Author: Adrian Tierney-Jones
The story of Pivovar Kutná Hora is one of hope, faith, survival and resurrection. It is a tale that lightens the heart and directs a searchlight on the battles between big and small, which continues to bedevil not just the Czech, but the whole beer world.
However, before we leap into its story, let’s pour ourselves a glass of the brewery’s Zlatá 12˚ pale lager (or světlý ležák in the native Czech) and tumble acrobatically into that instead. It is golden in its ambition, gleaming in the glass, a smile from the Czech lands, a reflection of the way that beer inhabits every warp and waft of the country’s fabric, part of its nature, its soul and the way the world is interpreted. The aromatics rising from the glass merge Moravian malt sweetness with Saaz hop spice, an earthy herbal note redolent of the fertile lands in its northern Bohemia home.
Let’s take a gulp, for this is the kind of beer that we drink with the heedless greed of a thirsty traveller. There’s that assertive spiciness again, a light daub of citrus and an elegant sweetness—the lamb of the malt lying down with the lion of the hop. A crisp dryness alongside a winsome bittersweetness serenades the finish. Your glass will be empty very swiftly.
Whistled whetted, glass vacated, it’s time to tell the tale.
I was in the southern Bohemian city of Kutná Hora in the autumn of 2011. There was a brewery here, I was told. Was. It had now closed, shuttered and silent, skulking behind a ragged wire fence, a presence of nothingness on the edge of the Unesco World Heritage Site city centre. Such was the forlorn scene ahead that I almost imagined seeing tumbleweed blowing through the empty yard in front of the building. I went for a drink in a nearby bar and got talking to a local who rolled his eyes when I mentioned it. “The town wanted to buy it,” he told me. “But Heineken, who owned it, wouldn’t let us.”
For a more succinct view of what happened, I spoke to Martin Macourek who works for CzechTrade in London, a business body that connects companies in both the Czech Republic and the UK. Part of his work, sees him dealing with independent breweries such as Kutná Hora. Even though he doesn’t come from the city, the original brewery is recalled with affection.
“Their bottom-fermented lagers had won a wonderful reputation throughout the 20th century until Heineken stepped in and closed the brewery,” he says. “Not happy with such a turnaround, the locals stopped drinking anything connected with Heineken, preferring the nearby Kozel. And eventually, they won, with the brewery being reopened and now brewing their fantastic lagers again.”
I returned to Kutná Hora in the autumn of 2019 and as Macourek related, there is a brewery here now. This is the same one that I saw in 2011, but instead of silence there is the laughter of brewers, the clang of kegs being readied to go out into the world and the gleam of stainless steel equipment reminiscent of the flash of sunlight in a forest clearing. More soberly, there is also a reminder of the past: parts of the former brewhouse hang from the ceiling, jaggedly cut metal where the wreckers were sent in and wrenched away the working kit and despatched it to a scrapyard. There are also kettle-sized holes where brewing vessels once stood and poked their way up through the floor. All of the current equipment is new.
We want to make proper Czech lager, without exceptions.Jakub Hájek, Pivovar Kutna Horá
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