It is a truth universally acknowledged that Czech beer is the best in the world. As a student reading Czech my love affair with the nation’s main source of fame – I don’t think Skodas count – has had its ups and downs. I started my degree hating the stuff with a passion, much to the dismay of fellow students with whom I was dragged to breweries and even a beer festival at the Houses of Parliament.
My first clash with militant Czech beer enthusiasts occured when visiting the southern Moravian city, Brno, in the summer of 2008. A friend and I were wandered through the quaint old town by night; with its winding cobbled streets and little burgher houses, medieval belltowers and facades, the scene was nothing short of a fairytale. We half expected Hansel and Gretel to pop out of nowhere with a trail of beer bottles in their wake.
Instead, a man dressed as a knight in full body chainmail appeared in front of us. We thought it best to follow him.
He led us (unwittingly, might I add) to one of the most terrifying pubs I have ever ventured into. With its bearded barman built like a brickhouse (continuing with the fairytale motif, please imagine Jack’s giant) and occult decor illuminated only by candles, the underground pub cum dungeon was even creepier than the black metal hangouts I frequented in Norway in my headbanger days. But the clientele seemed cheery enough, skipping about in time to the Lord of the Rings rock ballad remix and joyously clinking beer jugs while brandishing swords. So I barged past a skinhead with a tattoo on his skull and ordered two JD and cokes in my best Czech.Stunned silence. “You’re not from around here, are you?” baldy sneered after what seemed like at eternity, casting us a suspicious glance. “Don’t you want beer?” Beardy growled.
A quick scan of the room proved we were no longer welcome. Whilst there had been plenty of seats before our faux pas, the fancy dress freakshow had now spread itself across the dungeon. A fair maiden clad in velvet pointed downstairs; we followed her gesture, hoping that perhaps this would be where the normal people go.
It was empty. We had been banished to an inhospitable bombsite below, complete with gaping holes in the floor with nothing but rusty-nailed planks to sit on. The revelry resumed upstairs. We drank up quickly and fled.
It took another visit to the Czech Republic to learn to appreciate its amber nectar – in the town that gave its name to America’s foul imitation of a beer, Budweiser.
České Budějovice, a sleepy southern Bohemian town, is home to the world famous Budvar (Budweiser) brewery, and has been producing beer since the 13th century. The Holy Roman Empire got high on its brew. I was determined this time to fit in with the ruddy cheeked natives who are known for cracking open the first bottle at breakfast. I was attending a language summer school, though many classes were held at the local pub, and its students were more keen on training their livers than their minds – the most impressive of which was the 80 year old Bavarian who could easily drink all of us under the table.
The school outing was, unsurprisingly, a trip to the Budweiser Brewery where we supposed to soak in the putrid stench of fermenting hops, admire the beer bottles dancing down the assembly lines in their millions, and sample the factory’s famed elixir – unpasteurised beer, fresh from their very own taps.
The place was a labyrinthine nightmare, and I ended up separated from the group. Wandering through chilly passageways with only the portraits of beaming beer visionaries and the eerie machine echoes for company, I was glad to bump into three workers as they were about to lock up for the night. One of them asked me why I hadn’t touched my cup of beer yet, and as I tried to explain that there was no point in wasting it on my sorry self, the man shook his head gently and whispered: “Just try it”. After a tentative sip, I understood. It was the most delicious thing in the world. I had finally fallen for Czech beer.