Though the Czech Republic’s overall beer output rocked an all-time high of over 20 million hectoliters (12 million barrels) last year, growth is slowing as it hits the top of the arch. One category is still rocketing forward, however: nonalcoholic beer. In 2007, production of Czech nonalcoholic beer fully doubled from the year before, hitting half a million hectoliters of fine-to-drive lager containing .5% alcohol by volume or less.
That’s quite a change from just a few years ago, when nonalcoholic beer was rarely seen. Now nearly everyone offers nealkoholické pivo in bottles, and several varieties are even available on draft, with more versions showing up every month: Svijany introduced its nonalcoholic beer in 2006; Chodovar sent out its brew in 2007. Growth appears in every corner of the country: Litovel’s nonalcoholic beer production jumped 57% in 2007; Primátor expanded its distribution of NA beer by 65% from the year before; Budvar grew its sales of nealkoholické pivo by 55% last year.
Two reasons for the pick up:
1 . The Czech Republic has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. (It might be flouted, but that is the law.)
2. Some Czech nonalcoholic beers actually taste good.
In fact, some nonalcoholic beers are pretty darn amazing. Budvar’s very hoppy nonalcoholic beer turned the heads of more than a few drivers (and passengers) when it first appeared. Even better versions have come from fave small producers like Bernard, who combined the interest in driver-friendly brews with its own unpasteurized aesthetic, introducing an unpasteurized, nonalcoholic golden lager called Bernard Free that rated at the top of the list for at least one taster, as well as SPP.
Then, in a nod to the continuing local love affair with amber beers, Bernard came out with Bernard Free Jantarové — an unpasteurized amber brew roughly akin to a Vienna lager, but without alcohol. There’s not much nose, but it has a nice taste of malt and mixed whole grains in the mouth. The finish is mild and lasting, but not overly sweet. Most beer lovers wouldn’t be desperate to order this over a regular Bernard amber beer, a lovely brew itself, but if you can’t or don’t feel like consuming alcohol, you could do far worse for a decent sip to go with lunch.
Oh, and that slogan on the label? It’s “Bernard s čistou hlavou,” literally “Bernard with a clean head,” and it shows brewery owner Stanislav Bernard — something of a rock star in these parts — with his characteristic curly locks shorn clean off. Normally, he is substantially more hirsute. Here’s how he appeared when he and brewer Josef Vávra accepted SPP’s award for nonalcoholic beer of the year 2007:
There’s certainly more room for innovation in the market: as far as I know, no Czech producer makes anything like Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier Alkoholfrei, a bottle of which I brought back from Starkbierzeit in Munich last weekend. As the name implies, it’s a non-alcoholic Hefeweizen, arriving with a visible yeast deposit at the bottom of the bottle. In general, it is the same as your average Bavarian wheat: it pours a cloudy gold with a thick, well-set white head; the nose is of citrus blossoms and fruit; in the mouth it is just slightly acidic, then slightly malty, finishing with a hint of banana, if not clove.
It’s spot-on for the taste of yeast and wheat, and only afterwards do you notice that one normal aspect of a good beer is missing: the astringent feel of alcohol in the mouth. At the same time, you might notice that something else is unexpectedly present: a perfectly clear — if not clean-shaven — head.