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Czech Beer in D.C., a history (Part 2)

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 talk about one of our favorite topics, Czech beer.

In Part 1, we waded into the history of Czech beer in DC. In Part 2, we’ll show that what local brewers are doing today is similar to what they did a century ago, as well as discuss what to try locally to understand the influence of Czech ingredients in area beers.

Read Czech Beer Expert Evan Rail Comes to Town

We spoke with over half a dozen brewers and compiled a list of beers. 

In the 19th century, DC’s National Capital Brewing Company “personally selected” their Bohemian hops in Germany. Bohemia is the westernmost part of the Czech Republic and is historically famous for growing hops. The 1898 ad doesn’t specifically state why they selected their Czech hops from Germany, though historically Czech hops have been sold through German or American hop merchants.

Czech beer depends on Pilsen Malts and Saaz Hops from Bohemia.
Czech beer depends on Pilsen Malts and Saaz Hops from Bohemia.

Today DC brewers still select hops by traveling to hop growing regions. Just a short while ago Hellbender CEO/head brewer Ben Evans and brewer LT Goodluck traveled to Oregon for hops. Last week I harvested hops at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Victory Garden but that’s another post for another day…

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

In 1898 National Capital claimed their “Diamond’ beer.. .is made of Bohemian Hops, personally selected in Germany last summer,” and they asked consumers to try for themselves and see “if it is not the equal of finest imported beers.”

Local Brewers and Czech Beer Ingredients

We asked local brewers if they use Czech ingredients, and if they know of any 100% Czech ingredient beers being brewed in the area. Their answers follow.

Favio Garcia, Head brewer at Dynasty Brewing Company

Marzen is Czech Pilsner, Vienna and Munich [all Czech malts from Sekado], and a touch of Crystal from Briess. Czech Caramel malts were unavailable. El Supremo Pilsner is 93% Czech Pilsner malt. Acidulated malt to keep pH in balance. Tradition, Saaz, and Saphir [German, Czech, and German hops].

Christian Layke, co-founder and head brewer at Silver Branch Brewing Company

Glass Castle is mostly Czech ingredients, but not exclusively. For example, since we decoct [a step in the mash conducted by removing a portion of the barley and liquid boiling it then returning it to the main mash] the pilsner, I use chit malt, which is made by Best Maltz in Germany. I also use some Sterling hops for my first hop addition. They aren’t super high alpha at 6%, but have great flavor and are three times the alpha of the Saaz we use sometimes. I have used another Czech hop for that role in the past and was considering going back to it. I hadn’t simply because I’ve been so happy with the Sterling, but your email pushes me back in that direction. Finally, we use about 1% cara-Amber, which again is German instead of Czech.

Nassim Sultan, Head Brewer at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Tysons Corner Center

Considering that Weyermann has a Bohemian Pilsner Malt available, and considering that that malt is made from Czech barley and malted in a Czech facility and that BSG has Weyermann products, the odds of there being at least a handful of breweries in the DMV doing a 100% Czech pilsner are decent. That said, considering that Weyermann is a German company, if you wanted to be more extreme and ask “how many breweries are using Czech malt that comes from Czech barley and was malted in the Czech Republic by a company that is 100% Czech?” then the number goes way down, possibly zero. I’m not aware of any major malt distributors carrying that kind of malt.

As a side comment, I’ll ask “how many breweries are using Czech Saaz?” I know some breweries use US Saaz or Sterling (some brewers say that Sterling is a better replacement for Czech Saaz than US Saaz).

Jonathan Reeves, Head Brewer at Port City Brewing Company

My tmave’ pivo, which is coming out on October 11th, is 100% Czech malt and hops, but I’m using my house lager yeast which is Augustiner.

My Downright Pilsner uses Czech Hops, Saaz and Kazbek, but the grain bill is Canadian, British and German. I don’t know of anyone else using all Czech ingredients.

It is entirely possible that the only beer brewed with 100% Czech ingredients in the area is Zlaty Rhino, the Czech Pilsner by Lost Rhino Brewing Company. That beer came from Aaron Hermes, former brewer at Lost Rhino, and frequent regional collaborator.

Aaron Hermes, former brewer at Lost Rhino, and frequent regional collaborator

First things first – Zlatý Rhino,  when I was brewing it, was always Czech Saaz hops (or as they’re known in CZ, “Žatecký” hops, which refers to the fact that they were grown in the Žatec region. Among Czech brewers, they are regarded as the best hops in the world, and the preferred variety is žatecky poloranný červeňák ( červeňák means “reddish, poloranný” means “semi-early” –  it’s the same meaning as Mittelfrüh). Other varieties (which are crosses of Saaz with other stuff) include Sládek and Premiant, which are considered Žatecký if they’re grown there, but most of the time people mean the žatecky poloranný červeňák variety.

The malt we used was Weyermann’s Floor-malted Bohemian Pilsner malt, which is actually Czech grain. The malt is typically Moravian barley which, last I knew, is sent for floor-malting at the Ferdinand brewery in Benešov, before being sold by Weyermann.

I haven’t worked at Lost Rhino since 2017, so I haven’t been involved with the brewing of  Zlatý since then, but when I spoke to Mike (the current brewer) he didn’t say anything about any changes. It sounded like they were using the same recipe.

On another note: I’ve actually brewed several collaborations at Black Hoof, in Leesburg, over the last year and a half or so. We’ve done two batches of a beer we call “Midnight Rhapsody,” which is basically a copy of Kozel Černý, from Velkopopovický Kozel. It’s a 10P [P here stand for Plato, a measurement of beer strength, 10 Plato or 10 P beers can range between just under 4% or up to 5% ABV] dark Czech lager, similar to what Tmavý is/was, but much lighter in body and flavor. Almost chocolatey, in fact. We’ve done that for winter release the last two years, and always used Czech malts from Weyermann, but not exclusively. Floor-malted Bohemian Dark malt, Cara-Bohemian, and some Carafa III, I think.

Just 3 weeks ago, we brewed a 10P pale lager (světlé výčepní pivo) that probably won’t be released until mid-to-late October. For that beer, we used Czech malt from a vendor called Sekado, who I always see at CBC every year. I have used that malt a few times, and it is great malt – very, uh, malty, and a little darker than the Weyermann FM Bohemian malt. It gives a typically Czech color/body to the beer, and I’m really excited to see that beer as it matures. It’s also 100% Czech Saaz hops.

(I’ve given this beer a preliminary name of “Pivo Bryson” but we’ll wait to see if Bill goes with that… If he doesn’t, I reserve the right to use it somewhere else in the future!)

We double-decocted the dark lager and the pale lager, so they’re very traditional. I think that Bill (Black Hoof) is going to do a 12P pale lager next, but I’m not involved in that at this point. I’m pretty sure he’s decided not to decoct that one, too, and I’m not sure what the grain bill will be.

Daniel Vilarrubi, Head Brewer, Atlas Brew Works

We do use Saaz in the District Common. The recipe was at Atlas since before I got here so I can’t speak exactly to the mindset of why we put Saaz in the beer, but I personally appreciate it as a way to add a subtle spice to an otherwise malt- and yeast-driven beer.

Saaz is the only hop we use in the Common, and it’s also the only Czech ingredient we use, although we also use a bit in The 1500 alongside some Mt Hood for the more floral character.

So there you have it, go out and try some local beer brewed with Czech ingredients. 

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