We seem to be entering a great time for beer writing (and reading), with wonderful work being done by Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and by Martyn Cornell at Zythophile, two writers who are sharpening our understanding of beer’s lengthy history, and correcting a lot of inaccuracies and misunderstandings along the way, especially in the field of British brewing.
But at the moment, Central Europe’s storied brewing history seems to be getting less attention in this regard, at least in English beer writing — a pity, because our beer culture suffers from at least as many inaccuracies, misunderstandings and made-up backstories as those northwest of here. (I’m not convinced, for example, that Prague’s traditional beer style is the U-Fleků-style dark lager, or even that “the standard medieval Czech brew was decidedly dark, not blond,” as Horst Dornbusch has written. That clearly wasn’t the case by 1672, when Bohuslav Balbín wrote that “Pražskému pšeničnému, jemuž se říká světlé, se může máloco rovnat, pokud jde o blahodárné účinky,” or, roughly, “There may be little equal to Prague wheat beer, which is called ‘pale’, in terms of its beneficial effects.”)
If you’re interested in things like Grodziskie, Lichtenhainer, Horner Bier or pre-lager brewing in Bohemia, you don’t have to travel to the Czech National Library or the Österreichisches Staatsarchiv to start your research. In fact, Google Books has a bunch of electronic books — “free” as in “beer” — that desperately need curious readers and writers to share their wealth of information. Best of all, they’re in the public domain, so you don’t have to pay for them. And because they’re digitized, you can easily search for interesting terms like “sauer” or “Grätzer.”
To start, get J. C. Leuchs’ Brau-Lexikon from 1867. Nice stuff here on all kinds of older Central European beers and how they were made.
Move along to the Allgemeine Hopfen-Zeitung, Volume 10, Issues 1-74. The chemical analysis of Grodziskie on page 259 tells you exactly how much alcohol that beer had in 1870: just 1.923% by weight.
If you were really interested in Czech hops, you’d probably want to sneak a peek at Böhmens Hopfenbau (1846), by Johann Wenzel Hocke.
And the big one, of course, is the 1854 edition of Karl J. N. Balling’s Die Gährungschemie, which notes that “The well-known Horner Bier near Vienna is an oat beer: it is very fizzy and refreshing, but it is cloudy.” With all the interest in historical beers and sour brewing, someone has got to make an authentic Horner Bier one of these days soon.
I don’t know everything that’s in these volumes, only that much of what is in there isn’t widely known, so please dig around and see what you find. Perhaps you’ll bust some myths, misconceptions and made-up histories of your own. And if you come across other public-domain brewing books that deserve a wider audience, send me a link and I’ll update this list.