In the Czech lands, the typical serving unit for beer is a půllitr, a half-liter glass just a nudge beyond an American pint in volume and weighing in around .88 imperial pints. That is the normal beer for grown-ups, while our most common small portion is .3 liters, or just a hair over a British half. Occasionally you might see a one-liter vessel called a tuplák, much like the Maß served in Munich at Starkbierzeit. Some brewpubs serve their beer in meager .25- and .4-liter portions, and some, like Brno’s Pegas, offer a standard portion of .6 liters (over 20 U.S. ounces).
But regardless of size, Czech beer is generally served in just one material: glass. Of course it wasn’t always this way. In historical terms the traditional Czech vessel was not the see-through půllitr, but rather the korbel (above), usually made out of clay.
This version is a traditional earthenware korbel, glazed inside but with a rough exterior: for many reasons, it is my favorite drinking vessel today. (This is a preference of some standing: in the Czech lands I would most rather drink from a korbel; in Germany, I prefer a krug like the one at Mahr’s.)
Here’s a Czech korbel made out of wood; here’s a clay version celebrating the 25th anniversary of the hop collective in Žatec (Saaz) in 1977, as well as an artistic interpretation from Petr Prášek.
Is there an advantage to drinking out of clay? Of course: it insulates better than glass and helps keep your beer at a stable temperature. The disadvantage is that you can’t see what it is you’re drinking. A materialist explanation for the rise of Pilsner-style beers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century partly centered on the then-recent availability of inexpensive glass vessels. When only nobles drank from glass or crystal, no one among the beer-drinking masses really cared what their beers looked like. With glassware suddenly much more widespread and affordable, the shocking clarity and golden color of Pilsner quickly outshined — quite literally — its darker, cloudier predecessors.
And yet I think I prefer earthenware. I enjoy the the slight roughness when I bring the korbel to my lips. I appreciate the constant temperature — not too hot, not too cold. And though there’s no way I could prove it, I believe that my korbel makes even cheap beers taste good.
Which brings us to Pivson, a no-name supermarket lager produced by a company called Brewer in Prague and apparently brewed at Pivovar Jihlava. With 3.5% ABV, this is probably a 9° and the body is watery, much like a non-alcoholic beer. Still, there’s a pleasant grainy note akin to whole fresh barley in the mouth. In the finish, there’s a touch of sweetness balanced by a slight hoppiness, somewhat minty, not unlike Switzerland’s Feldschlößchen. It might not be one of the beers to bring home from your next trip to Prague, and yet it is a surprisingly nice cheap can of lager. (The ingredients are straight-up water, barley malt and hops — no corn, no rice, and no damn E300.)
Beers like Pivson bring up an idea that’s been bumping around the back of my mind for a while now: a country’s beer culture shouldn’t be measured by the achievements of its best beers. Instead, I’d argue that a better way to take the pulse of any beer culture would be to look at its worst beers. Just how good are your supermarket generics? How good is the beer served at sports events? What do the masses drink?
Sure, America may have Surly Darkness and an army of outstanding craft brewers producing more variety than any other nation on earth, but the fact is that most people there drink Bud Light. In its history and achievements, Germany’s beer culture is outstanding, but if I had to drink mass-produced German pils for the rest of my days, it wouldn’t be a particularly long ride before I died of thirst, if not boredom.
And yet of all the beers in the Czech Republic that didn’t impress me — and yes, there are a few — I can’t think of any that are really and truly terrible, as in evil. (Okay, someone might say ahem! and nod in a direction west-northwest from Prague. With the qualification that I mean it in a global context, I stand by my statement.)
I’m often surprised by beers like Pivson, or the cheap (8.30 Kč / $.50 / £.25) Kristián from Eggenberg at my local supermarket, which finishes with a lovely Saaz note that belies its price. It’s true, there’s not a huge amount of variety in Czech beer culture, at least not by American standards, though there certainly is much more now than just a few years ago. Regardless, our good beers are generally excellent, just as the good beers are in any beer culture.
The difference? Our bad beers are often quite good, too.