Prague’s Beer Traditions: From Classic Pilsner to Modern Microbrews
Old Town Hall’s astronomical clock. On the hour the twelve apostles make an appearance in the clock’s little wooden doors. Photos by Nick Klenske
Prague Through the Glass: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
By Nicholas J. Klenske
In describing his country’s marquee beer, Czech Emperor Franz Josef I commented, “It is indeed curious that no brewery has yet succeeded in replicating the distinctive gourmet flavor of the pilsner beer.”
Although this was spoken in 1874, because Prague is as much a part of its beer as is hops and water, it continues to hold true today.
Prague, the centerpiece of the golden genre of beer known as pilsner, was built, destroyed, and rebuilt on a foundation of beer. The tumultuous history of the city and the ever-evolving tastes of its beer culture are remarkably intertwined. Nobody knows this better than Ales Dockal, owner and executive manager of Pivovarsky Dum and Pivovarsky Klub.
In the Czech Republic, beer began as a local industry. “Each village would have one or two types of beers, often brewed by an individual in their own home,” says Dockal.
Eventually these “in-house” beers were consolidated into what could best be described as regional breweries. Every region had their own brewery, with each producing one or two types of basic beers.
At the local pubs, only the local beers were on tap. “It was a patriotism thing,” Dockal comments. “No matter how bad the local beer was, you’d never admit to not liking it.”
Sitting in the comforts of the dynamic Pivovarsky Dum Restaurant and Brewery, staring at a wooden wheel presenting eight colorful varieties of micro beers that Dockal is enthusiastically encouraging me to drink, it is clear the Czech beer culture has undergone a significant change.
Inside Pivovarsky Klub: Just a sample of the over 200 varieties of beer available at Pivovarsky Klub, a beer boutique. (Photo courtesy of Pivovarsky Klub).
But, like any change, the evolution from the local pub’s draw to such micro beers as Sour Cherry and a Nettle flavored brew, was both slow and gradual.
“Microbreweries are a new tradition in the Czech Republic,” Dockal explains. Pivovarsky Dum opened its doors just under ten years ago, although the idea was laid in the late 1960s- during the thick of communist rule.
“During college, some good friends and I began tossing around a pipedream of someday opening a restaurant and brewery here in Prague,” Dockal reminiscences. “Yet we knew this was just foolish thinking, as the Communist Party forbade such enterprising.”
In the Czech Republic, beer has always been associated as a working class beverage, thus making the evolution to microbreweries even more challenging. By the end of the nineteenth century, large, corporate breweries such as Pilsner Urquell, Budvar Budweiser and Staropramen were quickly buying up the regional breweries.
Walking on the iconic Charles Bridge
These big breweries continued to produce low-cost draft beers. During communist rule, the government ensured the continuation of this tradition by purposely keeping beer prices low. “The thinking was,” Dockal explains, “if the working class could afford ten beers a day, they’d be happy.”
Usher in the late 1990s, the Velvet Revolution, and the subsequent fall of communism. Suddenly, everything changes. “With the fall of communism, people gradually became wealthier,” comments Dockal. “With wealth, they were able to travel abroad and sample different types of beers. When they returned, they came back with both a new taste and new respect for beer.”
Taking advantage of this potential new market for beer, Dockal and his friends resurrected their college-era dream and laid the groundwork for the “eatertainment” movement in Prague.
The sample wheel of Pivovarsky Dum’s creative micro-beers
“Eatertainment refers to the concept that people want more than just good food when they go out,” says Dockal. “They also wanted good beer, good atmosphere and good company.”
As Prague established itself as one of Europe’s premier travel destinations, this craving for something more continued to escalate. “The changes happening at all levels of Prague made the perfect environment for the opening of a brewpub.” Thus, the birth of Pivovarsky Dum.
Today, Pivovarsky Dum takes prides in its creative brewing of numerous unique craft beers and, according to this writer, “One of the best pilsners around.”
Along with a full menu of traditional Czech fare served in a classic bohemian atmosphere, patrons can also enjoy an eight-glass sampler of the brewery’s latest concoctions.
From dark to wheat, from coffee- flavored to a beer with just a slight hint of a banana aftertaste, even the most traveled beer connoisseur will be left impressed — if not somewhat mystified. A must-try are the beer crepes, a dessert stuffed with jam created from the wheat and dark brews, resulting in a sugar-sweet cap to a perfectly gourmet evening.
Despite the evolution of both Prague and its beer, surprisingly, not everything has changed. Even though the tastes and styles of Prague’s beer may continue to evolve, the foundational philosophy remains the same.
According to Dockal, whether micro, local or corporate, “Good beer comes from handmade work brewed in the classic Czech traditions of being unfiltered and unpasteurized.” –Only going to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Thirsty in Prague?
No matter what part of Prague you find yourself in, there are plenty of great places to quench your thirst for a Czech beer. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Pivovarsky Dum, a leader in Pragues “Eatertainment” movement
U Zlateho Tygra: A crowded, standing room only, smoke filled dive of a working class bar. Here Czech beer is enjoyed in the most classic tradition. The bar is famous for being the haunt of writer Bohumil Hrabal, a place President Bill Clinton paid homage to, and for serving the best Pilsner Urquel in Prague. (Husova 17, 222-221111)
Literarni Kavarna: It may be a bit hard to find as there’s really no sign revealing its hiding behind an arched wooden door, but this intellectual hangout is a great find. The interior’s courtyard is the place to relax, eavesdrop and, most importantly, sample a new variety of beer. (Tynska 6, 420-2-2482-7807)
Kafka Café: Although it has nothing to do with the legendary writer beyond sharing his name, it does offer a comfortable atmosphere to drink a Pilsner Urquell. Buy a copy of your favorite Kafka story at the Franz Kafka Society’s bookstore, located next door, and enjoy it with the company of a beer and the eerie gaze of the author staring you down from his portrait hanging on the wall. (East of Maiselouva, North of Siroka. Near the Jewish Quarter)
U Cerneho Vola: Here’s a concept you cannot refuse: a chance to drink for charity. A portion of all sales goes towards a local school for the blind. The bar also offers a good, local feel and relatively cheap draws. (Loretanske Namesti 1)
Malt, one of the many essential ingredients that go into creating Prague’s drink of choice
Hospuda na Schodech: Conveniently located at the crest of the Radnicke Schody steps, this quaint bar is a cheap pit stop that also offers an outstanding view. (Radnicke Schody 5) New Town
U Fleku: Perhaps the world’s most famous beer hall, this sprawling restaurant and brewery is everything a beer hall is suppose to be: crowded, loud and over priced. Yet one literally cannot say no to the constant onslaught of oncoming mugs filled with caramel-dark U Fleku Lager. (Kremencova 11, 420-224-934-805)
U Medvidku: A quieter and cheaper alternative to U Fleku, this beer hall serves an excellent dish of gulas and a surprisingly affordable mug of Budvar. (Na Perstyne 7, 420-224-211-916)
Pivovarsky Dum and Pivovarsky Klub: Whereas Pivovarsky Dum is the city’s original brewpub and brews Prague’s most original flavors, Pivovarsky Klub, a beer boutique, has over 200 beers for you to choose from. (Pivovarsky Dum: Lipova 15, 420-296-216-666;Pivovarsky Klub: Krizikova 17, 420-222-315-777)
The Big Breweries
Staropramen: Located in a working class part of town, this is Prague’s only brewery. Brews an excellent pilsner and a tasty dark variety. Tours are available but must be arranged beforehand. (Nadrazni 84, 420-257-191-402)
Budvar Budweiser: Don’t let anyone tell you differently, this is the original Budweiser beer. Located just over an hour from Prague, a tour of the Budvar brewery makes for an excellent day trip.
Pilsner Urquell: The Czech Republic’s best-known beer and the original pilsner, a trip to the city of Plzen, only seventy minutes by train from Prague, is a must for any self-acclaimed beer guru.
For accommodation options, find unique Prague hotels and interesting tours in Prague.
Nicholas J. Klenske, world traveler and voluntary beer taster, is a freelance writer living in Brussels, Belgium. His work has appeared in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, New Haven Advocate and Eons.com. Contact him through KlenskeInk.com.
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