There’s an old proverb in the Czech Republic: ‘Kde se pivo vaří, tam se dobře daří’. It means ‘Where beer is brewed, life is good,’ and though I can’t pronounce these wise words, I am more than happy to live by them.
It’s this staunchly pro-pint position that has helped the Czechs retain the title, as of 2017, of the highest per-capita consumers of beer in the world for the 25th consecutive year. For context, the Czechs put away 183 litres of beer per person each year, which is the equivalent of 1.5 bottles being imbibed by every man, woman and child every day.
There’s also a not-so-old proverb in the Czech Republic that isn’t actually a proverb: ‘Czech yourself before you wreck yourself.’
It means that, despite the Czech’s propensity for liquid indulgence, the country isn’t full of drunken families stumbling through the streets. Beer is a social conduit, a reason for friends and families to gather, and things don’t usually get out of hand. That said, in some parts of the country you can get a 500ml glass of draught for around a dollar, so don’t be surprised if things sometimes do.
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What to drink
The Czechs have been brewing beer since the year 993 and their most famous tipple has to be pilsner, named after the city of Plzen in the west of the country. It was here that pilsner was first brewed by the Pilsner Urquell brewery in 1842 and though ‘pilsner’ has been adapted across the world as style of beer, Pilsner Urquell is the only Czech brewery that can use the name, which translates as ‘from Pilsen’.
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There are plenty of other tasty traditional beers including the real Budweiser (not that watery American lager), Staropramen and Gambrinus, the latter named after a Germanic king who was partial to a good time. Apparently he was also a direct descendant of Noah, which may well explain his love of liquids and tendency to enjoy his beers two by two.
For those partial to a more modern take on an old Czech favourite, Prague’s burgeoning craft beer scene does justice to the city’s reputation as beer capital of the world. The past decade has seen a number of craft brewers starting up and there are now over 30 breweries calling Prague home. One of the best places to sample them is BeerGeek Bar, which has 32 taps and over 500 varieties of bottled beer.
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Three degrees of inebriation
One very important consideration when choosing a beer is its strength. The Czechs do things a little differently and instead of putting the alcohol percentage on a beer label, they put down different degrees. The degrees denote the weight of the extract (sucrose) in the solution (beer) on the day it was brewed. The higher the degree, the more sucrose and, consequently, alcohol. There are two main degrees of beer: 10 (about 3.5%) and 12 (about 4.2%), while 16 degrees is about 6.5%.
The good news is that traditional bars will only offer one type of 10 degree beer and one type of 12 degree beer, so if you’re tuckered out from converting degrees to percentages, it’s at least an easy choice of which beer to drink.
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How to drink
FOMO may be the root of all evil in modern society, but the Czech Republic is all about foam-o. More specifically, the Czech Republic is all about pouring beer properly. It’s serious business and there are actually three ways to order a beer at the bar, depending on your foam preferences.
The standard pour is a ‘hladinka’, with about one quarter foam on top of the glass. It’s poured in one go and is the perfect creamy ratio of beer-to-head. Once you’ve finished, it should leave circles of foam down the inside of the glass. Perfection.
If you’re not down for a full beer, you can order a ‘šnyt’. It’s a small beer served in a large mug that’s filled with foam to save the drinker the embarrassment of ordering – heaven forbid – a small beer. What’s more, the thick layer of foam keeps the beer fresh so a šnyt can be enjoyed slowly, leaving plenty of time for debating politics and football and other classic pub topics, like who first came up with the proverb ‘Czech yourself before you wreck yourself’.
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Your third option is ‘mlíko’, in which a tiny bit of beer is poured and then topped with a glass full of froth. These are typically drunk at the end of the night, with the sweetness of the froth said to give the drinker a ‘jolt of energy’ so they can make it home (responsibly). If you are going to order a mlíko, be sure to drink it quickly to enjoy the full flavour of the froth before it settles into regular beer taste, which in fairness is still rather nice.
Where to drink
Can I quote another Czech proverb? A real one? Here we go: ‘bez peněz do hospody nelez.’ It translates as ‘don’t go to the pub without money,’ and it is, by any country’s standards, very sound advice. But the proverb fails to mention that if you do have money, you should most definitely go to the pub because Czech pubs are a microcosm of the country and a sure-fire way to make some new friends. If you thought Queen did a good Bohemian Rhapsody, wait till you kick back in the original Bohemia and listen to the locals wax lyrical over a pint of pilsner. You’ll be asking is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? And the answer is yes, it’s real, and it doesn’t get much better.
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Feature photo by Breaking The Walls via Shutterstock.