What's the history of Czech beer?
Sugar cubes and Semtex aside, you might say the Czechs’ greatest claim to fame is that they invented the world’s original Pilsner beer. As every Bohemian pub regular knows, by the late 1830s, the German-speaking inhabitants of Plzeň (Pilsen), 90km west of Prague, were disgruntled with the local beer, a top-fermented, dark, cloudy brew of dubious quality. In disgust, they founded the Bürgerliche Brauhaus, and employed a Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll, who, on October 5, 1842, produced the world’s first lager, a bottom-fermented beer stored in cool caves.
The pale Moravian malt, the Saaz hops and the local soft water produced a clear, golden beer that caused a sensation. At the same time, cheap, mass-produced glass appeared on the market, which showed off the new beer’s colour and clarity beautifully. The new rail network meant that the drink could be transported all over central Europe, and Pilsner-style beers became all the rage.
Brewing methods remained traditional until the fall of Communism, after which the larger breweries almost all opted for modernization: pasteurization, de-oxidization, rapid maturation and carbon dioxide injections – which resulted in longer shelf-life, less taste and more fizz. The republic’s smaller breweries were either swallowed up or went to the wall.
By the mid-1990s, there were just sixty Czech breweries left, with the biggest (except Budvar – still owned by the Czech state) owned by multinationals. However, in the last decade a new breed of microbreweries has sprung up, eschewing modern technology and producing some of the tastiest, most individual brews you’ll ever encounter.
What should I order?
Czech beer is served by the half-litre; if you want something smaller, you must specifically ask for a malé pivo (0.3l).
The average jar is medium strength, usually about 4.2 percent alcohol. Somewhat confusingly, the Czechs class their beers using the Balling scale, which measures the original gravity, calculated according to the amount of malt and dissolved sugar present before fermentation. The most common varieties are 10° (desítka), which are generally slightly weaker than 12° (dvanáctka).
Light beer (světlé) is the norm, but many pubs also serve a slightly sweeter dark variety (tmavé or černé) – or you can have a mixture of the two (řezané). Kvasnicové pivo is yeast beer, nefiltrované is, you guessed it, unfiltered (cloudy) beer. There’s also nepasterované and pšeničné as well as combinations of all the above.
Where should I drink Czech beer in Prague?
Today Prague's smoky old pubs (pivnice), traditionally filled with men drinking copious quantities of Czech beer by the half-litre, are a dying breed, but a few survive beyond the centre of town. We've picked our favourites.
U Černého Vola (The Black Ox), Oretánské Náměstí 1
This is a great traditional Prague pub, which does a brisk business providing the popular light beer Velkopopovický Kozel in huge quantities to thirsty local workers, plus a few basic pub snacks.
U Kocoura (The Cat), Nerudova
This old-school Czech pub inevitably attracts tourists, but the locals come here too for the pilsner urquell and the Budvar, plus various other Czech belly-formers.
U Hrocha (The Hippo), Thunovská 10
An old, smoky been-here-forever Czech pivnice close to the British embassy, usually full with a close-knit bunch of locals.
U Rudolfina, Křížovnická
A bona-fide Czech pivnice very close to Charles Bridge, serving expertly kept Pilsner Urquell and typical pub grub that gets more expensive as the day progresses.
U Zlatého Tygra (The Golden Tiger), Husova 17
A small central pivnice, always busy with locals and tourists trying to get a seat; the late writer and bohemian Bohumil Hrabal was a semi-permanent resident and still has a seat reserved for him (he died in 1997).
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Top image © Alexey Mashtakov/Shutterstock