The man who makes beer

Think being beer sommelier for the world’s best lager sounds like a perfect job? Correct.

“There are always men behind a brand. Some are visionaries, some are passionate; some are just very good at what they do. Aleš…you will see he’s a very healthy combination of all of these.”

It’s a beautiful morning in the city of České Budějovice – or ‘Budweis’ as its known in English – as Jiří Pekhart, export manager at Budweiser Budvar, walks me over to meet the brewery’s legendary beer sommelier. The South Bohemian sky is powder blue; the iconic red font on the brewery roof bold against it. Resident hawks that have roosted in the old chimney for decades float on thermals above us.

Across the car park, we catch sight of Aleš checking over an unlikely looking vehicle: amid the forklifts and vans is a mint-condition, three-wheel Piaggio, decked out in Budvar branding. Jiří explains that this little tuk-tuk will soon be whizzing about town delivering unpasteurised bottles of Budvar’s B:ORIGINAL lager to nearby stores. Turns out it’s part of a new, Aleš-inspired initiative designed to give local consumers tank-quality beer in a bottle. Because the beer is fresh and untreated, it has a short shelf life and needs to get to the shops quickly – hence the nifty run-around. It shows exactly the kind of vision, passion and commitment Jiří was just talking about.

Before we can reach him, Aleš has climbed in the cab and is firing up the Piaggio’s engine.

I wonder for a second if he’s leaving. “No!” Jiří laughs. “He just loves playing with machines. Nearly as much as he loves beer. Did you know he’s also a part-time tank commander in the Czech Territorial Army?”

It doesn’t take long to work out why Aleš Dvořák is known, in brewing circles, as a bit of a character. Much like Budweiser Budvar itself – defiantly state-owned and brewed in here using the same methods since 1895 – Aleš stands out as authentic and independent in an industry dominated by vast, pan-European commercial breweries and profit-focused, investor-owned beer brands.

He drives tanks; he eats dinner with his own hunting knife; he fishes Czech rivers like a pro. He’s also an expert on beer and, having worked at Budvar for 26 years, studying its traditional processes, he’s become a sought-after ambassador for brewing culture the world over. Emerging from the Piaggio’s cab, he admits to being a bit bleary-eyed having just flown back from judging the prestigious Beer World Cup in Philadelphia.

Even jetlagged though, there’s no question Aleš is the man to lead a tour of the brewery’s hallowed cellars, where sampling its unfiltered, unpasteurised, 90 day-aged Budvar straight from the conditioning tanks is described by those-in-the-know as one of the greatest beer-drinking experiences on the planet. I’ve been intrigued by this almost mythic reputation since reading about UK beer guru Pete Brown’s visit: “When it was time to move on I almost had to be dragged from the cellar, wedging my arms in the doorway, clinging to the door jamb with my fingernails until they broke.”

For now though, the cellars will have to wait. As Aleš points out: “You need to know what you’re drinking first.”

A short walk away, we stand by two innocuous-looking cylinders and a series of pipes. “Production of real beer is simple,” Aleš says. “When you think about it, it is just a few ingredients: water, hops, malt, yeast and time. So what makes the difference? It’s the quality of those ingredients and how they’re treated.”

All the brewery’s water is drawn from an Ice Age aquifer 300 metres beneath us. It’s a stable, impurity-free source that – Aleš estimates – should last a good few thousand years; in fact, it was the discovery of this underground lake that led to the brand building its new premises in this spot at the end of the nineteenth-century.

“A single point of origin for more than a century,” Aleš says. “These things are important.” It’s the same story with the malts. In a huge, thrumming room where the whole malted (or dried) barley grains are being processed, I’m immediately hit by that intoxicating, comforting, cereal smell – like a baker’s shop first thing in the morning.

Aleš explains that the malts arrive here via train from three malteries in the adjoining region of Moravia, an ancient agricultural region to the east of the country where strains have been grown for generations. With a longer ‘fermentability’ these malts are different to those used in other European breweries where lager is produced as quickly as possible and can sometimes be on the road in as little as two weeks. Here, the three-month cold conditioning to achieve the smoothness and taste – the ‘lagering’ that gives the beer its name – demands more from its raw materials. It’s slow lager, if you like.

Just like the malts and the water, the hops are of the highest quality too. Along a corridor and into a lift, we descend down into a chilly, temperature-controlled storage room where sacks of the compressed flowers are stacked up on top of each other. Each is emblazoned with proof of its place of origin and a wax seal, stamped with a coat of arms. It denotes they are Czech ‘Saaz’ hops from a town called Žatec to the north of Bohemia, acknowledged as one of the finest hop regions on earth.

“We never use processed hops, or extracts or pellets,” Aleš tells me. “Only the whole cone or flower from the finest Czech noble hops.” He opens one of the sacks and, with the swing of an axe, hacks off a great green slice.

“Just smell this…” he says, scooping up a handful of the flowers. I do and the aroma is extraordinary: citrusy, astringent, fresh mown grass and gooseberry. It has bite but softness too. I comment that it’s wonderful, but it must be more expensive to use.

“Of course.” Aleš replies. “But it’s key to preserving the uniqueness, the tradition, the flavour, the taste and keeping the polyphenols in the hops at a maximum. They add an aroma and drinkability to the beer.”

Biggest craft beer brewery in the world

The uniqueness of materials and brewing methods here earned the Budweiser Budvar a ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ logo from the European Union in 2004. It’s an accolade only awarded to food and drink that remains deeply rooted in their place of origin and that is still made via traditional methods. And it’s one proudly displayed on all their bottles and kegs. Even so, many drinkers outside the Czech Republic still mistakenly think this beer is someway associated with that other Budweiser – the colossal American brand that appropriated the first half of the name over a hundred years ago.

An hour with Aleš however, and you realise the brands are polar opposites. The production of the Czech Budweiser Budvar remains inextricably linked with this area, the landscape and its ingredients; it is created with near-religious devotion to age-crafted techniques handed down over centuries. I suggest to Aleš that – in that sense – the beer here has more in common with Parmesan cheese or Champagne than mass-produced lager.

“Exactly,” he says. “It’s true. Every Budvar comes from right here. We don’t make it anywhere else.” He shrugs. “In many ways we are the biggest craft brewery in the world.” Our final stop before the cellars is the brewhouse. On the way – in between discussions about the film The Revenant – “He’d be dead in one hour in those conditions. And you can’t fire a flintlock twice with reloading!” – and lessons on how to make wild boar salami, I’m intrigued to know how Aleš’ journey to beer sommelier began.

“I was young when I developed my obsession for the beer,” he says with a smile. “I said to myself ‘you will be a brewer’ one day. And here I am. I love it. It’s a dream job.” It was also perhaps a natural calling for someone who admits he found chemistry ‘easy’ and who grew up in a country where beer remains a source of national pride – but that’s not to underplay the skill and dedication that’s been involved along the way.

Aleš studied at the prestigious department of brewing in the faculty of food and biochemical technology at the Prague Institute of Chemical Technology. After graduating and serving his compulsory military service (where he developed his passion for tanks of the armoured variety), he joined Budweiser Budvar in 1990, initially as a technologist, before pulling on his “gummy boots” and cutting his teeth on the brewhouse floor and fermentation cellars, blending his modern scientific knowledge with the age-old art of brewing.

Overseeing him then was Josef Tolar, the now ex-brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar and himself a world-renowned beer-making icon who began and ended his career at the brewery. Josef is waiting for us on the balcony of the brewhouse. Both men lean on the rail talking shop, surveying the heart and soul of this brewery – the huge copper brew kettles and open lines of running wort, helping give the beer its gorgeous and natural golden amber colour.

“The priority for us is keeping these old traditions,” Josef says. “But Aleš…he is an excellent man for new experiments too. He is a fountain of ideas.”

One such idea was B:DARK, Budvar’s now much-celebrated dark lager. Fifteen years ago it was just a concept, but using his home-brewing skills and a love of experimentation, Aleš struck on a perfect balance of Munich, caramel and roasted malts. The beer he created, although brewed and conditioned in the same time-honoured style as all Budvar lagers, was an innovation. Not as sweet as other Czech dark lagers, it retained bite and smoothness in its finish yet carried full, rich, complex smoky coffee, chocolate and caramel notes too. Within a year, it had been named ‘Best Dark Lager in the World’ at the World Beer Awards.

“Maybe you should try it?” Aleš suggests. He doesn’t need to ask me twice.

The cellars beneath the brewery are labyrinthine and cold. Lights flick on down tunnels trailing with pipes. In rooms off the main corridor, great, cream, submarine-like tanks sit, one on top of the other all the way to the roof. “This is where the real magic happens,” says Aleš. “The most important thing is time. Time for the carbon dioxide to naturally bubble through the beer, removing impurities, achieving that smoothness and clarity. All our beer is in these tanks for 90 days. You can’t shortcut that.”

Selecting a tank – a batch of fresh B:DARK with dates and strength chalked on the side – he fills two glasses from a little tap and passes one over. The taste is nothing short of incredible; unlike any lager I’ve drunk before. It’s so different, in fact, that I taste it and taste it again, trying to get a handle on it, gulping down the beer. It’s the cold, crisp, freshness, the unpasteurised wonder of it; and it’s the same as we work our way from tank to tank, sampling the equally divine B:ORIGINAL and a punchy, six-month-aged brew made with fresh hops from a 2015 harvest.

Now I understand the Piaggio in the car park and why Aleš has a thing about getting this beer out to drinkers in its freshest form. And just like Pete Brown, I find it almost impossible to leave.

Later on, I catch up with the brewery team in central Budweis. Beer has been brewed on these streets in earnest since 1265 when the town was first founded by King Přemysl Otakar II. He endowed it with significant privileges, including the right for every citizen to make beer and brewing has been in its veins ever since. After today, I fully appreciate exactly why safeguarding its quality and heritage remains so important.

Crossing the market square as the sun sets, I join Aleš and Jiří for a Budvar at the bar of the historic Masné Krámy restaurant. The atmosphere is buzzing, the ancient room filled with noise and laughter. As Aleš goes to order the beers he is quickly surrounded by people wanting to chat. Even the barman comes over to shake hands. Jiří leans over. “You see, in the Czech Republic, beer is much more than just a drink,” he says. “The man who makes beer, he is a hero. He brings the people together.”

I'll raise a glass to that.

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