Where Pilsner is King
Beer Culture in the Czech Republic
Prague is a beautiful city. One of the most beautiful in Europe. The architecture spans the history of the continent with magnificent buildings ranging in style from the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque to the most contemporary European designs. Cathedrals, gold-tipped towers and church domes dominate the vista when viewed from the hill on the eastern side of the Vltava river.
Fifteen bridges cross the Vltava and one of them, The Charles Bridge is reserved for pedestrians. Because Prague is an intensely visited city, walking across the crowded Charles Bridge to Prague Castle at the top of the hill can be an adventure. On a hot sunny day – even on a cold winter day – this walk can make a traveler thirsty. Luckily, there is a brewpub near the castle. The Klasterni Pivovar is the perfect spot to stop for a beer, whether one’s fancy is a classic Czech pilsner or one of Klasterni’s specialties, such as a hoppy Easter beer, a sweet, dark lager or an amber lager.
Crossing back over the Charles Bridge to the flat, eastern side of Prague, the thirst for beer again arises. Here there are many pub choices in the Old Town or New Town, the two primary sections of the city.
U Flecků, noted as the world’s oldest brewpub (1499), serves just one beer, a remarkably tasty dark lager. On the one hand, it’s hard for a beer traveler to pass up visiting U Flecků. On the other hand, these days this pub is almost completely geared to the tourist trade. One would be hard pressed to find a Prague citizen heading there for a beer. And the prices are higher than in most Prague pubs.
Luckily there are other great pubs in Prague. Upinkasů is a delight. U Medvidku specializes in Budvar Budweiser. U Zlatého Tygra and U Kocoura sell Pilsner Urquell. In a small space downstairs from the Czech Beer & Malt Association offices is Pivovarský Dům, the first Prague brewpub to open after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The pub opened in 1998 and serves a breathtakingly tasty unfiltered pilsner.
In case it’s not already obvious, when one discusses beer in the Czech Republic, the talk is of pilsner. Almost exclusively. There are dark lagers and blond bocks and a smattering of other beers, but pilsner is king and has been so since the mid-1800s. In the Czech Republic pils is beer and beer is pils.
Czech Beer Today
After W.W.II, a Communist government, aligned with the Soviet Union, took control in Czechoslovakia (then joined politically with Slovakia). This dark period of Czech history lasted until the peaceful Velvet Revolution. The change from a rigid, Communist, state-controlled economy to an open, democratic, free market economy has resulted in many changes in Czech life, and this includes Czech beer. Many formerly state-owned breweries have been privatized. Some made the change successfully; others failed and closed. At the beginning of the Communist era, there were 280 breweries in Czechoslovakia. Forty years later, only 71 breweries were left standing. Today there are 53 breweries in the Czech Republic.
And then the international big boy brewers came to town. Today, the Czech brewing industry is heavily owned by InBev, SABMIller and Heineken. These giant international brewers have shut down smaller brewers, but they’ve also greatly improved the quality of beer brewed in the Czech Republic.
There’s a discussion – or a raging argument – going on in the Czech Republic today over the quality and “Czechness” of Czech beer. Have the international brewers “dumbed down” the quality of Czech pils?
On one side of the argument, purists claim that too many Czech breweries now use corn syrup in the brewing process, as well as hop extracts instead of whole leaf hops. It’s claimed that lagering times have been shortened from the traditional 90 or 60 days and that instead of pure spring water, chemically treated river water is used.
In some cases, all these claims are true. Pilsner Urquell, for example, changed over a number of years ago from wooden fermenting and lagering vessels to stainless steel. Perhaps a bit of the old character was lost (the Pilsner Urquell brewers hotly contest this), but consistency is maintained.
The fact is, however, that Czech brewers today have much better ingredients than they did during the Communist years. Almost all breweries have improved the quality of their beer by using these better ingredients and by modernizing their breweries.
According to Honza Kocka, a Czech beer enthusiast and the owner of a specialty beer shop in Prague, “In the past, the quality of Czech beer was worse.. Today, the beer is better. It’s not common to find a bad beer.”
During the Communist days, there was no incentive for brewers to market and advertise their beers. The country was divided into “beer regions,” and only the beer from the local brewery was sold in any given region. There weren’t even labels on most beers. Only Pilsner Urquell and Budvar Budweiser were allowed leniency, because they were globally-recognized beer brands important for Czech nationalistic pride. And exports of these beers brought money into the country.
“Beer quality was consistently weak,” Kocka said. “Czech beer drinkers used to quaff cheap beer in dirty pubs. And these pubs were always the same, all over the country. Always the same square room, with the same style of glasses and the same chairs and tables.”
With the free market and competition, all this has changed. InBev, which owns the Czech brewery Staropramen, opened its first upscale pub about eight years ago. Instead of the old way with there being only one or two beers available in a pub, this new pub offered up to seven beers served in branded glasses. And the place was clean. SABMiller owns Pilsner Urquell. The brewery has opened 300 pubs around the country. Many of them are supplied by 10-hectoliter tanker trucks that bring in fresh, unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell. Drinks Union is a private company that has opened many pubs around the country. Some are sports bars and others are modern bars designed to look like old, traditional village meeting places.
“Czech beer culture is behind Germany, Belgium, the U.K. and the U.S.,” Kocka explained, “but it’s catching up.” He said that attitudes towards beer are changing, just as with other aspects of Czech daily life. “We no longer consistently eat the heavy meats, cabbage and dumplings like we used to,” Kocka said. “People eat differently and exercise. Beer is now becoming part of a normal lifestyle.”
Czech Brewing History
Beer has been brewed in the Czech lands for centuries, just as in many northern European countries. The first records of brewing in Bohemia date from the year 933 AD. Hops, the all-important bittering and aroma ingredient in modern beers, began to be cultivated in Bohemia as early as the 800s.
Royal charters granted the privileges for the brewing of beer in the 1200s to two Bohemian towns that are today important brewing centers in the Czech Republic: Plzeň (Pilsen) and České Budějovice (Budweis). Bohemia was always a mix of German and Slavic peoples, thus many town names are historically known by both their German and Czech names. With German being a more widely spoken language internationally, it’s not much of a leap to understand that two Bohemian-style beers known around the world are Pilsner (or pilsener or pils) from Pilsen and Budweiser from Budweis. The –er on the town names is a geographic locator, meaning “from” that particular town. Brands sold today with these names include Pilsner Urquell, Budvar Budweiser (Czechvar in the U.S.) and B.B. (Budweiser ) Bürgerbräu.
Czech pilsners available in the U.S. include: Pilsner Urquell, Czechvar, B.B. Bürgerbräu, Radegast, Krusovice Imperial, Staropramen, Rebel, Primator Lager, Herald Premium Bohemian Lager, Bernard, Brouczech Lager, Klaster Premium Lager, Lev Lion Lager, Crystal Lager and Lobkowicz Golden Lager.
What is a Czech Beer?
Beer in the Czech Republic is brewed and marketed according to the percent of malt content left in the “green” beer after the boil and before fermentation begins. This measurement comes from a system devised by the Czech brewing scientist, Dr. Balling, in the 1800s. Consumers know the strength and quality of a beer by the percentage or degree listed on the beer label or tap handle, even though Czech law stipulates that the alcoholic content also be printed on labels.
Most beer brewed in the Czech Republic is either 10-degree (desitka) or 12-degree (dvanactka). The most widely sold beers are brewed to 10-degrees (4.2–4.4% abv). The premium beers, and the ones usually exported, are the 12-degree beers (4.8%-5.0% abv).
Both golden pilsners and dark lagers are brewed in these two strengths. Beers are labeled as ležák (lager), svĕtlý or svĕtlé (golden), tmavé (dark) or černý (black). These darker beers are either dark red in color (sometimes labeled granát) or dark brown. As in other European countries, the darker, sweeter, lower alcohol (often 3.6%-3.8% abv) beers are preferred by women. The dark Czech lagers available in the U.S. include Krusovice Dark, Klaster Dark, Herald Bohemian Black Lager, Brouczech Dark, Lev Black Lion, Crystal Diplomat Dark and Lobkowicz Dark Lager.
Stronger lagers, blonde bocks and blonde double bocks are also brewed in the Czech Republic. Examples include Lev Lion Pale Double Bock (13 degrees/5.2%), Brouczech Bock (16 degrees/7.0%), Primator Blonde Bock (16 degrees/7.0%) and Primator Dopplebock (24 degrees/10%).
One independent Czech brewery, Pivovar Herold Březnice, produces a wheat beer, as in the days of old. Herald Bohemian Wheat Lager is this rare Czech wheat beer. The brewery also produces a blend of its wheat beer with its black lager and calls it Herald Midnight Wheat.
Czech beer is sold in one-half liter bottles and served in the same measure when poured from the tap. Taxes on beer are purposefully kept low. As opposed to some European countries where beer is becoming far too pricey, Czech beer is a bargain.
To this day, Czech beer drinkers are fiercely loyal to their local beer. They are also prodigious beer drinkers, the most so in the world. In a country of about 10.3 million people, the Czechs consume approximately 163 liters of beer per person each year. If the geographic region between Munich, Germany, approximately 190 miles to the west, and Prague are considered, then per person beer consumption is 240 liters per year. According to Jan Šuráň, a brewing engineer and consultant and the founder of Pivovarský Dům, this beer consumption statistic makes Bavaria and Bohemia “the center of the beer world.”
The Czechs say: “Kde se pivo vari, tam se dobre dari. This saying rhymes in Czech and means: “Where beer is brewed, they have it good.”
Gregg Glaser is the news editor of All About Beer Magazine.