Prague is a city with a mind boggling number of beer pilgrimages. Known as the city of a hundred spires, it could just as easily be called the city of a hundred breweries. Prague is a city which can be enjoyed on many levels. It has a rich history in, to name a few, the Habsburg empire, World War II, communism and the subject of this post… beer. Czech beer and it’s beer culture are overshadowed in the west by it’s bigger neighbor Germany. Both countries specialize in pilsners, the golden crisp low fermentation beers which characterize most of the commercial beers around the world. The term pilsner comes from the city Plzen, which is in the Czech Republic. But in Prague, the centerpiece beer in a drinking establishment is not the regional commercial blond pilsner, but the chocolate colored pilsner with a touch of coffee aftertaste. The Czech dark lager.
When it comes to the best beer cities in the world, Prague may hold the title. Cities like Munich and Krakow definitely are up there. Belgium’s trio of Bruges, Antwerp, and Ghent also have rich beer cultures. But Prague manages to separate itself from the pack. Where else can you go to a Beer Spa, purchase cosmetics and hair products made from beer, or be lured into a shop with the promise of free beer?
The starting point to experiencing the beer culture in Prague is to understand where Praguers drink beer and the Czech beer terminology.
Welcome to the Pivovar
Beer in the Czech language is Pivo. The Pivovar is a unique style of beer drinking establishment that exists in Prague. In Belgium, you have the brown bars with are typically in quaint old-fashioned traditional brick buildings and usually have anywhere from 20-300 different beers. Small meals or salami and cheese are usually possible. In the UK and Ireland, you have pubs with cool names like Red Lion or Castle Arms. They usually have a few beers on tap and are characterized by the elaborate wooden-handled taps. Food is always ordered at the bar. In Germany you have the festive beer halls and gothic-style pubs which generally have only a 2-3 choices in local beers. Pretzels and traditional meals are also served. Austria has something similar with the biesl, famous for their schnitzels.
By comparison, the pivovar is unique in that they brew their own beer. While some pivovars can serve a handful of different types of beer, in many cases the pivovar serves only one type of beer (e.g. U Fleku). Traditional meals are also served at pivovars. Reservations are recommended but not necessary. There are seating areas for walk-ins but they are usually much smaller than the reserved seating areas and long waits can be possible. Additionally, be prepared for exposure to cigarette smoke. Czech Republic has not caught up to Western Europe and the USA in banning smoking inside drinking establishments.
Before I get into some recommended pivovars and other beer pilgrimages in Prague, you must get the Czech beer lingo down.
Czech Beer Glossary
The common terms which will help interpret the difficult to understand beer labels and menus are:
- Svetly – blond/pale
- Polotmavé – amber
- Tmavé – dark
- Nefiltrovany – unfiltered
- Černy – extra dark
- Klášterní – Monastery
- Lêźak – lager brewed at a higher temperature normal pilsners, more flavorful
- Vyčepní – from the tap
- Speciál – special lager brewed at highest temp
The below pivovars are only a fraction of the ones that exist in Prague. The places listed here were enjoyed over a two-day, three-night visit.
Starting with the granddaddy of all pivovars, U Fleku claims to be the only brewery in continuous operation for 500 years in Central Europe. It also claims to be the largest in all of Czech Republic. One small room at the front left was available without reservation during my most recent visit. Signature beer is a tasty dark lager called the Flekovsky Ležåk 13. It is probably the most well-known and frequented by tourists. U Fleku is a bit of a walk from the Old City, but within a short distance of the St. Cyril & Methodius Church, which is a must see for World War II buffs for being the site of the deaths of the rebels who assassinated SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
U Medvídku brewery was started in 1466 but interrupted for just over 100 years in 1989, due to competition with industrial breweries. So therefore, it cannot claim the 500+ years of continuous operation like U Fleku. But they can claim to have the world’s strongest pilsner X33, which contains 12,6% alcohol. They only brew this once a month and during my two visits, it was not available. I did enjoy the other two offerings, 1466 and Oldgott.
Klášterní Pivovar Strahov
This is the one pivovar in this post which is on the Prague Castle side of the river. It sits up on a hill just opposite the beautiful Strahov Monastery. Brewing on this site possibly goes back to the 13th century but the current brewery is only a few years old. A handful of different beers are available. Since I prefer the dark ones, I have had the Sv.Norbert Special Dark Beer (now called the Tmavé), the Chocolate Stout, and the Antidepressant Autumn Dark Ale.
U Trí Ruží
This pivovar is just a half-block away from the Prague Beer Museum. They claim to have about 30 different beers available. Of course, I chose the Tmavé Special.
Beer Bars, Shops, & Other Cool Places to Experience Czech Beer
Located in the Karlin neighborhood which is a 10-15 minute walk from the Old City, Pivovarsky Klub is an Untappd apostle’s delight. The website claims 240 different beers in the bottle and 6 on tap. Looking around at the bottles lining the walls, it is enough to give a beer pilgrim brain freeze. Don’t expect haut cuisine though.
On the Prague castle side of the river, a short left turn down Lázenská after passing through the gate tower of the Charles bridge is this small but bountiful beer shop. For a beer pilgrim, this is a goldmine of special Czech beers and beer souvenirs to take back to the hotel or back home. I picked up a Svijany beer glass and Kozel bottle opener.
It is always good marketing to put a sign out front that says “Beer For Free”. Such is the invitation that led me to sample what the saleswoman described as the First Beer For Women. The shop also sells arts and crafts from local artisans, but clearly the focus is on marketing the beer. It is a delicate, champagne-style beer. Agreed that it is not geared toward masculine tastes.
Did not visit since I wanted the city’s pivovars to be my museum, but it looks to be quite interesting. For a later time…
Behind the Strahov Monastery is a restaurant set into an underground cave. Peklo apparently means Hell in the Czech language. The restaurant is dimly lit by candlelight and would be a nice romantic dinner spot. For me, it was a good place to have some goulash soup served in a bread bowl and a couple new beers.
Czech Beer Festival
Held for 17 days every May, this is the Czech Republic’s biggest beer festival. I had the pleasure to visit in May 2013. Not as wild and crazy as Oktoberfest, but it was my first experience with a one-liter beer.
If you managed to read thru this entire post, I think you’ll agree that for beer lovers, Prague must be top on the list of beer pilgrimages. There are so many different ways to experience the beer culture here. Pivovars, museums, cozy restaurants, and great beer shops. And when you add in the amazing history and architecture, it is a city that beckons to be visited again and again.