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On a Czech beer trail, in search of liquid gold

Pilsen, Czech Republic In the jagged Jizera Mountains of the northern Czech Republic, the village of Stary Harcov seems an unlikely place for an epicurean pilgrimage. Driving through a dark forest on a linden-lined lane barely wide enough for a single Skoda, I approached a row of timber- framed houses that felt as idyllic and lazy as a ski town in midsummer. The only sound was the buzzing of insects from a nearby meadow.

But as the sun set, a crowd formed outside a barnlike family house, taking seats at three roughhewn picnic tables in the front yard.

Dressed in T-shirts and plumbers’ coveralls, they lined up at a small window, fetching half- liters of Vendelin, a honey-colored lager, as if it were liquid gold, even though the price of 15 koruna (roughly $.70) was only about half the usual rate for a Czech beer.

Why travel all this way, near the borders of Poland and Germany, for a cold one? For starters, the beer is outstanding, with an unusually complex aroma: a bouquet of apricot blossoms with a note of fresh-baked bread, like fruit jam on sourdough toast. The taste is rich and sugary followed by a long, crisp finish. But more important, this is the only place where you can sip this particular Czech lager. Brewed in small batches in a tumbledown shed by the owner and namesake, Vendelin Krkoska, the beer has a distribution zone of about two mountain meadows. It is available nowhere else, and nothing else I’ve ever tasted is quite like it.

"Of all the lager beers, Czech beers are certainly the most unchanged," said Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster and author of "The Brewmaster’s Table," speaking via phone from his office at Brooklyn Brewery. "And when you go back there, you go back to the original flavors."

Wine snobs might call this overreaching, but great beer is inextricably tied to its environment in much the same way that a great Burgundy displays a characteristic terroir. Real Pilsener, for example, is made with the low-sulfite, low-carbonate water of the Czech city of Pilsen, its original home. Many have tried, but it’s nearly impossible to make a good Pilsener elsewhere without doctoring the water, and even then, it will never taste the same.

Around Europe, a handful of beer trails have already emerged, like the lambic breweries of the Senne Valley in Belgium, the seven Trappist monastery breweries of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the dozen or so Kölsch beer makers of Cologne. But the Czech lands are, in some ways, the birthplace of modern beer making, with a brewing history that dates back more than a millennium. Today there are some 450 Czech beers made by about 100 breweries, ranging from golden Pilseners to black, Baltic-style porters. It is also the beer-drinking capital: Czechs consume more beer than any other country in the world - more than 150 liters, or 320 pints, annually per person.

"Bohemia is it," Oliver said. "It is the fountainhead, if you like, of most beer in the world."

For my own beer trail, I decided to start with two of the largest and most beloved, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, which together constitute much of the country’s zymurgical and political history. To round out a four-day trek, I looked to the country’s smallest makers: Vendelin, which struck me for its picturesque remoteness, as well as Novosad in north Bohemia for its colorful back story. And I would check out one of the country’s newest breweries, U Medvidku, hidden inside a 540-year-old pub.

I started off with the most controversial. From Prague, I drove south for three hours, past fields of white poppies, carp ponds and thick pine forests, until I reached the city of Ceske Budejovice, home of the country’s most famous - or infamous - brewery: Budvar. It makes a flavorful lager called Budweiser Budvar, and for years it has locked horns with the American giant Anheuser-Busch over the rights to the iconic name.

Budvar’s argument is straightforward: Its hometown, Ceske Budejovice, is known as Budweis in German, and "Budweiser" refers to someone or something that originates from that town. Czechs argue that the name, like Champagne, is specific to the beer’s place of origin. Anheuser-Busch disagrees, arguing that it brewed its first Budweiser in St. Louis in 1876; the Budvar brewery, it points out, was founded in 1895. Courts are still working out the details.

Although the brewery was founded 111 years ago, it is surprisingly modern. Six copper kettles that resembled giant, upside- down goblets sparkled in a vast, sunlit brew house. The smell of fresh hops punctuated the air, a sweet and slightly peppery funk that is somewhat similar to marijuana, its botanical cousin. The hops come from the town of Zatec in northwest Bohemia, widely considered among the finest in the world. They give Budvar its characteristic citrusy nose, adding brightness to the sweet golden body. Having sampled beers all over Europe, I was surprised by how much more vibrant the brew tasted at its source.

After visiting the country’s most disputed beer maker, it was time to sample its most beloved: Pilsner Urquell. It is home of the original Pilsener, which revolutionized beer making in 1842 as the world’s first non- cloudy golden beer to go into production. It is still rated the best by a majority of Czechs.

Pilsner Urquell is a pilgrimage site in its own right, or at least it should be. As the original Pilsener, it has gone on to inspire imitations around the world. But few, if any, have achieved Pilsner Urquell’s unique bittersweet taste, a combination of the town’s soft water and regional ingredients like Moravian malt, Zatec hops and proprietary strain of yeast.

The brewery tour begins with a 10-minute film trumpeting the glory of Pilsner Urquell, which produces more than 700,000 liters a day. Later, the tour took us from a sauna-hot brew house to the arctic-cold cellars.

For my last stop on the beer trail, I took a winding, three-hour bus ride from Prague to Harrachov, a resort town in the northeast Krkonose Mountains. It is home to one of the lightest and, perhaps, most storied beers in the Czech Republic.

Harrachov is home to the Novosad glassworks, a 300-year-old factory where workers still blow glass by hand. On my visit, the factory floor was filled with burly bare-chested men who were sweating profusely near the hot kilns.

As the story goes, the glassworkers used to cool themselves off from the heat (hovering at 48 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit) with so much store-bought beer that management decided it would be more cost-efficient to make their own. So four years ago, the factory built a microbrewery next to the factory and started making a special low-alcohol brew. Only later, the story continues, did Novosad realize that visitors to the factory might also enjoy the beer as well.

So the glass company added a pub, furnished with wide pine tables and long benches. The waiter brought a half-liter of Novosad’s 12-degree, a pale gold kvasnicove pivo with a thick and foamy white head.

As I left, I spotted a glassworker pushing a wheelbarrow of glass shards, his back glistening with sweat. It was hard work, but he had a few half-liters of fresh-made beer to look forward to at the end of his shift. Some people, I thought, have all the luck.

Evan Rail

International Herald Tribune - 14 October 2006
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