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Světlý, Světlý — Discovering the Wider World of Modern Czech Beer

Words, and photography, by Matthew Curtis

· News,Blog,Matthew Curtis,Czech

All is quiet beneath the six gargantuan fermentation tanks at the Bohemia Regent brewery in Třeboň, to the far south of the Czech Republic. The complex network of pipes that twists beneath them is still in its symmetry. Barely a soul stirs at the brewery today, because once the beer is made, brewers must then allow it a 90-day long maturation. Patience must be a virtue for Czech brewers; they are content to wait a very long time to ensure that their beer is only released once it reaches peak condition.

You may already be familiar with Bohemian pale lagers or pilsners, known coloquially as světlý ležák (which translates directly as light, or pale lager). They are known for their caramel-sweet body and rounded mouthfeel—a product of decoction mashing, in which a small portion of the mash is removed, boiled, then returned to its vessel of origin, heating the entire mixture up in the process. In Czech brewing this is typically done three times during the mashing process, hence the term “triple decoction.” The other defining characteristic of Czech lager is the rasping, herbaceous bitterness of the native Saaz hop. It’s bold character and deft drinkability makes it one of the most popular and distinctive lager styles in the world.

Tanks at Bohemia Regent - Matthew Curtis
Tanks at Bohemia Regent 2 - Matthew Curtis

The Czech mastery of lager brewing extends simply beyond one style, however. Dark lager, known as tmavý ležák, is often porter-like in its roastiness, balanced by the burnt sugar sweetness formed via the caramelization of sugars during the decoction process. Sometimes tmavý and světlý lagers are blended, creating a hybrid style of amber lager known as polotmavý ležák.

It’s the latter I find myself drinking in a local Třeboň restaurant after our tour of Bohemia Regent. It combines the richness and sweetness of the darker lagers with the snapping, peppery bitterness of a světlý ležák. The pairing is with two local delicacies: carp and pike (The town just so happens to be home to the largest carp farm in Europe). It’s every bit as good as you might imagine. Well, the beer is good, at any rate.

In Czech the strength of a beer is indicated not by ABV, but by degrees plato. My amber lager is a stronger beer of 5.3% alcohol, however here it’s advertised as being 13º. It’s a little quirky, but you soon get used to it and I quickly lean towards the stronger 12º premium pale lagers over the slightly weaker ones rated at 10º or 11º—although these are by no means less interesting. At the next stop of our tour, Pivovar Kutná Hora in the eponymously named eastern Bohemian town, I find one I simply can’t get enough of.

Svetly at Kutna Hora - Matthew Curtis
Pellicle at Kutna Hora - Matthew Curtis

The story of Pivovar Kutná Hora’s revival is one that soon becomes a common thread as we travel from brewery to brewery on our visit. There is an immense amount of history here, with records showing there has been a brewery on this site since as long ago as 1559. Like many Czech breweries it was nationalised in 1953 during the rule of the Czechslovakian communist party, until its fall in 1989.

Then in 2008, something more familiar to the craft beer community took place: the brewery was acquired by Heineken. Many of us are already familiar with the kind of reaction this can elicit, but the pride for this beer by the local populace was something else—they stopped buying it altogether, and Heineken was forced to close down the brewery just two years after they had acquired it.

Then fortune smiled. In 2016 the brewery was acquired by a private owner, despite the fact that Heineken was not selling the rights to the old brand name and had scrapped all of the old brewing equipment. Brewing recommenced in 2017 under the stewardship of brewmaster Jakub Hájek. At Kutná Hora they now brew Bohemian lagers in the traditional style: with malted barley grown in the eastern Czech region of Moravia and Saaz hops from the Žatec region, using triple decoction mashing, open fermentation, and lengthy maturation times in horizontal tanks, at a temperature just above freezing.

The result of this is a superior Czech beer, one that has rich flavours of caramel matched with the bitter, herbaceous spice of Saaz. Quite simply, the 12º světlý ležák I find myself pouring yet another glass of is a beer you can’t put down.

Albrecht beer - Matthew Curtis
Albrecht brewery sign - Matthew Curtis

Kutná Hora are not alone in this revival of locally-made beers, brewed in as traditional a method as possible. To the north, a mere six miles from the Polish border, is Albrecht’s. Another brewery that was shut down during the communist era but is now being stewarded back to health by new owner, Marek Vávra. The beers here have a pronounced, distinctive bitterness compared to the softness of Kutná Hora, likely due to a different water profile—and Czech brewers do not treat their water, believing it to be the best brewing water in the world.

Another brewery of note near the northern border (although this time the neighbouring country is Germany, not Poland) is Pivovar Cvikov. As well as undertaking a painstakingly beautiful reconstruction of the brewery that began in 2013, Cvikov is also home to a modern and stylish on-site restaurant and hotel. As with Kutná Hora, there is evidence that brewing has occurred on this site since the 16th century. Another similarity is the high quality of its světlý ležák, which is available in various shades and strengths.

Even its 8º is special, providing oodles of character from open fermentation and decoction mashing at a very sessionable 3.7% ABV. Historically these lower ABV lagers were brewed for the local glassmakers, which, remarkably, are still legally allowed to drink up to eight beers per shift as they work with molten glass. This particular beer is something of a tribute to this quirk of northern Bohemian culture.

Cvikov copper vessel - Matthew Curtis
Beer from the tank at Cvikov - Matthew Curtis
Glass Blowing - Cvikov - Photo by Martyn Railton

While the revival of traditional Czech lagers appears to be in full swing, so too are brewers taking influence from the new wave of American and British breweries, especially when it comes to the liberal use of North American hop varieties. Pivovar Matuška provide an excellent example of this in the form of its Raptor IPA. And yet there’s still something distinctively Czech about this beer: a lingering sweetness that is the hallmark of decoction mashing, and a rasping bitterness followed by a dry finish, ensuring that this 15º (or 6.3%) beer slips down easily.

It’s one of the beers available at Dva Kohouti, a modern brewpub formed in collaboration with Matuška and the founders of popular bar and restaurant chain, Lokál. Here you’ll find plenty of interesting beers from New Zealand hopped pale ales to German-style weizenbocks, many brewed by Adam Matuška at their brewery to the west of Prague, but with the house beer (and the odd special) brewed on site by brewmaster Lukas Tomsa. My favourite, Místní, is a classic 12º pilsner-style lager, and it’s also served to me in my favourite Czech pour, the šnyt.

Like Lokál, Dva Kohouti takes the serving of its beer as seriously as its brewing, which included the installation of specially designed taps to control the pour ratio of foam to beer. A šnyt, sometimes referred to as a “workers beer” consists of roughly two fingers of beer and three fingers of densely packed foam. Should you wish for a full glass you’ll want to order a “hladinka” (although as is the Czech way this beer will still be liberally topped with a generous helping of foam). And for the curious, why not try a mlíko pour, which is nothing but foam—the only challenge being that you need to drink with a sense of urgency, before the foam becomes liquid again.

It’s one of the more fun characteristics of Czech brewing culture—one sadly not permitted by the weights and measures act here in the UK, more’s the pity. More importantly though is what these new wave of Czech brewers represents: opportunity. Premium lager is having a moment, as sales of lighter lager styles continue to dwindle.

Dva Kohouti - Matthew Curtis
Beers at Dva Kohouti - Matthew Curtis

Currently, much of the growth in the premium lager category owes a debt to the Bavarian-style beers that they are inspired by. Be that authentic Munich beers such as Augustiner, or modern British interpretations such as Camden Town Hells, they all have remarkably similar characteristics: that of soft, bready malts, with a smooth, snappy hop finish.

Czech style beers offer something of an alternative. They’re remarkably different in character and complexity, while retaining the dry, drinkable characteristics that make lagers so popular. Add in alternative styles such as dark and amber lagers, and you’ve got a whole alternative set of flavours which lovers of lager styles will no doubt find compelling.

As drinkers seek out new flavours, but also crave something that’s reassuring and provides refreshment, Czech lagers offer an experience that straddles the line between all of these features. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off out for a šnyt or two.

Matthew Curtis is a beer writer, photographer and co-founder of Pellicle Magazine. He has been awarded for his work by both the British and North American Guild of Beer Writers.

Saaz Hops - Matthew Curtis
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