“That beer’s 10%! And less than two quid! We’re getting on the MEGALASH tonight, lads! Let’s get on the LEZ-AXE!”
I didn’t say those words, of course, because I’m not an idiot. Instead it was a lad to my right who was about to have his mega lash diminished to just a standard-sizedlash on those ‘ležáks’. You see, he just didn’t understand how beer works in the Czech Republic. Read this so you don’t make the same mistakes.
Strength By Degrees
When you see a beer listed somewhere it’ll often have a 10° or 12° next to it, sometimes using the % symbol instead of the °. Either way, these beers are not 10% ABV. The degrees refer to the Plato system of measuring the pre-fermentation sugar content, which tells of the probably alcohol content – it’s something widely used in Czech in place of ABV.
Simply: 10° is about 4% ABV; 12° is 5% ABV; 14° is 6% ABV, and so on. On a subtler note, a 10° is seen as the more everyday beer, one you might have a few of, whereas the 12° is seen as a bit more special and richer, though it’s not always the case that a 10° is better than the 12°.
You’ll likely see the word Ležák (lezh-Ak, rolling the z so it’s similar to how the French would say ‘le Jacques’ just with a harder ‘a’… It’s a tough language…), which is an additional reference of strength meaning the beer will be 10° to 12° lager. There are other terms but there’ssome complex renaming happening in the Czech Republic and these strength indicators are changing. Basically, if you do see these words, then they combine with the colour to tell you more precisely what’s on offer.
Choose Lagers by Colour
The main lager styles in the Czech Republic are differentiated by colour. Světlý (Shvet-ley) is pale; Polotmavý (po-low-tmah-mey) is amber or semi-dark, a style unique to Czech which is smooth, toasty, nutty and bitter; Tmavý (tmah-vey) will be brown to dark brown and not as dark as Černé (cher-ney), which is black – neither will have the burnt bitterness of a stout, instead the malts give a deeper, darker flavour without dominating. You then combine the colour with the strength, so a 13° Polotmavý will be a 5.5% amber lagerand a Tmavý Ležák will be a dark 12° lager.
Czech lagers differ from their German equivalents most notably with the bodies in the beers, with the Czech versions having a rounder, fuller malt base compared to the drier, cleaner German lagers.
Pilsner is the most common type of beer in the world and it was born in the west Czech city of Pilsen. If you’re in Czech Republic and you order a Pilsner or Pilsen then there’s only one beer you’ll get: Pilsner Urquell. This beer is the classic Czech golden lager: toasty rich with Pilsner malts, a hint of honey-caramel sweetness, bitter with fragrant Czech Saaz hops, but balanced. Very few other beers are similar to Pilsner Urquell (full disclosure: I work for Pilsner Urquell and write online content for them). Other Czech pale lagers have a similarly rich pale malt body, a soft caramel sweetness, some bready or doughy qualities, but always distinctly bitter. Gambrinusis the biggest-selling Czech lager and it’s a simple, easy-drinking 10 pale lager. Únětické is a great alternative to search out – they have a 10° and a 12° and I prefer the softer, lighter 10, while Břevnov, Dalešice and Kout naŠumavě make exceptional pale lagers.
Then there are other styles… Pšeničné (no, I can’t pronounce it either) is wheat beer, while more common non-Czech styles take their American or English names: IPA, Pale Ale, Porter, etc. They will still often have the degree listing beside them, with IPA normally being 15°-16°.
The standard pour is a half litre, with 0.3l a small beer (though some places serve a 0.4l as the large – they’ll make it known if this is the case). Whatever the size, they’ll always come with a good amount of foam. Don’t be culturally insensitive and ask for a top up. Czechs drink beer with foam because it’s better that way – it protects the beer and keeps it fresh. Plus it just looks so much nicer with foam.
Draft Beer Serves
The draft beer could be kegged or from a tank. It might also be unpasteurised and/or unfiltered. Most of the mainstream brands are typically filtered, pasteurised and kegged, unless otherwise stated.
Tank beer (Tankovna, Tankové or pívo z tanků) is served from a tank, which the brewery will fill with fresh, unpasteurised beer. The freshness is key here as is the smooth, gentle texture as they don’t get fizzed qithadditional top-pressure carbonation. This is generally preferable to straight-up keg.
Nefiltrované means unfiltered. It’s not too typical to see unfiltered versions of the bigger breweries beers, though Gambrinus has one which I like. Smaller breweries are more likely to have unfiltered beers and the impact is on a deeper malt flavour, greater richness and body, plus a more voluminous overall flavour. This is definitely the one to look out for with Czech lagers.
And finally, the important thing: ‘Pivo’ means beer and to say cheers it’s ‘Na zdravi!’ (Nah zdrah-vee!). And when you toast, always look the other person in the eye – it’s terrible form not to do that.
That’s the basics but it gets far more interesting if you’re drinking in the Czech Republic because it’s where you’ll find some of the world’s greatest lagers, where you need to drink them – and a lot of them – to really begin to understand their understated beauty, their subtle complexities, their beguiling depths, their glorious drinkability, their perfect balance of malt and hop.
Coming next: A drinking and eating guide to Prague.