Budweiser Budvar has only ever brewed its beer using the best local ingredients.
Some drinks seem to bottle the essence of a place. By harvesting the finest ingredients from their local landscape, they create a unique expression of that region. Think of a classic single malt Scotch whisky, or Champagne. Each is such a perfect distillation of a place that they couldn’t be made anywhere else. And it’s the same story with Budweiser Budvar.
Since 1895, every single drop of this beer has been made in one place, and one place only: České Budějovice, or ‘Budweis’. Just like Champagne, the location is not only responsible for its name – Budweis-er, the beer of Budweis – but the ingredients that make this beer special. Budvar still sources its ingredients from the same places, the same fields, farms and artesian well that it has for 125 years, which is why it was recognised with a ‘Protected Geographic Indication’ award by the EU in 2004.
Any good brewer will tell you that great beer cannot be made without great ingredients. And the unique geography and geology of the Czech Republic is a brewmaster’s paradise, producing the best four raw materials for crafting lager on the planet. Drink a glass of Budvar and they’re all there: whole-cone Saaz hops, Moravian malting barley, pristine water from an Ice Age aquifer, heritage brewing yeast – all working to create that freshness, crispness; the full, complex flavour.
And behind each of them is a story.
As the sun rises across the fields, brightening and warming the thick, green towering corridors of bines, the air becomes overwhelmingly aromatic. Sweet yet sour, citrusy yet floral; it’s the thirst-inducing tang every beer lover knows. Hops. Whole-cone Saaz hops, to be precise; gloriously scented, fresh and oozing their essential oils in the dawn light.
Picking season around the ancient town of Žatec – historic home of hop growing for over a thousand years – is an unforgettable experience. This was the spot where hop prices across the world were set. In the 1920s, there were over 80 hop warehouses and 160 traders operating here. As beer’s most talked about ingredient, hops are still subject of passionate discussion, albeit more among beer fans than traders these days. Still, anyone in the know will tell you that the landscape around Žatec produces one of the finest varieties in the world.
Known in brewing circles as Žatec or ‘Saaz’, these ancient, red-bine hops are classed as a ‘Noble Hop’. This doesn’t mean they dress in robes and wear a crown. More that they are one of the most traditional varieties in Europe, ranking alongside the likes of Tettnanger, Spalt, and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh in terms of provenance and quality. Saaz possess a rare balance of bitterness and aroma that lends itself perfectly to Bohemian beers. It’s why Budweiser Budvar has been brewing with them for since 1895, and why their nickname around the brewery is ‘green gold’.
Using the whole cones of Saaz hops is famously expensive, but the truth is that they are as valuable as gold when it comes to brewing the world’s finest lager, shaping mouthfeel, and bringing the fresh, floral, citrusy notes to the beer. It’s why – unlike many other well-known breweries – Budweiser Budvar refuses to brew with anything else. In the eyes of Budvar’s brewmasters, pellets or extracts just don’t make the grade. For Budweiser Budvar, it’s whole-cone all the way, sourced from the same fields and farms as they have been for centuries.
Once picked, the hops are dried, packed and delivered to the Budvar brewery in České Budějovice. They arrive compressed in green bales, complete with a wax seal, a traditional mark guaranteeing their quality, ready to come to life again where it matters most.
It’s often said that Czech beer has real soul. And that soul has a name: malt. After all, it’s malt that brings the colour and the taste of the beer. Since 1895, Budweiser Budvar has sourced its malt from a place with real soul too: the Haná region of Moravia, in the southeast of the Czech Republic. Here, seven rivers meet to create a rich, land of plenty. People speak their own dialect, have their own costumes and festivals, and it’s said that the soil is so fertile that should a farmer’s button fall into it, the button would sprout, shoot and grow.
But before you start hatching a plan to plant gold or diamonds, there’s already treasure growing here. A heritage strain of quality malting barley at the heart of Budweiser Budvar’s distinctive and complex flavour. Haná is a natural floodplain that is ideal for creating what is widely regarded as the Rolls-Royce of malts. Its sweeping, flat fields are made up of nutrient-filled earth as dark and crumbly as chocolate cake, perfect for holding the moisture required for the shallow roots of the barley plant.
Growing on these fields for centuries, the specific barley Budweiser Budvar uses to produce its slowly matured lager has been carefully curated over centuries to be the finest lager malt strain you can find; one that’s referred to by Haná folk as the ‘mother of all lager barely’. The yearly cycle sees it sown in spring, sometimes up until the middle of March. The barley shoots and grows for 90 or 100 days before its grains are harvested in the high summer sun of mid-July. But the starch in the harvested barley isn’t ready to be fermented into alcohol straight away. There’s another process to go through first: malting. Brew-ready malted barley, or malt occurs at a maltster’s; it’s here the barley is first soaked, encouraging it to germinate, and then quickly heated with warm air in a ‘kiln’ to pause the germination.
The degree of ‘kilning’ that barley malt receives depends on the kind of beer being brewed. Pilsner lager malt is lightly baked whereas other, darker malts – for ales, porters and stouts – require a heavier roast. Once finished, the malt can be whisked to the brewery ready to work its magic, imparting that golden glow and body, bringing soul to every single Budweiser Budvar.
Water has long shaped human settlement. Whether for drinking, manufacturing, travel or trade, few places truly prosper without water. And it’s certainly true for České Budějovice, home of the Budweiser Budvar brewery. Around here, the mighty Vltava, the Czech national river is an unmissable influence. But while it’s true the town wouldn’t exist today without the proximity of this powerful ‘mother river’, there is another kind of water found here that is even more special. An ancient water that comes from deep underground.
České Budějovice’s fame comes from brewing and at the heart of that is a subterranean water. Pure, clean, soft water. The town was first awarded a royal decree for brewing by Přemysl Otakar II, king of Bohemia in 1265, in part because of its water and the excellent quality of the beer that could be brewed with it. In the lottery of geography, the town got lucky. It is positioned 300 metres above a massive underground reserve of crystal-clear water so pure it is safe for infants to drink, straight from the ground. This Ice Age aquifer is a time-capsule of pristine snow melt, untouched for 10,000 years, laid down in an era before industry, pollution or agriculture.
As well as being pristine enough for babies, this water really suits a more grown-up drink. Drawn at a neutral pH with the perfect ‘hardness’ for brewing, it requires no treatment before it’s transformed into lager. This elemental and mineral composition greatly contributes to taste of the finished product, as Aleš Dvořák explains: “Most breweries around the world have to treat their water before they can brew because the right mineral composition is so important for the many complex chemical reactions that happen during brewing. Even small changes in the balance can make a huge difference to the taste of the final beer.”
There are other examples of this. Dublin has famously perfect water for brewing stout; Burton in the UK has water that is superbly balanced for ale. But few other places on earth have such perfect water for brewing lager as České Budějovice. In fact, it is written into the terms of the brewery’s Protected Geographical Indication award – the PGI stamp on the bottle. Budweiser Budvar can only ever use water drawn from its aquifer under the brewery.
When you think of making beer, you probably think of hops and barley. You probably don’t think about yeast. It’s easy to understand why. Yeast isn’t the most fun thing to look at or discuss. There are, after all, good yeasts and bad. But when it comes to brewing we’re certainly dealing with the former. And while it may be true that yeast doesn’t get much love in any beer discussion at a crowded bar, the reality is that without this magical, single-celled organism, there would be no beer.
The use of yeast in fermentation goes back at least 5,000 years. Lager yeast is a much more recent development in the grand scheme of things, at something like 160-years-old. Back in the 1860s, it was everyone’s favourite pasteurisation polymath, Louis Pasteur, that gave a name to this magic ingredient – and that name was ‘yeast’. It was quickly understood that this was the missing ingredient in brewing, and even the famous German Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot had to be amended to include it.
The brewmasters at Budweiser Budvar were early pioneers in lager brewing yeasts, creating their own strain of Saccharomyces pastorianus in their laboratory in 1895. It’s said of some bakeries in Paris that their sourdough starters date back 200 years or more, and that age is an essential part of what makes them unique: it is a stamp literally baked into the flavour. Bread enthusiasts travel far and wide to visit these hallowed locations and taste breads baked with heritage yeasts that have lived through Parisian history, through Impressionist painting, through romance, revolutions, wars. The yeast strains at historic breweries like Budweiser Budvar are the same; they hold the same magic and intrigue and, while not all that much to look at, they certainly share the ability to create spectacular flavour in the finished product.
The brewmasters at Budweiser Budvar were early pioneers in lager brewing yeasts, creating their own strain of Saccharomyces pastorianus in their laboratory in 1895.
Brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar, and self-confessed yeast obsessive, Adam Brož, agrees: “Our yeast dates to the founding of the brewery. Having studied yeast for my PhD, this has always been a big part of the appeal of Budvar to me.” He admits. “People don’t understand how much of the flavour of the beer comes from the yeast and the action of it in the brew.”
As you might expect from a doctor of yeast, he’s right, of course. Lager yeasts like Budvar’s differ from ale yeasts; they are designed to complement the long and slow maturing process at cool temperatures in the cellars. You might call them the workhorses of the yeast world, slowly and tirelessly acting on the residual sugars left in the beer, removing impurities, creating soft natural carbonation and crafting that final flavour profile. Budvar’s strain delivers a finished product that is crisp and dry, balancing a rich malt taste with the aroma and bitterness of the hops. So next time you raise a glass, save a thought for yeast – brewing’s hidden hero. The old, invisible powerhouse behind that drink in your hand.