“Drinking fresh, unpasteurised Budvar from tanks in the brewery cellar remains a standout beer drinking moment in my life. If you think you don’t like lager, you only have to taste this nectar to become aware of your folly.”
So wrote Pete Brown, world-renowned beer writer, after a trip to the Budweiser Budvar brewery in České Budějovice 15 years ago. As recommendations go it’s pretty persuasive but back in 2002, if you’d wanted to follow his lead, the only option would have been to board a plane to South Bohemia and visit the brewery yourself.
Well, not any more. Times, technologies and tastes have changed. Today, special tanks are regularly rolling across the borders into Britain, bringing Budvar’s unpasteurised “nectar” to pubs and bars to meet the growing demand among drinkers here to experience that same revelation on home soil: the finest, freshest Czech lager, bursting with flavour and vivacity, just as the brewers intended.
But how does tank beer work? What is the process? And what is it about this fresh lager’s taste that has even die-hard craft beer and ale connoisseurs hailing it as a near-religious experience?
Let’s start with some basics. Tankové Pivo – or ‘tank beer’ for those less versed in Czech – does exactly what it says on the tin…or the tank. Fundamentally, this is beer piped directly from those vast, submarine-like conditioning tanks in the brewery cellars in České Budějovice into airtight, temperature-controlled mini-tanks, ready for transportation. It’s then whisked across Europe to Britain as fast as humanly possible and decanted in a bar or pub into specially installed, hand-painted tanks that replicate those of the brewery cellar. Speed and temperature are essential because – unlike bottled, canned and other draught lagers served in the UK – tank beer is unpasteurised. And that, more than anything, is key to its freshness and vibrant taste.
As Adrian Tierney-Jones, author of numerous bestselling guides on beer, explains: “Budvar in a bottle or draught is beautiful, but with Budvar tank beer it’s all the more amplified because it’s unpasteurised. It’s vivid, it’s colourful, it’s primary colours; we’re thinking Andy Warhol in a glass here. You get the delicate toasted graininess of that Moravian malt and the aromatic delicate spiciness of the hops. It links you with that hallowed brewery cellar and is as good as getting on a plane to South Bohemia.”
This may be true, but to get the full picture of Tankové Pivo’s road to that pint in your hand, you have to start in the Czech Republic. And you’ve got to start early.
It’s barely 6am in České Budějovice as we pull into the Budvar brewery. The iconic sign above the brewhouse building is backlit by a bruise-coloured dawn. Here, two of Budvar’s biggest names are already waiting for us. Ales Dvorak, beer sommelier and all-round brewing genius, is no stranger to tanks. Not only does he spend much of his work life down in the cellars, but he’s also a tank-driving reservist in the Czech Territorial Army. Adam Brož may also be described as a man on a mission at the moment. He holds the hugely prestigious title of ‘brewmaster’ at Budweiser Budvar, meaning he’s currently tasked not only with ensuring the continuing standards and quality of the beer but doubling the brewery’s capacity.
All Budweiser Budvar – whether can, bottle, draught or tank – is made here using the same ingredients, raw materials and attention to detail, process and tradition. But while the beer’s strict 102-day brewing cycle and long, 90-day maturation in those giant tanks is great for its unique and unrivalled taste, it makes increasing the output and finding space on-site something of a challenge. Time is tight today, but it’s a mark of how proud the brewery is of the tank beer heading to Britain that Adam is here to meet us in person and wave it goodbye.
First we head down the stairs and into the icy chill of the brewery cellars. It’s hard not to be excited as the lights flick on and flood the tunnels with light. This truly is where the magic happens. The massive cream-white tanks are stacked on each other stretching up to the roof, each filled with maturing beer.
“I think that, to try the tank beer, it’s a kind of brewing education, because it’s how the lager should taste.” Says Adam as we walk. “Fresh lager is not something that has been available in the UK until very recently, but to us Czechs, it is the taste we know and love. And it’s great to be able to share that.”
Down one corridor of tanks we pause while Ales taps off a couple of pints. The beer pours like honey into the glasses, forming a thick, creamy head above a draught of molten gold. One gulp and I understand what Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown were talking about. Even at half six in the morning, it tastes unbelievable. It’s fresh, full of life and every element involved in its making – the whole-cone Saaz hops, the Moravian malts, the Ice Age water drawn from a subterranean well underneath our feet – is present, correct and beautifully balanced.
I tell them that I could happily stay here all day. Their smiles suggest that’s probably wishful drinking. After all, I’m also here to witness the next important stage, the process by which this wonder-beer leaves the brewery.
As I follow Adam and Ales from the cellars, I spot clues: pipes run directly from the tanks upstairs and outside to the brewery’s ground floor. We walk outside and cut around to a loading bay now bright with morning sun. A line of squat, square tanks stand by a smart lorry decked out with Tankové Pivo artwork on its flanks.
Men in overalls hurry about moving pipes and resetting dials. Adam explains that within each tank is placed a new vacuum-sealed bag and that it’s vital to remove all traces of oxygen before the beer is piped in. It’s a process that ensures the beer doesn’t come into contact with any air until it bursts from a bar pump and hits the glass in your local. “They have to hurry because the difference with tank beer is, of course, that it is unpasteurised.” Says Adam.
We watch as the pipes leading out of the brewery cellars are connected and the filling begins. It seems like a good time to bring up the subject of pasteurisation – the ‘long life’ process famously invented by French scientist, Louis Pasteur, in 1864 and now standard across all food and drink industries. Adam walks me through the process, explaining that it is a type of flash heating that removes bacteria and live yeast from the beer, ridding it of anything that could damage the flavour and increasing its longevity. It’s something that has allowed Budvar to become world-renowned for quality and taste, and one that enables people in 76 countries across the globe to enjoy what’s only made right here on this spot. The trade-off comes in losing certain subtleties in the taste and aroma. In turn, this tank beer retains everything that’s present in the cellars, but its shelf-life is much shorter. “So to keep the quality and freshness of tank beer it is necessary to go directly to the customers as quickly as possible. And in our case, this is by road.” Says Adam.
His words are a cue. With the transport tanks filled, a forklift deftly whips them into the back of the refrigerated lorry where they will be kept in closely monitored temperatures all the way to Britain. It’s clear that Budvar gives the same care and dedication to delivering the beer in perfect condition as they do to brewing it.
Once loaded up, the lorry driver, Milan, comes over to introduce himself, but there’s no time for small talk. With a wave, he’s up in the driver’s seat, releasing the air brakes and pulling out of the brewery. I check my watch. It’s a little after 8am. Bidding goodbye to Adam and Ales, we climb in the car and scramble to catch up.
The journey to the Czech border is picture-book stuff. South Bohemia’s rolling greenery lies like a crumpled duvet as we speed off northeastwards cutting through Pisek and Plzeň, trying to keep track of the lorry ahead. Up through the mountains and forests we pass over into Germany and the pace instantly picks up. The autobahn’s open motorways and minimal speed limits mean we are soon alongside the lorry and whizzing past the outskirts of Nuremberg.
Another 400km further, through wooded hills and farming flatlands, punctuated with the odd beautiful castle rising perfectly on the horizon, we pass by Frankfurt’s city limits and into a sunset of epic colours. The road west is washed with pure gold. Then we get the call that Milan will soon be reaching his daily driving hours and a nine-hour stop is imminent. Between Frankfurt and Cologne, he pulls in and calls it a day. Road-weary, we do the same.
There’s no lie-in when the freshness of beer is at stake, so we’re up and away again as soon as Milan’s bodyclock has reset. It’s not long before we’re rolling through Belgium, whipping our way towards France and the cross-channel ferry waiting for us at Dunkirk. As whistle-stop tours of Europe go it’s a hell of a route, but there’s no chance for sightseeing – or local beer tasting – on this trip. Whenever Milan pulls in for a break, he’s straight down and checking the digital temperature readouts for the refrigeration data, showing me how it remains constant while slurping a strong coffee. Everything is down to fine timings and windows. No surprise when we pull onto the ferry terminal exactly when he said we would. To the minute, in fact.
It’s a beautiful afternoon to be on the sea. As we cross the English Channel, the sun glints off the water and we grab a rail on the ferry’s deck to watch those iconic white cliffs of Dover hove into view. Then we’re off again and heading north. When the evening sun begins to sink over the horizon it is England’s fields and woods that are painted that beautiful Budvar gold this time.
The next stop for this precious cargo is the newest site for Budvar tank beer in Britain – The Botanist in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne – which is where we catch up with it a few days later. The bar has taken delivery after working round the clock to install the mini replicas of the brewery cellar tanks to store the beer. Empty, these tanks are beautiful things to behold with their hand painted Budvar logo and proud Tankové Pivo stenciled in black beneath. Freshly filled with tank lager, they become even an more exciting prospect. They catch the eye straight away as we climb the stairs and push through The Botanist’s main doors. There’s already a buzz inside and I’m reminded of something Paul Daly, owner of Zigfrid Von Underbelly bar in London – first stockists of Budvar tank beer in the UK – told me: “Budvar is a cult liquid really, and when you have it in an installation like this, it becomes a cult experience.”
They certainly look at home in The Botanist’s eye-catching surroundings. Part-theatre, part-bar design heaven, the main space has a central bar wrapped around a tree that rises up into a spectacular, cathedral-like dome. Everywhere the décor is floral prints and cool, tool-shed-chic, featuring metal spiral staircases, mezzanines, a rooftop bar and little wooden hideaways to hunker down with this place’s range of great dishes and amazing drinks. But even in this grand setting there’s no doubt about the star of the show tonight. It’s launch time, and it’s going to get busy.
Sam, one of the bartenders at The Botanist, has watched the entire install from start to finish and he slaps the white, ceramic pumps on the bar proudly. “It’s great.” He says. “We have so many real ale and craft beer fans coming in here to try stuff out and Budvar tank is definitely going to have a huge impression. I can’t wait to get it flowing.” He tips me a grin. “People are going to love it.”
As he pulls me a pint, I bump into Kieran Hartley, beer guru and font of all brewing knowledge at The Botanist’s parent organisation, The New World Trading Company. He’s already holding up a half-drunk glass, studying the beer with a smile. “It’s still a lager,” he says. “But what you’re getting is an entirely different experience. The beer is not pasteurized which gives it much more vibrant flavour. You get to taste the elements of the malt a lot more clearly, as well as the elements of the hops.”
I take a big draught from my glass. He’s absolutely right. I’m transported back to that moment in the cellars with Ales and Adam less than a week ago. It’s unlike any lager I’ve tasted before in England; the life, the crispness, the depth, the subtlety – it’s all there. Kieran watches on and then sums it up perfectly. “It’s outstanding isn’t it?”
Soon the bar fills up. Every Budvar tank beer tap is working overtime and a throng of excited drinkers is deep in discussion about flavour and taste. I spot Kieran hastily arranging a taste test at the bar, and Sam happily sampling one of his pours. A man in a hat confides to me that he’s a real ale man at heart but even he is knocked out by Tankové Pivo. His wife agrees. “I don’t even like lager,” she says with a guilty look. “But this is absolutely amazing. I think it might be my favourite drink now!”
Talk about a road to Damascus moment. Then again, that’s always been the point: if you can get the true taste of brewery-fresh Budvar to the people, the lager will do the talking and change a few minds in the process.
Amid the buzz and bustle, I take a fresh pint and stand by the painted tanks. This is beer that takes true dedication, from its brewing in the Czech Republic to its bringing to Britain. But when you see the reaction you know it’s definitely worth it.