EXPLORING THE FIFTH ELEMENT OF BREWING GREAT LAGER.
There’s an old saying you sometimes hear in the Czech Republic: in South Bohemia, time moves a little slower. And while no one’s suggesting the region’s residents have discovered the secret of dark matter, or found the keys to the Back to the Future DeLorean, here’s the strange thing: spend even a little time here, and you’ll begin to understand exactly what they mean.
Just look around. From the dark, fairy-tale depths of the Šumava national forest, the gentle curves of the ancient Vltava river, or the Baroque beauty of Český Krumlov’s painted spires and hilltop castle – South Bohemia is the place Czech people come to break out of routines, to slow down and relax. Case in point is the annual tradition of rafting or ‘river roving’ down the mother river, the Vltava. In summer, families flock to the wild and beautiful stretch of river upstream of Český Krumlov, rent canoes, load them with food and beer and spend a week travelling at the river’s speed downstream, making camp in lively bankside spots where campfire circles share songs until the early hours. If you think that sounds impossibly idyllic, like something that doesn’t really happen anymore in the instant gratification Instagram-era, then usually you’d be right, but it does happen here, and it’s a glorious spectacle of slow living.
Of course, there is another reason people come to South Bohemia. The beer. But time is just as important in that story too. Brewing is woven into the history of this corner of the Czech Republic like almost nowhere else on earth. In fact, records of brewing in the town of České Budějovice or ‘Budweis’, date back over 800 years to a time when king Přemysl Otakar II gifted its citizens the right to brew with royal decree. The reason? The unique access to pristine water, skilled brewmasters and the perfect location for bringing together the finest hops and malt from fields and farms to the north and east of the country. It’s a time-honoured privilege that Budweiser Budvar continues to fulfil to this day.
The depth and weight of carrying this three-quarters of a millennium of brewing tradition and craft falls to Budweiser Budvar’s brewmaster, Adam Brož. And it’s one he takes seriously. When we meet in the morning, before the day’s production really ramps up, he seems focused yet relaxed about the prospect. It’s a confidence born of experience. “This is a daily ritual for me.” He says, smiling, and holding a glass of hazy pale lager up to the light to check it. “And while it might be a bit unusual for some people, I’m certainly not going to complain.”
This is beer testing time. Around 10 o’clock on most mornings, the latest batch of beer that has finished cold-conditioning in Budvar’s cellars is brought to Adam to be personally tested. At a time when so much of what we eat and drink is created at the touch of button, there is something refreshingly analogue to this process. Despite selling this iconic Czech lager in 80 countries around the world, it’s heartening to see that no batch of Budweiser Budvar leaves the brewery before this make-or-break human moment in Adam’s office.
Happily, this batch passes the test, which means it’s ready to be packaged and shipped out to taps in local bars and far-flung corners of the world alike. But it would be rude not to finish the glasses Adam has poured out for us first, or the plates of late breakfast – blueberry koláče, a delicious round speciality pastry from these parts, every bit as traditional as the beer. Watching us is a portrait of Antonín Holeček, the very first brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar, appointed a few months before the brewery was founded, in October 1894.
“I feel responsible to the brewery and the team, but also to everyone in our country, because this is our national brewery.”
Back then, at the turn of the century, Holeček’s first batch of beer was around 200 hectolitres, or 20,000 litres. Now, 120-years later, the brewery is being expanded again to meet global demand; 2020 will see Adam responsible for up to 2 million hectolitres of beer per year. That’s 200 million litres, all brewed right here in České Budějovice with the same dedication to process, ingredients and maturation as in Holeček’s day. It’s a staggering thought, and I wonder how it feels to be at the helm during such a transition. “It’s a great responsibility of course, but it’s also a great honour.” Says Adam, looking up at the portrait on the wall. “I feel responsible to the brewery and the team, but also to everyone in our country, because this is our national brewery.”
It seems time moves slowly for brewmasters here in South Bohemia too. Adam explains that he is only the tenth brewmaster to hold the position since Budweiser Budvar began in 1895. It’s a much-coveted and prestigious post that people tend to hold on to. “Yes. You retire or die.” He says, smiling. “I’m the tenth of only ten brewmasters, and this is also my tenth year, so it is an extra special one for me.”
But to really understand the importance of time when it comes to creating great lager, we need to take a walk across the brewery and down a set of stairs into Budvar’s hallowed cellars. “You’ll need one of these.” Adam says, handing me a fetching hi-vis yellow jacket. “And one of these. Much more important…” He presents a small tankard with Budweiser Budvar etched onto the side. He grabs one for himself and a small, strange-looking coil of copper pipe, and we’re opening the big metal doors that lead into the cellars. Its only 2° down here and the wave of frigid air hits us immediately, emanating from the labyrinth of vast, vaulted rooms, each housing row after row of stacked horizontal tanks, all painted in Budvar’s signature cream livery.
As we pass by, I notice on the side of each, is a mysterious chalk board listing the ‘degree’ of the liquid contained within on the Plato scale – the ancient Bohemian measurement for the ratio of water to fermentable sugar in the beer. We stop by one simply marked 11°. “This is our classic original lager,” says Adam. “And this one is at the final stages of the process.” He pulls that copper coil out of his pocket and uses it to convert an outlet on the side of the tank into a little tap, quickly filling our glasses. Then he holds them up to the light to check. Old habits die hard.
It’s only now, down here in the cellars, surrounded by this colossal volume of beer quietly, slowly maturing, that I’m reminded of something. Surprisingly few people, even among beer devotees, really know what lager is. While it’s the most popular type of beer in the world, for many drinkers it’s just a go-to fizzy, golden liquid. Taste isn’t always the priority. Yet real lager completely defies this categorisation. It is one of the finest and most painstakingly crafted beer styles in the world, with a wealth of incredibly complex flavours.
Actually, lager isn’t actually the name of a style of beer at all; it’s the name of a process. The word ‘lager’ has roots across many northern European languages and it means, variously, a place to sleep, store or keep. Our modern beer-based use of the word comes from the German lagerbier, which translates as ‘beer brewed for keeping’. And therein lies the most important point, keeping is the difference between true lager and not. Maturation. Aging. Conditioning. And it’s exactly what’s happening down here in Budweiser Budvar’s cellars.
Technically speaking, the ‘lagering’ or maturation stage in brewing takes place after fermentation and before packaging. It’s where this style of beer derives many of its innate qualities, such as depth and character. You might not be able to see them inside the tanks, but there are complex biochemical activities happening inside, such as changes in residual sugars, lactic and acetic acids, acetaldehyde, diacetyl and much more. It sounds like the stuff of white coats and laboratories, but it’s the reason brewmasters like Adam need PhD-level scientific qualifications before they learn the art of brewing. And it has a massive impact on taste.
This is something leading UK beer writer Pete Brown, a visitor to the Budvar cellars many times, believes is vitally important, and often overlooked. “When you get into how beer is brewed there’s quite a lot of technical stuff which maybe the average guy on a night out doesn’t need to hear.” He says. “But the result of that technical stuff is about a depth and quality of flavour. Lager should be refreshing and crisp and easy to drink. That doesn’t mean it should just be bland and watery and not taste of anything. Budvar, as a classic Czech lager, is light, refreshing, easy to drink. But it also has flavour and body and character.”
So, while it’s no secret that lager has four ingredients – hops, malt, yeast and water – it is less well known that true lager has a crucial fifth ingredient. Time. “Lager yeast works in a different way from ale yeast.” Pete Brown explains. “What lager yeast wants is a long time at low temperatures to get on with the job of fermentation. And at certain points during this fermentation it starts throwing out various flavour compounds which you don’t really want in your beer at the end of the day. Leave it long enough and the yeast reabsorbs those flavour compounds and leaves you with this clean, fresh taste. If you cut that lagering time short you’re going to get flavours in there that you don’t want.”
“Budvar, as a classic Czech lager, is light, refreshing, easy to drink. But it also has flavour and body and character.” – Pete Brown.
At Budvar they understand this. It’s why every beer here is matured in these cellars for around 90 days. And although you don’t have to do this to make lager – indeed, many international macro breweries fast-track this process into a matter of hours – you wouldn’t want Champagne or a fine Scotch whisky that had been artificially ‘aged’ in a few hours. So, why accept it when it comes to lager? The quality of the raw ingredients is incredibly important, of course, but it’s the aging process, time, that sets it apart. Today, there is no other commercial brewery of Budvar’s size that ages its lager as long; in fact, you’d be hard pushed to find many that do it at all. Even the best of the new breed of craft lagers manage a maximum of about 60 days. I ask Adam why, science aside, Budvar still continues to age its beer for so long.
He looks at me and says in his classic Czech deadpan: “Because it makes the beer taste better.”
In a few words he’s captured the true Budweiser Budvar ethos: quality over everything. In the face of pressures from global trends, balance sheets, taxes and more, it is staggering that a company of this size can remain so principled. But they do. It’s something Pete Brown thinks deserves more respect and understanding. “What you hear from a lot of big, corporate brewers these days is that technology has moved things on to such an extent that you simply don’t need to do this long lagering period any more. My challenge to them is always ‘OK then, give me a non-lagered lager that tastes as good as Budweiser Budvar.’ And no one ever has.”
Back in the cellars, it’s time to take a sip. To take some time to enjoy that which time has created. It’s worth the wait. Refreshing yet rich, bold but perfectly balanced, the beer is fresh yet with a sweet, deep complex golden body and an aromatic, hoppy foam. This is lager as it should be, a world away from mass market, non-aged stuff. A different drink, almost. Small wonder Pete Brown once confessed he practically had to be dragged from these cellars.
They say time moves slower in South Bohemia, and after a day at the Budweiser Budvar, one thing’s for sure. When it comes to brewing great lager, that’s a very good thing.