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Světlý, Světlý — Discovering the Wider World of Modern Czech Beer

10th of November 2019

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Author: MATTHEW CURTIS

All is quiet beneath the six gargantuan fermentation tanks at the Bohemia Regent Brewery in Trebon, the far south of the Czech Republic. The complex network of pipes that twists beneath is still in its symmetry. Barely and soul stirs at the brewery today, because once the beer is made, the brewers must allow it to be a 90-day long maturation. Patience must be virtue for Czech brewers; they are content to wait a very long time to ensure that their beer is only released once it reaches peak condition.

You can already be familiar with Bohemian pale lagers or pilsners, known coloquially as pale lager (which translates directly as light or pale lager). They are known for their caramel-sweet body and rounded mouthfeel — a product of decoction mashing, in which a small portion of the mash is removed, boiled, then returned to its vessel of origin, heating the entire mixture up in the process. In Czech brewing this is typically done three times during the mashing process, hence the term “triple decoction.” The other defining characteristic of the Czech lager is the rasping, herbaceous bitterness of the native Saaz hop. It’s bold character and deft drinkability makes it one of the most popular and distinctive lager styles in the world.

The Czech masters of lager brewing extends simply beyond one style, however. Dark lager, known as dark lager, is often porter-like in its roastiness, balanced by the burnt sugar sweetness formed through the caramelization of sugars during the decoction process. Sometimes dark and light lagers are blended, creating a hybrid style of amber lager known as semi-dark lager.

It ‘s the last I can find myself drinking in a local Třeboň restaurant after our tour of Bohemia Regent. It combines the richness and sweetness of the darker lagers with snapping, peppery bitterness of a pale lager. The pairing is with two local delicacies: carp and pike (The town just happens to be home to the largest carp farm in Europe). It’s every bit as good as you might imagine. Well, the beer is good at any rate.

In Czech the strength of beer is indicated not by ABV, but by degrees plato. My amber lager is a stronger beer of 5.3% alcohol, however it is advertised as being 13º. It`s a little quirky, but you soon get used to it and I quickly lean towards the stronger 12º premium pale lagers over the slightly weaker ones rated at 10º or 11º — although these are no means less interesting. At the next stop of our tour, Brewery Kutna Hora in the eponymously named eastern Bohemian town, I can find one I can not get enough of.

kutna hora in the czech republic

The story of Pivovar Kutná Hora’s revival is one that will soon become a common thread as we travel from brewery to brewery on our visit. There is an immense amount of history here, with records showing there was a brewery on this site since as long ago as 1559. Like many Czech breweries it was nationalized in 1953 during the rule of the Czechslovakian communist party, until its fall in 1989 .

Then in 2008, something more familiar to the craft beer community took place: the brewery was acquired by Heineken. Many of us are already familiar with the kind of reaction this can elicit, but the pride for this beer by the local population was something else — they stopped buying it altogether, and Heineken was forced to close down the brewery just two years after they had acquired it.

Then fortune smiled. In 2016 the brewery was acquired by a private owner, despite the fact that Heineken was not selling the rights to the old brand name and had scrapped all of the old brewing equipment. Brewing recommended in 2017 under the stewardship of brewmaster Jakub Hajek. At Kutná Hora they are now Bohemian lagers in the traditional style: with barley grown in the eastern Czech region of Moravia and Saaz hops from the Žatec region, using triple decoction mashing, open fermentation, and lengthy maturation times in horizontal tanks, at a temperature just above freezing.

The result of this is a superior Czech beer, one that has rich flavors of caramel matched with the bitter, herbaceous spice of Saaz. Quite simply, the 12º pale lager I find myself pouring yet another glass of beer can be put down.

Kutná Hora is not alone in this revival of locally-made beers, brewed in traditional and method as possible. To the north, and is six miles from the Polish border, is Albrecht’s. Another brewery that was shut down during the communist era but is now stewarded back to health by new owner, Marek Vávra. The beers here have pronounced a distinctive bitterness compared to the softness of Kutná Hora, probably due to a different water profile — and Czech brewers do not treat their water, believing it to be the best brewing water in the world.

Author: MATTHEW CURTIS

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