May 2006


Hello Again, Milan Pivo here. This month I decided to write about a beer closer to home and closer to my heart. For the people out there that have read my past two articles, I’m not sure if you’ve pieced it together yet, but Pivo in Czech means beer. Quite the coincidence.

During my many travels to Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic to visit family, I came into contact with a special Czech icon; Czech lager, Staropramen. I remember in 2000 when my uncle and I met up with my godfather and went bar hopping around the city of spires. We started with some original Pilsner (Pilsner Urquel) at a nondescript Prague wateringhole by the National theatre. I remember sitting there enjoying the thirst quenching Pilsner from the city of Plzen, where that type of beer takes its name from. After the mandatory flurry of humorous stories only my godfather could tell, we were off to the Staroparmen brewery in Smichov, a brisk 20 minute walk from Mala Strana. I ordered the roast beef which came with fresh horseradish. Good thing a golden Staropramen was not far away. After the tears and burning nose from the horseradish, I enjoyed the rest of my drink and had one more for the road. This experience remained etched in my memory and I knew I would come back to enjoy another half litre of liquid gold soon.

I didn’t know just know quickly I would return to this famed Prague brewery. It was summer 2002 and I was traveling around Europe with my wife (girlfriend at the time). We were in Prague for 9 nights and I was able to get a pension house for us to stay in. We arrived at our pension house in the late afternoon. The owners of the pension house had provided us with a little map of the area, outlining bars, restaurants and grocery stores. After putting our luggage away and getting settled, we took the map in hand and went to search out the local bar. We found the pub U Pankrac which had a huge rustic outdoor patio at the back. It was just what we were looking for. The beer on tap was Staropramen. In the Czech Republic, bars carry only one brand which is usually displayed by a hanging sign above the door of the pub. In some places they provide beers of different degrees (8, 10 and 12 degrees). So when ordering you just say jedno pivo (one beer), sometimes you’re asked whether light or dark. The beer continues to flow with the bar tender striking your coaster each time you order a beer. The service was truly excellent. They had two boys that couldn’t have been older then 15 going from table to table with fresh half litre beer mugs in their hands. When you are ready to pay you yell “zaplatit” and the boy would inform the barman. This man would then come to the table with a “European style” wallet with change and bills.

This pub, U Pankrac (which translates to, by Pankrac, which is a nearby subway stop), became our pub and Staropramen became our beer. It was great knowing that after a long day of seeing the sights of Prague, we were able to come back, enjoy a drink and talk about all the things we saw and were going to do. On the top of my girlfriend’s list was a green Staropramen shirt, which I thought could be found at the Staropramen brewery. We made the trip to the Smichov area of Prague navigating through some residential areas and gypsy neighborhoods. I was getting a little worried because getting there lay squarely on me. Five minutes later we were there, however, the only size shirt they had was XL, but it was worth the walk to get a half litre of Staropramen straight from the source. This is why Staropramen has a special place in my heart.

Staropramen means “old spring” in Czech and water, more specifically the soft water of the area is an essential ingredient. The Staropramen brewery, located in Smichov, Prague was established on October 23, 1869. It was built on the left bank of the Vltava River on an 18,000 m2 lot named “the Hollow.” The first batch of beer was ceremonially finished on May 1st and the sales began on July 15th. In 1876 the brewery was visited by the Emperor of the Habsburg Empire Franz Joseph I. After a tour of the brewery Franz exclaimed “excellent beer, excellent indeed!” By 1884 the brewery was exporting beers to Vienna, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S.A. In 1911, the brewery registered 16 trademarks, including Staropramen which became the brewery’s key brand because of its popularity. Between the Interwar periods of 1919-1938 the Smichov brewery underwent expansion with massive investment into new equipment. This helped catapult the brewery into one of the three largest breweries in Europe. However, after WWII it was confiscated by the communists and did not come back into private ownership until 1950.

There has been a great deal of change in the Czech brewing world since the fall of communism in 1989. The industry has been completely transformed by brewery closures, new technology and foreign takeovers. The quality of Czech brewed lager is still arguably the best in the world. There is some criticism however, that the quality of Czech lagers has slipped since the privatization and old family breweries have been taken over by European conglomerates. However the owning company of Staropramen, Bass, invested heavily and encouraged the continued use of traditional brewing technology of horizontal lagering. By keeping the procedure of 2nd fermentation, less of the malt sugars turn to alcohol, with a corresponding increase in maltiness to balance the flavor of hops and this gives a wonderfully well-rounded full-bodied flavor. The brewery also retains its open fermenting vessels and traditional lagering tanks.

Beer drinking in the Czech Republic is a national pastime and people of all ages enjoy a refreshing drink at least once a day. They have a long and proud tradition of brewing and hold the record for the most beers consumed per capita. Czech brewers were amongst the first to use hops. Czech hops are world renowned, and the production of hops in Bohemia (a region in the Czech Rep.) was recorded as far back as 859 AD. These hops from Zatec, or in German, Saaz, are used to flavor many beers like Stella Artois. These hops create a rich fullness and crisp clean aroma. Czech brewers actually pioneered the golden lager recipe which has become the most popular style in the world.

Eventually, Staropramen merged with two other Prague breweries Branik and Mestan to create the conglomerate Prazske Pivovary (Prague breweries). In November 1993 the British firm Bass bought a 51% stake in Prazske Pivovary, and then in 2000 Interbrew from Belgium became the majority holder. Staroparmen is now exported to more then 36 countries. In 2004 it was chosen as the main beer to be sold at the new Sazka Arena in Prague. The full bodied, golden Pilsner style beer with a refreshing, dry finish continues to be a great treat for beer connoisseurs everywhere. Enjoy.

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© 2006 (MR)