Thursday, 29 September 2011

Go into a Czech brewery and you will get tradition

Honest he looked like Martin Johnson 
So there I am at the other brewery in České Budějovice — you know Budweiser Bier Bürgerbräu though others might know them as Samson or even 1795 Boehme (the cheap lager in Tesco with Pilsen all over it). It’s a fortress like place on a busy road south of the old city and its outside is a dead ringer for an old Austro-Hungarian barracks (I was later shown the one where Jaroslav Hašek had spent some time). Past the security barrier and into the open yard where the forklift trucks buzz and then I go and meet my hosts: brew master Lubos, who reminds me of Martin Johnson, finance guy Daniel and Vilem, who has been advising the company on their branding; the last two are my translators. Come and see our maltings — 13 floors dedicated to the arcane art of making barley fit for purpose; there’s no barley there when I go round, just a couple of guys trying to get the place ready for the shipment to arrive the following week. I imagine an ocean of malt, wavy, undulating, curvaceous and then over the next few months shrinking like the Arals Sea.

In the cellars, cold and bracing, straight from the lager tanks a metal jug of dark beer is handed round  — it’s only 3.9% but one of the best Czech dark beers I have had: sweet mocha coffee, chocolate, great body and utterly drinkable, even though it’s only 10am. Yum. I’ll have some more if you don’t mind — we stand there in the cold, the four of us, talking and handing the metal jug around like some holy benediction. And then in the brew house I start asking the inevitable questions. Double decoction? Check (or Czech even). Why I ask. ‘Because it’s tradition and we can.’ And as I sit here remembering my travels I think on how the theme of the week was tradition.

On the Monday I had been in U Medvidku in Prague, a hotel, bar, restaurant and microbrewery rolled into one, formerly a favoured Budvar tap in the city that seems to think that Staropramen is a decent beer (unrefined, inelegant, rough, but trying to be something else — Joey Barton in a glass perhaps). It’s a small brewery. The brew master bottles by hand and the wort is initially cooled in an open cool ship (small though). ‘The idea behind the brewery was not to produce small amounts of beer, but to show how beer could be produced the traditional way.’ Again that word: traditional.

During a week spent travelling through the lagerlands of southern Bohemia by bus and train, on my own, hoping that hand gestures, bad German and — as a last resort — diagrams would get me through, the words traditional or tradition were ones I kept encountering. ‘Tradition is important,’ said Budvar brew master Adam Brok (where I finally got to try the water from deep down below the city — it was clean and limpid in the glass, the ghost of water, a blank sheet on which the colours of malt, hops and to a lesser extent yeast, could be expressed as if up on the catwalk). And then at Pivovar Poutnik in the town of Pelhrimov (a delightful little place) I was told that the production process was — you guessed it — ‘traditional’. Proper lagering. Though one of my hosts’ traditionalism stretched to him musing on his nostalgia for the communists. And then on the Saturday when I went to the Purkmistr festival, it seemed that tradition was put on a big bonfire and burnt — or was it?

Brewhouse at Pivovar Kacov — they’ve got a good cleaner
I might have only visited about a dozen Czech breweries but there’s a feeling that they are punctilious in their brewing regime, possibly slightly hemmed in by the tradition but on the other hand freed by the traditions to produce some of the best beer in the world (whether it be a 12˚ svetly lezak, rauchbier or IPA). A glass of Hubertus from Pivovar Kacov, at the brewery tap overlooking the river was a stunning delight: the glass was topped with a gorgeous dollop of foam, while the Saaz lemony expressiveness on the palate was sexy and suggestive. A grainy biscuity firmness added order to the licentiousness and the finish was crisp, dry and bittersweet. I could have sat on that terrace listening to the music of the river in the company of many more glasses of this beer, but I had to catch a bus in what felt like the Czech version of a Norfolk village (the ghostly sound of someone practising heavy metal riffs on an electric guitar had rumpled itself from one house as I walked down the main street earlier on).

Tradition can be decried as the dead hand holding the brake of progress, or it can be a partner in finding new ways in which one hopes to express ideas through whatever medium counts. And in this case the medium is brewing to which tradition still has a lot to give. Or in the words of TS Eliot: Tradition is not a dead load which we drag along with us... it is the soil in which the seeds of coming harvest are to be sown, and from which future harvests will be garnered.


  1. Yep, lovely - looking brewhouse. I am a fan those European-style ones; you know, tiles, copper...for some reason I'm drawn to the aesthetics over wood and piping.

  2. Leigh, know what you mean, my iPhoto file is full of pix of such gleaming children of the European beer family.

  3. Cool seeing Jaroslav Hašek's barracks.

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