Friday, September 9, 2016

The Czech Beer Revolution

Did They Really Need One?

For the Czech Republic, beer is king. They are the number one beer drinkers per capita in the world. Per capita is a fancy-shmancy term where they take the amount of beer sold in a year and divide it by the entire population. It's easy math wherein even babies drink. Per capita is the only way to get a decent head count, because some countries are bigger than others, and because some people can drink 10 times more beer than a baby. So it goes. You probably thought Germany would be the largest beer consumers, what with the lederhosen and that Oktoberfest thing. Well, they were. But Oktoberfest is more than half foreigners, so that shit doesn't count. That and Czechoslovakia split in half and the Czechs dropped their wine-swilling Slovak cousins into the dust while listening to Bohemian Rhapsody. When a city map is redrawn into specific districts in order to favor one political party, this is called gerrymandering. With beer consumption and countries, it is called beerymandering.

Photo by Gabriela Sarževská
Back in The Day (the day I first arrived in Prague, a fine day in 1997 to be exact), every Czech pub was pretty much the same: smokey, wall-to-wall wood paneling, small tv high on a corner shelf, and full of young and old drinkers from opening to closing. There were slight variations of course. The most notable was the type of beer offered. You could walk down a single street in working-class, punk rock, gypsy Žižkov and see at least a dozen different beer signs from an equal number of Czech towns. They had 3 things in common:

  1. they were all good
  2. they were all cheap
  3. one day a week topless bar babes served you the beer.

The reason the beer was (and still is) cheap is simple. Czechs would overturn the government if they levied a beer tax and/or raised the price of beer too much. So beer was classified as 'liquid bread' so as to be taxed as a basic foodstuff, a necessity, a staple, and a mainstay of Czech existence. Clever bastards. Topless beermaids.


So many beers back in The Day, so little sobriety. There were pubs every 50 feet and a different beer sign sticking out of each one. It was like staring down a row of colored squares on a life-sized Beer Monopoly board. There was Pilsener Place, Gambrinus Gardens, Kozel Avenue, Samson Street and Budwalk. I saw it as a challenge to try them all. At about a quarter per pint (back in The Day, nowadays about a buck fiddy), the only challenge was not to get too wasted before noon. I never used to be a daytime drinker before I lived in Prague. But you can't pay double for a soft drink. It's bad beer math. One thing hasn't changed: Czech beer is cheaper than water. And who the hell would pay 50 cents for a small glass of warm, flat Coke with no ice when you can get a tall, cold beer for a quarter? Only a MADMAN, I tell ya.


Prague survived all the major world wars intact by just giving up and being annexed by whatever bastard sons of bitches were in power at the time. This saved all the old precious buildings and even more precious breweries from being leveled. But Czech beer was in true jeopardy when all of the breweries were being bought up by foreign beverage distributors. UK's Bass company held sway for awhile, then sold off the Czech breweries it had owned to the Japanese. ABMiller bought up many of the major Czech labels, and as is always the case with corporate conglomeration, something gets diluted in favor of profit. Globalization equals Bud/Coors/Miller. Anhauser-Busch, the purveyor of the worst and most popular bilge water beer known as Budweiser, takes the And How's Your Douche Prize for stupidest legal move. They tried to sue Czech Budvar, the original Budweiser (from České Budějovice, aka Budweis in German) for use of the name Bud. Oh yeah, that went over really well. Hey, Douchebags! Czechs invented Budweiser in 1785, a hundred fuckin' years before your piss even passed the first Bowery bum's bladder. All they managed to win in the suit was the right to keep American beer fucking close to water. Again. Budvar beer is renamed 'Czechvar' when imported to the States. Wouldn't want to confuse the rednecks with actual beer.

So just like in the Monopoly game, that previously-colorful Žižkov pub street became one massive Pilsener Place, with every sign becoming Pilsener Urquell and Gambrinus (owned and brewed by Pilsener). Every pub started serving the same beer. Even the topless beermaids started to look a little tired and droopy. Pubs started closing (or worse, being sold and turned into biddie bistros where squared headed, burgundy-haired, middle-aged women met over cheap wine and squealed about how they got the house and car in the divorce).


I left the Czech Republic and lived in Berlin for 6 years. They have more breweries, and many of them are run by monks. Especially in Bavaria. Ohhhh, mighty monk beer.... A nice German guy told me the best (and probably only) German joke: 'How are sex in a canoe and American beer the same? Both are fucking close to water.' Damn right. So I dove into the monk beer and was baptized in the rheinheitsgebot (German beer purity law of 1516).

On several return visits to Prague for photo jobs, I started to notice a change. On one particular visit to my favorite pub district of Žižkov, there was a new phenomenon brewing: the Czech craft beer. One pub I stumbled into had not only the usual 3 Czech beers, but a whole line of 9 taps serving beers I had never even heard (or dreamed) of. There were even a few microbrewery mainstays like IPA, the once-staple strong ale of microbrewery fame. There were porters, stouts, ales, bitters and blondes, all foaming at the mouth and screaming for my attention. It was about. Fucking. Time. Apparently the peasants revolted. Didn't want the same 3 beers. Hated the corporate oligarchy. Missed the days of old.

Since that glorious day, I've seen a host of microbreweries, craft beer pubs and guest beer tap lists sprouting and hopping up around Prague—even in the outlying areas. My latest cheap-ass apartment in the run-down, industrial district of Praha-Libeň houses several such fine and dandy beer bases. You can sip a strong stout in the cellar bar Napalmĕ at Palmovka Metro (or sit ouside in sunny weather), or you can even go to the Kolčavka pub just up the road, where they are raking steaming malt and hops out of steel cauldrons right in front of you while you sip your ale. It's like a 3D film for the beer enthusiast. With smell-o-vision. Something fondles my nostalgia when I smell beer being brewed. It's like Mom's Malt-O-Meal or oatmeal on the stove mingled with the smell of burning coffee. If I were to ever get rich and famous and be in need of my own fragrance line, that would be it.

Today I went to the Pivovar Kolčavka brewpub up the road. As it was lunchtime and I have no compunction whatsoever about daytime drinking, I sampled 3 different beers. I also had fried smoked cheese to wash the beer down with. Cuz I am all about the smazhak. The first (and best) beer was the Summer Ale, 13 degree. Czech beers are sold by degree: 10 (most common), 11, 12 and... you get the pic. The degree is something about specific gravity or something hoppy or jumpy—I don't care about the geeky bits. I just drink the stuff. But the higher the degree, the stronger, which is all a beer mathematician needs to know. The 10 degree is about 4% alcohol, and it goes up about a point per degree. All of the beers I sampled had that fresh micro brew taste. I can't describe it without getting all nostalgic about Malt-O-Meal again, but that flavor is exactly the same in Sacramento or Praha-Libeň. Except Czech beer is 5x better. Add to that the various types of hops and malts offered in each type of beer and you get beer perfection. I also had something called Best Bitte, which I thought was German, but it was in fact a bitter beer. They also had a hořka, which is Czech for bitter. Then there was the IPA, famous for hoppy bitterness. Apparently you can't be bitter enough. There was also one called Mrtvy Kostelnik, translated something like 'dead friar.' It was the strongest beer on offer. As tempting as that was, I had to pass, as fried cheese, french fries and 3 strong ales is already enough to kill a bull moose.

I oozed home along a winding path by a creek and I stopped to listen to the water burbling off the stones. I thought about how a small country won against imperialist brewers and purveyors of cheap swill to the growing global economy. Half of the major Czech breweries and most of the minor ones are still owned by Czechs in spite of the best efforts of Big Beer. But in a country that has been brewing beer since about the year 800, that makes all the sense in the world.


Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Love the idea that beer was classified as liquid bread...foodstuff. Sounds like you and and the Czechs are on the same page about beer. lol.

Great article, with lots to learn.

Craig Robinson said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, at this point, probably the ONLY reason I live in Czech is the beer. :D

Unknown said...

Great explanation about per head of capita beer consumption. I have to mention as been a Paddy, we did hold the one number slot for one year during the height of the Celtic Tiger myth in the early 2000s but the Czech Republic has held the honour of the number one position ever since. After all this is a country where the current Czech President (Milos Zeman) is quoted saying that "there is no harm having 8 beers and 4 shots every night". And it's the country in the world where your doctor will tell you to have "no more than 8 beers per night" when on a course of antibiotics. That's why we love it.

Craig Robinson said...

Yes! I find it interesting that the Irish lost the number one beer drinkers spot and Czech became number one the year you moved here. ;)