What Happens When A One-Beer Town Experiences A Craft Revolution
Craft breweries find inroads to the Czech Republic.
BY AARON GOLDFARB | Jun 2, 2016 | Food & Drink
I was in a place called BeerGeek Bar. Even if that name was somewhat on-the-nose, it had all the requisite bona fides: a slew of IPAs, imperial stouts, and sour ales. A computerised menu board constantly updating the list of ever-changing taps, some 32 in total. There were fancy meat and cheese plates and "artisan" chicken wings with flavours like habanero cranberry. And plenty of burly, bearded, T-shirted men bellied up to the reclaimed wood bar sipping from bulbous Spiegelau glasses. They geeked out over breweries such as Almanac and Mikkeller. This could have been a scene from San Diego, Portland, or Brooklyn, but it wasn't. I was in Prague, a place that for so long has been dominated by a single beer.
"I first had Pilsner Urquell as a young boy," Vaclav Berka tells me. "I was maybe 5 years old. I only touched my mouth to the foam, but I didn't like it."
Some 56 years later, Berka now serves as the brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell, where he's worked since 1980. It's this Czech brewery's iconic beer that has singularly dominated Prague and the surrounding region pretty much since Josef Groll first conceived of it in 1842.
"I first had Pilsner Urquell as a young boy... I didn't like it."
Go into the many classic bars in Prague's touristy Old Town district, places like U Zlatého tygra and Lokál. You'll usually find windowless rooms beset with a smoky haze, a generally jovial atmosphere, and only one damn choice of beer. Say "pivo" and you'll get Pilsner Urquell—and it'll cost you less than a euro for a litre mug. Your only drinking options will be in how it is poured: "na dvakrát" if you want a crisp, highly-carbonated beer, "mlíko" if you want it with so much foam it looks like full-fat milk.
The modern beer geek, specifically the American phylum, has for so long rejected the pilsner style, finding it boring at best, watery swill at worst. I noticed with amusement the first time I emailed Berka's PR team that my iPhone autocorrected "pilsner" to "prisoner"—somewhere most beer geeks would consider themselves were there only one beer available, a meagre lager no less. But Pilsner Urquell literally invented the style. The brewery is located 60 miles west of Prague in a town called Pilsen and the brewery name means "pilsner from the original source." It remains the nonpareil archetype for the style.
Try Pilsner Urquell just a couple days old, unfiltered, and straight from the 4000-litre tanks ("tankova") Prague's top beer bars favour and you'll be tasting a pilsner at its finest—a grassy aroma with that signature Saaz hops bitterness as it first hits your palate, followed by an underlying sweetness and bread-like character, then a yeasty finish. It's hardly like the macro-brewed American pilsners that have for so long been mass-produced, corn- and rice-based, ersatz versions of the real thing.
Still, a hidden groundswell is starting to occur in the Czech Republic, long the hardest-drinking beer country in the world. The Bohemian nation is currently having a craft beer revolution some three decades or so after America had one of its own. Leave Prague's tourist areas and take the Metro out to districts 2, 3, and 4. There you'll find bars like 20 PIP Craft Pub, BeerGeek, and Zlý Časy ("Bad Times"), which has 48 taps of almost-exclusively Czech craft beer. There's not just no Pilsner Urquell on these tap lists, there's very few pilsners in sight.
The Bohemian nation is currently having a craft beer revolution some three decades or so after America had one of its own.
"I guess most Czechs loves Pilsner Urquell and never tried the products of small breweries. So, we try to change it," Olga Romanova tells me. She a co-owner of BeerGeek Bar. "We decided to open so that people in the Czech Republic had the opportunity to drink not only Pilsner Urquell but craft beer from small brewers from around the world.”
BeerGeek Bar (2014), 20 PIP Craft Beer Pub (opened in 2015), and Zlý Časy (2010) represent a new wave of Prague beer bars are serving "American-style" small-batch offerings. They source from craft brewers in neighbouring Poland and Austria, the U.K. and the U.S., and even from the Czech Republic which is home to about 300 independent breweries. That includes BeerLab, BeerGeek's own contract brewery and the Czech Republic's "Best New Brewer" last year, according to RateBeer.
Some of the beers from these upstart breweries would sound like pure sacrilege to old-time Pilsner Urquell drinkers. Like Zhůřák's smoked pale ale or the chilli IPA brewed by Pivovar Permon. When I last visited BeerGeek they had just tapped a local ale called God Is Dead, a fitting name in a country whose craft brewers are currently trying to slay that one all-mighty entity that has ruled over them for so long.
Anheuser Busch, Miller, and Coors were woefully unprepared for the 1980's and 1990's rise of full-flavour, "extreme" beer from breweries like Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Stone, and Dogfish Head; I had to wonder if the brass at Pilsner Urquell (which is now owned by SABMiller—though, perhaps not for much longer) were destined to watch history repeat itself. I was stunned to hear Berka isn't just prepared for the revolution, he's looking to be a part of it.
"I visit plenty of microbreweries and pub breweries," Berka tells me. Just a few weeks earlier he had acted as a judge at the World Beer Cup, which was held in Philadelphia. "I tried many different samples. There are 96 categories and I was lucky to judge stouts matured in wooden barrels from bourbon and wine. There was plenty of very good, interesting beers," he notes, and I believe him.
Berka is currently looking to expand his brewery's portfolio, realising today's beer drinker is a slut for variety. He has even started a program called Volba Sládků ("Brewmaster's Choice") in an attempt to create special beers for his country's emerging craft marketplace. So far these often American-style one-offs—most recently a "ruby" lager—have proven quite popular.
"We sent this beer to our best local bars, and people like it!" Berka tells me. "We are out of it, we sold it out! Before the end of the month."
At the same time, though, the brewery remains focused on their bread-and-butter. They're specifically trying to make Pilsner Urquell more of a hit in America—fitting, as many American craft beer drinkers are getting burned-out on palate-wrecking hop monsters and knee-buckling booze bombs. Light, easy-drinking pilsners are again becoming popular among this country's beer-drinking elite and I've yet to find a stateside brewery that crafts one as good as they still do in Pilsen.
Today's beer drinker is a slut for variety.
Unfortunately, Pilsner Urquell has long been poorly-handled by American stores, distributors, and bartenders, one reason it's so disregarded in America. By the time the beer hits the States, it's often old and skunky (owing to green bottles the brewery long used, which doesn't protect a beer from becoming "light-struck.") Pilsner Urquell is the rare import that actually does "taste better over there."
Berka is looking to change that, now having the beer transported to America in climate-controlled containers, and getting it here within a week or two. Likewise, the green bottles have finally been scrapped in favour of more protective brown glass and cans. Berka has even started making regular visits to America in order to train bartenders how to correctly pour his beer without damaging it.
"In Czech Republic we have a proverb," he tells me. "'The brewmaster brews the beer, but the bartender makes it.'"
And, as the Czech Republic starts slowly ignoring the little pilsner that once built their beer scene, it might just be America that makes it great again.
From: Esquire US.