When visiting Prague as a beer tourist, there is a lot to do these days, but don’t forget what they’re best at: The classic Czech lager!. Last weekend, I was in Prague on a short beer trip with four friends. I didn’t have any blog writings planned, but just wanted to see what I felt inspired to write about. The trip ended up as a celebration of the Czech lager styles, so it turned out to be pretty easy.
There is a very lively beer scene in Prague, with new beer bars opening all the time, but as a foreigner, I go there to drink the fresh pilsner that you just can’t get at the same level anywhere else in the world. I’d better apologize in advance, that I will be writing out Czech words simplified in standard lettering, without the correct Czech accents.
New micro breweries are shooting up in the Czech Republic like everywhere else in Europe, but my experience is that maybe a handful can brew a great pale ale or IPA, while most of the others range from bland and boring to awful and flawed.
It’s also interesting to go to one of the good craft beer spots, like Zly Casy, Kulovy Blesk or BeerGeek Bar and share a few rounds of different beer, hoping to spot a masterpiece. I have done that with dedication when I cared more about running up my numbers on Ratebeer, but I have realized that it’s much better to go to Prague and just enjoy the very best beers, and the beers that you absolutely must travel to experience in their right condition. The classic lagers.
They have three main styles. Svetle, Polotmave and Tmave or Cerne. Svetly Lezak is the world renowned pilsner. It literally means pale lager, and the word “pilsner” is reserved for the Pilsner Urquell/Plzensky Prazdroj, the original pale, hoppy lager from Plzen.
Polotmavy Lezak means semi-dark lager. It’s sometimes also called Jantar which means amber. It’s a more malty beer, ideally with rich flavours of freshly baked bread, newly harvested barley, biscuits and crackers, and a touch of toffee, but without any simple caramel or sugar sweetness.
Tmavy or Cerny Lezak means dark or black lager respectively. I still haven’t figured out if there’s supposed to be an actual difference, or it’s just the brewer’s preference that decides between the two names. I certainly haven’t discovered any difference as distinct as between German Dunkel and Schwarzbier.
If you read texts about Czech lager for beer tourists or home brewers, you’ll probably find that they are supposed to have a degree of diacetyl in them. This greasy butter flavour (same that is used in butter flavoured popcorn) is considered a flaw in pretty much every other beer style, and I must say that I encounter it very rarely in Czech lager, except in very small doses. And I’m thankful for that!
And now, on to the whole point. These places aren’t in a particular order, they are all good. You may go for the best beer, for the best food, for the cosiest environment, or for the most authentic experience. They all have their own strengths.
Klasterni Pivovar Strahov
The Strahov abbey brewery is one of my original loves in Prague. I have been to the brewpub above the Hradcany castle at least once on every beer trip to Prague. They have three year-round beers, and a rotating seasonal beer. The beers, named Svaty Norbert (St. Norbert) after the abbey in which the brewpub is situated, are all world class, simple as that.
There is the beautifully balanced, malty Jantar with just the right bitterness to give the beer a refreshing punch. The almost black Tmave with a bigger malty character, and light roasted notes of liquorice, coffee and dried dark fruits. They only do a svetle as an Easter special, an instead the third beer in the standard line-up is an IPA. It has a distinctly Czech, and rather sweet malt base, and then combines Czech Saaz hops with American Cascade and Amarillo for a fruity character and a pleasant bitter finish.
The food at Strahov is traditional Czech, with a little extra attention to details to please the tourists. It’s also more expensive than elsewhere in Prague, and you may encounter the annoyance of other tourists being there and being more tourist-like than you, but it’s all worth it for the beer. Reserve a table if you plan on going for dinner.
Pivovar U Bulovky
Also known as the Richter Brewery Pub this is the original suburban brewpub in Prague. They are also involved in the similar Jihomestsky Pivovar and Vinohradsky Pivovar. I was at Richter on my first two beer trips to Prague, but it’s been a while since my last visit. It’s a little out of the way, reached by tram from the metro station Palmovka, but it’s worth a visit for the good beers and for a very authentic local feel. Don’t expect much English spoken, and don’t expect to see other tourists.
The food here and at Jihomestsky and Vinohradsky is classic Czech, with plenty of opportunity to eat some meat and dumplings (or fries if you ask nicely). It’s quite cheap to eat these places, and it’s solid food and a good foundation for beer drinking.
It’s been a few years since we “discovered” Jihomestsky Pivovar and on this trip I visited for the fourth time. It’s a good trip out to metro station Opatov, then a walk through the rather depressing looking housing projects, but then youreach a wonderful place. It’s a big beer hall and it can be quite full for lunch and dinner.
There are usually four or five beers available. They have varied a bit in quality, but when they’re at their best, they’re absolutely outstanding. Their Svetly Lezak is worth the trip alone, and for dessert, the rich toffee and licorice filled Tmavy Lezak is perhaps the best in Prague. On this trip, we found menus in English, and the waitress also spoke English. Perhaps my enthusiastic recommendations of the place has helped it to more tourists?
Newly opened in the hipster area of Prague, Vinohradsky Pivovar offers some of the same good old beer hall vibe as Richter and Jihomestsky, but with a younger crowd and more tourists. It’s a big place, so we weren’t really worried about showing up on a Friday evening, but we were a little lucky to get a table for five.
The main attraction is the Svetly Lezak. It’s absolutely world class. Crisp malty character with breadcrust, biscuit and fresh barley, with a lighter touch of spicy hops. For my taste, it’s just on the malty side of perfect, but it’s close. When we were there we also had a glass of the sweeter, maltier Jantar, and while it was good, it didn’t stand up to the Svetle at all.
At ground floor level, Nota Bene is a very nice Czech restaurant. while the downstairs “beer point” is a quite nice craft beer bar, though it smelled a bit of cellar on my one visit there. The restaurant is still serving food in a Czech tradition, but it’s a little more ambitious than most, with a little French inspiration. Perhaps the beautiful, light surroundings also makes you feel a little more upscale.
They have five taps in the restaurant and apparently just started brewing their own range of “Pirat” beer, but the two guest taps are more interesting, since they are reserved for the absolutely best Czech micros. When we had lunch there, they had Uneticke Pivo 10, a 3.8% ABV Svetly Lezak that is just absolutely amazing. Dry, crisp, hoppy, and very very refreshing.
Uneticky Pivovar is a brewpub in a small town just outside Prague, and if you see their beer, you buy them, no discussion. They are just that good. The other guest beer at Nota Bene was Matuska California American Pale Ale, a fine pale ale from the absolutely best “new school” craft brewer in the Czech republic. With just one of these breweries on tap, Nota Bene will always be worth a visit.
- Note: In September 2016, there were only Nota Bene beers, and they are not on par with Uneticke or other top Czech micros.
With a number of places in Prague, including two in the tourist center, Lokal is a modern chain of pubs specializing in serving the perfect Pilsner Urquell. As a big fan of the world’s original pale lager, I’m full of respect for this ambition. And I’m pretty sure that they succeed and that their tank pilsner is the tastiest in Prague.
Tank beer means that the beer is brought directly from the brewery in a tank truck, and pumped into the restaurant’s tank. At Lokal, you can see the tank, and the delivery date of the beer is written on a blackboard on the tank. When the beer is three days old, and hasn’t been in any contact with air on its way from the brewery to your glass, it just doesn’t get any fresher.
There are more tank pubs in Prague, but Lokal are really making an effort to deliver the best beer. I haven’t eaten there, but they also have a food menu. It’s a great place to just sit down and enjoy some perfect beer in good company.
U Cerneho Vola
The Black Ox also serves tank Urquell, but in this old pub in the Hradcany castle, you go for the experience as much as the beer. It’s a very old community pub, with all the Czech traditions, including very quick, as well as very rude service. Some years ago, the pub was threatened by closing, but a community group took over and saved it before it could be turned into another souvenir shop selling Chinese plastic stuff.
U Zlateho Tygra and U Hrocha
The Golden Tiger and The Hippopotamus are two more old classic pubs excelling in great Pilsner Urquell and rude service. Zlateho Tygra is quite big and in the middle of the tourist area, while Hrocha is extremely small, and takes a little work to find. While these three last places apparently hate tourists, they are worth a visit, at least one of them, before you can really say that you have visited Prague. Your tourist guide may also tell you to visit U Fleku, but their beer is just not worth the feeling of “tourist conveyor belt”, and I’m probably never going there again.