A Brief History of Czech Beer Or, Everything Old is New Again
For more than a thousand years, the history of Czech brewing has been a process of discovery, followed by loss, followed again by rediscovery and rebirth.
Just a few years ago, historians uncovered the earliest evidence of a brewery in the Czech lands: it is now nearly certain that a brewery was founded in 993 at Břevnov Monastery in Prague. Until that date was confirmed, the earliest reference to brewing in the Czech lands was believed to have been almost a hundred years later, when Vratislav II mentioned the use of hops for brewing in 1088.
It’s worth noting that 1088 is still several hundred years before hops were widely used in beer in many other beer-loving countries. In those earliest days, however, almost all brewing was done at monasteries. This was definitely the case in Prague, until Pope Innocent IV ended a 250-year ban on brewing other than at Břevnov Monastery around the year 1250. Over the next few decades, rights for breweries were granted to several cities around the Czech lands. Even in that early era, Czech hops were high prized abroad, bringing the highest prices at the hop markets in Hamburg in the year 1101, for example.
“By contrast, hops for brewing would not even be grown in Britain until the year 1524.”
Although they did contain highly-prized Bohemian hops, the earliest beers here were probably not too much like what we drink today. Much of this early beer was a kind of cloudy wheat beer, using a so-called top-fermenting yeast, which as known then as bilé pivo, or “white beer.” Today, many brewing historians believe that bilé pivo was brought from Bohemia to Bavaria, where it later turned into the Hefeweizen and Weizen styles of wheat beer. As Ian Hornsey writes in A History of Beer and Brewing,
“Lagering may have actually originated in Bohemia, and was introduced into neighboring Bavaria during the second half of the 15th century, where the practice persisted.”
As the centuries unfolded, breweries were founded all around Bohemia and Moravia, often by assigning “brewing rights” to noble families, or to the homeowners of a town or city. As wars and conflicts swept through the region, many of these breweries were also destroyed.
By the early 19th century, improvements in transportation meant that it was regularly possible to import and export beers. When bottom-fermented beers began arriving in Bohemia from southeastern Germany around 1830, drinkers soon fell in love with this so-called “Bavarian beer.” These beers were usually quite dark, but crisp and refined in taste.
The popularity of the crisp, bottom-fermented beers surprised many brewery owners here, who began trying to produce their own imitations. Even before the brewery in Pilsen began brewing its bottom-fermented beer in 1842, ten percent of breweries in Bohemia were already brewing bottom-fermented beers. In Pilsen, however, an important difference was the manner in which the new brewery dried its malt, using an English-style malt kiln, with indirect heat. The result was a beer which tasted crisp and clean, just like the so-called “Bavarian beer.”
“However, instead of being dark, the new brew from Pilsen shined with a beautiful golden color.”
The brewery, owned by the 250 Pilsen city residents with brewing rights, quickly became very successful, and inspired even more Czech breweries to switch over to bottom fermentation.
The change was swift. An article in the New York Times in 1876 noted that there was a “complete revolution” in breweries here. Between 1860 and 1870, the number of Bohemian bottom-fermented breweries rose from 135 to 831. And if the breweries couldn’t switch, they closed, with more than 260 top-fermenting breweries shutting down in Bohemia in the same period.
The rest of the 19th century brought other developments. In 1869, a change in the law allowed more breweries to be opened, beyond those owned by citizens with brewing rights. A number of large, industrial breweries began to appear. And refrigeration began to replace the use of ice. As the country moved into the 20th century, the number of breweries consolidated, especially among smaller producers.
“At the same time, wheat beers — probably the most popular type of beer in Bohemia until the mid-19th century — disappeared completely.”
A few smaller brewpubs and historic breweries managed to survive until World War II, but many more closed after the country’s communist era began in 1948. For those breweries that could hold on, variety was also severely limited by the central planners, resulting in more or less just two types of beer — pale lager and dark lager — for over 40 years. The communist era was a nightmare, but the silver lining there was that many Czech breweries continued operating just as they had for a century or more, maintaining old-fashioned methods of brewing and malting. These old techniques had largely disappeared everywhere else in Europe by the time the Velvet Revolution arrived in 1989, giving brewers here an enviable reputation as the keepers of the tradition.
The early days of capitalism, however, were very hard on Czech beer. Breweries — and the “brewery groups” that the communists had originally created — were privatized, sold off, stripped of assets and closed. A few breweries that did survive began to experiment with new types of beer, as well as historic recipes they were not allowed to produce under state control. A handful of new brewpubs, like Pivovarský dům (1998), began to appear. But the larger industrial breweries kept consolidating.
“The total number of breweries in the Czech Republic reached an all-time low, around 60, in the early 21st century.”
That’s when things finally started to pick up. New breweries, mostly small brewpubs started sprouting up in every part of the Czech Republic. By 2007, there were over 100 breweries in the Czech lands. Instead of just two kinds of beer, pale lager and dark lager, variety blossomed. Inspired by the craft beer movement in the United States and the UK, small brewpubs here started regularly using top fermentation, just as they had before the spread of the Pilsner style of beer in the 19th century. And wheat beer returned to Bohemia on a new wave of popularity.
Since then, there’s been an absolute explosion of good beer in the Czech Republic and its capital. The country currently has more than 400 breweries, with more opening every month.
“Prague has at least 30 breweries, as well as rare bottle shops and specialty beer bars that are regularly rated as some of the world’s best.”
Although the history of Czech beer got a little dark at times, it now looks to have a very happy ending. The country’s oldest brewery — the one that was founded at Břevnov Monastery in the year 993, destroyed during the war, then rebuilt, then closed during the communist era — reopened again in 2013!
Dowload our free Beer Guide to Prague!
Over 70 of the Best Beer Experiences in and around Prague
By Evan Rail
Evan Rail is a Prague-based food and travel writer with a strong focus on beer. He has written extensively for the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, and other publications. He is the author of Why We Fly, In Praise of Hangovers, Why Beer Matters and The Good Beer Guide Prague (CAMRA.) www.evanrail.com