by Adrian Tierney-Jones Beer Writer of the Year 2017
The beauty of Czech PilsnerNa zdraví!
Serene: that’s the word that springs to mind down in the lagering cellars at Budvar, where the iconic brewery’s equally iconic pale lager sleeps the sleep of the just for 90 days. There’s a sense of silence and reverence about this space, engendering a desire to celebrate the beer with a taste straight from the tanks, which is what I have done on every brewery visit.
The mouth feel suggests a commingling of an early morning freshness and a snap of crispness, and each gulp (this is a beer to gulp rather than sip) is elegantly poised between the sweetness of the Moravian malt and the spice and sensuality of the Saaz hop before it finishes with a firm collaboration of dryness and bitterness. Anyone who has any interest in Czech beer should be encouraged to make a pilgrimage to this gem of a brewery situated on the edge of České Budějovice, deep in southern Bohemia. However, if you cannot make the journey just yet, then do dive deeply into a bottle of Budvar you won’t be disappointed.
The pinnacle of the brewer's art
In this beer age of IPAs, imperial this and thats plus sours that suggest some brewers have taken Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase To Infinity and Beyond rather too seriously, it’s easy to forget the similar, joyous nature of Czech Pilsners such as Budvar as well as its senior partner Pilsner Urquell. When it is made perfectly, I would argue that pale lager/Bohemian Pilsner (or světlý ležák if your Czech is any good) is one of the pinnacles of the brewer’s art, a redemptive beer that has heritage, depth of flavour and character and a lightness of touch that keeps bringing the drinker back to the glass. It’s easy to chuck a load of hops into the boil and shout IPA!, but the subtlety and the harmony of světlý ležák is a harder thing to achieve.
A visit to Pilsner Urquell is another journey the committed beer lover should make. After all, it was here that in 1842 that a grumpy Bavarian brewer called Josef Groll was tasked by Pilsen’s burghers to produce a beer that would wash away the memories of the dreadful beers previous brewers had made for the locals. The result was a gleamingly golden, sparkling, lustrous lager, the first of its kind and still being brewed today. Given that the Czechs are inordinately proud of their beers, it comes as no surprise that the home of Pilsner Urquell is one of the most popular tourist sites in the country.
You could say that it’s a beer Disneyland. You enter through what resembles a miniature of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Glance around: a massive locomotive sits under cover in a shed, a memory of the time when trains left the brewery carrying beer for all across Europe; not far from here is what looks like a minaret from Arabian Nights but is in fact a water tower. Down beneath the brewery, there are nine kilometres of tunnels dug in the soft sandstone during the 19th century. Here, in these underground passageways, pitch-lined barrels of lager would be left to mature before going out to conquer the world and become the prototype for all the golden beers that have been brewed since. However, after all, you’re really here for a beer and whether you’re in a pub in town or opening a bottle at home, you can expect a soft malt and resiny hop nose, while the palate is rounded with a light hop bitterness, followed by a long dry finish.
Lager than life
One of the glorious advantages of the current beer revolution (whether you want to call it craft or not) is that more breweries, wherever they are located, are looking to the Czech Republic for their inspiration. In London, Big Hug’s Bruno is a palate-pleasing version of the style, crisp, citrusy and bittersweet, ticking all the right beer boxes, meanwhile across the Thames in the south of the city let’s celebrate Brick Peckham Pils. With uplifting amounts of Saaz swaying in the beer, this is lush and luminous in the way it shines a serene light in the glass, a world that brings us all the way back to the beginning. Na zdraví!