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Review: Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest

Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest [Kindle Edition]
By Rail, E.
2014 PRICE $2.99

Evan Rail has done it again; he’s written an illuminating long-form nonfiction piece about our favorite subject.

The author of Why Beer MattersTriplebock, and Why We Fly, just released his newest title, Beer Trails: The Little Brewery in the Bohemian Forest. Rail notified us via email to say, “This piece is meant to be the first in a new series of long-form writing dedicated to our favorite beverage. The next 'Beer Trails' titles should be coming from Stan Hieronymus and Joe Stange later this year.

It’s a fascinating read, part narrative essay, part memoir, with a touch of the lyric essays that allow poets and prose writers to further illuminate their favorite subjects. Rail was kind enough to email DCBeer and offer up a glimpse of his newest treatise on what else but the beautiful bottom-fermenting beers of Bohemia’s esteemed Pivovar Kout na Šumavě.

If you’ve been to Bohemia or Bavaria, you’ve likely heard the stories of widowed countesses killing their kids to marry the prince or of a bartered bride who brews the best beer in all the land, but her evil husband has already murdered his first dozen brides and now she is to be beheaded. These are folk tales, and their human element is shrouded in the super natural woods. In a way, this setting is replicated by Rail. That is not to say Brewery in the Bohemian Forest is a folk tale, but the nonfiction presented is peppered with the vividness of an enchanted setting filled with lore of centuries past.

It makes sense that this 21st century story would be steeped in the lore of centuries past; a central point in the book is a recurring mention of a historic brewing log. Rail writes of Kout, “they’d found the brewing log while they were cleaning out the area around the old steam furnace, and that it had been buried in the wall, and that it had taken them a long time to figure it out because it was written in Švabach, the Czech term for a long-forgotten type of black letter script. It was a pity we couldn’t see it because it was in a safe-deposit box, but it certainly existed.”

Beyond the fascination with the centuries-old book (first the author’s then the reader’s), there is the Czech countryside and the feeling that one somehow knows Narodni park Sumava better after reading Rail’s piece. Of course this is a true impossibility with the national park’s 100 kilometer length bordering Germany and Austria. Rail describes a drive from the pivovar back to the train station. "We passed dense clumps of trees, thick stands of woods which were all that remained of the once-great Hercynian Forest. I imagined them as part of the old woods, when it was filled with strange creatures and unusual discoveries, the watershed of secrets to which no outsider would ever be truly welcome.”

Beyond providing an intimate look at the Czech pivovar, Rail’s narrative provides an intimate profile of the Kout Owner, Mr. Jan Skala. Not quite as infamous as Josef Groll, but close in that his persona takes on a legendary form as the reader feels closer to the owner despite having never met him. I hate to give away quotes, but I found this one passage too good not to share:

I asked about the flavor profile of a classic Czech tmavé pivo, and how he would describe what made it different from a German Schwarzbier or a Munich-style Dunkles, which resulted in my favorite quote from the session:

‘Well, I’ve never had a Schwarzbier. Nor any Dunkles.’

The book picks up where Why Beer Matters left off. On the last page of Why Beer Matters, Rail writes, “At the pub, there’s a chance I’ll reread these lines and think of other reasons why beer matters to me, something I’ve overlooked and forgotten,” and here he has done what so many essayists hope to do. He has imparted or at least lead the reader to the important role beer plays in the world. He has encouraged his readers to come up with their own reasons as to why beer matters beyond the temporal ending of his narrative, which literally ends with a trip to a traditional Czech pub.

Why Beer Matters set up narratives that furthered the reader’s understanding of Czech beer culture—a culture that can certainly be an insular one—but in The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest, Rail shows scenes in which he is an outsider himself. Further illuminating the narrative nonfiction is a fantastic glossary that ties in a ton of references to European and Czech history, as well as brewery terms, ingredients, processes, and procedures.

Rail captures the incredible spirit of the Czechs, their ingenuity and affinity for hard work. The details Rail provides are exquisite. All of this helps the reader feel a connection to Czech beer. This kind of connection is rare, but with the help of the author the reader feels well-informed and part of an inner circle by the end.

So why does all this matter to you, DCBeer reader? There are many intrinsic reasons it should matter but most of all, because unlike a lot of writing about quality Czech breweries, this one is available to you. Yes, it is only sold at a handful of better beer bars in the states but (at the time of this writing) it is available at ChurchKey.

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