You might recall that I recently reviewed Budweiser’s dark lager; Budweiser Dark is a fairly recent development, but dark lagers (or Tmavé as they’re known) have a much longer history.
The oldest of these is probably ‘Bohemia Regent’ which is brewed at the brewery in Trebon, founded in 1379, and I’m keeping my eye out for a few bottles to review!
Let’s put that date in perspective, they’d been brewing dark lager there for nearly five hundred years before Joseph Grolle brewed the first Pilsner and were brewing over a hundred years before Christopher Columbus set sail!
Similarly, the well known U Flecku beer hall in Prague has been selling its dark, slightly sweet Tmave since 1499.
Two other classic dark brews we encountered when we were exploring Czech brews back in the early nineties were the brews from the Bernard and Herold breweries, both were brewed above 5% ABV, as opposed to most dark lagers which are brewed to around 3.5% and are considered, in the Czech Republic, to be “women’s drink”.
Dark lagers are brewed using the bottom fermenting yeasts and are stored (or lagered) for an extended period, as are pale lagers, but the barley used for the malt is roasted to give the distinctive dark colour and coffee/chocolate flavours. They tend to also be sweeter than pale lagers.
Bernard Dark Lager
The Bernard brewery was founded in the town of Humpolec in 1597, in the hills that form the border between the ancient kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia. The brewery has its own well, providing its own supply of soft, crystal clear water, and the brewery sources its malt from Rajhrad near Brno in Moravia – now in Slovakia. The Saaz (or Zatec locally) hops are sourced from the vast hop fields in Bohemia.
When we first encountered Bernard’s beers, the brewery had suffered, as Michael Jackson poetically put it, from ‘the benign neglect of the Communist period’.
In October 1991, shortly after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ a consortium led by Stanislav Bernard launched the revival of the brewery and they quickly regained the brewery’s reputation. The brewhall has been described as ‘designer chic’, but their commitment to lagering is commendable, with the dark lager enjoying a full 40 days cool storage. The brewery’s growing reputation attracted the attention of Duvel-Moortgat who bought a 50% stake in 2001.
All the Bernard beers are sold unpasteurised, the brewery describing pasteurisation as “drastic treatment, when the beer is given a shock by being “torn” from the calm of the lager cellar, (it) guarantees a longer lifetime for the beer, but damages its taste and colour”.
Instead the beers are microfiltered : “It is more demanding, but certainly more honest towards consumers. At the end of the process, while the beer retains its temperature of 2°C, we filter it through a special microbe filter, in which all the micro-organisms are trapped. Thus the beer does not change in flavour or aroma and you really get what we took care of for so long in the lager cellar.”
Amen to that – the beers get a final kick of yeast added to the swing-top bottle and despite being unpasteurised have a reasonable shelf life.
Bernard Dark pours with a full, creamy head and offers a nose that’s slightly more chocolate than coffee – think mocha coffee and you’re in the right direction. The head slowly subsides, leaving a trace of lacing.
The flavour follows the nose, with hints of chocolate, coffee and, somewhere in the mix, a hint of black cherry… sort of Black Forest Gateau. Despite this, it’s light, refreshing and not too full bodied, despite being brewed to 5.1% ABV, it’s still very much a dark lager, as opposed to a stout or a porter.
I’d give this three and a half stars, it’s a creditable dark lager, creditable craft beer, but not quite the Bernard I recall from the old days. The extra half star is for taking the trouble to filter instead of pasteurisation.
Herold Dark Lager
Herold is brewed at the Breznice Castle Brewery, founded in 1506 by Petr Malovec, but the brewery was confiscated in 1531 when Malovec was implicated in a revolt against the king, Ferdinand I. The brewery was given to the local Loksans family, who gifted the brewery to the citizens of Breznice – just as well as the Loksans were subsequently involved in a revolt against the governing Austrian empire and their rights and privileges were confiscated.
This was Europe, remember, borders and governments shifted frequently.
The brewery in its current form was started in 1720, within what is described as a ‘baroque chateau’ and while brewing continued up to and through the second world war, the privations of the communist regime at the end of the 20th century took its toll.
Investment after the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989 returned the brewery to private ownership and with American investment it was resurrected as a craft microbrewery, with its brews winning awards for ‘best beer’ at the Stockholm International Festivals of 1996 and 1997.
The Herold Bohemian Black Lager is brewed to 5.3% ABV brewed with four malts and then lagered for a full ten weeks.
It pours with a full creamy head, that subsides quite quickly, the nose is black coffee, this time with a hint of smoke – interesting.
The drink is light and crisp, closer to a pale lager, as is the hoppy bite that follows the initial smoky coffee hit. It’s definitely closer to a pilsner than the Bernard that has that slight sweetness that puts it closer to Budvar / Czechvar.
I’d give this three stars, it’s a competent brew that is worth seeking out.
So, overall, I think I would go for the Bernard over the Herold, but to be honest, neither disappoint.