Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Lager Mild

It's still May. Time for another of my Mild series.

Or should that be Mild Lager? Whatever. I've always tried to recreate the Mild experience, whether it meant mixing beers or just looking for the one that most resembled Mild.

My first encounter with dark lager was in Prague. This was back in 1983. My train arrived at 08:00 and I was in U Fleků by 09:00. At the time, Fleků was still a classic pub. In the summer it did tend to fill up with Germans (both flavours, East and West), but there were usually a good few Czechs in, too. They still used proper 0.5l mugs, not the joke .04l ones they now use. The waiters weren't perpetually trying to con you, either. They just thunked beer down in front of you when your glass was almost empty. Proper service. It saddens me whenever I go there now. The idiots that own it have destroyed its soul for short-term gain. And it is short-term, because the place used to be packed. I'm certain they could generate more income by lowering the prices, serving proper measures and having waiters who behave normally. It's a sobering reminder of how even the greatest pub can be destroyed overnight by poor management.

I'd never tasted anything like Fleků 's dark lager before. Rich, complex, dark, strong, a lager. It didn't make sense. This wasn't lager as I knew it. It was a surprise, but a pleasant one. I spent many a happy hour sitting at one of its enormous tables, slurping down the delicious stuff. That it was stupidly cheap (somewhere between 3 and 4 crowns) was just extra encouragement.

Back in the 1980's the beers available in Prague pubs were more limited than they are now. Virtually everywhere sold just one, usually either 10º or 12º pale. After the war most pubs had sold both pale and dark lager, but, I think for ease of service more than anything, most had cut back to just one during the 1960's. It left dark beer pretty rare in Prague city centre. There was U Fleků , of course. Finding the dark lagers from the other Prague breweries was trickier.

Měšťan brewed an 11º Tmavé that was available in a few places. It was OK, but not my favourite. Sweetish and a bit thin. A bit like Bass Mild from Tadcaster. Acceptable if nothing better was on offer, but not a beer you would seek out.

Then I stumbled on U Malvaze (Karlova 10). It's not difficult to find, being just 50 meters from Charles Bridge, on the road that leads to it from the Staré Mesto. It's not a huge pub. Just a single square room. Ah, but the beer. It sold Braník 12º Tmavé, the queen of Prague beers. So much better than the Měšťan, drier, better balanced, but still malty. After the first sip it was one of my favourites. I'd liken it to Shippo's Mild. A beer I actively hunted down.

When the Czech government started selling off its breweries after 1990, it did it in the stupidest way possible. In the communist days, the breweries had been grouped together by location. The new capitalist government decided to sell off these regional groups as single entities. As a result was that the new owners would have half a dozen or more breweries withing a 50 km radius. Unsurprisingly, they then preceded to close most of them.

Thus all the Prague brewereies, with the exception of U Fleku, ended up in the hands of Bass. Staropramen, Měšťan and Braník, all had a single owner. Almost immediately they started baring down each breweries range. Braník's flagship 13º pale disappeared almost immediately. Soon the only Měšťan beer you ever saw was the unexciting 11º Tmavé. The brand that Bass pushed was Staropramen. Staropramen 10º and 12º pale, to be specific.

I drank plenty of Czech beer before 1989. The quality was incredibly high. I never had a bad one and most were pretty good, no matter what size brewery it came from. Staropramen was about my least favourite. A bit bland. So it should come as no surprise that it was Staropramen that Bass chose to push.

Then came disaster. In another bout of rationalisation, the wonderful Braník 12º Tmavé was dropped in favour of the unspectacular Měšťan 11º Tmavé. The classic Prague beer was gone. Did drinkers complain? I'd like to hope that they did.

The classic Prague beer a dark lager? Yes. Around 1900, dark lager was the standard beer in Prague, just as it was in Munich. And Braník was, in my opinion, the pick of the bunch.

Perversely, there's a lot more dark lager in Prague pubs that there was 20 years ago. Staropramen have their own crappy 10º Tmavé. Budvar's 12º dark is a bit better, though still on the bland side. Pilsner Urquell pubs sell Velkepopovické 10º Tmavé. It's sweet and thinnish, but serves well as a Mild substitute. Ten years back it was Purkmistr Tmavé. An excellent beer. Then they closed the brewery (too near to the one in Pilsen). Typical. Given a choice between a good and a crap brewery, large companies will always pick the good one to close.

It wasn't until the early 1990's that I first made it to Munich. Knowing Dunkles was the traditional local favourite, I was pretty excited.

First stop was the massive Löwenbräu brewery tap. It's a typical chunk of sturdy and ornate Gründerzeit architecture. That's the period when Germany was united and undergoing rapid industrialisation. There's a self-confidence about the buildings of that time that you don't see after WW I.

Löwenbräu did their reputation a deal of harm with substandard versions brewed under licence outside Germany. That's why my expectations of their beer were so low. Their Dunkles was a very pleasant surprise: sweetish, but nutty and full-flavoured. Sinking a few pints of it was no problem.

I had the opportunity to try their rivals dark lagers in the centre of Munich. Augustiner Grossgaststätte has several things going for it. It's on the main shopping street, which is pretty handy. It's beautiful. It's on the original site of the Augustiner brewery. It sells beer straight from the wood. And they have Augustiner Dunkles. The pick of the Munich Dunkles.

Like Mild, Munich Dunkles isn't about extreme flavours. Harmony, subtlety and a nutty maltiness are its distinguishing features. Easy to see why neither are brewed much in the USA. They aren't beers to grab tou by the throat or strip your tastebuds. No, they're for drinking by the pint. Preferably at least four of five at a sitting. Beer to promote conversation, not club you into silence.

Back to Munich. Further along the main drag, about halfway to Weisses Brauhaus, is a Paulane house. I can't remember the name. It's not a particularly great pub, but it's pleasant enough sitting outside. Here I had my first taste of Paulaner Dunkles. Like the pub, it's pleasant enough, under the right circumstances. Like all Paulaner's beers, it's gone down in quality over the last ten years.

Hofbräu is available in the Hofbräuhaus, also right in the centre of town. I don't know if it's my subconscious at work, but I've never cared for the beer or the pub. My first time there, I can remember sitting close to a group of Japanese. They were staring at the huge piles of pork on their plates with a mixture of shock and horror. Funnily enough, that just about summed up my emotions, too.

It's not only Dark Lager Mild on sale in Munich pubs. Even more common is Light Lager Mild, or Helles as they insist on calling it. Gradually as the 20th century progressed Helles eased out Dunkles as the local favourite. Malt-accented and lightly-hopped, Light Mild isn't such a bad way of describing it. Augustiner is again the best of the bunch. Good old Augustiner. I'd be so upset if some globalist got their paws on them.

With almost universal availability of pale and dark versions, I can unhesitatingly call Munich the Lager Mild capital of the world.


Anonymous said...

Like Mild, Munich Dunkles isn't about extreme flavours. Harmony, subtlety and a nutty maltiness are its distinguishing features. Easy to see why neither are brewed much in the USA.
I hope you said that to get a rise, because tradition and current practice stand in opposition to that one. Nearly every regional brewery worth its salt brewed a dark lager, and they were for frequent and copious consumption. Nowadays most small brewers have a brown ale or dark lager that is not an overhopped high abv monster. Unfortuately most do not make it out your way, I imagine.

Ron Pattinson said...

Yes. Of course I did.

Sorry to be picky, but Brown Ale isn't Mild. I've had a few American Brown Ales and none bore the slightest resemblance to a Mild. From conversations with real live Americans and others on the web, I'm pretty sure Mild is uncommon in the US. It isn't common anywhere, except perhaps the Black Country.

I could well be wrong about dark lagers. Though I've tried very few from the US, I realise that is unrepresentative of how common they might be. I've had a very good one from Moonlight Brewing. Death and Taxes, that's it.

I hate saying this, but Munich Dunkles is quite a specific style. Not all dark lagers, even in Germany, are of this type. A bit further north in Franconia, the Dunkles is very different, packed with hops.

Anonymous said...

ha! the first time i was in the hofbraeuhaus i was near a table of japanese tourists who manfully tried to attack their schweinshaxe, sauerkraut and knoedel, all while trying to get through a litre of helles each AND try and sing along to 'in muenchen steht ein hofbraeuhaus' or however it goes. they didn't get very far with any of these 3 enterprises.....i quite enjoyed it last time i was there - we sat in the courtyard during oktoberfest and breakfasted on beer and pork. wasn't so bad, if not a patch on augustiner.

Anonymous said...

Ron, I agree with your "take" as I see it about US brewers not brewing "mild ale" very much. I loath the trend in the states toward extreme beers. However, dark lagers are quite easy to find; and with great variety; especially in the mid-west and eastern seaboard. Would be curious to see your take on CAMRA's good beer guide to the West Coast. Cheers!

Kristen England said...

I think there would be more Czech dark lagers brewed in the US but there is VERY little info out there about them. Im not talking about their tastes and such. I mean actual ingredients, processes, etc. I keep looking but haven't been able to find much at all. I can make guesses but its won't be totally true to the original. Any ideas on where to look? Anyone have any logs or anything?

Ron Pattinson said...

jdlark, I haven't seen CAMRA's new guide to the West Coast. It's very brave of them to produce it.

Kristen, I've no idea where it might be possible to get genuine Czech recipes. Just going by my tastebuds, I reckon they are quite diverse. The best I managed was just a list of the malts used, not their proportions.

I need to have a look to see if I can find a Czech technical brewing manual.

Kristen England said...


I can't usually find that much. Its your usual SABMiller (example) BS. Malt, water, hops, yeast. Ah, so thats whats in it! :)

Given the ingredients, color (EBC is best but description will do) and flavor profile I could do a decent job of putting something together. Do you have any of these for some tmavé pivo?

Ron Pattinson said...

Kristen, sometimes I think I'm becoming a homebrew agony aunt. All I can say about Czech dark lagers is: look at my posts about my recent beer tour. I've got the malts in the grist (but not the percentages) and photos of the beer so you can get an idea of the colour.

You've got me thinking about this and I realised that I have very little info apart from what I've cropped myself from brewers about the different types of dark lager grists.

My first efforts to track down any technical Czech brewing manuals has been fruitless, but I'll search further. There must be some. Though they may well not detail Tmavé grists.

Taking things down to a personal level, a couple of the Czech Tmavés tasted quite similar to some of the Dunkles I had over the border. I do have the percentages for some of those.

If I'd been given the Czech and Bavarian Dunkles I ahd on the tour and not told which country they came from, there's only one I'm would have been sure was Czech: Velkepopvické 10º. There's a lot of variation both sides of the border and almost total overlap in character.

Mark Andersen said...

I got my first taste of Augustiner Dunkles this past March in Munich. I was amazed. For some reason I didn't expect it to be that good.