Bison Beer Best

Today we’re again a bit on the parochial side. But not in the Dutch sense – rather, in the Czech sense, since I need to head to Prague again this evening for a few days. So naturally I’ve been heavily into the Czech press lately. What has been going on? On the one hand, the Czech socialist coalition government just (barely) survived a vote of confidence in Parliament, and the main governing party looks like it’s about to throw out a maverick within its ranks whose non-cooperation made the confidence vote so close. On the other hand, the results of the Czech Beer Competition for 2003 have just been announced. Which story would you rather hear more about?

I’m guessing the latter. Both Hospodarske noviny and Právo (registration required – in Czech!) have write-ups on the just-completed Czech Beer Competition, Právo being slightly more-informative.

The big winner is Zubr, the beer brewed by the Zubr brewery in the medium-sized Moravian city of Prerov (just to the south-east of Olomouc; to the north-east of Brno), owned by the “PMS Prerov” company. There were two categories in the competition, lezáky and vycepní. I’m a little unsure of my footing here, I’ve got to admit: vycepní definitely means beer on tap (i.e. poured at a bar from a keg, not drunken from a bottle), while lezáky mean “lagers.” So I gather that lezáky actually means “bottled beer.”

In any case, Zubr (the word is Czech for “bison,” and here’s their website, in both Czech and English) swept the board: Zubr Premium won among the lezáky, followed by Radegast Premium and then Velkopopovicky kozel. (Kozel is Czech for “billy-goat”; yes, “billy-goat beer,” but don’t laugh, people, because in its dark, or “stout,” incarnation it’s by far my favorite. I don’t fail to drink vast quantities of the stuff – “vast” for me, that is, meaning maybe two pints at a sitting – whenever I’m in Prague, and I look forward to doing that again very shortly. And Velkopopovicky – did you ask me that? – simply refers to the village, just south of Prague, where it is brewed.) As for vycepní, Zubr Classic won that category (it came in second last year), followed by Braník (from Prague), and then Starobrno Tradicní (meaning “traditional from old Brno”) from, of course, Brno, capital city of Moravia.

As you can imagine, this is a very serious yearly competition. Twenty-five candidate-beers were submitted this time for each of the two categories, to be judged initially by 24 beer-tasting experts (not recruited from local pubs, but rather mostly professional brewers themselves – including those with entries in the competition, but presumably the judging was done “blind”). Then came personnel from the Beer Inspection Institute (Czech-speakers, that’s our old friend the Vyzkumny ustav povavrsky a sladarsky), the Institute of Fermentation and Bioengineering out of the state Chemical-Technological University, and the industrial high school (stredni prumyslova skola) of brewing technology. Judging was done in two rounds.

The HN article goes on to report that, in a parallel, informal competition for which being a journalist qualified you to be a beer-taster, Pilsner Urquell came on top as best-tasting beer, followed by Gambrinus and then Budejovicky Budvar. (That latter is the Czech Budweiser – i.e., the real Budweiser, from whom Anheuser-Busch has been trying to buy that name for years now, in a pathetic attempt to purchase authentic-sounding camouflage for their inferior product). Yes, this is a radically-different list from the winners proclaimed in the real Czech Beer Competition, but it’s easily explained by the fact that the beers the journalists put on top are among the most-famous and most-available, not only in the Czech Republic but at least elsewhere in Europe as well. On the other hand, the Competition’s winners are clearly the best, no matter where they come from (as long as it’s within the Czech Republic), and whether you can widely get them or not. For example, Zubr itself I’ve never drunk, nor Starobrno Tradicni, for that matter. But I’ve had plenty of Budvar, Pilsener Urquell, Radogast, and (especially! but only its dark beer, which this Competition was not about) Velkopopvicky kozel.

I thought that I had such ready access to Kozel because I usually hang around Prague when I’m in the CR, and, as I say, it’s brewed near there. Now it seems that there may be a second, more disquieting reason: the website of South African Breweries – Miller (“SABMiller”) informs me that that beer multinational owns Kozel, in addition to Pilsener Urquell (which I already knew), Gambrinus, Radegast, and Primus (that last a beer I don’t know)! I don’t like to hear that because, when a big multinational like that takes over a old-time, traditional-filled (yes, even “mom-and-pop”) local brewery, the fear has got to be that the profit motive and all sorts of other influences will soon move in and basically prostitute an old, well-loved product. I certainly don’t care if everyone else in the world, thanks to SABMiller, can enjoy Velkopopovicky kozel, even if SABMiller (at least theoretically) certainly does care; I can go have some whenever I’m in Prague, so what I care about is that it always remains worth going to have, preferably under the loving care of the firm/family that’s been brewing it for ages. Admittedly, I have no complaints about it yet (and it does seem to be unavailable outside the Czech Republic); but you have to wonder how long things will stay that way.

Anyway, it seems that everyone agrees that Czech beers are on top in Europe – at least all the experts agree, namely the members of the European Brewers Convention (EBC). Lidové noviny didn’t cover the Czech Beer Competition itself (as least that I could find on-line), but it did have this article back in July (“The European king of brewers is a Czech”) about the appropriately-named Jan Veselý (in Czech his name means “John Happy”) being elected president of that august European organization. Naturally, Mr. Veselý attributes his selection as the rest of Europe paying Czech beer its due, or else to the indisputable fact that the Czechs drink the most beer in the world as measured in liters per person. (The Germans are merely second.) The Czech Republic was only represented in the EBC starting in 1993 – previously it was viewed as just another agent in the international capitalist conspiracy, you see. But already in 1997 Veselý was elected vice-president. He gives Lidové noviny a nice quote, too: After his graduation from Prague’s Economics University – back in the bad old days, of course; he’s 55 years old – “I was proud to work among brewers. I let people know that everywhere. Back then everything cheated you, but beer, never.”

By the way, if you choose to honor Zubr’s accomplishments by taking a look at their English website, do not be alarmed. Under “Products,” both “ZUBR Classic” and “ZUBR Premium” are described as providing a “stronger smack,” but it’s not as if there’s any hostility meant here – or even that the alcohol content is so high that you’ll feel after a swallow like somebody hit you in the head with a 2-by-4. No, somebody made a slight mistake when making up the English-language site and choose the word “smack” (I suppose from the German Geschmack) for “taste.” Don’t worry, I’ve already sent them an e-mail suggesting the correction. But maybe they do mean for the Bison to deliver a “smack”; I’ve got to see whether I can find some Zubr in Prague, anyway.

That’s where I’ll be next week; weblog-posting frequency will unavoidably suffer, temporarily.

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