Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Category: Beer Stories (Page 1 of 3)

New Beers from Žatec

It’s always humbling to be called an expert on anything, and the more I learn about Czech beer the more I come to think my expertise extends only as far as the drinking of it. Nevertheless, I was happy to be asked to write some tasting notes for a Czech Beer Festival that took place at the Porterhouse pubs in London and Dublin this past November.

The surprise? The festival lineup went well beyond the expected also-rans and usual suspects. Among the Czech beers we all know quite well were several rarities, as well as a few I hadn’t yet heard of, including what looked like two new beers from Pivovar Žatec, the historic underdog brewery in the great hop-growing town also known as Saaz.

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Grape Hops: Beer Tours to Northern Italy’s Great Craft Breweries

When she needed to make what she described as “some major life changes,” Shannon Essa turned to beer — Italian craft beer.

The result is Ms. Essa’s American tour company, Grape Hops, that offers trips to many of the up-and-coming microbreweries in Piedmont and Lombardy, along with more traditional wine and culinary adventures elsewhere in Italy and in Spain. Founded by Ms. Essa in partnership with Kim Riemann, an administrator for the travel website, Grape Hops came about after the two heard about the region’s burgeoning craft beer scene, which inspired them to start offering complete pre-planned trips as well as custom tours, hitting everything from Birrificio Montegioco to the great Lambrate brewpub in Milan, pictured above.

“We first put together an itinerary and we went over and did a dry run,” said Ms. Essa, speaking on the phone from her home in San Diego. She recalled her first experience with the vibrant Italian craft beer scene as nothing short of amazing.

“They are cooking with hops, cooking with beer — they’re experimenting with everything,” she said. “We had pieces of veal that were breaded with hops. And they had desserts that they use beers that they infuse mint into and they make desserts out of that.”

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When Grodziskie Returns

All my boddhisatvas appear on the streets of Staré Město.

We were on Dlouhá, close to Lokál, and Jonas was just waking up from his afternoon nap; I was wet from the rainstorm that had just passed. I was pushing his carriage towards a couple of errands and then home when I saw a friend from the Prague beer scene ahead of us on the sidewalk.

“How are things?” he asked, smiling.

“Good but busy,” I said. “I started brewing.”

“How much?” he asked.

I did some quick math. “Zero point twenty-two hectoliters.”

“And what kind of beer?”

“Well, the first batch was a saison, because it was 29 degrees in the apartment last week.”


“Yeah, it smells like black pepper. Tastes great. And today Jonas and I are going to brew a wit.”

“A wit sounds good right about now.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Do you know there’s going to be a new pub here, called the Prague Beer Museum, with something like 30 Czech craft beers on draft?”

“Where, around the corner somewhere?”

“No, right there on Dlouhá. There,” I said, pointing across the street.  “Where the Tom Tom Bar used to be.”

“So something like Zlý Časy?”

“Yeah, only here in the center.”

“Great news. Oh, and before I forget,” he said, “today we’re brewing the Grodziskie.”

“Wow. Where’d you get the…”


“No, the malt.”

“We’re using smoked malt from Weyermann. But the yeast we got direct from Grodzisk.”

“So, in about a month?”

“Yes,” he smiled. “In about a month.”

And with that my boddhisatva said goodbye, shaking my hand and touching Jonas’s cheek before striding deeper into Old Town. And as we pushed off down Dlouhá towards our errands, and then home, both of us were grinning.

From the Archives: On Balling, Mozart, and Oat Beers Where the Sun Don’t Shine


When exactly did Pilsner-style pale lagers conquer central Europe, replacing the earlier styles that had existed here for centuries? Where did they get their foothold, when, and for what reasons? I don’t have the answers yet, but I’ve recently been working in the archives of the Czech National Library, reading a bit more about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century brewing in the region. And just yesterday I found an interesting quote in Carl Balling’s Die Gährungschemie (3rd ed., 1865), regarding beers made from oats.

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Kout na Šumavě in the Dancing Building


You say tomato, I say rajčatka: there’s more than one way to name almost everything in this city. Take, for example, the Dancing House, also known as the Dancing Building, locally called Tančící dům, although its official title is the slightly less-romantic Nationale-Nederlanden Building. Designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić, the building’s resemblance to a dancing couple earned it yet another nickname: Fred and Ginger. (I usually just say Dancing House myself.) It remains one of the most visited and most frequently photographed sites in Prague.

So what does that have to do with great beer? As of last month, the building’s newly renamed café and restaurant became only the second place in Prague to regularly stock beer from Pivovar Kout na Šumavě, one of the country’s best craft brewers.

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Beer Hacking: Dry-Hopped Bernard Sváteční Ležák


“What’s the hoppiest beer you have?,” someone asked.

I have no idea. I don’t think anyone knows. We don’t keep track of hoppiness here, not in the sense of boasting about IBUs and alpha acid percentages. The brewers at Pilsner Urquell told me that their beer has 40 IBUs, but most brewers here wouldn’t be able to do much more than guess. It’s simply not an issue. Beer here is supposed to be good, that’s for sure. But it’s not necessarily supposed to be terribly hoppy.

However, high levels of hop bitterness and aroma seem to get a lot of attention among American beer fans, and the question got me thinking: what would it be like to take a perfectly great Czech pale lager and crank the hoppiness up a notch?

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What I Heard at Cantillon

The following classic Beer Culture post is one of many which disappeared in the Wormhole Incident™. It is being reposted now because more people should think about beer with a sense of place.

The best thing I heard was when Jean-Pierre Van Roy said “Now we’re going to open the ‘75.”

We were talking about his life and work at Cantillon, the last remaining lambic brewer and geuze blender in the city of Brussels, and Jean-Pierre Van Roy decided that he wanted to open a beer he’d bottled 33 years earlier.

Someone asked “What?” in the way that means “Are you crazy?” Jean-Pierre just nodded and said “It’s time. It needs to be drunk.”

That was the second best thing I heard at Cantillon.

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Czech Beer Expressions

The sign above the door at the taproom of the Vyškov brewery, maker of the very good Jubiler and Generál beers, somewhat ominously recommends that guests have a final brew before leaving. “Have another glass of beer,” it says, “who knows what awaits you outside!”

While the German beer expression “Hopfen und Malz — Gott erhalt’s!” is fairly familiar among the international beer set, most Czech beer expressions — usually in the form of rhyming two-liners — are unknown outside of the country. Nearly every pub here is decorated with the traditional brewer’s greeting, Dej Bůh štěstí, or “God give happiness.” But there are many more, many of which are listed in Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic. A few favorites:

Lepší pivo v žaludku, nežli voda na plících.
Better beer in the belly than water in the lungs.

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Beer Hacking: Pardubicky Porter vs. Orval, Tasted & Revisited

That picture shows how I knew it was working: a bit of brown liquid had blown through the rubber gasket on the swing-top. At the height of activity, the bottle was hissing like an asthmatic cat, releasing built-up carbon dioxide as the yeast did its work. It meant that my first experiment in beer hacking was successful, at least as a proof-of-concept. What remained to be seen was how it would taste.

What I started with was originally straight Pardubický Porter, a Baltic Porter from the Pernštejn brewery here in the Czech Republic. I liked the beer plenty, but sometimes I thought it was too sweet. And I wondered if I could change it using a minimal amount of effort. In particular, I wondered what it would taste like if it was inoculated with brettanomyces. So I filled a couple of swing-top bottles with draft Pardubický Porter and dosed them with the dregs from a bottle of Orval, which I knew should contain some brettanomyces.

I called it “beer hacking,” meaning “modifying a commercial beer to suit your own tastes.” The idea got some attention. Jeff Bell commented that he didn’t think it would end well. William Brand wrote in to note that Orval actually has two yeasts in each bottle, so I’d be getting regular ale yeast as well as brett. And some dudes on Reditt started debating if it would work or not.

Oh yeah. It worked.

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Getting Good Beer into the Newspaper

Last year I was invited to work for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny as their weekly restaurant reviewer. For most of us, that might sound like a dream job, but I had already spent more than five years as the restaurant reviewer at the Prague Post, even seeing a story from there included in Best Food Writing 2005, and I had little interest in returning to the same task, especially since I was having so much fun writing travel stories from all around Europe. Despite being flattered by the offer, I passed, suggesting instead that the editors contact the Prague Spoon‘s Laura Baranik, who has since taken to it swimmingly.

But resolutions are meant to be broken, and I’ve recently agreed to occasionally review a few restaurants for Lidové noviny, either when Ms. Baranik is on vacation or as a means of helping out with what I know is very stressful, very demanding work.

To be honest, I’ve enjoyed writing reviews again much more than I thought I would. I even managed to get something about good beer into this weekend’s article.

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