Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

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Pražský Most u Valšů

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Sometimes it takes a while for a beer or a brewery to find high gear. A year ago, when the new Prague brewpub Pražský most u Valšů first tapped its own brew, it didn’t make quite the same splash as Pivovar Bašta a few months earlier. Only one beer was available, a traditional pale lager, and it didn’t do much for people who care about good Czech beer. Max Bahnson said it was nothing to write home about. I had the same impression, in as much as I stopped by, ate lunch, tried the beer, and didn’t even bother writing about it.

What a difference a year makes. Now there are two beers available, and at least one of them’s a firecracker.

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Heineken: A Traditional Czech Beer

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: It now appears that Heineken did not apply for the “Czech Beer” designation for its own brew, but rather on the part of Krušovice. This post has been corrected.

Today’s Prague Daily Monitor has a translation of a story from the Czech newspaper Hospodářské Noviny on the first beers to use the České Pivo (“Czech Beer”) label. Officially approved by the EU last autumn, the label is a mark of Protected Geographical Indication that indicates minimal levels of local products, traditional methods of production, and the beer’s place of origin.

And the first brand listed in the story is Heineken.

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Czech Beer Festival and More

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On Friday, the Czech Beer Festival kicked off at Letňany exhibition grounds (last year’s version is pictured above). It’s fair to say that there was some chaos at the opening: when Velký Al from Fuggled and I arrived a half hour after things got started at 3 p.m., there was only one beer available on tap. Tent #6, which was supposed to have Kout and other indies, had nothing going. Nor did any other tent besides #3. It sounds impossible: at a beer festival, beer fans were going thirsty.

But within an hour or so, the situation righted itself. Several great beers from Náchod’s Pivovar Primátor started flowing, including the brewery’s new 11° pale lager. Within a short while we were even sampling Kout na Šumavě 10°, a desítka with as much character as most 12° beers in these parts.

It’s very different from last year’s festival in that there is no entry fee. Most beers are 40 crowns, though this year the strong beers, like Jihlava’s 18° Jihlavský Grand, are served in .3-liter glasses, which makes far more sense than serving them by the pint. You definitely should check it out before the festival closes on May 31.

But there’s more.

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While You Were Out: The Return of Herold’s Wheat Beer

You hit the road for a few days of peace and solitude in South Bohemia and what happens? A great beer that has been AWOL for years suddenly returns to the scene.

The brew in question is the very nice wheat beer from Pivovar Herold, a brewery I pass each time I drive down to my wife’s family’s summer home in Písek. As I’ve mentioned before, the history of the brewery in the town of Březnice is covered in Ludvík Fürst’s monograph “Jak se u nás vařilo pivo” (or “How we used to brew beer”). In that book, Fürst quotes documents mentioning the production of wheat beer at Březnice in the sixteenth century. When Herold reintroduced its modern wheat beers in 2002, they were the only Czech wheat beers available in bottles at the time.

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Great Grains: Emmer Beer from Germany's Riedenburger Brewery

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Today, many — if not most — European beers are made with barley. Earlier European beers, however, were made with any number of other grains. But then came the reformers: Bavaria’s Reinheitsgebot proscribed the use of anything other than barley in 1516; in Bohemia, the great brewing scientist František Ondřej Poupě, author of “The Art of Beer Brewing” (1794), helped kill off other grains at the end of the eighteenth century, famously declaring that oats were for horses, wheat was for cakes, and only barley was fit for beer.

So before barley was the only ingredient to use, what did beers taste like? They might have been a bit like the Historisches Emmer Bier from Germany’s Riedenburger brewery, made with malted emmer, einkorn and spelt (all early domesticated forms of wheat), as well as barley and modern wheat.

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Two Beers From Hungary's Szögedi Sörfőzde

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Hungary is wine country, but it has a long tradition of brewing as well, with the legendary name of Dreher — as in Anton — the brand of one of the country’s best-known pale lagers. Unfortunately, finding good craft beer from the country’s small producers is tricky. Just about everywhere you go, you’ll come across Dreher (part of SABMiller) and Soproni (a Heineken brand). But great local beer? Microbrews? Not so easy to spot.

We spent most of the last two weeks in Hungary, first at Lake Balaton, then in Budapest, where we I finally found a couple of interesting beers. Or at least, what looked like interesting beers. My Hungarian is limited to the five words most commonly found on restaurant menus, but when I saw the sign above, I was pretty sure that “házi” might be something like “domácí” in Czech, the equivalent of “house-made,” and I knew that “sör” meant beer. So I picked up a bottle of each brew: a világos, or pale, called Gutberger, and a barna, or dark, called Braunger.

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BrewDog's Zeitgeist vs. Herold Bohemian Black Lager

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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.

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Heineken in Talks to Buy Staropramen

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The St. Louis Business Journal is reporting that Anheuser-Busch InBev is negotiating with Heineken to sell its Czech brands to the Dutch brewer. The paper places Staropramen’s valuation between $255 million and $306 million.

We’ve seen this before. Almost exactly a year ago, Heineken’s takeover of the Czech Drinks Union brands was given the green light. That move pushed Heineken into third place on the Czech market, just ahead of the legendary Budweiser Budvar, but still lower than Heineken’s traditional market share. At the time, Ron Pattinson sagely noted that Heineken doesn’t enter a market to take third place.

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Kout na Šumavě in the Dancing Building

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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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Pivovarský Klub Goes Nonsmoking

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This weekend, on the first day of spring, something remarkable happened at one of Prague’s favorite destinations for beer lovers: the staff at Pivovarský klub put away the ashtrays for the last time.

So why is a nonsmoking pub in Prague such a big deal?

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