The Utter Beerness Of It All
I traveled to the Czech Republic last month, courtesy of Distinguished
Brands International, importers of, among other beers, Czechvar. They
had a junket laid on for their people, good retail accounts, and some of
us bottom-feeding beer writers. The "business" part of
the trip came on the first day, an extensive tour of the Budvar
brewery in Ceske Budejovicky, where "Czechvar" is brewed.
"Czechvar" is the beer's name in the United States, because it
is The Beer That Dare Not Speak Its Name:
That's right. We were there to see the origins of the beer people
call "The Original Budweiser." That's a bit of a sticky
point, and I'm going to sidestep it now, because that's not what I
want to talk about. Suffice it to say that Budweiser Budvar-style is
a lot different from Budweiser St. Louis-style, and that
Budweiser Budvar was easily the best big-brewery pilsner-type
beer we had in the Republic. And the dark Budweiser is
even more so. Oh, baby, I hope to tell you it is. The lawsuits,
the name, the animosity, the attempts by A-B to buy the Czechs and the
government's purchase of the brewery to stop it...fascinating.
But it's not what I want to talk about. (Though yes, I will write it up
this month for The Latest.)
What I wanted to talk about started on the flight over. We
flew CSA, the Czech airline, and when beverage time came, I wanted a
beer, a Czech beer. I had a wad of dollar bills in my pocket all
ready to buy one, too; I was, after all, in Coach, and the steerage
passengers don't get free booze. I thought.
"Would you like a drink?"
"Pilsner (Urquell), or Radegast?"
"Um...Radegast, thank you."
And that was it. No charge. Hmmm...God bless the Czechs.
But it didn't stop, this difference in perspective. Beer
is truly just a drink there. There were beer signs everywhere (gotta
say, if there's one thing I did not like about the Republic,
other than potato dumplings, it was that the place is over-advertised:
even the hockey players looked like stock cars), there was beer
everywhere. The airport had a shop with film and goodies for arriving
travelers, and we bought up a bunch of cans: Budweiser, Pilsner
Urquell, Radegast, Gambrinus, Staropramen. We drank them on the bus. The
bus stopped for gas and we bought more beer at the gas station,
where they not only had about 15 different beers, but a selection of spirits
The standard measure was the half-liter; mugs, glasses, cans,
bottles. No messing around with 12 oz./330 ml beers here. The big
seller for Budvar, though, was their 10° beer, the lower alcohol
one, an approximation of 3.2 beer.
And that's part and parcel of the whole thing. These folks,
like the Bavarians, drink beer because it's a good drink. They drink a lot
of it, too. One of the other writers on the trip noted that while the
Czech Republic has the world's highest per capita beer consumption,
approximately 160 liters annually, if you carved out a chunk of
territory 50 miles around Munich and 50 miles around Prague and
linked them, in a sort of oblong capsule shape, the per capita
consumption is more like 220 liters annually. Awesome. And
yet...the only drunken folks we saw (outside of our own party...) were
People actually come to the Republic to get drunk. Sad, but
true, and very easy to do. The prices are very low. Beer typically sells
for under a dollar for half a liter; we got half-liters of
helles at the Eggenberg brewery taproom in Ceske Krumlov for
13 Koruna, approximately 56¢. That will get you seventeen
half-liters of beer for ten bucks. More than enough to sink your
ship, but you won't find Czechs sucking it down like that. Okay, partly
that's because it ain't so cheap for them...They live there. The
dark lager at U Fleku in Prague is deemed too expensive by
Czechs because it costs as much as two bucks for a half liter;
"for tourists," they say.
This whole "cheap beer, no drunks" thing pretty much
knocks the neo-prohibitionist's precious idea of raising taxes to
stop underage drinking into a cocked hat, but again, that's not
really what I wanted to talk about. What I want to talk about is how
the Czechs absolutely, no doubts, more-so than even the Germans, get
it. This is a beer culture in that beer has totally
permeated the culture. It's not about variety, God knows. The
Czechs are almost as single-minded about beer as the Irish used
to be. There's the light lager, which comes in 10° and 12°
strengths, and there's dark lager. And that's just about it.
There are some very small breweries making other beers, and some of them
are delicious, but the aforementioned three beer types are probably 98.5%
of the beer consumed in the Republic, and not much of that is dark
Okay, so it's not the variety we beer punks would like to see.
But it's accepted, without a second thought. I don't know how
many times I've said it about booze laws, about American attitudes about
beer and drinking: I just want to be treated like an adult. Treat
me like an adult and I'll act like one. That's an old, old idea,
after all: familiar with the expression "Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you"? There are not a bunch of
silly, restrictive laws in the Republic, there was not a bunch of
anti-alcohol propaganda and nanny-state "alcohol units"
horsecrap, and people handled their own lives quite well, while
still drinking a lot of their excellent lager beer. It was, notably,
the people who came into the country from outside who were the
drunks, the people from the nanny-states! What the heck does that
It says to me that the booze laws that work best are those that
restrict least. The only real booze laws in the Republic are about
quality standards for the brewers and servers, and very strict drunk
driving laws. Otherwise...not much being said. Oh, how refreshing.
It also says to me that in the absence of that kind of attitude,
the brewers can act like adults too, and be proud of their products,
a pride that in turn engenders pride in the people who drink them. Czechs
are proud of their beer, and rightly so. It's not only good,
it has a great world-wide reputation and is a strong source of export
earnings for the country.
Prague was very high on my list of places to visit. It's still
a place I'd like to do a bit more poking around in, although the
language is excruciatingly opaque for a Germano-English speaker like
myself. But I know that when I return -- and I will -- landing at Ruzyne
Airport is going to be like landing at Louisville International:
with a sigh, a smile, and a subtle relaxation of
all my unknowingly-tensed muscles, I will be with my people. It's
a place where it's okay to want a beer, get a beer, drink a
beer, and talk and relax while having another beer. And everyone
drinks something with some flavor to it; they're drinking it because they
really like the beer -- not because they're watching their carbs,
or because they'd really rather have something else, but this has 15%
fewer calories, or because this is the beer they think their peer
Beer in Prague is like air. It's everywhere, it's normal and
natural, and no one even notices it. Except we tourists who are used to
metered and bottled air, like astronauts who no longer have to worry
about the air supply. No need to worry about the beer supply in
Prague; they've got plenty, and they're real good about spreading it
around. Ah. My beer people. Ma Pivo Vlast.