THE BUDVAR POUR
WE SAY THE BREWMASTER BREWS THE BEER, BUT THE BEERTENDER MAKES IT.
ow, look closely at this part.” Instructs Radim the beertender or ‘vycepni’ as trained servers of lager are known here, in South Bohemia. And as I watch on, he swiftly dips the nozzle of the gleaming silver beer tap underneath the pillow of thick, pure-white foam he’s already drawn in the bottom of the glass.
Then with a quick twist of his wrist, he opens the tap fully and releases a billowing cloud of beer beneath. Fine bubbles explode in a rich, golden storm. “Can you see that?” He asks, smiling at my expression as the beer flows tantalisingly close. “There’s something hypnotic about it, isn’t there?”
Hypnotic is certainly one word for it. Irresistible is another.
It’s not every day that you get to observe great beer being poured like this: close up, and with an obvious level of skill. Unless, of course, you’re in the Czech Republic, because, throughout this land, every beer served in every pub is treated to this same careful ritual: the ritual of the pour.
It’s something beer writer and author of A Brief History of Lager, Mark Dredge, knows only too well: “What I love about Czech beer is that they place equal importance of the brewmaster and the person who serves that beer. One cannot do their job without the other. They know that the drinker doesn’t get a great experience or get to experience the beer properly without both doing their job perfectly.”
Travel around the Czech Republic and you quickly get to see what he means. From the polished chrome of Prague craft beer bars to oak-beamed mountain hostelries deep in the Šumava forest, wherever you go you will see beer being poured the same way. No big fuss is made about it because, in the eyes of Czechs, it’s not just the right way to do it; it’s the only way. An unwritten law of quality Czech lager that is all too often overlooked and misunderstood when it’s served in other parts of the world.
“What I love about Czech beer is that they place equal importance of the brewmaster and the person who serves that beer. One cannot do their job without the other.”
Mark Dredge, Beer Writer.
o the uninitiated walking into this ritual, there’s a lot going on. Cold glasses being religiously cleaned and stored in deep basins of icy water. Beertenders with a hand resting on the wooden side-pull handles of shiny silver taps, opening them sideways. Large mug-style glasses with handles filling with mouthwatering golden – or dark – lager. And foam, real foam; a good thick layer of it a couple of inches or more rising up the glass.
If it sounds like hard work, it is. Baristas of the beer world, beertenders train for months, sometimes years, to master the art of pouring. Once they do, the rewards are there for the tasting. This is because the pour affects almost every part of the drinking experience: flavour, texture, aroma and ‘drinkability’ – or the way the beer interacts with the body. Only the right pour can amplify the subtle and elegant qualities of properly brewed Czech lager. And to understand why and how, I’ve come to the place where lager is more ‘properly brewed’ than anywhere else: the Budweiser Budvar brewery in České Budějovice.
The brewing heritage here dates back 800 years under the watchful eye of emperors, kings and, more recently, ten generations of brewmasters at the 125-year-old brewery. Remarkably, every drop of Budvar is still made here with only four ingredients – whole-cone Saaz hops, Moravian malts, pure soft water and heritage lager yeast – and a carefully controlled conditioning process that hasn’t changed in centuries.
Only the right pour can amplify the subtle and elegant qualities of properly brewed Czech lager. And to understand why and how, I’ve come to the place where lager is more ‘properly brewed’ than anywhere else: the Budvar brewery in České Budějovice.
ark Dredge has also visited and sampled the beer tapped straight from the tanks in the brewery cellars. He knows how the pour can make or break the unique characteristics and qualities created in Budvar’s obsessive brewing process.
“This is a beer that takes a long time to make. And at the end of that, the pour is the most important part. That’s where we, the drinker, get to pick that beer up and experience it properly. It’s had all that time in those tanks, but finally it’s our chance to get to drink it. When it hits the glass, boom, we get that amazing foam, we get that brilliant body of beer and all that brilliant flavour, all that wonderful aroma and texture. It’s why I love the ritual that comes with getting a glass of beer in the Czech Republic. As you drink, you really get it. The pour makes it taste so good.”
He’s right of course, and there’s that word again: ritual. At Budweiser Budvar, the ritual of the pour has evolved over its 125-year history to perfectly showcase its unique aromas and flavours. And to demonstrate, who better than someone who trained and learned the art of the pour right here?
THE PERFECT BUDVAR POUR
Radim Zvanovec is a South Bohemian native who has taken his knowledge and passion for the pour to Prague and a number of prestigious bars across the world. But we meet back in Budvarka, the Budvar brewery restaurant, for a closer look at exactly what the Budvar pour involves.
“It’s called a ritual for a reason”, he explains. “It’s not magic, but it’s somewhere between an art and a science. It’s like cooking a great meal. Preparation and the cooking are both important to the right result.”
Preparation is key, but it’s complicated. To be a beertender it seems you almost need a degree in engineering. Radim points out the taps, valves and pipes that have to be meticulous cleaned and assembled each day. There is the cellaring of the beer to keep an eye on, as well as maintaining proper temperatures and flow. Once the stage is set and the beer is flowing correctly, it’s on to the glassware.
Radim is washing a set of the striking new Budvar glasses, cleaning them using a set of upright brushes. There are no dishwashers here; it’s old-fashioned hard work as the glasses need to be spotless. Once finished, he inspects them carefully then plunges them into a deep metal basin filled with cold water.
“Put your hand in.” He says, motioning towards the water. The water is ice cold, chilled to around 5° centigrade. Pulling a glass out, he rinses it on the countertop; fountains of fresh water spraying up into the glass. “The glass has to be perfectly clean, chilled and then rinsed before pouring,” he explains. “This ensures that the foam will form and hold in the glass, and the foam is what we want. The thickness of chilled glass also means that the beer will stay at the right, cold temperature for longer.”
Finally, he’s ready. “So, every part of our pour has a reason, let me show you how we do it.” Radim slaps the top of the traditional side-pull Czech tap rising up from the bar. “First you need one of these.”
He explains that this kind of beer fount is quite different to the lager lever-tap you see in most other countries around the world. If a lever tap is like an on-off light switch, then the side pull is more like a dimmer, producing a gradual gradient of different textures of beer – from pure foam to pure beer all controlled by the beertender’s expertise.
The range of textures are made possible through the built-in ball-valve inside the tap. Also inside, is a micro-screen with a very fine mesh. Pushing beer through this creates a dense and thick foam which is ‘wet’ meaning it is at least 50% actual beer rather than air. Likewise, this process breaks down some of the CO2 in the beer, making it less fizzy, softer to drink and not so heavy on the stomach as other lagers poured other ways. This is what is meant by improving ‘drinkability’. In terms of flavour and sensation, the foam plays another vital role. Compounds from the whole-cone hops float upwards in the beer and are captured in the foam, releasing a whole range of active aromas you don’t get with more ‘dry’ foam.
To show me, Radim opens the handle just a little bit. The thick, wet foam starts to pour. Quickly, he tips the rinsed glass to a 45° angle and puts it under the tap and a measure of the velvety foam forms at the bottom of the glass. Without stopping, the nozzle of the tap goes right in under it and he opens the handle wide. The lager rolls and tumbles in the glass, pushing up the foam, until the glass is two-thirds full.
“The foam barrier here plays a vital role in protecting the flavour of the beer.” Radim says. “Because it prevents the beer making any contact with the air, there is no oxygenation.”
I’ve never considered that before, but it makes sense. The foam acts as an aromatic barrier that not only brings subtle tones of the whole-cone hops to the nose and mouth, but also ensures the beer is completely unchanged in flavour from Budvar’s cold-conditioning tanks to when it first reaches the drinker’s lips.
The foam acts as an aromatic barrier that not only brings subtle tones of the whole-cone hops to the nose and mouth, but also ensures the beer is unchanged in flavour from Budvar’s tanks to when it first reaches the drinker’s lips.
ext, Radim places the two-thirds full glass down to rest for thirty seconds. He tells me that this stage is important because it thickens the foam and releases further CO2, making the beer both more aromatic and more drinkable. Then he picks up the glass, dips the spout once more below the foam and opens the handle wide again, pouring the full measure of beer, straightening the glass as the thick foam reaches the top. Finally, he whips the glass away to avoid any drips which would break through the foam and introduce air, and places the glass down in front of me. It’s an absolutely perfect pour. The amber-gold beer with a thick white foam settling beautifully; the condensation trickling the glass.
“Now get up close and personal with it.” Radim suggests, indicating that I should get my face in there. I do, and because of the round, wide mouth on the glass I get the full sensory hit of those bitter-sweet aromatics from the Saaz hops and the rich Moravian malts.
Taking a sip, I break through the deep and textured wet foam, getting the unique mouthfeel and drinking experience that’s simply unlike other international lagers. Then comes the soft, chilled, golden liquid underneath, arriving at the perfect temperature and with the ideal level of natural carbonation.
All the classic flavours of Budweiser Budvar are there – the rich and rounded malts, the bite of the hops – but poured like this, they seem to inhabit almost a new dimension of flavour and sensation.
In a way, it’s like swapping from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. No wonder this is an experience, a ritual, every Czech not only savours but demands. Taste like this takes time to create, but it’s worth the wait.