The Czech Republic might be famous for drinking the most beer per capita each year, but other aspects of the country’s rich brewing culture are almost unfairly unknown—especially compared to European countries located more to the west.
For example, take Břevnovský Klášterní Pivovar Sv. Vojtěcha, or the Břevnov Monastery Brewery of St. Adalbert. This brewery in Prague, with a well-documented founding date in the year 993, often goes unmentioned in conversations about the world’s oldest beer makers. And while many English-speaking beer lovers are learning how to pronounce words like světlý ležák—for pale lager, the Czechs’ favorite style—most drinkers outside of Central Europe don’t know the term for a Czech pale lager’s main characteristic—pitelnost, meaning drinkability—let alone how to achieve it.
For Aleš Potěšil, Břevnov’s sládek (or brewmaster), pitelnost is the overarching goal for the brewery’s flagship pale lager, a so-called klasická světlá dvanáctka, or “classic pale 12.” The beer is more commonly known as Benedict.
“The most important thing when you are brewing, or drinking, a typical Czech pale lager is drinkability,” Potěšil says. “That means that the beer is well-balanced with bitterness, maltiness, and the body of the beer.”
Slightly Rare Ingredients
So how do Czech brewers get that all-important pitelnost? In the case of Benedict, things start out simple: 100 percent Czech pale malt, aka pilsner malt. While many small Czech brewers do still use floor-malted barley, Břevnov’s version comes from a mechanized maltings in Nymburk, about 30 miles east of Prague.
“They use Moravian barley,” Potěšil says, referring to the eastern half of the Czech Republic, home to the historic Haná barley fields. “It’s not floor malt, but it’s really good malt for us. And it’s a stable quality, so the beer is the same every time.”
If Benedict’s malt is something that almost anyone can buy, the hops are slightly more exclusive. They come from the Saaz region, but these are not typical Saaz hops.
Until recently, all of Benedict’s hops came from a once-abandoned Saaz hop yard owned by a friend of the brewery; the 70-year-old hop bines were believed to be the source of the lager’s particularly woody, grassy, spicy notes. However, those old-bine hops are now being supplemented by hops from a Saaz hop yard recently planted by the Benedictine monastic order, which owns the monastery where the brewery is located. This Benedictine Saaz, with about three percent alpha acid, now accounts for 40 percent of the hops used in Benedict, while the original old-bine hops make up the rest. Except in a fresh-hop version brewed just after the annual harvest, both are used in pellet form.
But because the old-bine Saaz has only 1.9 percent alpha acids, an addition of Magnum hop extract accounts for about 30 percent of the beer’s total of 40 IBUs—a good amount of bitterness, though not completely off the charts for a Czech pale lager with a starting gravity of 12.5° Plato (OG 1.0505).
“There are two reasons why we use hop extract,” Potěšil says. “The first is because our whirlpool hasn’t got much capacity. And in addition, we use special Saaz hops, and these hops have a very low percentage of hop bitterness. We use them because they have a nice aroma—a really specific aroma, which is slightly grassy.” Yet achieving Benedict’s bitterness only with those low-alpha pellets would add a lot of vegetative mass—hence the extract.
A Classic Process
If the old-bine hops are specific to Břevnov’s Benedict lager, its classic decoction-mash process is used throughout Czech brewing. (For more about this, see Why Decoction Matters.)
“We use double decoction, and we know that it is the most important thing for drinkability,” Potěšil says. “Decoction creates a really nice body, and it’s good for the color as well, and for a well-balanced beer. Our lager is a little bit more bitter than other lagers, and for that it’s important to have a really full-bodied beer.”
Here’s how the team at Břevnov does it, step by step:
- They start by doughing in with a water temperature of 99°F (37°C) at a ratio of two liters per kilo (roughly, 1 quart per pound).
- After 10 minutes, they approximately double the hot-liquor volume, raising the mash temperature to about 126°F (52°C) and full mash volume to 20 hectoliters (17 barrels).
- After a five-minute rest, they pump a little more than two-thirds of the mash to the lauter tun to “sleep” while they heat up the remaining one-third or so—some 600 liters—at a rate of about 2°F (1°C) per minute.
- At 145°F (63°C), this decoction mash gets another five-minute rest, after which they heat it at the same rate up to 162°F (72°C), where it gets a 15-minute rest before an iodine test to check for starch conversion.
- Then they heat this decoction mash as quickly as possible to the boiling point, and they boil it for 15 minutes.
- After that boil, they pump the decoction to the lauter tun and mix, raising the temperature of the main mash from about 124°F (51°C) to about 144°F (62°C).
- For the second decoction, they pump a third or so of the total volume—about 700 liters this time—back to the mash tun, and again they heat it 2°F (1°C) per minute up to 162°F (72°C), and it gets another 15-minute rest.
- They heat this decoction at full speed to the boiling point, boil it for 15 minutes, then pump it back to the lauter tun and mix, raising the main mash temperature to 165°F (74°C).
- After 10 minutes, they start lautering, recirculating the sweet wort through the grain bed until it runs clear. Then they run it off for the boil.
Unlike many breweries here, Břevnov employs first-wort hopping, adding about 30 percent of the hops after they’ve pumped over about 400 or 500 liters. “Not many Czech breweries add the first hop before boiling,” Potěšil says. “We add the first hop to the sweet wort once the bottom of the vessel is covered.”
They add the Magnum hop extract at the start of a 90-minute boil, and another 40 percent of the hop pellets 10 minutes later. They add the final 30 percent at 15 minutes remaining.
After the whirlpool, they chill the wort in two stages to 46°F (8°C). Fermentation, using the Pilsner Urquell H strain, takes place in a 50-hectoliter (43-barrel) cylindroconical tank that holds two batches. After eight or nine days, they close the vessel and allow pressure to rise. On the 10th day, they lower the temp to 37°F (3°C), the yeast settles and is removed for another use, and the beer starts its month-long conditioning.
Benedict is not an easy beer to imitate—even if you somehow had access to its source of old-bine hops or its monastery-owned Saaz hop garden.
As Potěšil says, the taste of a Czech lager often depends on where it’s made, and not just how it’s made. As an experiment, Břevnov recently tried to brew the same beer at its sister brewery, Pivovarský Dům in Prague.
“We brewed the same day, using the same water, the same ingredients, here and in Pivovarský Dům, and the final taste of the beer was completely different,” he says. “Same malt, same hops, same recipe in the brewhouse.”
That means that most of us probably wouldn’t be able to replicate Benedict note-for-note—all the more reason to travel to Prague and drink it.
However, you can at least try to achieve some of Benedict’s highly acclaimed pitelnost. And if you do, you’ll almost certainly need to brew a bunch of it.
“Drinkability means that if you start drinking a pale lager, you want more and more,” Potěšil says. “This is the reason why the Czech people are the biggest drinkers of beer in the world, because most of our production is just pale lager.”