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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Ease of Misunderstanding Czech Beer

This photo, captured on my camera, was actually taken
by Max Bahnson--a better photographer than I.
The golden lagers of the Czech Republic are at once the easiest and most elusive beers in the world.  They are easy because, unlike goses and gueuzes, they are imprinted on our brains as the most basic form of "beer."  Frothy, sparkling, pale--no instruction manual required.  We even have two of the most important and tasty examples at hand in Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, which means we don't have to put our brains through a remote intellectual exercise to appreciate them.  A quick visit to a decent grocery store or any bottle shop, and we can be drinking some of the world's best Czech lagers in a half hour.

But the ways in which they elude us are much more important and, after four days of intense remedial study in the Czech Republic, where I found the true story lies.  From a great distance, all Czech pilsners--světlé pivo, "pale lagers" in Czech--look alike.  If pressed, you might admit that hoppy Pilsner Urquell, with its very round body and dollop of diacetyl, isn't actually all that like the drier Budvar, with its subtle kiss of bitterness.  But, eh, really, they're yellow and fizzy and mostly all the same.

An analogy will due to dispel this poor reasoning.  Put your mind on hoppy American ales, which from a great distance also appear a lot alike.  Now, imagine the perspective of a foreign beer drinker--a Czech, say--who believes he understands the style well enough because he has ready access to Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and New Belgium Ranger.  Would you say he has an adequate understanding of hoppy American ales?

Given a simple template, it's possible to make beers that are startlingly different. That's as true with pilsners as IPAs.  I spent last week in Prague and Pilsen on a mini odyssey of discovery (on, full disclosure, a junket financed entirely by Pilsner Urquell), where I reacquainted myself with favorites like Únětické 12° (possibly the best pale lager in the world) and Pilsner Urquell (the unfiltered version is a revelation), and discovered new delights like Kout na Šumavě, Pivovar na Rychtě, and U Tří růží.  If you don't have access to the range of these beers, you can't appreciate how diverse they really are.  Once you start adding the different presentations--served with live yeast, unfiltered, from the "tank"--the dimensions grow like new galaxies. 

Over the next couple weeks, I'll try to unpack what I learned on the trip, which ranged from the pubs to the hop fields to a the top of the old water tower at Pilsner Urquell.  I may even make a comment or two about Czech dumplings, which were a minor feature of our travels.  It is a world that can't be fully accessed with the mind--you need your tongue and nose--but perhaps it will inspire a trip to the Czech lands or two.  Half liters only cost a buck and a half!

More to come--


  1. Great points. I enjoyed visiting Prague. Cheap beer that's actually worth drinking. A fine town!

  2. Lots of people claim they know Czech beer because they've had a couple of bottles from the supermarket. I recently had the chance to meet Urquell's head brewer and chat over some unfiltered tank pils, and it really has nothing to do with the bottled version. I hope someday I'll go there and taste the true beauty of Czech beer . Looking forward your next post. Cheers!

  3. The picture came out really good!

    And yeah, every time I hear someone saying that lagers are boring, I shake my head, feeling a bit sorry for that person. :)

  4. Glad you got to see a bit of the reality which is Czech beer. Unfortunately I never got to try the Únětické 12°, but if it is anywhere near the delight of Kout 12° then it must be one hell of a beer. One beer in particular that I miss from my Czech life is Zlata Labut 11° - magnificent beer. No wonder I get asked regularly what I was thinking when I decided to leave the Czech Republic!!

  5. I can only echo Max re the diversity of Czech lager.
    Czech dumplings can be hell — I know one beer writer who reckoned he put on five pounds on a trip we took to Pilsen.

  6. Adrian, we went a bit too hard after the dumplings early on, and by day three everyone was declaring a no-dumpling day. Though there was some talk that they perhaps acted as an extra filter for the beer before it hit our livers. [Unverified.]

  7. Interesting about Pivni's Tankova post from 2008. I learned a few years ago that such systems are also in use in Franconia, most notably Roppelt, Rittmayer (in Aisch), and Griess, which does indeed lead to nicer, fresher, livelier beer, on a par with "bayerisch Anstich" gravity-por barrels. Here's a photo from the German manufacturer showing three 1000L tanks:

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  9. Yes, having lived a couple hours' drive away from Kout for 10 years, I suppose I should bother with the place. (Only the 10° please, not the over-strong 12° stuff though!)

    How was the smoking situation?

  10. U Zlateho Tygra, love that place.