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Bohemian rhapsody

Decades of turmoil once threw the Czech brewing industry into disarray. But now a new breed of brewers are working hard to bring it back to its former glory. Jacopo Mazzeo travelled to Bohemia to meet the makers who are behind this exciting revolution

30th of January 2020

Wonder what Josef Groll would make of today’s Czech brewing industry. In the mid-19th century Bavarian-born brewmaster Groll moved to Bohemia and helped create a style that today is synonymous with beer: Bohemian lager.

Over the course of the past century, while the style was becoming a global phenomenon, the Czech Republic went through decades of turbulence that climaxed with a 40-year totalitarian regime – compliments of the Soviet Union. Its shutting down of small regional breweries to centralise production saw the number of Czech breweries plummet from several hundreds to a measly 50 by 1989, when the pacific Velvet Revolution established a modern democratic system in the country.

Thankfully, the Bohemians never lost their lager-making skills, passion for quality beer and seriously unquenchable thirst. Today’s Bohemia is bustling with confident entrepreneurs willing to bring the region’s rich brewing culture back to its former glory.

I travel to the town of Cvikov, by the northern-Bohemian border with Germany. There, Pivovar Cvikov had brewed uninterruptedly from 1874 up until 1968, when production was discontinued by the communist regime.

A former employee expressed his disdain over the decision by leaving a rather explicit note on the wall (‘Vojta, that arsehole, closed the brewery on 1 January 1968’), so when the brewery finally reopened in 2013, the current owner decided to leave the writing untouched as a testimony to Cvikov’s – and Bohemia’s – controversial past. Framing that 50 year old message of resentment is a brand new, sleek Pivovar Cvikov, equipped with an on-site restaurant and hotel, dressed up in a minimalist, contemporary style.

 

While showing me around the brewery, director and brewer Viktor Tkadlec shares the secrets to making great Bohemian lager. From the light and refreshing Sklár 8° to the darker and fuller Svátecní 13°, those delicious and reassuringly traditional Bohemian lagers taste of stoic resilience.

I move further west from Cvikov, on the Bohemian border with Poland, to visit Pivovar Albrecht. Unlike Cvikov, Albrecht is embracing global trends with open arms; yet the two breweries’ backstories are disturbingly similar. Albrecht brewery was named after military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein and its pedigree dates back to the 16th century. Its decline started at the end of WWII, before production eventually ceased with the last batch in 1949.

In the following decades it became a dairy farm, then market hall, then scrapyard. The result? By the early 90s the building was rotting. In 2010, when the local council was contemplating turning it into a parking lot, local entrepreneur Marek Vávra decided to save this ‘jewel’ – as he calls it – of Bohemian brewing history. He took ownership, partially restored the building and restarted production in 2014.

 

Today, the building is still in a pretty rugged state and would give health and safety inspectors a heart attack, but Vávra claims that an on-premise restaurant and hotel are in the pipeline.

Vávra’s forward-looking attitude is reflected in his stylistic choices. The brewing kit is designed for the production of international-style ales, with closed fermenters and vertical maturation tanks.
The medium-hard quality of the local water, which is used untreated, is apt for the production of ales too, and gives the brewery’s lagers a sort of Anglophile twist.

Czech numbers unpacked

In the Czech Republic it’s still customary to indicate beer strength by the plato gravity scale (° or °P) rather than alcohol by volume (abv), as it’s common elsewhere. These numbers, which normally range between 8° to 14°, indicate the concentration of sugars in the wort before fermentation, but don’t give a precise indication of the final alcohol content. Don’t despair just yet though, there’s a simple trick that will give you a rough estimate of the beer’s abv. Just divide the plato by two and subtract one. So a 10° is of roughly 4% abv, a 13° would be around 5.5% abv and so on…

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Bohemian rhapsody

Decades of turmoil once threw the Czech brewing industry into disarray. But now a new breed of brewers are working hard to bring it back to its former glory. Jacopo Mazzeo travelled to Bohemia to meet the makers who are behind this exciting revolution

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