Beer is the lifeblood of the Czech Republic, and its thousands of pubs are the social hubs of towns, villages and city neighbourhoods. A pivnice is a pub without food. Hospoda or hostinec is a pub or beer hall that serves basic meals, while a vinárna (wine bar) may have anything from snacks to a full-blown menu.
There are two main varieties of beer: světlé (light) and tmavy or černé (dark). The světlé is a pale amber or golden lager-style beer with a crisp, refreshing, hoppy flavour. Dark beers are sweeter and more full-bodied, with a rich, malty or fruity flavour.
Czechs like their beer served at cellar temperature (around 6°C to 10°C) with a tall, creamy head (known as pěna, meaning 'foam'). Americans and Australians may find it a bit warm, but this improves the flavour. Most draught beer is sold in půl-litr (0.5L) glasses; if you prefer a small beer, ask for a malé pivo (0.3L). Some bars confuse the issue by using 0.4L glasses, while others offer a German-style 1L mug known as a tuplák.
Czech pubs traditionally offered just three beers on tap, all from one large brewery such as Pilsner Urquell; some pioneering bar owners added a 'fourth pipe' (čtvrtá pípa) to allow them to offer a rotating range of guest beers from various independent regional breweries. Many now have five, six or even more pipes.
There’s an etiquette to be observed if you want to sample the atmosphere in a traditional hospoda (pub) without drawing disapproving stares from the regulars. First off, don’t barge in and start rearranging chairs – if you want to share a table or take a spare seat, first ask ‘je tu volno?’ (is this free?). It’s normal practice in crowded Czech pubs to share tables with strangers.
Take a beer mat from the rack and place it in front of you, and wait for the bar staff to come to you; waving for service is guaranteed to get you ignored. When the waiter approaches, just raise your thumb for one beer, thumb and index finger for two etc – it’s automatically assumed that you’re here for the beer. Even just a nod will do. The waiter will keep track of your order by marking a slip of paper that stays on your table; whatever you do, don’t write on it or lose it (you’ll have to pay a fine if you do).
As soon as the level of beer in your glass falls to within an inch of the bottom, the eagle-eyed waiter will be on their way with another. But never, as people often do in Britain, pour the dregs of the old glass into the new – this is considered to be deeply uncivilised behaviour.
If you don’t want any more beer brought to your table, place a beer mat on top of your glass. When you want to pay up and go, get the waiter’s attention and say ‘zaplatím’ ('I’ll pay'). They will total up the marks on your slip of paper, and you pay there, at the table.
Grapes have been grown in the Czech lands since the 14th century, when Charles IV imported vines from Burgundy; their descendants are still thriving on the slopes beneath Mělník Chateau.
The standard of Czech wine has soared since the fall of communism, as small producers have concentrated on the quality end of the market. Although Czech red wines – such as the South Moravian speciality Svatovavřinecké (St Lawrence) – are mostly pretty average, Czech whites can be very good indeed. The varieties to look out for are Veltinské zelené (Grüner Veltlin), Rýnský ryzlink (riesling) and Müller-Thurgau. Tanzberg and Sonberk are both excellent winemakers.
For about three weeks each year, from the end of September to mid-October, you will see shops and street stalls selling burčak. This is ‘young wine’, freshly extracted grape juice in the early stages of fermentation. It is cloudy yellow in appearance and innocently sweet in flavour, more like a soft drink than a wine. But beware – it contains 5% to 8% alcohol.
Later in the year, as winter sets in, you’ll notice the svařák stalls appearing in the streets. Short for svařené vino (mulled wine), svařák is red wine heated and flavoured with sugar and spices.
Probably the most distinctive of Czech lihoviny (spirits) is Becherovka. Produced in the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, famous for its 12 sulphurous, thermal springs, the bitter, herbal liqueur is often served as an aperitif, and is increasingly used as an ingredient in cocktails.
The fiery and potent slivovice (plum brandy) is said to have originated in Moravia, where the best brands still come from. The best commercially produced slivovice is R Jelínek from Vizovice. Other regional spirits include meruňkovice (apricot brandy) and juniper-flavoured borovička.
The deadliest locally produced spirit is absinthe. While it’s banned in many countries, in part because of its high alcohol content, absinthe is legal in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, connoisseurs of absinthe consider Hill's absinthe – the biggest-selling brand of Czech-made absinthe – little better than highly alcoholic mouthwash. However, it does form the basis of an evil cocktail that was popular among clubbers some years back – the H-Bomb (Hill's mixed with Semtex, a Czech brand of energy drink).
Traditionally, slivovice is made by allowing plums to ferment naturally in their own juice, using only the yeast that occurs naturally on the skin of the fruit. The resulting alcoholic mash (known as mušt) is then distilled to produce a clear spirit and diluted with spring water until it is 50% alcohol by volume.
Slivovice distilling became a Moravian cottage industry in 1835, when the Hapsburg Empire relaxed the excise laws and allowed villagers to distill up to 65L of spirits without being taxed. Each farm had its own pot still, and the slivovice season was a much-anticipated part of the agricultural calendar.
Distilling usually began just after Christmas; sharing the freshly made spirit with family and friends was a great social occasion, and no doubt helped to lighten many a dark winter's evening. Although it has been produced commercially for 150 years, locals still insist that the best slivovice is domácí (homemade) – now illegal.