The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague’s Famous Brewing Scene
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Origins of Czech Beer Brewing
The roots of Czech beer brewing stretch back over a thousand years, to a time when Bohemian monks first began brewing beer using local ingredients like Saaz hops. While the Czech lands have been controlled by various rulers over the centuries, from kings to communists, one tradition has remained steadfast: Czechs take immense pride in their beer.
Brewing beer in the region now known as the Czech Republic began sometime around 993 AD when Bohemian Benedictine monks were granted permission to brew and sell beer by Prince Boleslav II. The monks mainly brewed dark lagers and perfected brewing techniques still used today. Monasteries played a pivotal role in beer production through the Middle Ages, but when the Protestants gained control in the early 16th century, many monasteries were closed and secular brewing took over.
The city of Plzeň (Pilsen in German) has perhaps the most storied history in Czech brewing. Up until the mid-1800s, the city's beer was dark, cloudy and often spoiled quite quickly. In 1839, the citizens of Plzeň poured out their undrinkable beer in protest and a new brewery opened in 1842 called the Bürger Brauerei (Citizens' Brewery). A Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll was hired to lead the operation and he created the first batch of pale lager, which he named Pilsner Urquell.
This new lager was perfectly clear, refreshing and storied for longer. It became immensely popular and breweries across Europe rushed to replicate Groll's Pilsner style. Pilsner Urquell is still brewed in Plzeň today using the same recipe and open flames. Beer enthusiasts from around the world make pilgrimages to Plzeň to tour the Pilsner Urquell brewery and taste the original brew straight from wooden barrels in the cellars.
While Czechs take immense pride in their historic brewing traditions, the 20th century was not kind to Czech beer. After World War I, what is now the Czech Republic became part of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. During this prosperous time, brewing thrived and Czech beer gained international acclaim. However, decades of war, Nazi occupation, and communist control took their toll.
When the communists seized power in 1948, private breweries were nationalized. Quality and variety suffered under the state-controlled brewing industry. Following the Velvet Revolution and breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1989, the Czech brewing industry slowly began returning to private hands. An explosion of small craft breweries emerged and helped revitalize Czech beer.
Today, the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world and is home to more than 350 breweries. Historic breweries like Pilsner Urquell operate alongside beloved local microbreweries like U Fleků in Prague, which has been brewing since 1499 AD. A new generation of innovative Czech brewmasters are inventing modern twists on classic styles.
Part of what makes Czech beer so special is the excellent quality of local ingredients, especially hops. The finest hops come from the Žatec (Saaz in German) region of the Czech Republic. Saaz hops are a noble hop prized for their complex aroma and low bitterness. These aromatic hops balance the soft, clean malt flavors in Czech beers perfectly. Moravian malt from local barley also lends a sweet, biscuit-like flavor. The local water in Plzeň and other Czech brewing regions is very soft, allowing the flavors of the malt and hops to shine.
What else is in this post?
- The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Origins of Czech Beer Brewing
- The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Traditional Czech Beer Styles
- The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - How to Properly Taste and Appreciate Czech Beer
- The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Pairing Czech Beer with Local Cuisine
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Traditional Czech Beer Styles
With a brewing tradition stretching back over 1,000 years, the Czech Republic is home to a diverse array of beer styles. While historic Czech lagers like Pilsner Urquell may be the best known internationally, Czech brewmasters have developed a range of distinctive beer styles over the centuries using local ingredients. Beyond the ubiquitous Pilsner, here are some of the top traditional Czech beer styles to seek out during your visit.
As we learned, Pilsner beer was first created in 1842 in the city of Plzeň, Bohemia by a Bavarian brewer named Josef Groll. Groll used pale Bohemian malt, Saaz hops, and the city's soft water to create the world's first pale golden lager. This revolutionary new beer was refreshing, crisp, and crystal clear compared to the dark, cloudy beers of the past.
Pilsner Urquell is still produced in Plzeň today using the same recipe and open oak barrels. A true Czech Pilsner like Pilsner Urquell has a light straw to golden color and a thick, frothy head. The malt lends a sweet, bready flavor while the local Žatec hops provide a mix of spicy, floral and earthy bitterness. This combination creates a balanced, refreshing lager that finishes dry and clean.
Pilsner sparked a revolution as breweries across Europe rushed to recreate the new style. Many Czech breweries produce their own excellent pilsners like Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, and Kozel. When ordering a "pivo" (beer) in the Czech Republic, you will most likely be served a Czech pilsner if you do not specify a style.
While pilsners may get all the attention today, Czech brewing traditions originally centered around dark beers. Before pale malts and Pilsners came along, Czech brewers mainly produced dark lagers often referred to as “tmavé.” Dark Czech lagers are making a comeback thanks to growing consumer interest in classic styles.
The best Czech dark lagers have an opaque dark brown to black color with ruby highlights. They are smooth, creamy and full-bodied but lighter than stouts or porters. Czech dark beers achieve their dark color and toasted malt flavors by kilning malt longer at higher temperatures. Some use small amounts of highly kilned malt for color and added roastiness.
Popular examples of Czech dark lagers include Kout na Šumavě produced by Nymburk brewery, Oldgott Barrique by Pivovar Matuška, and Krušovice Cerne. U Fleků brewery in Prague also produces a 13° dark lager. Dark Czech lagers pair wonderfully with grilled meat, stews, and roasted vegetables.
Bohemian Pilsner (České Pivo)
Not to be confused with the German Pilsner style, Bohemian Pilsner is a unique Czech style regulated by the Czech Beer and Malt Association. True Bohemian Pilsners must be brewed using only Czech ingredients including Moravian malts, Žatec hops, and soft Bohemian water.
Bohemian Pilsners have a fuller body and higher alcohol content compared to their German Pilsner counterparts. The term “Bohemian Pilsner” is used to differentiate authentic Czech-style pilsners from the many German breweries who replicated the original Pilsner Urquell recipe with varying success.
Märzen or Festbier lagers originated in Bavaria as beers brewed in March and lagered in cold caves over the summer to enjoy during Oktoberfest. Czech brewers put their own spin on Märzen-style lagers using local ingredients.
Polotmavé means “half-dark” in Czech and refers to the fact that these lagers are a mid-point between light pilsners and dark lagers in appearance. They have a deep amber to copper color with substantial maltiness and medium body. Full Saaz hopping provides a spicy, herbal bitterness that balances the sweet, toasted malt flavors.
Great examples of Czech Märzen lagers include Jihlava Märzen, Zubr Grand, Lobkowicz Premium, and Hubertus Märzenbier. Märzens pair well with roasted meats and game dishes like venison or wild boar.
Kvass is an ancient Eastern European brew made from rye or barley bread that remains popular in the Czech Republic. Czech kvass is often flavored with caraway, ginger, orange peel, or pine needles. It has a hazy, golden appearance with a tangy, bread-like aroma. The taste is sweet, tart and semi-alcoholic with lemon and malt flavors.
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Must-Visit Breweries in Prague and Beyond
With hundreds of breweries calling the Czech Republic home, beer lovers visiting the country are spoiled for choice. While historic breweries in Prague and Plzeň should be on any beer enthusiasts' itinerary, worthwhile breweries can be found across the Czech Republic.
Prague offers an incredible density of brewpubs and microbreweries churning out everything from classic Pilsners to experimental IPAs. Beer has been brewed in Prague since the 11th century. Today, combining beer tasting with Prague's stunning architecture and winding cobblestone streets makes for an unforgettable experience.
No visit to Prague would be complete without a stop at U Fleků, the city's oldest still-operating brewery. U Fleků has been pouring beer since 1499 in its sprawling beer hall adorned with hanging antique lamps and wooden drinking barrels along the walls. Their house-brewed dark lager has a mild toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel and coffee. U Fleků also serves traditional Czech cuisine like goulash, roast pork, and soft potato pancakes, perfect for soaking up all that beer.
For a more modern Prague brewery experience, beer geeks flock to Pivovarský klub which offers 30 beers on tap and over 200 bottled beers, primarily from Czech microbreweries. This cozy basement bar has an ever-changing tap list showcasing experimental Czech ales and obscure lagers. Patrons can sample hard-to-find beers like unfiltered yeast beers, American-style IPAs brewed with Czech hops, or stouts aged in Slivovitz (plum brandy) barrels.
Just a short train ride from Prague, the ancient city of České Budějovice is an ideal day trip for beer lovers. České Budějovice is home to the original Budweiser beer and centuries-old brewing traditions. At Budweiser Budvar Brewery, visitors can tour the sprawling brewing complex and then enjoy samples of Budvar lagers straight from the lagering cellars tapped directly into your glass. Tours finish off with a glass of unpasteurized Budvar served in the brewery's charming beer hall.
No Czech beer pilgrimage is complete without a visit to Plzeň, the birthplace of pilsner and home to legendary Pilsner Urquell. The iconic brewery offers in-depth tours explaining the brewery's history and steps of the traditional brewing process. The highlight is sampling unfiltered, unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell drawn straight from oak barrels in the cellar.
Beyond Prague and Plzeň, great breweries are scattered across Bohemia and Moravia. In Český Krumlov, a fairy-tale medieval town in South Bohemia, Eggenberg Brewery crafts excellent Czech lagers in a setting rich with history. Visitors can tour underground brewing cellars dating from the 1600s and sample favorites like dark lager Lepiak and premium Pilsner.
Moravian beer culture shines at Chodovar Brewery located inside elaborately-painted 13th century catacombs in the town of Chodová Planá. Their tour lets you wander through dimly-lit tunnels to glimpse medieval beer brewing relics. Top off your underground journey by sampling Chodovar's unfiltered, unpasteurized lagers in the chilly caves.
If you venture to Olomouc, make sure to visit Svatováclavský pivovar. The brewpub is housed in a monastery founded in 1645 and serves monastery-brewed beer in their regal Baroque hall. Try their excellent Czech-style India Pale Ale, dark lager, or unique Mandarin Wheat ale flavored with mandarin oranges.
No list of top Czech breweries is complete without mentioning the trailblazing brewery Mateřídouška in the town of Rožnov. Mateřídouška has been brewing craft beers since 1992 and reshaped Czech beer culture through introducing American craft beer styles to local drinkers. The pub's ever-evolving tap list includes their flagship American-style amber ale alongside pilsners, IPAs, stouts, and unique seasonal creations like gingerbread or nettle beers.
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - How to Properly Taste and Appreciate Czech Beer
With over 1,500 years of brewing history spanning Gothic castles, Renaissance monasteries, and Communist-era factories, it’s no wonder Czech beer has developed such mystique. While Czechs make it look easy to knock back crisp, golden pilsner after pilsner, appreciating the nuances of this storied brewing tradition takes practice. Follow these tasting tips to get the most out of every Czech beer you sample.
First, pay attention to the beer’s appearance when served. Does it have the ideal color for that style? Pilsner and pale lagers should be a brilliant gold while amber lagers appear reddish-brown. Take note of the head which should be dense and lingering. Is the beer clear or cloudy? Czech beers are filtered so they should have a crystalline clarity unless intentionally unfiltered.
Next, move on to aroma. Give the beer a gentle swirl to release its aroma then take short sniffs to detect subtle scents. The interplay between malt, hops, and yeast creates a symphony of smells including bready, biscuity malt, spicy, floral hops, and hints of sulfur or fruit from ester-producing yeast strains. Pay attention to the changing aroma as the beer warms up.
Now comes the satisfying moment you’ve been waiting for, the first taste. But don’t just start chugging yet. First take just a small sip, allowing the beer to spread across your tongue. Let the initial flavors register, feeling the viscosity, malt sweetness, hop bitterness, and carbonation.
Notice how the taste changes as you swallow the beer. Where is the sweetness versus bitterness concentrated on your palate? How long does the aftertaste linger once you’ve swallowed? Does the beer taste different as it warms up?
To pick out individual flavors, engage all your senses. Inhale through your nose and mouth at once to combine aromas with tastes. Let the beer roll across every area of your tongue. Tastebuds on different parts of the tongue detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors.
Pay attention to mouthfeel, which refers to the thickness, carbonation, and smoothness of the beer in your mouth. Highly-attenuated Czech lagers feel lean and crisp due to their dry finish and tight carbonation. Full-bodied dark beers coat the palate more thickly.
Beyond flavor, understand what conditions give Czech beer its essence. Soft water accentuates hop bitterness rather than masking it. A cool fermentation below 59°F gives Czech lagers their clean snap. And decoction mashing – boiling mash to caramelize sugars – adds complexity seen in few other lagers.
With hearty Czech staples like goulash, dumplings, pork knuckle, and roast duck, choose a flavorful dark lager which won’t get overpowered. Try Svijany Mazák, a dark lager with coffee and chocolate flavors that complements meaty dishes beautifully. Nutty, caramel-kissed Märzens also pair wonderfully with roasted pork and duck.
Of course, with a plate of smažený sýr (fried cheese) or bramboráky (potato pancakes), nothing pairs better than the Czech gold standard – pilsner! Crisp, refreshing Pilsner Urquell cleanses the palate perfectly between bites of savory, greasy Czech pub grub.
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Pairing Czech Beer with Local Cuisine
The Complete Guide to Czech Beer: A Deep Dive into the History, Styles, Breweries, and Tasting Tips for Exploring Prague's Famous Brewing Scene - Pairing Czech Beer with Local Cuisine
Beyond just tasting Czech beer on its own, part of fully immersing in Czech drinking culture means pairing beers with the hearty, flavorful local cuisine. Like with wine pairings, certain Czech beer styles complement popular Czech dishes perfectly while others clash. Follow the locals’ lead when deciding what to drink with your meal.
With Czech pub classics like vepřo knedlo zelo (pork, dumplings and stewed cabbage), smažený sýr (fried cheese), or svíčková (beef sirloin in cream sauce), Czechs instinctively reach for a pint of golden pilsner. The crisp, palate-cleansing bitterness of pilsner contrasts beautifully with the rich, heavy flavors in traditional Czech cuisine. The clean finish prevents the food from feeling too heavy or greasy.
Pilsner Urquell’s spicy, floral Saaz hoppiness feels tailor-made to slice through the rich umami in beef goulash and absorb some of the sauce’s paprika heat. At legendary Prague brewpub U Fleků, locals wash down their klobása sausage and bramboráky (fried potato pancakes) with refreshing glasses of U Fleků’s house-brewed 13° lager. The sweet maltiness prepares your palate for each juicy, greasy bite.
While pilsner complements the national dishes, Czech dark lagers add even more richness and roastiness. The caramel and chocolate flavors in 13° Premium Dark Lager from Prague’s Strahov Monastery brewery pair divinely with classic Czech roast pork, braised beef, or duck.
The monks recommend drinking their coffee and vanilla-tinged dark lager alongside pivní knedlíky, soft bread dumplings made with spent brewing grain. The creamy, biscuity maltiness stands up to the savory dumplings spectacularly.
At the historic Budweiser Budvar lager brewery in České Budějovice, visitors wash down plates of melt-in-your-mouth vepřové hody (pork goulash with bread dumplings) with unfiltered, unpasteurized Budvar. The rich Doppelbok pairs wonderfully with vepřové hody. Its multi-layered toasted malt, caramel, and nut flavors beautifully complement the paprika, caraway and tender pork.
Roast duck with braised red cabbage and bacon is a Czech menu staple. The gaminess of duck is softened by the aromatic dark beer Mžik Stout from Republic of Mžik brewpub in Prague. Its creamy mouthfeel and notes of coffee, cocoa, and dried fruit merge flawlessly with the cabbage’s sweet tartness.
While pub classics deserve the classic beer pairings, modern Czech haute cuisine demands more experimental beer matches. At Michelin-starred restaurants like Prague’s Field, Moravian native chef Radek Kašpárek invents masterpieces like candied pork belly with celeriac and truffle sauce.
Sommelier Michal Šimůnek suggests pairing these creative dishes with unique Czech microbrews like Raven Ale, an Indian Pale Ale from Brno’s Lucky Bastard brewery. Its blood orange and grapefruit flavors refresh the palate and cut through the pork belly’s unctuous fattiness. The bitterness scrubs away the meat’s richness, preparing you for the next decadent bite.
Czech desserts like frgál (sweetened fruit tarts) or štrúdl (apple strudel) require a lighter touch. The malty, bready sweetness of Miedziak Kvas from Poland’s Okocim Brewery plays off frgál’s crisp, buttery crust and tangy fruit fillings pleasantly. Its wildflower honey aroma and rye bread flavor complement the apples in a warm strudel.
While pairing Czech beer and food may seem intimidating, just remember a few guidelines. Lighter lagers pair with lighter meats like chicken or pork while heavier, darker beers match fuller-flavored meats like duck, beef and game. The bitterness in Czech lagers and pale ales cuts through fat and sauces. Fruity and spicy beers complement the sweetness in desserts.