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The Culture of Beer in the Czech Lands
One of the "new" Czech proverbs says that "Beer makes beautiful
bodies" and this is in plain view all around the Czech lands. Or
it was. Beer and the drinking thereof are ingrained in Czech
culture, society and history. So much so, that the beer industry
is considered a part of the national heritage. As another proverb
states,"Kde se pivo vari, tam se dobre dari" (Where beer is
brewed, they have it good - it sounds much better in Czech :). The first beer-
brewing textbook was written here in the 18th century by Frantisek
Ondrej Poupe, who also instituted the use of thermometers and
other measuring instruments in beer brewing. Under socialism, beer drinking was
one of the few legal leisure-time activities there was, and the
beer industry was one of the few that the whole nation could be
proud of. After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czech
Republic achieved a major beer victory: first place in beer
consumption per capita (many Slovaks prefer to drink wine).
In 1995, the Czechs drank an average of 161 liters of beer per
person. That's a bottle of beer for every man, woman, and child in
the Czech lands every day. The only possible threat to Czech
dominance in this area is if Bavaria splits off from Germany.
Beer goes very well with the Czech national cuisine. For Czechs,
it would be unimagineable for the Czech national meal (roasted
pork, cabbage and the famous Czech dumplings) to be accompanied by any
beverage other than beer. However, if you're sampling beers and
you'd like to clear your palate between beers, try a piece of
cheese (nothing fancy), a white bread roll, or some mild salami.
For the adventurous, try all three. But why even eat? The first
Czech cookbook, written by Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova, included
a recipe for beer soup!
Czechs prefer to do their beer-drinking in pubs rather than at
home. Drinking beer is an opportunity to meet with friends. The
milieu in pubs and country inns is gregarious, the discussion are
forthright. The subjects can be anything under the sun: football,
ice-hockey, politics and women. Draught beer is normally served in
half-liter glass mugs. There's light-coloured (svetle) beer, which
comes in ten-degree and twelve-degree varieties, and has more of
a bitter flavor. Then there's also ten-degree dark (tmave), or
black (cerne) beer, which is generally sweeter. Light beer is more
popular, although dark beer is gaining ground. For those watching
their figure, there are even diet (dia) varieties of both light
and dark beer, which are lower in sugar and alcohol. Beer is usually
available in bottles rather than in cans. Bottles of beer have too
long a tradition for Czechs to be replaced by cans easily. Canned Czech
beers are available, but are
mostly just for the consumption of foreign tourists.
Beer is measured here with degrees, according to the method
devised by Professor Balling in the 17th century. The degree sign
caused some confusion for consumers in the past, as international
norms used it to signify the temperature of brewing and other
things. So it was changed to a percentage sign, which causes
confusion among consumers today. Many think that the percent is
the amount of alcohol, but it's actually the amount of malt
extract used in the brewing process. The percentage of alcohol is
about a quarter of the "percent" shown on the bottle, so 12% beer
is roughly 3.1% alcohol, though it's often higher. Czech beer
comes in degrees from 6-19%, but 10% and 12% are the most common.
The highest degree is Pernstein from
As a famous advertising slogan once proclaimed:"Beer is the best".
It didn't specify which brand. While the Czech Budvar (Budweiser)
beer calls itself 'the beer of kings' (due to a royal inclination
towards this brew in the early 16th century), it is impossible to
say which Czech beer is the best. Radegast has won the Czech beer
of the year three times in a row. Velkopopovicky kozel won the
gold medal for beer in 1995. Plzensky Prazdroj (Pilsner Urquell) is
the most popular. Gambrinus is the biggest. According to Antonin
Kratochvil, the executive director of the Czech Association of
Breweries, "Saying that some beer is better and some is worse is
as nonsensical as classifying women according to the color of
their hair: some men like blondes, some like brunettes." Of the
classical beer styles, mostly bottom-fermented beer is brewed in
the Czech Republic - that means lager (lezak), but especially, it
means Pilsner beer. Pilsner is without a doubt the world's most
famous style of beer. Outside of the Czech Republic it is usually
spelled Pilsener or abbreviated to Pils.
Pilsner originally described beer from Pilsen (Plzen). Just as
Cologne came to be associated with perfume, Pilsener meant beer.
For Czechs it means beer from Plzen and nothing else. The term
came into use when the brewery in Pilsen (Plzen)
developed a beer
in 1842 known as Plzensky Prazdroj (Pilsner Urquell). This is a
pale golden-colored beer of 10 or 12 degree, with a
characteristically well-hopped palate (Bohemian hops are used of
course) and a slightly sweet after-taste. In 1290, King Wenceslas
II granted 260 families in Pilsen the right to brew beer. A house
in downtown Plzen belonging to one of these original families now
houses a beer museum, the oldest in the world. It's also been a
microbrewery since 1959. It's a little-known fact, however, that
before about 1840 the beer brewed in Pilsen was some of the worst
in the world.
1220 Czechs over the age of 18 were asked the question:
Imagine you're having a delicious lunch or dinner, or you'd just
like to drink a good beer. Don't worry about the price and choose
according to your taste. The results of this poll reveal a strong
sense of patriotism in Czech beer consumers: the Czechs drink
mostly Czech beers. In order of popularity: Plzensky Prazdroj
(Pilsner Urquel), Gambrinus, Radegast, Velkopopovicky kozel,
Budvar, Staropramen and then a long list of beers brewed in the
smaller regional breweries. A wide range of beers is available,
with more than 80 breweries in the Czech Republic.
Each of these
beers might not have an easily distinguishable taste, but the
locals are used to their beer, which is of course the best one.
Not at all!! In 1876, the name Budweiser was adopted by the
American brewer Adolphus Bush. When the Czech brewery, a few years later,
to begin exports to the New World, this caused problems, and Budvar had
to be given another name. For a time it was sold in the United
States as Crystal, hardly an original name for a beer. Now the
two companies largely manage to avoid each other's markets (theoretically).
companies are currently entangled in a trademark dispute involving
the right to use the name "Budweiser" and variations of it in
Europe for their two very different beers. Budvar still calls
itself, with some justification, "The Original Budweiser".
As far as we understand it, the American brewer has been selling its
beer as "Bud" in recent years because of the dispute.
According to the Czech press, the
two companies have outstanding trademark lawsuits in Portugal,
Egypt and Italy. The Czech Budvar has a unique bitter-sweet flavour and the
brewery has taken up the study of Coca-Cola's strategies over the years for
protecting its trademark and recipe. Anheuser-Busch, along with
some 40 other foreign firms, has been trying to buy a stake in
Budvar since 1989, but the Czech government has dragged its feet in
privatizing the brewery. The Czechs are wary of foreign investment
in what they consider part of their national heritage. But the
world's biggest brewer (Anheuser-Bush annually brews 5 times as much beer
as all the Czech breweries together) doesn't give up easily. The
company spends thousands of dollars in Ceske Budejovice every
year, funding everything from pre-schools to beer festivals to win
over the locals.
The Czech reputation as the thirstiest throats in the world attracted many foreign breweries after 1989, but they haven't had much direct success in the Czech market. The prices of foriegn beers are too high for the average Czech, who sees no reason to spend more for foreign beer that's no better than the domestic brew. Besides, the common Czech beer drinker is fiercely loyal to the domestic product. Foreign importers are left to scrap over less than 1 percent of the total national consumption. Foreign brewers have had more success entering the Czech market through the acquisition of Czech breweries. When British brewer Bass PLC bought a 1/3 share in Prague Breweries a few years ago, public hackles were raised and the newspapers cried corruption. The team of British managers sent to Prague discovered great beer and massive exports back to Britain ensued. They now own more than 40% of the brewery and want to purchase an even larger share. Their investment in the brewery seems to have quieted public fears. In the future, hopefully, Czech beer drinkers will continue to drink Czech beer, not only for its low price but also for its quality.
"Chauvinism and prejudice can colour a wide choice of beers. Drinkers from one country often dismiss with contempt the beers of another without wholly understanding what is available, where it can be found, how it should be served, and why it is worthy of appreciation. They miss much."
Michael Jackson in his famous "The World Guide To Beer".
One of the best ones says that drinking beer makes you live
longer, because it reduces the aluminum in the body, saving it
from the effects of aging and Alzheimer's disease. Considering
that life expectancy in the Czech Republic is among the lowest in
Europe, this may be stretching the truth a little. Beer does
contain natural B-complex vitamins, though, so it does have some
nutritional value (maybe that's why it's also known in Czech as
"liquid bread"). Another story going around after the revolution
claimed that Czech beer is made without hops. This is pretty silly
because beer without hops isn't beer. A more reasonable Czech tale
concerns beer consumption when times are hard. People don't drink
less beer, they just drink 10% instead of 12%, as 10% beer is
The best temperature at which to drink beer is between 7-10
degrees Celsius. You can keep your beer at this temperature by
keeping it on the seventh step down to the cellar (this tip is
from the Oscar-nominated Czech film
"My Sweet Little Village"). When buying bottled beer, hold it up to
the light. It should be clear, not muddied in any way. And
finally, drink it each and every day.
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