Hundreds of Czechs are brewing their own beer
Hundreds of people in Czechia brew their own beer at home. These "home brewer" enthusiasts are not allowed to sell their products by law, but if they could, they might put some of the big breweries to shame with their excellent homemade brews.
Many Czechs started brewing their own beer out of necessity, when working or living far from home they craved the taste of good Czech beer and there was none to be had. From construction workers to embassy officials, people tell tales of how they slowly learnt the art of making the golden brew that the country is world famous for.
What is more surprising is that many people living in this country have also taken up the hobby of beer brewing when there are so many excellent brands of the market to choose from at a relatively affordable price.
However, despite established world famous breweries, such as Pilsner or Budwar and several hundred mini-breweries putting out a vast amount of excellent craft beers, hundreds of Czechs delight in making their own home brews, which they have gradually perfected by trial and error.
Jan Zikl, who resides in a small town called Lhota pod Libčany in the Hradec Králové region, took up the hobby in the midst of the Covid pandemic when he was forced to spent days cooped up at home browsing the social media. Jan says he found inspiration in the reports of a fellow home brewer.
“He was posting photos of himself brewing beer in his garage. I found that really interesting, because I had no idea that something like that was possible. Then I found out that there is a huge community of people who brew beer at home. So I told my wife about it and said I wanted to give it a try. She was surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea and told me to go for it!"
“Going for it” meant spending tens of thousands of crowns on equipment, acquiring know-how from the Internet and fellow brewers and, last but not least, finding a place to brew and store the beer. In Jan’s case it was a 3 by 3.5 meters room in the basement that originally served for storing preserves.
Jan says the idea of making his own beer grew on him and he couldn’t wait to start. Within a fortnight he had bought all the equipment needed and started brewing his first batch. Now he offers visitors his very own ale - drafted from a stainless steel cylinder - with obvious pride.
"Connoisseurs would call it Czech Pale Ale Double Dry Hopped. But I call it ČEPA –an abbreviation for Czech Ale. It is double-dry-hopped with a type of hops called Mosaic."
Jan Zikl says he will never forget the first batch of beer he brewed.
"Red IPA, I couldn’t wait to taste it. The instructions say to let it ferment for 14 days, but there wasn’t a chance I could wait that long. I would say that I tasted it continuously. So, of course, it didn't survive the necessary fortnight. And it still quite often happens that way."
Jan’s wife and family are enthusiastic about his newfound skills and happy to help him sample. By law, home brewers are not allowed to sell their products; they can only brew for their own use or for family and friends, but only up to a maximum of 2,000 liters a year.
Pavel Dvořáček is an experienced home brewer who has been brewing beer with his wife for years. Pavel says that, once you put your mind to it, you can learn to make any kind of beer, depending of course on the technology, space and financial resources at your disposal.
“The basic distinction in beer brewing is what we call “top” and “bottom” fermentation. In top fermentation, the yeast rises to the surface and forms a skim-yeast, whereas in bottom fermentation the yeast sinks to the bottom of the vessel. The traditional Czech “lagers” are fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures while “ales” are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures. Because of their warm fermentations, ales generally ferment relatively fast (3-5 weeks). On the other hand, lagers take much longer (up to 6 to 8 weeks) because they are cold fermented. So it depends on whether you want to make a lager or an ale and how much time you are willing to give it. Ales generally have a spicy or fruity taste and smell and are increasingly popular these days.”
Both ales and lagers can be produced in home conditions. However, ales are typically more common among home brewers because they are ready in 7 days to a fortnight and do not require cooling facilities. Pavel opted for a lager from the word go. Although there are now “starting kits” for beginners on the market, where all the ingredients have been carefully selected, weighed and prepared, he says he prefers selecting his own ingredients and working from scratch.
“All you need is malt, hops, yeast and water. I assemble all I need in the garage on Friday evening –the place must be clean and sanitized of course – and start making the beer at 6am. By 6pm, that same day, the beer is in the fridge, where it will ferment for a week at 2 degs C. After a week I pour it into kegs where it rests for about two months and it’s ready to drink or bottle. Whether you are making 10 litres or 100 - the procedure is the same.”
Making a home lager is not just more time-consuming but also more costly. The Dvořáček family now have five fridges just for beer making which is simply not doable for most people –both with regard to space and finances. So Pavel says that home brewers who are just starting with the hobby should consider what is realistic, begin with an ale and aim to make a type beer that they will find tasty.
“There are so many beer pubs and craft breweries these days where you can sample different types of ales. It is good to sample various brews and really find out what you and the people you will be brewing the beer for find tasty. When you find one that you like, find out how it was made and study the process of home brewing carefully on the Internet. Also you can get really useful tips from other home brewers. That will save you making mistakes and wasting a lot of money. I myself spent three months on the Internet before making my first brew.”
The Czech Home Brewers' Association currently has over 1 600 members and Pavel says they are a friendly, close-knit community, ever ready to help out any newcomers who run into trouble.
“There are lots of home brewers ready to give advice. There is a Facebook group that people can join and if you run into trouble making your first brew, you can ask for help online and within a minute or two you will get advice what to do from experienced brewers.”
If you are thinking about home brewing then be prepared to devote time and money to your new hobby. The equipment for home brewing costs thousands to tens of thousands of crowns, and taking into account the cost of raw materials and energy, a pint of your own golden brew would be somewhere around fifteen crowns - not counting the hard work you put in. Counting labour, it would be around seventy. But of course, it is a labour of love, and there’s nothing like downing your own frothy pint after a hard day’s work.