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Liquid treasure and laid-back pubs

You can see it from far off. Climb the tower of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral and it’s sure to be one of the first things you spot (alongside the view of the city and the football stadium). And even if you can’t see it, you’re sure to smell it several days of the week. But that’s not the only reason it’s the pride of the city.

What is “it” anyway? It is the Pilsner Urquell brewery. And the city is, of course, the Bohemian city of Plzeň. From Krones’ Neutraubling plant, the city in Western Czech Republic is only about two hours away. So it is familiar to many of us. But even those who have never been to Plzeň will quickly note the connection between the town and its namesake beer, Pilsner.

The very first Pilsner-style beer was tapped here in 1842 and it became known as Pilsner Urquell. Then-brewmaster Josef Groll was originally from Bavaria. But that didn’t stop the beer from becoming the quintessential Czech beer and, in fact, a Czech national treasure.

Calling it a national treasure is by no means an exaggeration. Czechs love their beer and consider it a part of their national identity. That fact is reflected in the country’s per capita beer consumption, for which the Czechs are unrivalled worldwide.

From my experience during a semester abroad in Plzeň, I would say the average Bohemian is a down-to-earth aficionado when it comes to drinking and going out. Friends and acquaintances sit together in a pub, sociable yet relaxed – no need for action or sophisticated variations on the beer theme. People discuss politics, life, football, ice hockey, and ordinary things – all the while imbibing one beer after another. The pub room is dimly lit, smoky, sparely furnished. The atmosphere is homely. An air of contented melancholy lingers over each conversation among the (mostly male) guests – I’ve never seen anything quite like it outside the Czech Republic.

Most pubs serve small plates alongside the beer. One classic dish is nakládaný hermelín, camembert cheese marinated in oil with onions, garlic, peppers, and spices and served with a couple of slices of bread. But salty cheese, greasy sausages, or fish also combine well with beer. Most important: It’s down-to-earth and it’s not low in calories.

But if you think that Pilsner Urquell has the Czech beer market to itself, think again. Belonging to the same brewing company as Pilsner Urquell, Plzeňský Prazdroj, are Gambrinus, Radegast, and Velkopopovický Kozel. There is also the state-owned giant Budejovicky Budvar of České Budějovice (Budweis), which has also helped shape the face – and reputation – of Czech beer. Like Plzeň, České Budějovice has been home to beer brewing since the 13th century. The first “Budweiser” beer was produced there in 1895. Breweries like Staropramen, Bernard, Zlatopramen, Starobrno, and numerous smaller microbreweries round out the Czech beer scene.

Bavarians will feel right at home with Czech beer culture. We use the same size glass, or mug. Like us, Czechs mostly serve their beer by the half litre. Czechs also generally prefer draught beer over bottled or canned. And a bar or pub is much more than a place to drink beer. Sometimes it can even become a sort of second living room – a place to catch up on the latest news, run into friends without making explicit plans, and watch sports together. And despite the convivial atmosphere, it is also completely acceptable to simply sit and not say a word.

A patron who frequents the same pub regularly earns the Czech moniker “štamgast”, which is awfully close to our German “Stammgast” (“regular”).

On that note: “Na zdraví”!

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