Monday, January 7, 2013

Square Pegs Round Holes

Back in the death throes of the 20th century, when I moved from Blighty to the Czech Republic, beer came in a few very broad categories, lager, old man ale and Guinness. Lager was pale, vaguely tasteless and often drunk straight from the bottle. Old man ale was everything else that wasn't Guinness. Generally speaking I was an old man ale and Guinness drinker, depending on my mood. Lager was something I didn't really drink, unless it was Czech, my first Gambrinus was had in an All Bar One in Birmingham, Polish, drinking Hevelius Kaper with my girlfriend at the time's father is one of my earliest foreign beer memories, or German, usually Becks. Pretty much all I knew of lager back then was that anything from Central Europe was, by definition, better than the cans of Tennent's Lager that we used to indulge in as teenagers.

Moving to Prague, and staying for 10 years, shaped my drinking life far more though than those early years of surreptitious cans of Tennent's or even my first legal pint of Guinness. It was in the Czech Republic that I learnt that lager came in a range of colours, světlý, polotmavý and tmavý, pale, amber and dark, and even in strengths, lehké, výčepní, Ležák and Speciál - 'light' (sub 8° Plato), 'tap' (8-10.99°), 'lager' (11-12.99°) and 'special' (13°+) respectively. Essentially, for the duration of my life in Prague there was no such thing as beer style, just beers of varying colours and strengths. Often even phrases such as výčepní and ležák were irrelevant, because you ordered your beer by the number of degrees Plato, thus you ordered a 'desítka' (10°), 'dvanáctka' (12°) and so on. Most pubs would carry a grand total of three beers, a 'desítka' a 'dvanáctka' and a 'tmavý', and when you simply asked for a 'pivo' it was invariably 'desítka' that was soon in front of you. If you didn't fancy a 'světlý' or a 'tmavý' and the pub didn't have a polotmavý, a fairly regular occurrence back then, you would ask for a 'řezané pivo' or 'řežák', a half and half mixture of a pale lager and dark lager, both of which should have the same Plato. Apropos of nothing, the longer I lived in Prague, the more often I would have a 'řežák' when I was out and about.

The reason I mention all this is that when people ask me my favourite beer 'style' I hesitate for a moment, not because I can't decide between a Czech pale lager and a dry Irish stout, but because in my mind there is no such thing as a 'Czech pale lager' or a 'Bohemian Pilsner', but rather there are desítky that I love, dvanáctky I can drink until the cows come home and Speciály that rock my boat like the Minch in winter. This is, for me, one of the big failings of websites such as RateBeer and BeerAdvocate in trying to shoehorn the various Czech beers in an essentially Anglo-American taxonomy.

When we had our celebration of Czechoslovak independence back in October someone brought a six pack of Lagunitas Pils. When one of our Czech guests drank it, he grimaced and simply pronounced 'this is not Czech', and went back to drinking Port City's Downright Pilsner, which reminded him of the great beers from home. He didn't care for style, for numbers, only that it tasted right.

1 comment:

  1. Best blog post yet. I've always wanted to visit Prague and see what my distant relatives are drinking.


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