A taste of the winning entries to Radio Prague's beer competition

This week we treat our loyal listeners—especially the beer-lovers among you—to a special edition of Panorama. Now beer has been measured in the Czech lands with degrees, according to a method devised by one Professor Balling in the 17th century. But calibrating the strength of a poem, essay or story about beer is less of an exact science, and our staffers had a hard time choosing a winner for the 2005 Radio Prague listeners' competition. This year the topic was, "What Czech beer means to me" a weighty question to which the English section alone received over 200 replies. A French listener won the competition and we heard her entry in last week's mailbox; we now treat you to highlights from our favourite English entries.

First, let's say a few words about what beer means to Czechs. No self respecting Czech would sit down for a traditional dish of roast pork, cabbage and dumplings without a half-litre mug of "liquid bread" to wash it down, and if at all possible, fresh from the tap with a frothy head. Bottled beer is a distant second; canned beer is for tourists. Czechs drink more beer per capita than any nation on Earth. They invented Pilsner, and make cheese and soup from the stuff. Even the music seems to inspire beer drinking: "Roll out the Barrel" is actually a Czech song: Skoda lasky. Czechs take great pride in now international brands like Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Radegast, Velkopopovicky kozel, Budvar, and Staropramen; they support their local brews like most people do a home football team: foreign beer sales hardly make a dent among the locals, making up less than 2 percent of sales. But not everyone is Czech and not everyone is a beer lover. Here's an extract from one of our competition entries.

"I will confess at once: I did not like Czech beer. Don't misunderstand me - I have nothing against the Czech water or hops used and nothing against Czech brewmeisters and their illustrious tradition ... I am an equal-opportunity non beer lover. Mexican, Indian, Belgian or American beers also leave me cold."

Alon K Raab, a Radio Prague listener who grew up in Israel but now calls the American state of Oregon home, kept a "safe distance" from Czech beer on a tour of the country, whist indulging in local spirits like slivovice—a plum brandy—and burcak, traditional young Moravian wine.

Sedlec Ossuary
Turning down gracious offers of Czech beer—the pride and joy of a nation, writes Mr Raab, was an exercise in diplomacy. It was a visit to the Sedlec Ossuary that turned him. Three decades earlier, Mr Raab had seen the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's film about the bone church and made a teenager's vow to visit it.

"When we left the grounds and headed towards the town of Kutna Hora we passed a pub. 'Now I'm ready for a cold beer' I announced, surprising Rachel [his wife]. We entered a wood- panelled establishment adorned with beer emblems. I scrambled through my pocket dictionary. "Pivo, prosim" ("a beer, please" I ordered, hoping that I did not mispronounce the words and accidentally insult the bartender's mother. He smiled and indicated a wall tablet listing dozens of varieties. I pointed to a name next to a dark frothy image. He turned to a spigot and filled a large stein. The foam rose. "Na zdravi" ("Cheers, to your health") he said. It was good. Very good. Excellent. Superb...I ordered one more, this time the words rolled from my lips. It was good to be alive, with the nourishing Czech beer coursing through my bones, my very alive bones."

Many of the 200-plus entries we received were on the whimsical side.

Such as these entries by Irishwoman Deirdre Murray, who listens to Radio Prague from Brussels

"Czech beer sure means the world to me,

It makes me laugh and it makes me pee."

And Yaron Kidron, from California, in the United States

"Crafted in Plzen,

or brewed in the east,

You're my Czech love affair,

My sensational feast.

You're my potion of life,

Born in water and wheat

Fluid gold to my senses

And my perfect retreat."

While Chinenye Odika, of Kaduna, Nigeria, who as far as we know is young and healthy, nevertheless wrote:

"Experience has taught me that it is either Czech beer for me, or nothing else... if you asked me to make a last wish before I died, I would ask to be served the Nigerian national meal (pounded yam, okra soup and cooked sardines) and a cool bottle of clear refreshing 10 degree Plzensky Prazdoj, after which I would gladly rest in peace. That is how much Czech beer means to me."

Listener Jonathan Murphy hails from county Cork in Ireland, a stout-drinking nation if ever there was one. He informs us that Nigeria, by the way, is the second-largest market for Guinness outside Britain and Ireland. Mr Murphy sent in a delightful account of his trip last year to the Czech Republic, in which he was faced with a dilemma: what to drink in an Irish pub—in Brno—whilst supporting his native hurling team, Cork having made it to the All Ireland Final.

"Ignoring the Guinness on offer I took the plunge. Pointing to Pilsner and mumbling 'Pilsner prosím' I feebly hoped to be mistaken for a Czech punter. 'You here for the match then?' enquired my compatriot."

Having hoped to keep a low profile and avoid the wrath of true Irish patriot Guinness drinkers, Mr Murphy quietly made his way up to the back room in the Irish pub. He was amazed to find that his fellow Irishmen had all made the same choice.

"There wasn't a drop of the black stuff to be seen... Every story has a moral and I'm still trying to figure out the moral of this one... It seems that many other Irish have a similarly favourable encounter with Czech beer to mine, once tasted it becomes the next best thing to a pint back home."

Roy Kitson, of County Down, Northern Ireland, was first introduced to Czech beer in 1991, when he was football correspondent for the local newspaper. His guide was none other than Karel Buckner, then coach of the Olomouc football club, who today coaches the Czech national team. They spent a long evening together and have remained friends ever since.

"Though he was too polite to actually say it, I believe that Mr Bruckner thought that the Czech brew was definitely superior to our Irish varieties. Karel promised to introduce me to Czech beer when I was to visit Olomouc for the return game in the football competition a fortnight after the first match in Bangor."

Olomouc won both matches, but Mr Kitson has been a Czech beer convert ever since, and a great fan of the culture, which, he says "is reflected in the superb beer which the country produces."

Now, many of our listeners are, not surprisingly, of Czech origin. For them, the taste of Czech beer can be powerfully evocative.

"Fresh beer was my father's Sunday ritual, every Sunday, no exceptions. The key was, it had to be delivered with a fresh-foam head. Of course as any other young boy, coming in terms with this big responsibility, I always sipped the beer along the way. Especially during the summer... the sun and cold beer. Nothing better!"

That was part of an entry by Peter Osicka, of Ontario, Canada, one of several listeners who recalled being sent for a dzban, or jug, of fresh beer to bring home from the local pub—and got a hiding for sampling the wares along the journey.

As did Peter Rohel, of Toronto, Canada.

"What young boy could resist, carrying a jug of beer and not taste it, when it's so near?"

Our final reading today is from a letter by Zdenek Kutac, of Calgary, Canada. In 1974, he was a young refugee studying at the University of Western Ontario, along with a handful of other "exotic" Czechs. They had little contact with their homeland.

"We often reminisced about the favoured pubs we left in 1968 and so many friends who shared our liking of a good "pul litr".

That summer he travelled to the Yukon and Alaska, and stumbled upon a band of Czechs.

"One day, deep inside the northern bush, I came across not one, not two or three, but across at least a dozen Czechs. They were the real "trampi" - friends way back from the day of perhaps even the First Republic. They hailed from all over the world: Australia, South Africa, Europe, North America. They were friends whose love for the nature, the lure of the Yukon, and friendship made them meet every few years in the most unexpected corners of the world."

"Out came the guitars, the over used songbooks... I was too young to really fit in this group of rugged tramps and their world of "rebellion'. Yet I felt strangely at home with this bunch that sang Czech songs and drank Czech beer in the midnight sun of the faraway Yukon. Today, more than 40 years later, I still recall the taste of Pilsner and hear the refrain to "Cestou do Cordoby potkal jsem dve vdovy" in my ears... perhaps never again will I feel [such a] connection to beer as I felt then."

"Long live the Czech beer."