Evan Rail: For the best Czech beer you have to hit the regions

Evan Rail

The American writer Evan Rail spent much of 2006 visiting breweries and pubs the length and breadth of the country, doing research for his excellent new book "Good beer guide Prague and the Czech Republic". In fact, it is unlikely that any other non-Czech has anywhere near his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Czech Republic's beer industry and traditions. When we met recently at a Prague centre terrace bar, I began by asking Evan Rail what the most unusual pivo he'd encountered on his travels was.

"There were several highly unusual beers that I found. Perhaps my favourite was in Hukvaldy, which is a tiny little town. There's a pub there, it's actually not even a brewery, called U zastavky - At the Stop.

"If you go inside and ask then what they serve they'll tell you, Radegast. But if you say, I thought you had your own beer, they'll oblige and pour you a glass of their own beer, which is this glorious golden liquid that you simply have to try.

"It's beautifully bittersweet and has lovely flat low carbonation, lovely taste in the mouth - you want to have another as soon as you taste it. I never would have expected to taste such a dynamic beer, such an interesting beer, in such a small town in the middle of nowhere. But there it was."

Sometimes I see beers like "fitness beer", I've heard about menopause beer for women - is there anything in those beers or are they just a gimmick?

"I'm not so sure if they're a gimmick. Fitness beer might be a gimmick in terms of marketing. But beers with low alcohol and low residual sugar have traditionally brewed here for hundreds of years - they're basically the equivalent of table beers, beers that people traditionally brewed at home just to have something to drink with a meal.

"Remember beer started out in many respects as a way of having something safe to drink. Water was contaminated in the Middle Ages but beer was almost always safe. So there was a tradition of home brewing or local beers which people drank with meals. Soldiers often drank beer for the same reason."

One thing you mention in your book "Good beer guide Prague and the Czech Republic" is that most pubs in this country only serve one brand of beer. Why is that?

"I wish I knew the answer. Basically, a lot of it comes back to collectivisation in the communist era. In the post-communist era there is a process of tied pubs, where larger brewers entered into exclusivity agreements with publicans, as a way of saying, stock our beer and only our beer and we'll give you a discount, we'll give you beer mats, we'll give you tablecloths.

"So by and large these larger brewers killed off the small beers and the variety of beers you used to find in a pub. But even before 1989, as far as I understand, most pubs only stocked one beer."

Czechs are proud of their beers - how good is Czech beer in general, do you think?

Na zdraví!
"I would have to say Czech beer is phenomenal. I was not a partisan before I moved here; I did not know that much about Czech beer. I knew a little bit about beer in a global context.

"But having lived here for a long time and having researched all these beers, and having recently done a lot of research in Germany, I can tell you that Czech beer standards are the best in the world. There's simply nothing to compare, in terms of lagers."

But there's also a feeling I get from people that Czech beers ain't what they used to be, that quality has decreased somewhat in the last 20 years, or since the revolution.

"I would say that was true probably ten years ago. But in the last ten years we've had a growth in variety, we've had approximately 50 new microbreweries open in the past ten years. Ten more are opening this year. We went from 60 breweries to now over 100, close to 110, in just ten years.

"And now they're brewing a variety of beers. Whereas before you would only see Pilsner-style lager and dark lager, there are far more wheat beers being brewed today, brewers are experimenting with ales and top fermenting styles, which are from other regions."

People tell me they don't use Czech hops like they used to. A lot of the hops here are imported from China or somewhere, and a lot of the best Czech hops are exported - is that true?

"Czech hops certainly are exported. I was in Germany a while ago researching a story about beer; I mentioned the Czech hops and they just rolled their eyes and made a little gesture with their hands to indicate how expensive they are. They're the most expensive in the world.

"Hops from Zatec - known as Saaz in the German term - are exported around the world and predominantly to countries that respect the tradition.

"Here in the Czech Republic most of the best breweries do use Czech hops still, and you can definitely taste the difference. But some of the larger industrial brewers, some of the brewers that are making the cheap beers that are just sold in supermarkets, are using imports from other countries."

One thing that slightly surprised me about your book was that you weren't too complementary about some of the better known brewers like Staropramen, the Gambrinus, which is made by Pilsner Urquell. Are those beers really so poor?

"No, they're actually wonderful beers. But given the comparisons that you have here, these beers being produced in small towns and small brewers around the country - they don't quite compare to those.

"But when you compare them to lagers being produced in England, in the United States, in Germany, factory produced lagers around the world, those beers are far superior."

A lot of Czechs are really proud of their beer, but how many people really know or care about quality? You've been involved a bit with a group called the Union of Friends of Beer - how much do they reflect the views of the average man in the Czech pub?

"That I can't say. I know that they're doing great work, the Sdruzeni pratel piva do really great work and are working to have more variety, to support local brewers, to maintain traditions, Czech hops, decoction mash, if that means anything.

"How much do they represent the views of the average man on the street, or the average man in the pub? I think in large part they do. Czechs know what a good beer tastes like.

"Now most consumers here are not terribly well educated when it comes to beer, but there's no disguising the taste. So if you try to foist upon them some kind of fancy, mass produced lager from a foreign country, that shall not be named, they generally know that it doesn't taste good.

"They generally try it once and say, yeah, it's more expensive than my good Czech beer and it doesn't have that sweet taste of malt and that bitter taste of hops that I like. I'm going to stick with what I like."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
What about regional beers? When I first came here there seemed to be many of them. Perhaps I was travelling around the country more in those days, but I seem to see fewer names of breweries these days - are there less of them?

"No, there are more of them, the problem is that there are fewer of them in Prague. Doing research for the book I was surprised to find that in central Prague - not just Prague 1 and Prague 2, but Prague 3, 4, 5, 6 - it's almost impossible to find more than say 20 kinds of beer, 20 different brands on draught.

"And in Prague 1 you'd be hard pressed to find more than four. This is in a country with 100 brewers. So that tells you something about the monopolistic nature of the market in Prague."

Is that 100 brewers bottling beer?

"No, that's actually 100 brewers total, and most of them are brew pubs. But many of them like Dalesice in Vysocana also put their beer in kegs and distribute it to various pubs in their regions."

Given that the big breweries are dominating more and more, are you optimistic for the future of Czech beer?

"I'm definitely optimistic for the future of Czech beer. I was so surprised at the quality of the beer being brewed, especially in the regions.

"There was one beer I found in Pribor, which is Sigmund Freud's home town, and they call it Freudovo pivo. You can only find it in that town, it's a 13-degree dark beer, and it's rich and chocolaty and malty - it's more like a desert than or a Sacher-torte than it is a beer itself.

"Well, I was reading recently that another brewer in nearby Vojkovice, also in the Moravia-Silesia region, started his own brewery because he was so inspired by that beer.

"Both of those beers just came on the market within the past few years. That's one brewer being inspired by another, really creating craft beers, high quality with great ingredients and a wonderful taste."

The Czechs, we often hear, are ranked number one in the world in terms of consumption per person. But is it possible that that figure is pushed up by the number of tourists who come here and often drink vast amounts?

"Definitely. It's definitely helped and I encourage every tourist to do his or her part. Please drink as many beers as you can and try as widely as you can to drink beers from different places."

A beer too far...
Finally Evan, you've travelled the length and breadth of the Czech Republic and tried hundreds of beers. The million-dollar, or million-crown, question: what's the best Czech beer?

"There are so many it's almost impossible to answer. But I can tell you what was my favourite beer experience. That was drinking a beer called Forman from Velichov. Velichovsky Forman is only served in one small pub, as far as I know, in this tiny little run-down town.

"If you go inside they'll tell you they have Gambrinus. But in fact they have this beer as well, and it is so lovely and so bright. Finding it is like discovering a secret, it's like being let in on something that nobody else knows about. For me that was my best beer experience in a year of drinking beer in the Czech Republic."