Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Category: Beer Tastings (Page 4 of 5)

Drinking Mussolini’s Beer

Let’s say my father-in-law is not a beer guy — when it comes to drinking for pleasure, we’re talking wine. But like most people here, he regularly drinks beer with meals, the same way that people in other European countries down mineral water: at every lunch and every dinner, there is one bottle of medium- or low-strength pale lager from Platan, his local brewery, on the table. This makes his beer consumption just about average for a citizen of the Czech Republic: just about one half-liter a day, just about every day of the year. But if it’s a question of his preferred beverage, it’s vino, generally Moravian, generally white, and generally very good.

But that still doesn’t explain the Mussolini beer.

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The Only Handpump in Prague

I spent much of Tuesday with el Pivero, first with a stop for lunch at Zlý časy out at náměstí Bratří Synků in Prague 4-Nusle. I used to live around the corner, so it was interesting to see how much the neighborhood has changed. First there’s the new brewpub, Bašta. Just a short stumble away is Zlý časy, an atmospheric cellar pub with two rotating taps of special beers in addition to regular brews from rarely seen Kácov.

On our visit, Zlý časy’s two special taps were dedicated to favorites from far-off brewpubs: the hoppy ležák from Moritz in Olomouc and the excellent (and fruity) wheat beer from U krále Ječmínka in Prostějov. I’d enjoyed both while researching Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic, but I’ve never seen either in Prague. The lunch wasn’t bad either, just like el Pivero said.

And then he mentioned something that made me want to get up and walk across town. Pivovarský dům, sister bar to Pivovarský klub and one of the centers of beer culture in Prague, had supposedly installed a handpump.

That is, a proper, CAMRA-approved, British handpump. Right here in Lagerland.

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Klostermann Amber Lager

About half a year back, we had a tasting of beers from Pivovar Strakonice, a complete run-down of the brewery’s lineup in the cellar of Pivovarský klub.

Afterwards, a few of us — ah, who am I kidding? It was just me and Max Bahnson — started grousing about the event, especially regarding the company’s marketing. Later, we were told that our comments had been reported to the directors of the brewery.

Six months later, it almost looks like they listened.

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Days of Polish Beer in Prague

Other than industrial juggernauts like Stella Artois and Heineken, imported beers are not often seen in the Czech lands, with very few brews arriving from across the border to the north. Some non-spectacular Polish beers have previously shown up in bottles. But this week, Pivovarský dum is holding the Days of Polish Beer, with four brews from Poland specially chosen and brought in by the Bractwo Piwne, in conjunction with SPP, their cousins in the European Beer Consumers Union.

At the introductory event yesterday afternoon, a cellar full of Czech beer fans got ask questions about Polish beer culture (including Grodziskie) and try the brews, most of which will be around for the rest of this week. Here’s what’s on tap.

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Traditional Czech Beer Vessels and Thoughts on Beer Culture


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.

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Slovak Beers: Steiger and Kaltenecker


After the big breakup known as the Velvet Divorce, Slovak beers were rarely seen in this half of the former Czechoslovakia, and the old Czech prime minister once commented that Slovak brews weren’t even fit for cleaning teeth. So it seems meaningful that Slovak beers have started appearing in Prague recently, from Kaltenecker’s ginger and dark lagers at the Christmas Beer Markets to the bottles of Steiger popping up at Pivovarský klub.

These bottles, however, are not intended for Slovakia’s former federal partners here in the Czech Republic, but instead are designed to entice customers in the German-speaking markets. (Yes, that is a scratch-off bra and panties covering the model on Steiger’s “Premium Helles,” or světlý ležák to you and me. Lest you think that they’re playing upon Slavic stereotypes, not all of the labels feature blondes — there’s at least one redhead.)

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Nonalcoholic Beers


Though the Czech Republic’s overall beer output rocked an all-time high of over 20 million hectoliters (12 million barrels) last year, growth is slowing as it hits the top of the arch. One category is still rocketing forward, however: nonalcoholic beer. In 2007, production of Czech nonalcoholic beer fully doubled from the year before, hitting half a million hectoliters of fine-to-drive lager containing .5% alcohol by volume or less.

That’s quite a change from just a few years ago, when nonalcoholic beer was rarely seen. Now nearly everyone offers nealkoholické pivo in bottles, and several varieties are even available on draft, with more versions showing up every month: Svijany introduced its nonalcoholic beer in 2006; Chodovar sent out its brew in 2007. Growth appears in every corner of the country: Litovel’s nonalcoholic beer production jumped 57% in 2007; Primátor expanded its distribution of NA beer by 65% from the year before; Budvar grew its sales of nealkoholické pivo by 55% last year.

Two reasons for the pick up:

1 . The Czech Republic has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. (It might be flouted, but that is the law.)

2. Some Czech nonalcoholic beers actually taste good.

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One Solution to the Hop Shortage: Hemp Beer


The global hop shortage has grabbed a lot of attention in the past few months, with no likelihood of the situation getting better anytime soon. At least one craft brewer with enough stock has offered to share his stash. Others are suggesting alternative beers made with spices, peppers or thistles. But the most natural solution might just be hemp beer, known as Hanfbier in German.

While hemp blossoms are unlikely to replace legendary hops like Hallertau, Spalt and Goldings in desirability, there are several similarities between the plants. Both are members of the cannabaceae family, as is marijuana. Many times I’ve noted grassy, pot-like scents while tasting beers with great aroma hops, and once in a hop yard in Žatec, aka Saaz, I was almost overcome by what I thought was the smell of hydroponic sativa. A couple of years ago I caught the same skunky scent while driving past a hemp farm in Southern Moravia. If hemp smells like marijuana and marijuana smells like hops, as long as there are no hops to be had, why not make hemp beer?

Several brewers in Europe — including at least two in the Czech Republic — already do.

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Two from Norway


One of beer’s most intriguing features is its sense of place, the idea that you can taste something from a certain region, even a highly specific location, and that each particular combination of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami — as well as untold millions of individual flavors — only exists for a particular brew from a particular place. At least in Czech terms, this is considered to be true for Pilsner, though elsewhere “Pilsner,” “Pilsener” and “Pils” mean vastly different things. In Norway, it could be something like Rogalands Pils, from Egersund, in the south of the country, or Mack Arctic Beer, a lager from Tromsø, way up inside the Arctic Circle.

These two showed up here via Kjetil Haugland and Geir Taule, two Norwegian beer fans who brought some of the local goods with them on their recent trip to Prague. When someone asks “Have you ever seen this beer before?” while offering up a can from the world’s northernmost brewery, you pretty much jump at the chance to make a trade.

So if the true Pilsner is a reflection of a specific place in the Czech Republic, what do Pils beers from Norway taste like?

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Kout in Domažlice


Of the many new brewpubs and breweries in the Czech lands, one of the most distinguished has to be Pivovar Kout na Šumavě, which returned to life by lurching off the operating table much like Frankenstein just as I was finishing Good Beer Guide Prague and the Czech Republic. Fortunately, I got the information in time to include a listing; unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to try even a single beer before we went to print.

Until now.

Located to the south of Plzeňský kraj in the beautiful Šumava forest, Kout is one of the few real breweries — not brewpubs — to reappear in the Czech Republic. Even stranger, Kout started out with remarkable success in a region that is completely pwned by Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus, the biggest brands in the country. Just after starting up, Kout secured distribution in several towns around the region, including Pilsen. Soon, more than a few cognoscenti started saying that they thought Kout made the best Pilsner-style beer in the Czech Republic, if not the world.

After tasting it, I’m inclined to agree.

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