Czech Beer

How is it that so many Czech men have such a stunningly round physique?

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 vaří, tam se dobře daří" (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 František Ondřej Poupě, 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). Czechs drink an average of 160 liters of beer per person per year. 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.

What should I eat when I drink Czech beer?

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 Rettigová, included a recipe for beer soup!

Where do the Czechs drink beer?

Photo: www.czechtourism.comPhoto: 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 (světlé) beer, which usually comes in ten-degree and twelve-degree varieties, and has more of a bitter flavor. Then there's also dark (tmavé), or black (černé) 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.

What are these "degrees" you mentioned?

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. Today, Czech beer is divided into the basic categories: lehké - "light" beer brewed below 8° Balling and with less than 130 Kj per 100ml; výčepní - "tap" beer, though it can be bottled, brewed between 8° and 10°; ležák - "lager" beer, brewed between 11° and 12.99°; speciál - "special" beer, brewed above 13°.

Which Czech beer is the best?

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. According to Antonín Kratochvíl, the former 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 (ležák), 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.

But isn't Pilsener beer brewed everywhere?

Plzeňský Prazdroj breweryPlzeňský Prazdroj brewery Pilsner originally described beer from Pilsen (Plzeň). Just as Cologne came to be associated with perfume, Pilsener meant beer. For Czechs it means beer from Plzeň and nothing else. The term came into use when the brewery in Pilsen (Plzeň) developed a beer in 1842 known as Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsner Urquell). This is a pale golden-colored beer 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 Plzeň 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.

So which Czech beer is the most popular?

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: Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsner Urquel), Gambrinus, Radegast, Velkopopovický Kozel, Budvar, Staropramen and then a long list of beers brewed in the smaller regional breweries. A wide range of beers is available, with around 50 breweries and more than 70 minibreweries 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.

You mentioned Budvar. Is this the same beer as Budweiser?

Not at all!! In 1876, the name Budweiser was adopted by the American brewer Adolphus Bush. When the Czech brewery, a few years later, wished 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). Both companies are 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". 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.

Are foreign breweries successful in the Czech beer market?

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 foreign 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 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 in 1993, public hackles were raised and the newspapers cried corruption. Today, the major breweries are mostly owned by global companies as SAB Miller, Heineken, InBev.

"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".]

What are some good Czech urban legends about 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 cheaper.

How about some tips for drinking Czech beer?

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.