War is helles
Bavarian and Bohemian lager battle it out for the bottom-fermented top spot
Tuesday 19 January 2021
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“I couldn’t pick between my two favourite children.”
Twitter user @shepisthename has quote tweeted me, after I have logged on to post a seemingly innocuous, but ultimately loaded question: who makes better lager, the Germans or the Czechs?
Meanwhile, another user, Daniel Gerow (@dgerowPR), has pledged his allegiance to Bohemia simply by replying with a gif of frothy, golden-toned Staropramen being poured into a gleaming pint glass. At the same time @beerbirrabier is fighting in Germany’s corner, citing its lager as being “leaner, crisper [and] more bitter.” Behind the soft glow of my screen, the width of my trollsome grin intensifies.
Somewhat predictably, Germany came out on top. Of 1511 votes in a poll, 43.1% of voters chose its lagerbier as their preference, while 37.8% went with the ležák of the Czech Republic. Interestingly, the remaining 19.1% of voters chose to abstain, squatting on the border, unable to decide on a favourite. The comments backed this up – there were many who couldn’t quite make their mind up, plus those who simply wanted to see the results of the poll while the debate in the thread below continued unabated.
I say “predictably” because for me German lagers, particularly (but not limited to) the helles and pilsners of Munich and Bavaria, speak in a language that is almost universally understood. Whether you drink pilsner in New Zealand, light lager in the US or Singha on the streets of Thailand, despite their inherent differences it’s difficult to escape the fact that the influence is probably German – lagers that are characterised by their crisp, refreshing quality; soft bready malts merged effortlessly with snappy, herbaceous hops. They are immediately accessible to a great majority of people, and brands such as Paulaner, Löwenbräu, and my personal favourite, Augustiner, are a mainstay in today’s beer market.
Czech lagers are a different beast entirely. They are boisterous and intense, swapping nuance and subtlety for thick, chewy malts and a slap in the face with oily, bitter Saaz hops. While a session on the helles is akin to a night at the ballet, an evening drinking světlý ležák (Czech for ‘pale lager’) is closer to being in the front row at a Tool concert. The similarity is that both have grace, poise and melody, and always keep you coming back for more. The same is true that both taste better at the source, which, looking at my poll, makes me assume that more voters have drank lager in Germany, than they have in Czech.
“There is no better, only different,” former Almanac Brew Co. head brewer Jesse Freidman (@beerandnosh) tweets. “Pilsner is so great at articulating in flavour the tiniest process differences. Bohemian is fruity, estery, welcoming. Bavarian is clean, sleek German efficiency manifested in lager smoothness.”
Bohemian is fruity, estery, welcoming. Bavarian is clean, sleek German efficiency
What I will add is that while the majority of German lagers taste perfectly good poured through typical draught dispense systems, Czech lagers lose something. The side pour faucets they use in their own country enable the beer to be presented as intended: with a voluminous amount of foam that enables the native Saaz hops to sing.
Before we continue it’s best if I explain why I asked this question in the first place. Well, firstly, because Lockdown 2 (Electric Boogaloo) has me at my wits end, plus being a huge fan of both debates and lager I thought this would be a bit of fun. And because when given the opportunity I simply can’t resist poking the bear.
To better unpack this argument I contacted two people I consider to be experts in the field of lager, with the vague hope that each of them would confidently pick a side, thus enabling this article. Thankfully, after contacting them with a host of yet more leading questions, I was right.
“I have to go for Germany because I only drink lager from litre mugs and drinking a maß of Czech lager is barbaric,” Mark Dredge – who literally wrote the book on Lager – tells me. I’ve never drank with Mark in Germany, but I have spent a day with him in Prague, and I can tell you in confidence there was little resentment in the way he approached each and every šnyt of světlý ležák.
I had a feeling he would pick Germany because of the way he writes about these beers. He’s travelled almost the entire world drinking beer, but when he talks about beer from Munich, Hamburg or the Black Forest, for example, there’s a perceivable increase to his infectious enthusiasm. He tells me that regional differences, and the variety of lager styles this produces as a result, is what gets him so excited about Germany’s lager. That, and its utterly unique drinking culture.
“Have you ever seen a German gentleman take his first beer of the morning? He’ll pick it up, admire it, and take his time before having a drink,” Mark says. “In the time that the German took to savour his first sip, the Czech is preparing to order his second beer. You might think I’d choose the Czech for that reason, but I love the slow respect that Germans give to their beer.”
I love the slow respect that Germans give to their beer
I was going to need to pull out the big guns to find a way of meeting Mark’s passion for German lager, so I contacted another writer, Evan Rail. An American expat, Evan has made his home in Prague for many years now, and has become one of the foremost experts on Czech beer in that time. He tells me how he’d pick Czech beer over German, but you can also tell it’s not such an easy decision to make.
“I find Czech lager to have a better balance in terms of bitterness and sweetness, and less astringency in the finish, but that’s in comparison to the average German lager,” Evan says. Germany is a big country, and some of its regions make better lager than others. I love beer from Franconia, for example. It’s truly excellent. It’s also very close in style to Czech lager.”
True enough, Franconian lager, such as the beers of Keesman and Mahr’s in Bamberg, are much more… girthy than their Munich counterparts. It’s the attention to detail from Czech brewers, however, that seems to tip Evan’s favour in their direction.
“For Czech lager, both process and ingredients are important. Decoction mashing, extremely soft water, noble hops and cold conditioning make a big difference,” he says. “Czech brewers are really big on the idea of pitelnost, or ‘drinkability.’ They want beer that is sessionable, that demands repeat servings [and] is never going to go out of style.”
The history of both Czech and German beer – in particular that of the bordering regions of Bavaria in Germany’s southeast and Bohemia in the west of Czechia – is eternally intertwined. It would be impossible for me to properly describe this rich and detailed history in an essay this short, such is its complexity, so in a quickly hashed together Match of the Day style, here’s a highlights reel.
The history of both Czech and German beer is eternally intertwined
There’s evidence that there have been breweries in both countries for well over 1000 years, and the first of these would undoubtedly have been monasteries. Between the years of 1000 and 1250 however, brewing in what we now know as the Czech Republic would have been illegal, except at the Břevnov Monastery in Prague. That is until Pope Innocent IV repealed this law, and granted brewing licences to several Czech cities.
Many brewing historians actually believe that this early Bohemian beer, which would have been closer to a wheat beer than a lager, was taken to Bavaria, where it would eventually become Hefeweizen and Weizenbock. In his book A History of Beer and Brewing, Ian Hornsey wrote that lagering may have actually been discovered in Bohemia, before being introduced to Bavaria in the 15th century.
In 1516 Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria introduced Reinheitsgebot – the Purity Law. It decreed that beer was only to be brewed with clean water, barley, hops and yeast, (how would modern brewers cope, I wonder) and would influence the course of German beer like few other events in its history.
“I wish every brewer had to follow the Reinheitsgebot. Just imagine a beer world where only water, grain, hops and yeast could be used,” Mark tells me. “I never ever ever want to see a doughnut-infused Doppelbock. Rules are good!”
I asked Evan if he thought Reinheitsgebot held back brewing innovation. “I don’t,” is his succinct reply. The law was actually repealed in May 1987, and although its history will forever permeate the beers of Germany, I think this is a good thing. Brewers should be allowed to chuck whatever they want into a beer, and drinkers should be able to drink it should they choose. The great thing is that I, or you, don’t have to choose if all you really want is a crispy boi and bag of Synder’s jalapeno pretzel pieces.
In the early 19th century the popularity of lagered Bavarian beer really began to pick up the pace. In 1842 one particularly influential Bavarian brewer called Josef Groll developed a beer that merged lager brewing techniques with British kiln dried malts. As these were made in a Czech town called Plzen (or Pilsen to you and me) they became known as Pilsner malts, and this led to the development of what would become Pilsner Urquell. These days Pilsners are brewed all over the world, but in the Czech Republic only one beer gets the honour of this name – although it is the modern blueprint for 12º plato světlý ležák, the beer that made many Czech breweries household names.
Ok, so now a confession. My favourite lager of all time is German, the incomparable Mahr’s Bräu Ungespundet Naturtrüb, or ‘aU’ for short (pronounced aah ooh, which is the sound you make both when you order it, and after your first sip.) However, my favourite lagers (in plural) are undoubtedly Czech. There is no comparison to sitting in a Prague bar or brewpub and drinking mug after mug of foamy excellence. It’s empowering, joyful, energising – especially when washed down with some dumplings and a pork knuckle the size of a newborn child. The balance of sweet and bitter is pure harmony; Adam Jones riffing in D while Danny Carey pounds out a pulsating, tribal beat to underpin the baritone of Maynard James Keenan.
There is no comparison to sitting in a Prague bar or brewpub and drinking mug after mug of foamy excellence
But one bone I must pick is with those who replied to my poll by stating they don’t like Czech beer because of the diacetyl (an off flavour that makes your beer taste like butter.) And I understand Czech beers often have a rich, butterscotch flavour, but it’s not like the hot buttered popcorn character that makes you want to tip a pint of naff cask down the drain.
“People who say things like that are the type who talk without knowing what they’re talking about,” Evan says, bluntly. “But yeah, there is diacetyl in Czech beer sometimes. There’s diacetyl in German beer sometimes, too.”
“I can’t stand diacetyl but I think Czech Pilsner is one of the world’s most delicious
beer styles,” Mark Dredge says, complaining about the diacetyl complainants. “These are probably the same people who describe every single lager as a ‘crispy boi.’ Have they ever actually tasted a Munich Helles? It’s not bloody crispy! It’s chewy and malty and smooth! The worst thing that’s ever happened to beer was someone calling Helles a ‘crispy boi’ and other idiots copying them.”
Umm. Err. Sorry about that Mark. But what of the debate. Have we actually got anywhere? More importantly, have I managed to convince you that Czech beers are generally better than German ones? If you’re not convinced, once we’re all safely out of this terrible pandemic, go to Prague and if that doesn’t convince you, well Munich’s pretty great too. Ultimately, lager (and us who drink it) are the real winners here. But if you’re looking for a more definitive answer, I’ll leave you with this tweet from @VonBilbo…
“I live in Bavaria, and the bier [sic] here is amazing. But Czech beer is on another level. Hands down, the best.”
I rest my case.
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