A guide to great brews in the homeland of pilsner.
The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. I recently spent a week in Prague, and I learned that the locals are incredibly proud of the variety and quality of their beer. Beer is on offer in every restaurant or bar; upon being seated, you’re nearly always asked, “light or dark?” before you even look at a menu. In this case, “light” is a pilsner and “dark” is a dark lager.
I would be remiss if it didn't mention Pilsner Urquell in an article about Czech beer. Created in 1842 in Pilsen, it's the world's first golden lager and the standard by which Czech pilsners are based. It's a smooth, refreshing beer made with crisp, spicy Saaz hops, and it’s especially delicious straight out of the cask. Most places you go, you’ll find it on tap. For more adventurous beer lovers, Prague has quite a few surprises hiding underground – sometimes, quite literally
Without further ado – here are the five beers to try if you find yourself in Prague
5. Staropramen Unfiltered
Staropramen is the second-largest brewery in the Czech Republic – bet you thought you were only going to find microbrews on this list, right? But Staropramen Unfiltered deserves its spot for several reasons.
One is the beer’s history. Staropramen is brewed right in the city of Prague, in the Smichov district. It began in 1869 as a joint stock brewery, and had continued success through World War I, becoming Czechoslovakia’s largest brewery in 1930. During the socialist period after World War II, all Czech breweries were nationalized, and it wasn’t until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 that the brewery became part of the Prague Breweries Group. Although a series of events led to the company falling under the control of Molson Coors, Staropramen is still brewed in Prague to this day.
This beer is nearly as widely available as Pilsner Urquell, though I found it much more complex in flavor. It has a cloudy aspect, the result of its being unfiltered, with a creamy, foamy white head that smells fairly citrusy. It’s a full-bodied pilsner with a touch of coriander and a hoppy bite but an overall a smooth finish. It’s refreshing, easy to drink and great for pairing with all that rich Czech food. I savored one with a traditional Czech beef broth noodle soup, and the beer’s edge was perfect for cutting through the luscious fat of the homemade stock.
4. Il Tri Ruzi Svetly Special
This brewery has a constantly revolving door of delicious microbrews, made in-house in the historic center of Prague. The building itself has been home to a pub since at least the 16th century, and the brewmaster here relies on Czech traditionals as well as international styles to inspire his beers.
Many of the beers are wonderful, but the bottom-fermented pilsner is one that every beer lover should taste. It perfectly encapsulates this style so typical of Prague, with a beer boasting a lovely dark golden color and a creamy head. A rich Pils malt lends a nice sweetness, reminiscent of yeasty, fresh bread; the Czech Saaz hops impart uniquely light hoppiness with spice and grass.
This balance between sweetness and bitterness is what makes Il Tri Ruzi Svetly Special stand out amongst the many pilsners you’ll find in Prague; this one is the example to which others should be held. Pilsners pair very well with a great deal of foods, but in my mind, this one goes perfectly with a gourmet burger topped with a soft cheese like Brie. The beer is powerful enough to stand up to a certain amount of richness without overpowering the blend of flavors in a well-assembled burger.
3. Primator Weizen
The top three beers on this list were all sampled at a beer bar called U Kunstatu in the city center. Open for nearly a year when I visited, this bar is also home to beer tastings. U Kunstatu is located in one of the oldest houses (a palace, actually) in Prague above a centuries-old vaulted basement that you might be able to tour if you ask nicely!
Marek Taborsky, one of the owners, graciously helped me come to a conclusion about our top three beers, each of which adds depth to the landscape of Czech brewing.
Primator is a German-style wheat beer, brewed with both wheat and barley, which, Marek informed me, is rarer in the Czech Republic than in other European beer-brewing nations; Czech brewers tend to stick to barley as a rule. He also let us know the citrus and coriander that is mixed into the brew of many Belgian wheat beers is not present here, and yet those flavors, so typical of this style, most certainly are.
The beer is not nearly as pale as some wheat beers and has a nice, white head. It’s a very aromatic beer thanks to yeast sediments with touches of clove and banana but overall a citrusy, fruity freshness with just a touch of coriander and exactly the right amount of hop bitterness. This beer was awarded the 2013 WBA UK best wheat beer of the world award, so you’ll be in good company when you take a taste of this one.
Wheat beers often pair well with lighter foods like salads and poultry, but this one is so fantastically aromatic that it would also be great with Prague’s famous goulash soup, or any other richly flavored soup with a touch of spice, like Mexican tortilla soup. This might be the ideal beer to pair with a chicken chili spiced with coriander and cilantro, to echo those aromas in the beer itself.
2. Pivovar Matuska
I’ll go on record right now and admit that I love a good, hoppy pale ale. That might be one of the reasons I fell so head over heels with this American-style pale ale, brewed with American Apollo and Australian Galaxy hops, but it’s not the only reason. This beer is really nicely rounded, with a surprising, hay-like aroma. While the raw bitterness of the hops is absolutely present, it’s not the only thing that defines this beer, which is surprisingly smooth and even a bit sweet.
The ale is brewed in a family brewery, specifically by Mr. Matsuka Jr. The 26-year-old has uncovered the secret to an extremely balanced ale with a good amount of bitterness, a nice rounded sweetness and light, grassy aftertaste to boot.
I love to pair pale ales with seafood, but with this much character, you’ll need something that packs a flavor punch. A citrusy ceviche paired with this beer will bring out the best in both.
1. Pardubicky Porter
We almost didn't taste this one -- I’m glad I now know what I would have missed.
This beer is a very unique style known as a Baltic porter. Much like IPAs, which were developed with high alcohol and lots of hops to withstand long sea journeys, Baltic porter was developed with a high ABV—8% in order to make it all the way to the Baltic states, and the locals liked it so much that they began brewing their own beers in the same style.
Pardubicky has been brewed in the city of Pardubice since 1891 and shows off the best of the style – a dark brown, cloudy color with incredibly smoky, roasty brown malt aromas. The taste is the perfect cross between coffee and cocoa, so that both sweetness and bitterness come out in the final beer.
Marek’s own food pairing for this beer is better than anything I could come up with — make a beef stew with one bottle of Pardubicky, and serve the other bottle alongside it. The pairing of this beer with rich beef, carrot and potato imbued with brew would only make it that much tastier.
A little bonus: Il Tri Ruzi Christmas Beer
I won’t include this beer on the top five list, as it’s only available at Christmastime, but I thought that it absolutely deserved a mention. The semi-dark, bottom-fermented beer hails from the same brewery as the pilsner above and is brewed with four different malts and two kinds of Czech hops. The result is a beer with a very specific hoppy aroma and a pleasantly sweet spiciness that isn't at all cloying.
While I understand that this beer is brewed for Christmas, I can imagine drinking it all year long and serving it with fried kielbasa sausages, potato pancakes and sauerkraut; the richness and complex flavors of the beer are perfectly matched to the typical sweet-and-sour aromas of this sort of central European plate.
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