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July 24, 2017

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Czech please

A beer pilgrimage from Prague to Pilsen via the home of Saaz hops

It’s been just hours since we landed in Prague and I’m sitting in one of the city’s historic cafés, a glass of golden lager in hand. We’ve walked the cobblestone streets, admiring the gothic architecture among the crush of tourists, but I’m here to research another significant chapter in Czech history: the legacy of brewing the world’s first pilsner-style beer.

The frothy glass of Pilsner Urquell before me in the elegant Café Imperial (cafeimperial.cz) is the iconic Czech brew, considered the world’s first pale lager and arguably the country’s most famous export. But there are so many other avenues to explore when it comes to Czech beer from the historic beer halls of Prague and the origins of lager to the famed Saaz hops or a pilgrimage to Pilsen. As Champagne is to Paris and vodka to Moscow, beer is to Prague, the beverage of choice for Czechs. They say pivo (beer) is cheaper than water here, which may be why Czechs are the biggest per capita beer drinkers on the planet. A pint of lager is still less than $2 and it’s certainly easy to find locals imbibing on a hot afternoon, whether you stop at a historic beergarten, a microbrewery, a farmer’s market or a posh café.

Prague has more than its share of smoky historic beer halls. U Fleků (en.ufleku.cz), 516 years old this year, lays claim to being the oldest brewpub and though you can do better for food elsewhere, it’s worth a stop for their unique dark lager (served here exclusively) and medieval architecture.

Tourists shouldn’t stop you from visiting the pub in Prague’s Municipal House (obecni-dum.cz). The stained glass and tile work in this Art Nouveau landmark is unmatched. Head down to the vaulted Plzenska Restaurant in the basement for classic Czech cuisine and big glasses of pilsner then have a nightcap in the cool little Americky cocktail bar, apparently the oldest bar in the city.

There’s a beer hall around every corner here but for tradition in the Old Town there’s U Medvídků (umedvidku.cz) — which means At the Little Bears — an old-time pub that’s not totally overrun by tourists. It’s famous for its own double-hopped 1466 lager and ice cream made with its barrel-fermented Old Gott. Or look for Lokal (lokal-dlouha.ambi.cz), a modern interpretation of the vaulted taverns of old created by the popular Ambiente restaurant group. You’ll find young locals meeting here for the fresh, crisp Pils they keep in special tanks and for the locally-sourced menu, which features Prague ham served with creamy horseradish and all-you-can-eat dumplings.

The monks made it

They’ve literally been brewing beer in this part of the world for more than 1000 years, the rights to brew passed down from monks and royal towns to noble families, malting guilds and professional brewers.

The best place to taste anything is at the source so I head to Břevnov Monastery Brewery, in the oldest monastery in Prague, where Benedictine monks began brewing in 993. The monks moved out when the Communists moved in during the 1950s, the monastery ironically taken over as the headquarters of the secret police. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the old convent became the Adalbert Hotel (hoteladalbert.cz), named for one of the founding bishops and the city’s first eco-hotel. Brewing resumed here, too, with an independent group turning the former stable into a microbrewery and now producing some 3000 hectolitres of light and dark lagers, Imperial Stout and hoppy, American-style IPA’s under the Břevnov Benedictine label.

From the monastery, it’s a 30-minute hike down to Prague Castle and the Strahov Monastic Brewery also called Klasterni Pivovar (klasterni-pivovar.cz). Brewing began on this site in the 13th century, and though monks no longer brew the beer, a new generation of brewers who opened Strahov in 2000 are famous for their St. Norbert lager. We take a seat in the vaulted pub to enjoy rustic platters of sausage and cheese alongside a frosty pint of their latest creation, a hoppy American APA, made with malted wheat and Bavarian mandarin and Polaris hops.

And speaking of hops, no Czech beer tour is complete without a trip to Žatec (or the German Saaz), the land of the famed noble Saaz hops, about 90 minutes northwest of Prague. The Žatec Basin, a sort of bowl surrounded by highlands, has the perfect warm and dry climate for growing hops and archeological evidence suggests it was in the 8th century that the people from this part of Bohemia discovered that bitter hops not only balanced sweet malts in beer, they helped preserve it. Saaz hops have long been an important commodity on the world market, added to famous brews from classic Czech pilsners to Belgium’s Stella Artois and Oregon’s Rogue Dead Guy Ale.

In the 13th century, hops were such a significant part of the economy that King Wenceslas ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings. Today this aromatic variety is recognized with EU “protected designation of origin” status, a guarantee that only this Czech region can produce Saaz hops.

The pretty medieval centre of Žatec was built on the wealth of the region’s hop-growing heritage. Its central square, encircled in pastel houses and arcaded walkways, is lovely to wander at night when monuments and historic churches are illuminated. But you can also get a great view of the dozens of old hops warehouses, with their red tile roofs and tall chimneys, from the glass and steel tower that’s part of the Temple of Hops Museum (beertemple.cz). Take the elevator to the top, complete with a 3D film enroute, then visit the old hops storage room to learn about the history of hops. Our tour ends at the U Orloje restaurant with a Czech feast of beer-braised pork and dumplings, washed down with a refreshing Pils brewed on-site.

The holy grail of pilsner

It was Bavarian brewer Josef Groll who originally developed the recipe for the golden lager the world now knows as Pilsner Urquell. His original Pilsner was an innovation in 1842, but today, nine out of 10 beers consumed in the world are Pilsner-style lagers.

When we arrive in Pilsen, 90 kilometres west of Prague, our first stop is Pivovar Groll (pivovargroll.cz), a small brewery recently resurrected in Groll’s historic house with functioning replicas of his wood-fired tiled stoves and vats. Still made using the old methods, bottom fermented in oak barrels, the Groll pilsner in my glass is rich and flavourful with a dense, creamy head.

The city of Pilsen, named the European Capital of Culture for 2015 (pilsen.eu), has plenty of monuments to visit, from the Gothic cathedral to museums devoted to art, puppetry and, of course, brewing, the latter offering a look at the labyrinth of medieval underground cellars beneath the old town. But the holy grail for lager lovers is the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (prazdrojvisit.cz) itself and we are soon lost in this veritable Disney world of beer.

A bus whisks us around the sprawling property, through the massive bottling plant, past traditional copper mash kettles, and down into the chilly old lagering cellars for a chance to taste the beer as it was originally made, unfiltered and unpasteurized. While now owned by multinational SABMiller, along with 150 other brands, Pilsner Urquell remains a Czech favourite, still brewed according to its 171-year-old recipe. And having a pint pulled right from one of their historic oak barrels is worth every penny of the $10 admission.

A post-revolution revolution

Czechs ended 50 years of totalitarian rule in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution. By then, the communists had nearly destroyed the Czech beer industry, with only one remaining microbrewery in the country. Today, there are some 150 microbreweries in the Czech Republic, with many innovators now exploring the wide world of craft beer.

Young brewers are breathing new life into old breweries in small towns, most with restaurants and innovative new beers to taste. At Minipivovar Labut (minipivovarlabut.cz) in Litoměřice, an hour from Prague, Sabina Zakova offers a pub lunch of spiced Camembert, pickled Moravian sausage and rustic bread alongside glasses of her unfiltered and unpasteurized pale and dark lagers and rye ale. She uses American Cascade hops for the fruity bitterness in her pale ale, the international style young Czech consumers want.

The beer culture is alive and well whether you’re looking for special brewing trails to cycle or beer spas where you can literally immerse yourself in beer. There are beer-based shampoos and beer-based cosmetics. In Pilsen, The Pub is part of an innovative Czech-based chain of smoke-free pubs with self-serve beer taps and computers at every table to record each patron’s consumption. Back in Prague, there are new taprooms like U Kacíře and Pivní Tramvaj that serve a variety of local microbrews or the Prague Beer Museum with 30 taps.

Good King Wenceslas, immortalized on horseback in a massive bronze statue in Prague’s main square, is considered the patron saint of beer. Avant-garde sculptor David Černý literally turned the national monument on its head in his piece in nearby Lucerna Palace, Saint Wenceslas astride a dead steed hanging upside down. Černý may be making a political statement about the challenges of the newly-independent republic, but thankfully, the good king’s legacy remains; in Prague, you’ll never want for a pint of Pils.

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