Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Pre-Lager Lager Brewing in the Czech lands

Back in March I wrote about pre-lager brewing in Bohemia, citing an article-slash-lament on the subject from the December 3, 1876, New York Times. That story detailed the “complete revolution” in brewing then taking place in late nineteenth-century Bohemia, the western half of today’s Czech Republic, moving away from the traditional “high fermentation” breweries (making ales) to the newer style of “low fermentation” brewing which produced lagers.

Today, 99.9% of Czech beer production is lager. But what were the beers here like before the big switch to industrial lager production?

Well, at least some of them were also lagers. 

An article by Marie Černohorská in the Czech brewing journal Kvasný průmysl (issue 5, 2004) notes that even before the arrival of factory lager production in the late nineteenth century, bottom-fermented beers had long played a role in Bohemian brewing, albeit a small one.

In the fifteenth century, the town of Žatec (Saaz) brewed a famous bottom-fermented beer called samec. Beer from Žatec is mentioned as being of extremely high quality in “De Cerveceria,” a sixteenth-century Latin text on brewing by Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku, court physician to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.

Another old, bottom-fermented beer style was popeněžní (akin to “post-money”) pivo, which, according to a story at the Rakovník brewery website, was said to be brewed from barley left on the threshing floor. In Rakovník, it was also known as freiberk, and the Rakovník brewery page calls it a “weak and cheap” drink. One imagines that it must have been a high-quality version of popeněžní that was delivered from the brewery in Jihlava to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg in 1452.

Another reference to the old bottom-fermenting beers in Bohemia, according to Ms. Černohorská, is to be found in “Die Kunst des Bierbrauens” (1794) from František Ondřej Poupě (1753-1805), a celebrated Czech brewer, inventor, author and brewing industry reformer. Sometimes known by the German name Franz Andreas Paupie, Poupě wrote in 1794 that a brewer must be aware

“that beer can be fermented by two techniques — either by top fermentation or by bottom fermentation,”

and noted the places where beer was produced by bottom fermentation:

“The question is: where are beers produced with bottom fermentation? Answer: the whole of Bavaria and the English lands, and some places in Bohemia — for example, in Jirkov, in Petersburk [near Karlovy Vary], in Rakovník, and in earlier times in Žatec, the so-called samec beer, and lager beer, which is produced in the same manner.”

Poupě’s assertion that the English lands were producing bottom-fermented beers in 1794 might raise a few eyebrows, but that is apparently what he wrote. (Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile blog has more on the history of English lager brewing, though his dates don’t go quite so far back.)

For most breweries today, claiming a foundation in 1366 is highly dubious: even if a brewery did exist 600 years ago, it was probably making something very different at the time (very likely an ale, probably brown, probably cloudy and quite possibly sour), while the golden Pilsner-style beers such breweries produce now only date from 1842. But in the case of at least a few Czech brewers — Rakovník and Jihlava in particular — there is a much stronger connection from today’s modern lagers to the bottom-fermenting beers they produced way back when. As soon as someone puts popeněžní in bottles, I’m buying a case.


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  1. The difference between top- and bottom-fermentation was already known in the 18th century. That it was usually called “the Bavarian method” of fermentation says a lot.

    I’m pretty certain there was no bottom-fermenting in Britain before 1800. Britain has the wrong climate and lacks sufficient natural ice for cold fermentation to have been practical. I’ve no idea where the author got the idea from. What does it say in the original? “English lands” is a really weird way to refer to Britain.

  2. I’ve only got the 1801 Czech translation of Poupě’s 1794 German original. This is before the Czech language reforms of the nineteenth century, so the spelling is different.

    It reads:

    “Otázka Kde se waři piwo na spodni kwasnice? Odpověď Po celé baworské a Englické zemi…”

    which could literally render as “throughout whole Bavarian and English land.”

    Interestingly, I just found a reference to bottom-fermentation in Richard W. Unger’s “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), in which he suggests that bottom-fermentation might have arrived in Bavaria from Bohemia, not the other way around.

    “The typical yeast used in Europe in the Renaissance was the type that rose to the top. In 1420 a brewer in Munich got permission to use yeast that fell to the bottom and regulations from Nuremberg suggest that bottom yeasts which had been identified and to some degree isolated were already in use in the fourteenth century. It may be that the practice started in Bohemia since before 1485, Bohemian workers came to Munich to brew beer in what was called the Bohemian manner.”

  3. Great article! Very well researched.
    I’ve always taken the claim of breweries having been stablished somewhere in the Middle Ages with a pinch of salt, but not only because of the products, but because in many cases production was stopped sometimes for decades.
    I think breweries that have been pretty much in the same place since the 14th-15th century, and have been brewing all the time, do have a legitimate claim. The beers they make now are indeed different from those back then, but that is just because products tend to change and evolve (sort of) with time and market conditions. Still is a bit of a marketing gimmick, much like those German beers that claim to be brewed according to the Reinheistgebot of 1516. But not as bad as the “gold medals” on many labels of beers from around the world, those are really hilarious.

  4. It’s a mystery to me, too … I know of no hint that English berwers used anything othert than top-settling yeast. The recent genetic studies in lager yeast point firmly towards the idea that cold storage of beer came before cold-loving yeasts developed, and as Ron says, English brewers went for warm (or ambient) storage.

  5. I find it interesting that the phrase translates as the “English Lands” rather than England – I know plenty of Czech mind who refer to all of the UK as “Anglie” or England.

  6. Karen

    This is a great article, but there’s something I don’t understand: why did someone need to get permission to use bottom-fermenting beer in 1420, before the reinheitsgebot? This sounds reasonable, but I’m wondering if you know what the laws surrounding beer production before that were.

    And, my impression was that brewers didn’t knowingly add yeast, or indeed know what was going on. If that’s true, how was the permission asked for & granted? Or is my impression wrong?



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