Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

A New APA, IPL and Cherry Beer from Starobrno


Even in the midst of a global pandemic, life goes on, and things which were put into motion long ago continue their slow journeys into the future. Gifted with the power of clairvoyance and asked to choose the worst possible release date for three new beers from Pivovar Starobrno, you’d almost certainly pick on or around March 18, 2020, a day when absolutely no one would notice.

At that point, most of us here had other things on our minds. March 18 was exactly one week after our schools closed, six days into the Czech Republic’s formal state of emergency, and the very day that the Czech government announced compulsory mask usage in public — not that there were many people out. Here in central Prague, our streets were eerily quiet. Our case count was climbing, and though no one in the country had died yet, we all knew we had something serious ahead of us. No one had any masks, so people were digging out sewing machines and bolts of fabric and getting to work.

Flash forward 10 weeks and it feels like we’re over the (first?) hump. Things in the Czech lands are cautiously reopening, at least for now, with pubs and restaurants allowed to serve drinks and food indoors as of May 25, and mask usage no longer required outside, provided you can maintain a 2-meter distance from others. (Masks do not have to be worn by customers while eating and drinking indoors, though they still must be worn by servers and there are new restrictions on customer counts and spacing between seats. Masks still must be worn on public transportation and in shops.) And at this point, the three new craft-inspired beers from Starobrno are two months old, and no one I know has tried them. No one has even joked about them. I only learned about them by seeing them in the list of available beers while ordering a food delivery for home last weekend.

What are they? And should you drink them?  

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A Czech Influence on Belgian Brewing

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The influence of Czech brewing often seems surprisingly underappreciated abroad. The great Czech brewing scientist František Ondřej Poupě might have written one of the most important brewing textbooks of the Enlightenment and ranked among the earliest inventors and proponents of the brewing saccharometer, but I’ve rarely, if ever, heard his name mentioned outside of the Czech lands. Similarly, the role that Czech brewers, technology and ingredients have played in global beer culture seems unfairly unrecognized.

I realized this most recently in Belgium, when I was asked to research the history of a large Belgian brewery, during which I spent several days going through some of the remaining archives of a number of Belgian beer makers, including the Brasseries & Malteries Van Tilt Soeurs, the original Hoegaarden brewery, la Brasserie de la Chasse Royale and the old Artois breweries, which took up most of my attention.

What I found serves as a good illustration of how Czech brewing has impacted the beer culture in other countries — without being recognized for doing so.

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Czech Christmas Beers in 2015


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:


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  — 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, 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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