Above picture: Old traditions meet modern macrobrewing money: Japanese-owned Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň
In late July we winged our way to the Czech Republic. Our visit was primarily a family trip, and beer was secondary—a sober reality we hadn’t dealt with in about a decade. Still, over the course of a week, we managed to work in some amazing moments with beers and the people that make them.
THE LAND OF LAGER
In Czechia, as it’s alternatively known, you will find beer culture that is completely unlike ours. These people are, famously, the most fanatical consumers of beer (per capita) anywhere. They are fairly aware of the beer revolution going on in many parts of the world, and they have their own fledgling movement, but so far you’ll find relatively few “craft breweries” in the sense we’re accustomed to. The general beer-loving public just doesn’t need them. What they like is lager, and the quality of lager they have there is completely unlike what we comprehend here.
Being Canadian, we BeerSeekers have tended to avoid “regular lager” since we became craft beer enthusiasts. It’s the bad beer we ran away from when we found the good stuff. But when in the CR, we were able to regularly find beer that was so creamy and mouth-wateringly delicious that it was hard to associate it with the word “lager”. Even Germany, the Fatherland of Bier and the historical driver of a significant portion of Czech beer production, must tip its Tyrolean hat to this.
You’ll find three styles of lager commonly served there: light (ie, ‘regular’), dark, and “semi-dark” (ie, anything in between). The easiest beer learning ever, right? But that simplicity belies the range of pivo available. Their dark lagers often eat like a meal, more like what we think of as a porter.
Unfortunately, nothing that comes all the way to BC in cans and bottles can reproduce what comes out of taps—often connected, not just to kegs, but to oversized serving tanks, even in regular restaurants—over there. We don’t want to take away from the lagers that some of BC’s craft brewers, many of whom have travelled Europe and had the same experience, have created. But let’s face it, to make lager the way they do there, you have to do it full time. In their breweries of any size, giant horizontal tanks are constantly aging beer in cold storage year-round. With that model, there’s no room to fool around making seasonal hazy sours. Not to mention people would be too busy drinking lager to pay attention.
So we’ve established that the beer is good. It’s also generally traditional, although as noted there is a growing craft scene. Let’s highlight a couple of old-school beer experiences in Prague and contrast them with some of the new kids on the block.
Here’s a real Central European beer hall experience. On a hot summer Saturday, we arrived in their outdoor courtyard full of beer-drinking revelers loudly singing old Czech, German, and Russian folk songs along to a roving accordion player.
U Fleku brews only one beer: a delicious dark lager, famous throughout the city. The waiters circulate with mugs on trays, catching the eye of anyone that’s ready for their next, and (as in parts of Germany) tallying your beer count with pencil marks on simple paper chits. The beer keeps coming until you don’t want any more. Why don’t you want any more?
Look out for the schnapps pusher – the other server bearing a different tray. He insists that you try one or both flavours of their special Czech liquor shots. Oops, you made eye contact. Na zdraví!
ST. ADALBERT AT BREVNOV
One expects to visit Belgium to see monastic breweries. But a visit to Prague’s St. Adalbert Brewery of Brevnov Monastery is a must-do on the beer traveler’s list. First reason is the monastery itself, founded in 993 (Europe: home of three-digit dates!), though the current buildings date from the 19th Century. You can book a tour of this still-functioning Benedictine monastery, learn about its history, see ruins from the original stone buildings dating back to the 10th Century, then have a meal at the restaurant, sampling beers made on the grounds. You can even stay the night at their hotel.
While a tradition of brewing at the monastery goes back to at least the 11th Century, the current brewery has been functioning for only six years. Destroyed under the communist regime, the buildings have undergone reconstruction and are now enjoy government protection. The brewery has an annual capacity of 3000 Hl. In addition to the ever-present Czech light and dark lagers, the brewery also produces an IPA, an Imperial lager and a very respectable Imperial Stout.
Like a typical North American microbrewery, they also put out seasonals for special occasions like Easter and Christmas. Beers are all unfiltered and unpasteurized, and well worth a ride on the tram to this slightly out-of-the-way spot.
KLASTERNI PIVOVAR STRAHOV
A few tram stops away from Brevnov, you’ll find Strahov Monastery. How can this be filed under “new”? While there is a tradition of brewing going back to 1400, the current brewery is privately run by a family who lease the space. Sharp young son Marek Kocvera gave us a very North American-style brewery tour.
Their flagship beer is an amber lager, accounting for 70% of production. Like micros in the Pacific Northwest, this craft brewery produces almost 20 varieties per year: three mainstays (including dark lager and IPA), and 12-15 seasonals on rotation.
The brewery is currently at peak capacity: 1800 hl/yr. While they bottle some of the beer, you can only buy a bottle at the brewery itself, which makes a visit to this monastery mandatory.
Nestled within the maze of narrow, winding streets near Old Town is U Kunstatu, an amazing beer bar and bottle shop. Their massive menu boasts bottled treats from all over the Czech Republic, Europe and beyond. Pleasant surprise reminder of home: a Cascadian dark ale!
Amazingly, they’re willing pour you a custom six-sample taster rack and will open almost any of their bottles to do it. Who does that here? Also, they do run a few taps, which during our visit included a Sour Passionfruit & Guava Berliner Weisse and a very good IPA. It’s easy to spend several hours here.
The beers range from various kinds of lagers, to wheat ales, pale ales, stouts, barley wines, and, surprisingly,. They have a small snack menu as well, so it’s easy to spend several hours here sampling a large variety of beers.
PRAGUE BEER MUSEUM
Not actually a museum, but a beer bar and pub. It’s a great location to find a wide range of good beer in the heart of the city. Featuring taps of beer from small breweries all over the country, giving special attention to beers that would otherwise go unnoticed. You can try one of their featured taster combos to get started or build your own.
CZECH BEER MUSEUM
Not to be confused with the Prague Beer Museum. Here is an actual museum chronicling the history of beer in the Czech Republic. They offer a tour and tasting of several Czech beers in their historical cellars. There is also the opportunity to bottle your own beer to take home as a souvenir. While a bit pricey for the CR (CAD ~$18-$30) they are a fun and interesting experience.
U TRI RUZI PIVOVAR
Only a few minutes walk from U Kunstatu is this traditional brewpub. It is fairly small, but also serves food so it makes a good stop for lunch or dinner. They had a handful of interesting beers on tap, including a Vienna Red Lager, a Summer Weiss, and a Peated Ale.
A craft brewery in a century-old building, home to a 3-star hotel. During our visit, in addition to the usual light and dark lager, they had their smoked semi-dark lager (rated a world pick by Stephen Beaumont) and a sweet cherry beer.
STUFF THAT’S NOT BEER
Even while relentlessly pursuing the next great beer, one must do a bit of sightseeing.
As you may have heard, Prague is a city full of history and beautiful architecture. Everywhere you turn is colour and beauty. It’s difficult to appreciate how painstaking and ornate some of the age-old stone buildings are until you’re looking at them closely. Fortunately, these buildings have survived more or less intact through Europe’s various wars.
Two must-see sights are the world-famous Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, not far from each other. There are no cars on the pedestrian-only Charles Bridge, only masses of tourists. As you walk it you can take in views of this beautiful city straddling the Vltava River.
Prague Castle is visible from many points, as it sits on a large hill overlooking the city. You can take in shops, restaurants, and cafes as you climb up its twisty, narrow streets. The strenuous walk in summer heat is worth it when you get to the top. There’s the breathtaking view of the city, a sea of red roofs. Then there is the Castle itself and its grounds, which are extensive and include the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral. Plan to spend at least an hour or two exploring this vast compound.
When you’re ready to head back down, you can catch a tram that will take you to the metro station at the bottom of the hill. Yes, you could have taken it up too, but you’d have missed the quaint and interesting architecture on the way up and you have to work off all the beer and Czech food somehow!
PILGRIMAGE TO PILSEN
The city of Pilsen (Plzen) is the home of Pilsner Urquell, the famous golden lager created in 1842 by Josef Groll. While the brewery is now owned by a huge multi-national corporation, it is still worth a visit, and is only a 90 minute train ride from Prague. The factory itself is huge, and we recommend that you take one of the public tours to see everything. The tour takes you through the packaging facilities, the old historical brewhouse, the modern working brewhouse, and finally ends in the historical underground cellars where you are treated to a glass of Pilsner Urquell straight from the barrel. This fresh beer is incredibly tasty, the tour is informative and interesting, and well worth the 90 minutes it takes.
There is a beer garden and restaurant on site, but we do not recommend a stop at the restaurant. We went for dinner and found the service to be terrible; our server seemed barely interested in helping us and all of our beers were under-poured.
Unlike other breweries, Urquell’s tours aren’t limited to just a brewery. The astounding Underground City Tour is a 50-minute guided hike through the seemingly infinite web of tunnels under Pilsen. Carved into the earth and rock over hundreds of years, the city’s tunnels served as a clandestine after-hours meeting place for beer fans and lovers when the bars closed. Some of Pilsen’s treasures were kept safe in this labyrinthine hiding space during invasions and wars. As impressive as the stunning architecture above ground.
Right next door to the Underground Tour is The Beer Museum, an opportunity to take in Czech brewing history via a self-guided tour.
You can buy all these Urquell tours separately or in a bundle. Book in advance as the English language ones sometimes sell out.
THE BEER FACTORY
There are a handful of other small breweries in Pilsen. We made it the The Beer Factory, a modern craft brewpub with a tap list of seven beers. So identical to a North American craft brewery in appearance that one might forget that English is not the native language (until the server struggles to translate your bad Czech).
Within the shadow of the mighty Pilsner Urquell is the spunky, independent Pivovar Groll, trading on the name of the originator of pilsner beer. Featuring a nice courtyard in a quiet location, their one beer is a light lager. Who knows, it might be just like Josef Groll used to brew.
It is possible to make Pilsen a day trip and return to Prague in the evening. However, you can also make it an overnighter and venture further south via city bus to the Purkmistr brewery hotel and spa.
The spa offers many treatments, but one you can’t get here in town is a beer bath! Book a single or double bath and spend 25 minutes soaking in warm, beer-infused water while pouring yourself a Purkmistr lager (rated a world pick by Stephen Beaumont) from the tap right next to the tub! Heaven!
The restaurant features nine of their taps, so this place is more like the kind of craft brewery we are used to. Three kinds of lager plus IPA, Wheat, Amber, Kellerbier and Porter. A very impressive complimentary breakfast rounded out our stay.
A 2-hour train south from Prague brings you to the picturesque town of České Budějovice, home of the original Budweiser beer.
Established in 1895, the brewery’s flagship brand is Budweiser Budvar, but this Budweiser is nothing like the one that we know from North America. Which just happens to be the topic for another segment, next.