Filip Miller is a pretty laid-back bloke. When, 13 years ago, he arrived in the Czech city of Pilsen and realised he didn't have enough money for a flight back to Australia, he decided to stay. Now, despite a busy life running Raven, the brewery he founded in 2015, he's always happy to take time for a chinwag, about anything from beer to cricket to the Czech tradition of eating carp at Christmas.
But when Raven launched its first lager, he was more than a little nervous. Pilsner was invented here, and standards are high. "We didn't even brew a lager for the first two years," says Miller, 43. "In the end we made one because we were opening our first bar in Pilsen, and you have to have your own lager. I was stressed! If it had been sub-par … well, I think some people were ready to be critical, but the response was really good."
He needn't have worried. If you can open a brewery in Pilsen and thrive, as Raven has, then the hard work has mostly been done. It's difficult to exaggerate the extent to which this city is dominated by Pilsner Urquell (PU), the original pale lager created here in 1842, and its budget stablemate Gambrinus. Locals love PU, and with good reason: it has inspired a slew of imitators around the world, from VB to Budweiser.
For the most part, though, Raven is playing in a very different market. Most of its beers are ales, not lagers, and they've introduced some pretty challenging flavours to a conservative market – like their version of Berliner Weisse, a tart, dry style made with wheat that drinkers at the brewery's on-site pub in the north of Pilsen have grown to love.
"We started selling it because it's a nice summer beer," says Miller, who also has a Raven pub in the city centre. "People would say, 'Ah, it's too sour, I can't drink that.' And some of the same people now say, 'Oh! It's not as sour any more.' But it's actually much more sour. I've adapted the recipe."
Miller, who grew up in Armidale, in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, has deep Czech roots. His mother, Mirka, a world-respected mathematician, was Czech, and came to Australia in 1969 after the Soviet invasion the previous year. He first enjoyed beer on a family trip back to the country in the 1990s: "I was like, 'Wow! Beer can taste nice.' I very quickly developed a big thirst for it."
He began homebrewing with his stepfather, Joe Ryan, also a mathematician, and continued after he went to the University of Sydney. He and friends – including Lincoln Gibbs, lead brewer at Felons brewery in Brisbane – would brew together at weekends. They'd also seek out obscure beers, either via online swaps or by trekking across town. "I'd go halfway across Sydney because I heard there was a Portuguese deli that had some Portuguese beer – and, of course, it would turn out to be not very good," he says.
Czech beer, of course, is famously good. The standard in this central European country is higher than probably anywhere in the world, and pubs remain the centre of Czech life. "It's still the main way of socialising," says Miller. "It's not like you go out for a barbecue; most people live in flats, so they don't have big house parties or host friends for dinner." The vast majority of Raven's beer is sold in Pilsen and Prague, on tap rather than in bottles, he adds.
And beer is cheap: a half-litre of Raven pale ale will set you back about $3 Australian. It's no wonder Czechs drinks more than anyone else. "If a Czech says, 'Let's go for a beer,' you can count on having half a dozen," says Miller. "Any less and they'll think, 'I thought you said we were going to go out for a beer!'"
Raven followed Miller's return to homebrewing in 2013, when some Czech pals were keen for him to teach them the ropes. The brewery's kit is small – it makes just 500 litres a time – but is used 12 times a week, morning and night, which allows Miller and his team of four brewers to produce an impressive diversity of styles. Many, including a pale ale called Sydney, are made with Australian hops such as Galaxy and Enigma.
It's a small taste of home. "I would've loved to have opened a brewery in Australia but the amount of money required is completely different to here, where the investment was pretty minimal," he says.
He still returns to Australia from time to time; he'll be back in January, when the Czech winter is at its most unrelenting. He misses the country's easygoing friendliness, he says, and the excellent food.
Last time he was in Sydney he found his beer at Bucket Boys, a bottle shop in Marrickville. "It was a bit of a thrill, you know?" he says. "Looking in the fridge and finding it for $12, instead of $3 here. But I didn't mind, I bought a round for my friends. I felt pretty good about it." Just like when he brewed a lager good enough to impress the educated palates of Pilsen.
Hemingway's The Prospector pilsner. Photo: Supplied
Three Aussie pilsners to try
Hemingway's The Prospector This award-winning pilsner from north Queensland has the classic balance of sweet, toasty malt and spicy hops.
Hunter Lager Made in the Hunter Valley with all European ingredients, including Czech Saaz hops, this is a truly authentic drop.
Hawkers Pilsner A cocktail of European and New Zealand hops – many of which are derived from Saaz, the classic Czech hop – make this a satisfying brew.