Unearthing Lager


Adrian Tierney-Jones travels to České Budějovice to discover the secrets of one of the world’s greatest lagers

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Can you dream in flavour? Let us dream in flavour. Long after returning from Budvar I still dreamt of the crisp and fresh unfiltered Original that emerged like a wraith of love from the brewery’s lagering tanks. I still dreamt of the hint of bitter lemons two-stepping a tango across the tongue in the company of a crisp biscuity maltiness and a lengthy bitter finish. It’s a sensation of nobility and elegance that still haunts and humbles me whenever I return to the day several summers back when I visited Budvar for the second time in my life.

Inside the brew house, a silent space with just the hiss of machinery in the background, gleaming copper domes stood sentinel, their chimneys reaching to the ceiling and beyond. This is a monumental space, with something of a dream about it; even though in reality it’s an industrial plant and Budvar is a business, there’s still a romance and sense of heritage that you wouldn’t get in a steelworks or a car factory. You know that what is being made here sustains the soul and brings joy to many.

The lagering tanks hide away in white washed cellars, holding beers that slumber away in their winter-is-coming sleep of 1˚c, beers that are lordly and assertive and confident of their special status. These are beers that lager away for 90 days, change character, develop and grow. As if that wasn’t enough time, then think of Budvar’s stronger beers, especially its Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager, which has a mighty 200-day production cycle — some marriages don’t even last this long. Fresh in its compliance with the unique aromatics of Saaz, smooth in its sensation on the palate (all that time it’s been getting ready to show off) and bittersweet in its genial farewell at the back of the throat. Oddly enough, I’ve never tried it at the brewery, instead I’ve galloped through the odd glass in the confines of those London pubs that stock it on its limited release of six weeks.

On a road off the square, red-tiled roof, its face the colour of dirty sand, is a bleak looking building of the 19th century, a former Austro-Hungarian army barracks that was once briefly home to Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Back to dreaming. Let us dream of the city that the beer and its makers call home. Let us see it for ourselves. If you visit České Budějovice, as you must, you will find a city that was first raised in 1265; you will find a city whose wide open main square is a mash-up of Gothic, Baroque, Classical and Romantic architectural styles whose frontages swoon with different swashes of colour, including terracotta pink, deep lemon yellow and pale blue sky blue. And on a road off the square, red-tiled roof, its face the colour of dirty sand, is a bleak looking building of the 19th century, a former Austro-Hungarian army barracks that was once briefly home to Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk. You must visit.

Meanwhile back at the brewery, I ask and I ask and I ask and finally (something that was denied me during my previous visit) I get to taste the water with which this monument of beers is made. If water could be a ghost then this is it. On my tongue it is hardly there, ethereal, clean and limpid, the canvas on which the actions of malt, hops and yeast daub their colours and form their shapes. And then I stop. That’s enough of water. It’s beer I need, a beer I will dream of until the end of time.

Read Original Gravity% Issue 15 for free here

Do you know where you are, do you know where you’re from, do you know where you are going? Three vital questions that people ask themselves time and time again as life rolls on, but when it comes to beer this triumvirate of brain-teasers is often forgotten. Beer can be made anywhere, it doesn’t matter if the beer that was born in that town is now made in that town 100 miles away. On the other hand there’s almost a mystical connection between a beer and its sense of place, which, let’s be honest, isn’t always essential to the beer (a recent conversation with one of this issue’s contributors Boak and Bailey about the excellent quality of Young’s Ordinary, which has long  gone from its London home, springs to mind), but it’s this mysticism, this sense of the other, this sense of beer being like an oak with its long tendrils of roots glued to the very earth where a tiny acorn once fell, is what our writers have tried to convey in this issue.

Roger Protz has done a Michael Parkinson and interviewed an IPA (born in London and grew up in Burton); Pete Brown argues that beer does have a sense of place and also visits a brewery with its roots and beers firmly in the west Flemish countryside; Daniel Neilson rhapsodies over Wiper and True’s English Saison, which is also reviewed elsewhere; Emma Inch visits Brighton FC and drinks Harvey’s Sussex Bitter, perhaps the first beer that springs to mind when the South Downs hoves into view.

Elsewhere, Jessica Mason remembers her early exposure to the pub, and Copenhagen inspires its own sense of place. Beer meets wine, barley wine goes beneath the microscope and we’ve got some cool beers reviewed to whet your thirst. Oh and a little bit of news — November 13 sees the launch of our new website, which will feature exclusive stories and features that won’t be in the printed edition and there’s a regular monthly newsletter, which I would highly recommend you sign up for, so mark 13/11 in your diary!

Chin chin

Adrian Tierney-Jones, Editor