There are few things in the world of beer as stirring as the sight of a beautiful brewhouse, and the Zatec brewery, while a little rough around the edges, takes some beating.
The stained-glass windows, featuring the ‘Z’ logo, refract the early summer sunlight. Inside, the burnished copper vessels shine, but bear the scars of past trauma. In World War II, they were cut into pieces and hidden in the cellars of a nearby house. After the Nazis retreated, they were lovingly restored.
What I love about this place is that it is more beautiful than it needs to be. A lot of the care and attention here isn’t strictly necessary for the brewing of great beer, but here it is anyway, and that lifts the heart.
“After all that effort in the past, it honours previous generations by keeping it so beautiful,” says Martin Kec, managing director of Zatecky Pivovar in the Czech Republic.
For centuries, buried deep in the warfare and political turmoil of central Europe, Zatec was a German-speaking town. Around the world its German name — Saaz — is synonymous with the hops grown in the surrounding countryside. These Czech noble hops are regarded as the best in the world for lager brewing, and export of them was once prohibited on pain of death.
It’s not quite so hard to get them these days, but following the craft beer explosion, the whole Saaz harvest is already sold out until 2021.
Saaz gives Czech lager its soft, yet naggingly insistent, drinkability. The Czechs drink more beer per head than any other country in the world, and Saaz is one of the main reasons why.
Zatec, the town, is now reasserting its Czech character, and hops are, literally, at its heart. On the main town square stands the world’s biggest hop museum, complete with its own microbrewery. Just around the corner there’s a ceremonial hop garden that’s the focus of a hop festival in May, and another one that is 10 times the size at harvest time in September.
The past few years have seen a reapplication of love to Zatec after decades of neglect, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the town’s brewery. Zatecky Pivovar was built on the site of the town’s old castle between 1798 and 1801. Like many Czech breweries, it’s on top of a steep hill, which was mined out from the old castle’s catacombs to create huge fermentation cellars. Now Martin leads me through them, the floors damp from water that drips eternally through the rock, the beer ageing for six weeks.
At the bottom of the hill, we enter a brightly lit tasting room, and Martin disappears to fetch two beers directly from the lagering tanks.
The first is Zatec’s main brand, their 11° pilsner. (The Czechs don’t talk much about ABV, but use a degree system that measures what older drinkers would remember as original gravity.) It’s smooth, clean and clear, a natural prickle of carbonation, a fresh aroma from the Saaz hops used to finish it — a classic Czech pilsner.
The second beer is very similar, one week younger so not quite finished and, tasted side by side, just a little less bitter than the 11°, but apart from that, almost identical.
“That’s Celia, our gluten-free beer,” says Martin.
I’m astonished. “But it just tastes like the ordinary beer,” I say.
He nods, and fetches me a glass of Celia Dark. “We used to make a dark beer called Xantho,” he says. Now we just sell Celia Dark as our main dark beer and no one can tell the difference.”
Gluten-free beers are usually made with alternative ingredients such as sorghum, which don’t contain gluten, and don’t taste that great either. But Celia is brewed with barley, just like normal beer, then deglutenised with the addition of a special enzyme that attracts gluten molecules, binds them and sinks to the bottom of the fermentation tank, to be filtered out.
Rather than thinking of it as a gluten-free beer, it’s more useful to describe it as a great beer that just happens to be gluten-free. “That’s what everyone says,” Martin adds.
I have no idea whether most people who think they are gluten intolerant really are or not, but “can you recommend any good gluten-free beers?” is one of the questions I get asked most often as a beer writer.
In this beautiful brewery in the heart of one of the world’s greatest hop growing regions, I finally have an answer.