Tag: Czech Republic

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Plzen: Built on Beer

OK so the live blogging experiment was only partially successful (what can I say? I had a cold).  But here, better late than never, is another post from our recent beer bloggers’ Czech trip.
In retrospect, some places seem fated to become what they are, drawn hopelessly to their destiny.  I thought I knew the story of Plzen, but as with so many stories, the narrative is geological.  Sometimes I’m a historian, but sometimes you have to be an archaeologist: if you gently scrape away the story on the surface, you find another one beneath, and maybe even one below that.
Wonder if this is where my publisher got the idea for the horrid old cover of Man Walks into a Pub from?
Plzen (places in the Czech Republic have both German and Czech names, and when you’re there it starts to feel appropriate to use the Czech spelling) is synonymous with beer, and with the date 1842, when Josef Groll allegedly brewed the first golden lager, the style which eventually became known as Pilsner.  That’s bollocks of course – there was golden lager before Groll – but there’s no denying the astonishing impact his intervention had on the beer world.
Legend has it that the circumstances leading up to Groll’s appointment saw the quality of the town’s beer deteriorate so badly that it was ceremonially poured down the drain in front of the town hall.  Prior to this, the people of Plzen had had the right to brew themselves – a privilege not given lightly.  After the ceremonial dumping of the beer, the city formed a burghers brewery, a collective venture that employed Groll and made history.
The clues to the layer beneath are there for all to see in that story.  Why was beer so important to the citizens of Plzen?  Why did they all have brewing rights?
And so you come back to fate and destiny.
Plzen lies in rolling, tree-lined Bohemian countryside.  Naked, in the thirteenth century, it would have been one of those locations that screamed “Build on me!”, especially if you were looking to build a gaff that could be easily defended during centuries of almost constant warfare.  Amid a confluence of rivers, stands a gentle, dome shaped hill.  Town square on top of the hill, a cathedral in the middle of that with a 100-metre-high tower for observation, nice grid system of streets, a network of walls and moats at the bottom of the hill, and you’ve got a town that withstood fairly regular assault until 1618 and the opening exchanges of the Thirty Years War.
Why is this relevant to beer?  Because that gentle hill is made of sandstone, easily excavated.  And as soon as the town was granted its charter in 1295, the citizens began to dig.  First cellars, then tunnels joining them up, and soon there was a 19km underground network inside the hill.   
And according to the tour guide (not always reliable, but in this case very plausible), the initial reason for digging was storage for beer – in other words, lagering.  All burghers had brewing rights, and it seems many used them.  It backs up what Protzy has discovered talking to historic German breweries, that lagering goes back much longer than we thought.  In the labyrinth beneath Plzen, there are even underground bars and restaurants, where people who brewed better beer than their neighbours sold it to them though holes in their cellar walls.
You can now go on a tour of the ‘Plzen historic underground’ starting at the town’s brewery museum.  Thankfully the old man in Czech trousers who greets your hangover with traditional songs played on an accordion remains on the surface, and a sexy-librarian type tour guide issues hard hats (this is not just health and safety gone mad – you will smack your head) and guides you through 800 metres of tunnels and caves.
The sound of running water is constant.  There are about 360 wells down here, providing the famous soft water that’s so important to Pilsner beer.  The natural temperature is around five degrees Celsius.  Among the many museum pieces are drinking vessels from down the centuries.  Tin steins from the fifteenth century look pretty similar to anything you see in souvenir shops today.
OK, the table’s from IKEA, but the tankard is over four centuries old.
All these factors – along with the treasured Saaz hops grown nearby – come together to make brewing great beer seem inevitable.  Beer came to the Czech Republic with its first inhabitants – evidence of brewing and drinking has been found in the dwellings of early Teutons, Slavs and Celts, and by AD 922 the newly consecrated Bishop Vojtech was complaining about the scale of brewing in Brevnov monastery in Prague. 
So Plzen was a hugely significant brewing city before Groll came along.  In fact, that’s why they hired him – it was inconceivable that the city should have substandard beer after such a long brewing history.  Plzen literally stands on its brewing heritage.  The question is, what really happened to make such dramatic intervention necessary?  Why did the burghers pool their collective brewing rights?  Did the beer really deteriorate so badly it had to be poured away, or was the move simply a less dramatic reaction to the Industrial Revolution, an acknowledgement that brewing needed to happen on a bigger scale?
I don’t know, but in Plzen, nobody is saying anything to spoil the legend.

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Chodovar and the Bohemia/Bavaria beer nation

So after the future comes the past.

An hour or so on a minibus from Prague to Plzen, delayed by Tierney-Jones’ alarm not going off.  Bags dropped in a charming pension in town, then back on the minibus and out along motorways through forests and fields towards Chodovar.
There’s a big hotel, a brewery behind it, and as we drive around the back of this complex, the entrance to a tunnel.

You wouldn’t believe what’s inside this cave entrance…

Inside is a vast labyrinth of caves hewn from granite over a period of six centuries.  Now there’s a restaurant at the heart of it, busy on a Friday lunchtime with families, couples, goths, and gangs of sweet little old ladies, all drinking pints of Chodovar beer.  

These caves were originally hollowed out to store or ‘lager’ the beer, cut from solid granite.  The natural temperature in here os between 3 and 5 degrees celcius, and beyond the restaurant and the tourist tat, horizontal fermentation tanks are still embedded in the rock.
Jiri Plevka’s family have worked here as brewers for 220 years.  In 1992 they took over as managers, and Jiri now runs the place.  “Every member of the family is a brewer,” he says. “Beer is our blood.  What matters to us the most is the quality of the beer.  Money comes second.” 
They certainly make a lot of money – we’re only nine miles form the German border, and this complex has all the hallmarks of a coach trip tourist trap – so if money only comes second, the beer has to be amazing.  
And it is.  
Jiri brings us pints of unfiltered, unpasteurised lager straight for the cellar, a beer that’s only available in this restaurant.  It’s an elixir to my hangover, a bready, spicy, grassy Kellerbier.  
Chodovar is a geographical curiosity.  I’ve always said that Bohemia and Bavaria, separated by a national border, are in fact two halves of a beery nation that belong together, and you really feel that here.  Josef Groll, the brewer who made Plzen famous, was a Bavarian.  You get the impression that Chodovar does more business with Germans than Czechs, and there are German influences in the brewing.  But the region has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status form the EU, meaning that ‘Chodske Pivo’ is unique – only ever brewed with ingredients from this region, including Saaz hops.
Just to confuse the regional identity further though, the local pronunciation of ‘Chodske’ sounds very similar to the way the Czechs talk about ‘Scotland’, and they joke that Scotland is the most northerly part of Chodske.  “Both places enjoy rainy weather, beautiful countryside, and have the same crops – you make whisky from the same ingredients as beer,” says Jiri.  
He underlines this by distilling a clear spirit from his beer.  But maybe he’s taking things a bit too far when he insists that he plays bagpipes at home.

OK it might just look like an empty room.  But this is a traditional floor maltings! In a brewery!

After this first beer we get a tour of the brewery.  It malts its own barley in an impressive maltings, with three female maltsters.  The traditional back-breaking work of turning the grain is made substantially easier with the help of little sit-on lawnmower-type machines that turn the malt.

The brewhouse itself is lovely, like all Czech brewhouses, all gleaming copper and long, fat, shiny pipes.

They do know how to build a lovely brewhouse in the Czech Republic

But it’s those granite cellars where the magic happens.  In the week that A-B Inbev shamefully refused to tell journalists how long the new “premium” Stella Black is matured for – despite having the audacity to launch it on a positioning that it is ‘matured for longer’ –  Chodovar gave us a powerful reminder of the magic and integrity of true lagering, and a demonstration of how keen a brewer is to talk about lagering times when they have nothing to be ashamed of on that score.

The main lagers are aged for four to six weeks.  That’s because a true lager has to be aged for that long to give it its unique, delicate character.  A real lager is not less flavourful than a good ale; it’s just flavoured differently, and it’s as beautiful as any ale, and a lot more drinkable.  Taste this stuff and I defy you to not start sounding like the worst kind of CAMRA loon.  It defies belief that most of the beer we drink exists on a scale of tasteless to offensive, when it’s supposed to be like this.  This stuff is not more challenging or complex than mainstream British standard lager, it’s not more difficult to get into, it’s no less refreshing or crisp or any other things we want form standard lager.  It’s just better.  And that’s because it’s been made with love and care – and time.  This beer is lagered for four to six weeks.  If rumours are correct, certain leading british lager brands are lagered for one day – or even less.  

Go figure.

Deep in the granite caves, this man is about to make Tierney-Jones quite tearful

If that’s me getting a bit emotional about lager, you should have seen Tierney-Jones when we were given a tour of the lagering tanks, bricked into narrow granite passages with wet floors, and Jiri poured off some of his ‘Spezial’ beer, a Marzen style brew that will be ready at the end of September.  It’s been i the tanks for one and a half months so far.  It’s absolutely divine.  Jiri thinks it’s getting there.

In the brewery yard is a fountain that springs from the brewery’s well.  A statue to St Joseph presides over the fountain.  Behind his back, there’s a second tap from the wellspring, out of which comes beer.  You pray to St Joseph for great beer, and he delivers.

Not much has changed here for 600 years.  Obviously lager styles have (they call it lager here, not Pilsner – they don’t believe Plzen brews the best beer) and technology has, but the soul of the beer, the love for it, the sheer bloody loveliness of it, is as eternal as the granite.

Chodovar’s slogan is “Your beer wellness land”.  This is largely because it is the home of the beer spa, which we visited.  But that deserves a post all of its own – coming soon…

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The New Czech Revolution

“This is a very typical Czech pub,” said Jan, our guide, as we entered our first stop of the night.

“Unbelievably Czech,” he said, as we walked past a heavily grafittied door and reached the top of a windy flat of steps.

“Worryingly Czech,” he concluded, as we entered a room made of a series of arches and were shown to our table in the corner, my eyes already starting to water a little from the smoke.

But behind the bar, and in the cellar, what was going on was very un-Czech.

The ironically named ‘Bad Times’ – Zly Casy

Evan Rail is an American who’s lived in Prague for about a decade.  “I used to live in Dresden.  One night I had a dream about going to Prague and I told my flatmates I was thinking of visiting, and they said, ‘pack your stuff, dude, you won’t be coming back.'”  He’s brought us to Zly Casy (Bad Times – “Named because people used to come to the pub for good times, and now they come to talk about the bad times”) because it’s the centre of a new Czech brewing revolution.

My first beer is Rarasek, a refreshing wheat beer with a definite banoffee character but no spiciness, making it clean and refreshing.  The we have an ‘English pale ale’ from Kocour, who’s branding alone tells you whoever owns the brewery has been inspired by Stone, and maybe by Brew Dog – whose livery adorns the walls.  Kocour doesn’t taste like an English pale ale, but it does taste absolutely wonderful, delicately laced with new world hops and reminding Young Dredge of Nelson Sauvin-influenced Kipling.

The Czech take on English pale ale, via the US West Coast, and possibly New Zealand

Hanz, who owns this bar (“The Germans spell it with an ‘s’, so I spell it with a ‘z'”) sources all the beers himself from Bohemia, and across the border into Austria and Germany.  There’s a cross-fertilisation going on between these brewing traditions, taking in elements of Belgian, American and British brewing too.  This pub, and a handful of others like it, have formed a collective which seeks to promote interesting craft beer and work hard to serve it in the very best condition.  There are 25 taps on the bar here – there’s a pub opening in a few weeks that will have 30.

“All these pubs – they just used to serve Staropramen, or Pilsner Urquell.  That was all you could get.  Now you’re getting young guys coming in here boasting that they’ve been to Orval or Westverleteren and brining those kinds of tastes back with them,” says Evan.

For our next stop we go to the end of the tramline to Prvni Pivni Tramway, affectionately referred to as a ‘pajzl’, which roughly translates as a dive or a shithole, but in a good way – my favourite type of pub.

A dive.  A dive that has Brew Dog Trashy Blonde on tap.

As we walk in, the barman rings a loud bell, which I take to mean it’s last orders.  But no – it’s an old tram bell, rung ion welcome as we walked through the door.  The seats are made from old tram benches, “The kind that are designed to be so uncomfortable that you cannot fall asleep on the tram and miss your stop.”  Barcelona v Benfica is on the TV.  Brew Dog’s Trashy Blonde is on tap.  “None of this existed three years ago,” says Evan, “You simply couldn’t get these beers or beer styles in Prague.”

And finally, it’s back into town to Jama.  There are three of these now, all serving great beer.

There’s just one thing that worries me about all this.  I love the global craft brewing movement and I love American beers a great deal.  But there’s a hint of triumphalism in some of the tweets I get back through the night, sharing this new wave of Czech beers.  There’s a certain kind of beer fan who’s never been happy with the fact that a great brewing tradition here was focused around lager, and now there’s perhaps a sense that the Czechs have seen the error of their ways and are embracing the same craft ales popular everywhere else.  My worry is that we’re in danger of losing a wonderful lager brewing tradition – I never had a problem with Czech beer.  In fact I love it.  I thought craft brewing was meant to be about regional and local diversity, and I’m uncomfortable that the same new world hops and beer styles seem to be permeating all corners of the globe.  is this the end for great Czech lager?

Evan puts me at ease.  “Czech lager brewing is growing alongside this stuff,” he says.  “There are so many new Czech style beers, but they’re coming from micros and brew pubs.  These other beers only account for a tiny portion of the total.  It’s only the giants that are losing out.”

None of us were expecting to see this in Prague, and we’re delighted that we did.  In ten minutes we set off for Pislen, via Chodovar, home of the beer spa.  Let’s see what’s happening there.

I hadn’t realised Tim Hampson fro the Guild of Beer Writers was here with us too.  Between me, him and Adrian, someone needs to be running a sweepstake on who’s the first to use phrases like, “When you get to my age,” with Young Dredge.