“I said to myself: I’m Czech, I cook every day. Why not be a brewer too?”05 May 2017
Petr Skocek (left) and Zdenek Kudr, above
Watch out Pilsner Urquell: Bohemian lager is now brewed right here in the Big Smoke. Meet Bohem, London’s first Czech brewery
By Will Hawkes
Petr Skocek grew up on Bohemian pilsners, and then he tried British lager. It’s no wonder he took up homebrewing. “I love good beer,” explains Skocek, “so when I moved to London, I went to the pub two or three times a week. But the beer quality was not great - and the price kept going up and up.
“I said to myself: I’m Czech, I cook dinner everyday. Why not be a brewer too?”
Why not indeed? Skocek, 30, doesn’t homebrew any more but only because he’s gone professional, with Bohem, a Czech-style brewery in Bounds Green that can surely claim to be London’s first. The brewery, which he runs with fellow Czech Zdenek Kudr, has just now opened its taproom on Myddleton Road having honed its recipes over the last two years.
It’s a small place: a shop, essentially, except with mismatched tables and chairs, a bar and a mural of the street running around the wall (see image below).
Skocek has recently quit his job as a bin-lorry driver to work as for Bohem full-time, a career move that must have seemed unlikely when he first dipped his toe into the murky world of homebrewing in 2012. “I got a 10-litre pot and a mash paddle and I started to brew,” he says. “The first beer took me 16 hours and it didn’t look good at all. It was cloudy! But when I tasted it, I said ‘Wow, it’s much better than in the pub!’ I had a few pints and thought, ‘I will do it again’. So I brewed every month, improving all the time …”
It was when Kudr, 43, tasted the beer that the idea of setting up a brewery was born. “We had a 50-litre keg of Henry at a party in Finsbury Park in 2015, and it was gone in five hours,” says Kudr. “I said, ‘It’s a great beer, why don’t you do it commercially?”
So they did, combining Skocek’s brewing skill with the commercial nous Kudr has gained from a career in real estate. There are currently five beers, all of them unfiltered and unpasteurised: two pale lagers (Victoria and Jan Amos; the first one weaker and more bitter, the second stronger and easy-drinking), a half-dark lager (Sparta, named for Skocek’s favourite football team), a stout (Druid) and a Belgian blonde ale (Henry). A stout and a Belgian blonde ale? That doesn’t sound very Czech, which is why they’re about to be converted into lagers.
It’s a sensible commercial decision, but Skocek denies that is the reason. “It’s not marketing,” he says. “The main reason is that we’re from the Czech Republic and we like lagers. I’d never drunk ales before, I started two years ago because I wanted to taste them. I like the proper ales, but I don’t like warm beer with no head. It’s just flat beer for me!” That’s England told.
There have been certain compromises. The beer is not currently made using decoction, a traditional Germano-Czech mashing technique, nor are all the ingredients from the mother country (The hops they use are 50 per cent Czech -Saaz and Kasbek - 50 per cent British and German, while the Pilsner malt comes from Weyermann in Bamberg, Germany). The former problem will be rectified when the one-barrel brewkit is upgraded in the summer; the latter will have to wait until Bohem grows much bigger.
Skocek likes to keep it simple when it comes to hops. “I don’t understand some breweries who put so many different varieties of hops in one brew,” he says. “If you have 20 different hops, you can’t tell the difference [between them]. To make good beer, put something simple [in] and you’ll enjoy it a lot more. That’s the Czech way.” It's not the only thing done the Czech way: the brewery uses open fermentation vessels and the beer gets at least four weeks lagering time.
The pair are keen to make not only excellent Czech beer, but also beer that locals can enjoy. “We ask people what they think about our beers and adjust recipes,” says Kudr. “We had a tasting of Jan Amos two weeks ago; everyone got a taste sheet so they could tell us what they think about the beer. We didn’t need to adjust the recipe - it was a big success!”
There are no plans for world domination. They aim to focus on the market on their doorstep; at the moment the beer is available at their taproom, The Prince in nearby N22 and in the Alexandra Park football club clubhouse. Soon you’ll be able to buy from their website, but only in a five-mile radius (a circle that still takes in many millions of people).
“We need control over the beer, control over where it is stored,” says Kudr. “If it gets spoilt, it gets blamed on us … there was another pub which was interested in selling our beer but the storage was 20, 25 degrees, so we couldn’t sell to them. It would get spoilt within three days. In our cold room it lasts a month.”
There’s no doubt the duo have a passion for beer, the first step - but only the first step - on the road to brewing success. “Can I tell you a secret?” says Kudr. “When Petr was brewing at home, he knew that the beer should be conditioning for at least four weeks but sometimes after two weeks the beer was gone.”
“This is what happens when you’re learning!” says Skocek with a smile. “Yes, the beer is so good after a week that you can’t resist,” admits Kudr. London’s drinkers can now judge for themselves on Myddleton Road.