It’s Friday night and U Orloje, a restaurant in the Czech town of Zatec, is alive with excited chatter. Waiters rush here and there, sometimes weighed down by plates piled high with diet-detonating Bohemian dishes – pork knuckles, goulash, dumplings by the dozen – but more often with glasses filled to the brim with beer brewed on the premises. As so often in this country, beer is the star of the show.
“We Czechs are like the French,” Jiri Vent, the manager, tells me. “They like good-quality, good-value wine. We’re the same but with beer.”
This message is increasingly well-understood by beer lovers around the world. While the focus of much attention this weekend will be the final days of Oktoberfest, which has drawn about 7m people to Munich over the past fortnight, those with a more nuanced appreciation of beer’s history will have their eyes on the Czech Republic. In Pilsen, the fourth-biggest city in the country, lavish celebrations are ongoing for the 170th anniversary of the first brewing of Pilsner Urquell.
On Friday last week, 10 huge barrels of unfiltered beer were delivered by horse-drawn carriage to the main square, where they were poured by 11 “master bartenders” from as far afield as Australia, the US and Korea. Such extravagance is understandable, though: this is the original golden lager, the beer that inspired a revolution in tastes. All of the world’s favourite beers – from Heineken to Budweiser – are its descendants.
But as I learnt during a tasting tour of Bohemia last month, few nations appreciate golden lager (referred to as svetly lezák, or pale lager, on bar menus: “Pilsner” just means Pilsner Urquell) like the Czechs. The country boasts hundreds of varieties, from the world-famous to beers brewed on tiny kits in provincial brewpubs.
A growing number of operators are offering beer-themed tours but it’s easy to put together your own itinerary. Public transport is cheap and reliable, or you can rent a car – all of the places I visited can be reached from Prague in an hour or less.
My first stop was Litomerice, a beautiful town to the north-west of the capital, home to Minipivovar Labut, a microbrewery housed in the cellar of an art nouveau building. The humble nature of the venue – plain stone walls, wooden tables – belies the satisfying elegance of the product. The stronger Pilsner (they brew two) has the sort of cutting bitter finish beloved of Czechs.
It’s not far from Litomerice to Usti nad Labem but the two towns could not be more different. Litomerice feels like a Czech version of Bath while Usti is industrial and blue-collar. That much was clear when, having checked into my hotel (The Clarion), I headed out to Na Rychte, a loud, boisterous brewpub in the city centre. When I arrived at 7pm, the place was already full: one of the locals told me, only half-jokingly, that you have to book a seat at the bar if you want to visit on Friday or Saturday night. It’s easy to see why: there’s a mixture of generations, everyone is having fun and the beer is great.
If you’re visiting Usti, it’s worth staying an extra day to enjoy the spectacular local scenery. The city lies on the edge of Bohemian Switzerland, an area of outstanding beauty that stretches over the border into Germany. I took a trek along the Kamenice river canyon, which included a remarkable boat trip up a narrow gorge. The only noise was the punt pushing through the water and the boatman chatting away in Czech. It was tranquil in the truest sense.
Back on the road the next day, I headed for Zatec, at the centre of the Czech Republic’s biggest hop-growing region. Saaz, the hop produced here, is perhaps the world’s most highly prized variety, and certainly among the most expensive: when well-deployed, its peppery, lemony character can transform a beer.
The locals are naturally very proud of this. The little green plants are everywhere: there’s a tiny hop garden in the middle of town and even the football team (Slavoj Zatec) have one on their badge. And then there’s The Temple of Hops and Beer, opened in 2010, which comprises the Hop Lighthouse, The Hop Museum and the U Orloje restaurant.
The view from the top of the Lighthouse, an impressive modern observation tower-cum-multimedia presentation, reveals how the town is still dominated by the chimneys of warehouses where hops were once dried and stored. A few yards away is the extensive Hop Museum, which includes a huge variety of exhibits detailing the 1,000-year history of hop-growing in the region.
A short walk across town – past the town hall, hop garden and any number of steep-roofed old warehouses – takes you to the Zatec brewery. Founded in 1801, it is housed in a huge, crumbling complex which bears the imprint of this area’s tumultuous recent history: the copper brewing vessels, for example, have dark scars in them where they were chopped up in order to be buried before the arrival of the Nazis in 1938.
The brewery no longer makes as much beer as it once did, although its fortunes have been revived since a takeover by Briton Rolf Munding in 2001. Its most popular product – a Pilsner naturally – is less hoppy than you might imagine, but very drinkable. “Beer should always say to you, ‘Have another one’”, explains Martin Kec, the brewery’s chief executive.
My trip ended in Pilsen, a must-visit for anyone with a serious interest in beer. Like a growing number of tourists (more than three times as many people visit each year now as did 10 years ago) I took a tour around the Pilsner Urquell brewery. The highlight was the nine kilometres of cellars underneath it, where the beer was once aged before it could be drunk. Nowadays, these damp, cool tunnels are used primarily to impress tourists and to house a particularly delicious unfiltered, unpasteurised brew, aged in oak barrels. It is to the average industrial lager what good, farmhouse cheddar is to slices of processed cheese: more interesting, richer, infinitely more satisfying.
Later that afternoon I checked in at my hotel, Purkmistr, on the outskirts of Pilsen. This place offers a brewery plus a beer spa (where you enjoy the apparently beneficial effects of a quick soak in beer) but I wasn’t here for that. I had arrived on the day of the Sun in the Glass festival, which showcases beers from small breweries around the country. It’s far less commercialised than Oktoberfest – and takes place on just one afternoon – but there are plenty of less traditional brews on offer here. A strong porter was named beer of the festival, but for me the best came from a little brewery called Uneticky. It was a rich, golden, satisfyingly bitter lager: the perfect drink with which to end my trip to the home of Pilsner.
Will Hawkes was a guest of Czech Tourism (www.czechtourism.com), the national tourist board.
Pilsner Urquell, www.prazdroj.cz
Zatec brewery, www.zatec-brewery.com
Hop and Beer Temple and U Orloje, www.chchp.cz
Na Rychte, pivovarnarychte.cz
Minipivovar Labut, www.minipivovarlabut.cz