A Proustian madeleine moment? With hops? Not quite. The lager in the iconic Budweiser Budvar tankard glass flaunted all the right credentials, including the distinctive huge frothy head, bringing back glorious travel memories. Yet the taste was subtly different from what you’d expect of the classic Czech beer.
Adam Brož, the brewmaster of that state-run enterprise was at my elbow to explain their unique link-up with Derbyshire’s finest, Thornbridge. Our native Golding hops and Maris Otter malt give Czech Mates (a bit of an ouch name, but hey) its own tang, benefiting from the legendary Budvar yeast. Cheers – or, as they say in South Bohemia ‘Na zdraví’!
Budvar’s first ever collab outside its home country is not meant to replicate the original. At 4.8 per cent it is weaker and the maturation period is shorter, though considerably longer than most lagers including even Czech rival Pilsener Urquell. And don’t even mention the dreaded American Budweiser, which perennially bombards Budvar with legal challenges over the brand.
I am at a Czech Mates launch night in a Thornbridge tied house in Leeds, The Bankers Cat, and Budvar global ambassador Ridem is generously plying us with samples of Thornbridge’s crisp, well balanced labour of love. Like Adam, he is delighted that I have visited their iconic brewery in České Budějovice. I tell them how it was the final destination of an eye-opening pilgrimage to the Czech Republic (or Czechia as it now styles itself). That was in 2016. My previous visit to their country had been in 1976, just eight years after the Prague Spring and the Soviet crushing of Czech dreams of freedom. How different it all felt…
A land of fairy tales and golden lager
Advent Sunday in Český Krumlov (main picture) and the bells are ringing. The first sighting of blue sky in this most misty of autumns in South Bohemia has lured me out into the old town before breakfast. Winding alleys that had breathed mystery after dark are equally entrancing by day. Who needs Prague when you can have a place like this to yourself?
Except around the corner comes a selfie-driven Japanese coach pack. UNESCO World Heritage status means off the beaten track just doesn’t happen these days. Still this historic city, set in a horseshoe bend of the River Vltava (Moldau) and lorded over by an immense 13th century castle, wears its tourist honeypot trappings lightly.
We are 170km south of the Czech capital, not far from the Austrian border. This has been territory fought over for centuries. When Germans ruled the roost it was called Krummau an der Moldau just as the region’s main centre, České Budějovice, was Budweis (hence the brewery name, more of which anon).
After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia Český Krumlov arose from decades of decay like some Sleeping Beauty. Which seems quite apt in a land entwined in folklore and fairytale.
Especially around Christmas when it all takes off. Well, Flying Baby Jesus does. When the Velvet Revolution kicked out Communism there was a rush to introduce Czechs to that burly guy in red with the white beard. They were having none of it. Their festive bringer of gifts is Ježíšek, variously depicted as a baby, toddler, and young lad (see the image below from a church we visited).
On Christmas Eve families deck the tree and share a traditional Czech dinner of carp and potato salad, then the children are sent to scan the skies for Ježíšek. When a bell rings they rush back to find their presents have arrived.
Snacking on the Christmas Markets
The Czechs have the highest beer consumption in the world – 129 litres a head. Their food, from pretzels to goulasch via dumplings, sauerkraut, grilled meats and sausages, seems custom-built to match the foaming brews.
We were there at Christmas Markets time, more home-made affairs than the ersatz ones inflicted on the UK every November and December. In both Český Krumlov and České Budějovice I sampled these Czech snacks for the first time:
Trdelnik: a hybrid of cake and sweet pastry made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with a sugar and spice mix.
Sazanka: a thin omelette on rye with gherkins and browned spring onions.
Kapri Hranolky: carp fries, the fish chunks spiced with cumin and ginger then floured and deep-fried. Delicious with a noggin of mulled mead, but I opted for a bottle of Krumlov’s own local beer, Eggenberg.
Green man riding a catfish and other tall tales
My best present was discovering the unanticipated wonders of Český Krumlov. After being captivated by the view from the Castle of its close clustered rooftops encircled by the river came the defining focus of the stay: the Fairytale House – Puppet Museum. Here you could learn about contemporary puppeteering, even try your hand, but it is the marionette mausoleum aspect – some tableaux dating back to the 18th century – that captivated. Czech childhoods seem populated by sprites, witches and demons. None more creepy than the water spirit ”vodník”. This green man riding a catfish drowns unwary folk and captures their souls in a jar.
Equally spooky is the White Lady who haunts the Castle and makes appearances in the nearby Hotel Růže. If the spirit is smiling, good news will follow; if she looks serious, and wears or carries black gloves, the news will be bad. Legend has it she threw herself off a cliff when her father refused to allow her to marry the man she loved.
Another Krumlov story, much more horrific, featured deranged Don Julius, bastard son of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II. When he took up residence in the Castle in 1607 he was joined by the local barber’s daughter, Markéta Pichlerová, with her family’s permission.
Tiring of her, he beat her up and threw her from a turret window – she escaped death only because a rubbish heap broke her fall. After she recovered from terrible injuries, the tyrant demanded her back – and then cut her into tiny pieces. In subsequent captivity in the Castle he degenerated into a human wreck and was probably murdered on the Emperor’s orders.
Near the knuckle – St Reparatus and Egon Schiele
A dark past but visiting the Castle nowadays is a jolly experience. The exuberant Baroque theatre is only open for occasional concerts and the two resident bears penned below the battlements are coy about showing themselves, but the 29 room Museum in the colourful tower is equally colourful and eccentric. Don’t miss the reliquary of St Reparatus, his bones gaudily embellished by nuns.
Just as near the knuckle is some of the raw, explicit imagery inside the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. The Austrian painter died in the Spanish flu epidemic, at just 28, in 1918, the same year as his inspirational mentor, Gustav Klimt. This gallery in a former brewery exists because Schiele’s mother came from the town and he spent time here, enraptured by the Bohemian forests, before being driven out because of his bohemian (as in unorthodox) lifestyle. This is charted in exemplary fashion alongside changing exhibitions of current artists.
The Museum Fotoatelier Seidel is an altogether sedater affair. This house/studio of early 20th century photographic pioneer Josef Seidel is a time warp with its abundance of original cameras and props. He was a chronicler of a pre-war, pre-Soviet age and the images are fascinating.
All these attractions are within close walking distance. The best passport to seeing them is the Český Krumlov Card, covering five museums and the Krumlov monastery complex. For a single adult it costs £15
Czech craft beers and a castle crammed with antlers
Visiting castles is bound to work up an appetite… and a thirst. Hluboká nad Vlatou, 10km north of České Budějovice, is home to a very stately pile. The 13th century Hluboká Castle was transformed into its current Neo-Gothic Windsor look in the 19th century by the Schwarzenberg family. They had downsized from Český Krumlov Castle to this 11 tower, 140 room, glorified ‘hunting lodge’. In the hall the Schwarzenbergs pose en masse in a family photograph of the time, the menfolk itching to get away and blast the life out of all the stags they can bag. You can’t move for trophy antlers and gun racks throughout the public rooms, only the odd manic boar’s head breaking the plush monotony.
There are various tours on offer, after which you will probably be ready for a substantial repast at the village’s characterful restaurant, Solidní Šance. Specilaity is potato pancakes stuffed with cabbage and pork. The house strudel is benchmark stuff, too. To accompany there’s a range of unfiltered and unpasteurized ‘Czech-style craft beers’ brewed in-house at the Pivovar Hluboká, using Budvar yeast, Czech or Bavarian malts and Žatec hops. Go for their Žatec semi-early red, if available.
Some 20km to the west of České Budějovice is another UNESCO heritage gem, the model village of Holašovice. Ranked around a village green are several dozen houses refashioned in the 19th century in the ‘Folk Baroque’ style aping noble mansions. Think lacy, colourful gables.
I’m told the number of houses has remained constant throughout Holašovice’s 800 years of existence and most are still lived in by villagers. Two taverns, a chapel and a blacksmith are here to serve them, and No.6 of the 17 farms in the village offers a fascinating collection of bygone rural tackle. Thought-provoking indeed our lugubrious guide’s demo (without animal) of how to castrate a sheep.
Our journey’s end – the refreshing city of České Budějovice
But then the whole trip was full of quirky revelations. The main purpose of our visit to České Budějovice 25km north of Český Krumlov was to visit the brewery but on a guided tour around the town every building seemed to boast an odd back story. Climb the 250 steps to the top of the Italianate Gothic-Renaissance Black Tower (1577) and you are rewarded with a spectacular view over Budějovice’s vast main square and the Blanský Forest in the distance. The abiding memory, though, is of the goat who once shared the tower apartment with the guardian.
Walk over to Piarist Square. On one side is the steeply gabled Salt Warehouse, once an armoury, today a motorcycle museum. Inset randomly in the facade are three reliefs of stone faces, believed to represent a trio of thieves beheaded. On the other side, high on the exterior of the Church of the Sacrifice of Our Lady, a frog-like gargoyle bulges just below the roof. It recreates a frog crawled into the foundations of the Dominican church during construction and kept causing the church walls to crumble; in the end, it was ejected from the foundations. It is said that its sculpture used to be placed lower, but the stone frog has been crawling upwards step by step until it reaches the roof and then the church will collapse and it will be the end of the world.
An equivalent doom will arrive when the vast underground lake that supplies the perfect, pure soft water for making Budvar beer runs out. It’s not going to happen any time soon but it’s a nagging long-term quandary for the state-owned brewery that upholds the country’s beer traditions, lagering (slow conditioning) its top-fermented, burnished gold beer for 90 days in comparison with just 25 for arch-rival corporate-owned Pilsener Urquell in the northern town of Plzeň, where the classic beer style was created.
Budvar are meticulous, too, in sourcing locally only pale Moravian malt and Saaz whole hops (not the pellets used by most brewers, even the of the artisan craft persuasion). It was a glorious sight watching hops being loaded into one of the gleaming copper vessels.
So does Budvar Budweiser taste better at hallowed source?
At the end of our Budvar Visitor Centre Tour we tasted the end product in the cellar. Patiently conditioned and unpasteurised, lacily frothy fresh from the tanks, it lived up to Garrett Oliver’s tasting note in his magisterial Oxford Companion to Beer: “Refreshing, showing a rich malt and vanilla aroma, and fine, floral hop character. The finish has a fine balance of juicy malt, tangy hop resins, and a delicate hint of apple fruit.” Quite.
Oliver touches at length on the decades-long legal wrangling over naming rights with the US brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, who produce their own (vastly inferior) ‘Budweiser’ and Bud Lite. At the height of the squabble Budvar was saved from a takeover by them after the intervention of then president Vaclac Havel and today worldwide sales are soaring. In the fairy tale land of Bohemia they like happy endings.
• Budějovický Budvar Brewery, n. p.K. Světlé 512/4 370 04 České Budějovice. To plan your (highly recommended) Brewery Tour visit here. End your tour with a meal at Budvar’s own restaurant 100 metres away on the corner of Pražská and K. Světlé streets. The rich, dry Budvar dark lager is a consummate match for the house speciality, goulasch. For full tourism information about Czechia visit this link. Jet2.com fly regularly from Manchester to Prague. České Budějovice is two hours south of the Czech capital with Český Krumlov a further half hour away.