Something’s going on in the Czech brewing world. Whether it should be called a revolution, evolution or just plain curiosity is still up for grabs, but there’s no denying that there’s a new wave of Czech craft brewers emerging and eager to expand their horizons. Alongside the pale pilsner-style lagers so beloved of the Bohemian beer fan, it’s getting more common to come across India pale ales, imperial stouts, wheat beers and bocks at the bar, especially in new brewpubs. Who knows, Czech sours could be just around the corner.
“I think the word is getting around that there is something better, different or more exciting than the big-brand beers,” says expat Californian and homebrewer Chris Baerwaldt, who is planning to open his own brewery. “The craft beer message is getting through. I have also noticed a big increase in homebrewers; it’s like it’s the same group of people that helped to create the U.S. craft beer movement.”
For a straight-in-at-the-deep-end experience of this change in the air, visit the annual Sunshine in the Glass (Slunce ve skle) festival, which last fall finished its sixth annual run. Over one Saturday in late September, dozens of small breweries set up stalls in the courtyard at Purkmistr brewery, a spa, hotel, brewery, bar and restaurant complex outside Pilsen. By midafternoon the place is filled with beer fans while traditional music plays in the background and the aroma of roasting meat wafts through the air.
What to drink? Among the highly accomplished světlý ležák there are plenty of interesting beers. How about the bittersweet Harrach American Pale Ale or Pivo Hastrman’s rich American Stout? Perhaps something from Pivovar Kocour, based in the northern Bohemian town of Varnsdorf. These guys began brewing in 2007, swiftly becoming known for an eclectic portfolio, including Scotch ale, IPA and German-style rauchbier. Back in 2012, the beer of the festival was their Gypsy Porter, a gorgeous Baltic porter brewed in collaboration with English brewery Steel City and Prague-based beer writer Max Bahnson.
A growing number of brewpubs are also ringing the changes. Minipivovar Labut is a small brewpub in the northern town of Litomerice. In an arched brick cellar, the bar and restaurant shared space with a gleaming copper-fronted brew kit. The majority of beers produced are pilsner-style, but specials include American pale ale and weissbier. The APA had a fragrant citrus overload on the nose and a big bitter finish, while the weissbier’s regulation banana custard notes and its refreshing, quenching mouthfeel were enjoyable.
Litomerice is also home to Pivovarek Koliba, with its gorgeous Cascade-forward Czech-American Pale Ale. Then there’s U Tří růží, Pivovarský dům and Klášterní Pivovar Strahov in Prague; meanwhile an equally open-minded group of craft beer bars are providing outlets. These include Zly Casy and the Prague Beer Museum in the capital and Klub Malých Pivovarů in Plzeň. The times they are certainly changing.
“Ten years ago I do not think you could find a pale ale anywhere in the country,” says Chicago-born Max Munson, who runs Prague-based restaurant-bar Jama, which has 13 beers on tap, four of which come from microbreweries such as Nomád, Kocour and Matuška. “Now each part of Prague will have a pub or two where you can find them on tap. The supermarkets are still dominated by Czech lagers, often from the larger international companies, but even there you are seeing a slow change. They now often have selections of specialty beers.”
These are certainly exciting times, but is revolution the right word? Adam Matuška, of the eponymous brewery, which was founded by his father, Martin (whose résumé includes U Fleků and Strohov), isn’t so sure.
“I do not know whether it is right to call it a beer revolution,” he says. “Everywhere in the Western world, Europe and United States especially, craft brewing is very popular, because it already had some time to evolve. In the Czech Republic it would also have become more popular earlier if it could have been possible. But we have had a small delay because of the communist times, when it was impossible to own a small brewery. Despite the emergence of craft breweries, we still have drinkers who say that IPA is not a beer, because they dislike its fruity and citrusy aromas. The only reason they say this is that they didn’t have a chance to try this beer style before and say they will never accept it and never drink this nontraditional beer. Fortunately there are less and less people like this.”
One aspect of the changing Czech craft beer scene that would be familiar to U.S. consumers is the emergence of the cuckoo brewery. One is Nomád, which was started by Honza Kočka, a leading light in Czech beer both as brewer and media figure. At the start of 2013, while judging with him at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini, Italy, this reporter was able to try his Karel IPA, an assertively bitter beer that was kept in line by its fragrant citrusiness. However, for him, the Czech craft beer is as much about the past as it is about the now and then.
“We had smoky, darkish top-fermented beers the same as elsewhere in Europe before pale malt, cooling and other technological advances were discovered,” he says. “White beers were very popular here, while in winter until a century ago strong bottom-fermented beers like Baltic porters were brewed.”
Whether old or new, it’s an exciting time in Czech brewing, but this activity raises a crucial question: What is distinctively Czech about this new wave of IPAs, stouts and pale ales? What makes them stand out? Can there be such a thing as a Czech-American IPA?
Over to Chris Baerwaldt: “Some of the breweries that make IPAs apply traditional lager production techniques like decoction mashing, open-top fermenters, natural carbonation and no filtering. This then gives the IPAs a regional flavor.”
Surely here is the most exciting thing about the revolution-evolution shaking the country’s brewing industry: Czech brewing techniques applied to beer styles from other countries. For instance, think of when a brewery takes a beer style such as IPA and then brews an interpretation based on its own country’s traditions and outlook: Sound familiar?
Five Czech Beers to Try
Falkon Milk Stout, 6.5%, pivofalkon.cz
Matuška Weizenbock, 6.8%, pivovarmatuska.cz
Gypsy Porter, 7.1%, pivovar-kocour.cz
Nomad Karel IPA, 7.6%, pivovar-nomad.cz
Višňové (cherry beer), 5.2%, pivovarskydum.com/pivo/