So, I’m hooked on Czech lager. A total goner.
It’s an unlikely development, bordering on pathetic, given my own absurdly lucky situation. I’m American with plenty of exposure to our own exciting variety; I write a guidebook on Belgium and go there as often as I can, so I get to drink plenty of those beauties and oddities; plus I live in Germany, a beer paradise in its own right.
Yet a few trips to the Czech Republic over the past year have done a job on me.
For science and for art I list below the reasons why, as best as I understand them, plus some other thoughts related to the civilized magic of acquired taste.
Some of this is technical, other bits are borderline stupid. Love is preposterous.
- It just tastes better. I’ll get into specifics below, but first things first: Czech lager generally has far more flavor than those from the global flood it inspired, including all those international beers that we lazily call “pilsner.”
- But don’t call it pilsner (unless it’s the Pilsner). The rest of the world has diluted and lightened and emptied “pilsner.” We have ruined the word and it doesn’t make sense to apply it flavorful Czech beer (except the very special Plzensky Prazdroj, a.k.a. Pilsner Urquell). Anyway, the Czechs don’t call it that either. They refer to their golden lager as svetly lezak (say it: SVYET-lee LEH-zhack). I like that better. It sounds exotic, like something worthy of new attention.
- Balance. It’s not a code word for bland. There is an art to balancing real character, and—with regard to golden lager—the Czechs have been working on it for 170-odd years.
- The stubborn, arcane value of decoction mashing. It’s an old brewing method from the days before thermometers, and most Czech brewers stick to it religiously. Once or twice or even thrice during the mash, they take a portion of that beautiful sludge and boil it separately. Then they return it to the rest of the mash. It takes much longer and consumes more energy, but benefits to drinkers (that’s us!) include deeper, richer malt flavor, residual sweetness, and sturdier foam. Yet it also tends to have a body that is light and digestible enough to consume in quantity.
- Quantity! The Czechs drink more beer than anyone on Earth, 142 liters per person per year. Nobody else is close. There might be a reason for that.
- One of the many ways that brewing scientists are useful: Whenever one of them tells us that some old method is a waste of time and energy—and that’s what many of them say about decoction—that’s our cue to run as fast as we can to a brewer that still uses that method and taste the results for ourselves.
- Floor malting: looks cool, and is cool. To get the full benefits of decoction, you want malt that is less modified—essentially, less malted—than most modern malts. The Czechs specialize in this, with their old-fashioned Bohemian floor-malted barley. It has a richer aroma and flavor that is best unlocked by decoction.
- See how this is all fitting together?
- That color. It is not pale straw, it is more often a deep, burnished gold—another gift from decoction and its Maillard reaction. That immediately appealing color might be why imitations proliferated in the late 19th century, as clear glassware became more affordable to working people.
- Also, dark lager. It is not like German dunkel or schwarzbier. Czech tmavy lezak is just as drinkable as those but usually with a richer, deeper malt taste. There is amber lager too. It’s good. But a very large percentage of what the Czechs themselves drink is gorgeously golden svetly.
- Those great, clear, bulbous mugs, especially the dimpled ones. They accommodate lots of creamy foam and lots of beer, both. They turn a golden liquid into a museum-piece jewel, particularly when touched by light. Their heft and thick handles feel important, requiring use of the entire arm. They promise satisfaction.
- Hops! You like them. Me too. The Czechs use a lot, almost exclusively Saaz. Your typical svetly has an IBU of 30-40, though a few go lower or higher than that. Typically there are equal additions for bittering, flavor and aroma, teasing out beguiling complexity from the noblest of Noble hops. Tasting several different brands last weekend I most often noted citrus, herbs, mint and nettles (though I always like it most when I stop trying to identify descriptors and just enjoy it).
- That funny degree system. Czech lager invariably has a number attached to it—usually somewhere from 8 to 14, with the most common from 10 to 13. That number is the beer’s degrees on a Balling scale, similar to the Plato scale used by brewers. Karl Balling was Bohemian, by the way, and he created the world’s first scale for measuring the density of beer before fermentation. Basically it’s a measure of how much sugar was in there; in practice, it gives us a rough idea of how much alcohol we’re consuming. The flagship of most Czech breweries is a 12-degree svetly lezak, usually somewhere around 5% alcohol by volume.
- Finally… diacetyl! With many Czech lagers you might smell a whiff of something resembling popcorn butter. Whether or not this is a fault is ultimately up to you. I used to hate it, then I learned to like it. An American geek I met in a Czech bar told me he didn’t like most Czech lagers because he found them “unclean.” I found it very sad. So: What if diacetyl is an acquired taste?
Here is something I really did last year: I bought a crate of Pilsner Urquell and drank my way through it (not in one sitting), to see if I could desensitize myself to diacetyl. I really wanted to like Czech lager. I suppose it worked. Anyway, the things that are easy to like are usually not as entertaining, or as addictive.