Almost exclusively, Czech brewing means lagers, beers produced with bottom-fermenting lager yeasts at colder temperatures and over longer periods of time. Today, some 95% of Czech production is composed of golden lagers, while about 5% is dark lager. The few beers made with top-fermenting yeasts — ales and wheat beers, brewed at warmer temperatures and usually over shorter periods of time — now make up less than one half of one percent of Czech production. And yet just a little over 140 years ago, ales and wheat beers were still the standard here.
But then came a change in Czech brewing which was so sudden and so severe that it counted as news even on the other side of the world. An article in the New York Times of December 3, 1876, detailed the “complete revolution” in brewing that was then taking place in Bohemia, the western half of today’s Czech Republic, noting the shift away from what it calls “high fermentation” breweries (meaning ales) to the new, “low fermentation” breweries (producing lagers). As the article shows, the arrival of lagers was swift and merciless, killing off more than 260 ale breweries between 1860 and 1870 in Bohemia alone.
Not only did the older style of beers get whacked, but lagers suddenly became ubiquitous. Between 1860 and 1870, the article says, “low fermentation” lager breweries rose in number from 135 to 831.
As brief as this unsigned article may be, it is filled with interesting details. A few quotes:
“When I was a student in Berlin, in 1851, there were certain places specially devoted to the sale of Bavarian beer, which was then making its way into public favor. This beer is prepared by what is called the process of low fermentation; the name being given partly because the yeast of the beer, instead of rising to the top and issuing through the bunghole, falls to the bottom of the cask; but partly, also, because it is produced at low temperature.”
“The other and older process, called high fermentation, is far more handy, expeditious, and cheap. In high fermentation eight days suffice for the production of the beer; in low fermentation, ten, fifteen, even twenty days are found necessary.”
“Vast quantities of ice, moreover, are consumed in the process of low fermentation. In the single brewery of Dreher, in Vienna, a hundred million pounds of ice are consumed annually in the cooling of wort and beer.”
“The sole reason for this vast change — a change which involves greater expenditure of time, labor, and money — is the additional command which it gives the brewer over the torturous ferments of disease. These ferments, which, it is to be remembered, are living organisms, have their activity suspended by temperatures below 10° C., and as long as they remain reduced to torpor the beer remains untainted either by acidity or putrefaction.”
“The beer of low fermentation is produced in Winter, and kept in cool cellars, the brewer being thus enabled to dispose of it at his leisure.”
“Hops, it may be remarked, act to some extent as an antiseptic to beer. The essential oil of the hop is bactericidal: hence the strong impregnation with hop juice of all beer intended for exportation.”
Though that is most of the article, there’s far too much left unsaid. Most importantly, if they were not lagers (which the article calls a Bavarian style), what were the beers in nineteenth-century Bohemia like?
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t tell us what the pre-lager beers were brewed from, nor how they tasted. Some have suggested that Bohemia’s pre-lager beers were probably brown, murky and slightly sour, if not completely sour due to the “torturous ferments of disease.” Certainly wheat beers were once famous in the Czech lands (though in an ironic twist, wheat beers are now widely thought of here as Bavarian).
As I understand it, the brewery in Český Krumlov, now known as Eggenberg, produced both wheat and barley beers before discontinuing the use of barley entirely between 1800 and 1837. (Today, it brews only lagers using 100% barley malts.)
As the article shows, there’s a lot to learn about pre-lager brewing in Bohemia. Here’s a thought: at a tasting of the beers from Bohemia Regent a couple of weeks ago, I asked the brewer if he was thinking about putting out a wheat beer. Not really, he said. In his opinion, a more traditional beer for his region would be brewed from rye.