A Czech Beer Worth A Detour

Oktoberfest is the world’s largest beer festival. More than 6 million people will attend this year’s, which started on Saturday and runs until October 10th. Writer Jesse York will be sending us reports all week. This is the third post in the series.

The streets may be quaint cobblestone, but watching hordes of tourists squeeze in and out of high-end boutiques, haute restaurants, and brand-name stores, it’s easy to forget that Prague was under Communist rule less than 20 years ago. The Czech Republic has opened its doors to capitalism and globalization, while retaining its old-world European charm and beauty, flourishing over the past decade as a result. Thus, it’s no surprise that the country’s major breweries, Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell, have been purchased by brewing titans InBev and SABMiller. Anheuser-Busch is also trying to enter the game with its ongoing attempts to acquire the last state-owned brewery, Budvar (the original Budweiser).

While local economies are no doubt helped by these acquisitions, what will happen to the beer? Will it fall to the same fate that has diminished so many great brews after they’ve been sucked up by the corporate beer machine, becoming bland shadows of their former selves, pumped back to life with million dollar ad campaigns? Many beer enthusiasts feel that the gradual decline has already begun.

But these are the Czechs we’re talking about. They drink more beer per capita than any other people in the world; to think that they’d let their brewing traditions die is foolish. Small brewpubs and microbreweries have been sprouting up around the country, and the traditional pilseners and dark lagers that they’re making with local barley and hops will continue to make Bohemia a beer lover’s destination for years to come. On a brief break from Munich, I made the trip to Prague dead-set on finding one of these brews.

I forged through hard rain and biting winds up a hill outside of the Prague Castle to the Strahov Monastery, desperate to find the rumored pivovar, a small brew pub. Drenched and numb from the cold, I finally found it, tucked into a nook behind the residences and restaurant. One sip of their St. Norbert dark quickly rid me of the frustration and angst that had built up during my trek. A strong nose of dark roast coffee gave way to a body full of dark chocolate smoothness, with a fleeting hint of licorice before bitter hops provided a dry finish that left me craving another sip. I convinced myself that it was best to wait out the rain—after all, I’d hate to catch a cold—and was able to get three beers in before the skies cleared.

I left, incredibly satisfied and happy to know that the beer’s amazing flavor had as much to do with the local barley and hops being used as it did with the 150 year-old recipe.

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