Cory Emal, AABG, MCM, and Eastern Michigan University
Czech beers have a defined local nomenclature that is not reflected in BJCP category titles. Usually at least two pieces are given, the color and the strength.
Czech Amber Lager:
I didn’t encounter many of these on draft in Prague, and am not sure I actually ordered any that I did see. I recall a few being a mix of the světlé and the tmavé, not a distinct brew of their own. My vague sense of this style is that it fits somewhere in the gaps between the spaces that Vienna lager, altbier, and British bitters occupy. Apply that sort of thinking to the thoughts I give below on the tmavé
versions, and you’ll probably be in a good place.
Czech Dark Lager:
My general impression: this is a beer that is all about balance. The malt character should be complex and the star of the show, but should still finish dry – drinkability is key with all Czech beers! The hops should be there for balance, but should not tip into being noticeably bitter. There is a wide range of interpretation within this box, however!
Here’s how I think about each of the aspects of this style. Note that these are my experiences and preferences and aren’t “correct” – find a combination of qualities that work for you and your palate!
Malts: This isn’t just a Schwarzbier with Bohemian ingredients, you’re looking to build a more complex and interesting malt profile. A characterful floor-malted Bohemian pilsner seems like an obvious choice for base malt, and it can work very well. However, I layer Vienna and Munich to build a richer base of malt character. Use at least a couple of characterful dark malts to build the tapestry – I think the best combinations each bring a distinct quality, but “connect” via common qualities which keeps it from becoming disjointed. For example, the recipe that I use (based in very large part on a Gordon Strong recipe in Modern Homebrew Recipes) has dark Munich, CaraMunich II, and Carafa Special II as the specialty malts. There are lots of potential “chains” of specialty malts you could use, so start with one of your favorites and build outwards from there! A bit of roast is not out of place, and neither is melanoidin; malts that add a touch of dried fruit work nicely. British/American crystal malts don’t tend to work as well for me in this, so I lean into continental specialty malts, especially debittered ones. Building depth through decoction is also an option, if that’s your jam – it’s almost a given in Czechia.
Hops: Don’t overthink this. Use Saaz. Bitter with Kazbek or another Czech hop if you like, but non Saaz aromatics stick out like a sore thumb to me. Aim for an IBU level that complements the apparent sweetness from your particular malt bill – you’ll need less if you’re going for a roastier profile. Throw some more Saaz in late to jazz things up. Remember that you’re aiming for drinkability over everything, so the hop level needs to be just enough to dry out the finish and make you come right back for another sip.
Yeast: Use a Czech yeast. They throw off more diacetyl than German yeast, and that subliminal hint of diacetyl is your friend in building the richness in the malt. I’m a big fan of WLP802 (Budvar/Czechvar), but it’s sometimes hard to find, so use your favorite. “Clean” lager yeast (i.e. 34/70) or pseudo-lager yeast like some of the kveik strains haven’t produced exciting results in my hands.
Water: A balanced profile is good here, tilted a bit towards chloride over sulfate to emphasize the malts character. Don’t fall into the trap of using a super-soft water profile like Pilsen – they make pilsners, not dark beers! My target profile is: Ca 55, Mg 8, Na 21, SO4 54, Cl 59.
Mash Profile: I do a step mash (131F/147F/158F/170F), which in theory is increasing fermentability. I haven’t tried a single infusion on this recipe, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t try it out.
Fermentation Profile and Carbonation: Ferment cool and slow, wherever your preferred Bohemian lager strain likes it. I usually hold WLP802 at 50F for a week or so, then start stepping up the temperature a few degrees/day to finish out at 68F. Lagering for at least a few weeks really adds a little special something to this beer, too. I like a medium+ carbonation (I’m usually at around 2.5-2.6 vol), but roastier versions should probably use less carbonation to minimize any harshness.
My current preferred recipe:
Commercial examples you might be able to find:
Imports: Czechvar B: Dark (let me know where you find it!), Praga Dark
Local craft: Arbor Brewing Table Talk, Brewery Faisan Spy Catcher, Ypsi Alehouse Dark Czechmark, Transient Dark Lagger, River’s Edge Darkwing Buck, Eastern Market Shredder, Griffin Claw Dark Czech Lager