Issue Story: A History of Czech Beer Culture

By: Rhett Smith

Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Kozel, Staropramen, Krušovice; these are names that any visitor to Prague will learn, regardless of how much time they spend in pubs. To an outsider, these names are just brands of beer, but each is ingrained into the history of the Czech Republic itself. Gambrinus was founded in 1869, Staropramen in 1871, Kozel was founded in 1875, Krušovice supplied beer to the Holy Roman Emperor in as early as 1583, and Pilsner Uquell, the Czech Republic’s most famous beer, was the world’s first pale lager. For centuries, these beers filled the kegs of the same smoke-filled pubs in Prague. But as the world changes, so does Prague.

A billboard for unfiltered Bernard beer

Unlike most American beers, pubs in Prague traditionally only serve a few beers, all served from the same brewery. Each pub’s brewery of choice is noted by a sign above the door, often more noticeably than the establishment’s name itself. This tradition actually stems from the fact that most of the time, the brewery would have exclusive distribution rights with various pubs, and patrons would, therefore, choose their pub by the beer the pub served.

Given that the Czech Republic drinks the most beer and has the most breweries per capita in the world, these pubs are important. The Czechs see their pubs as important meeting grounds. In fact, 58 percent of pub patrons are there to network and many regulars consider the village pub to be, “an essential information medium,” according to a survey by Budvar Brewery. The survey also found that the average Czech goes to the pub once a week, spends two to three hours, and drinks more than three beers.

However, regardless of their importance in Czech culture, these pubs are changing in more ways than one. As the country’s connection to the European Union (EU) grows, so too does the Republic’s imports. Take the relatively young, by Prague standards, BeerGeek. For the past five years, this bar has diversified its majority Czech taps with beers from Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and even the United States out of a basement location in Žižkov, a neighborhood known for its pubs. The establishment has found success serving craft beer at sometimes more than double the price of beer at traditional pubs, said Pavel Samiec, a cashier of the related bottle shop. He elaborated, saying that roughly half of all customers are foreign, mostly expatriates.

A similar craft beer success story comes from the Pivovar Raven, a brewery just a few miles from the Pilsner Urquell brewery. Founded in 2015 by an Australian, Raven is one of the most progressive breweries in the Czech Republic, often releasing a new beer monthly. According to a distributor working with the brewery, there has been a boom of small craft breweries over the past five years, here in the Czech Republic. However, in a country that focuses so heavily on beer, “only the strongest and best survive,” the distributor said. There are roughly 400 breweries currently in the Czech Republic, and nearly as many failures as there are success stories.

The changes in Czech pubs are in the air literally as much as they are figuratively. On May 31st of this year, the Czech Republic will become the 19th country in the EU to ban smoking in restaurants, schools, cinemas and, of course, pubs. The law was passed with a large majority in parliament and signed into law by a chain-smoking President; but that does not mean it’s without fervent opposition.

The shelves at BeerGeek Pivotéka

In March of this year, 20 Czech senators signed a petition to the Constitutional Court, urging them to abolish certain provisions in the bill. “[The smoking ban] is another step to curtail and abolish our freedoms, and to secure profit and control of the people for those up there,” Jaroslav Kubera, a signatory of the petition, told the Czech News Agency. He is more aggressive in an interview on his website, arguing that after smoking, politicians will begin to ban dangerous sports, candy bars in schools, and even bacon.

The Ministry of Health sees the ban differently. It does not consider the law a smoking ban but instead titled it the “Law on Protection of Health Against the Harmful Effects of Drugs” (in Czech: Zákon o ochraně zdraví před škodlivými účinky návykových látek), and regularly refers to it as the “so-called smoking ban.” In the ministry’s FAQ on the law, they remind considered citizens that many provisions of the law are not at all new. For example, it has been prohibited since 2005 to serve alcohol to those already under the influence. Most, if not all, of the provisions are common worldwide and throughout Europe already.

Many of the law’s supporters see the decision no big deal. “This brings the Czech Republic (in line with) civilized countries that care for the health of their citizens,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told Reuters in regards to the ban. The Czech Minister of Health, Miloslac Ludvík, went a step further in a statement, saying that “by adopting this law, we have shifted between modern countries west of our borders.”

In every aspect, from the keg to the ash tray, Prague’s pubs are changing. As the world bans smoking and discovers craft beer, so does the Czech Republic. Traditions change, and this may be nothing more than health consciousness and brewing creativity. Losing the smoke-filled pub with nothing on tap but Pilsner could be considered a success to many Czech patrons, but it is still a loss in a country with pubs from the 15th century.