GREAT BEER FOR EVERYONE
IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC WE’RE PROUD TO SAY CHANGE IS BREWING
t’s a sharp February morning in south Moravia. On the hillsides that slope up towards the Austrian border, the vines are empty and the orchards are quiet. A low sun breaks over the peaks, creating an incredible dip-dye sky. It’s beautiful but bare. Soon, though, nature will begin to wake up again, and the fruit that this pretty but often overlooked corner of the Czech Republic is famous for will load the branches. Here, in a small, functional building in a former Cold War-era collective farm, Jitka Ilčíková runs the Wild Creatures brewery. In a country obsessed with lager, Jitka stands out. She brews only spontaneously fermented beer – but when you know South Moravia, this makes perfect sense.
“I was born here in this winery region,” she says as she shows us the open fermentation vessel, the antique bottling machine, the rows of wooden barrels holding resting beer. “My family always produced wine as a hobby. So I knew the barrels, I knew spontaneous fermentation. And the basic idea of Wild Creatures was to link together beer production and wine technologies.” Despite her small production, and the fact she does just about everything in the brewery herself, her beers have been finding fans all over the world.
Jitka’s story is unique, but she’s not the only woman leading the way in the Czech beer industry. From brewing to pouring, you’ll find women making the space their own. But it hasn’t always been this way. It’s true, there was a time when all brewing was done by women, at home or in small-scale domestic settings. But as with so many other industries, they found themselves sidelined.
“In almost every civilization – across thousands of miles and thousands of years,” writes Tara Nurin in A Woman’s Place is in the Brewhouse, the definitive history of women and beer, “the forces of religion, politics or economics have replaced women with men whenever this household chore has shown promise of profit or prestige.” When brewing became industrialised around the world, men took over.
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The Czech Republic is no different. But nobody loves beer as much as we do, and no one drinks more of it. That’s why it’s called the Republic of Beer – and as the Czech national brewery, we’re proud to say things are changing, and we think it’s time to celebrate this.
“When I started in the brew community, there were not so many women, but they were still there,” says Johana Potužníková. She’s head of craft partnerships at Budweiser Budvar, and she travels around the Czech Republic sharing our knowledge and passion with smaller breweries and working on limited-edition collaborations. “They were behind the scenes, but still there – now, you can see more women brewing the beer and doing the important stuff, because they want to and they can.”
Johana had years of experience of working with beer – in pubs, and breweries – before starting work with Budvar. And it was her many visits to smaller breweries that inspired her to learn to brew herself. She recently finished a course at Cobolis, Pavel Palouš’s highly respected neighbourhood brewery in Kobylisy, a northern district of Prague. “We learned how to get from the idea to the beer, through the process, technologies, ingredients and everything,” she says as we chat among the tanks and pipes of Cobolis, “and to brew a great beer.” Her first professional brew – a semi-dark, refreshing wheat beer – is conditioning behind us, and will be ready just in time for spring. So as someone who’s carving out her own path in the beer industry, what advice would she give to a woman who wants to do the same? “You really need to love it,” she says with a smile. “But if you really want it you can achieve anything.”
A few miles away in central Prague, someone else with a love of Czech beer is going through the ritual of pouring a Budvar Original lager. She rinses the spotlessly clean glass in cold water, then holds it at just the right angle below the sidepull font. As the golden lager and sweet foam cascades down, she adjusts, pauses and tilts until it’s just right. The pint she places on the bar is a thing of beauty. “It doesn’t matter how many beers you make a day,” she says. “Every single one should be in perfect condition.” Magda Hoppová is the head beertender at Pult, a bar famous for the quality of its lager. At the end of the room is an inviting yellow sign listing the draught offering along with the ABV, gravity and IBU (international bittering units) of each. When it comes to ordering lager in this country, people know their stuff – and they look for a lot more than just a brand name when they choose their lager.
“The foam is important too,” Magda tells me as she pours. Around us, the bar is beginning to fill with a post-work crowd and the orders are stacking up. “It’s also beer. But it’s sweeter, smoother. And the most important thing about foam is that it protects the beer from oxidation. A beer with foam stays in a good condition for a longer time than without the foam.” You build up this level of knowledge after years of training and experience, but it’s another sign of how important great beer is to our culture. And while it’s true that for many years, being a výčepní was seen as being a man’s job, it’s no longer the case. ‘I see it not only here in Pult, but in the whole of Prague,’ says Magda, ‘that it’s half to half, women and men. Women can do the job to the same quality as men, sometimes even better.”
Among the craft IPAs, stouts and pale ales that fill the fridges behind Magda is an outlier. A corked-and-caged wine-size bottle of rhubarb wild beer aged in oak barrels called Te Rheum. It’s made by Wild Creatures. Magda will tell you – women are pushing to the forefront of the craft scene. And Jitka agrees.
“In Czech,” she told me, “you might not find many head brewers who are women. But if you have a good idea, like me, the possibilities are there. You can have it.” Her idea seems even more trailblazing when you discover that Wild Creatures is the only brewery in the country producing exclusively spontaneously fermented beer. How did it even come about?
“I was a financial analyst,” she says. “I met lambic in Belgium because I worked there. It was maybe 2006 or something like that, and it was a kreik from Cantillon. Cantillon always will be something special for me. Maybe because it was the first lambic I tried. You drink it, and what do you feel? It’s sour, it’s not the taste you expect when you drink beer. It was like a bomb exploding in my head. Because it was so good.”
Back in Moravia, Jitka went on to experiment with her own recipes, only satisfied after five years of trials. In 2016, she began to sell her own beer. Now, her range includes La Vie en Rose, a blended beer rested on rose petals, and the frankly incredible Resurrection, a vintage ale with grapes. She pours us a small glass each of this sweet, complex drink, which confounds the idea of what most people imagine beer to be.
“Every barrel develops in a different way,” she says. “Some are more moody. Some barrels contain more Brettanomyces character. Some of them are more sour. Some of them need more time, because they are probably too lazy. So it’s about your vision of the final flavours. That’s why blending is so important.”
As we sit in the bottling area of her small brewery, with the sun setting over the vines, it feels like a world away from the stylish city-centre Pult, or even the famous old copper mash tuns of the Budweiser Budvar brewery. But they all have a place here – in the Czech Republic we appreciate all kinds of brews, and now, all kinds of people are brewing it.