THE launch of a new draught lager in the UK is rarely a source of much excitement.
Yet when the beer is from Budvar and is the first live yeast beer to be exported commercially from the Czech brewery in living memory, it’s certainly worthy of comment.
As brewers go, Budvar is special, not least because of their on-going dispute with American giant Anheuser-Busch over the use of the Budweiser name. Britain is one of few territories worldwide where both companies can put the name on the bottle.
What is beyond dispute is that the American brewer was inspired by the Czech; Adolphus Busch having visited the town of Budejovice (Budweis in German) in the 1870s and been so impressed by the beer produced there, that he vowed to replicate it back home. The Americans named their Budweiser – meaning simply “beer from Budweis” – and so began 140 years of legal argument.
Also beyond contestation is that, despite Adolphus’ fine intentions, Czech Budweiser Budvar, brewed with the highest quality hops and malted barley and lagered for 90 days before being put into bottle and keg, is now vastly superior to the pale, insipid, rice-brewed American version.
The 90 days lagering is something they’re very proud of – and allows the beer to develop the rich, rounded qualities which stand it head and shoulders above many others on the market, some of which are lagered for barely any time at all. This is not just an investment of time, but one of immense space. The southern Bohemian brewery sells around 100 million litres of beer a year – so in order to lager it for 90 days, a quarter of that production run is stored on site at all times in vast cold halls, stacked to the ceiling with huge tanks of beer.
The new yeast beer makes up about five per cent of the brewery’s production, and until recently was sold at just a select few dozen outlets, mostly high-end restaurants, across the Czech Republic. But it caused such a stir when it made an appearance at the Great British Beer Festival a couple of years ago – even persuading hardened real ale fanatics to cross over to the light side for a while – that Budvar has now started shipping limited quantities to the UK.
And having first tried the beer at the Tower Bridge Draft House in December, I travelled to the Czech Republic last month to see it in production.
Former brewmaster Josef Tolar talked me through the process, explaining that the yeast beer undergoes precisely the same brewing, filtration and long storage process of the standard Budvar Original. Only as it is decanted into keg is it blended with a newer, green beer – essentially an unfiltered, unpasteurised hopped wort – which contains living yeast and kickstarts a secondary fermentation process in the keg. They call this intervention “krausening” and though it differs somewhat to the production of a real ale, just like Timothy Taylor Landlord or Leeds Pale, this is very much a “live” beer, when it’s dispensed on the bar top.
This method of producing beer is steeped in Central European history, even if the details are somewhat lost in the mists of time. “Krausened beer is a very old style,” said Josef. “It was common in Austria, Germany and Bohemia but we have no details of precisely how it was made.”
The green beer added to the lager is sweetish, cloudy, bitter and slightly soporific – a little like Horlicks with hops – though Joe was reluctant to reveal quite how much of it is added in the krausening process.
And though he wouldn’t say, it’s certainly enough to make a difference. “The secondary fermentation gives it a fuller taste,” said Joe. “It’s possible for those of a sensitive palate to recognise the addition of the yeast,” rather throwing down the gauntlet to see if I was up to the task.
Drinking the two beers in isolation, I’d probably find it impossible to tell them apart – and certainly there is no discernible difference of colour or opacity. But tasting them side-by-side the slightly fuller, sharper taste of the krausened beer reveals itself. The sweetness of the green beer disappears during the secondary fermentation, creating a finished product which is dryer, slightly more bitter and a notch more full-flavoured, giving the impression that it is rather stronger – though the secondary fermentation actually has no significant impact on the strength.
It is no accident that the UK has been chosen as the first country outside the beer’s homeland to take the beer: “Your real ale pubs have the perfect conditions for this, and the expertise in handling live beers,” Joe explained. With a shelf life of around six weeks – at least one of which is spent with the keg sitting in the cellar at six to eight degrees centigrade – Budvar will only entrust the beer to outlets where they’re confident it will be well cared for.
The northern launch of Budvar Yeast Beer takes place tomorrow at the Lancaster Beer Festival, and hopefully landlords this side of the Pennines will soon be offering this remarkable product for sale in their pubs too. If they do, be sure to give it a try – this is surely a lager that even the most determined real ale lover should try.
Beer of the week
Budvar Yeast isn’t available as a bottle-conditioned lager just yet, but here’s something else which you don’t see every day. Having brewed golden lagers since time immemorial, in 2004, Budvar decided to shake things up by throwing some caramel and roasted barleys into the mash tun to see what came out the other end.
Aside from that, the brewing and lagering process is largely identical to that for Budvar Original, using the whole Žatec hops and pure water from the brewery’s 300-metre deep artesian wells.
There is much to this beer that a lover of dark British ales would recognise – an enticing malty aroma, a mild, fruity and caramelly taste and a determinedly long-lasting head. Only in the long aftertaste do some little accents of sweetness emerge.
This lovely dark lager is supplied in kegs as well as bottles, and in a select few pubs – like the splendid Nook at Holmfirth – the special beer font allows drinkers to try either Budvar Original, Budvar Dark, or the intriguing half-and-half.