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Czeching out the harvest

Pilsen and Budweis are cities in Bohemia...but the great barley comes from the state next door

The cities of Pilsen and Budweis, not to mention Prague, have been in Bohemia ever since that state came into existence. Where is Bohemia, though? It has been a state in various European empires, and was in a country called Czechoslovakia when I first visited its breweries. Things have changed since then. Now, Bohemia and Moravia are in a country called the Czech Republic -- the Slovak part declared its independence a few years ago and left. I don't think the Bohemians want the Moravians to leave.

Bohemia grows wonderful hops, but Moravia has great barley. Many Bohemian brewers favour Moravian barley-malt. The Budvar brewery, in Budweis, certainly does. Moravian malt seems to give a particularly oily, soothing, softness to the beer, rendering it deliciously drinkable. This alone is a good reason for Bohemia and Moravia to stay together.

Perhaps that is why there is no sign on the freeway from Prague to Brno to tell the traveller at what point he is leaving Bohemia and entering Moravia. When I took that road, some gentle hills seemed to be all that separated these two states: the one on the banks of the Moldau, the other sharing the name of its river, the Moravia.

I asked a Bohemian how the Moravians were different. "They talk funny," he said. "They have an accent." Perhaps the Bohemians lean to their Celtic history and Moravians, once part of Poland, are more obviously Slavic, but that is to split hairs on heads that tend to premature baldness.

"When we need rain, we get it, but never at harvest," he responded, with a certainty bordering on smugness.

In Bohemia, there are always apple trees by the road; in Moravia, I noticed plums. "This area is famous for plum brandy," confirmed my travelling companion, Marek "but look at that heavy, black soil. Perfect for barley..." We were in a plateau along the Moravia river, a region called Hana. The land had become relatively flat, making for large fields, ideal for the combined harvester. "Even before the collectives, they had big farms here," Marek continued. The other essential for any crop is the weather. "When we need rain, we get it, but never at harvest," he responded, with a certainty bordering on smugness. "So where is all the barley?" I asked. "Harvested," he conceded. "We had a particularly sunny year."

It has been argued that Moravia's Hana barley is the parent of all present-day varieties. An aristocratic landowner in the region started to select seed from Hana and sell the barley on a wide scale for brewing and malting in the 1860s and 1870s. In the decades that followed, this led to the Continent's first attempts to develop varieties by cross-breeding. Hana barley is a parent of modern German lager varieties like Alexis. British farmers had selected seeds even earlier, but their classic varieties have also crossed bloodlines with Hana. So have Scandinavian varieties since the earliest time of breeding. In the United States, Coors started using seeds from Moravia to grow its own barley back in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, American micros, brewpubs and home-brewers are increasingly using Moravian malt, and the supplier St Patrick's of Texas, in Austin, has become something of a specialist in this field.

The Moravians still avoid artificial drying of their barley, but their traditional floor maltings are largely being replaced by more modern technology.

I did see a working floor-maltings at the Cerna Hora brewery, though it was not in operation the day I called. This brewery, set into a wooded hillside, dominates the village of the same name, due north of Brno. The village, on an old trade route, has an old people's home in a castle dating from the 1500s. The brewery originally served the estate, but the present premises date from 1871. Like all breweries, it was state-owned during the Communist period. After the Velvet Revolution, it was privatised, and the present partners are a lawyer, a broker and the owner of a construction company.

Despite much renovation, the Gothic-vaulted maltings still has leather pulleys and the brew-kettle and lauter-tun date from the 1920s. A double decoction mash is used. Lagering is no longer in wood, but the horizontal meal tanks contrasted with the cylindro-conicals sprouting elsewhere in the country.

The brewer, a voluble, enthusiastic young man, told me that he his last workplace had been modernised; he preferred "traditional" Czech beer.

Even an incongruous-sounding light lager called Kiss FM had a good, creamy, head; a sweetish malt character; and a lot of hop for a "young people's" brew (23 units of bitterness). Kiss serves a region called Hády, pronounced "Hardy". (A kiss is what Admiral Lord Nelson wanted when he lay dying. He passed his request on to his comrade Captain Hardy). The radio station's frequency is 88.3, the last two figures representing the original gravity of the beer in degrees Plato. The brewer, a voluble, enthusiastic young man, told me that he his last workplace had been modernised; he preferred "traditional" Czech beer.

I enjoyed his regular Lezák (lager), with a firm, smooth, maltiness and spicy hop character (30 units of bitterness). There was also a sherbety but soothing honey beer, called Kern (the name of a disco band, apparently), and a tasty amber lager with the space-age name Kvasar. Best of all was a dark lager called Granát, with a textured maltiness that was almost figgy, and 5.0abv. A friend provided me with a bottle of this years ago; I liked it then, and I still do.

To the north and east of Brno, in the town of Vyskov, I visited a brewery that originally belonged to the local Roman Catholic Archbishop. It is at the moment still state-owned, but the buildings may now be returned to the church, in which case someone will have to be found to rent and operate the brewery.

The brewery, in the very centre of the town, is called simply Vyskov. It dates from 1680, and still has original cellars, but most of the buildings are from the 1800s and early 1900s. The brewer, Josef Vesely (the surname means "happy") looked a serious fellow, as he led me through an excellent tasting, though he did finally allow a smile when I photographed him.

Hop aroma? That exploded from the glass in a beer called General, at 1056 and 6.0abv.

The names of the beers here were more traditional. Dzbán, named after the local Delft-like pottery, is a pale lager of 4.5abv, accented toward hoppy dryness. Breznák means "March" (as in the (German Märzenbier), and has a hare on the label. The beer is golden, with a gravity of only 1048, but an alcohol content of 5.2. This had the dense head and oily maltiness that I associate with Czech beer at its best. Hop aroma? That exploded from the glass in a beer called General, at 1056 and 6.0abv. This is named after the local military school. The town has a strong military tradition, and is near Austerlitz. A dark lager called Havran ("Raven") was coffeeish and creamy, with a delicious malt character. Mr Happy told me that he had used four malts and had tried to avoid excessive sweetness. I think he should be happy about this beer.

The last brewery, completing a circular tour around Brno, was to the south of the city, in Znojmo. The Hostan brewery shares its yard with an 11th-century chapel and the local castle. The whole complex overlooks an 80-metre gorge accommodating the river Dyje, which eventually forms the frontier with Austria. The river is crossed by a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel, better known for his tower.

At privatisation, the brewery was acquired by one of its own managers, along with partners from the industry. Like all three of the breweries I visited, it was trying to restore a neglected grandeur. In this case, there were marble pillars in the brewhouse, and a spiral stone staircase down to natural lagering cellars.

Its premium beer is a lager labelled 12° (the Plato equivalent to 1048), with 5.2abv. This had a clean, cookie-like, maltiness and a late hoppy dryness. I also enjoyed Hostan's version of a "garnet" beer. Its Granát, at only 4.2abv, was light, but with an excellent, licorice-like, malt character. The lucky Moravians have both barley and grapes, especially in the area of Znojmo. I tried both, but the beers won.

Parts of this story have appeared elsewhere in a different form.

Published: MAR 11, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Brew Travel - Brewery Review - Beer Review

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