Making sense of Czech beer

When ordering a beer in the Czech Republic you’ll probably be given the standard option, which is the cheapest half-litre of golden lager that’s available. However, if you want something a little different, then it’s worth knowing more about the characteristics used to describe Czech beer, which are as follows;

  • style (lager, wheat, ale; ležák, pšeničné, ale)
  • colour (pale, dark, amber, black; světlé, tmavé, polotmavý, černé),
  • strength (in degrees plato, which is written as ° or %)

Světlý speciál, U Tří růží

The majority of beers available are pale or dark lager, although there are a few wheat beers, and ale is becoming increasingly popular. Additionally, beers may also be described as unfiltered (nefiltrované) or unpasteurised (pivo z tanku), both of which offer improvements in the taste (more on that later). A common misconception is that the strength of the beer is written as a percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV), however, this number actually refers to the strength in degrees plato. This measurement relates to the density of the beer and the quantity of fermentable sugars in the wort, and provides an approximate measure of alcohol. The more sugar present, the more that is available for the yeast to convert into alcohol. Generally, the higher the number, the stronger the beer – although comparing between brands can be difficult. It’s a similar system to the shilling categories that were used to distinguish beers of different qualities in Scotland during the 19th century.

When you visit a typical Czech pub or restaurant don’t expect a massive choice, as the majority only serve two or three different beers, however there are an increasing number of pubs that stock beer from smaller local breweries. The light coloured lagers are between 10° and 12°, whereas the dark lagers are generally rich in flavour with a distinct sweetness, and a strength or 10° or 11°. Almost every pub in the country will serve a 10° or 11° beer, which equates to approximately 3.5% to 4.5% ABV. Top-fermented wheat beer is typically 11° or 12°, and amber beer is usually between 11° and 13°. Anything 13° or higher tends to be less prevalent, although is still fairly easy to find in larger cities or when visiting microbreweries, and will often be listed on the menu as ‘speciál’.

Whilst the Czech Republic is renowned for excellent beer, it’s still fairly easy to end up with a generic lager that fails to inspire. Provided you’re prepared to deviate from the touristy areas and understand a little more about the Czech beer culture, you’ll find an excellent range of high quality beers on offer.

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