Tastings School - Czech Republic: World famous

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Czech Republic: World famous

Local man Lubomir Sedlak gives us the lowdown on beer drinking and beer culture in the Czech Republic.

People in the Czech Republic, as most BotW readers will probably know, are the world’s biggest beer drinkers. Each each one of them gulps down on average some 160 litres a year (even better are the Bavarians who, however, don’t live in a country of their own so are not taken into account by the statisticians). And we Czechs have quite a selection from which to choose, the local breweries making more than 400 different types of beer.

The market leader, Plzensky Prazdroj (part of SABMiller), brews in three different places – primarily in the west Bohemian city of Plzen (best known by its German name Pilsen), but also in Velké Popovice in Central Bohemia and Nosovice (north Moravia). These three breweries produce nine beers altogether, the flagship of course being the famous Pilsner Urquell.

I recently attended a tasting of some the Prazdroj beers in what was perhaps a rather unusual atmosphere. It took place as part of an open-air event called Prague Food Festival, on a boat anchored on the city’s Vltava river. We were given Urquell, of course, which according to the company’s main maltster Václav Berka is the only Czech beer that undergoes twice the necessary fermentation process (and is as a result very much on the bitter side).

We were also given nine other Prazdroj beers. Being a fan of straightforward lagers, I found both the dark and semi-dark versions of Master very good, even if the former is 7% ABV and actually quite strong.

Prazdroj should not, in my opinion, be dallying with local versions of British beer types, its Red Ale as well as the Stout were disappointing.

The other brewery best-known outside the Czech Republic would most probably be Budejovicky Budvar (in the United Kingdom it is called Budweiser Budvar, undoubtedly because of the company’s long dispute with Anheuser-Bush over the use of the word ‘Budweiser’). Its flagship product is a 5% lager. It’s a fantastic pilsner, just like Urquell, but much less bitter than its competitor from Plzen.

Based in the south Bohemian city Ceské Budéjovice, or Budweiss in German, Budvar makes a dark lager made from three different malts, not just one as in the case of its lighter brother. It is an excellent example of the style, but perversely, in Prague where I live, it is rather difficult to find it bottled in stores.

The best place to sample this beer in the capital is the U Medvídku pub in the very centre of the city, which has it on tap.

The country’s second biggest beer maker is Pivovary Staropramen (owned by InBev) located in Prague itself. Its lager of the same name is widely available and is not bad at all. Just as good is another called Braník (which costs substantially less – an important factor for Czechs).

Until some years ago, incidentally, nobody called these beers lezáky (the Czech word for ‘lagers’) but dvanáctky, an expression derived from the figure 12 in my mother tongue because they were the ‘12-degree’ beers (referring to Balling Scale, a measure of the fermentable sugars in the beer, known as ‘original gravity’ in some other countries).

In recent years, however, the country’s breweries have also begun to make jedenáctky, or ‘11-degree’ lagers, which have slightly less alcohol at around 4.5%.

These are less expensive (again, important for local drinkers who tend to be careful with their cash) as well as less strong (for those who for instance plan to drive the next morning). The one brewed at Plzensky Prazdroj is called Excelent (sic) and Budejovicky Budvar added to its portfolio Pardál, but my favourites in this category are actually either the 11° Kozel from Velké Popovice or Zlatopramen, which comes to life in a brewery belonging to the company Drinks Union, now part of Heineken Czech Republic.

A large proportion of Czechs do not drink lagers, favouring the weaker beers (usually up to 4%ABV) which they call vycepní (a rather misleading literal translation is ‘draught’) and according to Jan Vesely, from the local Breweries and Malthouses Association (CSPaS), we’ll see even more of these slightly cheaper beers now that we have an economic crisis.

“Demand will at least to some extent shift from the more expensive types to cheaper ones and people will also tend to open a bottle at home more frequently, rather than going to their nearest pub for a pint or two,” he says.

Foreign visitors to the country, however, Vesely believes, will continue opting almost exclusively for dvanáctky when ordering their beer. “This is why, in the historical centre of Prague for example, it is hard to find a pub where you could ask for anything else,” he notes.

The gradual shift from drinking beer in pubs to drinking at home is reflected in the figures. Around 60 per cent of all the beer produced from Budejovicky Budvar ends up in a bottle.

A further example can be found in neighbouring Germany, which, just like the Czech Republic, has always been considered a prominent beer country. Here, draught beer accounts for only some 40 per cent of all that is drunk.

Still, according to a recent SABMiller survey conducted in 15 different countries of Europe, people in the Czech Republic go to pubs more often than Germans or Danes for instance, another nation very fond of beer.

“The reason is price, not that the others would be less outgoing – in Germany, for instance, a pint in a pub costs almost four times as much as in a food store while in the Czech Republic, you pay only twice as much,” says Vesely. He quickly adds, however, that as time will pass, the gap will widen in his home country as well.

Besides the lagers and the vycepní beers, many of the country’s breweries also make special beers, and smaller producers will often focus entirely on such products. A typical one is Pivovar Cerná Hora in south Moravia, which has in its portfolio Kvasar, a beer made with honey, and Black Hill (the name of the brewery in English) which contains more than 30 different herbs including camomile, liquorice and nutmeg.

If we now turn our attention to pubs, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that the country’s very biggest is in Plzen – it is the country’s beer capital of sorts. It’s called Na Spilce and can seat as many as 550 people. This huge pub underwent a complete reconstruction last year and is well worth a visit. No need to travel to Plzen, though, if you definitely want a pint of Urquell, just look for the signboard which says Plzensky Prazdroj outside any pub you pass along and they will have it on tap.

Budejovicky Budvar has a chain of its own pubs named Budvarka. There are two in its home city of Ceské Budéjovice and another one in Prague but once again, you can order a genuine Czech Budweisser at many other places throughout the country, just look out for the signs when walking along the street.

Both these beer makers have pubs on the premises of their breweries as well (in the case of Prazdroj, it is the alreadymentioned Na Spilce) and the same goes for Pivovary Staropramen. Called Na Verandách, it is part of the company’s chain Potrefená husa, although I must concede that I haven’t found it all that exciting during my recent visit, the prices being quite high and the furniture too modern for my taste.

Prague also has its brewpubs. The only one which existed even during the communist era (according to Jan Vesely actually the oldest brewery in the world, having been opened in 1499), called U Fleku, has eight rooms and a patio, and is one of the biggest restaurants in this Central European country.

The beer here is a dark 5% ABV lager, and a very good one too, I must say, even if somewhat expensive by local standards.

Microbreweries in general mushroomed in the Czech Republic only after 1989, though, when the country discarded its centrally-planned economy system. In Prague itself, there are now several, including the one on first floor of the already-mentioned U Medvídku pub, but the best-known besides U Fleku is probably Novomestsky pivovar.

Here, the beer is a somewhat less strong, non-filtered yeasty lager in both a light and a dark version, somewhat on the sweet side (so closer to Budvar than Pilsner Urquell).

And then there is the Pivovarsky dum brewpub. Not in the very centre of the city, it is still within walking distance from Václavské námestí, Prague’s main boulevard. As one of the few city brewpubs (if not actually the only one) it has on its list of non-pasteurised and unfiltered beers – all with 4% alcohol – those flavoured with fruit such as sour cherry, banana or lime, as well as nettle or coffee.

In conclusion, I should perhaps mention what kind of food the Czechs usually eat with their beer. The classical fare is pork or beef with knedlíky (dumplings made of flour, eggs and rolls cut into small pieces) accompanied by various type of sauce, a dish the locals call hotovka which means literally ‘ready-toeat,’ but you can also order a minutka that the chef will prepare especially for you, the typical one being a Wiener schnitzel with potato salad.

Popular are also goulash or duck with sauerkraut, both with dumplings, so you can see that the country’s cuisine has very much been influenced by its neighbours, Austria, Germany and Hungary.

Local experts on beer insist, however, that one won’t grow fat because they drink Czech beer, but as a result of all the delicious food that inevitably goes with it!