I was never a beer person in college. I hated the bitter taste, the bloated feeling I was left with, the way it made my shoes stick to the floor of dingy dive bars that reeked of it. That all changed when I moved to the Czech Republic. I was a poor 20-something and had to make every koruna count. The easiest way to do so, I found, was by learning to love beer.
Beer is literally cheaper than bottled water in the Czech Republic (a half liter of beer costs just over $1 at most places). The lager – particularly the pilsner-style light lager – throughout the country is better than just about anywhere else on earth. Maybe that’s because pilsner was born there. Maybe it’s because the country’s brewing history can be traced back to the 6th century. Or maybe it’s because Czechs still practice decoction mashing, a tedious process that results in a richer flavor, and creamier foam.
Regardless of the reason, Czechs consume more beer per capita than any other country in the world – and they have a unique drinking culture to match.
You can get your beer poured three ways
Beer connoisseurs will tell you that there is definitely a right way to pour a beer; Czechs will basically agree, and then offer you alternatives. Most beers will come hladinka style, which, according to Lukáš Svoboda – master bartender at Lokal, a restaurant chain that serves Czech comfort food – “is the standard style, with about one quarter foam. The foam line should sit slightly below the half-liter mark, bringing the beer even with the line when it settles.”
If you want to go old school, ask for a beer mlìko-style. This Czech hommage to foam means your mug is pretty much filled with the stuff, save for a small amount of actual beer on the bottom. You’ll get less alcohol, but most pubs will charge you a cheaper price as well.
If you really want to impress your bartender, ask for your beer Šnyt. According to Svoboda, the proper pour consists of two fingers of beer, three fingers of foam and one finger of empty glass, and is an in-between drink you can use to pretend like you’re drinking a lot when you don’t feel like going that hard.
Foam is a good thing
If someone pours you a beer and doesn’t have at least one inch of foam at the top, send it back. Czechs understand the art of being patient (or at least, not caring enough to cause a fuss), but they definitely understand that waiting for the foam to subside results in better tasting beer.
According to the Pilsner Urquell website, “a thick head of dense, wet foam seals in the freshness, protects our delicate flavors from oxygen and creates the perfect balance in our beer.” Beer poured properly, resulting in a good head of foam, is also easier on the stomach, so don’t begrudge the bartender if you have to wait awhile for your foam to turn into beer.
It’s measured in degrees
It’s easy to find the ABV of a beer on the bottle or can, but in the Czech Republic, you’re more likely to see a little degree symbol next to the name of your beer. A majority of pubs will display their offerings indicating the Balling-Plato Scale of the beer. This is just a fancy term for the amount of certain ingredients (usually the barley “wort”) in a particular beer, but it plays a pretty strong roll in the history of Czech beer culture.
The higher the degree, the stronger the beer, but it’s not necessarily tied to the “strength” at which you will get drunk. A lot of times, it’s just indicative of how light or dark the beer is. Rick Steves’ research for Smithsonian.org found that “As a rough guide, 10 degrees is about 3.5 percent alcohol, 12 degrees is about 4.2 percent alcohol, and 11 and 15 degrees are dark beers.” Travelers can easily find 10° or 12° just about anywhere they go.
You’ll likely only find a handful of brands at the pub
Pilsner Urquell is the most well-known Czech beer out there; the pilsner-style of beer was revealed in 1842, in the town of Plzen, and its strong marketing has brought the brand around the world, paving the way for pilsner-style beers to come. Within the country however, there are a few other brands of note: Staropramen, Budvar, Gambrinus, Krušovice and Bernard. Most pubs will serve only two, maybe three of these brands at a time; the most old-school locations will be loyal to one. If you’re unsure about what’s on tap before you enter a pub, check for branding and signs outside.
Craft beer is on the rise
Beer production was nationalized under communism, which meant that while it was inexpensive and readily available, there was little to choose from other than “light” or “dark.” After the fall of Communism in 1989, it took awhile for the country to recover and begin privatizing the beer-brewing process again. Moreover, larger companies such as Pilsner and Budvar had the manpower, resources and loyal fan bases to keep their beer cheap, pushing smaller breweries quickly out of business.
That’s slowly starting to change, however. Craft beer in the Czech Republic is beginning to regain popularity, allowing visitors and locals alike to enjoy unique brews. According to the folks at Taste of Prague tours, “While there were less than 40 collectivized breweries in the Czech Republic under the Communist rule, now we have nearly 300.” The country has a long way to go in terms of marketing on a global level, but for real beer fans, it’s easier than ever to try beer brewed in a dilapidated barn at some Czech person’s summer cottage.
If there’s a problem, beer can solve it
Beer is practically a remedy for everything in Czech culture. If I was sick, my host mother would give me beer, because the bubbles would settle my stomach. Political plans were often made in pubs, as evidenced by former president Václav Havel: “Drinking beer in pubs has a good influence on the behavior of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than, for example, wine, vodka or whisky, and so people’s political chat in pubs is less crazy.”
During a recent smog epidemic in the city of Prague, a standard solution was offered: if everyone drank at the pub after work, leaving their cars home and using public transportation instead, the air pollution would inevitably dissipate. It’s not a totally bonkers idea, but does make me wonder how much beer we’d have to consume to even attempt reversing global warming.
Get ready for some serious eye contact
If you’re one of those people who hates looking humans in the eye, you should avoid getting drinks with Czechs at all costs. Czechs toast to each other by saying “na zdraví!” while looking into each others’ eyes as they clink glasses. It’s also super important to only clink with those across from you; crossing arms, streams, whatever, is weird, and a sign of bad luck. To make things easier, most bartenders will just keep bringing you a full glass of beer; if you’re tapping out, make sure to indicate so, or you’ll be responsible for the last beer that comes your way.