Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

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A St. Pauli Girl from Slovakia

I’ve written before about Slovak brewers using Slavic models to market their beers in Germany. Now a German brewery is using a Slovak model to promote its beers in America.

That is to say St. Pauli Girl — the second most-popular German beer brand in the USA — has picked its annual eponymous spokeswoman. This year’s model is Katarina Van Derham, who “grew up in a small village in the woods of Slovakia, a communist country at the time,” and picked by fans of the beer in online voting. She’s third from the left in the cattle-call shot above.

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The New Bay-Leaf Beer from Pivovar Broumov

For a long time, the only innovation on the Czech beer market was the production of gimmicky flavored beers, usually a standard Czech Pilsner-style beer with fruit extract added after lagering. For many real beer fans, these flavored beers represented only a half-step toward the goal of better quality and bigger variety in the local beer market, a stumble in sort of the right direction.

Better would have been beers made with the whole fruit or herbs — not extract or syrup — in the brewing kettle, not added at the end as a kind of cocktail. Better still would have been to skip the gimmicky flavored beers and honestly attempt the world’s classics: Vienna lager; Baltic porter; Bock and Doppelbock; smoked beers; wheat beers; Belgian styles; stout, porter, bitter, mild or IPA.

But now, many of those classic beers are being produced — often quite successfully — in the Czech lands. And in hindsight, not all Czech flavored beers seem like gimmicks. Although some were (and are) downright terrible, a few flavored beers have been quite interesting, such as vavřín, the new bay-leaf beer from Pivovar Broumov, aka Opat.

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Beer and Food Pairing: Thursday, 22 January, 2009

In the minds of a few small thinkers, wine remains the only suitable drink to go with haute cuisine. But in recent years, there has been more and more widespread acknowledgment of the role of beer in quality food and drink pairings.

Among those noting the versatility and depth of beer is the British wine writer Jancis Robinson, who wrote that at one multi-course tasting paired with both beers and wines, she preferred the beers four times out of six. In the USA, Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has done extensive work with food and beer, as have Susan Nowak, Ben McFarland and Will Beckett, among others, in the UK. Then there were the surprising words of one wine steward in the German edition of Sommelier a few years back, who explained the inclusion of a great craft Pils among his recommended pairings by saying “Sometimes the best wine for the job is a beer.”

Recently, more and more food and beer pairings are taking place in Prague, a city that surely loves its beer, but rarely takes it seriously in terms of fine dining.

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A New Brewmaster Takes Over at Budweiser Budvar

There’s big news at the Czech Republic’s favorite state-owned brewery: after 24 years as the brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar, Josef Tolar is stepping aside to make room for new brewmaster Adam Brož.

In the picture above, Tolar passes Brož the Budweiser Budvar brewmaster’s ceremonial “wand of office,” an original Réaumur thermometer first used in 1895 by Budweiser Budvar’s founding brewmaster, Antonín Holeček. The 32-year-old Brož becomes Budweiser Budvar’s tenth master brewer.

So what does this mean for the beer?

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BrewDog’s Zeit Geist vs. Three Classic Czech Dark Lagers

Beer geeks everywhere are talking about the small Scottish brewery BrewDog, and for good reason: despite being just a couple of years old — meaning very young — they’re already putting out some head-turningly good beers, and backing them up with a masterful PR game.

One of their recent nice moves on the marketing pitch: offering a sampler of prototype beers and asking drinkers to pick their favorites. Among the prototypes was Zeit Geist, “a 5.1% Black lager taking inspiration from the Czech classics.” As an imitation of a clasic Czech dark lager, it was just begging to be compared to three classics of the genre: Bernard’s speciální černé pivo, Bohemia Regent tmavý ležák and Budweiser Budvar tmavý ležák.

So how does the Scottish upstart compare to the old masters?

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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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Where to Buy Beer in Prague: Belgians at Billa

Call it an auspicious start to 2009 for lovers of good beer: in the very center of Prague, a major Czech supermarket now has a large selection of great Trappist ales at the best prices in town.

Most of these beers are available elsewhere in Prague, so don’t expect to find any unknown gems among the supermarket’s Budvar and Pilsner Urquell bottles. As I wrote in a post that was lost in the Wormhole Incident™, you can find well-known Belgians at Pivovarský klub and Pivní galerie, though you’ll burn through your pocketbook if you do, as prices for a small bottle of the globally ubiquitous Chimay can hit 153 Kč ($7.90 / €5.70).

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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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Czech Christmas Beers: Rebel Sváteční Speciál

Beers from the Měšťanský Pivovar — or Burghers’ Brewery — in the Czech town of Havličkův Brod are usually known by the brand name of Rebel. In this country, when it is thought of at all, Rebel is considered a better-than-average medium-size brewery, winning an award in Žatec in 2008 as the “brewery of the year” among producers under 100,000 hectoliters. Abroad, Rebel is one of the few Czech lagers to make it to the United States, along with other low-profile brewers like Nová Paka, sold under the Brouček / BrouCzech label.

However, it’s doubtful if most Americans — or even many Czechs — are aware of Rebel’s under-promoted Christmas beer, the very nice Rebel Sváteční speciál.

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Beer on TV: How Stuff Works

This summer I helped a TV crew from the Discovery Channel film brewers and breweries around the Czech Republic. Along the way, we saw some interesting things at U Medvídků, Chodovar and Pilsner Urquell. And of course we got to try some excellent lagers.

Above is a shot of Pilsner Urquell’s senior trade brewmaster Václav Berka getting ready to talk on camera in front of the kettles. I’m not sure if that or anything else from the Czech Republic filming will make it into the final cut of the show, but I do know that the program is supposed to include Charlie Bamforth and Sam Calagione, and it has been given a title and theme that it didn’t have when we were working on it.

More importantly, it’s airing tonight, December 18, at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel, with further broadcasts at midnight tonight and January 2 at 6 p.m.

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