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Friday, January 11, 2013

Czech Lagers in Hood River

Update.  Scroll down to look at the comments where Full Sail's brewmaster, Jamie Emmerson, comments on his background and technique.


The world of Czech lagers is mostly hidden to Americans.  We know of "Bohemian pilsners" and assume that's all there is to the country that invented the world's most famous style.  But the Czech Republic has a brewing tradition as rich as Germany's and if you have the good fortune to visit, you will find more than golden lagers there.  The thing we know as pilsner is called "light lager" in the Czech Republic--světly ležák ("pilsner" is reserved for the beer made at Urquell).  But you'll also find things called tmavéčerné, and polotmavé in hues ranging from light amber to black.

The Czech system for producing beer runs along two axes--strength and color.  On the one side you have beers of different strength categories based on original gravity (they've changed, so old hands need to update their vocabulary): stolní (table beer up to 6° P), výčepní (7° to 10°), ležák (11° to 12°), and speciál (13° +).  On the other, the definitions run from pale to black: světlé (pale), polotmavé (half dark), tmavé (dark), and černé (black).  Anything on one side may be matched to anything on the other, so you could have strong pales or table darks--or anything in-between.

This all seems academic to the average American, though, right?  When was the last time you saw a tmavé in the grocery store? It might have been more recently than you know.

Several years ago, Full Sail's James Emmerson tried a Czech tmavé and had an epiphany: it would be the perfect style to compliment Session Lager.  "When I had the tmavé, to me that was the yin to Session’s yang, just a perfect beer to pair with the all-malt helles, which is what Session is."  And thus was born Session Black, a stealth tmavé.  I was working on a chapter about dark lager and I called Jamie up to talk about Black, which I knew was inspired by the Czech dark.  I was surprised to learn that Session Fest and the current LTD seasonal--LTD 06--are also Czech-inspired, and that Full Sail has quietly been brewing up a portfolio of Czech beers.

When Session Black was released, I described it as a schwarzbier--and was later corrected.  Last week I called and asked Jamie what he saw as the difference was between German dark and black beers and the Czech versions:

The difference between a dunkel, schwarzbier, and tmavé style is the Munich dark being really malt forward in that Munich malt character. The schwarzbier being drier with that roast character. And then the tmavé was an interesting balance, with that roast being subdued and that malt-forward character wasn’t so surrounded by the Munich malt character. Maybe it’s a different brewing philosophy. The Czech beers in general have a really nice creaminess that [is] different than say the kind of malt character that came from a Munich beer
For my money, that last point is really the key.  Czech beers are made with very different malts than German beers.  Czechs use floor-malted grain that is less modified than German malts.  Most larger German breweries have abandoned decoction (though it's more common in Franconia and Bavaria), but it's typical in Czech breweries.  The combination of the less-modified malts and decoction create that creaminess--a quality that runs through all the Czech lagers I tried.  He agreed:

Certainly when you’re using the kind of malt they’re using, it lends itself more to decoction than the kind of malt we’re using. The degree of modification here does a lot of the work for you, but it takes away some of the opportunities as well. The challenge for us it to use American malts and specialty malts to try to recreate those flavors. Is it the same? Probably not—but it’s pretty close. 
Full Sail first released Session Fest last year, and it is probably the country's only regular-rotation polotmavé.  Emmerson: "No roast in it all all—it’s all caramel malts, Munich, and pale malts. It’s got that same kind of creamy mid-palate again. After bringing the Session Black, then, the idea of a polotmavé for Session Fest was a natural."

Okay, we have the half-dark and dark, what about black?  That would be the LTD 06:   "The černé is one I’ve always wanted to do, and the LTD 6 allowed that, because it’s a much larger beer. It’s very dopplebock-y, but that whole dark-roasted thing at the top created an interesting character to that beer."  If you haven't tried it yet, go buy a sixer.  It's pretty spectacular beer.  The balance between the burnished smoothness of the malt with that twist of roast is fantastic, and it's a perfect winter beer.

Emmerson has also made a strong Czech beer, inspired in part by Budvar's Speciální pivo called Bud (not sold, as you may have guessed by the name, in the US).  Emmerson wanted to create "an homage to the Czech thing of super-simple," and LTD 04 was just pilsner malt and Willamette hops.

Of course LTD 03 was the one beer people might have recognized as a Czech beer--it was a pilsner.  Or, as Jamie probably wished to call it, a světly ležák.

So that's pretty much the full range of Czech beers, and you can find them right here in Oregon.  I still think it's worth that trip to Prague you were always planning on taking, but maybe these beers will tide you over in the meantime.

17 comments:

Pivní Filosof said...

Great to see brewers over there calling things the way they should be called. And polotmavé at that!

PS: Notch in Boston has also brewed one, and he makes a desítka, on top of it!

Velky Al said...

I was under the impression that 'tmave' was still the only legal name for dark lager, rather than 'tmave' as 'dark' and 'cerne' as 'black'.

Anonymous said...


Two of the best weeks of my life were in the Czech Republic drinking proper lagers, something sorely missing in America. I think there may be hope in the future to buy a proper beer in America. Until then I brew my own.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of posing on all fronts. Might as well say, "I want to make a steak like they have at Peter Luger's", then going to Safeway to buy it. Do these beers taste anything like what they are being compared to? They use average malts, Pabst yeast and short aging schedules. I've not been to Prague but if the beer there tastes like Full Sail's I'd be mighty disappointed.

Jeff Alworth said...

Anon, you're wrong on most counts. Full Sail uses a yeast that they believe may go back to the Czech Republic--it doesn't produce sulfur as some of the German strains do. They age their beers impressively--Session Black gets four weeks, LTD 06 I think eight. (Poor note-taking, sorry.) I'm not sure what "average malts" are, so it's hard to know what to say there.

As to whether they taste like those in Czech: there's no answer to that. It's like saying does IPA X taste like those brewed in America? The ranges include everything from the horrible to the sublime, and when your sample size is big enough, you can almost always find similar beers.

Maybe you should go to the Czech Republic and then see for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, four weeks is not impressive! And that yeast is Pabst yeast. 'Average malts' are standard domestic American 2-row, which is bred for max extract, not flavor. Sorry dude but you are lapping up a well-told story without much critique or even research.

Anonymous said...

I think the last thing you can say about a blog article from Jeff is it's without research. Anon above has his beer panties in a bitter bunch.

Shawn said...

Jeff, have you thought about disallowing anonymous comments?

samtierney said...

4 weeks is plenty for a pilsner. Longer and you start to develop fruity notes that aren't typically as desirable in the style. And on the yeast front, even if it is the same as Pabst, where do you think it came from before then? Either a German or Czech brewery.

I'm a firm believer in using continental malts for lagers, and if you drink the lagers from a brewery like Chuckanut, it becomes obvious what advantages they have in the right hands. On the other hand, I also respect a more domestic approach to ingredient sourcing and think that you can get very similar flavors with the right combinations of malts.

Czech brewing to me is very much about the overall approach and the ingredients, otherwise you're really just making tweaks on German-style lagers. I think most American brewers reflexively default to a more German style--clean and dry. Really going for Czech style takes some balls.

Honestly, I've never had an LTD and thought it tasted at all like a Czech beer. The explicit proclamation on 06 got me interested but again, to clean and just the wrong base ingredient flavors. I appreciate the inspiration, but claiming that any of these are true to the original styles is almost like saying your typical west coast IPA is supposed to be like a Fullers ESB.

mike said...

Calling these American beers "Czech beers" is just plain wrong. Does Microsoft make Apple computers? Does Steven Spielberg make Michael Haneke films?

Would it be so difficult to write "Czech-style"?

Pivní Filosof said...

@Anon,

4-6 weeks is a quite standard lagering time here in CZ, at all levels of output. There are very few beers that lager more than that, and they are mostly the stronger ones.

I once asked a well renown Brew Master here why he "only" lagered his desítka for 20 days. "It won't get any better after that," he answered.

jamie emmerson said...

After I got my Organic Chemistry degree in ‘85, I lived in Munich for a year and of course, drank all the great beers. I got my Brewing Degree in ’87 and began brewing with Full Sail in 1988. This gave me the opportunity to visit friends and breweries in Europe on a regular basis over the years and I was able to visit Czechoslovakia before the wall fell and the Czech Republic after. My discussions with the brewers there centered around recipes, brewing philosophy, etc and most agreed that Czech and German beers were cousins, but with different perspectives. You only have to taste Budvar’s Schwartzbier to see the range of malts in use, Pale, Specialty, and Roast, and the low contributing character from the Munich malt….and that lovely creaminess. And different from a Munich Dunkles or a German Schwartzbier. I think the comment that our beers are too “clean” and not true to the styles is an odd one. I didn’t have any Czech beers that had any wild off flavors, rather on the whole, they were quite tasty. I had Czech beers that were very dry in the palate as well as brews that were quite sweet…. Czech brewers just produce a wider variety of lager beers than the Germans. Without using Czech floor malted 2 row and specialty malts, I think our beers, using local ingredients, come very close to what I experienced drinking with the Czechs. The many appreciative emails I’ve received from Czechs living in the United States validates this for me. So, the LTD series are beers inspired by the great Czech beers I’ve enjoyed these many years, and as a PNW brewer, these styles allow us to explore an incredibly rich brewing culture and provide our customers with a great selection of traditional, elegant beers. Also, after information shared by Brewing Chemist PhD’s from some of the larger breweries, it appears that there may be only 6 genetic true lager strains as opposed to thousands of ale strains.

Erlangernick said...

I wish I could get proper Czech lagers where I live: in Franconia, a two-hour drive from Pilsen. There are two places in town that serve Czech beer here: a "Mexican" restaurant right near us with bottled Crusovice dark for ~3€ a bottle, and a Czech restaurant with the same on draught and a rotating pale Czech lager from big breweries. Even these rather lame examples beat the locally-brewed Franconian stuff.

Jamie, what do you make of Bavarian beer today vs. 25 years ago?

Jeff Alworth said...

Nick, where do you live? Because in my dreams, the beers taste like Mahr's U and Schlenkerla's marzen. I have such warm memories of the amazing beer I had in Franconia.

Erlangernick said...

Sorry for the late reply...Erlangen. Hence Erlangernick, my nickname whilst in Erlangen. A quirk of German grammar affecting adjectives made from most town names ending with -en makes it Erlangernick, not Erlangenernick.

I was over-exaggerating the above; there are some very good Franconian lagers, sadly though, almost none of them down below 4% abv like the Czechs somehow seem to manage. Well, then again, it depends on what I mean by "local". Breweries right near me are pretty crappy. Like, the ones within a few miles.

Schlenkerla is fabulous, yes, but Mahr's U is simply too devoid of character to back up its harshness, assumedly from over-sparging. There are many such husky, astringent beers around here.

Jonathan Aichele said...

You gotta love how this comment thread played out. Jeff puts up a nice post, highlighting something many may not have been aware of. Anonymous pipes up, in typical uninformed troll fashion. Insightful readers rebut. Brewer himself comments, crushing Anon, who disappears into the void.

Hee hee!

Anonymous said...

Having spent quite a bit of time in the old world, I think the old world brews are overrated while the new world craft brewers are underrated. Yes, the new world brews are different, but in many cases improved :-)

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