Copper Bottomed

Sometime ago, I wrote a piece about recent efforts by some Czech lager brewers to bring ‘tanked beer’ to these shores. It’s a worthwhile aim: to attempt to deliver absolute authenticity and the ‘brewery fresh’ taste that rocks you on your heels if you drink beer straight from a lagering tank, ideally in a cave or cellar under a Bohemian brewery.

Recap #1: the players. Miller Brands, the UK arm of South African Breweries (SAB) were installing permanent tanks in a number of prime bar locations, and bringing over smaller barrels too, for a ‘from the wood serve’ with which they were ‘going on tour’ – essentially a PR exercise. Budweiser Budvar, without the financial clout of SAB, were cracking on with a slightly different riff, their ‘Krausen’ or yeast beer. Like the tanked PU it was unpasteurised and carefully imported from České Budějovice.

Recap #2: the results. The half-termly report was ‘not a bad start but with much room for improvement’. I tried the Pilsner Urquell from the permanent tanks at The White Horse on Parson’s Green. It looked glorious: served in chunky tankards to a variety of serving specifications. The beer’s famed bitter note were highly pronounced versus the packaged version – but strangely whilst it pleased the eye it did less for the taste buds; I didn’t get the rounded complexity of the unpasteurized PU that I had enjoyed in the Czech Republic. The Budvar on the other hand, here from the The Draft House on Charlotte Street, was the opposite. Looking nothing out of the ordinary, served in unbranded glassware and not forming or retaining its head, it was lively, fresh-tasting and spicy nevertheless – the only issue was that it was still quite close to the bottled beer (which I drank alongside).

Now there’s new news, to use the business parlance, from Budvar UK. The brand has been a bit quiet in recent times; still a fine, fine beer of course, with that lovely creaminess and a palate at the sweeter end for a Bohemian lager, but left a little breathless as wave after wave of new entrants, promising something ever funkier, have entered the market. But here’s the thing, brewing great lager – seemingly, so simple – is fiendishly complex, time-consuming and expensive. UK craft brewers who have set off down this road have realised the considerably higher level of investment needed, and the cash it sucks out of your business – assuming of course that the brewer is lagering their beer for a few weeks. The precious tank space which could be used for something well, quicker, is needed while the lager dozes. On top of this, there’s the unscrupulous cleanliness required, decisions about whether to use modified malt or decoct, a separate yeast bank, it’s never ending.

At the moment, Budvar Tankové Pivo is a trial, at the delightfully bonkers Zigfrid von Underbelly on Hoxton Square. The tanks, rightly, are pride of place; there are two stacked one on top of the other in the main bar area and another one in the cellar-proper. Each holds 10 hectolitres (about 6.5 proper barrels) and like the Crown Jewels, they are displayed behind glass. A nearby sign proudly announces when the next delivery is coming: this is, after all, fresh beer, unpasteurised. It can’t hang about, and initial sales show that it isn’t (currently about a tank a week and rising).

Let’s pause for a moment on what the tanks do to the experience of drinking. They’re copper and as such, have something of a Jules Verne, ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ quality about them. With hand shaped, baffled ends, they’re only lacking a perescope. Copper piping too abounds, torpedo tubes no doubt. The font is copper too; and the beer, rather than being served in a standard tulip or nonic glass is a glass tankard. Everything marks this out as something different, something unusual. The expectation of specialness is copper bottomed, even before you even open your wallet.

Ultimately though, it needs to deliver: and no stone has been left unturned to ensure that the beer is as fresh as a daisy. The logistical complexity alone of getting beer from the lagering tank in České Budějovice, to the serving tank in London is eye watering: bespoke containers, refrigerated transportation; beer filled hoses (the beer goes to waste but ensures sterility): in all, four days of nail biting stress for those involved. It pays off: the beer sparkles with its crisp, gentle and all-natural carbonation – and here’s the clincher – it has that rounded softness, the biscuity base, the light fruity esters, the alcohol warmth – that only an unpasteurised and lagered beer has. The maturation adds the richness, serving it unpasteurised allows you to enjoy it in full.

The plans are for Budvar UK to extend the trial and hopefully roll this out more widely. It won’t (can’t) be something you’ll experience everywhere, it’s just too expensive, too labour intensive. But if you can, it is definitely something worth jumping in your tank to go and experience.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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