tl;dr – I still don’t know what polotmavy is. But, in my defence, no-one else seems to either.
Summers for our small conjugal unit are generally spent in the Czech Republic, from whence, through the matrilineal line, the offspring derive their Slavic legacy. There are many strong advantages to this, for me as somewhat of an outsider, and, of these, one of the best is undoubtedly the staggeringly good beer, drunk in pleasingly large quantities, and purchased for shockingly little money.
This summer, in particular, I’ve devoted to exploring the intricacies of the Czech style known as Polotmavý, or semi-dark. Unfortunately, I’ve come away rather more confused than when I started.
In his comprehensive and detailed description of the history of Czech beer styles, Ron Pattinson makes a compelling case that Czech Polotmavý is a direct descendent of the Vienna Lager being made by Anton Dreher. It would therefore predate its more famous Pilsner cousin and its position as a traditional beer style would seem incontrovertible. It’s practically a beer of historical and cultural importance. One would think it would have it’s own little blue plaque somewhere.
And yet that’s very much not the impression I get from people here. When I try to talk to děda about polotmavý pivo I get the wry smile and dismissive wave of the hand that signals his genial but baffled tolerance of the seemingly endless inconsequentialities that exercise those in the decadent West. Polotmavý is a modern affectation to him; a symptom of the strange, baffling and, probably, foreign-derived desire to drink beers that aren’t Pilsner. He doesn’t remember the style being a notable presence in the recent past, nor in his youth in the 60s.
Tmavé pivo, dark lagers, they’re fairly well known, albeit widely regarded as being mostly for girls, but polotmavý simply doesn’t appear to be considered a style, let alone a traditional style, let alone a culturally important style. It’s not really sold in pubs or bars, you can’t usually get it bottled, except in specialist shops, even large breweries like Černá Hora or Starobrno don’t have a polotmavé pivo. Overall, the perception is that of an endangered, if not almost extinct style.
And yet… and yet…
Firstly, they clearly do exist. Ron Pattinson states that amber beers make up seven and a half percent of beer sales in Czech Republic. That may not sound so much but, Real Ale only makes up eight percent of beer sales in the UK and one would hardly describe Real Ale as insignificant unless one was on something of a wind up.
Secondly, people do at least know what you’re talking about. In a country that’s fantastically parochial about its beer, in a land that has been developing and perfecting exactly one style of beer to the exclusion of all others, where even young, upstart, forward-looking breweries still pronounce it ‘Eeepa’, almost everyone will recognise what you’re talking about, even if they couldn’t say when they last had one.
So, palpably a ‘thing’ then, but what manner of thing? Another layer of confusion settles gently on the issue. At the aforementioned Černá Hora brewery, I was propositioned by the efficient waiting-staff before I’d had a chance to properly study the beer list (as an aside, there should be a name for this phenomenon, and for the consequential despair that comes from ordering hurriedly and spotting on the boards a beer you’d much rather have, just as it becomes socially awkward to change your order. This invariably happens when you’re only nipping in for a hasty half) and asked, while reading, if they had any polotmavé. This was greeted, to my intense surprise, by a shrug and a “Yes” that was very much of the “Yes, of course, why would you even ask” species of affirmatives. What they actually had turned out to be that curious Czech creature, the Řezané, a half-and-half mix of pale and dark lager that I ordered to excess the first time I visited Czech republic, for the sheer novelty, and haven’t really touched since.
More purpose-brewed examples are hardly more definitive, though. From the sweet, cloying cola-y Staropramen Granat to the full and malty Vyškovský Řezak, the only one I found that came close to what I’d think of as a Vienna lager was the Jantarový stoják from the small Pivovar Bylnice. Overall, it was rare to find two similar beers, let alone examples that could form the nexus of a distinct style.
There are a number of threads that may help knit this small conundrum, though. The sample, of course, may not be exactly representative. We’re here in Moravian Wallachia, an area of the Czech Republic that is rich in forests, mountains, rivers and beautiful scenery and entirely innocent of the kind of cosmopolitan centres around which beer culture accretes. This isn’t Bohemia; things may be entirely different all the way up there, but round this way people tend to stick with their familiar desítka. It’s entirely possible that polotmavý maintains a vibrant existence in other parts of the country.
What finally clarified it for me, though, was an encounter with a guy from Pivovar Kocour (a long way from their home by the northern German border), running a beer tent at a small music festival at the local castle. We’d got there early, and custom was slow, and I was trying to talk about the extensive beer list in my halting and barely comprehensible Czech. Six different beers practically counts as a beer festival on its own in this part of the world, and they were listed by name rather style. Half-picking up on something he said, I asked if a particular beer was tmavé, and he said no, it was polotmavé. Cracking, I thought, just what I’m after. Taking a hearty swig, I practically gagged.
It’s not that it was bad, it was…. Maybe some background might help. My mum likes roast parsnips, but when we have Sunday Lunch, she insists they’re cut lengthwise. If they’re cut in chunks, she contends, there’s a chance you could bite down on what you think is a roast potato, that actually turns out to be parsnip. Nice as parsnips are, if you’re expecting a potato the shock could easily cause all manner of strange and debilitating conditions. The beer he’d given me was a rather pleasant American IPA, but the huge dose of tropical hops and bitterness when I was expecting sweet and malty caused a kind of sensory dissonance. In that moment, though, two things I’d known all along but hadn’t really understood finally coalesced for me.
One, was that you can’t necessarily use the very Anglo-centric notion of beer styles to accurately describe how beer is perceived and consumed in different countries.
The other was that polotmavý is the colour of beer. I knew this before I’d started, read it on Ron Pattinson’s site before I’d even touched down at Brno Letištĕ , but I hadn’t really understood it. The style is not named after the colour of the beer, it is the colour of the beer. The guy from Kocour didn’t tell me the beer I ordered was polotmavé to trick me or because of a misunderstanding, it was because the beer was amber. The taste of it, the hopping, the IBU, the malt balance, all were rather immaterial, the beer was polotmavé, because it was lighter than a tmavé and darker than a svĕtlé. Simple as that.
From a historical point of view, this makes perfect sense. The svĕtlé was made entirely from pilsner malt and was pale, the tmavé from roasted malt and was dark and the polotmavé from Vienna malt and was amber. When those are the only three beers in your world, why would you describe them by anything other than the colour?
Of course, this will all start to change, even in Moravia, as the world, and the world of beer, becomes an inevitably smaller place but for now, for me, the conclusions are pretty clear. Firstly, meditate on the point above – the way I describe beer does not, necessarily, have any relevance for anyone else. Secondly, when Ron Pattinson tells you something, try to understand it.