When faced with what Czechs regard as their real national treasure, you might be tempted to forget the history, the music and the architecture that otherwise define the Bohemian capital. 'Liquid bread', as the locals lovingly call beer, has been brewed, sold and drunk in
Czech lands for around 1,000 years. Pilsner, indeed, was invented right here
Such a rich heritage demands that Czech beer should be pretty decent, but the raw statistics suggest that it's a lot better than that. Per capita, Czechs drink more beer than any nation in the world: an amazing 157 litres of the stuff every year. You can put the popularity of beer down to its ubiquity: it's available more or less any time, any place. You could mark its success down to price: it's still generally cheaper than bottled water. But, ultimately, quality is as responsible as quantity: there are plenty of terrific brews to consider as you bar-hop around this famously boozy town.
In order to appreciate Czech beer in its native environment, it's useful to have a couple of facts in your back pocket. Perhaps most pertinently, it's important to know that the numbers attached to beers in the Czech Republic refer not to alcohol content but to a 'degrees' figure, which represents the amount of malt extract used in the brewing process. A higher degree figure generally means a fuller flavour, and it always results in a stronger brew. The alcohol percentage works out at about a little more than one-third of the stated degree: ten-degree beers are generally at around four per cent alcohol, with 12-degree beers nearer five per cent. Czech beer is available in everything from six-degree to rare and unusually potent 19-degree varieties. But by far the most common are the ten-degree (also known as desítka) and 12-degree (dvanáctka) beers.
Although the fame of Czech beer means that it's now available across the world, there is one type that you won't find outside the country: unpasteurised beer. Normal beer production involves heating the liquid to 60ºC for about half an hour, killing any lurking bacteria and basically giving the product a longer shelf life. However, in Prague, a number of pubs offer beer straight from the tank. These are called tankovna pubs (see Tankovnas below).
'If Czech beer is the best in the world,' ask many visitors as they prop themselves up at a bar in the city, 'what's the best beer in the Czech Republic?' The answer isn't as straightforward as you might hope or expect. Despite the fact that the average pub carries fewer local brands than a few years ago, there's still a pretty broad choice. And with this choice comes a wide range of differing opinions as to which beers lie at the top of the tree.
The most popular beer here is Gambrinus, sponsor of the domestic football league. However, it's not universally recognised as the best. Kozel's Medium, a pale lager, won the prize for the best Czech beer at the Research Institute of Brewing & Malting awards in 2008. Many locals, meanwhile, claim that Pilsner Urquell is the best of the bunch, with Czechs from Pilsen insisting that the water quality in their home city means that their pilsner is superior to those produced anywhere else in the country. And we haven't even mentioned other brands such as Staropramen, Bernard, Budvar and Radogast, all of which have their fans. Nor, for that matter, hundreds of less well-known brewing firms around the country.
Inevitably, Prague is home to a number of bars that specialise in beer, offering a huge variety or a carefully chosen selection of top-notch brews. In addition to the venues featured in our extensive Cafés, Pubs & Bars section (see bars & pubs in Prague), both the Pivovarský Klub (Křižíkova 17, Prague 8, www.gastroinfo.cz/pivoklub) and the Pivní Galerie (U Průhonu 9, Prague 7, www.pivnigalerie.cz) offer around 200 different varieties.
A handful of bars, such as those listed earlier in this section, even brew their own. And ultimately, the quest to find the best Czech beer is necessarily subjective. Which is good news, because it necessitates plenty of research.
Despite Prague's gradual gentrification, the city has retained a number of traditional old alehouses in which visitors can sample traditional Czech beers. The most famous is U Zlatého tygra, just round the corner from Old Town Square. Czech president Václav Havel took Bill Clinton for a drink here in 1994; apparently, Clinton downed three beers and cancelled his daily run the next morning. Another classic local, or hostinec, is U Černého vola: just up from the castle, it's one of the best-loved pubs in Prague.
On a similar note, despite all the consolidations and expansions and buyouts across the industry, it's good to see that even the biggest breweries have kept their hands on their heritage. Pilsner Urquell's main brewery is now huge and suitably modern, expanded from humble origins in order to meet demand from home and abroad. But there's also a workshop here where a small team builds and maintains oak barrels, in which beer is then fermented in much the same way as it has been for centuries. If you head out here for a brewery tour, you'll of course get the chance to taste the mass-produced Pilsner Urquell. But you'll also get a rare opportunity to sample pilsner brewed in the old-fashioned oaky way, a simple link to the beer's beginnings nearly 170 years ago. 'Liquid bread', indeed.
If your search for the perfect beer has left you feeling a bit under the weather, don't worry. Journey a couple of hours west of the city to Chodovar (www.chodovar.cz), which describes itself as 'your beer wellness land'. For 600 Kč, you can have a plunge in a bath full of the amber nectar, along with a couple of jars to quaff while you're at it. Only in the Czech Republic.
Despite all the tradition and heritage that beer carries in the Czech Republic, market consolidation has been a problem with the country’s beer industry in recent years. Much as they have in many other countries around the world, corporations have been expanding fast and gobbling up small producers, a chain of events that’s ultimately resulted in a smaller and more homogeneous range of beers on offer for the casual drinker.
However, this trend has been countered by the development and increased popularity of microbreweries, which have launched a number of new and more interesting Czech beers. Pivovarský dům, a Nové Město microbrewery, serves beers from the Czech Republic and around the world, but it also creates new brews of its own. The Richter Brewery at the Pivovar u Bulovky pub (Bulovka 17, 284 840 650, www.pivovarubulovky.cz) offers some excellent varieties of its own. And at U Medvídků, a restaurant and brewery with its own museum attached, you can find unpasteurised Budvar.
Beer doesn’t have to be pasteurised: at a tankovna, it’s as fresh as a daisy. In Prague, there are pubs, and there are tankovna – tank pubs. To know the difference is to understand one of the reasons why, despite plenty of stiff competition, the Czech Republic remains the beer capital of the world.
Most internationally branded beer – and, for that matter, local beer – is pasteurised before export, a process that entails sterilising at high temperatures in order to kill any bacteria that may be present. While this process stabilises the product, making it more suitable for export, it also increases the chance of oxidisation. This can result in the odd duff bottle with a flat taste and an unpleasant flavour, especially if it has been shipped halfway round the world.
Without pasteurisation, beer is liable to go off quite quickly. But to solve this problem, crafty Czech beer-lovers have come up with an ingenious solution. More and more Prague pubs now serve pivo from massive steel tubes or tanks that hold ten hectolitres of brew in plastic sacks, at the ideal steady temperature of between 8 and 10ºC. Beer is pressed out of the tanks via a high-pressure air compressor, ensuring it stays safe from any risk of contamination but remains fresh. For connoisseurs, the result is immediately obvious: a rounder, more complex flavour full of hops and spices.
For a long time, only a handful of pubs served Pilsner Urquell from the tank. Among them is U Pinkasů, hidden around the corner at the bottom of Wenceslas Square. Now, though, the industry has cottoned on to its own best-kept secret: tankovnas are popping up all over the place, and many more beer labels getting into the act.
For Budvar, check out the new tank equipment recently installed at U Medvídků. For Staropramen, head straight to the brewery (Nádražní 43, Smíchov, http://navstevnicke-centrum.pivovarystaropramen.cz), where you can also learn a little about what you’re drinking with a brewery tour. And for Krušovice, head to the Beograd pub at Vodičkova 12. The beer itself was a favourite of Emperor Rudolf II in the 16th century. Indeed, he liked it so much that he bought the brewery, hence its slogan: ‘the King’s beer.’
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