There’s no shortage of creative energy in Europe’s brewing scene. Adrian Tierney-Jones tries his luck with three of its hottest countries, in search of a big win
Czech beer? Imagine a gleaming glass of gold-flecked Pilsner Urquell, topped with an egg-white head of foam, and then take a sip. A bracing bitterness, the soft mouthfeel of Moravian malt, the spicy, herbal note of Saaz hop on the nose. This is a beer that defines what we think of when we think of Czech beer. Or does it?
Here is another Czech beer. It is as dark as a moonless night, though a crimson tint at the glass’s edge suggests the coming dawn. Its foamy head is the colour of espresso crema, while there’s a hint of milk chocolate and mocha coffee on the nose; the palate is dry and creamy, slightly smoky and blessed with a lasting finish. This is Tmavý Speciál, a dark, bock-like lager from Pivovar Rambousek in the city of Hradec Králové.
Selling Czech beer is a reminder that continental European brewing heritage shouldn’t take a back seat to upstart micros. Full-bodied, tasty lagers aren’t the be-all and end-all of Czech beer. Since the fall of communism, dark beers have made a comeback, and wheat beers are increasingly common, too. ‘Then there are stouts and IPAs: Bohemian craft! Customers are curious to try these. They’re usually lagered, resulting in a more integrated flavour profile than the US and UK examples that inspired them.
If the Czech Republic were a glass it would brim over with great and glorious beer. After all, the city of Pilsen/Plzeň is where the world’s first golden lager, Pilsner Urquell, was brewed in 1842. Since then, the country has been noted for the excellence of its lager beers, whether gold, amber or dark in colour. Meanwhile Pilsner Urquell has gone from strength to strength – its latest innovation was the 2015 introduction of unpasteurised ‘tank beer’ in selected UK pubs.
However, the Czech beer scene is not stationary. It’s undergoing its own beer revolution, with a growing group of small breweries producing IPAs, pale ales, imperial stouts, wheat beers and bocks as well as exemplary Pilsner-style lagers.
One of the stars is Pivovar Nomád, whose Karel Česká IPA sees aromatic notes of grapefruit, mandarin and pine quivering on the nose, while the palate is a bittersweet construction of grapefruit and orange alongside grainy dryness, followed by a bitter finish. Further names to watch out for include Pivovar Matuška and Klášterní Pivovar Strahov.
Few of these beers have made it to the UK yet sadly, usually only appearing in specialist ‘craft’ beer bars or at the Great British Beer Festival. However, such is the frenetic interest in the global craft beer movement that it won’t be long before the likes of Matuška Weizenbock or Strahov’s Svaty Norbert IPA start drawing in the world beer crowd. Whether old or new, this an exciting time in Czech brewing and British drinkers and bar owners should be ready to experience it.
FAMOUS FOR: Golden lager, hearty cuisine including doorstep-sized dumplings, Prague Castle, Franz Kafka, Petr Čech
PRODUCERS TO WATCH: Pivovar Matuška (occasionally appears in the UK); Pivovar Kout (bohemiabeers.co.uk); Pivovar Primátor (Pivovar, 01904 607197)
STYLES TO WATCH: Budweiser Budvar has introduced unpasteurised tank beer to selected venues in the UK; also expect Staropramen and Krušovice to try it. Another possible style to watch out for is Imperial Pilsner: Budvar released a 7.5% one in 2015. And there will be more Czech IPAs and pale ales, plus the odd cherry-flavoured
beer to watch out for.
TWO MUST-TRY BEERS: Pivovar Kout na Šumavě Koutská 12˚ (£39/20x500ml; £60/20l keg, bohemiabeers.co.uk); Bernard Dark Lager (£27/24x330ml; £74.80/30l keg; Pivovar, 01904 607197)
Variety is the spice of life in the Belgian beer scene, which means that there’s a beer for everyone, even those who profess not to like the juice of the barley. Beer has always coursed through the veins of Belgium but it’s only in the past 40 years that its individuality and quality has really been recognised by the wider world. With nearly 200 independent breweries producing hundreds of beers, there is plenty to choose from just over the Channel.
Red wine your usual tipple? How about a Flemish red-brown ale that is a blend of young and old beers aged in wood? The taste is gently sour, refreshingly tart and always memorable. Those who love white wine or champagne might like to plump for an effervescent gueuze from the likes of Cantillon or Boon. Another beer to tempt the doubter at the bar would be a potent dark dubbel that broods in the glass with the nonchalance of a young Marlon Brando.
Belgian beers are iconic beers, steeped in brewing history. With flavours vastly different to mainstream beers, they also work particular well with food. We find recommending them with various dishes from our menu is a great way to get people to try them. Customers also enjoy it when the beers are served with their own individual glass.
As well as the diversity of tastes, another reason for Belgian uniqueness is the endearing habit of a different glass for each beer. This gives those serving at the bar a chance to involve customers in the theatre of the serve. Chalice glasses, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages, hold Trappist beers; while Bosteels’ forceful amber ale, Kwak, is dispatched in what looks like an oversized test tube held by a wooden stand. Some Belgian bar owners have been known to ask Kwak drinkers to leave a shoe behind the bar as surety they won’t steal it...
Another vital aspect of Belgian beers is the ease with which they can be matched with food, both in the kitchen and on the dining table. Westmalle’s dark rich dubbel is ideal both used in a beef stew and as an accompaniment; meanwhile a sprightly and spicy wheat beer such as Watou’s Wit is a wow with shellfish.
The current new wave of Belgian brewers such as Troubadour, Brasserie de la Senne and De Struise have also shown they’re as excited about the possibilities of hops, barley and yeast as their forebears. The Belgian IPA has been recognised as an IPA sub-style of its own, merging an assertive hoppiness alongside the spiciness of Belgian yeast. Other breweries have aged beer in wood, browsed through old brewing books for ancient styles and given a hoppy pep talk to their saisons.
People often joke that there aren’t many famous Belgians around, but who cares about celebrities when Belgian beer
is a star all on its own.
FAMOUS FOR: Beers brewed in monasteries, Tintin, frites with mayonnaise, the Atomium, Eddy Merckx, chocolate.
PRODUCERS TO WATCH: Brasserie de la Senne (Beers of Europe, 01553 812000); De Struise Brouwers (Beer Gonzo, 0247671 2498); Brouwerji De Ranke (Beers of Europe, 01553 812000).
STYLES TO WATCH: Belgian IPAs; Spéciale Belge, which is a beer first brewed at the start of the 20th century; hoppy tripels and saisons; wood-aged beers; imperial stouts.
TWO MUST-TRY BEERS: Troubadour Magma (Cave Direct, 01622 710339); Duvel Tripel Hop (James Clay, 01422 377560)
Travel to Italy and it’s the done thing to spend time in the company of a marvellous wine or quench the thirst with the kind of lager usually found behind a British bar-top. On the other hand, with nearly 600 breweries of all shapes and sizes in operation, there’s a wealth of intricately crafted beers that often use unusual ingredients such as grape must, chestnuts and various fruits and spices. This doesn’t mean that the scene is a gimmicky freak show of brewing: there are also hop-fuelled IPAs (and double IPAs), stouts and porters, wheat beers, beers aged in all manner of wooden barrels (several breweries also mature beer in terracotta), plus some of the best lagers in the world.
There’s always been beer in Italy, but no one took it seriously until the 1990s, when craft beer pioneers Teo Musso and Agostino Arioli founded Baladin and Birrificio Italiano respectively (Birrificio Lambrate also dates from this period). Musso, who has gone on to open Baladin bars in Rome, Bologna and New York, among others, oversees an eclectic range of beers, many of which are pitched at the dining table and packaged in elegant bottles. Standouts include the Abbey ale Super (and its hoppier cousin Super Bitter), the spicy saison Wayan and the incredibly complex Madeira-like barley wine Xyauyù.
A lot of drinkers are on the lookout for new beers these days. Italian artisanal beers are novel, often original (think beers with grape must) and well executed! I would recommend licensees go for Italian beers with a solid background. Presence on the international market or awards won may be a good indicator. It’s important that staff have good product knowledge and can explain what’s premium about the beer.
Arioli’s passion is lager, and his signature beer Tipopils is one of the finest expressions of the German Pils style in Europe; such is his dedication that he has been known to drive to Bavaria to personally choose hops. Other beers produced by Birrifico Italiano are also equally commanding, including a black IPA, a bock and beers aged in wine barrels.
In the past decade, the emerging Italian artisanal breweries have remained creative and energetic. They have looked back to classic styles from the UK, US, Germany and Belgium, but then moved forward in their own direction. For instance, Grado Plato, from south of Turin, is noted for the dark chocolatey Chocarrubica, which has carob beans added, while its Weizentea is a Bavarian wheat beer with added green tea. Foglie d’Erbe’s Hopfelia, meanwhile, is a bright, zesty and cheerful IPA, and BrewFist goes all American-style craft with Spaceman IPA, a punchy and tropically fruity expression of this style.
Such is the vibrancy of Italy’s craft-beer scene that the homeland of Dante is currently one of the most adventurous countries in Europe to drink beer. Ciao bella!
FAMOUS FOR: Pasta, wine, fashion, the Colosseum, football, Lake Como, Verdi, Ferrari.
PRODUCERS TO WATCH: BrewFist (Vertical Brands, 01138 980284); Opperbacco (Beers from Italy, 020 8638 0526).
STYLES TO WATCH: Terracotta-aged beers; beers made with specialist grains such as spelt and emmer; imperial stouts; IPAs; wood-aged beers; pale ales with added ingredients such as black pepper; Belgian-style blondes.
TWO MUST-TRY BEERS: Birra del Borgo ReAle, Birrifico Italiano Tipopils (£27.06/12x330ml and £31.08/12x330ml respectively, both Vertical Brands, 01138 980284)