A while back I tried BrewDog’s prototype Zeitgeist beer, a dark lager “taking inspiration from the Czech classics.” That line gave me the idea of trying it against three classic Czech dark lagers, coffee-like black beers which generally finish on the sweet side.
But the Zeitgeist (or Zeit Geist, as it was back then) seemed to be made of different material, so to speak: I liked it, but as I wrote then, “I don’t think it tasted very Czech… Zeit Geist was far more dry in the finish.” And I added that if I had known it was a dry dark beer, like a Schwarzbier, I would have tasted it with Herold Bohemian Black Lager, one of the only dry dark lagers the Czechs produce.
Later, I found out that Herold was in fact the very inspiration for Zeitgeist. And then came the word that Zeitgeist was going into full production and wide release in Britain. So once I got a copy of the production brew, I decided to compare that to the originals, both prototype and paragon.
The Scottish and Czech beers are more different than you might imagine: Herold has 5.3% alcohol, while Zeitgeist went from 5.1% in prototype to 4.9% in production. The Herold is half a shade darker with a sandy head; the production version of Zeitgeist has cream-colored foam.
As I wrote back then, the prototype Zeitgeist had a touch of smokiness in the nose and mouth. That’s still there, though BrewDog has assured me there’s not a grain of smoked malt anywhere near the thing. The astringence — the drying, slightly acidic notes in the finish — that I noted in the prototype are still very much present in the production version. There’s a touch of cooked fruit, and some nice bitter notes.
By contrast, my bottle of Herold Bohemian Black Lager has almost no smokiness and much more chocolate and dry cocoa flavors. It’s dry in the finish, but not quite as dry as Zeitgeist. (It’s also surpremely drinkable: dark beers are not generally thought of as summertime drinks, but Herold’s Bohemian Black Lager is light enough in the body to be quite refreshing on a very warm evening. As is Zeitgeist.)
So which do I prefer? Considering I live in Prague and I really believe in drinking locally, that’s a no-brainer: I’ll take the Czech bottle, thank you. But in terms of taste?
If you can’t get Herold, you surely won’t regret having a Zeitgeist: it’s an excellent dark lager with loads of flavor and surprising complexity. If you can get them both, you have a choice: a bit more cocoa and chocolate with the Herold, or a bit more dryness and bitter fruit flavors with the Zeitgeist.
Marx would probably say that Zeitgeist (the beer) is influenced by the material — in this case, the malt, hops, yeast and water — with which it is produced, and that is why it tastes the way it does. But in this case I think I’m going to go with Hegel. Zeitgeist, at least the beer, is greater than the sum of its parts.