A teacher in a foreign country encounters a natural amount of curiosity as to why they’re in that particular place. Czechs, in particular, aren’t a very nationalistic people. While they like their country, there is a certain unspoken assumption that other places are better. For this reason questions about why one has chosen Prague (of all the horrible places in the world) can take on an unexpected intensity. Having been asked this question many times, I’ve given many answers, among them: that I was bored at my last job and wanted to try something new; that Prague is incredibly beautiful; or that I wanted to see more of the world**. All these seemingly valid, charming answers provoke the response, “Yes, but why here?” The students exchange glances and decide that, clearly, this guy is a little nutty. Like teaching them the use of articles (“a, an, the”), which aren’t used in Czech, these answers don’t seem to set in. Why would someone come here? And from New York City? However, there is one answer with which a teacher can win unanimous respect in this strange country….
“We are curious. Why do you come to Czech Republic?” says the class.
“Why? That’s a silly question. I like beer.”
Ahh, bask in the nods of approval and warm smiles of congratulations. “If it’s beer you want,” they think, “you’ve made a wise choice.”
There is nothing quite like a well poured Pilsner. It’s cool to the touch. Golden, when light from behind: not amber or yellow but golden. The first sip is elusive, hiding just below the stiff creamy head which sticks to my mustache, playing hard to get. Ah, but that taste: crisp, yet buttery smooth. An unobtrusive taste that will fall to the back of your mouth when engaged in a conversation or linger playfully on the tongue if feeling meditative.
While American microbrews are coming to the fore with their innovative flavor profiles, Czech beer is magical in it’s simplicity: uncomplicated and perfectly balanced it’s like the cool kid who sit’s confidently in the back of the class while everyone else struggles to distinguish themselves.
It’s difficult to understand a country whose people consume more beer each year than any other in the world – 159 liters a year, as of 2009 – without a discussion of the libation that could so effectively describe the national character. Without degenerating into anthropomorphizing a beverage it is worth noting that stereotypical Czech physique, lifestyle and disposition are heavily correlated with beer: stout, sociable and jovial. Beer: it’s so simple, yet since this entry was started in September an immobilizing sense of futility has froze my hand. Like a momentary eye contact with a beautiful woman describing this topic simultaneously seems of little importance and impossible significance. Suffice to say, after four months I am no closer to comprehending this subtly complex and utterly simple beverage.
So, now that we’ve established (to my mother’s infinite delight) that I am truly a dilettante in Czech beer, we may proceed into what I do know. Which is, simply put, that it’s good. In case you’re still wondering, the Czech word for beer is pivo. Thanks to Stacy Lazar, it was the first Czech word I learned and one I’ve used plenty.
As a matter of course, every Czech town of any distinguish has a brewery and, unfortunately, the best beers are found outside of Prague where they’re brewed in smaller batches with recipes perfected over the last hundred years. While many of these beers make their way to Prague, to truly understand the beer of this country I would have to travel each week to a new town to sample their unique contribution to the field. (An especially appealing thought considering each beer would then have two stories: theirs and mine. How much better would the local taste while sitting in the evening sun after a long bike ride or near the fireplace of a country pub after a snowy train trip?)
Yet thankfully, while beer related travel would be delightful it isn’t compulsory. Prague has three breweries (Staropramen, Braník and Mestan), a few brew-pubs and one monastery housed by beer-brewing, ninja monks (Strahov Monastery Brewery). Although there a load of beers available in Prague , there aren’t very many that are commonly on tap. The most ubiquitous beers are Plzen (Pilsner Urquell), Gambrinus (my least favorite, but often the cheapest), Staropramen (the local boy with a brewery across the river), Krušovice (strangely, a tinny-tasting staple of Chinese restaurants) and Budweiser Budvar (“The beer of kings.” Seriously.). Other choices in the limitless supply pop up randomly in trendy cafes or bars (like the Prague Beer Museum, with 30 Czech beers on tap) but the when we’re discussing pubs, the heart of Czech drinking, it’s all about the tap, and the sign outside.
Most drinking is done at pubs and I’m proud to live on the outskirts of the pub capital of Prague. Most typical pubs are sponsored by one or two breweries and feature two or three taps. Once you’ve become a proper beer snob you can decide whether a pub is worthy before stepping in via the signs that grace the outside of every beer-serving establishment in the city. These signs, like the pictorial ones we imagine hanging outside businesses of the middle ages (a horseshoe at the blacksmith, a loaf of bread at the baker or a prancing pony outside the “Prancing Pony” pub), clearly indicate exactly what you’ll find inside. This is particular useful for foreigners describing a bar serving an obscure but delightful beer, as in, “Let’s go to that Svijany bar in Vinohrady.”
One of the most notable distinctions between the Czech mindset on beer and the rest of the world is their system of labeling. In most places you can find reference to the percentage of alcohol but in the Czech Republic they proudly reference the Original Gravity when referring to their beer. This reference comes in the form of degrees. A 10° beer is light (3-4% ABV) – suitable for breakfast, lunch, a days worth of drinking, or perhaps, beer pong – while a 12° beer is a bit stonger (4-5% ABV)- maybe for a cheeky lunchtime 0.3l or for getting goofy on a Friday night. 10° and 12° are the most common, but beer is graded anywhere from 6° to 19°. The former might be what Bohemian Glass blowers drink to stay hydrated during their hours in front of the kiln while the latter, and strongest beer in country, is an 8% porter, much like that rancid Ukrainian beer we used to drink in Kensington, Brooklyn (anyone remember what was that stuff called?). Beer is further distinguished by the Czech vocabulary you use for such things: most notably lezak, for lager; světlý, for light; and černý, for dark: bringing me to the limited extent of my Czech, “dva pivo černý, prosim.” (“Two dark beers, please.”)
So, what do you do once you’re at your favorite pub that serves a beer suited to your newly snobbish taste? You sit! The Czechs, unlike us New Yorkers (and this was hard to get accustomed to), are huge fans of relaxing at a table to do their drinking. When I first arrived, homesick for NYC bars, there was nothing more frustrating than having to sit and drink – especially after a long day ass-to-chair in a classroom. Alas, with the exception of clubs where you wouldn’t enjoy a beer regardless, it is customary to imbibe with your butt planted firmly in a chair. Considering how strong Czech beer is, this might be a good idea. The Czechs so love sitting that most people reserve tables in the pub long before arriving. This means that you can commonly walk into a great pub around 7pm on a Friday night, see it empty save for slips of paper reserving each table, and be promptly kicked out.
Now, like always when my entry has run past 1,000 words, I am forced to wonder if I’ve said to much or not enough. I’ve certainly not answered my thesis and this may be that I’m building suspense, or even that my trifling powers of description seem inadequate to such a task but I suppose that I’ve merely exhausted myself with such a long description of what I’m certain of. Of what exactly, beer means – I am not yet certain. Not to worry, my intrepid reader: I end this treaty as I step out the door, headed to the pub, some friends and a tall glass of golden Pilsner. If I don’t figure it out after this one, then perhaps the next.