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Czech Beer, Lost and Found

August 05, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Modern brewers are rediscovering the allure of Czech-style beer—Old World design and all.

To say Czech beer is a hot new trend in America might sound a tad like clickbait. Czech beer has, for several centuries, been the predominant style of beer in America. Pilsner Urquell was imported to the United States as early as 1873, and three years later Bavarian immigrants Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch launched Budweiser in St. Louis, Missouri; modeled after the great beers coming out of the Bohemian town of České Budějovice, or Budweis, it quickly became the bestselling beer in the country.

Yet, for the past several decades, the modern craft beer boom has been defined by American breweries turning their backs on Old World styles in favor of ultramodern, rule-breaking beers. Today, however, brewers are returning not just to Czech-style beer—the common pilsner to lesser-known dark lagers—but Czech-style fonts, iconography, terminology and even diacritical marks. In an industry drowning in dessert-laden beers, cartoonish names and goofy IP-infringing labels, a growing number of brewers are leaning on the pared-down profiles and humble nomenclature of Czech beer as a deliberate course correction—a signal of their seriousness and dedication to the craft.

“I don’t think many people understand what beer means to the Czech Republic,” says Chris McClellan, marketing director at Torch & Crown Brewing Company. The Manhattan-based brewery recently released Město, a pilsner that borrows its name from the Czech word for city. “It’s a very different experience drinking there than anywhere else on earth, an unbelievably cool, intimate thing,” McClellan says. “The Czechs take their beer so fucking seriously.”

Much of this recent Czech fetishism can be attributed to Schilling Beer Co., a self-described “progressive” European-inspired brewery that opened in Littleton, New Hampshire, in 2013. Set in a late 18th-century grist mill perched above the Ammonoosuc River, Schilling produces zeitgeisty New England IPAs and wild ales, but their most ubiquitous offering is a series of Czech-style lagers, typically made entirely from Czech-sourced ingredients (including Moravian pilsner malt), labeled with Czech names and designs to boot.

Alexandr 10°, a pale pilsner, is the closest thing Schilling has to a flagship beer. Its name alone tips toward the Czech tradition, with the degree symbol denoting degrees Plato, a measurement of the concentration of extracted sugars in the wort; in other words, how alcoholic a beer will be. (10°, for instance, translates to around 4 percent ABV, while 12° checks in at around 5 percent ABV.) Likewise, the sharp can design of Palmovka 12° features a map of the Prague Metro system and is named after the neighborhood where Schilling co-founders John Lenzini and Jeff Cozzens hatched plans to brew their own lager.

But it’s not just pale lagers that are being revived. Lesser-known Czech styles, many of which have never reached the point of familiarity in America that, say, most German styles have, are making appearances at breweries across the country. In addition to a troika of Czech lagers released over the past year, for example, Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing also produced Indelible, a tmavé pivo, or dark lager, a style rarely seen stateside. Schilling likewise experiments with obscure Czech beers including Jaroslav, a Bohemian-style dark lager, and Augustín 13°, a polotmový Czech lager or “half-dark” amber lager.

“We didn’t consider that it may seem too esoteric to name our beers in this manner, or indeed, too esoteric to make Czech styles at all,” says Lenzini. “We have always felt that being genuine is very important when you put yourself out there creatively, and even more so in the world of craft beer.” 

Indeed, none of these beers have become viral sensations among Instagram-flexing craft beer drinkers. But that’s sort of the point. For drinkers (and brewers), sick of slugging slurries of fruit purée and holding cans with Ninja Turtles on them, it feels good to explore the nuances of classic, Old World beer again, with designs that evoke a culture in which people actually drink beer that tastes like, well, beer.

“When I look at it, what does all this Czech labeling tell customers?” asks McClellan. “A. This brewery understands they’re speaking to a very niche audience. But also B. They really know their shit.”

Five Czech-Style Lagers to Try

Threes Brewing Indelible

This tmavé pivo is black and roasty, with notes of milk chocolate, espresso and dark fruits, as well as a thick, creamy mouthfeel despite the sessionable ABV. Threes and Schilling Beer Co. have also released a terrific Czech dark lager collaboration called Precipice, which was aged in foudres.

  • ABV: 4.4 percent

Torch & Crown Brewing Company Město

Bohemian pilsner malt and Noble hops are used in this straw-colored pilsner. Crisp and balanced, it offers floral notes on the nose with a palate of lemon peel and Wheat Thins.

  • ABV: 4.9 percent

Godspeed Brewing Světlý Ležák 12°

The Czech craze has reached Canada, too, where this Toronto brewery uses Saaz hops and Czech floor-malted barley in the creation of a pale pilsner. Fresh-mowed grass presents on the nose while the malty body has a peppery spice and bitter finish.

  • ABV: 5 percent

OEC Brewing Coolship

This Connecticut brewery uses a traditional double decoction mash, then rests the boil in an open-air cooper coolship for one hour before it is transferred to fermentation tanks, where a Czech lager yeast is added. It’s then cellared for several months. The result pours gold in color with a thick, foamy head; the palate is biscuity, with a rich mouthfeel.

  • ABV: 5.2 percent

Schilling Beer Co. Augustín 13°

Brewed with all Czech-sourced ingredients, this amber lager, seemingly inspired by the legendary half-dark at Prague beer hall U Fleků, is bready with notes of toffee and fruity esters from the yeast. Saaz and Harmonie hops cut through with some crispness and bitterness.

  • ABV: 5.6 percent

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