Checking the Czech Craft Beer Out: Old & New

Sunrise on the Charles Bridge

Though my website is focused on my love and knowledge of Franconian beer, I have enjoyed beers in many other countries, as well. One favorite I’ve been lucky to recently visit once again is the Czech Republic. Czech is particularly interesting now as it not only has a fine history of brewing but it jumped on the craft beer bandwagon earlier than many European countries, particularly Germany.

Some old photos from early trips to the Czech Republic

My first adventures in Czech were in the late 90s, a bit longer after the Iron Curtain fell than I would have liked. Actually, I was on my way there in 1993 when my traveling partner at the time decided she’d had enough, after an admittedly very long year-long trip. At any rate, by the late 90s, many of the beers I sought were no longer being brewed but I nonetheless enjoyed the ones I did find. This was before the craft beer revolution really hit full force in the States so it was not even on a distant horizon anywhere else, let alone this newly “free” country with an already long lineage of brewing beer.

late afternoon Prague

Without going into a history lesson on Czech brewing, the Bohemians were still brewing ales (top fermenting) in the early 1800s even though Munich brewers had already developed lagers to their south. They also used more hops as they were widely grown there. When a Bavarian brewer came to Bohemia, the combination of the lager yeast (bottom fermenting) and the low protein content of Bohemian malt made for a much brighter colored beer. This was in the town of Pilsen and obviously the beginning of the pilsner style. If the Czechs did nothing else for the rest of the history brewing beer, their place in that history would have already been secured.
Of course, they didn’t stop there and various regions produced both variations of pilsner but also magical dark beers, as well. One could go to Czech and not even look for craft beer and be entirely happy drinking their anything but “regular” beer but you’d certainly miss out on some great new stuff they are brewing, too.

early glimpses of the Charles Bridge

Over the years, I’ve been able to travel around the country and try many of the more traditional beers but on a recent trip, I got to pit some of the best of the new and old while visiting Prague for my wife’s birthday weekend. First up was U Flecku, reportedly the oldest continuously operating brewery in not only Czech but all of central Europe. I’m not sure this is true but 1499 sure sounds old and though it’s become increasingly overly touristy over the years, the building inside and out is something to marvel at. Their Dark 13°is also still a great beer and though quite pricey even in Prague, it’s certainly worth stopping in for one. Sneakily, the beer is served in .4L mugs but the prices are still nearly twice as high as fair-priced pubs in town. We also decided to eat as we weren’t sure how crowded our planned stops were going to pan out. My wife’s roast chicken was lovely but my plate of smoked pork neck was meager in size with far too little sauce for the knedliky it’s served with. These bread dumplings are always in serious need of ample sauce and this was not the case here.

timeless inside and out: U Flecku & their tasty Dark 13°

No worries, after a couple beers and much needed sustenance, we were off to Literární kavárna Řetězová, more of a café than a pub but with lots of dark wood and an old world feel. The young staff were attentive and efficient, but obviously the reason we were there was to sample the fine beer of the Bernard Brewery, some 100 kilometers southwest of Prague. This is one brewery I’ve not made it to but I have had their beers in the past. Their Dark 12° is a great dark brown brew with a dense tan head. It has a fair amount of roast intermingled with dried fruit and a marvelous dry finish. Even though we’d eaten an early dinner, we opted for their very tasty sliced cold sausage plate, which came with decent, caraway seed infused bread.

Bernard Dark 12° & a very nice sliced cold spicy sausage

This also helped clear our palate for the Bernard IPA, an amber brew with a dense creamy head and citrusy nose. The interplay of hops and malt was grand, with the balance more associated with Double IPAs back in the States without the extra alcohol. It had been a long day, having taken the 5-hour plus bus ride from Munich that morning so we ambled back to our hotel, enjoying the cobblestone streets en route.

Bernard’s lovely IPA & Prague by night

The next morning, after a visit to the Mucha Museum, we met up with my wife’s family, who’d come for her big day. We ate something at U Tří zlatých lvů (The Three Lions) close to the hotel, not having the time to worry about the beer offered. Still, their Kozel Dark did the trick and the food was very fairly priced for their location and a notch or two above most food in Prague, too.

Mucha Museum visit & some great goulash

Our troops were tired from their trip and with a few older folk and two small children, were in need of a nap. While they did that, we shuffled off to the U zlatého tygra (The Golden Tiger), where former Czech President Václav Havel reportedly threw down a few pints of the original Pilsner with one Bill Clinton. That bit of info was all fine and good but what made it so special was not only the incredibly well-poured and kept Pilsner Urquell but also the bustling local beer hall atmosphere. We had a small Utopenece (a cold spicy pickled sausage) for good measure.
Back to round up our family at the hotel, we made our way for their first glimpse of the St. Charles Bridge and main square. There wasn’t much time to linger though, as we had a dinner reservation at U Medvídků, the original outlet for Budvar in Prague and still considered the best place to drink it outside of its hometown of České Budějovice. We were glad we’d made the reservation as the place was packed and this in early March, far outside the main tourist season. Everyone enjoyed their meals as well as quite a few mugs of their Budvar Dark 13°. This is another very dry dark beer, something the Czechs do as well as anyone. Not all of their dark beers are this good, and generally they are sweeter than their lighter colored offerings but when you find a good one, it’s typically great. An interesting beer ice cream and Becherovka rounded out the night.

Budvar Dark 13° & Pork Knuckle

The next morning, while our comrades slept, my wife and I were out on the Charles Bridge for sunrise. It’s about the only time to enjoy it without too many people. We lucked out as a young recently married couple were taking some very atmospheric wedding photos as we walked up. It was very cold and the bride was wearing only her wedding dress but I’m sure they’ll never forget that morning when they look at the photos!

Bride on the Bridge at Sunrise

After breakfast with the family, we did one more small walk around town with them before heading over for one last lunch at U Pinkasů, another renowned Pilsner Urquell outlet. It was a festive last meal and I particularly enjoyed my smoked pork neck with sauerkraut and homemade potato pancakes. After our family left for home, we took a much needed nap to get ready for our outing that night.

Early morning Prague & smoked pork neck & potato pancakes at U Pinkasu

We ventured out of the town center to meet local friends at Bullerbyn, a hipster cocktail bar in a very nice neighborhood. Since they’d never heard of it, they asked how we chanced upon it and of course, they weren’t all that surprised that it was due to their having a special beer. In this case, it was Herold Dark 13°. In fact, they have it and the regular Herold 12° on tap and I hadn’t had a Herold beer in more than a dozen years. It came out black with a very creamy tan head. It was full of roast with a dry bitter finish. We noticed patrons munching on big bowls of popcorn and couldn’t resist. Our meals weren’t bad, either but I’d probably eat before heading out there again.

Old friends Anna & Michal, oh and Herold Dark 13°

With some great old style Czech beers under our belts, it was time to embark on a journey to some of the newer brewpubs in town. First up was the Pivovar Hostivar, in our friends’ neighborhood, some 40 minutes out of the city center but still technically in the greater Prague metropolitan area. This was a modern affair but with a very warm, bustling atmosphere. With so many choices, we shared beers. First, we had their Svletla 11°, an unfiltered pale yellow session beer with a dry bitter palate. I wouldn’t say it was unbalanced but it seemed to lack something, probably malt. Next up was their Polotomava 12°, an amber beer with a pronounced hoppy nose. This one was more balanced with a nice citrus element and dry finish. It was time for some food by then and a very tasty goulash did the trick. We followed that up by climbing the degree ladder to their Svletla 13°, a lightly filtered golden brew. This was more full-bodied than the 11 degree beer but firmly bitter in the finish.

Their two traditional style beers & a nice goulash

The H-Ale 15° was up next and this unfiltered amber was the highlight of the visit. It was full of citrusy hops but with ample malt for a balanced and flavorful brew. We should have probably finished there but it was hard to resist a Czech rendition of a Dopplebock and at 17 degrees, was predictably rich and malty but it did have the desired spiciness the style calls for and finished fairly dry considering its strength. The first of the new age Czech brewpubs got high marks from us. Prices were very good for Prague and compared to drinking similar beers in Germany, about half the price.

H-Ale 15° & Dopplebock 17° rounded out the tastings

This was all, of course, outside of the city center. There certainly were no tourists out that way and accordingly things were priced for Czechs. U Tří růží (The Three Roses), right in the Old Town, would prove pricier, and unfortunately a few notches down the scale from our previous stop. Their Dark Rose was the best of the lot, black with a dense tan head, a bit of roast in the palate and a nice dry finish. It was an easy drinker but not nearly as tasty as the Bernard Dark 12° just up the street at our first night’s stop. The Lager was unfiltered with a hoppy palate but the finish was weak, especially for a Czech beer. It was a nice enough little place and worth checking out for a beer but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time there.

U Tří růží or The Three Roses

Last on the agenda was the Klášterní pivovar Strahov (Strahov Monastery Brewery) up in the Castle District. This is quite a large enterprise and with such a great location, it seems to stay pretty busy. Their St. Norbert Tmavy 14° was nearly black with a dense tan head, unfiltered and relatively dry. It had a nice clean finish but just wasn’t up there with the best of the dark beers we’d had on the trip. St. Norbert Polotamavy 13° was an unfiltered amber, rich and malty with a bittersweet finish. It lacked the spiciness you’d hope for in a Märzen but that was the style it tasted most like.
We ordered an excellent mixed smoked ham plate as well as one of assorted dips and moved onto the craft beer entries. Their IPA 16° was an unfiltered amber with a citrusy nose. It’s very well-balanced with a big malt presence but unmistakable cascade hops right up to the clean dry finish. I didn’t think they could top that but the Double IPA 19° was a deeper amber with a creamy head. It was a maltier version of the IPA but the finish remained very dry. The walk up to the monastery was well worth the effort. Though pricey, the craft beer entries were good value and should be sought out for anyone enjoying IPAs.

St. Norbert beers and assorted dips & smoked ham plate

I had read about a bar that specialized in craft beer on tap from around Czech and the world in bottles. It was close to the Florenc bus station so on our way home, not out of the way. We had planned on eating there, too but noticed a Vietnamese restaurant up the street and since we were a bit Czech food-ed out, we opted to eat a bowl of phó before hitting the pub.

D gets her phó

It was perfect on the cold day and soon we were sitting in Pivovarsky Klub, enjoying a Black Fly, from the Moucha Pivovar in the Branik area of Prague. It was again very dark with the seemingly requisite creamy tan head and roasty palate. It had a nice dry finish yet didn’t quite have the overall taste of the Herold and Bernard dark beers. There was only time for one more of the six beers on tap and the Amarillo 12° from the Radnicni microbrewery in Jihlava easily won out. It was deep golden with a very soft palate. This combined with the low carbonation and thin head gave it the appearance of an English pale ale and though hopped with Amrillo, it was not overly bitter as it had a great malt balance. A great end to an incredible beery trip. The bottle selection was impressive and it was a nice comfortable place, a real find if you’re waiting for a bus. Speaking of which, it was time for us to run!

Combination bottle shop and craft beer pub Pivovarsky Klub

We easily made it and the ride home was characteristically anticlimactic; it’s never as much fun as the trip to your trip destination. That said, it had been an amazing trip. My wife really enjoyed spending her birthday in Prague and having her family come meet us there. She also enjoyed our little cozy pub finds, a bit of a departure from some of the rougher pubs I used to drag her to when beer wandering wasn’t as fashionable. Me? I enjoyed myself, too. The family thing went really well and since I’d organized it all, they were super appreciative. I enjoyed and was amazed at all the great beer we managed to squeeze in.

There’s more to Prague than beer but the beer sure doesn’t hurt

What’s my verdict on craft beer in Prague compared to the old standbys? Well, the interpretations of the more standard beers seemed to fall flat in comparison. They weren’t bad, just not as good. Now, that has to be qualified, too. The “regular” beers we drank were renowned great beers. We didn’t just nip into the pub for a Staropramen. If we had, my guess is, we wouldn’t have been so judgmental of the new brews. When it came to the interpretations of American style craft beers, the IPAs and Double IPAs, the new brewpubs fared extremely well. They were up there with some of the best I’ve had in the US. They weren’t particularly innovative but super well-made and stylistically perfect. If you considered the prices, they were great value compared to drinking similar beers in the US, or Germany for that matter. If you’re an IPA man (or woman), then by all means, enjoy. You won’t get one of this quality for this price back home.

I enjoyed both the old and the new

Still, for my money, if you’re time is limited, why not drink the beer you can’t really get back home and make no mistake, that Pilsner Urquell you’re paying a fortune for back home tastes nothing like the liquid gold at the Golden Tiger. This is Prague so it’s not going to be dirt cheap but if you pick your spots, you can still find great value beer and generally well-served. This is a country that takes pride in how a beer is poured and looks: where a head is part of a beer, not a way to cheat tourists. Raise your mug. Na zdraví.
1) U Flecku,
2) Literární kavárna Řetězová,
3) U Tří zlatých lvů,
4) U Medvídků,
5) U Pinkasů,
6) Bullerbyn, Chodská 1123/17, 120 00 Praha 2-Vinohrady
7) Pivovar Hostivar,
8) U Tří růží,
9) Klášterní pivovar Strahov,
10) Pivovarsky Klub, Křižíkova 272/17, 186 00 Praha 8-Karlín


12 thoughts on “Checking the Czech Craft Beer Out: Old & New

  1. Great to get the lowdown on Prague as we plan to head there later in the year. Will certainly try some of these brews!

  2. Wonderful pictures and lot of work done tasting :-).
    With one thing you made me laugh, but – you know – nicely, as by mistake you change the name of Alfons Mucha (the painter) to Moucha, which means Fly ;-).
    For your next visit I highly recommend visiting Kulovy Blesk pub and for nice beer (Pilsner and dark Kozel) and super Czech food I recommend any from Lokal pub chain 🙂

    1. Put the addresses up for the locations. Hope it’s helpful for you and anyone else looking for them. Wanted to put links to places but they change over time and if you are not checking your own pages, you could wind up with a lot of dead links. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for enjoying and the correction. As you might guess, I am the Moucha guy, my wife is the Mucha gal. 😉 Lokal was on my list but ran out of time. We’ll be back hopefully soon. I’ll check out your other rec tomorrow. Just back from a Casino Royal Party and not used to being up so late.

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