Friday, November 03, 2006

Beer: Czech and Otherwise:
Despite our little experience at 'The Little Stalin Cottage' I have to say that Praha is a much more enjoyable city that either Wien or Venezia. More on the latter two later. Not that it reaches the level of Barcelona, but my anarchist prejudices may be showing there. Before going to the Czech Republic I had spoken to a number of Czechs resident here in Winnipeg. None had anything good to say about their home country. I have now learned that this is as much a "national Czech habit" as disparaging Winnipeg is for Winnipeg residents. No Czech has anything less than a thousand complaints about their country- but let a foreigner express the same things and the hackles are up. I guess that, if I was drunk enough and nobody had annoyed me for two weeks I could find something good to say about Winnipeg too. Besides getting out of it. But speaking about "drunk enough"...
There is something of a "national contest" between the Czechs and their former German speaking oppressors as to whose beer is better. I have to say that my initial response to to side with the Czechs on this and any other matter that they may drag up. But, prejudices aside, I have to admit that I have always had a liking for Czech and Slovak beer. The cultivation of hops, for which the Bohemian climate is ideal, is attested by chronicles dating back to 858 AD ie before the founding of the Czech monarchy. "Good" King Wencelas even instituted the death penalty for anyone caught exporting the cuttings from his domains.
The first Czech retail brewery was established as a workers' cooperative in 1118 AD at Cerhenice. This was a central brewing location from which members took the extract home to finish the brewing process. "Good" King Wencelas abolished the proscription on actual retail "sale" in the 13th century. This act seems to me to be much more deserving of his "sainthood" status than the official Catholic reasons.
Czech beer making later fell on hard times due especially to the 30 Years War. At one point the Czechs used beer to pay off a Swedish army to avoid the sack of the Czech town of Kutna Hora. But the country was generally devastated by said war. Later the industry received imperial patronage under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Emperor even sent a brewmaster to Mexico to "teach the Mexicans how to brew proper beer" (see the short lived 'Mexican Empire'). The Czechs later clung to their beer as a national symbol as part of their "awakening" from the process of Germanization during the later part of the 19th Century. Under Communism the idea of investment in the brewing industry was a no starter. Traditions remained, but the industry stagnated as the ruling class saw the production of cheap beer of doubtful quality as one of their "bargains" with those who they ruled.
Since the end of Communism the industry has flourished. The major breweries have, to a large extent, been bought out by foreign interests, but the result was an improvement in quality as the market for Czech beer is largely an export market because of the reputation of Czech beer. Microbreweries have flourished in the cracks of the multinational market.
Within the Czech Republic beer is incredibly cheap. One source quotes a price range of 20 koruna to 80 koruna for a half liter in Praha. This is about 80 cents to $3.20 Canadian for a half liter. I can testify to this price range having drunken in both the "tourist drag" and "off the beaten track". The problem with Czech beer, from a Canadian viewpoint, is that it is virtually impossible to get properly drunk on it. The alcohol content is usually much lower, and you will burp yourself to death long before getting to the point of falling down. An outside observer might take this as evidence that Canadians have more to forget than Czechs do, but I'm sure that most Czechs would claim preeminence for national depression over Canadians. Let's leave that to barroom conversations.
A weird and unfortunate thing that I observed in Praha was that it was virtually impossible to get a "sampling" of Czech beer at any drinking establishment. Most places had a "sweetheart" deal with a given brewery, and when you asked "what sort of beer do you have ?" the answer was quite short. I found a lack of my favourite type of brew ie a dark ale. I can get the Czech beer 'Baron' a lot easier in Canada than I could in Praha. Capitalism may have come to the Czech Republic, but a "free market" is many years away. The breweries seem to rule the drinking establishments with an iron hand. I ended up drinking a lot of Pilsner,Budvar and Starobrno. Maybe it's the romance of Praha, but they seemed to taste better there than they do in Canada.
In general beer tasted better than our hootch in Praha, and it is one of the many reasons that I loved that city. A google search for "Czech Beer" came up with 184,000 hits, an indication of the popularity of the subject. Anyone interested in looking at the subject further can consult the wikipedia article on Czech beer at entitled "Beers of the World'. Another interesting source, with more knowledge than I have, is 'The Opinionated Beer Page' at .
Both these sources give more than a general outline of both Czech beer and other beers of the world. Speaking about the rest of the world, here in Canada I have yet to meet a beer as good as '1892 Traditional Ale' produced by the 'Quidi Vidi Brewing Company', just out of St. John's Newfoundland. We visted the brewery when we were there last summer. But for sheer joy I can say that Canada probably has the most "humour friendly" brewery in the whole world. This is the 'Unibroue' brewery in Quebec. Their signature beer is '1837', after the Lower Canada Rebellion of the same year, but they are not "politically correct". Some of their other efforts are 'Nom de Dieu', a swear word in joual, 'La Fin Du Monde', loosely translated as either "the end of the world" or "the ends of the Earth", and 'Quelque Chose' ie "something" (or the other). My favourite, however, is the dreaded 'Maudite' (another swear word in joual). Quite frankly this is the absolutely WORSE beer that has ever been produced anywhere in the world. It is foul and vomit inducing and should be used for alcoholic "therapy". The name is very apt. It is "damned" beyond all measure. The Unibroue brewery produces it as a "novelty item", and it fits very well with their light hearted marketing efforts. Try it- you won't like it.
Well that's it for item # 1 about why I loved Praha. More later. Should you ever visit the city avoid the Czech wine. It's plonk in the same sense that Canadian wine is. Both countries are on the very edge of the grape growing climate, with all that that implies. Bohemia makes no wine. It''s a product of the southern reaches of Moravia.

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