Last Updated : 05/02/08
he following article was written early in 2003 for the Nottingham CAMRA magazine and it's been subsequently totally rewritten as I realised what a bunch of crap I was talking back then... the benefits of experience and hindsight, eh?
The most common misconception I've heard about Czech beer (Pivo) is
that it is all superb; this, in my opinion, is absolutely wrong. True, If
you want to know what real lager tastes like then the Czech Republic is a good place to start, however to
simply get off a plane in Praha
(Prague to English speakers) and to simply drink the first beer you see is not a
position of strength and will probably leave you wondering what all the fuss was
about. Why? well, there's a very high probability that this first beer will
be from a multinational conglomerate and be cold, very fizzy, pasteurised and
generally tasteless... basically, everything real Czech beer shouldn't be. Don't get me wrong, there are
plenty of excellent bars and beers in Prague, but you'll probably never find
them by simply wandering around the tourist areas.
Since the "velvet revolution" in 1989 a lot has changed in Czechoslovakia; for a start, thanks to the "velvet divorce" in 1993, it's now 2 countries: the Czech republic and the Slovak republic. I'll concentrate on Czech here as Slovakia isn't as interesting beer-wise and the most famous beers are from Czech anyway (or more precisely, Bohemia - the west of the country). Another major change is the amount of breweries with the majority of the old concerns have closed although in the last few years there's been a huge surge in brewpubs all over the country.
Under Communism local breweries supplied beer to their own local area and hardly any got outside a 25 mile radius of their production (with the exception of Budvar and Urquell) but with the end of "protected markets" and the appearance of the "market economy" most Czechs have seen their local beer vanish to be replaced by nationally available tasteless "brands". Sounds familiar? Welcome to the Western liberal marketplace! My advice is to seek out the small brewers and try their products which can be superb, or at least a lot better than Staropramen and the like from the global conglomerates who want to pass off bog-standard euro-lager as quality Czech beer.
Beer prices have been steadily rising in the country and, after accession to the EU in 2004, seem to have increased even more - on a trip to Brno in June 2005 the average beer was 20Kč whilst two years previously in Northern Moravia it had been 13Kč; even allowing for Brno's higher prices, this is a hefty increase in a few years...
And now, in 2008, you'll be doing very well to get change
from 30Kč in Prague for anything remotely worth drinking... there are
absolute bargains to be had out in the suburbs (15Kč for Kácov desítká was the
cheapest we managed) but if you reckon on 25-30Kč for a beer then you'll be doing
okay. In the really touristy areas we saw plenty of bars applying their
own "English tax" and selling all manner of crap for upwards of 60Kč a half litre... this is
ludicrous and those who part with the thick end of Ł3 for Fosters or Staropramen
deserve all the gouging they get in my opinion.
Your location in Czech is also a big variable when trying to find good beer. If you are in Bohemia (the west and centre) expect to pay more and see more national brands such as Budvar, Plzeňský Prazdroj (The Czech name for Urquell) and Staropramen. Despite being available almost everywhere in the world Budvar is apparently still produced entirely in České Buděovice, although in my opinion it doesn't merit the lavish praise heaped on it by certain beer writers; okay so the unpasteurised version - Kroužkovaný - can be a nice enough drink (in Prague you can get it at Budvarka and U Medvídků), but the 10° is pretty bland by my standards. The new tmavé dark beer is probably my favourite of the lot whilst the 7.6% "Bud" is a strange concoction tasting like the ordinary 12° with a shot of vodka in it. Budvar is rare in still be owned by the state; this was ostensibly to protect it from the US giant's takeover advances when communism fell, a shame then that a lot of other classic brewers weren't treated the same way; witness the changes made to Prajdroz under SAB (no more maturation in wood, the halving of lagering time etc) meaning a once classic beer is now a parody of it's former self... surely the world's first golden lager was worth saving?
Staropramen (and it's eastern subsidiary Ostravar which, strangely, makes better beer!) are owned by mega-brewer InBev (after Bass sold them all their breweries) with predictable results on the quality and production of the beer - you can now find it in small hotels at North Berwick, near Edinburgh, for example, although where it's brewed may well be an interesting point for debate... Staropramen produce one half-decent beer in the form of their Granát (garnet) beer which whilst being a touch on the sticky, industrial side can be forgiven as it's not a bad drink. If you get a chance (and it's very rare in the west) try Ostravar dvanactká which is pretty good and maybe the best beer InBev make with the possible exception of the Croatian Zagrebačka Tomislav porter.
If you are in the east of the country expect to see more local breweries such as Holba, Litovel
and Zubr, for prices to be much cheaper for everything and expect very few locals
except for the young to speak much English - try German or Russian instead! (what,
you can't speak Russian?)
In Praha's tourist-friendly centre almost everyone speaks English to some extent, but in the
suburbs and outside Prague in general if you assume only young people will have any English knowledge
then you won't be far wrong. Middle aged people will probably know
Russian, the older people German; it's all to do with
politics and the history of Czech, which is fascinating but too complex to be
discussed here - read the Rough Guide's contexts section!
You don't have a lot of choice when it comes to dispense; basically it boils down to bottled ("láhev") or draught ("točený", pronounced tochairnee) with draught being served from keg 99% of the time. The hardest thing for UK cask beer lovers to get their heads around is that not all beer coming from a keg is crap - some of the most delightfully mellow, complex brews flow from keg in Prague and most aren't freezing cold or fizzy either. If you're lucky the beer may also be unpasteurised (Bernard or Svijany) or even Kvasnicové (yeasty) or Nefiltrované (unfiltered); all these are a sign you'll get a proper beer with all the qualities of a British real ale and, thankfully, the "yeast beer" craze seems to be sweeping the country as we saw Kvasnicové beer advertised by tiny little bars which would barely admit a dozen people!
One further example of dispense is called Tankovná; this
means, unsurprisingly, tank beer and those old enough to remember Greenall
Whitley's (and their ilk) cellar tank beer of the 1980's will understand how it
works. Basically, the pub's cellar holds big tanks which are filled by
(generally unpasteurised) beer which is pumped to the bar giving a fresher and
less gassy end product. To their credit Pilsener Urquell seem to be
promoting these pubs, especially in Prague, so you'll have no trouble finding
one if you wish to do so.
Bottled beer is generally poorer than draught being almost universally pasteurised with the noble exception of Bernard of Humpolec and Svijany of Príšovice. The bottle will say on the back label if this is the case, look for "nepasterované" or something similar. Czechs have not yet totally enrolled in the Western throwaway society, so expect to pay a few crowns deposit on a bottle. Bottled beer can be found very cheaply in supermarkets; I've drunk beer (admittedly not very good, but it was from Eggenberg at Česke Krumlov whose beers I find very bland) for the ludicrous price of 7Kč a bottle, although most are between 10-20Kč and more in specialist beer shops although there you pay for the range.
Categories of Beer.
Czech beers fall into several distinct categories which are defined by law;
Lehké, or light, beer is very rare these days. It must be brewed to less that 8° Balling and generally comes out around 3.4%; very few brewers still make one.
Výčepní, or "tap", accounts for well over half of all beer consumed in the country; anything from 8 to 10.99 Balling is classified as such. Sometimes called "Worker's beer", it's usual lack of flavour is a result of a short time from mash to mug - usually around a month. Just to be confusing, tap beer doesn't have to come from a tap, it can be bottled too...
Ležák, or "lager", fills the gap from 11 to 12.99 Balling; this is the beer we get in the UK 99% of the time. It should have a lot more malty sweetness than a Výčepní although more industrial examples just taste like 5% beers do back home - chemically. Again, just to be confusing, any beer - top or bottom fermenting - in the correct Balling band is classed as "lager".
Speciál is legally anything brewed at 13° or higher including so-called "holiday" beers; these aren't common but you may see them at Xmas sold as Vánočne when they are generally 14° and around 6%.
Balling is basically the same thing as the Plato scale as in it means the percentage weight of fermentable sucrose in the wort at 17.5° Celsius. It's a very old way of measuring strength but the Czechs love it so you'll usually see the Balling rating of the beer rather than it's alcohol percentage on the tap and almost always on beer boards outside pubs. It's also a source of endless confusion for Ing-er-lish lowlifes on stag nights who claim "I drank 10 pints of 12% lager in Prague and was still standing" - yes, of course you did, you brainless twat.
Think that's simple? Well, although these legal definitions are okay for legal-type people, the ordinary Czech still thinks of his beer in old-fashioned terms; generally these are 8°, 10° and 12° and, just to confuse matters even further, he'll call them things like desítká (ten) or dvanactká (twelve). Got all that? Fine, but then we have the new trendy 11° beers which are known as jedenáctka and we've not even touched on light and dark versions yet!
If you remember that a beer classed as Světlý is pale and Tmavý is dark you'll be fine in 95% of cases; some brewers call their dark beers Černy (black) although there's generally no discernable difference between Tmavý and Černy brews. Polotmavý means "half-dark" but these are rarely seen (apart from Bernard's excellent example), then Granát means Garnet although only Staropramen's has anything approaching a wide distribution. Watch out for Řezané though, this may be foisted on you as the same as Polotmavý - it isn't! The word means "cut" and is basically a mix, half-and-half, of Světlý and Tmavé done from the taps.
On top of these we have some other less-often seen styles; wheat beer exists too although you'd never guess from the name! Pšeničné (pronounced something like psyenichnyee) is rare although becoming more popular with brewpubs such as the superb Richter having a go. You may also see beers labelled Sváteční (holiday) beers which are generally brewed to 14 plato and end up around 6% and are usually in the Polotmavý style - or at least darker than usual.
Those are the basic styles of beer you're likely to see but I'm not finished yet, oh no. A craze currently sweeping Czech is for Kvasnicové (yeast) beer which basically has a dose of fermenting wort (and, thus, yeast) added before dispatch to give it a much fuller and more interesting aroma and flavour; if you know about German brewing practice you may recognise this as Kräusening. Kvasnicové beers are, by definition, generally unpasteurised and unfiltered although, technically speaking, Kvasnicové means yeast not unpasteurised so this is not necessarily the case... simple, eh?
You may also come across Nefiltrované beers; ten points for guessing this means unfiltered! Kvasnicové and Nefiltrované are not technically the same thing, but the lines are blurred (and becoming more blurry) so just remember if you see either tag then you can be pretty sure the beer will be interesting and a lot more tasty than a standard pasteurised example of the same thing found elsewhere.
You'll soon taste the difference between Czech lagers and those from almost everywhere else if you've got any tastebuds. Basically, most "traditional" Czech beers don't ferment out anywhere near as much as beers from, say, Germany, which produces a beer with much more body and, as there are more malt sugars still remaining in the finished brew, a sweeter, more complex taste with plenty of character. Some brewers, in particular the larger ones and multinationals, tend to "ferment out" (that is, ferment most of the malt sugars in the beer into alcohol) their beers as it's more cost effective for them: they put in less expensive malt and get more alcohol than more traditional brewers do but at a huge cost to the character of the finished beer, resulting in the beer not tasting "Czech"! Dry, thin and bland lagers belong outside the Czech Republic; think most of the bog-standard beers you've drunk in Germany and you'll get the idea.
There are now quite a number of brewpubs in Czech and all I've visited range from decent to excellent. The upside is that most brew their beers in the trendy Kvasnicové (yeasty) style and are therefore generally far more characterful than the standard beers you'll see in normal bars next door. Thankfully the country's beer drinkers seem to be waking up to the fact that unpasteurised, properly-brewed beer tastes better than industrial swill from a multinational "production unit" and so the number of openings is speeding up at an alarming rate; for example, Prague had one brewpub - U Fleků - until 1993 when Novomĕstský opened. Pivovarský Dům opened in the late 90's followed by Klasterni Strahov in 2001 but since then we've had a sudden explosion with Richter, U Medvídků and Bašta opening plus two more in the pipeline (Zlatého Anděla and Pražský most u Valšů) and then there's the two brewing school plants (SPŠPT and Suchdolský Jeník) and that's not touching on nearby brewpubs such as Chýně and Medvěd... yes, the Czech brewpub scene is looking good!
Without a doubt the best places to eat are brewpubs and those bars specialising in good beer as it's generally a foregone conclusion that pubs which take care of their beer (either making it or keeping it) will also put in a good show in the kitchen.
Soup, or polevký, are a very inexpensive way to begin a meal and my pick of the bunch is the deliciously tasty Česneková (garlic) soup which comes with melted cheese in the pot and, sometimes, fried croutons - delicious, and guaranteed to ward off any vampires or get you any seat on the tram you want. Others soups do exist but this is the one I always go for...
Snacks, which are also seen at station kiosks and the like, include Smažené sýr which is a breaded lump of deep-fried cheese served in a roll with omáča (sauce, generally tartar or horseradish) and is a lot nicer than it sounds and one of the only vegetarian meals you'll find in Czech! Klobásky are sausages, generally cooked on those strange roller things and served with a dollop of mustard, whilst a parek is a simple hot dog in a white roll. The deliciously greasy, garlicky and coronary-clogging bramborák is a fried potato cake which may or may not contain bits of ham but will definitely contain several cloves of garlic plus your day's saturated fat dose in one hit. Mmmmmm...
Guláš (goulash) is one standard seen almost everywhere which comes - as does almost everything in Czech - with dumplings, but not any old dumplings! Czech knedličky are taken very seriously and come in a variety of types including potato (bramborových), ham (špekových) or the commoner bread-like (houskových) varieties; all are delicious and have an amazing capacity to soak up sauces and gravy from your plate whilst filling you up so you are unable to drink anything else for hours or even, in cases of excessive consumption, walk.
Koleno will be instantly recognised by those who travel to Germany as a Haxe, or pork knuckle, which can be on the gigantic side and comes with all kinds of cabbage and raw grated horseradish to accompany it. It's generally great value although you have to avoid the thought you're picking through a pig's knee joint whilst eating it. Vepřové means pork, by the way, so learn the word - you'll be seeing lots of it! Kuřecí is chicken, whilst hovězí is beef and ryby is fish. If you want some chips to go with your meal (I'd have bramborových dumplings personally, but it's your choice) then you can ask for some hranolky.
Puddings are something I've never explored in Czech owing to being absolutely stuffed after yet another mammoth knedličky session, but fresh fruit is a big thing out of the cities and Jablečný závin is a type of apple tart served with cream. Jahody (strawberries) always smell like the ones you used to pick in your Granddad's garden but I've not yet tried them to see. The grey granular stuff seen on cakes (Kolač) is makoviec (poppy seed jam) and, once you've acquired the taste for it, is very addictive. The white curd cheese (called tvaroh) which also tops cakes is likewise a very Czech thing but when you top a sweet dough base with makoviec, tvaroh and povidla džem (plum jam) then you have a winning combination. Well, I love 'em anyhow.
Recommended Czech Beers.
These are purely my own choices, and I've not tasted every beer in Czech by a long way, so will change, but are available in Prague somewhere and will give you a reasonable introduction to Czech beer.
Výčepní, or "tap" beer, needn't come from a tap but can also be bottled and is the staple of ordinary Czechs all over the country. It's usually around 3.6% to 4% in strength and comes in both pale (Svétlý) and dark (Tmavý) manifestations. The svétlý is typically light, slightly malty and with minimal hop character with only the best examples have much of interest apart from as a session beer, whilst tmavý is nowadays a caramelly and quite sweet concoction that, if made properly, should have roasty, toasted and even coffee and liquorice tastes to it.
|Favourite výčepní beers|
|Polička||Samson 10ş Černé Výčepní|
|Černá Hora Sklepni Nefiltrováné 10ş||Zubr|
Ležák, or "lager", is a stronger brew which weighs in around 4.5% to 5% depending on the Balling and attenuation - note that Czech lagers are supposed to be slightly sweet with plenty of malt sugars remaining, that's the style, so if a beer is very thin, dry and uninspiring then you can have a pretty safe bet that the company making it will have used a lower original Balling mash and have fermented the beer out more fully, therefore making it technically more of a German style pilsner than a true Czech Pilsener. 12° dark lagers are quite rare with most being of the 11° school.
|Favourite ležák beers|
|Kácov Kvasnicové||Pivovarský Dům|
|Pivovarský Dům||Rohozec 12°|
Other beers is a bit of a catch-all, I admit, but it includes all the odds and ends that don't fit into the previous two categories. There's some right strange stuff in here, mind...
|Favourite "other" beers|
|Pivovarský Dům Mišené Nápoje (xmas vanilla)||U Medvídků Oldgott|
|Svijany Kniže 13ş||Pernštejn Pardubice Porter|
|Bernard Svátečni (holiday beer)||U Fleků Flekovský ležák 13ş|
A bit of Česky...
Even though almost all Czechs in Praha speak English to some extent, if you make a bit of effort and try to speak some Czech you will get far better service than if you just use English.
|Dobrý Den||Dobree den||Hello|
|Dvanacet||Dvanatset||12 (12 degree beer)|
So: "Dobrý Den, dva tmavý piva, prosim" (Hello, two large dark beers, please).
A collection of Czech beermats from all around the country.
© Gazza v1.0 - 06/02/08