Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Category: Beer Stories (Page 2 of 3)

Balling: A Prague Brewing Scientist Orphaned by Wikipedia

A quick post on Wikipedia, which never fails to amaze me, though not always for the right reasons. Today my amazement is due to Wikipedia’s entry on the Plato scale (now corrected), a method of measuring the amount of sugars before fermentation — how strong the malt tea is, in other words, before the yeast goes to work. It’s why we call a beer a desítka or a dvanáctka (a “ten” or a “twelve”) in Czech, and why many labels still proudly say 10º or 12%: because before the beer was fermented, it started out as a liquid with 10 or 12 percent sugar.

As I’ve noted in earlier articles and in Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic, the scale was originally invented in Prague by the German-speaking brewing scientist Carl (or Karl) Josef Napoleon Balling (1805-1868), pictured above.

The scale is often referred to by the name Plato, after the German scientist who later improved on Balling’s original work, though winemakers usually call it Brix, after another improver. However, it’s nice to give credit to Balling, the originator of the scale, especially since he’s a hometown hero.

However, I did not realize he was actually a hometown victim.

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Prague’s Christmas Beer Markets 2008

Last year saw the inauguration of Prague’s Christmas Beer Markets (Vánoční pivní trhy), much like the Christmas markets that appear all around Europe at this time of year, only with a serious malt-and-hops theme. Taking place in a vast pavilion at Prague’s Výstaviště exhibition grounds, the first edition featured craft and specialty beers from around the Czech Republic, as well as brews from Slovakia’s Kaltenecker.

This year, the Christmas Beer Markets will return in a more refined locale: inside Prague’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which will host the 2008 Christmas Beer Markets on December 20, 21 and 22.

The final details are still being set, but the early outline for this year’s festival sounds terrific.

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Prague’s Lost Breweries

There are currently just 11 breweries in Prague: ten micros (U Fleků, Pivovarský dům, Novoměstský pivovar, Richter, the university brewery at Suchdol, the closed-to-the-public school brewery at SPŠPT, Klášterní pivovar Strahov, Pivovar Bašta at U Bansethů, U Medvídků and the new U Valšů) and just one mega-brewer, Staropramen.

But of course years ago there were dozens of small brewers all over the Czech capital. The Czech national archives have plenty of references to brewers who haven’t been around for years, many of which were in locations around Prague that might surprise you.

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The SPP Czech Beer Awards: Budvar’s Tolar Wins Brewmaster of the Year

On Wednesday, November 19, the Sdružení přátel piva held its annual awards ceremony for the greatest beers, breweries, and the best brewmaster in the Czech Republic.

Often rendered in English as the Union of Friends of Beer, the SPP is the Czech beer consumers’ organization, a counterpart to the Campaign for Real Ale and other fellow members of the European Beer Consumers Union, similarly working to promote quality beer and preserve local beer traditions. Though there are many beer awards in the lager-loving Czech Republic, the SPP awards are among the most prestigious and most anticipated such ceremonies on the Czech beer calendar.

The awards, handed out this year inside the cozy beer hall on the Budweiser Budvar brewery grounds, went to the following:

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A New Czech Brewer Without a Brewery: Bohemia Classic

The Czech newspaper Lidové noviny reported this summer on Bohemia Classic, a new Czech beer maker which doesn’t yet have a brewery. The thrust of the story was that four former employees from Prague’s Staropramen had founded a new brewery to take on their former company.

Considering that Bohemia Classic currently has to rent kettle time at North Bohemia’s Pivovar Konrad in order to produce their beer, it seems unlikely that the upstarts will do much harm to the country’s second-largest brewer, part of global megaproducer InBev. But to judge by taste alone, Bohemia Classic has already pulled ahead of the brand from Smíchov. In fact, Bohemia Classic seems to be one of the rare cases when a beer actually lives up to its name.

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Pre-Lager Lager Brewing in the Czech lands

Back in March I wrote about pre-lager brewing in Bohemia, citing an article-slash-lament on the subject from the December 3, 1876, New York Times. That story detailed the “complete revolution” in brewing then taking place in late nineteenth-century Bohemia, the western half of today’s Czech Republic, moving away from the traditional “high fermentation” breweries (making ales) to the newer style of “low fermentation” brewing which produced lagers.

Today, 99.9% of Czech beer production is lager. But what were the beers here like before the big switch to industrial lager production?

Well, at least some of them were also lagers. 

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More Thoughts on Italian Beer Culture

It took a few months, but my feature story on craft beer in Italy finally appeared in the NYT travel section this weekend. Seeing it, I started thinking again about Italian beer culture and how different it is to the Czech Republic and other countries which are better known for beer and brewing.

The point I stressed in my first post from the Italian beer trail is part of it: in Italy, the enthusiasm for beer is very high. But beyond mere enthusiasm is something that seems to be missing from the beer culture in the Czech lands and in Germany: education.

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Herold in the Park

Herold beer has had a long and winding path over the past few years. Less than a decade ago it was found fairly often in expat hangouts like the Globe, though not always in the best condition, and sometimes in downright terrible condition. Although things had markedly improved by the time Michael Jackson came to Prague to promote Herold in late 2004, the brand’s image had been damaged by the occasional bad pints from before.

And yet Herold was making great beers, including one of the country’s first widely distributed wheat beers, the first Czech dark wheat most of us had ever seen, and a full line of quality lagers, including what must have been the country’s best bottled dark. They were always a bit hard to find in Prague, but then they became much harder to find, until only a couple of places carried the beer by the time I was finishing Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic.

One of them was the Dívčí skok restaurant in Prague’s Divoká Šárka park, a favorite setting for hiking and sunbathing. When the temperatures moved up earlier this summer, I went out there to have a pint.

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Nils Oscar Rökporter

How do you celebrate a new apartment? We spent last week moving exactly three and a half million boxes from our old place in Prague 8 to our new home in Prague 1, where we’re now just a few minutes’ walk from Pivovarský klub (danger, Will Robinson). After dumping our belongings in the hallway, I inaugurated the transition with a bottle of Nils Oscar Rökporter, courtesy of Per at Ohhh… My Head, who handed it over at the Ratebeer European Summer Gathering. (In exchange, I offered a bottle of Klostermann from Pivovar Strakonice).

First off, even though the name means “smoke porter,” this is no Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier — the smoke in the Nils Oscar beer is much more understated, closer to the version (or versions) from Brauerei Spezial. It’s deep ruby with a nice sandy head and a nose of malt, oats and honey. After a semi-sweet gulp on the tongue, there’s an aromatic, Montecristo-peppery smokiness. The finish is lasting but not overbearing. A great way to break in a new apartment — really good stuff.

I like Klostermann fine, but after tasting this I’m sure I did better than Per in our trade: Nils Oscar Rökporter is currently #41 of Ratebeer’s list of the 50 best beers in Sweden, and it was one of the bottles I was searching for while checking out Czech beers in Stockholm earlier this year. Though the original word was that this was a one-off brew, Per writes that it will now be brewed year round, and made available from October. Get one if you can.

The internet still isn’t hooked up at the new place, so I’m on a limited posting schedule. More once the tubes are connected.

What We Learned at Pilsner Urquell

When you spend all day at Pilsner Urquell, you learn lots of things.

Above is a shot of senior trade brewmaster Václav Berka in the maltings with the crew from the Discovery Channel. During a full day of shooting, I had time to ask a number of questions about the brewery and how it operates. The malt house is a case in point: it’s not on the standard tour at Pilsner Urquell, so few visitors get to see it. And yet it’s a rather special feature: Pilsner Urquell is the only major Czech brewery which still has its own maltings, buying raw barley from Czech and Moravian farmers and producing just one type of malt which constitutes 100% of the grist of Pilsner Urquell. Any extra malt is sold to Czech homebrewers and small producers, or used to make Kozel.

And while many people assume Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus to be the same brewery, there are enough differences to consider them as separate entities. To start, the Pilsner Urquell brewhouse is only used for that beer; Gambrinus has its own, separate brewhouse.

More factoids gleaned during a day at Pilsner Urquell:

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