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Eighth Prague Adventure of Mr/s XYZ at ISHLT 2012:

Tereza Martinu, MD
Duke University Medical Center

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tereza martinuThe fact that Czechs have the highest per capita beer consumption in the whole world is starting to take on a completely different perspective in your brain. Forty-two gallons per person per year! It's not about alcoholism. It's not about beer being cheaper than bottled water in this crazy little country. It's about the fact that there is something innately patriotic about beer drinking in the Czech Republic. Nicknamed "liquid bread", beer remains the primary accompaniment to most Czech foods, conversations, and social events. There is even a beer spa (Chodovar) where you can take a bath in this liquid bread!

As you walk through the Pilsner Urquell Brewery Museum, you can sense the pride with which the citizens of Plzeň have reconstructed their history and livelihood in this authentic medieval brewing house. You feel a sense of trepidation as you walk through the birthplace of Pilsner the beer and Pilsner the name. You learn that the first mention of beer making in Plzeň was in 1307 and the brewery was founded by Plzeň citizens in 1839. In the gothic malt house, you stare into the 18 meter-deep well widely known for its remarkably soft water quality. For centuries, this well was the primary source of water for soaking the malt and allowing grains to germinate.

You then walk through the old drying shed, the 19th century laboratory, and finally the cooling cellars. These cooling cellars were among the first of their kind, allowing bottom-fermenting yeast to grow. The use of bottom-fermenting yeast was a new Bavarian technique that evolved in Germany around the 1840s: it improved the beer's clarity and shelf life, which, prior to that, was apparently rather questionable. The first Pilsner beer, made in 1842, was the world's first golden beer. It was a success, and the beer was quickly exported all over the Austrian Empire. There was a special train between Plzeň and Vienna that exported the beer every morning. Today, the brewery—called Plzeňský Prazdroj—produces Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, and Primus. The Pilsner beer style, as a type of pale hoppy lager beer, is now produced by many other breweries around the world as an imitation of the original Pilsner.

At the end of the tour, you get to sample the modern Pilsner Urquell, but you also get a taste of the unfiltered non-pasteurized Pilsner brewed the old-fashioned way: fermented in open wooden kegs and matured in oak barrels in the authentic cool cellars. You diligently pull out your Czech beer catalog and proceed to list and grade both beers. Since your arrival to Prague, you've been listing all the beers you have tasted, rating them on a scale of 0 to 10. You were hoping you could identify your favorite beer, but at this point, you're having a hard time deciding. You have read that, in the past, Velkopopovický Kozel's Medium beer has won the prize for the best Czech beer. You laugh at the thought that Czechs had to select the least pronounceable beer as their best ... although you would have loved to go to Velké Popovice as well to visit the Kozel Brewery, with its real kozel mascot (a buck).

The beer consumed in largest quantity in the Czech Republic is Gambrinus, even though it's not thought of as the best. Many Czechs are, of course, partial to Pilsner Urquell. But there are many other beers that have caught your attention: Staropramen (made by Prague's largest brewery), Bernard, Budvar, Radegast ... and then there are some one-of-a-kind beers made by many small microbreweries that have appeared in the last decade (Dalešice, Pegas, Richard, and many others).

Later in the afternoon, you make a point of walking through the quaint old town of the city of Plzeň (Franciscan church at right). As the weather gets worse and some raindrops land on your coat, you duck into one of the pubs on the large city square. Since you won't have time to visit the home of another major Czech beer, České Budějovice, you order a glass of Budvar, a light tasting wheat beer, typical of Czech lagers. You remember reading about the trademark dispute over Budweiser where, in 1876, a US brewer also called his beer Budweiser. This was followed by a complicated lawsuit resulting in the original Czech Budweiser to be marketed as Budějovický Budvar in the Czech Republic and Australia, Budweiser Budvar in the rest of Europe, and as Czechvar in North America. And there you go, adding Budějovický Budvar to your Czech beer catalog with an 8/10 grade.

You study your beer coaster, as you discretely scheme how to get it into your pocket without looking suspicious and ridiculous. Yes, you've been a classic tourist in this arena as well: pocketing beer coasters! You're just slightly ashamed of yourself and you pretend to read with great intent the word "Budvar" and "12%" on the coaster. A few days ago you had a near heart attack when you saw the percentage and thought it referred to the percentage of alcohol in the beer you just drank. But now you know that the number instead represents the amount of malt extract used in the brewing process. A higher percentage usually comes with a stronger flavor and the percentage of alcohol is approximately a third of that number.

As you look around the pub, you remember a statement you saw on the internet before coming to Prague: "Vienna may have its Café Society, New York has its High Society, but Prague is the proud home of Pub Society." The beer is central to the Czech pub. There is usually no loud music, although you have often seen TVs for sport watching. There are usually large wooden tables and you can rarely sit all by yourself during busy hours. There have been many times when a new beer appeared in front of you before you actually asked for one.

You have also been practicing the pub terminology you learned from your Czech friend. He taught you to say "pivo" (beer) years ago, but before letting you go to Prague, he made a point of writing out for you the different words for "pub". There is "pivnice," which one would translate most literally as beer-house. Then there is the most common term of "hospoda," probably the closest equivalent of pub and it serves food as a restaurant. "Hostinec" is yet another term ... your Czech friend really could not find an English equivalent and said "forget it, you just need to know that they serve beer and food in there, too." And, of course, you can buy beer in pretty much any other establishment that feeds people, such as "restaurace" (restaurant) or "jídelna" (cafeteria). Beer drinking takes place any time of day from lunchtime until about 11PM. For drinking or partying later at night there are bars and "diskotéka" (disco bars).

And then there is the pervasive "U" featured in the names of the majority of pubs. For a while, you thought it was some sort of decoration ... or that it perhaps meant "pub"? No, it just means "at". "U vola" means "at the ox's place." Sort of like "at McDonald's" would read "U McDonalda."

One more piece of trivia that you have discovered is the term "Tankovna" or "beer tank" made for dispensing unpasteurized beer. All Czech beer for export is pasteurized and sterilized by heating, giving it a longer shelf life. However, the pasteurizing process can occasionally result in oxidization, leading to an unpleasant taste and odor. To avoid this terrible risk, Czechs have devised a way of drinking unpasteurized beer while decreasing the risk of bacterial contamination. The unpasteurized beer gets stored in plastic sacs that are placed in large tanks (the so-called bag-in-box method) and the beer is pressed out of the tanks using a high-pressure air compressor to avoid exposure to air, backwash, and contamination. Many pubs and restaurants have acquired these Tankovnas since the mid-1990s. (Plzeňský Prazdroj, at right.)

From the bus on your way back to Prague, you watch the large fields of hops and barley extending beyond the city limits. As you dream about beer, you review your beer plans for the next few days. You are hoping to make it to U Zlatého tygra where Czech President Václav Havel took Bill Clinton for a drink. The story goes that Clinton drank 3 beers and then had to cancel his daily jog the following morning.

You are also hoping to make it to U Fleků, the oldest microbrewery in Prague in existence—since 1499—and with the longest history of continuous brewing (over 500 years). The older Prague breweries are all gone, including the Benedictine Břevnov Monastery brewery that began beer brewing as early as 993 A.D. You find it quite fitting that the first breweries were based in monasteries: a testament to the fact that pivo is not a Czech habit ... it's a religion.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.