The Czech Republic isn’t home to a terribly trendy beer culture: as I mentioned to Andrea Turco at Cronache di Birra, the very strong lager traditions here make the Czech palate quite traditional, even inflexible.
For years, the most innovative Czech brewery has been Pivovar Primátor, currently the property of the city of Náchod, which earned its title by putting out three very good strong lagers and one of the first widely distributed Hefeweizens, followed by a decent take on a pale ale. Though the newer (and much smaller) Pivovar Kocour is trying even more new things, Primátor still puts out the most interesting beers in Prague supermarkets. And as of last month, the Náchod city beer maker is offering a further innovation: the country’s first real stout.
To skip to the chase: it’s excellent. And when you consider that East Bohemia is fairly removed from the traditional sources of stout in London and Dublin, you’d have to call it outstanding.
The beer departs from Czech tradition in several ways: while virtually all Czech beers are produced using a decoction mash — a complicated process requiring the separation and heating of part of the beer’s initial “grain soup” to higher temperatures — Primátor stout is made using a simpler infusion mash, roughly like the way you brew tea.
The ingredients include four kinds of barley malt — Pilsner, Bavarian and caramel malt with just a touch of smoked malt — as well as roasted unmalted barley, unmalted oats and unspecified British hops. British hops are weird enough in the homeland of Saaz, but when you combine it with a grain bill that includes unmalted barley, oats and Bamberg-style smoked malt in a not-so-Czech infusion mash and you’ve got something fairly weird indeed. We’re through the looking glass, people.
After trying it several times recently, both on tap and in bottles, I can say I’ve found it quite impressive, with one caveat, which I’ll discuss later.
The beer pours a very dark amber, almost black, with a creamy tan head, and is quite similar in appearance to bottled Guinness Extra Stout, to which I compared it on my last tasting. The aroma smells strongly of cocoa dust and carob. In the mouth there is a rush of toasty malt, a touch of oat porridge, some bitter chocolate, more cocoa and carob, with a light note of good arabica coffee in the finish, followed by a lingering, slight smokiness with a touch of astringency for balance.
The coffee note is subtle but clear. In fact, on tap at U Radnice recently the beer was listed as “Stout – kávové” or “Stout – Coffee [beer],” and the waitress wouldn’t hear of it not actually including being made with coffee. “It is coffee beer,” she said, and at least in terms of how it tastes, she’s right.
The Guinness, by comparison, is far less complex — there’s no cocoa, no carob notes, and the coffee flavor is bitter and sharp like an overbrewed robusta. Sampling the last flat drops at the bottom of the bottle, it came off saccharine like a cheap cola.
Overall, Primátor stout is an excellent beer on its own terms, and a very agreeable stout in global terms. In comparison to quality stouts from elsewhere, however, I thought I detected one slight difference: the Primátor stout’s lack of stoutness. That is to say that the flavors of Primátor stout are all there, but the mouthfeel — the texture, viscosity, heft and fullness of the beer — is thinner than that of many stouts I’ve enjoyed. That’s an observation, not a criticism, and I wouldn’t ask for it to change.
However, it’s worth noting that it is also the mouthfeel of Primátor’s English Pale Ale which seems most unlike the beers it is trying to emulate. Perhaps the difference arrives through the use of undermodified Czech malts in the mash, as opposed to well-modified English malts in the originals. Or perhaps it is due to the difference in Náchod’s water, which is likely to be lower in sulfates and carbonates than the water used in breweries that traditionally produce ales.
In any case, Primátor stout is an absolutely excellent new arrival. From outside the Czech Republic, it might sound crazy for us to be thrilled by such a conventional style as stout, especially when craft brewers in America, the UK, Denmark, Italy and elsewhere are creating new beer styles, experimenting with souring and over-hopping and innovations like oak-aging, new trends that don’t exist at all in the homeland of Pilsner brewing.
But perhaps they will soon.