“You are invited to attend a tasting of Budweiser Budvar Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager 7.5% 2017 Vintage. The location The Trading House, Gresham Street, London, EC2V; the date Friday 23rd March. 7.5% Czech Lager, food and Budvar Tank beer included”
Well with an invitation like that I couldn’t really refuse, especially after missing out on sampling this special beer last year. I duly made my way to The Trading House, a former bank, close to the Bank of England, in London’s Gresham Street, in order to taste this legendary beer.
Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a very special beer, brewed once a year using freshly harvested Saaz hops on the day of picking. The beer is then matured for 200 days, with a limited number of kegs making their way to the UK each year!
Along with a number of other beer writers and journalists, I’d been invited to this event by Budweiser Budvar UK. We were looked after by Josh Nesfield, the company’s UK marketing manager. Josh explained that the beer had been racked into kegs at the brewery in České Budějovice on Tuesday, and then driven across Europe to London, ready to be tapped for us to drink that Friday.
Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is brewed to celebrate the harvesting of the hops, which takes place harvested in the Czech Republic each August. Fresh Saaz hops, picked by hand, are used to create this special strong beer which is brewed on the same day as the harvest.
Hop-picking festivals have been held in the Žatec area, which is the home of the Saaz hop, since the 18th Century. Originally they were held in the surrounding villages, but after WWII moved to the town. The festival celebrates the moment at the beginning of September when the hop harvest is finished – earlier than in the UK.
Budweiser Budvar is owned by the Czech state, and the company still use whole cone hops; one of the very few large breweries to do so. The hops come from the village of Strkovice, just outside Žatec, and after picking, are taken to the brewery straight away, so that this special beer can be brewed on the same day. Normally only one brew is produced, but occasionally two are made. Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a difficult beer to produce because the volatile hop compounds can soon disappear after harvesting. The timing required to bringing them to the brewery while still “live” is therefore crucial.
The fresh hops add aromatic compounds which would normally be lost during the drying process, and the uncertainty surrounding their use can mean a change in taste from year to year. Climatic conditions, together with the soil the hops are grown in, provides a unique link to the locality. Budvar know exactly where all their hops come from, and use the same farms and the same fields much like Harvey’s in the UK.
Because this brew is a one-off it also changes year-on-year to reflect conditions, climate or, to borrow a term from the wine world, “terroir” of the exact fields the hops were grown in. Where consistency and tradition is rightly everything to the taste of Budweiser Budvar’s other beers, with Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager there is a bit of room for change. That change continues in the brewery’s maturation cellars.
From the vantage point of small galleried private bar at The Trading House, high above the lunchtime diners below, I was given a glass of this excellent beer. For a moment I was tempted to use that awful American term “awesome”, to describe the beer, but sticking with typical British understatement instead, I would say it was “a mighty fine drop”.
Burnished gold in colour and with a full hit of aromatic hops on the nose, it had me drooling before I’d so much as tasted a drop. The heavy malt profile, associated with a beer of this strength, offers a great counterpoint to the hops, and there’s a wonderful, almost honeyed sweetness on the tongue and palate. There’s none of “spirit-like” taste associated with many high alcohol beers, and the only downside, if it can be called that, is it’s dangerously drinkable.
Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager is a truly special beer made even more so by its individuality and changeability from year to year. Every discerning beer drinker and hophead should look out for it in spring when it’s released in limited quantities in the UK.
Disclaimer: Whilst at this event, I also enjoyed a tankard of Tankové Pivo; Budvar’s legendary lager in “tank” form. The Trading House is one of a small number of UK outlets which take the beer in this un-pasteurised form. The beer remains fresh because it is delivered in temperature controlled tanks, and has a smooth mouth feel because the tanks are airtight and no air touches the beer.
Budvar UK. As well as Josh, I also had a chat with Martin Macourek, UK Director of the Czech Trade Promotion Agency, who are attached to the Czech Embassy. The Czechs take their beer very seriously, and rightly so!