Czech This Out

    Your intrepid liquor reporter has been noticing more and more Czech Pilsners on the shelves of my friendly neighbourhood booze merchant, as well as pouring from the taps of the local craft breweries.

    Czech Pilsners have long been a favourite of your humble narrator, and the style is experiencing a resurgence of popularity here in North America.

    Perhaps it was the warm camaraderie I felt for our Czech brethren so very far away, or the admiration for their long-standing record of the highest beer consumption per capita on the entire planet.

    Yes gentle reader, the average Czech puts away 158 litres of hoppy goodness every year, nearly twice the more modest 68 litres we Canucks consume annually. To put things in more easily grasped terms, the Czechs drink 445 bottles of beer each year, more than double the Canadian average of 192 bottles per year.

    The present-day Czech Republic was known as Bohemia from the 2nd century BCE right up until WWI, when it was combined with other neighboring lands to create the country of Czechoslovakia, which eventually split in 1993 to form Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

    In was in those heady Bohemian days back in 1118 that the brewing industry began, and really took off in the 13th century.

    Much like Canada is dominated by the Molson/Labatts duopoly, the brewing industry in the Czech Republic is dominated by two giants; Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar.

    It was in the Czech town of Pilsen that the famous Pilsner style of beer was born in 1842. Until that time, most Czech beers were dark ales, very full bodied and flavorful. That’s great for the dark beer lovers, but they weren’t the most approachable or easy-to-drink beers for new boozers. Luckily, the Burgess Brewery tried out the combination of the town of Pilsen’s remarkably soft water with pale malts and an aromatic hop variety called Saaz.

    Skipping forward to the present day, we find that many industrial macrobrews have co-opted the Pilsner name, despite being but pale imitations of the original Czech Pilsners.

    Labatt Blue and Kokanee are the two most obvious examples in Canada. Both of these beers are marketed as being brewed in the Pilsner style, but have opted for a less hoppy, more subdued flavor, while trying to maintain the crisp and refreshing flavors that make Pilsner style beers so attractive.

    Fortunately, the rising tide of craft beer in Alberta has brought us a wealth of new examples of the Czech Pilsner style, despite being brewed right here in our home province.

    Perhaps the most visible will be the Big Rock Bohemian Pilsner, which combines Alberta barley with noble hops imported from the Czech Republic for an authentic flavour. The original Czech Pilsners were famous in no small part due to the extremely soft water in the town of Pilsen, which is a far cry from the mineral-rich hard water that flows from the Rocky Mountains and eventually into your bottles and cans of Big Rock beers. Luckily, the mad scientists inside the Big Rock brewery have tweaked the recipe to match our local water chemistry.

    Looking to the south, Coulee Brewing in Lethbridge produces the imposingly named House of Pilsner, which your humble narrator regularly finds at local bottle shops. This brew is heavily influenced by German Pilsners, which tend to use Hallertauer hops from Germany instead of Czech Saaz hops from the Czech Republic. Aside from the hop differences, German Pilsners are largely based on the original Czech recipes, but tend to be slightly lighter and more dry.

    Readers of a certain age may remember the heyday of Calgary’s Electric Avenue back in the decade of decadence known as the 80s. While the nightclubs have disappeared, Last Best Brewing & Distilling have set up shop in the space fondly remembered as the Fox & Firkin, and produce their own spin on the Pilsner style, affectionally labeled as Phil-sner.

    Your humble narrator makes a point of stopping at Last Best Brewing & Distilling whenever I visit downtown Calgary, primarily for the beer, but also for the good food in the restaurant attached to the brewery, and even the nostalgia of pointing out where the disco ball used to hang in the 80s during the squandered youth of your intrepid liquor reporter.

    You can find local brews made in the traditional Czech and German Pilsner styles right here in Alberta, so ask your local bartender or booze merchant for one today!