For a long time, the only innovation on the Czech beer market was the production of gimmicky flavored beers, usually a standard Czech Pilsner-style beer with fruit extract added after lagering. For many real beer fans, these flavored beers represented only a half-step toward the goal of better quality and bigger variety in the local beer market, a stumble in sort of the right direction.
Better would have been beers made with the whole fruit or herbs — not extract or syrup — in the brewing kettle, not added at the end as a kind of cocktail. Better still would have been to skip the gimmicky flavored beers and honestly attempt the world’s classics: Vienna lager; Baltic porter; Bock and Doppelbock; smoked beers; wheat beers; Belgian styles; stout, porter, bitter, mild or IPA.
But now, many of those classic beers are being produced — often quite successfully — in the Czech lands. And in hindsight, not all Czech flavored beers seem like gimmicks. Although some were (and are) downright terrible, a few flavored beers have been quite interesting, such as vavřín, the new bay-leaf beer from Pivovar Broumov, aka Opat.
Although it is produced with an extract of bay laurel, aka laurus nobilis, the taste is less artificial and lab-like than many flavored beers. (In particular, sour-cherry beers produced with extract are often unpleasantly medicinal, tasting too much like cough syrup.) Cloudy gold in appearance, it has a lovely savory nose of bay leaf which is also slightly spicy and peppery with an undercurrent of citrus. In the mouth, an initial bitterness reveals more black pepper notes with a light, moderately acidic finish, not unlike a thin-bodied Weizen. It repeatedly brings to mind citrus fruits and sweet lemonade.
Somewhat surprisingly, Opat’s vavřín is very good. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it pairs extremely well with hearty Czech recipes, especially those which use bay and other traditional spices of the region. When I tried it with a slice of sekaná, the Leberkäse-like Czech meatloaf, it brought out more of the pepperiness and spices in the meat. Instead of doubling up the bay notes, the beer’s own spiciness was pleasantly attenuated by the pairing. The beer’s light body made each sip highly refreshing.
To some, bay-leaf beer might sound like another newfangled gimmick. But in fact there is a long local tradition of drinking beer with bay added to it. One of the many Bohemian beer expressions I listed in Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic goes as follows:
Píme pivo s bobkem, jezme bedrník! Nebudeme stonat, nebudeme mřít!
Raise a glass of vavřín and say it yourself. Or try the English approximation:
Let’s drink beer with bay, let’s eat pimpernel! We won’t get ill, nor will we die!