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The issue raises a kind of chicken-and-egg question — which came first: Do the Czechs love their beer because it tastes so good, or is it so good because the Czechs cultivated it? The answer is almost certainly a bit of both.
Pavel Maryska, who was out drinking with his wife and friends last week, observed, “The Czech Republic isn't a good region for growing wine ingredients,” he said, referring to grapes. “It's good for growing hops.”
With all due respect to the Czech Republic's modest wine industry, Maryska makes an important point. But while good beer might begin with good hops, but it doesn't necessarily end there.
Petr Janik, who runs Pivovarsky Dum (The Brewery House) in Prague, said that in addition to the hops, other raw materials, such as yeast and water, the recipe and the equipment all contribute to the end result in your glass.
Janik said, “The American lager is much more deeply fermented compared with Czech lager. That is the first thing. And second is the brewing process, because we use the decoction system, but in America they mainly use the infusion system. And the decoction system gives the beer full body and much more caramel aroma.”
But he said some smaller breweries in the U.S. are using the decoction method, and getting good results. “In America I drank several Czech-style lagers from pub brewery and some were very close,” to genuine Czech lagers.
If you like beer at all — and presumably you do or else you would have stopped reading long ago — there's definitely something to be said for fresh, out of the tap, draft-beer. These full-bodied Czech beers really massage the taste buds.
Inside Janik's brew house I sampled their eclectic collection of in-house brews.
They only produce about 600 pints of beer (pivo) per day, and the most popular is their regular lager, according to Janik. Like a good Czech beer should be, their standard lager was full-bodied and pleasantly bitter.
The dark lager, made from four types of hops, I'm told, was also quite good. Dark beers tend to be sweet, but this dark beer was less so, and that agreed with my tongue.
The sour cherry beer, predictably, had a very fruity flavor, and relatively sweet. One could almost drink it with a dessert.
The coffee beer, made from coffee extract, tasted much better than the combination might suggest, though it still wouldn't be my beer of choice.
The wheat beer was fine — a typical Bavarian flavor, according to Janik — though wheat beers, in general, hold less appeal for me.
The banana beer didn't taste much like banana until it hit the back of my throat.
The nettle beer was a marvelous light green color, which comes from the nettle extract. It was fine, and Janik said, “It's very healthy, it contains a lot of minerals.”
The lemon beer, apparently a Belgian style, was OK but it didn't do much for me.
For me, the standard lager was definitely my favorite but it was interesting, and fun, to taste all of these other flavors.
Finally, the special distinctive quality of Czech beer has also been recognized by the European Union. Last year the EU designated Czech beer a country specialty. This entitles Czech brewers to put a Protected Geographical Indication stamp on bottles and cans. As Vera Honigova explains it, if someone in, say, Poland, adopted all of the ingredients and methods used in making Czech beer, it would still be considered an imitation product.