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29th November 2012

Simon Yates blog – Saaz December: A resinous extract…


The Czech Republic has a long and varied history. Originally comprising Moravia, Silesia & Bohemia, the first regional grab for power came with the Great Moravian Empire, in AD 830. The end of the century saw invasion by the Hungarians, who made quite a fist of it – establishing Prague as a capital, along with many cultural, economic & political structures over a 500 year rule. At one point in the 13th C, the Czech territories extended as far south as the Mediterranean! The death of the 3rd of several Good Kings Wenceslas saw an end to this dynasty as the 14th C began.


John of Luxembourg was next to try his hand as Czech King. His son, Charles IV, became known as the ‘Father of the Czech Republic’ – instigating the building of its cathedral, university, the odd castle – and in 1357, the world famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava River – Karlův Most in Czech. Its towers & statues still form a focal point for tourists & residents alike – along with the inevitable purveyors of paraphernalia along its pedestrian length. Prague became one of the most significant cities in Europe during this period.

The ermine then passed on to the Hussites; followed by the Habsburgs (they had phenomenally big lips), rulers of the Austrian Empire – who were fiercely loyal Catholics. A spat with the minority Czech Protestants led to the onset of the Thirty Years War in 1620, which spread across much of the rest of Europe. The victorious Austrians presided over the resultant post-war devastation & financial privations. Czech culture and language were suppressed, and German became the imposed tongue.


Attitudes softened towards Czech national identity towards the end of the 18th C with a more tolerant approach being adopted by the Austrian rulers of the day. Czech language & culture revived.  All fine & dandy, then – until 1914, when the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Empire’s throne, led to a chain of events leading to declaration of war – Austria, Germany & Italy on one side; Russia, France & UK on the other.


The outcome of WW1 Led to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, & the amalgamation of the Czech Republic with neighbouring Slovakia. Czechoslovakia was a democracy with its own identity, & a strong economy. However… In the early 1930’s, the German-speaking occupants of the border regions began to seek autonomy. A sympathetic Nazi ear next door (see, I do ears as well as lips and tongues) led to Hitler’s invasion of the area in 1939 – & soon the occupation of the rest of the country. So began WW2.


Next, it was the turn of the Russians. The Soviets ‘liberated’ Prague in 1945, & the country found itself behind the Communist Iron Curtain, along with its centralised (& declining) economy, political trials, suppression… A blip in the late 60’s occurred, when Alexander Dubček, secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, dared to consider a more humane version of socialism. Cue Soviet tanks, rumbling onto the streets of Prague. The occupation continued until the fall of Communism in the Soviet bloc – a momentous event initiated in large part by Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) & glasnost (openness), allied to the revolutionary leadership of Polish dock electrician Lech Walesa, and his Solidarność (Solidarity) movement. A democratic process led to peaceful division from Slovakia; and the election of former dissident writer Václav Havel as Czech president.


A long and varied history, indeed. what of the humble hop?


Hops grew wild in the region more than 2000 years ago. They have been grown as a crop in the north west of Czech for 1000 years – isolated written reports of hops date back to the 8th and 9th century. The area around what’s now the town of Žatec, or Saaz (pronounced “Saats”) in German, was especially suited. Protected by mountains to the north-west, the rainfall in the area is restricted to levels ideal for hop growing. Added to beneficial altitude, suitably mild temperatures, protection from frost-inducing winds, and fertile Permian Red soils, the results were suitably impressive. The wild landrace varieties were gradually refined, and the Saaz variety was the outcome.


From the 16th century farming instructions for estate managers and workers, later followed by farmers’ books, contain sections on growing hops, drying processes, storage and brewing. The Czech language was used both in printed and hand written documents before the Thirty Years War. A formal Hop Market was initiated in Žatec in 1860, to oversee the provenance of Saaz hops, and deal with the administration of their sale at home & abroad. The appearance of lower grade hops on the market around this time meant that the true Saaz hop needed clear identification, and protection from usurpers.


Hops were originally moved great distances on horse & cart, until the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th C. At that time hops were stored in cellars, where storage temperature was maintained by ice. Apart from the European continent, Žatec’s hops were exported to Northern America, and in 1901 also to Japan. The main sea route went through Hamburg and a smaller amount through Trieste.


Under Communist control, Czech hops were a valuable earner of hard currency. At that time, Žatec hops were exported to 72 countries of the world.


The town of Žatec, incidentally, is now home to a Hop Museum, or Chmelarske muzeum, and pays homage to this world famous local crop. It’s also home to the smallest hop field in the world, standing on the site of the Church of the Holy Rood – in the centre of town!


The Saaz hop also characterised the world’s first Golden Lager in 1842, from Pilsen, 60 miles to the south of Žatec. Legend has it that the citizens of the town of Plzen, close to the German border, had grown tired of the poor quality of dark, sweet brews in the vicinity. They set out to hire a Braumeister from nearby Bavaria, with the brief to brew something quite different. Coinciding with the availability of more gently kilned, paler malts, and the stunning Saazer hops, the outcome was ‘Pilsner Urquell’, German for ‘original source’. The rest, as they say, is history. Saaz hops became synonymous with the finest Czech beers, slaking the thirsts of the locals – who are the highest per capita beer consumers in the world. Pilsner Urquell, and Budvar, the most famous of the great Czech brewing names, both feature the Saaz hop signature to this day. Their use has been adopted by many Brewers throughout the world, in efforts to match the character of these classic, original lager beers.


Saaz are notable for their very low content of bittering alpha acids, sometimes as low as 2 – 3%. This means using a greater quantity for a given target bitterness level. The benefit of this is that Saaz hops also contain significant levels of hop oils – so these are incorporated in the flavour profile, almost by default, to contribute a marked hop character – especially if also added late in the boil. The nature of the balance of the oil components leads to a mild, but distinctive, herbal/spicy character.


A Noble lager hop – but how will it present itself in an ale? Given the particularly low level of 3% alpha in our Saaz, I’ve had to ramp up the additions on this one, just to achieve a bitterness that will be noticeable, yet balanced. And lots added late in the boil; and lots more after the boil. Some of the additions were so late they nearly ended up in the following brew. Then dry hopped during maturation – just for good measure.


The golden, pale colour is reminiscent of those classic Czech lagers; but with the added depth of malt flavour that an ale can deliver. And, indeed, those fine Saaz hops!


Na zdraví!


Simon Yates

Assistant Head Brewer

Banks’s Brewery

Marston’s PLC



PEDIGREE                                            CZECH AROMA LANDRACE

ALPHA ACIDS, %                                                               2.0 – 6.0

BETA ACIDS, %                                                                  4.5 – 8.0

COHUMULONE, % OF ALPHA ACIDS                        23-30

TOTAL OIL, ml/100g                                                         0.4 – 1.0



MYRCENE                                                                            20-40%

HUMULENE                                                                        15-45%

CARYOPHYLLENE                                                              10-15%

FARNESENE                                                                        14-20%  





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