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Tasting Czech beer where they invented the tasty Pilsener

© by Mike Keenan
 
Hop Harvest Festival Zatek

Why should one fly from Canada for over eight hours and a distance of 6,844 kilometres? To drink beer, of course! Not just any beer, but Czech beer, often judged the world's best.
     And what's their big secret? Prized yeast and Bohemian hops, I discover, so cherished that the former is hermetically sealed and kept safe in three major European cities in case of a local disaster and the latter - would you believe that the Czechs celebrate an annual hops festival and that they built an over-sized museum referred to as the Temple of Hops and Beer!
     Yes, Czechs are serious about their suds. In fact, they lead rivals in per capita beer consumption at 160 litres per year, far ahead of such slackers as Ireland, Germany, Austria and Australia next in line in the pecking order. (Canada is ranked 20th)
     The majority of Czech beers (97%) are deliciously light, bottom-fermented beers in the Pilsner style, invented in Plzen. So disdainful are they of foreign beer that imports account for a mere 1% of consumption. And in the Czech Republic, the price is always right. In Prague for example, pub prices range from 20czk-65czk ($0.90-$2.95) for half a litre or just under one pint. Outside Prague, it's even cheaper. Indeed, breweries make such little profit on domestic sales that their exports are vital. And Czech beer commands premium prices abroad.

Pilsen Historical Underground   Pivovar Pub & Restaurant, Pilsen   Vat Used For First Batch of Pilsener (Museum)   Zatec Hops Guild Members    Zatec Hops Museum Exhibit   Zatec Roof Vents For Hops    Zatec Town Hall & Market

     In Prague, beer is served almost everywhere, even in breakfast cafés! Most Czech beers are lagers, and Czechs like their beer best at cellar temperature with a creamy, tall head. When ordering draught beer, I learn to ask for the "male pivo" (10 ounces) or "pivo" (17 ounces), enjoying the smooth taste of the original Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Budweiser and many other Czech beers in the best possible way - fresh, and did I mention, cheap!
     The Czech Republic consists of three major regions - Bohemia in the west, Moravia in the middle (which favours wine) and much smaller Silesia in the north-east. Bohemia, enclosed by mountains, boasts ideal weather and fertile agricultural conditions, making it a superb area to grow the treasured hops, traced back as early as 859 A.D. Bohemian hops are so prized that King Wenceslas ordered the death penalty for anyone caught exporting cuttings. Czech Saaz hops are the international standard for hops of highest quality.
     Initially, by royal decree, only citizens enjoyed the right to brew beer for their own consumption, and everyone utilized a micro-brewery in each home. Soon, they banded together to form a co-operative centralized brewery, the first built at Cerhenice in 1118.
     Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, many established breweries have been gobbled up by international brewing giants, and Czechs understandably fear the loss of quality control associated with foreign ownership. One solution has been the rise of mini-breweries (approximately 80) which outnumber the 48 industrial operations by the big breweries.

Krosovice Innards

     I visit several mini-breweries in Bohemia, and in each case, the brew master explains the local process and leads me on a tour through cooking kettles and vats and myriad equipment that ferments and produces tasty beer.
     In Krusovice, 60 km from Prague, I visit the Krusovice Brewery, amongst the oldest traditional Czech beer brands, surviving today. Then, I journey to Zatec, 32 km away. Zatec is the centre of a famous hop-producing area where I explore the Temple of Hops and Beer, an amusement and educational complex that portrays the history of brewing beer. The Hop Museum occupies 4,000 square meters and vividly explains the development of hop growing from the early Middle Ages until now.
     Plzen in western Bohemia, is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic, and an important industrial, commercial, cultural, and administrative center, founded by Czech King Wenceslas II in 1295 on the confluence of four rivers - Uhlava, Uslava, Radbuza and Mze. Located on the crossroads of two important trade routes close to Prague, Plzen experienced immediate and rapid growth.
     Here, I consume the best known Czech beer, the original Pils beer or Pilsner Urquell, brewed in one of the largest breweries I have ever explored, so big that I am ferried around to the many buildings in a bus. The bottling plant reminds me of college days when I worked at Molson's Brewery in Toronto. The major difference? Size! Here, the bottling plant is easily four football fields wide, mammoth in scale with multiple production lines, but the astonishing fact is that it's completely automated. I count three people on the massive floor, all walking around monitoring equipment. At Molson's we worked 15-minute shifts watching bottles march single file in front of a bright light to cull the bad glass. Here, a laser instantly shuts down the line for discards, then resumes operations quickly.

Ingredients For Czech Beer   Krusovice Beer Ready To Roll   Krusovice Brewery Kettles   Decoration at Micro-Brewery Urytire Lochoty    Pilsen Brewery Bottle Display   Pilsen Brewery Casks    Pilsen Brewery Gates

     Another popular Plzen brew is Gambrinus. Bernard from Eastern Bohemia was recently voted best beer of the year. The most widely exported Czech Beer is Budvar (Budweiser in German). Yes, Americans employ the same name for their native brew, and this has caused business and legal maoeuvering, and Czechs now fear an Anheuser-Busch takeover may soon be authorized by their government.
     In Plzen, I explore the Historical Underground, a labyrinth almost 800 metres long, featuring a host of archaeological finds unveiling the history and life in the medieval city. Provided with a plastic hard hat because of the low ceilings, I easily score seven "hits" that would each stop the likes of Sidney Crosby.
     In Chodova Plana, 65 km away, I stay in the "Wellness Hotel U Sladka," the first Brewery Spa in the Czech Republic. My "treatment" is essentially a beer bath. After discarding my clothes, I am wrapped in sheet-like material and led to one of six tubs, each filled with dark beer and ample froth to hide my private parts. Beside me on a table sits a welcome glass of Czech beer, refilled when empty. I am separated from others by curtains. A lovely rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust emerges from acoustical speakers. I rest amidst shiny copper plumbing and warm beer and dream that I might be in heaven. Too soon, a burly female attendant (who speaks no English), pulls the plug and beckons me out, whereupon I am wrapped in a towel and led to a "recovery" room where I am cocooned in a blanket and left to relax supine in dim light, listening to more pleasant music. I can get used to this. Surprisingly, the next day, my legs feel stronger, and I walk with more spring in my step.
     Hmm, this might well be worth another eight hours and a 6,844 kilometres flight!
     Back home, in an effort to help raise Canada above the per capita rank of 20, I lift a brew with fond memories, and as the Czechs say, "Na zdravi" or "to your health!"

Zatec Hops & Beer Temple



Photo Credits
Mike Keenan
Czech Tourism

Mike Keenan Enjoying Beer Bath    Another Bather   Brew Master Coat of Arms, Pilsen Museum   Countryside Hops Structure   Display, Hops Museum   Hops display, Zatec    Hops Harvest

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun. Click for Prague, Czech Republic Forecast


If you go
Brewery Spa: www.chodovar.cz/id216en-beer-wellness-land.htm
Czech Beer Tours: http://czech-beer-tours.eu/
Czech Beer Club (restaurant, micro-brewery): http://gastroinfo.cz/...
Chodovar Brewery: http://www.pivovary.info/prehled/chodovar/chodovar_e.htm
Groll Brewery: www.pivovargroll.cz/
Hops and Beer Temple: http://chchp.cz/en/hop-and-beer-temple
The Hop Museum in Zatec: http://www.muzeum.chmelarstvi.cz
Krusovice Brewery: www.heinekenceskarepublika.cz/eng/produkty/krusovice
Novomestsky pivovar (restaurant, micro-brewery): http://www.npivovar.cz/en/index.php
Prague: http://eshop.praguewelcome.cz/en/
Plzen: http://www.pilsen.eu/en
Plzen Historical Underground: www.plzenskepodzemi.cz/en/informace
Plzen Brewery: www.prazdroj.cz/en/
Wellness Hotel U Sladka: http://www.chodovar.cz/id101en-hlavni-strana.htm
About.com: http://search.about.com/?q=Czech+Republic
Fiction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milan_Kundera
Places of worship: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Places...
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czech_republic
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Czech_Republic

Travel Aid
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Maps (Google interactive map): http://maps.google.com/
Maps (Mapquest) U.S. & Canada: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp
Maps (Mapquest) World: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=GB
Media Guide (local newspapers with current listings): http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
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