The story of Czech beer and their love for the home-grown tradition of brewing it doesn’t always rest on their talent for producing great ale. On the contrary, one of this country’s most famous breweries, Pilsner Urquell in the town of Plzen 88 kilometers south-west of Prague – reveals more humble beginnings. In its early days, this town’s beer was said to be so bad that it caused a local revolution of sorts.
“Beer was brewed in Plzen for several hundred years but the quality produced here was variable, predominantly bad,” says Vaclav Kulle, a guide at the vast Pillsner Urquell Brewery, “This factor brought the medieval beer drinkers and connoisseurs to coin the saying: Pilsner, Pilsner, if you pour a pint in the behind of a swine, it will be squeaking for a week.”
These circumstances persisted, he says, until about 1835 when the citizens of the town – so fed up with poor quality beer being produced – simply dumped 36 barrels of the brew in front of city hall for the shame and punishment of the brewers.
The result of the incident was the town’s brewers uniting to establish the ‘citizens’ brewery – the brewery of the Plzners. This gave birth to Pilsner, the ale that has gone on to set the standard around the world.
Today the brewery in Plzen looks more like a sprawling industrial village with its own restaurant, museum, double-arched gate and unending red-brick grounds. Kulle leads tours of this immense complex that includes a nine kilometer underground granite-tiled sandstone fermenting cellar that is lined with oversized old oak barrels. Here you can hoist a few samples that are still made with the same process that was introduced in 1842.
But the tradition of brewing beer here goes back to before the 11th century in the Czech Republic and beer itself holds an almost mythical stature in this central European nation. It appears widely in their literature, culture and is part and parcel of the soul of the nation. Brewing beer is more than a drink but a tradition that includes a brewing process of the simple ingredients of water, malt and locally grown hops.
Wander into the Czech Museum of Hops in the town of Zatec, 60 kilometers northwest of Prague, and if you are lucky you might hear its manager Vladimir Vales singing the time honored hmelobrana, known as the Hymn of Hops. And hops like the ones in the old rickety drying machine at the museum are what made the town of Zatec famous for hundreds of years.
Zatec boasts its own rustic brewery, the Zatecky Pivovar, but is most well known for the growing of hops — the aromatic dried flower used in the brewing process. Some Czechs claim that the bitter taste of their hops is the vital ingredient that distinguishes Czech beers.
“It was almost mandatory when you entered the ninth grade and the state organized a brigade for hop picking,” remembers George Stuchal, a retired Czech-American restaurant owner picked hops in his youth, “Outside of Prague, Zatec or close to Karlovivary. It almost grows everywhere here.”
But these days the prized Zatec Saaz hops just can’t keep up with German and American varieties that produce almost twice as much per hectare. Vales adds that the strong taste of hops has been replaced by either chemical variants, or beer producers look for more cost effective hops from other areas.
“After WWI when importance of hops for the town decreased,” says Vales, “But it is important because of the very long tradition of cultivating of hops here. Even as hops loses its importance in the market, that it remains nevertheless a very long tradition here.”
Fifty kilometers north-west of the capital the bottles arrive at another historic brewery, the Královsky Pivovar Krušovice. This brewery had its origins in the sixteenth century when aristocrats were given permission to brew beer on their own farms. Here, brewer Jiri Birka became legendary for his ale, and running a house where guests drank day and night.
“Water is vital ingredient for brewing beer because of its effect on the whole character of the beer,” says Marketing Director Josef Helebrant, who claims that the local water holds the secret, “In the beer 90 percent of the water comes from flows of our Burg wells two kilometers away flowing for a length of one hundred meters. And from the seventeenth century until 1945 this was a spa, and for this reason there is very good iron and magnum in the water.”
In the communist era Krusovice, like the bulk of important Czech breweries, became state-owned. During the privatizations of the early 1990s, breweries were re-equipped – as many foreign investors pumped in large amounts of money to modernize them and capitalize on the Czech tradition. This brewer became a part of a German-led multinational consortium.
While the classical Czech brands like Pilsner, Budejovicky Budvar or Staropramen are still staples, micro-breweries in the capital are now producing unique beers that compete with premium wines introduced since the Velvet Revolution.
“We are starting with wheat beer now after the tradition was stopped,” says Marek Kocvera is the 20-something manager of Klasterni Pivovar Strahov, not far from the center of Prague, “This brewery was closed between the world wars at the time of the development of the big industrial breweries. Then the small microbreweries closed.”
Klasterni Pivovar Strahov was originally a monastic brewery and is one of the smallest and oldest. Today it features both a traditional beer-hall as well as this café-style pub where you can drink the brewery’s piquant-and-fruity tasting ale that’s unusually distinctive alongside the more classical Czech lagers.
“We had 88 micro-breweries, now we have sixty. But it is now time for some kind of renaissance of micro-breweries.”
At Pivovarsky Dum, a small Prague brewery and pub which prides itself on the unusual products like home-brewed banana, coffee, vanilla or sour cherry beers; Frank Kuznik, Editor in Chief of the local English-language weekly the Prague Post comments on the very special place that beer has in the lives of the Czech people.
“It is a religion here,” says Kuznik emphatically, “It is the national life-blood. People here call it liquid bread. I think that one of the greatest things about this country is that nobody will ever starve to death. The reason is that that no matter poor or down and out you are you can always scrape together sixty crowns somehow. And with this you can go to a pub and get three or four beers; and that is the equivalent of dinner.”
The result is that the Czech’s enjoy the highest per capita consumption of beer in the world. And in an age of globalization, and as its producers are taken over by foreign companies, the Czech’s continue to be proud of a brewing tradition that they consider their own.
And while the Czechs are a force to be reckoned when it comes to brewing beer, they have not been immune to saber rattling over their ale. The biggest Czech beer dispute is the century-old battle between the Czech state-owned brewer Budejovicky Budvar and their premium lager Budweiser — and the beer of the same name produced by the beer giant, Anheuser-Busch.
Anheuser Busch of St-Louis, Missouri chose the name back in the 19th century almost at random – just to sound authentic. Yet Budweiser was already a real beer. Anheuser Busch is known to have responded to the legal challenge by the Czech Republic by offering to buy out the brand, but the Czech government has held onto to their cherished brewer.
We took both the Czech Budweiser, and the Anheuser Busch variety on a ‘Budweiser Challenge’ taste-test to Prague pubs with the young couple Kamil Hecko and Tereza Liscinska, both air-traffic controllers, as our tasters. While Liscinska was a staunch proponent of the Czech variety, her partner Hecko was more generous towards the Anheuser Busch brand.
“The smell is the same, really the same, with no real differences,” noted Hecko cautiously, “Not bad taste, but there is some aluminum from the box. Glass would be better but it is normal in the pub. I think that it is not bad. I am a Czech nationalist, but it not bad, really, this American Budweiser.”
Others lament at the eventual sale of state-owned brewer Budejovicky Budvar. Martina Kaderova is proud of the Czech brewing traditions, and cherishes the place of beer in the soul of the nation. On a boat-ride with a stupendous view of the city, she explains her nation’s attachment to beer.
“We have a very long tradition of making and drinking beer as it became very popular to sit down with your friends and talk politics,” says Kaderova, “In the time of communism this was actually the only place where they could openly express themselves, when they met their friends in the pub over a beer to discuss politics”.
“It has a long tradition here and even during the communist regime it made people closer to each other by drinking beer and discussing life.”
As sun shines over the fabled city of Prague, a balloon hovers in the skies, St-Vitus Cathedral is in the distance – and we pass the majestic Charles Bridge which stands at the heart of the city like a steadfast sentry.
“I think that we are selling our treasures, and it is not good,” Kaderova continues, “I think that we should keep it because every country should have something specific, something typical. So far it was said and many people knew that Czech beer is something special. Soon it will be that yes in Prague you can drink beer produced by American, British, SA, or German company. But that is sad, because it is Czech beer.”
In ending we decided to give the last word to one who we figured would know: the Oscar winning Czech film director and director, Jiri Menzel. Most of his characters drink beer like water, and many literally see life through glass of a beer mug.
The only problem, we found, was that he doesn’t drink beer – and the author of most of his films, the noted writer Bohumil Hrabal, was even ashamed to walk into a pub with Menzel as he cringed when the director ordered a glass of wine.
The moral of the story, however, is that in the Czech Republic a certain reverence towards beer culture is not a matter of choice. In this part of Europe one will often be told simply, “these are our traditions”.
Montreal-based travel journalist, broadcaster and cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal ontheglobe.com, and involved in country awareness and tourism promotion projects globally. He will speak on various destinations in his forthcoming series Travels OnTheGlobe.