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Corrections, Comments, Clarifications and Addenda to the Czech Entries of The Oxford Companion to Beer

Some corrections, comments, clarifications and addenda to the Czech entries of The Oxford Companion to Beer:

“The majority of beer sold in the Czech Republic is relatively light lager classified as výcepní [sic], these are brewed from original gravities between 8° Plato and 12° Plato” (page 277).

Correctly spelled “výčepní,” this category of beer has long had an upper limit of 10° Plato. Czech beers of 11° and 12° Plato compose a different legal classification, called “ležák.” (Source: Czech State Agricultural and Food Inspectorate.)

“Beers having more than 5.5% ABV are referred to as special [sic] Speciální” (page 278).

Called “speciální pivo” (or “speciál”), this legal classification is for beer “with an original gravity of 13° or higher.” The amount of alcohol has no bearing here. (Source: as above.)

“Budvar… has 5% alcohol by volume and 20 units of bitterness” (page 191).

According to the company’s press spokesman in the Czech Republic, Budweiser Budvar’s 5% alcohol lager has 22.5 units of bitterness, not 20.

In the entry for “Bohemian Pilsner,” the book states that for Czech versions, “the brewing grists are invariably 100% pilsner malt” (page 140).

Actually, many breweries in the Czech lands use a small portion — about 1% — of caramel malt in their premium pale lagers, or “Bohemian Pilsners.” (Source: interviews with Czech brewers and brewery consultants.) While 100% pilsner malt might be a traditional grist for a Czech pale lager, it is not “invariably” the case today.

“Throughout the Middle Ages, the general populace, from peasants to kings, produced beer within their own households” (page 277).

This seems to contradict Ludvík Fürst’s 1941 monograph Jak se u nás vařilo pivo, which notes that brewing was outlawed or banned for the general public in the Czech lands during much of the Middle Ages. For example, St. Adalbert (956–997) apparently banned brewing under the threat of excommunication, a decree which lasted over 200 years until it was lifted by Pope Innocent IV at the urging of the first King Wenceslas, Václav I (1205-1253).

At this point, things actually went from bad to worse, as brewing in all forms started to become subject to the Mílové Právo, or Mile Right, which granted noblemen or small groups of burghers in many Czech towns and cities an exclusive monopoly on producing beer (and occasionally other products) within a radius of one Czech “mile” — a distance equal to about 7,530 meters, or 4.6 miles by our measure. Thus, brewing was prohibited — “occasionally under the punishment of death,” as Fürst notes — for everyone except the holders of the Mile Right, generally within an area of about 66 square miles in each location.’s piece on the Mílové Právo notes that the monopoly was instituted in Opava in 1224, in Olomouc in 1230, in Kroměříz in 1240, in Brno in 1243, in Trutnov in 1260, in Louny in 1265, in Prague in 1278, and in České Budějovice in 1351, among other settings. This ban lasted for much of the late Middle Ages, from the early 13th century until about the late 15th century, though the law continued to exist in some areas and in some form until its definitive abolition in 1788.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, “the right to brew beer for members of households was gradually transferred to manor houses,” writes Fürst, noting that this exclusive brewing right of local lords was — later — explicitly confirmed by Vadislav II in the year 1485.

Jak se u nás vařilo pivo does include some evidence of home brewing by the Czech populace during the Middle Ages, but, given the numerous prohibitions on brewing and the area’s many brewing monopolies, it seems incomplete — if not downright incorrect — to claim that brewing in households was commonplace “throughout” the Middle Ages here.

“Bohemian brewing became famous in the 13th and 14th centuries when some of the aforementioned towns were granted brewing privileges and banlieu [sic] rights (which meant that within a certain distance of the town only beer brewed by the town’s burghers could be legally sold)” (page 140).

It is not clear why we are using a French word here, nor why that word is misspelled — it should be banlieue — though in any case this is not exactly what was meant by the Mile Right, as noted above. Under the Mile Right, it was not merely forbidden to sell beer from somewhere else: it was against the law, sometimes as a capital offense, for anyone but those holding the Mile Right “to brew beer, produce malt, or open a tavern.” Moreover, it should be noted that this right was not enjoyed equally by all burghers in each town: “The older, established burghers later claimed this right for themselves and did not grant it to the new [burghers].” (Source: Jak se u nás vařilo pivo.)

“Martin Stelzer, founder of the Burgher’s [sic] Brewery of Pilsen” (page 408).

A celebrated local architect, Martin Stelzer was one of two principal builders of the Burghers’ Brewery in Pilsen, but it is wrong to call him a founder. Most importantly, Martin Stelzer was not among the twelve prominent Pilsen burghers who requested the construction of a new brewery on January 2, 1839. Nor was he one of the 250 Pilsen burghers who held brewing rights at the time of the brewery’s founding. (Source: Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892). He might have been hired by the founders, but he was not a founder himself.

(Obviously, the correct spelling should be “Burghers’ Brewery,” as this is a plural possessive. This shows up again as incorrect on page 277, though it appears in a different incorrect form, as “Burgher Brewery,” on pages 74, 102, 393, 419 and 597, and is translated differently — and perhaps equally correctly — as “Citizens’ Brewery” on page 386.)

“Groll smuggled a Bavarian lager yeast across the border” (page 409).

According to the 1892 chronicle Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892, “seed yeast (yeast, material) for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria.” There is no mention of Mr. Groll’s involvement.

More importantly, it was clearly not the case that lager yeast needed to be “smuggled.” The book notes that, by 1841, fully one-tenth of all breweries in the Czech lands were already using bottom-fermenting lager yeast (including one of the largest producers in nineteenth-century Bohemia, the Wanka brewery in Prague, just 57 miles away). Well before the first batch of Pilsner Urquell was brewed in 1842, the town of Pilsen was already “flooded” by bottom-fermented beer, as the founders of the brewery stated the situation in 1839.

“Smuggled” might be romantic, but it is clearly not accurate.

“A legend in Pilsen says the wrong type of malt was delivered to the brewery by mistake but this seems fanciful” (page 653).

It most certainly is fanciful, as the original Burghers’ Brewery was constructed with its own malthouse on the premises, a crucial element from its initial concept. The title of the 1839 document which founded the brewery reads “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse.” In it, the founding burghers’ fifth point highlights the importance of being able to produce their own malt, declaring that a brewer who would trust his barley and malt to someone else “threatens his capital with fire.”

This essential part of the brewery was even given priority in construction: “At the end of September, 1842, the whole brewery, interior and exterior, was completed, and because the malting had begun even earlier, brewing could begin without any further delay in early October.”

(Some background: in Czech, the main word for “brewer” is “sládek,” meaning “the man who prepares the malt,” or “maltster,” as for centuries here, the task of many brewers — like Mr. Groll — was, in large part, to make malt. This is still done today by the brewer Jaroslav Nosek at Pivovar Broumov, a small brewery which spends the bulk of its late spring and early summer malting its own barley for use in the coming brewing season.)

And in point of fact, the historical record clearly notes that the brewery’s very first load of “hard barley” — definitely not malt, and definitely not the wrong kind — “was purchased at the then-weekly market at an average price of 3 florins and 12 crowns.” (Source: Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892.)

Martin Stelzer “toured Europe and Britain to study modern breweries” (page 653).

Strangely, The Oxford Companion to Beer‘s previous entry does not even agree with this statement, noting on page 652 only that “Martin Stelzer was commissioned to design and build the new brewery. He traveled extensively around Bavaria,” period, with no mention of any trips elsewhere.

According to Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni 1842–1892, the two architects who were hired to create the new Burghers’ Brewery both took trips to see bottom-fermenting breweries — though not to Britain. The builder František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December of 1839, Martin Stelzer “traveled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”

More obviously, the goal of the new brewery — clearly stated in the founding document in 1839 — was to produce bottom-fermenting beer, also called “Bavarian beer.” Obviously, Mr. Stelzer would have been unlikely to find many producers of Bavarian lager in Britain in 1839.

This entry seems to be confused with the story of Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher, who did travel around Britain visiting breweries a few years earlier.

“It’s more likely that Martin Stelzer brought back from England a malt kiln indirectly fired by coke rather than directly fired by wood. This type of kiln was used to make pale malt, the basis of a new style of beer brewed in England called pale ale. A model of a kiln in the Pilsen museum supports this theory” (page 653).

This is simply wild speculation. As noted above, the brewery’s own chronicle has no record of Martin Stelzer — one of the most prolific architects of his age, the author of hundreds of buildings in Pilsen — taking time off to travel all the way to Britain. Given his task — to construct a Bavarian-style, bottom-fermenting brewery — there would have been no reason to do so.

However, it is apparent that the Burghers’ Brewery was originally outfitted with a noteworthy kiln, whose description in Czech (“dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”) seems to make it clear that this was not, in fact, a kiln which had come from England, but rather “a kiln equipped in the English manner,” according to Kniha pamětní král. krajského města Plzně od roku 775 až 1870, an extensive chronicle of Pilsen published in 1883. (According to this book, this kiln was “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření,” or “heated by heat leaving the boiling room.”)

“Plzensky Prazdroj [sic],” page 654 and page 277.

A small mistake to outsiders, but technically a misspelling in local terms, as N and Ň (and Y and Ý) are considered different letters in Czech. (Strangely, The Oxford Companion to Beer itself spells the name correctly, as “Plzeňský Prazdroj,” on pages 74, 103, 140, 386, 651 and 652.)

At Budvar, “Soft brewing water comes from a deep natural lake beneath the brewery, using a well that dates back several thousand years,” (page 191).

The town of České Budějovice was founded in the year 1265 AD, though the Budvar brewery was only built in 1895, in a much younger northern suburb there.

A well is a man-made structure, “a shaft sunk into the ground in order to obtain water, oil or gas,” while “several” means “more than two but not many.” Thus, this passage reads as if part of a brewery from 1895 somehow dates from around 1000 BC, making it many centuries older than the arrival of the Celts in Bohemia, and thus one of the oldest man-made structures in the country. This is preposterous.

Budvar’s own claims for the age of its wells on its company website sound far more reasonable: “In 1922 the first artesian well was bored and after some further time an additional two artesian wells were also bored.”


Changes to Czech Brewing Regulations


On the Founding of Pilsner Urquell, Part I


  1. Oh dear. Fascinating if slightly saddening.

    (Although… a 1941 monograph’s not a primary source — any particular reason why we’d trust it over other sources? (Am expecting a stinging response to that which, in a few well-chosen words, puts me back in my box.))

  2. Evan Rail

    You want me to cite primary sources from the Middle Ages? FWIW, Jak se u nás vařilo pivo does cite them, and at length. Personally, I’d have trouble getting access to a handwritten document from ca. 1380, or the will from 1394 that Fürst quotes.

  3. Stinging: check. Me in box: check. (Guessed your response might be along those lines. Might be worth adding something in the post that explains that?)

  4. Excellent. Can we replicate these in the wiki? Would you like access to do it yourself?

  5. Marvellous to read properly researched stuff on the origins of Pilsner Urquell. More, please!

    On the subject of “Burghers’ brewery” versus “Citizens’ brewery”, I’ve always felt the former is the better translation, as “citizen” doesn’t have the correct sense of exclusivity in English that “burgher” carries – today we expect anyone will be a citizen, but not everyone will be a burgher.

  6. Great stuff!

    It should also be mentioned that it doesn’t mention that the Burghers of Pilsen actually wanted to brew a Pale Ale, but, on the other hand, that’s my own theory :)

  7. Evan Rail

    Thanks, all.

    Alan, I’d love the keys to the Commentary, but it will probably take me forever to type these in over there. In the interim, you’re welcome to use them. So “yes” and “yes.”

    Martyn, thanks. I’ll have more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up. I’m reminded of something I think Ouspensky said, to the effect that we’re not looking for new knowledge, we’re looking for knowledge that was previously known and lost, although of course our knowledge runs far less deep than what he was seeking. In any case, the 19th century texts are pretty clear. At least there’s one myth we can kick in the head right now: no monks smuggled any yeast. Period.

    Max, thanks. I think I remember us both talking about the similarities between a good pale ale and a good světlý ležák — it’s certainly something I’ve always noticed. But I think that’s just a coincidence, certainly when it comes to the founding of Pilsner Urquell, as the Burghers were pretty clear about what they wanted in the founding document from 1839: their town was “flooded” with bottom-fermented beer (“podkvasné pivo”), also called “Bavarian beer” (“Bavorské pivo”), and they wanted to build a new brewery that could produce it.

  8. Entries transferred. Thanks!

  9. Some bloke

    Alan … could you put a link to the wiki here please :)

  10. It’d be more correct to say that they wanted to make something like a Pale Ale. Ron told me once that Dreher tried to make a PA, but without success.

    And it can’t be just coincidence that they wanted to make something that has the colour of a Pale Ale at the time and that also had a hop character. To this day Pils is the only classic lager style with a hop character. So Pils could be the first multicultural style, an English Pale Ale, brewed the Bavarian way using Czech ingredients.

  11. Evan, excellent stuff.

    I’m now trying to remember where I read that Dreher first tried to brew a Pale Ale and only after that was unsuccessful switched to bottom fermentation (which he knew about from his mate Sedlmayr).

    There’s an unpublished biography of Sedlmayr that’s in the Munich city archives. I’d love to get a look at that.

  12. Rod

    Great job! The history of the development of cold fermentation really fascinates me. You and Ron should get together to write the definitive, properly researched book on Lager.

  13. Good stuff! Makes me think that a book on Czech beer history would be a very nice thing to have, should someone (hint hint, nudge nudge) write such a thing.

  14. I don’t agree with Martyn – Bürgerliches Brauhaus is the opposite of the exclusivity that he imagines. In the context of the time it means a brewery not owned by the church or the nobility. You could render it as “bourgeois” as well.

    It is rather strange to be discussing the German name of the brewery when the Czech name means something completely different anyway!

  15. ATJ

    Great one, as Lars said, when’s the book…

  16. Ah, but the point of it being the Burghers’ brewery was that it was owned by people with burghers’ rights, that is, people a cut above the ordinary dwellers in the town, albeit not church or nobility. “Citizens” in modern English implies everybody, the totality of dwellers not church or nobility, with no sense of particular privilege, while “burghers” gives the appropriate note of “people with more rights than mere citizens”. And surely the German name of the brewery is exactly what we should be discussing, since it was, as has been pointed out, a brewery founded by Germans – and with rights, I suspect, such as voting and brewing, that the Czechs themselves did not have at that time in Pilsen (correct me someone if I’m wrong here).

  17. Evan Rail

    Rob, sorry, but in this case that’s not right (and Martyn, yes, you’re right): “bürgerlich” might mean “bourgeois” in a general sense, but in the context of 19th-century breweries in Bohemia, it is used — as here — to distinguish a brewery that was founded and owned by právovárečníci. That is to say, only by “burghers with brewing rights.”

    This is more exclusive, even, than it appears at first sight. In Pilsen in 1840, there were just 257 houses with brewing rights — a relic of the Mile Right, above — which, due to quirks like a few individuals owning two houses, resulted in just 250 individuals (or, arguably, 250 families) with brewing rights. I don’t have the 1840 census figures to hand, but I can tell you that the population of the town in 1786 was 5,509. If you count 5 individuals for every family with brewing rights in 1840, using a population figure from more than 50 years earlier, less than 25% of the population would have brewing rights. If we compare the figures using the actual population from 1840, I imagine it will end up being more like 10%, perhaps less.

    Even in the same part of the historic city center where houses with brewing rights were located, many burghers did not hold brewing rights. There’s a map and chart which shows exactly which house was owned by which burgher and if it had brewing rights. In a few instances, one burgher does hold brewing rights, while his next door neighbor does not.

    Other types of breweries took more democratic forms, like the “akciový pivovar” (or “joint-stock brewery”). There was also the so-called “společenský pivovar” (literally “social brewery,” but more like “cooperative,” translated into German as “Genossenschafts-Brauerei”), such as the Prior brewery, founded in Pilsen around 1892. Both of those types of breweries were far more open than the měšťanský pivovar, which seems to have been truly “exclusive,” sometimes even unfairly so.

  18. About “akciový pivovar”, I read in a book called “Pivovarnictví” that in 1869 the law was changed allowing pretty much anyone who had enough money to set up a brewery, abolishing the exclusivity of the právovárečníci.

  19. Evan Rail

    And surely the German name of the brewery is exactly what we should be discussing, since it was, as has been pointed out, a brewery founded by Germans

    This is a dangerous assumption, Martyn, and though I don’t want to get into it here, I can say that while the language they had to use on official paperwork might have been German, at least a good number of the founders were clearly Czechs, ethnically and linguistically — truly Czech-speaking Czechs.

    At the time, the one man credited with with being “most responsible for the founding of the brewery” was Václav Mirwald. If it is not obvious from the name, he was not a German.

  20. Thank you for that, Evan, I’m pleased to be corrected.

  21. Kristen England

    Ron and Evan,

    Re the pale ale thing, wasn’t it in the Kőbánya in Pest? After Dreher set up shop there with his son? Last time there we were reading bits of history at the Gerbaud brewery. It was something along these lines but it could very well have been earlier. Hungarians have a funny way with history…

  22. Dave

    Pardon my ignorance, but is there any information regarding what made Dreher’s attempt at brewing a pale ale unsuccessful?

  23. Rod

    “at least a good number of the founders were clearly Czechs, ethnically and linguistically — truly Czech-speaking Czechs”
    Like Martyn, I had assumed that the setting up of the brewery was basically down to German speakers, although it would have been surprising, perhaps, if absolutely no Czech speakers were involved. If, from your research, it is clear that those involved were a more even mix of German and Czech speakers then that is an interesting and important fact. I’m sure no-one has any ethnic axe to grind, so if the brewery was an example of the two linguistic commnities working together, this shows how beer has the power to bring people together.

  24. Brad Cooley

    Wow. Great rebuttal to the new king of beer knowledge, The Oxford Companion to Beer. It is an important reference for the burgeoning beer geeks of the world but should also be recognized as a work in progress.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to imagine a more true look at Czech beer history on the amended addition due to your lambasting contribution.

    Cheers, and thanks for the critical writings on beer.

  25. Jake H


    I am surprised in some ways of the low ibus on budvar, is there a comparison around on technical brewing stats for large and small microbreweries in the CZ? The expectation from brewers in NA is that all bohemian lagers are in the 40 to 45 ibu range.

    From the brewers you have spoken with any idea on the variety of crystal malts they prefer in a pale lager, carapils or some darker lovibond varieties?

  26. Evan Rail

    Hey Jake,

    I understand the surprise, but them’s the facts. Remember, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell lie at opposite ends of the spectrum in local terms. In between you have smaller Czech brewers like Žatec, whose 12° pale lager — a decent “Bohemian pilsner” — has 26 IBUs. (And their 11° has just 24.) That’s still pretty low, however.

    North American brewers are not well served by the info in the BJCP’s style guide, which says that IBUs for “Bohemian Pilsner” should be “35–45,” then lists Budvar, with just 22.5, as a good commercial example. But to be honest, anything above 40 is pretty rare here. Kout na Šumavě’s 12° is around 43-44, and that’s one of the most bitter beers we have. I’m guessing the new Únětice brewery has beers in a similar range. But beyond those two, I can’t imagine that many Czech pale lagers have more than 40 IBUs.

    Instead of “35–45” or “40–45,” a better range for bitterness in a traditional Czech pale lager would be more like 32–38, depending on OG.

    For that addition of caramel malt, think of something like Weyermann’s Carapils, Carahell, or Caramunich I or II.



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