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Czech Beer in D.C., a history (Part 1)

On September 30, beer expert Evan Rail will lecture on Czech Beer Days: What’s Behind the Brew? at the Czech embassy. We’re taking this as an opportunity to discuss one of our favorite topics.

Czech Beer in D.C., Pt.1 examines the history of Czech beer in the US and more specifically in the DC metro region. Czech Beer in DC Pt. 2 discusses the brewing of beer with Czech ingredients.

Czech beer in the US is represented by Budweiser.
Part of an advertisement for Budweiser in Washington’s The Evening Star in 1907

Czechia, or the Czech Republic, is the birthplace of pilsner. As the most widely-brewed beer style in the world, it’s no wonder that the influence of Czech brewing is strong. The focus here is on the US, DC, and that strange country we can never visit: the past.

America’s fourth best-selling beer, Miller Lite, is branded “A FINE PILSNER.” But anyone who’s had pale lager or Pilsner-style beers in Czechia knows a fine Pilsner in the States tastes quite different than what’s on offer in Czech bars and restaurants.

America’s third best-selling beer, Budweiser, is also based on Czech beer (numbers two and one are Coors Light and Bud Light). The beer from the Czech town of Budejovice, or Budweis in German, was the inspiration for America’s king of beers. And for many years that beer was brewed with Czech hops, even though they were six times as expensive as domestic hops according to a 1936 Anheuser Busch ad.

Tivoli-Hofbrau ad
Portner’s Tivoli Hofbrau

In 1894, the Robert Portner Brewing Company had the capacity to produce 100,000 barrels annually, the biggest brewery in the South. His Alexandria brewery stretched across four blocks and employed 278 people.

Czechia has been known by different names throughout the centuries. “Bavarian” and “Bohemian” can be confusing, so let’s be clear: Bavaria is in Germany, Bohemia is in Czechia. In the 1890s the distinction was cloudier; according to the historic Robert Portner Brewing Company, Bohemian beer was paler and hoppier while Bavarian was more malt tonic (for comparisons to today’s Czech and German imports consider Pilsner Urquell the Bohemian equivalent and Hofbräu Dunkel the Bavarian equivalent).

The following year, Portner made lager beer which “would compare favorably with the imported [beer].” Portner’s Tivoli-Hofbrau had the “tonic properties of the Bavarian, with the lighter body and more delicate hop flavor of the Bohemian, qualities which make the Pilsen so famous.”

Portner advertised Tivoli-Hofbrau with a famous Pilsen character using Bavarian (German) hops. We’ll see this trend of history repeating itself in Czech Beer Pt. 2 as DC-area brewers make Czech inspired beer with German ingredients.

Just three years earlier in 1892, the National Capital Brewing Company had a similar claim for their “Best” beer:

“Coming as a special product of the great breweries operated by the National Capital Brewing Company– brewed for the exclusive use of F.H. Finley & Son-made of the very best malts procurable and imported Bohemian hops” We love the way this pre-prohibition add is worded. It leaves in play the idea that there is better malt out there, it’s just not procurable.

Bohemian hops, also known as Saazer hops, were famously used in Budweiser. For the purposes of this ad, Czech, Bohemian, and Saazer hops are all the same (it’s more complex than that today but more on that in Pt. 2).

On the 1907 label you’ll see “Saazer Hopfen” in pretty cursive on the left. “The best Saazer Hops” reads the ad copy. Underneath is the name of the manager of “Anheuser-Busch Branch – Washington, D.C.” Anheuser-Busch had a bottling plant in DC, located at First Street and Virginia Avenue, SW.

1907 Budweiser bottle from an ad in Washington’s The Evening Star

A post-prohibition ad from 1936 states “Budweiser’s Imported Saazer hops cost six times as much as the finest domestic hops with which they are blended.”

Based on this ad we know Budweiser was made with Czech and American hops. This practice continues as many breweries in and around DC mix Czech and American hops, especially US-grown Sterling.

While the past is a strange country we can never visit, there is a strong lineage from what these pre-prohibition beers tasted like and what the Czechs are brewing today. So if you haven’t, we strongly encourage you to try some readily available Czech beers.

The Craft Beer Cellar regularly carries Pilsner Urquell and Krušovice Imperial. While both pale lager, Pilsner Urquell tends to be the only beer Czechs refer to as Pilsner. As the originator of the Pilsner style, all other pale lagers are just that– pale lagers. Urquell is 4.4% ABV and Krušovice is 5% ABV. Easy drinking with nice bready character and a faint spicy hop kick, these beers are likely the beers your first shitty beer in college or high school were modeled after (though likely fell entirely short of).

Craft Beer Cellar also carries the Konrad brand of pale lager, though owner Erika Goedrich says she’s now down to one bottle. That beer is distributed and imported through the Shelton Brothers who also regularly provide Churchkey with Koutská dvanáctka or Koutska 12 which is always delightful. Though all of these beers are pale lagers, we will get into darker Czech lagers in Pt. 2.

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