Monday, October 6, 2014

Private guide in Prague

Czech Beer

Czech beer is world famous. The Czech Republic is the No.1 beer drinking nation on the planet, with an annual per capita consummation of some 148 litres. Beer is served almost everywhere in Prague, even in breakfast cafés! It tastes terrific and it is cheap.

Popular Czech beers
Most Czech beers are light beers, brewed naturally from hand-picked hops. Increasingly, breweries are producing a dark ale too as an alternative, but most Czechs like their beer light, nicely chilled. When ordering a beer in a pub, ask for “male pivo” (small beer - 0.3l) or “pivo” (beer - 0.5l).
Pilsner Urquell is the best known Czech beer. Brewed in the Czech town of Plzeň, this is the original Pils beer from which all golden beers the world over are derived. Gambrinus is a popular beer from the same brewer. Then there is Staropramen from Prague and Bernard, a cheaper beer, from East Bohemia.

The most widely exported Czech beer is Budvar, called Budweiser in German - the name of which is also used by an unrelated American brew (there has been legal wrangling over the use of the name for decades). And more recent introductions include Velvet, a smooth and creamy beer, and Kozel one of the better dark beers.

Foundation of the Czech beer industry
Czechs have been drinking beer for more than a millennium. The secret behind their beer brewing perfection is the country's agricultural conditions, which are ideal for growing hops. Chronicles place their cultivation in Bohemia as early as 859 A.D., while the first evidence of their export dates back to 903.

Bohemian hops became so prized that King Wenceslas (907-935) ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings. In another act he convinced the Pope to revoke an order banning beer brewing - which may explain why he is known as Good King Wenceslas!
In the early days citizens in the Czech lands only had the right to brew beer for their own consumption, so many people had a micro-brewery in their home. However, it wasn't long before citizens banded together to form a co-operative central brewery, from which they would take beer extract home and finish the brewing process there; the medieval equivalent of the home-brew kit. The first such brewery was built in Cerhenice in 1118.

From here, once the king's permission had been granted it was a small step for breweries to begin hawking their wares to the general public. The Czech beer industry was spawned.

Decline and Rise of Czech beer brewing
The expansion of the beer industry was halted in the 16th-century, when feudal lords discovered that forcing their labourers to drink the manor brew, instead of buying it from another brewery, was a clever way to line their pockets. And the Thirty Years' War devastated the Czech beer industry further, as land was destroyed and resources diverted elsewhere. At one point beer was even used to pay off a Swedish army to prevent the plunder of Kutna Hora.
The Czech beer industry then fell under the auspices of the Emperor in Vienna, although he still regarded it highly enough to send a Czech brew master to Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to brew beer (Bohemia beer from Mexico gets its name from this period).

The Czech nation - and its beer - did not recover until the "national awakening" movement of the 19th century, when the Czech language, Czech culture, Czech institutions and Czech beer were reinvented - Pilsner Urquell was born in 1842, and the new technique of brewing light beer spread rapidly.

Beer under Communism
Under communism beer was very cheap, indeed it was maintained so by the authorities. The thinking was that every man, no matter what job he had, should be able to afford a few beers regularly with friends without it hurting his pocket too much.

This helped establish beer drinking as perhaps the single most popular hobby amongst Czech men. Unfortunately, as with other industries, the Communists failed to invest properly in the breweries. They simply produced the beer and squeezed as much out of the industry as they could. The buildings and their facilities were allowed to deteriorate.

After the Velvet Revolution
Since the fall of communism most major breweries have been bought by foreign brewing giants, and a lot of investment has been ploughed into Czech brewing. The result is impressive modern beer brewing facilities and Czech beers marketed worldwide as a premium product.

Prague Beer Club offer more than 240 Brands of Beer

How much does Czech beer cost today? 

The average price of a large beer (0.5l) in a popular pub in Prague (aside from the main squares) is just 35czk-40czk (£1.20-£1.35/ €1.40-€1.60/ $1.75-$2.00).

Off the beaten track, the price falls to around 25czk (£0.85/ €1.00/ $1.25) - these are basic local pubs and pubs outside the city centre.
Beer is even cheaper away from Prague in the rest of the Czech Republic. Beer is so engrained in the Czech national psyche that brewers are wary to raise prices too much, and no politician would dare raise taxes too far either!
Some breweries make such little profit on domestic sales that exports are vital. So while in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic, sample the likes of Pilsner Urquell and Budvar in the best way possible - fresh, cheap and where they're brewed!

The Future: Micro-breweries and Tank Beer
As we have learned, micro-breweries formed the foundation of the Czech brewing industry over 1000 years ago. And pubs and restaurants in Prague like U Fleku,  and U Medvidku are carrying on this tradition today by brewing their own beer on-site. In this age of the mass brewer, it is sometimes nice to taste a unique beer sold no-where else.
The first pub in Prague offering CZECH MICRO BREWERIES 30 BEERS ON TAP

Prague Beer Museum

Beer tester

Such sentiments are encouraging more Prague pubs also to add micro-breweries to complement their existing beers. This is a trend we see increasing in the future.
Of perhaps even more significance, recent developments in technology have driven the introduction of tank beer (tankove pivo) into several Prague pubs. Instead of beer delivered in barrels, it is transported either pasteurised or unpasteurised from the brewery to the pub by tanker lorry/truck. At the pub it is then fed via a large pipe (in the same way as a fuel tanker delivers) into a huge stainless steel tank stored in the cellar. The tank is lined with a water and airtight polypropylene bag, sealing the beer in.

The Tank Beer

When a customer orders a beer, it is piped directly from the tank to the beer pump. This “bag-in-a-box system” delivers the freshest possible beer to the glass. Because the beer does not come into contact with air, this has a positive impact on its quality and shelf life.

Of the major brewers, Pilsner Urquell is the main one to be involved with this process, followed by Budvar. Only a handful of Prague pubs have adopted the system so far because it requires investment and a high turnover of beer to make it economically viable, but the results in taste and economies of scale are impressive, so more will follow. You can try out 'tank beer' in Prague at Kolkovna and U Vejvodu Urquell). 

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