Thursday, 18 April 2019

Checking out the Czechs

If you’re a beer-lover, Czech Beer Week UK from the 17th-23rd of June is something to look forward to. Czech beer culture is one* of the world’s greatest, yet curiously it is one that most people will have only seen a small slice of.

From traditional to craft, and back again.
Indeed, pretty much all we saw in the UK until a few years ago were a those big-brands owned by multinationals – chiefly Staropramen (owned by Bass, now Coors), Pilsner Urquell (SABMiller, now Asahi), and perhaps Krušovice (Heineken). That has been changing, with a few more coming in, but while some are family-owned, such as Bernard, others are yet more big-brand subsidiaries – Kozel and Radegast are both Urquell/Asahi, for example.

There is plenty more change to come, though – even more so this year, as their government export agency CzechTrade is working to bring more small brewers to the UK market via importers such as Euroboozer and Pivovar UK, as I discovered last summer at the Czech Beer Day event that it held for the trade.

Just as English brown bitters tend to resemble each other, many Czech beers are also very similar in style – some are better than others, but most are recognisably similar golden lagers. That’s no surprise, according to one of the brewery reps I chatted with at Czech Beer Day last year. “Czech customers are still very local-orientated, so all the breweries produce similar beers, but for their locale,” he said.

He added an important note on naming: “All are Pilsner-style. Nobody says ‘Pilsner lager’ though, they just say Lager. Urquell is from Pilsen so it’s Pilsner, but they all use the Pilsner technique.” In other words, don’t call a Czech lager Pilsner if it’s not from Pilsen! (You can probably get away with 'Pils' though...)

Of course, there are other Czech beers too, including the inevitable IPAs and ales of other sorts. As everywhere, Czechia is having a Craft Beer revolution of sorts, and true to form this has generated quite a few local copies of styles from elsewhere – American IPAs, English pale ales, and so on. We had a few at Czech Beer Day, those I tried (mainly from Pivovars Permon & Clock) were very nice examples of their styles.

Sometimes the tradition is the craft. 
This variety is also a sign that Czech brewing is definitely on the up. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when things looked pretty bad, when the nationalisations of the Communist period were followed by a somewhat botched privatisation process which led to yet more brewery consolidations and closures. Now, as well as newly-formed breweries, there’s even been some closed ones brought back into production, such as Jarošovský, whose Ležák 12% was definitely my favourite lager of last Czech Beer Day, and a few contract-brewed brands, such as Praga (pictured).

Useful things to know if you want to get into Czech lager culture include a few key words such as Světlý – pale, Tmavé/Tmavý – dark, and Ležák – lager. Then there is Granát, which translates both as grenade and garnet – the semi-precious stone being the appropriate one here! Originally it was a blend of light and dark lagers that produced the deep red colour it was named for, but now it is often brewed ‘entire’, as we say in English, meaning as a single beer. It’s also sometimes called Temně, or semi-dark.

And there’s how the beer is poured. A few years ago, I went to an event hosted by Urquell, where their spokes-barman explained that there’s at least three main styles of pour, some of them distinctly weird. I was a little sceptical at the time, but another brewery rep at Czech Beer Day last year confirmed at least some of the details, adding that it varies between breweries too.

A thick head is essential, she said, adding that “People also believe the head retention shows the quality of the ingredients.” Apart from ‘beer with a head’, the other main pours are ‘milk’ which is all foam, and ‘snyt’ which is more foam than beer – drinkers believe this helps the beer stay fresh in the glass. Yes, I’m still sceptical! Still, however you pour it and whatever the colour, Czech out the beers – you'll almost certainly find something you like...


*Alongside British, of course, which is where Groll & co got the pale malt technology for Pilsner, and Belgian, which has become the custodian of legendary and almost-lost beer styles that were once common across Northern Europe. 

Then of course there’s German beer culture. Americans often prioritise this one, perhaps biased by their huge influx of German brewers in the 1800s (think Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Coors, Schlitz et al). But even there, much is owed to what’s now Czechia – most obviously, Bud is named for Budweis in Bohemia, although a local surely wouldn’t recognise it as a Bohemian Lager. 

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