Today’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure, and nowhere is this truism more applicable than in the field of culinary anthropology: if you don’t take your bottles out quickly, they’ll soon form a big, stinking mess. But if you wait long enough, that pile of recycling could become a priceless collection of art, as well as a storehouse of historical information about the way we live and what we consume. This, effectively, is what happened at the Salesian Beer Museum in Prague.
Properly known as the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Salesians are a Roman Catholic religious order known for their work with young people, running community centers and outreach programs around the world. In Prague, they have a youth center at Kobyliské náměstí, a beautiful functionalist complex housing a theater, soccer fields, basketball courts, a climbing wall and rehearsal spaces for young musicians. In the middle of all this is the Salesian Beer Museum, an almost accidental collection of historic bottles, labels, openers, cans and beermats from the Czech Republic and around the world.
Due to a growing interest in breweriana, I made an appointment to visit the collection last week. I was shown around by Brother Antonín Nevola, the center’s director and the founder of the museum.
My first impression was one of awe: there is almost too much information to be gleaned from beer bottles. I’ve always wondered when exactly the Czech Republic switched from the little fat vessels used before the Velvet Revolution to the standard European half-liters today. With more than 2,000 bottles in the collection, you can track the changes year by year. (It looks like a gradual process over several years starting around 1995. Polička, struggling at the time, was the last Czech brewery to make the switch, shipping its beer in fatties until 1999.)
What about beers that don’t exist today? Something like Gambinus cerné (“black”), a dark lager available in both 10° and 12° versions, or Gambrinus bílé (“white”), the long-discontinued wheat beer from Pilsen?
Of course, the Czech lands were once known for their wheat beers, before the spread of industrial Pilsner-style brewing in the late nineteenth century, and along with amber lagers, strong darks and quality non-alcoholics, pšeničné pivo has become one of the country’s current beer trends today: Primátor’s very good Weizenbier is doing quite well, and several microbrewers and brewpubs are now offering wheats in a welcome return to a traditional style. Before their resurgence, one of the last Czech wheats to die was Prior, the Hefeweizen from Domažlice, a brewery that was shuttered by Plzeňský Prazdroj in 1996. Naturally, you’ll find a bottle here.
The collection includes more than 4,000 beermats, many of which come from long-closed pubs and breweries, as well as bottles going back a century and more (the oldest of which are shown up top). There’s even an unopened Pilsner Urquell from November of 1984, probably not okay to drink today, and some unusual promotional materials, including a massive two-liter bottle of Budvar, proportioned just like a normal Budvar half-liter. (Once you see it, you’ll think you’ve been miniaturized.)
There’s a lot more to learn about our brewing history, and often the only remaining resources are labels, beermats and advertisements — sometimes even fake ones. Going through the list of counterfeit Czech beer labels at Pivety.com, I was surprised to learn that several local producers once made a beer called “porter,” not just Pardubice (Slovakia’s Martinský Pivovar as well as Bohemia’s Broumov, often called Opat, both made porters). You can also see that the term “granát” was used by some brewers for a tmavý (dark), not an amber or half-dark.
So, there it is: what could have been trash, if not recycling, is now a treasure-house of information about Czech brewing history. As it turns out, the Salesian Beer Museum was founded by accident: Brother Nevola says he took a long bike trip and came back with five unusual bottles as souvenirs. The kids visiting the youth center saw those five bottles and started bringing in more bottles from home. Others contributed coasters, glasses and beermats. Someone found a placard for the old Vinohrady brewery in an attic — not a worthless item for collectors of breweriana by any means — and brought that in. Within just a few years, the collection had expanded to cover several hallways on several floors of the complex. It has been evaluated by authorities as having the only copies of several historical beer bottles in existence.