The art of beer: Burning Sky

The Art of Beer: Burning Sky

Simon Gane has been creating the artwork for the Sussex brewery from the beginning. We catch up with the artist about how the labels are created

Daniel Neilson

Burning Sky, in the folds of the East Sussex South Downs, produces world class beer and demonstrates a clear sense of where it was made. The evocative label artwork by Simon Gane similarly conveys this idea. We caught up with the illustrator to understand how the artwork is produced

Is a sense of place important to your illustrations and that of the brewery?

Massively so! It’s always something I enjoy trying to capture, while sketching, drawing comics or designing brewery stuff. It lends itself well to beer, I think because it’s a product so tied to certain regions and regional ingredients. It’s funny you should ask because the next label will feature Firle, where Burning Sky is based. Whether I manage to capture it is another matter, but at least the beer will be good.

How did you first meet Mark?

We’ve been good friends since school. I won’t say how long that is. His early homebrewing days never went unappreciated, but we’ve been working together on beer labels and pump clips since 2001 when he was at Dark Star.

Did you find a style that fitted with the beer straight away?

It took some back and forth. We knew we wanted a mix of traditional and new, and Mark was keen for these to feature my illustrations somehow. I was settled on the somewhat mid-20th century feel to the design elements pretty much immediately, but the logo itself was troublesome. It was based on an idea I’d quickly abandoned without showing Mark, but fortunately he noticed it on my computer when he was visiting. The benefits of a close working relationship there, as well Mark’s own artistic eye!

They’ve developed somewhat organically since then. Bringing in cut ‘n’ paste elements is a reflection of our fondness for punk rock, but also allows flexibility at the design stage. Aside from the logo and type style, they are often quite different from each other in terms of subject matter and colour scheme, but this is craft beer, not corporate beer. The Burning Sky guys run with their influences and passions, so it makes sense that the artwork should reflect that.

How do you go about designing a label for a specific beer? 

It usually starts with the beer. After discussing ideas with Mark, I’ll do a rough version of the design so I can see what space I’ve got for the image and take it from there. The Petite Saison label (pictured) probably took the most planning because you can’t cover up a character’s face like you can a haystack or similar background detail. The final images are inked with a brush, scanned and then coloured, always in the hope that Mark doesn’t change the name to something longer!

Where do you get your inspiration from for the Burning Sky labels?

That’s also led by the beer. You’ve got the Grand Place in Brussels on the Belgian-influenced Gaston and the Victorian-style decoration on the Imperial Stout and so on. They’ve gradually encompassed more of my own influences and interests, from the design style to the imagery. Because Mark and I are pals, he’s able to suggest things for the labels from other aspects of my work too. For example, the view on the Anniversaire label is based on a sketch, and the cafe scenes are based on a
comic series I once drew. 

What else do you illustrate for?

Yeah, nerd alert: most of my time is spent drawing comic books. That’s my day job, so to speak. At the moment, I’m working on They’re Not Like Us, a monthly series published by Image Comics in the States, with a couple of other comic projects in the works too. Examples of these, along with process shots of Burning Sky work, can be found on my Instagram and Twitter accounts.


/ T: @simongane

/ I: @simonjgane

The Brewers’ Journal Brewers Congress — the verdict

The Brewers’ Journal’s Brewers Congress — the verdict

Adrian Tierney-Jones spends a thrilling day at the Institute of Civil Engineers’ grand HQ in the company of brewers and industry experts 

Hello. I have just returned from the Brewers’ Journal’s Brewers’ Congress in London, at the imperial pile of architectural guile that the Institute of Civil Engineers calls home. It was rather fun, full of brewers and a few writers, plenty of insights, facts and figures, beers and a spirited call for the brewing industry to haul in the leers that still put women off beer drinking even now. It also reminded me that there was a couple of Brewers’ Congresses in North London in the 1880s, part of the Brewers’ Exhibition at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, which had been going since 1879. For some reason, I find that the events of then sound riveting (written without any sarcasm in my mind or the voice that I talk to Siri with).

Back in 2014 when I was researching Brewing Champions, a history of the competition that started at the Exhibition, I came across a Brewers’ Guardian from the 1890s (or was it the 1880s?) that mentioned a lecture at a Brewing Congress that went under the title of ‘the future of beer’ —what stood out was the writer’s comment on how an importing agent for lager, right at the very end of the discussion, bellowed out that lager was the future.  Did this man go into punditry? Elsewhere, there was an exhibition of curiosities from the industry, which ended up being sparsely attended, though I was not surprised given that publicity for the event made it sound like something out of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Novelty Island (remember that?) —bottles and parrots, cups and parapets

However, the Congress that I attended, no barrel organs played and no red-faced men with suitably whiskery chops shouted the odds while the band shouldered the burden of a future where Untapped was more popular than the Bible. There were no clairvoyants or fortune tellers, but on the other hand there was a discussion about 2018’s trends (fresh and local, a closer relationship between the producer and drinker, less is more, more is less, as Cloudwater’s Paul Jones gnomically pronounced), and a day full of brewers and industry pundits pronouncing on everything from craft, the art and science of brewing, mental health in brewing, malting, labels and branding and women in the industry (thank you Jaega Wise from Wild Card for such a thoughtful and positive talk).

The irrepressible John Keeling of Fuller’s mused aloud whether brewing was an art or science. He was responsible for perhaps the quote of the day: ‘I’m a brewing philosopher, the Rene Descartes of the brewing world, I think therefore I drink.’ Gareth Williams of Tiny Rebel talked about cask and admitted: ’we didn’t enter this business to become millionaires’ — though the latter assertion would test the most righteous if AB-InBev came calling.

Elsewhere, Alex Troncoso from Lost & Grounded talked about the economics of brewing, mentioning that there was something heartfelt about a beer that was not perfect all the time (a comment I particularly chime with when it comes to the likes of gueuze and lambic); Yeastie Boys’ benevolent dictator Stu Mckinley asked that most valid of questions and answered it, ‘what is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people.’ And Beavertown’s Creative Director Nick Dwyer curled up enthusiasm, knowledge and creativity into a scrunchy paper ball and threw it into the air and let it tell us about the way he came up with such fantastic branding.

Other speakers included Cloudwater’s Paul Jones, an ebullient Charlie McVeigh from Draft House, Dr Bill Simpson from Cara Technology on disasters of beer and the aforementioned Jaega Wise from Wild Card, who was fantastic on the problems that the industry still faces with the portrayal of women (something the Portman Group chap completely misunderstood when he showed an image of Dorothy Goodbody). That reminds me, how come there was only one female speaker (on the issue of women) amongst 16 speakers — time to recall John Keeling’s comment on how he was fed up of hearing how Georgina Young was Fuller’s first female head brewer: ‘she was head brewer because she was an excellent brewer.’

Q&A: Bob Pease, Brewers Association

Q&A: Bob Pease

Bob Pease is the President and CEO of the US Brewers Association. Pete Brown caught up with him about what’s next in the US

Pete Brown

So how’s craft beer going in the United States?

We have 5200 breweries that have now opened — the rate of increase has gone up. There are another 2000 breweries in planning. Not all of those will open but a healthy percentage will.

Is there are a particular pattern?

It’s happening all over the country. Every state, every congressional district, has a craft brewery. But there’s a new trend towards taprooms. Some of these brewers aren’t looking to package their beer and sell it anywhere else. We’re seeing that all over the country. Local has always been important, now it’s hyper-local.

Everywhere you go now, people want American beers or American-styles, brewed with American hops. Does that worry you?

American hop growers export a lot of hops and that’s a good thing. Where it becomes a sensitive issue for us is availability. If there’s enough Amarillo and Citra to go round, that’s great. If there’s a shortage, that’s different. But it’s not a bad thing that brewers around the world are trying to make beers that emulate the American style of beers. We’re fine with that. The more people that are drinking things other than lite lager, the better.

Every time I go to the US I feel you’re about two years ahead of us. So what are British craft brewers going to be doing in two years time?

Lagers. People want lower ABV sessionable beers. So you can have two or three and still be in control.

A milkman walks into a pub

 Milkman walks into a pub

Jessica Mason remembers the very first moments of pub life in the company of her milkman Dad

Jessica Mason

I was four when my mum married the milkman. And we called him Dad, because, back then, he was the closest thing we had to one.

I’d wake up at 5am to the scent of the full English breakfast he was cooking. And I’d beg him to take me out with him on the rounds. He obliged. And I readied myself with layers, a bobble hat and fingerless gloves.

There were all sorts of different homes, families and properties on the round and yet I longed to know about all of the people who lived within them. There were mansions, there were caravans, there were homes for the elderly, there were semi-detached mock Tudors, council estates and tower blocks.

According to Dad, they were all the same, really. At each address there were people living who all needed the same thing: milk.

I asked him if everyone got along, or if the rich people only hung out together and he shook his head and laughed at me.

That’s when he took me to the pub.

It was in The Plough Inn to be exact, halfway along the local estate. We had stopped in to cash-up and I matched his pint of ale with a St Clements and a bag of crisps.

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply and smelt all the pub scents – the beer and the brass, the fire and the carpet and the blackboard chalk. And I listened too – to the chatter and the thud of arrows into felt, or the clink of glasses and the knock of the cue ball’s break.

I opened my eyes. The fire danced to the snores of a nearby dog.

I looked at what was in the glasses dotted around and realised that the man who owned the house fronted with the electric gates and stone gargoyles was drinking the same as Dad.

That’s the social equality of beer. It doesn’t discriminate.

The pub, as I understood it, was a place where everyone was welcome and fitted in, whatever their story or however wet from the rain they were. The pub could revive smiles, even on the worst of days.

And on the best of days, Christmas Day in fact, Dad and I would take ourselves off to the pub to ‘get out of the way’ while lunch was being prepared. He’d have a swift pint and we’d clink glasses with strangers.

Every picture on the wall was adorned with tinsel, managing to muddle both the kitsch with the wonderful. And we’d play darts and chat. Every face would smile back. And, for whatever reason each person was there, whiling away the hours on that particular day, it really didn’t matter. Everyone shared one thing: In the pub, those hours were our own.

I often get asked why I like beer and pubs so much. And I want to tell them the story about the girl who was up before the urban foxes trying so desperately to learn about life. And, instead, thanks to pubs, learned about people, equality, the subtleties of ambience and the things that matter.

Cakes and ale

From our own correspondent: Cakes & Ale

A creme brûlée imperial stout? Are the boundaries really being pushed or are beers such as pastry stouts just a gimmick? On a trip to Amsterdam, Adrian Tierney-Jones ponders the question

Adrian Tierney-Jones

There’s an advert for a Melon IPA on the wall and I have a glass of a creme brûlée imperial stout to hand. I’m in Crafts & Drafts in Amsterdam, a shop-front windowed bar whose interior is Scandi clean lines fused with the traditional twilight of the pub. As happened with me at a Mikkeller bar in Copenhagen in August (and written about in the current issue of Original Gravity), I scoured the tap list for something that wasn’t a collaboration, yet another IPA (or whatever denomination) or missing the ingredients of my mother’s kitchen store cupboard. ‘The creme brûlée imperial stout is sensational,’ said a screen-scanning drinker stuck on a stool at the bar. I pulled a face and she said, ‘no, really’. The barman also nodded his assent. So I ordered it.

It was ok, spirituous and sanctified with the caramel love of the creme brûlée but I couldn’t help feeling that what I was drinking was not something new, something carved out of the brewing heritage and reborn like Christ on the third (or was it the fourth, I can never remember) day. Instead, of leaping in the air, sharing high fives with all and sundry and raising a glass to innovation and exploration, I felt I was joining in, collaborating (in the Quisling-like sense of the word rather than the one that means partnership and friendship), merging my soul with the continuing gimmickry and infantilisation of beer, joining in with the great lie that brewers brew what they like to drink.

Apparently, after the fruit juice jamboree of NEIPAs (some are good, very good, but the ones that don’t work leave a taint on the tongue and a deep welt on the soul), pastry stouts are now something to behold and in vogue as they combine the ingredients of the bakery with whatever strong beer is mug enough to welcome them. I don’t know why I’m surprised as craft beer (or whatever you want to call it) continues to eat itself with the relish of a man with a Franz Josef handlebar devouring a plate of dumplings and pork in a Prague pub. IPA is splintered as if it were a mirror smashed on the floor; sours are beaching themselves on the sands of undrinkability; and now my mum’s kitchen store cupboard is being raided to add ‘another dimension’ (not anyone’s words, but my imagined conversation when brewers wonder where they can go next) to the beer in our glass.

Back in Crafts & Drafts, I think back longingly to the glass of Beaujolais I’d had earlier in the evening in a bar specialising in Natural Wines. It was delicious, smooth, soft in its tobacco box tannins and with a nice lean dry finish, nothing like the puny Beaujolais I had tasted in the past. There was no cake mixture, cherry brandy, Shreddies or onions in the mix, but just a great wine. I wonder if it’s too late to launch a campaign for natural beer?

Brighton rocks

Brighton Rocks

It’s a game of two pints as Emma Inch watches Brighton’s debut Premiership match at a stadium where Harvey’s cask rules

Emma Inch

It takes around 30 years for the water used in Harvey’s beer to filter through the South Downs chalk to the well beneath the brewery. So, the pre-match pints gulped ahead of Brighton and Hove Albion’s debut Premiership clash, might have been brewed with the self-same water that clagged the mud to the boots of those players who, in 1983, crashed out of the old First Division. But a lot of rain has fallen since and, as the crowds gather, the scoresheet is blank once more.

In the shadow of the Amex Stadium, I meet Harvey’s Bob Trimm who tells me that, as far as he’s aware, this is the only club in the Premiership with cask beer on draught at every match. The Albion is certainly amongst only a handful of teams in the Premiership to serve cask beer and it seems that the fans want it: last season sales of Harvey’s reached 9000 pints at some matches — and with the addition of kegged beer this season, that’s likely to increase — making the Amex one of the biggest cask beer outlets in the world.

Harvey’s most famous beer, their Sussex Best Bitter, was first brewed in the mid-1950s, at a time when footballers arrived at English grounds after putting in a full Saturday morning at work, and didn’t think twice about training in lead-weighted boots or playing on in goal with a broken neck. And it’s from this cloth that Harvey’s Best is cut.

In the now corporate world of English football, where the opposition team’s full-backs are worth more than the cost of the barely six-year-old Amex, an ale like this might seem anachronistic. But, as Bob explains, “It’s a perfect synergy between the local football club and the local brewery.”

And it is.

Harvey’s Best is a toffee-rich, uncompromising, stubborn kind of pint that brings together the copper and wood of the brewery with the leather and turf of the pitch. It holds a brief promise of funk from the famous Harvey’s yeast, along with the fruit-sweetness that marks the start of the English football season with overripe plums and russet apples, suggestive of snug scarves, conkers on strings and the fast-approaching, dark-by-teatime chill that accompanies the football results on television. The club and the beer inspire the same loyalty, and it is testament to the fans that they are both here, belonging together, in this patch of English countryside, between the sea and the Downs.

As the match ends, I can still feel the cool bulb of a rushed half-time pint in my gut, and there’s just enough sweetness left on my lips to catch the salt from the breeze. Sadly, of course, Albion lose two nil. But, as the final whistle blows, Bob turns to me and says, “Well, it can only get better.”

And, negotiating that dance between emotion and rationality that fans of English beer and football both share, we head for another pint of Best, and I am convinced that he is right.

Q&A: Robert Middleton, Orbit Beers

Q&A: Robert Middleton

Meet Robert Middleton, founder of London brewery Orbit

Original Gravity

You’ve recently changed the brewery’s branding. Why?

We wanted our new branding to better represent who we are, what we stand for, our personality. We also wanted it to communicate all of that more strongly to the customer. We’re committed to making timeless styles with an eye for balance and finesse, we strongly value our independence and we love music. We really hope people love our new branding as much as we do.

Which beer of yours gets you thinking ‘yeah, I’m glad I am a brewer’?

That would have to be our Kölsch, Nico, which is our take on the traditional beers of Cologne. This beer has so much going on within it – it’s fragrant and light, with beautiful fruity esters from the Kölsch yeast, alongside herbal, slightly spicy Tettnang hops. Clean, balanced, dry and refreshing. Like Altbier, it’s an Obergäriges Lagerbier – warm fermentation followed by cold conditioning – genius.

What are you listening to at the moment and what is so good about it. 

I’ve been hooked by the Lemon Twigs, Methyl Ethel and The Big Moon recently. Original, genuine, creative tunes with personality. Bands doing their own thing in the spirit of independent music. I’m off to End of the Road and Austin City Limits this year, so will hopefully discover some more new music.

You took a van around Scotland and visited loads of breweries — what’s your next expedition? Cycle about London and visiting pubs with Barclay Perkins livery still on them perhaps?

Brewing in London feels like a pretty exciting journey in itself, but we keep the spirit of travel alive with our annual team trips. Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bamberg have featured so far. Looks like Prague is the favourite next time around.

Do you think it takes a certain person to be a brewer and what is that certain something?

I got into brewing primarily because of the brewers I met on my tour. We probably all have our quirks, but share a passion for beer, a desire to create something special and a collaborative nature. It helps to let your heart rule your head most of the time.

Where are you going on holiday this summer?

Actually, we’re off tomorrow in our camper van Brian – star of the Scottish brewery tour. Probably head to France, but the joy of camper vanning is that you can enjoy the journey without knowing your exact destination. A bit like starting a brewery.

Beer Travellers’ Guide: Liege

Beer Travellers’ Guide: Liege

Where to find the best beers, bars and food in Belgium’s Wallonian city

Daniel Neilson

That could have been a turnip. They were certainly a dozen French fries. Avocado. Cauliflower. That bloke’s in Lederhosen, and they are definitely bottles of beer. Just how someone dressed as a strawberry was going to complete 26 miles of the Beer Lover’s Marathon in Liège, I wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps the incentive of a beer break every couple of miles was enough, perhaps it was the fact that the vast majority of the 3,000 runners were also in fancy dress (the theme, in case you hadn’t picked up, was fruit and veg, and beer, of course, is a perennial favourite). We skip around to a couple of the beer checkpoints as the leaders are ploughing through. No fancy dress up here at the front, no beer at the Achouffe stop either. This is met with boos by the spectators, willing the runners to stop for a beer provided by men and women dressed as the Achouffe dwarves. Gradually the runner’s costumes become more elaborate, these are the ones who stop for a beer or at least slow down. Any drinking by runners is met with cheers. It’s the same at 16 beer points along the marathon route across the city. Marathons, I believe, always bring out the best in people; the best in the runners and the best of the people in the city. Liège, on this sunny spring day, was in a supportive and merry mood, but one gets the impression Liège is always like this. Liège is a fun city. Perhaps it’s the large number of students here, perhaps it’s the underdog attitude, either way, this is a city that parties, that celebrates everything from its food, to its history, from its artisanal heritage and, now, to its beer. And that’s why I’m here.

Liège, the main city of the municipality of the same name, is Belgium’s third most populous city and lies an hour east of Brussels. Hopping on the train from Midi, after the short trip under the English Channel, and the Kent-flat landscape of wheat and barley gradually begins to undulate as we enter the Ardennes. Woodland appears on increasingly steepening aspects. The train ambles into Wallonia and the home to the pleasingly named demonym Walloons. Wallonia, from the beginning of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, was the wealthiest region of Belgium, closely following Britain into the Industrial Revolution. Walking around the plazas of the Cathedral District in central Liège, the grandeur of the buildings attests to this. The cathedral itself, the university, the opera house, even the post office, all make statements.

We stop for a drink in the BeerLovers’ Café & Shop (, a world-class beer bar with 750 beers available, and a dozen on tap, more than half devoted to local breweries. From there we head to Brasserie C (, a brew pub set in a former nunnery. We sit on the beautiful terrace and sup from its range of single hopped beers, each named for the IBU unit: 30, 60, 90, and its multiple-fermented flagship beer Curtius.

The rest of the day is spent enjoying this busy, walkable city. We eat waffles – Liège waffles of which locals are rightly proud – from Une Gaufrette Saperlipopette and eat boulet at the characterful Lequet. Boulet is a Liège classic or large meatballs in rich sauce, with chips, apple sauce and some token salad. It is beer food at its best. We also learn about a particular Liège word: oufti. It’s more of an exclamation actually. It can be used in a surprised way, tilting up at the end: ouFTI! Or perhaps a bit sad in a deeper voice: ouf-ti. Apparently, it can also be angry, or excited, happy and disappointed. Oufti is a useful word.

Talk to a brewer in the US, it’s hops that often dominates the conversation, in the UK it can be malts, in Belgium it’s yeast. We sit and eat at the pleasant Refectory here, discussing the tasty beers and discussing the culture, in the glass and in the city.

The next day is an opportunity to explore the best breweries of Liège province. We start our tour at Brasse & Vous Brewery ( in Beyne-Heusay, six km from the Liège train station (pictured bottom left). Our guide, the impressively sideburned brewmaster Bruno Bonacchelli, shows us the brewery that sits alongside the restaurant. Talk to a brewer in the US, it’s hops that often dominates the conversation, in the UK it can be malts, in Belgium it’s yeast. We sit and eat at the pleasant Refectory here, discussing the tasty beers and discussing the culture, in the glass and in the city.

Sixty kilometres deeper into the Ardennes is Brasserie de la Lienne ( founded in 2013 by Mélissa and Nicolas Résimont (pictured middle left). Throughout the tour of this brewery set in the barn, we hear stories of fairies and knights and something about a golden goat. The Ardennes is wealthy in fairy tales it seems. The beers are excellent quality, a dry and bitter Noire stout being my pick.

We grab lunch at nearby Stavelot Abbey, one of the oldest monastic foundations in Belgium and dating back well over 1,000 years. It’s now partly a car and historical museum. Unfortunately we miss the town’s impressive, and slightly bizarre, carnival. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, men dressed in white and wearing a mask with a long red nose, walk through the town playfully hitting watchers with dried pig bladders. By all accounts it’s a racous affair, with hundreds more joining in, and thousands descending on the town.

Our final brewery stop is a highlight, the beers are superb, but its location among leafy farmland, is exceptional. As we sat on the sunny terrace of Brasserie de Bellevaux (, near Malmedy, 60 kilometres from Liège, eating flavourful local cheeses and cold meats, our ragtag group of beer lovers are happy (pictured top right). I’m reminded again of the power of beer.

As I sit and write this a couple of months later, I do remember many of the beers we tried, the superlative meal at L’Air de Rien, the discussions about the finer points of yeast cultivation. But overriding all is the snapshot of the Bellevaux terrace, loud with banter and replete with smiles, all over great beer. Well, that and the sight of a dozen mates dressed as frites stopping for a beer halfway through the marathon.



Art of beer: Lost & Grounded

Art of beer: Lost & Grounded

Take a journey with seven friends into the world of one of the country’s best new breweries

Original Gravity

The seven friends went marching up the hill, each one in search of something and holding a sceptre in hand. The swan, returning down the hill, appears to have found something. Perhaps they are searching for the racoon on the other side of the hill, himself waving at something, someone. I’m not sure. As I line up the bottles from new-ish Bristol brewery Lost & Grounded, I’m enchanted, intrigued, lost in a story. The labels form a panorama. Much like with the remarkable beers themselves. These are beers – lagers, red ales, saisons – made with such aplomb, such grace, I’d be enchanted by the beers alone. The beautiful artwork on the bottles only enhances the experience, a true reflection of what’s inside.

Lost & Grounded was founded by Alex Troncoso (formerly of Camden Town Brewery) and Annie Clements, and started brewing out of Bristol in July 2016.

‘Our initial idea was for an illustrative approach, our own modern version of some traditional European label art. The playful side of using animals stemmed from wandering home from our local late one evening and meeting a very dapper and polite urban fox,’ Annie says.

Wanting to use a local illustrator, they simply searched online for “Bristol illustrators” and found Alexia Tucker. They called her that day.

‘I wanted to make the branding unique,’ explains Alexia. ‘There are so many brilliant beer labels out there, the pressure was on to find something new. I thought it would be great to make labels that went on as one long storyboard-like landscape, so there is a real narrative to each image that customers can follow.

‘We aim to convey some playful essence of the particular beer, maybe a reference to where one of the ingredients is from, or the type of night you might expect to have after a few of one particular kind!’

Annie agrees: ‘We went ahead with a clear and personal vision of what we wanted. Our illustrations are unique and left of centre which matches our brewing philosophy: we make beers that take inspiration from various styles to result in something that is clever and well balanced. Our beers, just as Alexia’s beautiful illustrations, have multiple layers to them which can be either dissected by the drinker or can be simply enjoyed without fuss – not everything has to be an intellectual exercise.’

Unearthing Lager


Adrian Tierney-Jones travels to České Budějovice to discover the secrets of one of the world’s greatest lagers

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Can you dream in flavour? Let us dream in flavour. Long after returning from Budvar I still dreamt of the crisp and fresh unfiltered Original that emerged like a wraith of love from the brewery’s lagering tanks. I still dreamt of the hint of bitter lemons two-stepping a tango across the tongue in the company of a crisp biscuity maltiness and a lengthy bitter finish. It’s a sensation of nobility and elegance that still haunts and humbles me whenever I return to the day several summers back when I visited Budvar for the second time in my life.

Inside the brew house, a silent space with just the hiss of machinery in the background, gleaming copper domes stood sentinel, their chimneys reaching to the ceiling and beyond. This is a monumental space, with something of a dream about it; even though in reality it’s an industrial plant and Budvar is a business, there’s still a romance and sense of heritage that you wouldn’t get in a steelworks or a car factory. You know that what is being made here sustains the soul and brings joy to many.

The lagering tanks hide away in white washed cellars, holding beers that slumber away in their winter-is-coming sleep of 1˚c, beers that are lordly and assertive and confident of their special status. These are beers that lager away for 90 days, change character, develop and grow. As if that wasn’t enough time, then think of Budvar’s stronger beers, especially its Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager, which has a mighty 200-day production cycle — some marriages don’t even last this long. Fresh in its compliance with the unique aromatics of Saaz, smooth in its sensation on the palate (all that time it’s been getting ready to show off) and bittersweet in its genial farewell at the back of the throat. Oddly enough, I’ve never tried it at the brewery, instead I’ve galloped through the odd glass in the confines of those London pubs that stock it on its limited release of six weeks.

On a road off the square, red-tiled roof, its face the colour of dirty sand, is a bleak looking building of the 19th century, a former Austro-Hungarian army barracks that was once briefly home to Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Back to dreaming. Let us dream of the city that the beer and its makers call home. Let us see it for ourselves. If you visit České Budějovice, as you must, you will find a city that was first raised in 1265; you will find a city whose wide open main square is a mash-up of Gothic, Baroque, Classical and Romantic architectural styles whose frontages swoon with different swashes of colour, including terracotta pink, deep lemon yellow and pale blue sky blue. And on a road off the square, red-tiled roof, its face the colour of dirty sand, is a bleak looking building of the 19th century, a former Austro-Hungarian army barracks that was once briefly home to Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk. You must visit.

Meanwhile back at the brewery, I ask and I ask and I ask and finally (something that was denied me during my previous visit) I get to taste the water with which this monument of beers is made. If water could be a ghost then this is it. On my tongue it is hardly there, ethereal, clean and limpid, the canvas on which the actions of malt, hops and yeast daub their colours and form their shapes. And then I stop. That’s enough of water. It’s beer I need, a beer I will dream of until the end of time.