Having the cream of British bloggerati twittering and blogging from the Czech republic has jogged my memory that in March this year, I went to České Budějovice as a guest of Budvar. There were lots of things that I was looking forward to about the trip, not least tasting the beers fresh from the conditioning tank in the brewery cellars. But what took me by surprise was the passion of the man who has become synonymous with Budvar: Josef Tolar.
Here is a man who has worked at Budvar for 43 years, 24 of those as the brewmaster. During the Velvet revolution in 18989, it was he who was instrumental in ensuring that the brewery remained in state hands, rather than be sold into private ownership. He has seen the brewery blossom under his stewardship, and has now handed his brewer's thermometer over to protegé Adam Broz. In theory, he should be retired by now, but he happily turned out to show us round the brewery. How many times must he have done this? And yet even if this was the 1000th tour he had taken, there was still a sense that he wanted to patiently show us everything, every nuance of the production that made Budvar be Budvar.
The huge sacks of whole-leaf Saaz hops. The exposed run-off trough where the wort was sampled. The ongoing trademark dispute with A-BInBev about the name Budweiser. All of these are integral to the character of the beer, and the spirit of the brewery. Having each of these calmly and thoroughly explained by an icon of brewing was a humbling experience. For the record, the run-off trough helps give the beer a slightly darker colour. I was tempted to ask about hot-side aeration, but (uncharacteristically for me) decided to keep my mouth shut.
For me, the real surprise in the conditioning cellars was the Budvar Dark. To balance the smoky coffee and chocolate notes in the darker beer, it is necessary to use a lot more Saaz hops. This gives a surprisingly American feel to the beer - never mind 'Cascadian dark ale' (gah, how I hate that phrase!), this was a Saazian dark lager. The floral, lemony notes over the top of the chocolate and coffee are an eye-opener, and a character that is sadly greatly reduced in the flash pasteurisation process. But you can still detect it in the bottled beer, and it's worth paying that extra bit of attention to do so.
Budvar Dark wasn't the creation of Josef Tolar, but of another of his protegés, Ales Dvorak. ('Ales' seems like a quite a name for a lager brewer, but it's pronounced 'Alesh'). There was famously something of a heated discussion between Tolar and Dvorak about whether a black lager was a good idea for the brewery. Dvorak won, and the brand is now well-established.
It was a toss-up for Tolar whether to appoint Broz or Dvorak as his successor. In the end, it seems that he opted for the safe pair of hands. Adam Broz has a similarly calm demeanour to his patron, whereas it transpires that Ales (or 'Mad Ales' as he is affectionately known) likes nothing more than driving tanks as an army reservist. And if you look closely at the picture on the left, you can see that he's also the sort of guy who likes to takes his own cutlery (or hunting knife) to a restaurant.
What I love most about Budvar is the unchanging nature of the brewery, the timelessness of the beer, and the unswerving commitment that is shown by the people who make the beer. Some might say that taking two and a half hours over a brewery tour that usually only takes one hour was a bit much. For me, it was an unforgettable pleasure, and a great privilege.