Where to find the best Czech brew
Try a glass of wheat beer at brewery PivovarskÃ½ Dum on Lipova Street. (Richard Nebesky/LPI)
The Czech capital of Prague is famous as a beer destination, and rightfully so, but the beer market traditionally has been dominated by a handful of giant breweries: Pilsner Urquell, Budějovický Budvar and Staropramen.
That is not to say to those are not great beers (at least the first two are - critics tend to snub their nose at Staropramen), but too much of a good thing, even a great beer, can get old.
Now, slowly, a local beer culture is developing that focuses on the best regional and microbrewers, and a handful of pubs have opened around town where you can sample these harder-to-find, but worth-searching-out beers.
These places (see below) tend to divide into two types: those that truck in beer daily from tiny breweries in the provinces and may have a dozen or more different regional labels on tap; and those that brew their own beer, sometimes incorporating whacky (or inspired - take your pick) ingredients like honey, bananas, or coffee.
Pilsen is golden
A couple of things to keep in mind before starting out: Czechs, by and large, prefer Pilsner-style lagers, with a deep-golden color, medium-to-full body, tangy taste, and firm head. That means the mellower, darker porters and ales are harder to find, but there are still a few around.
The other thing is that Czechs, to their credit, have shunned the modern tendency toward light beer. You will not find "Pilsner Light'" on any self-respecting beer menu. That said, it is possible to get beers that are lighter, less alcoholic and less filling (to coin an ad phrase). The trick is to know a little something about beer terminology beforehand.
Czech beers are traditionally identified by both name and "degree", usually ranging from 10 degrees to 14 degrees. Degree is a brewing term that corresponds roughly to the amount of sugar content. Pilsner Urquell, for example, is a 12-degree beer (marked by the 12° on the label).
The key thing here to keep in mind is that 10-degree beers tend to be slightly lighter and less alcoholic than 12-degree beers (14-degree and occasionally even 16-degree beers can be downright deadly!)
So, all that out of the way, it is time to find a beer.
For the best regional labels, look no further than the Prague Beer Museum, about a 10-minute walk from the Old Town Square. Despite the name, this is a pub (not a museum), with a rotating beer menu of around 20 regional brews on tap. Order them one by one (until you fall off your stool), or in convenient five- and 10-glass "tasting" menus. A good choice here is the Svijany 11-degree Maz, a creamy Pilsner with a fruity bite. There is not much to eat, but no one comes here for the food anyway.
Pivovarský Klub is a better choice if both drinking and eating are on the card. The "Klub" serves both the best regional beers and some of its own home-brewed concoctions. Granát Černa Hora 12-degree is an unusual dark lager from a brewery not far from Prague, with a sweet taste and smooth finish. The traditional Czech cooking is very good.
The Pivovarský Klub's sister pub, the Pivovarský Dům, is a true microbrewer, serving homemade light and dark lagers, as well as a range of experimentals, infused with coffee, bananas, cherries and even a slightly sweetish nettle-flavored beer. This is also a restaurant serving up convincing renditions of Czech-style goulash, roast pork, dumplings and other pub staples. It is popular, so advanced booking is essential.
While it is getting easier to find the smaller, lesser-known beers in pubs, it is still not so easy to buy them by the bottle in shops. The aptly named Pivní Galerie (Beer Gallery) in the outlying Prague district of Holešovice stocks beers from dozens of breweries from around the Czech Republic, and the owners are more than happy to offer advice. A short trip here on the tram will spare you days of roaming the country in search of that perfect ale.
Mark Baker is the author of Lonely Planet's latest Prague guide.