Tag Archives: Pilsner Urquell

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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Lager, Part VI: Bring In The Tanks

There is no more powerful, evocative and sought after beer idyll as “drinking lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  It is beer perfection exemplified. It is a notion so laden with positive association that it has reached almost mythic proportions. Here we have it: beer as beer should be; beer in the state that the brewer themselves would want you to enjoy it.  Beer that is fresh; is still conditioning; is so lively with natural carbonation; so ever-so-slightly hazy:  is alive. Beer with a gushing, foaming head so unctuously thick, so heavenly white, so unfailingly deep, so velvety creamy that you will think all your Movembers have arrived at once. This is state of grace filled with nostalgia, pining and distant hope, for it is a dying art.

I consider myself lucky enough to have drunk beer from the lagering tank three times: twice in the Czech Republic, once in the U.S. The first time was in the cavernous lagering mines under the streets of Prague, the tanks of Pražské Pivovary, the tanks of Staropramen. It is no overstatement to say that few times in my life have I been speechless with awe, wonder and reverence.  It was truly a near religious experience;  to step down the slippery steps, becoming ever damper, ever cooler, ever gloomier. The Cold War flicker of a lone fluorescent tube our only company. Footsteps bouncing, echoing from the stone floor and low-vaulted ceiling.  And then, turning the corner;  row upon row of enormous white lagering tanks stretching off into successive vaults. Countless tanks, endless caverns, dedicated to beer worship; floating, seemingly like innumerable whales, gently swimming below the surface.  Each tank delicately coated in a thin, glittering layer of condensation. Each tank slashed with the rough chalk marks showing when it was filled, tested, and when it will be ready to broach.

The second time years later was a similar, but further to the north west in the hop growing area of Žatec; again, rank upon rank of lagering tanks, slightly worse for wear, revealing the more straitened financial situation of this brewery compared with those in Prague where the streets are paved with Stag-Do Gold. But it was equally charming, equally moving – knowing that a brewer was dedicated to the considerable investment in time and expense of lagering their beer properly. Knowing that a brewer was still determined to sell proper lagered beer with the roundness and softness of palate that no short cuts can match.

The final time was modestly different, sampling different beers from the Sandlot micro-brewery under the Colorado Rockies baseball stadium at Coors Field. A few were sampled that evening, from a well known wheat ale, to a caramelly amber ale, but the Barman Pilsner was the highlight.  It sprinted through the pig tail into the glass, seething and swirling as it went, displaying that rounded, full character that I had tasted before. From a cellar in Colorado echoes of Bohemia could be heard.

No surprise then that lager brewers are trying to find ways to export – figuratively and literally – this state of lager grace to build their brand and reputation. It’s a drum a few of us have been beating for some time and now the reverberations are being heard.  Perhaps it is a case of necessity being the mother of invention as two very famous lager brewers are at the vanguard: Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell (PU).  Both have been struggling for traction in the UK in recent years – Budvar to grow their franchise, PU to gain a sustainable market foothold here.

I tracked down PU first, eventually making it to a long overdue visit to the White Horse on Parson’s Green. Unsurprisingly, given the justified reputation of this pub as a leading voice in the beer revolution,  SAB Miller, the owners of PU, have chosen the White Horse to invest in; a tank has been fitted in the pub cellar purely for unfiltered PU.

Beer tanks are old school. When I joined Bass, in my first few weeks I did a trade visit up to a working men’s club in Sheffield. It was a Stones’ club. At the time, Stones was Sheffield. And Sheffield steel meant huge pubs, huge men drinking huge quantities. So out back was a beer tank; the capacity I can’t recall, but it was a big as a farmer’s grain silo, pitched on its side. There was a glass gauge that allowed you to see the beer level: I watched  in naive excitement and not a little terror seeing the level of the beer gauge drop as I stared at it. The beer was the freshest you will taste on these shores: cellar cold, with a crisp, hop bite and thick Yorkshire head sitting on top.  It never hit the sides. Yet, not long after, the tanks were gone; the cost to maintain being the argument, financial as always.

IMG_0627And as so often is the way, the circle comes around.  For now, in an act of post industrial irony, the beer tank has been gentrified – and the Sloany Pony is Exhibit A.  The PU was popular too, served from a Czech twin valve font, where you open the first valve fully first, then adjust the second valve as it flows to perfect the head. The glassware was the Czech equivalent of a dimple: another circle coming back round.  The most notable feature was the aroma. It was grassy and fresh before the head was broken. The pour was a delight and I didn’t complain when it the beer was slightly below the line because the proportions were right. The first sip was another delight, drinking through that head; breathing in the beer before it touched my taste buds. To taste: there was still the assertive hop forward character you expect from PU – if anything more assertively bitter than pasteurised stock. But the aftertaste was markedly more bitter yet, in fact a touch astringent – the opposite of what I had expected.  I struggled through it however…

Budweiser Budvar are taking a different approach. Their ‘Yeast Beer’ heads over in kegs filled from the lagering tanks. It means distribution has to be strictly controlled and the beer IMG_0669needs to be consumed within a week.  I found it in the Draft House on Charlotte Street, London: in fact, I only just found it. There was nothing on the font plaque to indicate it was different from the normal Budvar; no distinct glassware to justify the premium being paid. There was nothing in short, to support the beer idyll of “lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  Shame that.   Unlike the PU, the Budvar Yeast beer was markedly cloudy; as if it had received a little shot of yeast at the pour. And it too, wasn’t hugely different from bottled Budvar, but in this instance was softer, more gentle on the tongue and without the pronounced ethanol note you find in the bottle version.   Other clues were there too: a series of lacey white tide marks left as you drank it; a fuller, yet still delicate aroma.

The experiment for me is achieving mixed results: the reason fresh, lager tank beer is so evocative is because of its rarity.  You’ve got to want to try it; you’ve got to want to make that trip; you’ve got to want to hunt it down. But it’s hard yards – of course it is, otherwise everyone would do it. And the links in the chain are fragile. A fancy pour awry here; an overly foamy pint there; the wrong tap marker here; an unbranded glass there…  and the whole house of cards falls.  The tanks may be back, but the big guns haven’t nailed it just yet.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lager, Part V. A whack on the side of the head ¹

A series of fortunate events got this blog started. First there was intent: I wanted to write but successive ideas for book plots all fizzled out or went up cul-de-sacs. Second, there was a deliberately provocative and ill informed piece on the BBC website about lager-fuelled louts. Third, there was the growth of craft and cask beer and the correlating decline in the regard for lagered beer. Three pieces emerged from the initial Tinted pen on lager, which prompted, and still do, many comments and questions when I see people – some surprised about lager, others welcoming another voice to the side of ensuring a great style of beer doesn’t become demonised.

Demonised perhaps, but not by most drinkers. And from what I can see, reports of the untimely death of lager have been greatly exaggerated. Yet equally, the momentum of creativity, ingenuity and desire to brew great lagers in the UK is thin.  Standing back, looking at my own drinking choices, there’s a clear pattern – American Pale Ale and IPA predominate at home; English pale ales are the favourite out and about.  In the Tinted Household, the hegemony of lager has passed and the move to the dark(er) side completed with unswerving ease.

Until last Friday night. Oooh, I don’t know, I just had the taste for something clean, yet rewarding with my Friday night Pizza, and only a lagered beer would do. Besides, a couple of four packs of Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar were in near-cryogenic preparation in the downstairs beer fridge. Delay was futile. Broaching could not be resisted any longer.

Early adopters of the Tinted musings may recall my first experience of Plzeň. At the border, the Czech border guards, in an act of post WWII solidarity, waved us past a fuming row of German drivers as we gunned the Bentley* through the crossing, nonchalantly waving our passports*.  I shall refrain from repeating it, suffice it to say, Plzen was eye opening. Bear in mind the iron curtain had fallen only a year before – men, the spit of the good soldier Švejk, walked the streets.  Rounded, head-scarfed women accompanied them. But the beer, by God – by rights, the original pilsner.  Deep bronze, brooding, biting. Still, back then, conditioned in pitch-lined barrels. Since then: acquisition, turmoil, struggle.  For struggle it has been: SAB have struggled to find its edge; struggled to comprehend why this beer of all beers, rarely gained traction in markets it was exported into.  The bitterness? The name? The lack of marketing funds? Internal priorities?

I like Pilsner Urquell though, and I think SAB are doing a good job – because, on most aspects of the brand, they’re not meddling too much.  Don’t get me wrong – the beer has changed. It’s a little thinner than of old, a touch paler and noticeably less forthright in the aftertaste. But it’s still a cracking beer and behind it there seems to be a mindset of stewarding the brand, not fiddling – there seems to be some respect. The bottle is a design triumph and feels timeless; the glassware is the classiest in the SAB range, rightly so.  The font looks authentic.  The advertising is copy heavy and interesting (what little there is).

And then last Friday, I rediscovered the fundamental reason behind why lagered beer dominates in the world, like a second whack on the side of the head. After almost two years of eschewing lager, I drank one after another. Not mindlessly, but willingly.  The first was a delight – cutting through the palate, refreshing right across the taste range from foretaste to aftertaste.  One wasn’t enough… I levered the crown off the second on autopilot before it too sunk without trace. I switched to Budvar and the same happened again, two more bottles of delightfully rewarding refreshment.

Oh, I know. I won’t make the shortlist of the Market Research Society’s Award for Insight Excellence with this observation. And I’m not turning my back on the majesty of the Pale Ale Counter Reformation, for many of those beers combine the same enticing drinkability, flavour reward and refreshment.  Yet, there was something about returning to the fold that conjured up what it must have been like in Bohemia and Bavaria in the 1840s and 1850s.  Never having seen a beer that was as clear, radiant, golden and refreshing. No wonder it was embraced with such relish and rightly deserves its place in the beer pantheon – and your repertoire – of today.

¹ with apologies to Roger von Oech

* some elements of this story were, and remain, fictitious, although the general thrust and plot is entirely factual. Honest, guv, ask my brother.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lager, Part 1: Oh, woe! The “British have fallen out of love with lager.”

“Has Britain fallen out of love with lager?” questions Jon Kelly, writing for the online BBC News Magazine earlier this month. “…for decades” he continues, “lager has rivalled tea as the beverage that best defines modern Britain. And yet the nation’s attachment to the supposedly refreshing qualities of pilsner and export appear to be on the wane…”

The thing is, we’ve never been in love with it.

I don’t want to get all philosophical here, nor too semantic. I don’t want to debate the meaning of ‘love’ and whether it was appropriate to use this word, or rather, ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’. Let’s leave that task to Advertising Agency planning types to intellectually masturbate over.
No, the first issue I have with Jon’s article is how it gives real insight to our (meaning: the British understanding) fundamental (meaning: “Of or relating to the foundation or base; elementary” – thanks Free Dictionary) lack of understanding and appreciation of lagered beer (apologies – that’s the one semantic bit. Beer is lager, ale, bitter, mild, lambic (etc) NOT lager and beer as is so commonly understood on these shores). And now, without the brackets, ‘our fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation of lagered beer’

But let’s deal with the love thang in this piece.

As I see it, there’s an enormous difference between loving something and using something. The British are users of lager. “Getting lagered”, “Wife beater”, “Lager Louts” are not epithets of a nation in love with a drink. “A nice cup of tea”, “An extra shot American with room” stand in stark contrast.
Yet the malaise is deeper than this: ‘89.chestersmate’, responding to Jon’s article, wrote, “A good lager is as nice as a good ale – I love both. Unfortunately most lager available is not in this category. Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic all produce really good lagers – they are not over gassed drinks that need to be ice cold to disguise the taste”. Here’s problem number two. The inconvenient truth of ‘lager’ stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes of ‘real lager from its heartlands’. Most lager in Germany and the Czech Republic is brewed by Brewing concerns (often the much maligned ‘International Brewers’) who are less connected to the brewing process, the mashing, the fermentation, the lagering, that made the drink so popular in the firstplace. The truth is, these countries produce as much “mass produced” (for want of a better expression) lager as Britain does today. Few breweries in the Czech Republic today, for example, lager their beer for 7 weeks – a more reasonable estimate is 2 to 3 weeks, and this will only be for their ‘premium’ brands. Amongst the many crimes perpetrated against Pilsner Urquell – the original clear, golden Pilsner beer (Urquell = ‘original source’), surely the worst has been brewing under license? I don’t know the Czech for ‘Unoriginal Source’ but my guess is that it’s not an ideal brand name.

The sad truth is that for decades now, for the majority of drinkers in Britain, the real benefit of lagered beer has been its ability to get you drunk effectively, without the annoyance of the broader array of flavours that many other beers offer. The colder serve temperature; the relative ease of keeping in a pub merely stoked fuel on the fire. And, as the Brits looked up and out increasingly after the insular and economically challenging 1970s, so continental lagered beers, often in aesthetically appealing packaging, left drinkers with a feeling of something different, of sophistication, of ‘look at me, I’m a citizen of the world!’

 

It’s time to right the wrongs. It’s time to demystify lager and most importantly, add momentum to the efforts of brewers and drinkers who understand and appreciate lagered beer for what it really is – a veritable panoply of different styles, tastes, colours and strengths. It’s time to understand where tradition and progress fit within the world of lager. It’s time in short, to spread the word and on a personal level, share my love for lagered beer.

David Preston, Copyright, 2012. Originally published, March 2012.