If you love your beer (and we mean really love it) then there’s only one place you should be planning on packing your suitcase for – the Czech Republic. Jonny Edge reports.
It was the night of my friend’s wedding and we were celebrating, so my hand-eye co-ordination was a little off, which prompted a warning: if I poured my beer too carefully, the much-coveted foamy head wouldn’t develop. But, if I poured it too aggressively then the foamy head would develop with too much vigour, rising up and over the side of the glass. This would, I was told, result in the birth of my first child.
This would have been quite some feat for a single man who had no partner at the time; however, Czech legend says that anyone who pours a beer just that little bit too enthusiastically will soon be blessed with a new-born – and once you know this you can see why so many of the guys you drink with pour with a degree of caution.
Beer is a big deal in the Czech Republic, and both the brewing and consuming of it goes beyond the simple enjoyment of a drink. Beer is ingrained into the social culture of the nation here, and is something that is crucial to the national and cultural heritage of the Czech people. They’ve been producing it for at least a 1,000 years thanks to the Bohemians who are thought to have brought the recipe for beer into Bavaria, another brewing powerhouse just across the border. What can be said with certainty, it that no matter where you are in the Czech Republic, there’s almost certainly somebody brewing close by.
Since that wedding, Czech beer has been my personal favourite and I’m on a bit of a pilgrimage, driving across Europe to visit the country and to sample some more beer. The dichotomy between what I’m driving and the tradition of Czech brewing isn’t lost on me; I’m wafting across the continent in a Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo e-hybrid, one of the most advanced cars you can currently buy and a heavenly calibration between battery and engine that is rammed full of computing power. Brewing beer, on the other hand, is a time-honoured process that has remained essentially unaltered for generations.
I’m taking the Porsche to a town called České Budějovice – a place you might know as the home of Budvar, where beer is brewed using just four simple ingredients.
Budvar is a source of great pride for many Czechs. The nation itself has a controlling stake in the company, and its beer is produced without shortcuts in order for it to be as good as it can be. Traditional methods are followed and only top-notch ingredients are used.
Unlike many beers, it’s given time, too. It’s primary offering – Budvar Original – is a masterpiece of a lager, brewed and conditioned over 102 days which is far, far longer than most. This gentle brewing, along with the punch of some of the finest hops in the world from the legendary town of Žatec, means the depth and quality of its taste puts many other brands to shame: it’s long, it’s fresh – and on a sweaty Czech summer’s day there’s little to match its powers of refreshment.
Everything you taste in a Budvar is Czech in origin. Those Žatec hops are joined by barley from the Haná region of Moravia, and the water comes from wells that draw water 700m up from beneath the brewery itself.
We head underground, and into the famous cellars. Separated from the tourists, we’ve explored the entire brewery site and now it’s time for the best bit; we’re heading into the cold, echoing chambers of the cellar, the part of the brewery that most visitors will never get to see. It is down here, in vast steel tanks, where Budvar takes its time to mature, to develop its flavour. The company doesn’t just produce its famous ‘Original’: there are four other beers to sample, plus a mystery tank…
Aside from the Original, there’s the Dark, the Strong, the Free, and the best reason to visit this brewery altogether – the Kräusened. This is Budvar in its natural state, unfiltered and unpasteurised and about as good a beer as you’ll ever drink. Budvar does occasionally ship this beer to Britain for sale in a few very select pubs, and if there’s one near you then you should go and get yourself a pint of ‘Tankové Pivo’ because it’s the real deal.
The rest of the beer’s names are pretty self-explanatory, but the Free, in particular, is a nice surprise and possibly the first alcohol-free beer I’ve ever sampled that I would be happy to drink across the course of a night.
While wandering among the tanks looking for something to taste, we came across a mystery. The beer was marked ‘Argus’ and had been in the cask for at least eight months, far longer than even the long maturation that most Budvar beer gets. This was clearly something a bit special, and speculation suggests that it is maturing for somebody in a very high place. Genuinely incredible, it is something that’s unlikely to ever pass my lips again. I’d tell you more, but I can’t…
What a journey. There’s really no finer way to see the world than by driving across it and the Czech Republic is a place that leaves its mark on you. The people are friendly and hugely proud of their country. They love to stop and talk and show you what a beautiful country they live in. As a European destination, it’s under-rated. But is it too far to travel to taste your favourite beer on its home ground?
No, absolutely not. Give me the keys to another Panamera, and I’d do it all over again. And yes, that is a hint.
Jonny Edge @thejonnyedge