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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2005 Buzz

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

 

 

May, 2005

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: 

Budweiser.

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?" 

"Beer, please." 

"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 as well. 

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 foreigners. 

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 lager.

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 say?

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 group favors

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.

 

 
Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: June 01, 2005