Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Coming Darkness

One of the many things I love about lager is its sheer variety. Now, if you are the kind of poor, misguided soul that thinks lager is some wan, piss coloured, fizzy liquid then you need to give your head a wobble and do some learning.

In recent years in particular I have been thrilled to see a steadily increasing range of lager styles available to the discerning drinker on this side of the Pond. Naturally I am most thrilled by the number of Czech style lagers that are being brewed.

While I have been known to grumble (what? me?) about the fact that many allegedly Czech style pale lagers tend more toward světlý speciál rather than světlý ležák, I am just happy to have some Czech-ish to drink. More recently it has been the dark Czech lagers that are becoming more common, and having designed what I believe to be the first authentic tmavé to be brewed in Virginia, it is a trend I keep a thoroughly interested eye on.

It was with this interested eye that I liked a picture on Instagram from Jeff Alworth of a tmavé called Tmavá Sova, which translates as "Black Owl". Naturally I approve mightily of getting the grammar right, so of course I went to take a look at the website of the makers, Matchless Brewing from Washington State and I think they make the kind of beers I like. My only beef, and thus the genesis of the this post, was the description for Tmavá Sova, which defines tmavé as being:

"a re-emerging style from the Czech Republic".

Forgive me if I am being a little touchy here, but there is no way on Odin's green Midgard that tmavé is a "re-emerging style" for the simple reason it never really went away. That's not to say that the style makes a huge proportion of beer sales in Czechia, but as far back as I can remember most breweries have at least one dark lager in their range.

When I first moved to Prague, back in the 20th century, I was a dedicated Guinness drinker and gravitated quite naturally to dark lagers such as Herold Bohemian Black Lager, a beer well regarded by Michael Jackson. Of course there is the legendary U Fleků 13° dark lager with roots back to the 19th century, when dark beers in Bohemia were still top fermented.

While it is true that there are exceedingly few Czech dark lagers actually from Czechia that make it to this side of the pond, I can think of all of 1 that is easy-ish to find, Budvar's lovely version of the style, that should not be taken as a sign of a style dying in its heartland. Pretty much every regional and local brewery in Czechia has at least one dark lager offering. Often that beer is a 14° plato beer, the type that was the inspiration behind Morana, though as is common with all Czech beers, gravities for different colours can be all over the map, Kozel Černý is a desítka for example.

Now, I know this will come as a shock to some, but there is more to beer than craft breweries making styles of beer which are little known in a brewery's sitz im leben. If I remember rightly tmavé represents about 5% of Czech beer production, which in 2018 was about 18.1 million barrels. As such somewhere just slightly north of 900,000 barrels of tmavé was brewed that year, just shy of the total production of New Belgium Brewing.

So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, just because something is new to you doesn't mean it is new, or re-discovered, or re-emerging. Tmavé is not like Grodziskie, Broyhan, or even Kulmbacher that needs to be resurrected, it is alive, well, and even evolving in its heartland.

On a less snarky note, I would love to try Tmavá Sova, and I applaud any brewery that takes a gamble on a less well-known style of beer, especially if it happens to be a lager style from central Europe. As I said at the beginning, lager is not some just wan, piss-coloured, fizzy drink for the masses, but rather a noble family of beers that have their roots in central Europe and make up some of the best beers you will ever drink, so explore, go find a brewery that is making the same kind of decisions as Matchless, and discover what real lager can be.

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