and belgium, and denmark). The only thing protecting them is their own ornery sense of tradition.

    I'm surprised as much of the aggressively traditional nature of Czech beer has survived being picked apart by western capital, to be honest.

  13. Oh, and Jeff: different lager yeasts definitely have different character. The ones that throw less sulfur tend to also be ones that can ferment at the higher end of the temperature spectrum, which I'd guess is not a coincidence. A lot of the ones from the weihenstephaner yeast bank are, I assume, destined for German industrial breweries and make shitty yeasts for home (and probably most craft) brewing.

    For the most part, the more obscure czech yeasts are not available to US brewers. The selection of lager yeasts from white labs and wyeast is... sparse, at best. I don't think it has to do with lager yeast genetically, and more to do with the expectations of US brewers and drinkers.

    Lagers over here are always "clean," with any yeast character an off flavor (hell, look how often Chico is used: we want our ALES clean too). Certain yeasts will certainly do that, especially with aging, but there are a number that are decidedly stinky. There's a certain "fresh lager" flavor that's hard to pin down; it doesn't really fit on the existing Beer Snob Flavor wheel, but I have definitely seen it in some of the best (non-industrial) lagers I've had. A bit of sulfur, slightly doughy? I'm at a loss for how to describe it. I'm sure you've noticed it abroad. Recently, I've noticed it in Olde Mecklenburg's beers out of Charlotte.

  14. On the PGI, one thing that's very different in Czech is that many of the small breweries are making classic lagers. In most other countries, breweries are trying to find contrasts with existing breweries. Germany is its own thing, neither encouraging much in the way of cutting-edge little breweries making tradition beers, nor breweries making international-style craft beer that actually get drunk by anyone.

    Lager yeast definitely can taste different (look at Augustiner), but a lot of the new little Czech breweries just seem to be using Budvar's. (In my own crude lager-brewing, I've found the Urquell yeast handles our foibles more ably and produces a respectable beer.)