Beer, Baroque, and Bohemia
The Czech Republic is called ‘the land of stories’ for a reason. Fairy-tale castles, UNESCO World Heritage sites, medieval towns, quaint villages, and spectacular vistas are just some of the reasons why it is a must-visit country in central Europe.
However, what attracted me to this Central European gem was its unrivalled beer culture. Bohemia is to beer what Bordeaux is to wine. Czechs are the real beer connoisseurs who treasure their golden brew like gold and are very proud of their beer heritage and culture.
During my two weeks in the Czech Republic, I went on a beer trail from western to southern Bohemia searching for the great and original taste of the amber nectar. I decided to go on a beer trail of two of the largest and most beloved breweries - Pilsner Urquell and Budvar - which together constitute much of the country’s zymurgical and political history.
Plzeň: birthplace of beer
Long before I arrived in the metropolis of beer, I had been a fan of Pilsner lager. In 1842, the mother lode of all lager beers was born in Plzeň, the largest town in western Bohemia. Not only did this quaint town gave the world a famous beer brand, Pilsner Urquell, but also started a new type of beer – light lager.
On a pleasant balmy summer morning, I set off on a day tour to the brewing metropolis from Prague. The first thing that struck me in Plzeň was the lack of tourists. After spending a few days in Prague, I was expecting similar crowds, but no. There I was in the middle of Plzeň’s beautiful Republic Square with no one poking their selfie sticks into my frame.
I started off with a two-hour Pilsner Urquell Brewery guided tour from the Visitor Centre. After an exchange of pleasantries, we were whisked away in a brewery bus to see one of the most modern bottling facilities, which processes 120,000 bottles per hour. Thanks to a knowledgeable guide, panoramic cinema, and using all my four senses, I learned about the magical ingredients from which Pilsner Urquell beer is brewed - Saaz hops, the soft water in Plzeň, and lighter malt. In the heart of the brewery lay three brew houses from different centuries. Finally, the tour culminated with the tasting of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell beer from the historical oak cellars.
Post my lunch at the Pilsner brewery restaurant, I moved on to learn more about beer history at the Brewery Museum in Plzeň, fittingly located in a 15th-century brewhouse.
The golden chapters of the golden lager unveiled themselves to me as I walked from one exhibit room to another, equipped with an audio guide. The quirky exhibits got my undivided attention and the experience was completely immersive and engaging - right from learning about the history of brewing in the town of Plzeň to knowing the step-by-step process of beer making. I had been to a lot of breweries before but I had never seen a Beer Museum like this. Not only did it have a malt shop, malt kiln, and rollers, but it also had a laboratory and beer curiosities section!
A trip to Plzeň is incomplete without seeing its ancient tunnel system below the town spanning 12 miles in length and dating back to the 14th century. Like other tours, this one also ended with a free glass of beer, which only seemed appropriate. It’s Pilsner, after all!
The brewing metropolis is also famous for its rich cultural tradition, which earned it the title of European Capital of Culture for 2015. Must visit places are the Jewish synagogue, the city hall, and the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew.
After Plzeň, my beer trail moved to Southern Bohemia.
ČeskéBudějovice: between the buds
Located in Southern Bohemia, ČeskéBudějovice is home to the country’s most famous or infamous brewery: Budvar, which is also the country’s only government-owned brewery. Since 1907 Budweiser Budvar has locked horns with the American giant Anheuser-Busch over the rights to the iconic name ‘Budweiser’ and has involved more than 100 court cases around the world. But whatever the courts around the world may say, locals like my guide - Ivana, have a simple straightforward argument. “Budweiser’s hometown, Ceske Budejovice, is known as Budweis in German, and “Budweiser” refers to someone or something that originates from that town. Like how Pilsner is named after the city of Pilsen (Plzeň). The American beer brewer Anheuser-Busch visited the town and liked the quality, colour, flavour, and taste of the beer so much that in1876 he imitated the beer formula and named it 'Budweiser'." While the courts around the world are still hearing the pleas, I can confidently say that the Czech Budweiser tastes way better than the American one.
My Budweiser Budvar tour began in the brewery’s gift shop where I put on a hard hat and a safety vest. My first pit stop was the 390-m artisan well from which the water for the Budweiser Budvar comes. As I moved inside the brewery, the interiors tell a different story – it is surprisingly modern for being born in 1895. Six stainless steel vats painted in copper sparkled in a huge brewhouse. The smell of fresh hops punctuated the air, a sweet and slightly peppery aroma. We then moved to the cellar area with a bone-chilling temperature of -2° Celsius to taste the fresh and cold unpasteurized beer.
My final stop of the tour was the massive packaging facility where up to 80,000 bottles can be processed in an hour.
Beer brewing is not the only thing that ČeskéBudějovice is famous for; the historical town has one of Europe's largest main squares called Ottokar II Square and a charming labyrinth of narrow lanes and winding thoroughfares, some of which hug a sleepy but atmospheric canal. The preserved old town showcases architecture styles ranging from Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque to 19th century Art Nouveau.
After visiting the two biggest breweries of the country, I wanted to try the small and family run micro-breweries.
Micro-breweries and Beer Spas
My friend Petra and I visited the Hluboká Brewery in Southern Bohemia, where traditional beer production has been restored after more than 100 years. One of the employees, Kamila, gives us the brewery tour and explains how they number beers on the basis of their strength - 11 (normal), 12 (stronger), and 18 (very strong and usually made during Christmas only).
I spend the next few days checking out the microbreweries of Prague, Brno, Olomouc, Cesky Krumlov, and Ostrava.
During my conversations with beer connoisseurs in Czechoslovakia, I spot an interesting trend – the Czech craze for beer goes beyond drinking it. They also love immersing themselves in it, which explains why the popularity of Beer Spas has skyrocketed over the past few years.
Even after a two-week long beer trail in the land of stories, I had barely scratched Bohemia’s beery surface. All I can say is - the Czech love-affair with beer goes beyond just gulping it down - they bathe in it, discuss it passionately, have festivals in its honour, and then find new ways of drinking it. Beer is the universal language in the Czech Republic.