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 156 litres. Beer is served almost everywhere in Prague, even in breakfast cafés! It tastes terrific and it's cheap.
Popular Czech beers
Most Czech beers are light in colour, brewed naturally from hand-picked hops. Increasingly, breweries are producing dark ales too as an alternative, but most Czechs still like their beer light, nicely chilled, with a tall head. When ordering a beer in a pub, ask for “pivo” (beer, 0.5l) or “malé pivo” (small beer, 0.3l).
Pilsner Urquell is the best known Czech beer. Brewed in the town of Plzeň since 1842, it is the original Pils beer from which golden beers the world over are derived.
The Pilsner Urquell brewery also produces Gambrinus, a beer popular within the Czech Republic.
Staropramen is a local beer to Prague, so is available in many pubs in the capital. Bernard is a well respected cheaper beer brewed in East Bohemia. And Kozel
is a much loved beer brewed in Velké Popovice, a village just 25 minutes drive from Prague.
But 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).
Away from the light beers, more recent introductions to the market include Velvet, a smooth and creamy beer, and Kelt, 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 brewing success is the country's agricultural conditions, which are ideal for growing hops. Chronicles place their cultivation in Bohemia as early as the year 859, 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
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 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 Czech breweries have been bought by foreign brewing giants. A lot of investment has been ploughed in, resulting in impressive modern brewing facilities. And Czech beers are now marketed worldwide as a premium product.
What is the price of a beer in Prague today?
The average price of a large Czech beer (0.5l) in pubs and bars in Prague
(aside from in the tourist traps on the main squares) is just 40czk (£1.40/€1.50/$1.80).
Outside the city, and throughout the Czech Republic, the price of a beer in local pubs falls to 20czk-25czk.
Beer is so engrained in the Czech national psyche that brewers are wary about raising prices too much, and no politician would dare raise taxes too far either! Indeed, some brewers make such little profit on domestic sales that
exports are vital to their business model.
in Prague and the Czech Republic, sample the likes of Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Kozel and Budvar
in the best possible way - freshly brewed and cheap!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. Today, pubs and restaurants in Prague like U Fleku
, Novomestsky Pivovar
and U Medvidku
carry on this tradition 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.
Such sentiments are encouraging ever more Prague pubs to add micro-breweries, to complement their existing beers. This is a trend we see increasing in the future.
Of even more significance perhaps, recent developments in technology have driven the introduction of tank beer (tankove pivo) into several Prague pubs and restaurants. Instead of beer delivered in barrels, it is transported pasteurised or unpasteurised from the brewery to the pub by tanker lorry. At the pub, the beer is fed via a large pipe into a huge stainless steel tank in the cellar, in the manner in which a fuel tanker delivers. The tank is lined with a waterproof and airtight polypropylene bag, sealing the beer in.
When a customer orders a beer, it is piped from the tank straight to the beer pump. This “bag-in-a-box system” delivers the freshest possible beer, because the beer does not come into contact with air until it hits the glass. It is almost as if you are drinking it at the brewery.
Pilsner Urquell leads the field in this technique, followed by Budvar and Kozel. 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.
Try out 'tank beer' in Prague at Kolkovna Celnice
and U Vejvodu
(Pilsner Urquell pubs), and at U Medvidku
To learn more about the history of Czech beers and the different brewing methods, try the Prague Brewery Tour
, Prague Pub & Beer Tasting Tour
or the Czech Beer Tasting
event, which all take place in the centre of Prague.
Alternatively, if you are willing to travel outside Prague, the Kozel Brewery Tour
runs several afternoons a week. In terms of visitor experience, Kozel is undoubtedly one of the best breweries in the Czech Republic to tour, and it's only a short ride from Prague: