Call it an auspicious start to 2009 for lovers of good beer: in the very center of Prague, a major Czech supermarket now has a large selection of great Trappist ales at the best prices in town.
Most of these beers are available elsewhere in Prague, so don’t expect to find any unknown gems among the supermarket’s Budvar and Pilsner Urquell bottles. As I wrote in a post that was lost in the Wormhole Incident™, you can find well-known Belgians at Pivovarský klub and Pivní galerie, though you’ll burn through your pocketbook if you do, as prices for a small bottle of the globally ubiquitous Chimay can hit 153 Kč ($7.90 / €5.70).
In my earlier post, I forwarded a friend’s recommendation for the cheese shop Cheesy, with branches around Prague and around the country, and where most of the Trappist ales list for 75 Kč or so per 33-centiliter bottle. (An exception was the legendary Rochefort 10, which cost 90 Kč.)
But the prices at the Billa supermarket are even better, and with a more central location. Right at Náměstí Republiky, the Billa on V celnici street charges 63 Kč ($3.25 / €2.35) for a small bottle of Orval, the best price I’ve heard of for what can be one of the very best beers in the world.
Rochefort 6 and 8 are also 63 Kč; Rochefort 10 is 80 Kč. Small bottles of La Trappe and Westmalle start at 60 Kč. Most of the fruit-lambic lineup from Lindemans is available at similar prices (although I didn’t see Cuvée René, the brewery’s better old gueuze).
The best news, however, is that Billa also carries the large, .75-liter bottles which are perfect for aging. Corked-and-caged wine bottles of Chimay Cinq Cents, Grande Réserve and Première are all just 160 Kč; the wonderfully complex Achel Extra Bruin boasting 9.5% alcohol is just 200 Kč; big bottles of Westmalle Tripel are 180 Kč.
Why does this matter? Because Czech beer culture’s tough bounce is the extremely high price of foreign beers: even at 63 Kč for an Orval, you’re paying three times the cost of a Pilsner Urquell or Primátor Stout. Such prices mean foreign brews remain out of bounds for most people, which in turn means that regular Honzas and Hankas here have no experience with even the most mundane beer styles from abroad. (Let’s be honest: we’re not talking about truly obscure beers here. These are Belgium’s usual suspects.) In turn, this means that people continue to drink one style of beer, pale lager, which constitutes 95% of Czech consumption. In general, such homogeneity is not a hallmark of a healthy beer culture.
But beyond merely having lower prices, the arrival of Belgium’s usual suspects at Billa means something is changing. Before, these beers were only available in a couple of beer shops in town. Later, you could find them in a few specialty food stores. Now, in addition to lower prices, we’re seeing the progress to mass distribution of quality foreign beers in a place where thousands of Praguers buy their daily groceries.
Instead of Belgium’s best-known brews, I’m sure that Velký Al would prefer to see more real ale from the UK. I’d bet that Pivní Filosof would rather see more Czech regional microbrews. And I’d agree with both of them. But one thing at a time. 2009 is already off to a very good start.