Thursday 5 October 2023

Czech beer at a crossroads?

Clock's barrel-aging outpost Fenetra
has this Bretty sour cherry beer
Most beer lovers who’ve tried a classic Czech lager rapidly become fans. So why is it that when brewers list the great brewing cultures that influenced them, it’s usually Belgium, Britain and Germany?

I suspect the Iron Curtain played a part in this, as it was still very much in place when the beer writer Michael Jackson and others kicked off assorted craft beer revolutions in the 1970s and 80s. But even after that, how many beer lovers knew more than just Bohemian Pilsener* and maybe Czech dark lager, or Tmavý?

Today, though, we can be spoilt for delicious choice. As well as those two, there’s Černé black lager and Polotmavý or “semi-dark” amber lager, sometimes a blend of light and dark but mainly now brewed ‘entire’ – as a single beer. There are strong beers too, both light and dark, reminiscent of strong lagers and Bavarian bocks. More recently some brewers have added Weizens, and of course there’s the ubiquitous Pale Ales, IPAs and even a few Sours.

Most is still pale lager, however – Svetlý Ležák in Czech. Even here it can get significantly confusing though, because those two simple words – just like “Pale Ale” or “English Bitter” – embrace a huge diversity.

Šlik: 11° but only 4.4%
A percentage of error

The terminology doesn’t help. In particular, Czech breweries normally describe their beers by their original gravity in degrees Plato, which measures the sweetness of the wort, or malt extract. The trouble is that this only tells part of the story, because quite apart from how hopping rates and processes will vary, fermentation may consume (or attenuate) more or less of the sugars in the malt, making the beer drier and stronger, or sweeter and less alcoholic.

To make it doubly confusing, some use the % symbol for those degrees Plato, instead of °. For example, at the London embassy’s recent Czech Beer Day trade expo I encountered Pivovar Svijany, which was presenting not one but three pale lagers, all at 11%! However, differing levels of attenuation mean that these 11° beers were actually 4.4%, 4.6% and 4.8% ABV, and had noticeably different characters.

As well as being sweeter, the 4.4% Šlik was less bitter, with a Eurolager-like character, while the other two differed in other ways. The 4.8% Svijanský Máz is their best-seller – 75% of their 600 khl production volume, I’m told – and a classic balanced Bohemian Pils, while the 4.6% ‘450’ (originally an anniversary special) is the most bitter and drying of the three but was also bready, reminiscent of a Munich Helles.

Thankfully, this substantial but very traditional brewery – Svijany uses a double-mash and open fermenters, has its own hop-garden and doesn’t pasteurise its beers – also gives all its beers distinct names, as do most Czech brewers now. Which in turn brings up one of the biggest challenges for Czech brewers as they try to expand sales: differentiation.

Rampušák semi-dark
Fewer pubs, less beer

As in many countries, most of the breweries are relatively local. What’s a bit unusual is that, as Primátor sales director Romana Jansová explained, around half of the Czech market is now sewn up by Asahi’s Pilsner Urquell-led group, which also includes the Gambrinus, Kozel and Radegast brands.

To make matters worse, she said that – as in many countries – people are drinking more at home and less outside. “A lot of pubs and village bars are closing,” she added. “The younger generation is drinking less beer and more non-alcoholic drinks.”

So breweries like hers and the others at the trade expo are both pushing for exports and diversifying into non-alcoholics and new beer styles. I already knew that many modern Czech microbrewers produce hazy IPAs and the like, so I wasn’t too surprised to learn while walking around the embassy expo that Rampušák now does monthly specials alongside its flagship “12%” pale lager and its “13%” semi-dark, for example, and to taste intriguing oddities such as a 6.7% ABV Red Imperial Pils from Pivovar Panaczech.

Hoppy Benedict
Looking for innovation in lager 

However, while several of the older Czech brewers have had a go at ales, it’s with varying degrees of success. They are lager brewers really, which may explain why some have also, or instead, picked up that curious hoppy hybrid, the India Pale Lager, or IPL. The first Czech IPL I tried, Břevnovský’s rather excellent Nachmelený Benedict, or Hoppy Benedict, is explained as an 11° pale lager but with American rather than Czech hops. It’s a bready and nicely balanced brew, fruitier than a typical Svetlý Ležák, with a light citrus nose and a longer bitter finish.

The second was back to Primátor, where Romana described their IPL as “a lager body with IPA hopping” – in this case it’s Czech Rubín, Harmonie and Vital hops for bittering and flavour, then Summit and Citra for dry-hopping. She said that, as something that’s new to most Czech drinkers, “IPL is a door-opener for us.”

The brewery also decided that because the style was unusual, it needed an unusual name, though quite how well ‘Mother-in-Law’ (Tchyně in Czech) will be accepted over here is another matter. “She may bother you at first, but then you wouldn’t give her up for anything,” says the brewery blurb – but I find it hard to believe that Czechia lacks a history of mother-in-law jokes.

Romana & Mother-in-Law
It’s certainly an unusual beer – lightly dank and orange citrusy on the nose, before a firm vegetal and Seville orange peel bitterness over a smooth and relatively light-bodied amber lager. It’s both rather like and very unlike a West Coast IPA, and yes, it’s pretty drinkable.

Do they need gimmicks like IPL to sell more Czech beer here in the UK, though? Well, maybe. There’s far better Svetlý Ležáks available than the likes of Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell. For example, Konrad Vratislavický Ležák 11°, Panaczech Queenie 10° or the wonderful Jarošovská Jura, to name just three from that expo. However, those two mass-produced examples are already on bar taps across the country.

Personally, I’d much rather see more Tmavý and Polotmavý, but it’s a fact of life that pale lagers and IPAs are where it’s at. So perhaps for sustainable growth, hopped-up traditional lager is playing to your strengths. 

Footnote: several of these breweries are represented in the UK and Ireland by the Czech Beer Alliance, others are seeking distributors here.  

*non-Czechs call it Bohemian Pilsener, but most Czechs won’t call it Pilsener unless it’s from Pilsen, or Plzeň.

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