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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Where Czech and Oregon Beer Met

The Czech Republic, not for reasons strictly of geography, is far, far from the American consciousness. Don't talk polotmave, don't mention ales. All we know is pilsner (only a part of the landscape), and we don't really even understand that. It has been one of my great pleasures to experience the beer here--in some ways it is closely related to Oregon beer. For one thing, a good lot of the lagers here are unfiltered. They're hazy like Oregon skies (and beers). Of course, they're also hoppy (though not always bitter). Even more, it's like Oregon in the sense that it's this huge, rich scene no one knows that much about.

As I alluded to yesterday, one of the key things is malt. Moravian and Bohemian malt is particular. The grains are smaller, and the malting--often floor-malted--is rougher, less efficient. In the US, base malts are essentially sugar. If you want color or flavor, add specialty malt as needed. In Czech, the base malts are full of color and character. To get a splash of color, you may not need Munich. These "pilsner" malts are twice as dark as what Americans think of. The beers here are deeper colored, and--as with English floor malts--softer, richer, grainier.

Another thing that's key to understanding beer here: it's not all pale lager. Amber (polotmave) and dark lagers (tmave) are common, and they're not exactly like marzens and schwarzbiers. They bear the stamp of Czechness--those round malts, the spicy hops, and a few of the tmaves I've tried were flat-out roasty and stout-like. Czech beers also run the range of strengths, not only colors, so you might have a light pale, a medium dark, and a strong pale. Beers are identified by both color and strength--the shorthand is to use the beer's original gravity, as expressed in Plato, 10, 12, 16, etc.

And those are the standards. As everywhere, the Czech Republic is not immune to the influence of the craft beer movement, so breweries are also dabbling in ales, including American style eepahs (IPAs), imperial stouts, and so on.

And here we come to the place where the very remote places travel through space to meet--and blow my mind. Max Brahnson, the great chronicler of Czech beers, has generously given
me two days of his time in an intensive tutorial of the country's beer. Today, as we toured Břevnovský, a new
Brewery in an old Prague monastery (though not a project of the monastery), something remarkable happened. I was slowly ambling by the conditioning tanks when I came across one called "Pelican Ale." curious, I asked about it. By chance, a coupe had come in with empty bottles and were setting up a hand-fill line. Max explained that the tank was actually theirs--they were gypsy brewers using the new monastery brewery's excess capacity. Max relayed, off-handedly, that the Pelican was some beer they'd made with an American brewer. "Really!" I said. A few back-and-firths confirmed: the brewer was Darron Welch, from Oregon's own Pelican, who was in that very building two weeks ago. The beer was a hoppy pale made with Czech malt and Czech and American hops. (It was totally Oregonian--saturated late-addition hopping--and made me nostalgic.)

Earlier in the day, Max took me to Únětický Pivovar (pivovar means brewery and may be the only Czech ive been able to master). It's a new brewery established on the site of one from the 18th century. The beer is that wonderful unfiltered stuff which here flows hazy straight from conditioning tanks. You hold up a glass and it looks like Double Mountain's Vaporizer and smells maybe not a lot less hoppy. I told Max: "I wish I could take a keg of this back with me just to show Americans what Czech beer can be." the irony is that, despite Bohemia's immense contribution to the beer wod, we don't really understand Bohemian beer. Even more strange: based on what I've seen here in Prague, Czechs may actually have a better sense of our beer.


  1. It was a great pleasure to be able to help you out, and an even greater pleasure to share a few beers with you. Had great time both days.

  2. Great report! Bring home Czech beer!

  3. We're going to Prague in a month. We've visited there once before, and are going this time for Christmas Market and for good beer. Thanks for the pointer to Pivini Filosof - I just bought his eBook guide to Prague pubs :)

  4. Wondering, does the tmave Czech dark lager bear any resemblance to American Baltic Porter lagers such as Heater Allen - Sandy Paws Baltic Porter lager?

  5. Max, it was a joy. I had such a blast.

    Tracy, that book is really useful, and it will get you up to speed on Czech beer. (Good luck with the language, though. I never learned how to say "thanks"--though sounds are very strange.)

    Jack, tmave just means dark, and the beers may be any strength. It doesn't really relate to flavor, either. The Budvar tmave is seriously roasty like a stout but others were softer, more like schwarzbiers.

  6. Jeff, how many pilsener/lager beers are brewed in Oregon? Not so many, I would guess. And in the Czech Republic? Loads, right?

    "Even more, it's like Oregon in the sense that it's this huge, rich scene no one knows that much about."

    No one knows that much about Czech beer? Is that a joke? It certainly sounds like one.

  7. Mike, as you well know, my readers are American, not Czechs or Germans (on can dream, but). So yes, beyond pilsner, it's manifestly true that Americans have no idea how many styles of beers are made in Czech.

  8. What does the nationality of your readers have to do with facts?

  9. Just to clarify, context (of which nationality is a big piece) is the base for communication. For the commenter who rails most often about--and against--the American point of view, I would have thought you'd understand that. The bulk of your commentary is one long jeremiad against the American perspective. That's ONLY valuable to the extent we acknowledge perpectives differ.

    This blog is a communication, Mike, an ongoing dialogue. I think this is the thing you fundamentally refuse to accept.

  10. Dialogue? It seems more one-sided and parochial, to me.

    I certainly agree that Americans may and frequently do have a different perspective on things. But isn't there a fundamental difference between perspective and fact?

  11. Mike? How many Americans know what polotmavé, výčepní, speciál, ležák are? How many know what "Porter" means in CZ? How many know the difference between nefiltrované and kvasnicové?

  12. Mind you, this isn't a jab against Yanks, or anyone in particular. Except for a few exceptions, Czech beer hasn't travel all that much, so, unless someone in the US follows Czech based blogs or has spent here some time, it will be rather hard to know much about Czech beer.

  13. The point I was making was that Jeff wrote: "Even more, it's like Oregon in the sense that it's this huge, rich scene no one knows that much about."

    You have just proved that it is incorrect by demonstrating that you DO know much about it. He does not qualify that sentence with "In the US" or "Among American beer geeks" or any other qualification. "no one" is a generality that I consider sloppy writing.

    Secondly, he is comparing a small part of the US (one state) with an entire country. The beer history in this state, almost by definition, cannot be older than 250 years. Doesn't Czech brewing history go back much farther?

    I do not put myself forward as an expert on the American beer scene, however, I think it is reasonable to assume that many American beer lovers know something about Czech beer, much as they know about German or Belgian beer. How many know about Oregon beer, I have no idea, however, I doubt that as many books have been written about it as have about Czech, German or Belgian beer (just to use some examples).

  14. To follow up on my own post, I looked at Amazon (US) for "Czech beer". I've found at least five books. They include, among others, Evan Rail's Good Beer guide, SB Jeffrey "A Brief History of Beer in the Czech Republic", "The 2011 Import and Export Market for Beer and Malt Beverages in Czech Republic" and many general beer guides that include the Czech Republic, such as Michael Jackson's.

  15. I was surprised how much I've learned just from Jeff's brief posts on Czech beer. Two weeks ago, I would have only been able to tell you about PU and Budvar. I've since dug into some books at the library and I'll be a regular visitor to Max's website.
    I think my knowledge level is representative of the average American better beer drinker (this is my opinion).