It's Czech, mate!

Well, well, well. It’s been a while. My keyboard may not have been fingered as much as usual, but I have not been idle drinking-wise. Since the last blog entry, I have had the (somewhat mixed) pleasure of drinking beer in Germany, Switzerland, France, Norway, Belgium, Russia, England, Scotland and last – but definitely not least – the Czech Republic.

My wife had never been to Prague, and I hadn’t been there for almost 8 years, so in order to drink two beers with one hand I gave her a very cunning Christmas present, namely a trip to Prague accompanied by yours truly. Rumour has it that Prague is one of the most attractive cities in Europe. This may well be the case. What I have established beyond reasonable doubt is that Prague is arguably the finest city in Europe in which to drink beer.

Before I start describing the delights of this city from a beer lover’s perspective, I’ll give you some basic facts about Czech beer. Of course, the momentous occasion in the city of Plzen (also known by its German name Pilsen) in 1842, when Joseph Groll invented the golden lager style known all over the world as “pils” or “pilsner”, remains the turning point. After this, all Czech breweries worth their malt started to brew their own interpretations of this style. What is interesting, though, is that the Czech pilsner-style beers remain different from other pilsners in that they tend to have a richer, more full-bodied malt sweetness to them. The reason for this is that the brewers use a lot of malt in the wort, but then stop the fermentation process before all the fermentable sugars have been turned to alcohol. Most other factory brewers abhor such ideas, because malt is expensive – and to get people drunk cheaply, the best idea is to turn almost all the malt sugars to alcohol. Not so in Czech lands – instead, the brewer deliberately leaves malt sweetness in the finished products and then – wait for it – adds another expensive ingredient, namely hops, to balance the sweetness! No wonder the Czech Republic is one of the cheapest places in Europe to drink beer! Erm, hang on a minute...

If you’re visiting this fantastic country and wander into a pub for the first time, you’re likely to be a little confused by the beer menu. It’s not going to be very extensive – 2 or 3 beers on tap and perhaps a handful of bottled ones is the norm. If you want a beer menu looking more like a telephone book (if you don’t remember what telephone books look like, you’re either too young or too drunk and should stop reading right now to either grow or sober up), go to Belgium. However, you will notice some very scary looking numbers next to the beers, usually 10, 11, 12 or 14, with a symbol that looks a little like the percent or degree symbol. Fear not, this is not the alcoholic content, nor is it the temperature of the beer. Rather, it is a number that indicates how much malt went into the beer before it started fermenting. This is known as the gravity of the beer, and is information that is difficult to obtain for the vast majority of brews in the world. In Czech, though, this is used to categorize beers in the menu, along with its colour (light, amber or dark). The number comes, allegedly, from the Balling scale, which surely deserves to be at least as well known as the Richter or Bathroom scales. Anyway, the Balling scale very nicely tells you how much malt the brewer put into the beer and therefore indicates its value as a nutritious drink: 10 indicates a relatively light beer for everyday drinking, 12 is usually a brewery’s flagship lager that corresponds roughly to “premium beers” elsewhere, and 14 or higher are special beers for special occasions such as breakfast.

OK, enough lecturing. You are, after all, reading this blog to get my heavily biased opinions, not a bunch of dry facts that you could easily look up on Wikipeida. As soon as you arrive in Prague, make sure you get the heck out of the airport as soon as possible, because the airport is, as far as I could tell, the only place where beer is actually expensive. The first thing you need to do when you get to town is to avoid going into any pub that displays the sign “Staropramen” on the outside. Staropramen is owned by the biggest brewing corporation in the world, which means that they have turned a once-great lager into standard euro-fizz and, to add insult to injury, they’re trying to flog you imported Stella as well. You’re much better off going into bars that display the sign “Budweiser Budvar” or “Pilsner Urquell”. If you’re going to find anything else than these Big Three, you’ll have to search. Needless to say, I searched – with good help of the invaluable “Good Beer Guide to Prague”, a guide book so essential that I’m surprised they don’t automatically include it in the price of the bus ticket from the airport.
These beers from one of the Big Three weren't quite up to the normal Czech standard
The first place to try and find is the “Pivovarsky Dum”. This is a fantastic little microbrewery that serves one of the best unfiltered pilsner-style lagers, one of the best dark lagers and some of the weirdest fruity concoctions in the whole of the land. If you’re feeling adventurous, get the beer sampler where you get a tenth of a litre of each beer, including the sour cherry, the coffee and the stinging nettle beers. Then re-order your favourites, which are likely to be the lovely wheat beer, the aforementioned lagers and perhaps the seasonal. Incredible stuff.

Weird and wonderful beers from Pivovarsky Dum

Next, you could wander across town or get a few trams and land up in the “Pivovarsky Klub”. This is one of the few places with a beer menu approaching what you’re used to from Belgium – a large selection of Czech and foreign beers are on offer. Ignore the foreign stuff and start with the 5 or 6 they have on tap. These probably change – after our visit, there sure wasn’t much left, anyway – but the ones we tried were simply superb: a couple of light-coloured, unfiltered pilsner-style beers, a couple of amber ones and a very fine dark. The bottled stuff will probably be a little disappointing after the freshness of the ones on tap, but it’s a great opportunity to try beers from all corners of the republic.

Prague’s weirdest and wonderfullest microbrewery has been there since 1499, and it’s called “U Fleku”. This place is worth a trip to Prague on its own – a vast complex of different rooms, all kitted out with great big tables full of tourists drinking a pitch-black beer, which is explained by the fact that it is the only thing on offer. Try asking the waiter for a pilsner, and you’ll be told in no uncertain terms that there are 97 other people waiting for your table space so you should stop wasting his time. A better strategy is to order the beer, which is so good I’ve decided to compose a symphony in its honour. Actually, make that two symphonies.

Novomestsky Pivovar is another microbrewery in Prague - worth seeking out, as you can see!
Prague is much more than its tourist-infested old town, though. A walk out into the suburbs gives you a very different impression of the city – gone are all the fine architecture and foreign crowds, replaced by a nice mixture of Czechs going about their daily business and old, dilapidated remnants of former times. On our final day, we walked over to the Prague Exhibition Grounds, which had a fantastic old main building which looked like it couldn’t decide whether to fall down or be renovated. Next door was a cafe which served beers from the “Uneticky Pivovar”, which I had, astonishingly, never heard of. Apparently, the original brewery that was founded in 1710 stopped brewing in 1949, only to be revived in 2011. I promptly ordered the unfiltered lager, which cost about half as much as in the centre of Prague, and enjoyed what was perhaps the finest lager I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink on a Monday afternoon.

Czech out the prices...
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with our trip to Prague also. All too soon, the trip out to the airport beckoned, and we collected our luggage with heavy hearts (actually, we used our hands) and a few hoppy tears in our eyes. To soften the blow, we stopped off at the splendid litte Pivovarsky Dvur in Chyne, from where you can pretty much see the airport (still the best part of an hour away by bus though), and enjoyed a last couple of lovely Czech beers. I would probably have labelled these as unforgettable if it hadn’t been for the fact that, due to the plethora of unforgettable beers we had already sampled and forgotten, I promptly forgot what they were like.

In conclusion, Prague is a great city and you must go there immediately. There are plenty of tourist attractions, most of which we ignored, and an insane number of places to drink excellent beer, most of which we didn’t have time to visit. Although the beer scene is dominated by the aforementioned Big Three, finding excellent and unusual brews both from Prague and around the country is not difficult. Add the fact that the beer is somewhere between cheap and ridiculously cheap (at least seen with my Norwegian eyes, which are used to watching my Norwegian hands paying up to 10 times as much for a beer), and you quickly realize that you’re in a beer-lover’s paradise. Are you still reading? I thought I told you to go immediately. No time to waste! Na zdravĂ­!