Czech beer labelling has been baffling visitors to this fine country since before my time. Although almost everyone agrees that Czech beers are some of the finest the world has ever known, almost nobody can explain the Czech beer labelling system.
Put simply, Czech beers are measured in degrees rather than ABV (Alcohol By Volume). Why, for goodness’ sake? What’s wrong with knowing that 5% of the volume of your beer is alcohol?
Well, for starters, what is the other 95% made of? Mostly water, obviously, but what produced that 5% of alcohol? Was it a beautifully crafted wort being devoured by healthy yeast to produce a full body, rich in character and inviting? Or has some unscrupulous brewer put profit before quality, brewed a beer so small it would pass for water and topped it up with something a true craftsman wouldn’t even clean a paintbrush with?
That’s the problem with ABV; it only measures the alcohol, not what produced it.The traditional Czech beer labelling system however, reflects the quality of the wort and the Original Gravity.
The degrees which are used in the Czech beer labelling system are degrees of the Plato Scale (°P). This is a measure of the fermentable content of the wort. Specifically, it measures the weight of the sucrose content – a wort with 12° P has the same density as a water-sucrose mixture containing 12% of sucrose by weight.
Still with me? Good! Now, because the sucrose comes from lovely natural stuff like barley or wheat and not a sugar refinery, the beer will have body and soul. Fortifying beer-that-would-pass-for-water is the reason that the soulless Euro-Filth sold in many British pubs tastes like water-that-has-been-passed.
A good quality wort, made from natural ingredients, will have a high sucrose content and therefore a higher number of degrees Plato. Certainly, it will fuel more alcohol production, resulting in a higher alcohol content but more importantly for the beer lover, it will have a fuller flavour.
There is no simple way to convert °P into ABV but dividing it by 2.5 is a good rule of thumb. If you want the maths behind it all, Wikipedia has an article full of impressive-looking equations which I’m afraid I can neither understand nor verify! Typical beers in most pubs are 10° (around 4% ABV) or 12° (4.8-ish % ABV). Offerings at beer festivals can be considerably higher!
Sadly, some of the industrial brewers in the Czech Republic are starting to adopt the ABV system because they sell internationally and ABV is recognised throughout the world. However, according to every beer-lover I’ve spoken to, this is no reason not to also print the number of degrees on the label. The more cynical beer-lovers tell me it’s an excuse they use so that they can cut costs legally. An 8° beer (about 3.2%) can be ‘fortified’ and sold as a 4.8% beer but not as a 12° beer.
Some may bemoan the falling standards of these brewers but I like to look on the bright side… if they hadn’t put profit before quality there would be no gap in the market for the hundreds of micro-breweries which have appeared over the last decade. Leave that industrial muck for the alcoholics and tourists and come with us; there’s plenty of quality if you know where to find it!