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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Sunday, 29 August 2010

Chodovar and the Bohemia/Bavaria beer nation

So after the future comes the past.

An hour or so on a minibus from Prague to Plzen, delayed by Tierney-Jones' alarm not going off.  Bags dropped in a charming pension in town, then back on the minibus and out along motorways through forests and fields towards Chodovar.

There's a big hotel, a brewery behind it, and as we drive around the back of this complex, the entrance to a tunnel.

You wouldn't believe what's inside this cave entrance...

Inside is a vast labyrinth of caves hewn from granite over a period of six centuries.  Now there's a restaurant at the heart of it, busy on a Friday lunchtime with families, couples, goths, and gangs of sweet little old ladies, all drinking pints of Chodovar beer.  

These caves were originally hollowed out to store or 'lager' the beer, cut from solid granite.  The natural temperature in here os between 3 and 5 degrees celcius, and beyond the restaurant and the tourist tat, horizontal fermentation tanks are still embedded in the rock.

Jiri Plevka's family have worked here as brewers for 220 years.  In 1992 they took over as managers, and Jiri now runs the place.  "Every member of the family is a brewer," he says. "Beer is our blood.  What matters to us the most is the quality of the beer.  Money comes second." 

They certainly make a lot of money - we're only nine miles form the German border, and this complex has all the hallmarks of a coach trip tourist trap - so if money only comes second, the beer has to be amazing.  

And it is.  

Jiri brings us pints of unfiltered, unpasteurised lager straight for the cellar, a beer that's only available in this restaurant.  It's an elixir to my hangover, a bready, spicy, grassy Kellerbier.  

Chodovar is a geographical curiosity.  I've always said that Bohemia and Bavaria, separated by a national border, are in fact two halves of a beery nation that belong together, and you really feel that here.  Josef Groll, the brewer who made Plzen famous, was a Bavarian.  You get the impression that Chodovar does more business with Germans than Czechs, and there are German influences in the brewing.  But the region has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status form the EU, meaning that 'Chodske Pivo' is unique - only ever brewed with ingredients from this region, including Saaz hops.

Just to confuse the regional identity further though, the local pronunciation of 'Chodske' sounds very similar to the way the Czechs talk about 'Scotland', and they joke that Scotland is the most northerly part of Chodske.  "Both places enjoy rainy weather, beautiful countryside, and have the same crops - you make whisky from the same ingredients as beer," says Jiri.  

He underlines this by distilling a clear spirit from his beer.  But maybe he's taking things a bit too far when he insists that he plays bagpipes at home.

OK it might just look like an empty room.  But this is a traditional floor maltings! In a brewery!

After this first beer we get a tour of the brewery.  It malts its own barley in an impressive maltings, with three female maltsters.  The traditional back-breaking work of turning the grain is made substantially easier with the help of little sit-on lawnmower-type machines that turn the malt.

The brewhouse itself is lovely, like all Czech brewhouses, all gleaming copper and long, fat, shiny pipes.
They do know how to build a lovely brewhouse in the Czech Republic
But it's those granite cellars where the magic happens.  In the week that A-B Inbev shamefully refused to tell journalists how long the new "premium" Stella Black is matured for - despite having the audacity to launch it on a positioning that it is 'matured for longer' -  Chodovar gave us a powerful reminder of the magic and integrity of true lagering, and a demonstration of how keen a brewer is to talk about lagering times when they have nothing to be ashamed of on that score.

The main lagers are aged for four to six weeks.  That's because a true lager has to be aged for that long to give it its unique, delicate character.  A real lager is not less flavourful than a good ale; it's just flavoured differently, and it's as beautiful as any ale, and a lot more drinkable.  Taste this stuff and I defy you to not start sounding like the worst kind of CAMRA loon.  It defies belief that most of the beer we drink exists on a scale of tasteless to offensive, when it's supposed to be like this.  This stuff is not more challenging or complex than mainstream British standard lager, it's not more difficult to get into, it's no less refreshing or crisp or any other things we want form standard lager.  It's just better.  And that's because it's been made with love and care - and time.  This beer is lagered for four to six weeks.  If rumours are correct, certain leading british lager brands are lagered for one day - or even less.  

Go figure.
Deep in the granite caves, this man is about to make Tierney-Jones quite tearful
If that's me getting a bit emotional about lager, you should have seen Tierney-Jones when we were given a tour of the lagering tanks, bricked into narrow granite passages with wet floors, and Jiri poured off some of his 'Spezial' beer, a Marzen style brew that will be ready at the end of September.  It's been i the tanks for one and a half months so far.  It's absolutely divine.  Jiri thinks it's getting there.

In the brewery yard is a fountain that springs from the brewery's well.  A statue to St Joseph presides over the fountain.  Behind his back, there's a second tap from the wellspring, out of which comes beer.  You pray to St Joseph for great beer, and he delivers.

Not much has changed here for 600 years.  Obviously lager styles have (they call it lager here, not Pilsner - they don't believe Plzen brews the best beer) and technology has, but the soul of the beer, the love for it, the sheer bloody loveliness of it, is as eternal as the granite.

Chodovar's slogan is "Your beer wellness land".  This is largely because it is the home of the beer spa, which we visited.  But that deserves a post all of its own - coming soon...

8 comments:

Paul Bailey said...

Nice post Pete, it's a shame that far too many brewers don't understand that the word "lager" means "store".

As for certain UK "lagers" only being lagered for a single day, this doesn't surprise me. The taste (or lack of it!)really does say it all.

Velky Al said...

I remember the first time I had a Chodovar, it was the polotmave (amber) and what a revelation it was, it became one of my staple beers in my last couple of years in the Czech Republic - for reasons more important that the handy swing top bottles for home brew!

beerandpubs said...

Well put. And quite right about the misuse of the term lager. Sadly there is no definition, beyond "to store at a cool temperature". One day, one month, one minute? these all fall within that definition. What intrigued me about Chodovar is that is it is light years ahead of most British brewers when it comes to beer tourism.

PhilipMarc said...

What a gorgeous little piece of history. This blog really makes me want to drink some of their beer!
Aside from having a great tasting, well brewed beer, it's nice to know that you're not just supporting a massive, impersonal beer giant, but rather a family, and a family tradition.
Thanks for shedding light on such a great operation. Unfortunately I'm sure I'd be hard pressed to find any of their beers at my local brew shop!

-PhilipMarc

"He was a wise man who invented beer." - Plato

Bailey said...

"This stuff is not more challenging or complex than mainstream British standard lager, it's not more difficult to get into, it's no less refreshing or crisp or any other things we want form standard lager. It's just better."

Yes, bang on. We've described that quality as 'zing' -- subtle, hard to describe, but certainly there in the best lagers.

Rudgie73 said...

Mr. Brown, you make me thirsty, Love Rudgie

Gary Gillman said...

The part of your article Bailey quoted indeed states it perfectly. Well put.

Gary

Kristyn said...

sadly, because really good lagers are seemingly a lost art in the mass consumerism of the world, it's nice to know that there are still places, probably quite a few of them, that understand, appreciate, cherish, and share that beautiful lager love. i've been lucky enough to taste a few, and they are simply beautiful.

and yes, now i'm thirsty.