After recent beer reviews of Pilsner Urequell and (Czech) Budweiser I have a story to tell The Brew Club about this particular lager; so grab yourself a bottle of your preferred brew (or better still a bottle of Staropramen) and settle down. This might take a while.
Once upon a time, in the summer of 1990, I bumped into a guy in my local. Being my local, and being a fairly friendly local at that, we started chatting. I mentioned that I was shortly to be going to Prague with my best mate Jon and our wives. My new friend had recently returned from Prague (this was just after the velvet revolution) and over a couple of pints he extolled the virtues of a city that he had fallen in love with.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Jon and I found ourselves exploring the beer halls of this fabled city. We found a book describing the best of the old beer halls and the local brews they sold, ranging from U Flecku which has brewed its own beer since 1499, through to Staropramen which was probably the most widely available. I might write a separate article about those beer halls, many of which are long since closed, but today we’ll focus on ‘Staro’.
Contrary to which many people think ‘Staropramen’ does not mean ‘Star of Prague’ (although it undoubtedly is) but takes its name from the old mineral water spring in Smichov where the beer is brewed, ‘Staro’ meaning ‘old’ in Czech, ‘pramen’ meaning ‘spring’. We loved the beer, it was rich and hoppy and the vast oversized glasses meant we enjoyed a full head of aromatic Saaz hops with every glass.
We returned to the UK suitably enamoured with both Prague and its beers and got in touch with our new friend – let’s call him Alan (it is, after all, his name) and set out to try and help the Czech brewing industry. We founded the ‘Campaign to Protect the Czech Brewing Heritage’ and enlisted the support of some UK MPs to assist. To little avail, the Czech brewing industry seemed destined to self-destruct and, frankly, were hell bent on getting foreign investment and then selling their heritage down the river. The breweries had survived virtually untouched after what Michael Jackson described as ‘decades of benign neglect’, but quickly embraced capitalism and new technology. Traditional wooden brewing vessels soon made way for vast, sterile, steel mash tuns and storage silos.
However, we had made some friends, and one day (this being 1994 -1995 and in the days before emails) Alan received a fax from the Brewmaster at Smichov. He explained that the brewery group was likely to be sold to a foreign brewer and he hoped that it would be Bass, as he respected their brews. We faxed him back and congratulated him, and warned him about ‘brewing under licence’. He faxed us back asking about the practice. We suggested he speak to the brewmasters of Lowenbrau (then being brewed in Romford, Essex), Kronenbourg (then and now brewed in Reading, Berkshire) and Becks (only ever brewed in Bremen). The Brewmaster from Staropramen was horrified and insisted that a clause be put in the Bass (now InBev) contract that Staropramen would only ever be brewed in his beloved Prague and only using water from the old spring.
And, to this day, more than twelve years after the Prague Breweries takeover, this remains true. Admittedly some cost cutting has crept in, and the export brew is less hoppy than we remember from that halcyon summer in Prague, but it’s a brew that has largely remained true to itself. If nothing else as a drinker, I believe Alan has assured himself admittance through the pearly gates when his time comes.
I know I’ve rambled on a bit, but I believe the story to be important, and if it isn’t told, then nobody will know!
So, back to Staropramen, first brewed at the Ostravar brewery in the Smichov area of Prague in 1871. The brewery was built to exploit the popularity of the new golden ‘Pilsner’ style beers that were first brewed in the town of Pilsen in 1842 and were at that time the toast of Europe. It’s widely exported throughout Europe and is available in the UK in 330ml bottles, 440ml cans and… on draught. Indeed I found a pub (The Albert) close to my office that serves Staro on draught.
The first thing you notice is the rich, creamy head (and if you’re as ‘careful’ as me, you then check that the Staro glass is over-sized so there’s room for a half inch of that rich foam and a full pint of liquid) with the delicate scent of the Saaz hops, grown in the sixty miles of farmland that separate Prague and Pilsen. Saaz hops are often referred to as the king of hops, and their delicate aroma can still be discerned in a glass of ‘Staro’. Okay so maybe it’s not as hoppy as it used to be – as has been observed by comments received, Hops are one of the most expensive ingredients used in brewing, and the easiest to cut back.
The beer itself is a bright pale gold, the colour of the Moravian barley that goes into the brew. The taste, well it’s slightly sweet, but with a gentle malty background flavour that soon surrenders to a hoppy bite. It’s refreshing, a creditable 5% ABV and on a hot summer’s day it’s probably hard to beat.
Staropramen also produce, as is traditional in the Czech Republic, a dark lager at 4% – this was traditionally a woman’s drink – and have rebranded the 4.8% ‘Platan’ ruby lager from their Branicke brewery as ‘Staropramen Granat’ (Garnet).
All are worth seeking out as examples of great lager making.
Four stars. Rating: