On the many, many joys of the Czech Republic’s national beverage

You like beer, we like beer, three cheers for beer! There’s really nothing quite as refreshing as a cool, frothy pilsener to wash down the memories of a hard day pounding the cobblestones. You’re in Prague, for heaven’s sake, the Czech Republic, the birthplace of beer, where beer is more than a beverage, it’s a way of life. Pause for a moment on your pub shuffle to consider the oft-repeated statistic: The Czech Republic has the highest per-capita beer consumption in the world. Whoa. Czechs have a code of honor when it comes to drinking beer, and you owe it to yourself to get off the beaten tourist path and sample some in the local joints where the beer is poured better, tastes better, is cheaper and offers insights deep into Czech culture. As Homer Simpson says in Czech, “mmm Pi-vo.” Let’s be on our way to hoist a few with our new friends.

A Well Lagered Tradition

For some background, let’s stop for the first round at the Pivní galerie at U Pruhonu 9, right across the way from the old První Holešovický Pivovar in Prague 7, Holešovice. Here Petr Vanek has established a beer “gallery” and tasting room devoted to the “classic” brewing tradition carried on today by the 34 small- and medium-sized regional breweries he represents. When asked what lies ahead for the increasingly consolidated brewing industry and the quality of the product, Vanek, a brewer by trade, shakes his head, frowns and unfolds a “beer” map of the Czech Republic.

“A hundred years ago, there were over 1200 breweries in this country. Now there are about 70."

“A hundred years ago,
there were over 1200 breweries
in this country.Now here are
about 70.The ‘supermarket ’
beers are all anyone knows
these days.The diversity of
Czech beers is quickly disap-
pearing as the small breweries
close down.”

As we sample a delightful 14-degree Platan, our tablemate and beer pilgrim David Buhler, owner of the Elysian Brewery in Seattle, WA, USA, suggests what makes Czech beer so special: “The Saaz (Žatec) hops are beyond comparison. It’s no wonder that they’re in such demand by brewers worldwide. The tight, hoppy bitterness is solid from start to finish and makes for a superior beer.”

The trick knowing how to pour this perfect beer properly; it’s an art in and of itself. A clean glass, a nice round head of foam, patience, and attention to the condition of the pipes. Look for the rings of foam on the glass as you empty it, a good sign that the beer was well-poured. (By the way, it’s impolite to ask a tap-man how often the pipes are cleaned. Beer itself is a cleansing agent, according to Buhler.) There’s really nothing fancy about Czech beer. Malted barley, hops, yeast and water - that’s it. However, Pilsner Urquell can never be brewed abroad as well as it is here because of the water. Low mineral content in this region’s water makes for a more consistent, refined brew.

When asked what pubs in the center of Prague might be above-standard, Vanek replies, “I’m not a snob, but this is about the only place I drink beer, I live upstairs, of course.” As a souvenir shop, the Pivní Galerie has everything you need to impress the fellas back home, not to mention a warm atmosphere where you can reserve (in advance) a tasting sample from the barrels which are on tap that particular day. Mr. Vanek and his PR man, Pavel, both speak excellent English and will tell you more than you need to know about the wonders of Czech beer.

The trick is knowing how to pour this perfect beer properly; it’s an art in and of itself.

Now back to the center, where the taps are flowing as we speak.

We first head to the Castle district, to Strahov monastery to sample the new Klášterní microbrewery which revives the brewing tradition first founded on this site 800 years ago. This pub/restaurant, like the Novomestský pivovar at Vodickova, relies on tourist groups to pay the bills.

It’s a pleasant enough place, with excellent beers, a good goulash and a beer garden, but 49 crowns is a little steep for a half-liter. Hop down the hill into the old town, toward two Pilsner Urquell signature pubs: Kolkovna in Josefov and the classic revamped U Vejvodu near Národní trída. Both places have a good vibe and local crowd. Staropramen, the Smíchov-based Bass-run juggernaut, also has a couple of good pubs in their portfolio. Potrefená husa in Žizkov, near the TV tower, and the mother-ship brew-pub Na Verandách across from the Andel bus station at Nádražní 54. Order the 30 crown škvarková pomazánka (crackling lard spread on rye bread) for a starter and lay a base for the suds to come.

Budvar/Budweiser is best represented by the classic U Medvídku, which is overlit but retains nonetheless the character of the old school. Good souvenir items too. Then there’s the U Rudolfina at the Staromestká metro stop which offers as fine a Pilsner Urquell pint as any you’ll find. The same goes for the Malostranská pivnice on Cihelna in Malá strana, which offers a less pasteurized “from the tank”, fresh-as-can-be Plzenské. Finally - though you may resist - there’s U Fleku, the granddaddy of all Czech beerhalls, hard to beat for pure atmosphere. There’s a brewing museum on premises (for the nostalgic beer afficinado in all of us) and, of course, an oom-pah-pah band.

A Greener Beer

Further afield for the alfresco beer garden missionaries are the great green parks. There’s the Riegerovy Sady in Vinohrady, Klamovka in Košíre P-5 (a retro trip not to be missed) and the scenic summer garden at the southeast corner of Letná park. This list in no way does justice to the vast and varied array of hospody, pivnice, and pivní zahrádky that keep the city beery, so if you spot a place that looks inviting, consider yourself invited. Sit down at a table with the neighboring crowd and enjoy the bounty.

One anecdote which reveals as much about the nature of Czechs travelling abroad as it does about the heartfelt connection to their native beer: Two Czech tour buses cross each other on a highway in England. They flag each other down, compare notes and the tour leader of one asks if the other bus might have any extra cases of beer they’d like to sell. They had drunk all of theirs.
Go figure.

-John Caulkins can be reached at [email protected]

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