Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Czech Christmas Beers in 2015

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What a difference a few years — okay, eight years — makes. When Beer Culture relaunched as a weblog from its original newspaper column back in 2007, almost all Czech Christmas beers were of the old model: slightly stronger than normal pale lagers with about 6% alcohol by volume. That is, if the brewery didn’t just slap a Christmas label on their standard pale lager or standard special and simply call that their Christmas beer.

But here we are at the end of 2015, with a bunch of interesting brews, many of which come from Czech brands that didn’t even exist in 2007.

This week I stopped by the great bottle shop at Zlý Časy in Prague, where I picked up bottles of the nine Czech Christmas beers that they had in stock. Here’s what I got:

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Únětický Vánoční Speciál 13º — The much-hailed small brewery from the village of Únětice, just north of Prague, is offering its speciál (meaning stronger than 13º Plato, according to Czech beer regulations) polotmavé, or half-dark (aka amber) brew with 5.3% alcohol in 1.5-liter plastic bottles. (You can also find it on draft.) I love everything from Únětice, but when I’ve tasted this one in previous years I haven’t ever loved it as much as their regular lagers, which are crazy good. Your mileage may vary.

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Beer in Literature: from ‘Trinc: Praises II,’ a Poem by Thomas McGrath

From Chaucer to Charles Dickens, there’s long been plenty of great beer in great literature. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting passages about the world’s favorite beverage can be very hard to find. As part of an ongoing project, I’ve been hunting down and collecting pieces of writing that include references to beer. The following photocopy, sent in by a friend, came as a surprise: a lengthy passage from Trinc: Praises II, a book-length poem by the American left-wing poet Thomas McGrath that was first published in 1979.

Despite the date, the section on beer seems remarkably forward-thinking in its awareness of global brewing styles, including references to both Tibetan chhaang and Czech pivo. Displaying plenty of McGrath’s political engagement (e.g., “the People’s Beer,” “for the Worker”), the section serves as an encomium, finishing with “Praise for the golden liquor of Wakan Tanka or god! / Praise for its holy office — O offer hosanna and laud! / By sip, by sup, by tot, by tipple, by chuglug — all ways: / Hallelujah! For the People’s Beer! And for all His comrades: praise!”

Feel free to recite these lines in the place of “cheers” at your next session.

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Mulled Beer in Central Europe and the Czech Lands

Given the frigid winters of central Europe and the region’s longstanding love for a hot mug of mulled wine, you might expect mulled beer to be more popular. And yet the drink probably best known by its German name, Glühbier — like the more common mulled wine, Glühwein — seems to remain largely unloved by beer lovers just about everywhere, including here in central Europe’s brewing heartland.

In part because of its pin-up marketing, it’s hard to take the new, pre-mixed, orange-flavored Glübi mulled beer from just over the border in Saxony very seriously, despite its claim as “the ultimate alternative to classic mulled wine.” And in the Czech Republic, the new “winter radlers” recently announced by Heineken’s Zlatopramen brand are being met with derision — called “beer in the microwave” at Pivni.info  — by traditionalists.

But mulled beer — generally meaning warmed and spiced, and often sweetened — has a healthy tradition of its own. Andrew Smith’s Drinking History notes that several warm beer drinks were served in the early American colonies, including the “hotch pot,” a mix of rum and warm beer, which became a “manatham” when sweetened with sugar, and a “tiff” if pieces of buttered toast were added to it. Martyn Cornell, as ever, has a great article about wassail and other mulled ales in British beer culture.

And while many in the Czech lands might consider warm beer to be nothing more than a gimmick, and a newfangled one at that, there is a clear history of mulled beer here, too, though it seems to have been largely forgotten.

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Cultivating the Traditional Brettanomyces Strain of Berliner Weisse

This summer, I bought a couple of pre-1989, East German Berliner Weisse bottles from eBay.de, with no knowledge of how they were stored, nor even where they were produced. After they arrived, I tracked down information in an online listing of historic German beer labels, which indicated that the bottles came from the VEB Getränkekombinat Berlin’s Schultheiss Brauerei, and dated from 1969–1989 — thus at least 23 years old, and possibly even a bit older.

After a couple of months, I opened one.

The beer itself? Dry, thin, gueuze-like, horsey. Extremely sour. Lemony. In a word, weird. In another word, excellent. But that’s not the point.

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On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part III: Mistakes and Misunderstandings

First brewed on October 5 of 1842 — almost 170 years ago as of this writing — the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen, now known as Pilsner Urquell, is one of the few breweries truly deserving the term “legendary.” However, not all of those legends are true, especially when it comes to the early days of the original Pilsner.

Did the original recipe really use Saaz hops? Has there been any variation in the type of beer that has been called Pilsner Urquell? And wasn’t the brewery founded by Germans?

The following are a few mistakes, misunderstandings and misconceptions about Pilsner Urquell’s beginnings, taken from various sources: beery talk in pubs, beer blogs, The Oxford Companion to Beer, and even my own guidebook from 2007, by which we’ll kick things off.

“The first pub to serve Pilsner Urquell in Prague started up in 1843… U Pinkasů” (Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic)

U Pinkasů certainly does claim to be the first (“první v Praze”), a boast which has even been repeated by Pilsner Urquell’s marketing department, but according to the brewery’s own chronicle, Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892, the first pub to tap the beer in Prague was Karel Knobloch’s tavern U Modré Štiky, once located at the corner of Karlova and Liliova streets, which started selling Pilsner Urquell as early as the brewery’s inaugural year of 1842 — one year before U Pinkasů.

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On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part II: The Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brew-house

A photo of the original "Request" of the burghers of Pilsen to build a brewery, 1839.

The following is an English translation — by all accounts, the very first  — of the original founding document from 1839 of the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen, the brewery which would later come to be known as Pilsner Urquell, the world’s first Pilsner beer.

Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brew-house

As far as concerns the tradition of our ancestors in the city of Pilsen, it is generally known that the burghers who held brewing rights lived in constant unrest and tension with the town’s brewers and maltsters regarding the execution of their rights, and certainly not without reason, for there were times when the maltsters and brewers abused the brewing rights for their own profit to such an extent that they often managed to gain them for a bucket of beer or only a few gulden. Thus it happened that the rights fell into complete disrepute.

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On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part I

How did the burghers of Pilsen come to build their own brewery in 1842, and thus create Pilsner beer, the world’s most popular brewing style?

Perhaps the best explanation of what actually took place is to be found in the brewery’s own fiftieth-anniversary Festschrift, Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892. In it, the burghers describe the events leading up to the creation of what would — much later — come to be known around the world as Pilsner Urquell. Occasionally biased, sometimes even arguably incorrect, the book is about as close as we can get to a contemporary account of the first days of the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen.

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Corrections, Comments, Clarifications and Addenda to the Czech Entries of The Oxford Companion to Beer

Some corrections, comments, clarifications and addenda to the Czech entries of The Oxford Companion to Beer:

“The majority of beer sold in the Czech Republic is relatively light lager classified as výcepní [sic], these are brewed from original gravities between 8° Plato and 12° Plato” (page 277).

Correctly spelled “výčepní,” this category of beer has long had an upper limit of 10° Plato. Czech beers of 11° and 12° Plato compose a different legal classification, called “ležák.” (Source: Czech State Agricultural and Food Inspectorate.)

“Beers having more than 5.5% ABV are referred to as special [sic] Speciální” (page 278).

Called “speciální pivo” (or “speciál”), this legal classification is for beer “with an original gravity of 13° or higher.” The amount of alcohol has no bearing here. (Source: as above.)

“Budvar… has 5% alcohol by volume and 20 units of bitterness” (page 191).

According to the company’s press spokesman in the Czech Republic, Budweiser Budvar’s 5% alcohol lager has 22.5 units of bitterness, not 20.

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Changes to Czech Brewing Regulations

If you were at all interested in Czech beer culture, you’d probably want to sneak a peek at the legal regulations on beer and beer-based beverages available from the Czech Ministry of Agriculture. I had to wade through those pages when we were putting together Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic, which included a summary of their obtuse Czech legalese in what we hoped to be semi-legible English.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the changes in a new version of that document. Errors have been fixed, a few vagaries have been cleared up, and at least one category of Czech beer has been washed away — while an interesting new Czech beer category has been proposed in its place.

At the time of the publication of GBG Prague, there were just a few legal categories for beer:

  • Lehké pivo (“light beer”), under 7° Balling in original gravity and less than 130 kJ/100 ml
  • Výčepní pivo (akin to “taproom beer”), 8° to 10° in original gravity
  • Ležák (“lager”), 11° to 12° in original gravity
  • Speciální pivo (or “special beer”), 13° and higher in original gravity
  • Porter, a dark beer composed primarily of barley malt, 18° and higher in original gravity

And that was largely it, with a few more clarifications or specifications: the grist of pšeničné pivo (“wheat beer”) had to contain at least 1/3 wheat malt; kvasnicové pivo (“yeast beer”) was (confusingly) only defined as containing an addition of fermenting wort, but not yeast itself; řezané pivo (“cut beer,” generally a mix of pale and dark lagers) had to be of two beers from the same category (eg, two “taproom” or two “lager” beers).

You can see the old document here: http://iom.vse.cz/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/vyhlaska_335_1997.pdf

The new document, available from the website of the State Agricultural and Food Inspectorate, makes some very interesting changes.

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Beer Books You Need From Google Books

We seem to be entering a great time for beer writing (and reading), with wonderful work being done by Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and by Martyn Cornell at Zythophile, two writers who are sharpening our understanding of beer’s lengthy history, and correcting a lot of inaccuracies and misunderstandings along the way, especially in the field of British brewing.

Over at A Good Beer Blog, Alan McLeod is knocking out whimsical investigations of Albany Ale (what’s that?) and 19th-century brewing in Canada and America.

But at the moment, Central Europe’s storied brewing history seems to be getting less attention in this regard, at least in English beer writing — a pity, because our beer culture suffers from at least as many inaccuracies, misunderstandings and made-up backstories as those northwest of here. (I’m not convinced, for example, that Prague’s traditional beer style is the U-Fleků-style dark lager, or even that “the standard medieval Czech brew was decidedly dark, not blond,” as Horst Dornbusch has written. That clearly wasn’t the case by 1672, when Bohuslav Balbín wrote that “Pražskému pšeničnému, jemuž se říká světlé, se může máloco rovnat, pokud jde o blahodárné účinky,” or, roughly, “There may be little equal to Prague wheat beer, which is called ‘pale’, in terms of its beneficial effects.”)

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