For a minute there is no mention of motorcycles. No talk about fuel lines or racing crouches, of Triumphs, Harleys, BSAs or what constitutes a classic design. There is only the summit, the silence and the scenery: mountains and hills stretching all the way to the horizon, cloaked with snow and pines. “Welcome to South Bohemia,” our guide whispers quietly. Then, as if things couldn’t get any better, she gestures to the alpine-looking watchtower restaurant behind us with its red Budvar canopy. “I thought maybe you’d like to try a beer now?”
Stunning beer and beautiful scenery…talk about getting your bearings. And this is exactly what we’re here for. I’m standing on top of Kleť mountain in the Czech Republic with Andrew Almond, founder of BOLT Motorcycles, London’s leading custom bike workshop, store, and counter-culture rallying point. We’ve travelled to this spot to soak up something of the region and draw inspiration from the land, the locals and this area’s epic lager because Budvar and BOLT are teaming up on an amazing adventure. To celebrate shared values of dedication, tradition and going the extra mile to create something incredible, beer-maker and bike-creator are coming together to build a bespoke motorcycle: ‘The Budvar Bike’.
As we tuck into plates of hearty game stew and pints in the summit bar, Andrew explains that it’s going to be the most challenging and exciting custom creation he’s worked on. “It’s got to be right.” He says. “With Budvar an iconic Czech brand, we need to use a Czech bike. That means a JAWA CZ. These were classic bikes between the 1940s and 60s but became much more utilitarian over the years. The vintage models are many tens of thousands to buy…so we need to start with more of an ugly duckling and turn it into something special. But that obviously brings challenges.”
An hour earlier we’d seen some of those vintage JAWAs firsthand in a motorcycle museum in Český Krumlov – the picturesque Baroque village at the foot of the mountain. Dark scarlet with shapely curves and art deco stylings, they’d looked breathtaking. In comparison, the bike Andrew has found back in London is a boxy and non-too-beautiful 1980s JAWA CZ with a 250cc engine. To transform it into something extraordinary is going to require vision and dedication, but – unlike the museum pieces – it also has to drive. This is because once the build is over, Andrew will be undertaking an epic 1,000-mile road trip from London through Europe, riding the Budvar Bike to the Budvar brewery, right here in South Bohemia.
With lunch done, it’s time to take a chairlift down to explore where that brewing magic happens ourselves. Few people leave the city of Budweis – or České Budějovice, as it’s known in Czech – without a deeper appreciation for the devotion it takes to brew the world’s greatest lager. Andrew is no different. After a short drive through countryside he’s supping Budvar’s unique water, drawn from an Ice-Age aquifer 300m beneath the brewery, breaking open whole-cone Saaz hops and taking a tour around the giant copper brew kettles. We visit the museum to get design cues from Budvar’s vintage branding, then it’s into the cellars where Budvar is matured – or ‘lagered’ – in the vast cream conditioning tanks for a minimum of 90 days.
Trying unfiltered and unpasteurised Budvar straight from the tanks is often described by beer writers in exclamations of near-religious language. Andrew is no different. “That’s amazing. It’s so good!” He exclaims, wide-eyed at the taste. “We’ve got to bring all of this into the bike, in the colour of the tank, designs, maybe we can incorporate a hop motif in the saddle.”
Later, in the hotel, he elaborates. “As well as the hand-fabricated custom frame, our bike’s going to have hand-painted logos by one of the UK’s leading sign-writers and hand-tooled leatherwork. Using great craftsmen and traditional skills is expensive and takes time, but it is so important to me. I really believe in authenticity when creating something.”
“It’s the same as what we just saw at Budvar.” He says. “They’re completely independent and they do all those things purely to get them right, which comes across in the beer. The fact these guys condition it for 90 days might make no sense to a more commercial-minded brewery, but the result is amazing. I get it. It’s a beer like I’ve never tasted before.”
A week later and we’re back in London at BOLT Motorcycles, Stoke Newington, a temple to all things two-wheeled and custom built. Occupying a large part of an atmospheric, practically Dickensian collection of Victorian stables, this space is split between retail store and garage where bikes are repaired, customised and even built from scratch.
The store specialises in bike fashion, from carefully selected vintage leathers and denims to custom helmets. Then there’s Andrew’s own designed line of knitwear, waistcoats and t-shirts. Everything has form and function here; it has to look good, but it also has a job to do – protecting riders in all weathers. The dedication to detail has paid off. This little corner of East London is now a bike-lovers paradise, drawing committed and casual bike lovers alike.
I find Andrew perched with a coffee behind the counter, checking out a new set of leather jackets as well as a stack of freshly printed Budvar Bike blueprints. They’re a vision of what’s to come. “But first let’s have a proper look at what we’re working with.” He says with a grin.
Next door we find Simone, resident mechanical wizard, among the dust and grease of the workshop. He’s got early Eagles blaring on the stereo and the 1980s JAWA CZ up on the ramp. Andrew pins the blueprints up to the wall and the two of them take a walk around. There’s a mixture of trepidation and excitement; it’s plain even to the untrained eye that a lot of work is going to be needed to transform what’s on the ramp to what’s sketched out in the plans. But challenge is a key ingredient, both in this project, and inherent in all of custom-bike culture. There’s always the question of why bother doing any of this when you could just buy a new bike off the peg – especially when a lot of manufacturers now build bikes specifically based on custom looks. The reason is simple, Andrew explains: “Nothing great ever comes easy.”
He draws an analogy between bikes and brewing and how people want to feel the time, care and blood, sweat and tears go into creating something quality. They want to sense and feel real human craftsmanship in things. “In these over-commoditised times the journey of tradition, quality, integrity and authenticity has value and makes something completely unique.” He says.
As the late winter sun goes down over the houses we crack a beer and Andrew quietly confesses some home truths. “We really have a lot of work to do. But if we get it right, the finished bike is going to be something truly special.” Simone stays quiet but he has a twinkle in his eye that makes me think he already knows how good this bike is going to be. We open up a couple more Budvars, toast the project and turn up the stereo.
Any custom build as big as this one needs a solid base. That’s why the first port of call for our JAWA is Hastings and the workshop of Jake Robbins Vintage Engineering. “Jake’s amazing.” Andrew explains as we drive the bike down to the south coast. “He’s going to make a new hard-tail frame. He’ll keep the engine and some parts, but the frame is for the chop. Literally.”
Turns out he isn’t kidding. After Jake, fabricator and metal magician, talks through the blueprints for a while, he pulls on his welding mask and gets down to business, wielding angle grinders, sending sparks flying all over the place. His thirty years of experience evident in the frame beginning to change before our eyes as he makes it more low-slung and stretched into a classic ‘bobber’ style.
“We’re keeping that Art Deco-style motor, the front frame section, the front forks and the front wheel and rear wheel.” Jake explains as he breaks for a cup of tea. “We’re gonna keep the mudguards but modify them to suit the style of the 1930s to 1960s JAWAs. The big change is the frame, which we’ll modify to have a rigid rear section to achieve that classic style. To match the engine and shape, we’ll also fit a fuel tank from a BSA as well as lowering the handle bars.”
I joke that he has his work cut out and he laughs. “Hand-made stuff takes time but put your heart into a bike and it comes through in the finished product. You can tell the difference.”
Andrew tests the bike’s ergonomics as Jake works. It’s a small bike for a tall man and with a thousand miles to cover, it’s important it fits him as well as it can. They discuss some more and tweak the ideas. As we depart, leaving the JAWA in Jake’s capable hands, I glimpse what Jake means about heart. He’s on his knees again cutting and perfecting, cooking up at the custom cauldron like a magician as sparks light up the workshop like fireworks.
A couple of days later I’m with Andrew in a series of craft studios not far from Caledonian Road in London. There’s no screaming metal here, unless you count the early Punk soundtrack blasting out from a stereo. Club & Fang is the business name of another Jake working on the Budvar Bike – Jake Collier. This time the craft at hand is hand-tooled leatherwork.
You’ll have seen Jake’s work whether you realise it or not. He heads up props and leatherwork departments for major Hollywood movies like Justice League, Wonder Woman and Thor. Inspired by the trip to the Budvar brewery, Andrew wants to incorporate a whole-cone hop motif into the design, and he sees a leather strap across the petrol tank as the perfect place. “The whole-cone is a beautiful thing and something Budvar is rightly proud of using in its beer.” Andrew explains. “It’s got this medieval feel to it and tooled leather, coloured gold and black, will be the perfect material to get that across.”
Watching Jake work on the design is a pleasure. Although imposing looking, covered in tattoos, this native Kiwi adopts a calm, zen-like concentration when he’s working the leather. “It’s very cathartic,” he says, before revealing he got into the work for “beer money”, making band patches for mates. Yet crafting was pretty much in his blood from the start.
“The art of handcrafting anything is important to me. And always has been. My father was a skilled cabinet maker and wood carver; my grandfather was always building boats, so it’s definitely something that’s been in the family. That respect for tradition and craft goes back a long way.”
After wetting or ‘casing’ the leather, Jake traces the hop flower, then tools it out and hammers – or ‘presses’ – the background to pop it into relief. “The heritage of working leather intrigues me,” Jake says as he strikes. “People have been doing it since we first hunted animals.”
Andrew nods in approval as the design blooms on the leather. He knows it’s important. The whole-cone Saaz hop is a fundamental ingredient of Budvar and one of the reasons the beer has earned Protected Geographic Origin status. While it costs more than using essence or hop pellets, as many breweries do, respecting tradition is paramount for Budvar’s brewmasters.
And even before being cut and hand-coloured, it’s clear this is going to be a suitably eye-catching feature.
I’m back at BOLT on a bright, spring afternoon. James ‘Coop’ Cooper, best known as “Dapper Signs”, is unloading a bright red wooden box, with ‘Hand! Brush! Paint!’ written in large print across it. Beyond the bright colours the lettering immediately appeals and transports me back back to a vivid world of seasides, funfairs and old cartoons. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s some power in those letters.
As you might expect the ancient art of signwriting was almost killed off by mass-produced and machine-printed signs in the twentieth century. But like many traditional crafts it has seen dramatic turn around in recent years, with artists like Coop leading the charge in the UK. “When I started I would cold call around Bristol with my business cards and stuff.” He explains as he lays out his brushes. “With half of the business owners it was just about letting them know that getting signwriting done by hand was even an option. You don’t see it much…it basically became extinct. Almost.”
He opens up the box of tricks and it expands, Tardis-like to reveal a wide selection of different-sized brushes and pots of the famous ‘1 Shot’ enamel paint that signwriters favour. The freshly powder-coated tank is on the bench in front of him and he cuts a piece of tracing paper out to match its size. From there he draws the ‘Budvar’ script logo freeform. The century-old logo works well for sign writing, he explains, because it isn’t a computer font, “You can see this was drafted by someone sat over an easel with ink and pen, simple as that. It has the human touch.”
He sketches an outline onto the tank itself, and it’s time for the real paint. In a short space of time the letters appear, bold and beautiful in red with the cream surface of the tank edged in gold. From a distance the effect is picture-perfect but looking more closely you can see the brush marks, the slight rough edges here and there and that’s where the magic lies. Coop agrees: “That’s what makes this better than common computer fonts. It’s done by hand. If you look at my work you’ll see little cock-ups here and all that, but that’s what makes it human. At least that’s what I tell my customers.”
It’s May now and only a few days away from the Budvar Bike’s grand unveiling at the UK’s leading bike event, Bike Shed, in London. The last time I saw the JAWA was a week ago. It had been all bare-framed and disgorged in the workshop’s upstairs rooms; the constituent parts laid out like the aftermath of an autopsy – lights, electrics, fuel lines, speedometer. Downstairs Simone had been working millimetre by millimetre on cleaning and restoring the engine. He’d still been singing along to the stereo, but there’d been a definite air of concern and an Italian shrug of the shoulders when I’d asked about hitting the deadline.
But today Andrew greets me looking more relaxed. “Wait until you see it.” He says. I’m ushered into the workshop where a glorious, shiny, ruby red and cream motorcycle is raised up on the ramp. I’m speechless. Having seen the original JAWA in the same position a few months ago my brain’s struggling to compute that this could possibly be the same bike.
Given he’s been up to his elbows in grease for weeks on end, I push Simone for a little more technical detail. “Despite being an original engine from the 50’s and 60’s this Jawa never actually left the factory until the 80’s and then has only clocked up 8000 km since.” He tells me. “As we expected the engine was in a good overall condition, so the main upgrades came with the electrical system which Jawa enthusiasts told us would be the weak link in the chain.”
Luckily for all of us, Jawa parts are easily available and relatively cheap. Simone and Andrew have sourced a complete spare top end from their trusted dealers – that’s a cylinder, piston and rings for the uninitiated – in case they blow along the long road to Budweis.
From its stretched frame shape and fine painted finish to the craftsmanship of the gold and black hop motif on its leather tank strap, the bike is as much work of art as it is a vehicle. As Simone and Andrew point out its features, my eyes are drawn all around its gorgeous, hand-crafted details: the stitched black saddle, the sign-written logos, a little ‘stop’ light at the back. In places it echoes the classic vintage JAWAs we’d seen in the Český Krumlov museum all those months ago; in others it appears like a brand-new design concept.
“It’s taken some serious hours.” Andrew confides with a dose of understatement. From behind him, Simone nods in agreement. “This bike,” he says with a big smile. “For so many days and nights I’ve been building it all back together. I can’t look at it anymore!”
Both of their pride in transforming this bike into a thing of beauty is obvious. And looking at it in all its glory, I understand immediately what this project has been about. Creating something of quality can be challenging, but with dedication, expertise and respect for process, it’s possible to elevate raw ingredients into something unique and special. Perfection may always take the long road, but as this motorcycle proves, it’s a journey worth taking.
To celebrate, we open bottles of beer and start cooking up ‘custom’ burgers in the BOLT yard, including a homemade Budvar BBQ sauce. The evening sun sweeps the cobbles as Simone wheels the bike into the yard, and a few of the people who helped bring to project to life turn up to toast its triumph. Pretty soon it’s pulling the passing public into the yard too; they all want to know the bike’s story, see it up close and – of course – try the beer that inspired it all.
As night falls I overhear Andrew explaining that even though one journey has finished, another one lies ahead. And it’s true. The second part of this build involves the open road. In August, Andrew will be riding the Budvar Bike on an epic road trip through Europe to the Budvar brewery in České Budějovice, where this whole story started. This 1,000-mile journey will be a whole other challenge and feature no small amount of celebrations along the way. But all that can wait for another day. Tonight the beer’s flowing, the burgers are going down a storm and the bike sits resplendent.