Technically, the Germans invented (er, discovered?) lager. The word “lager” comes from the German word lagern (to store). “Laggering” is the process of fermentation in cold cellars over a long period of time, with a bottom-fermenting yeast that is the surprising hybrid of traditional European brewers yeast and a wild yeast from South America. Brewers started playing around with this yeast in Bavaria in the early 19th century, but the beers they were making were much darker than what we call “lager” today (more akin to a Dunkel). It wasn’t until the brewer, Josef Groll, released his first beer from Plzeň that we got what we now think of as “lager” or “pilsner” (from the town’s name). The beer he produced, which was a result of the region’s naturally soft water and low-protein barley, was the world’s first light lager. It was incredibly popular, and rapidly spread around the world; and so, Bohemia became the motherland of something like 90% of the beer we drink today.
This history has repercussions today, where the Czech Republic far and away consumes more beer per capita than any other country in the world. We check in at 142.4 liters per capita per year. Austria and Germany (tied for third) only consume a paltry 104.7 liters, and Australia (where they sing songs about drinking “lager drinks”) consumes barely half as much (72.4 liters). The US and UK are about the same as Australia, at 75.8 and 67.7 liters, respectively. Pansies.
In any case, plan on drinking some beer while you’re here. Probably lots of it. But when you’re out buying beer, keep in mind that since the Czechs invented it in the 19th century, and since old traditions die hard, they measure their alcohol in a 19th century way. When you go to buy a beer, you’ll often have a choice of 10º or 12º (or some other number around that). This is a measure of degrees Plato (nothing to do with the teacher of Aristotle, but rather named after the 19th century chemist, Fritz Plato … good ol’ Fritz). Degrees Plato are sort of a measure of specific gravity — which means they’re tied to density; specifically, it’s the ratio of fermentable sugar in the malt water. So, 10º had 10% sugar before fermentation, and 12º had 12%. As sugar converts to alcohol, the density of the liquid changes. What this means from a practical perspective is that there is no exact way to turn 10º into some percentage of alcohol — because you never know if they converted all of the sugar to alcohol, or not. What you really can only do is know that 12º beer from a brewer is more alcoholic than 10º beer from the same brewer. That said, from a rough ballpark perspective, 10º beer is about 4% and 12º beer is about 5%. So, keep that in mind as you imbibe.
You can be forgiven for not knowing it, but the Czech republic is a huge wine producing (and drinking) country. Unfortunately, if you’re not Czech, you probably won’t recognize most of the varietals. The top three are (white) Müller-Thurgau, Veltlínské zelené, and Ryzlink vlašský; and (red) Svatovavřinecké, Frankovka, Zweigeltrebe. Instead, you’ll need to look for the quality labels:
- Jakostní víno s přívlastkem (Quality Wine with Special Attributes)
- Jakostní víno (Quality wine)
- Moravské zemské víno or České zemské víno (Country wine)
- Stolní víno (Table wine)
Don’t drink anything other than the ones that have “jakostní vino” on the label. You’ve been warned.
“-ice” (pronounced “itzeh”), is an old Slavic suffix that means something like “cute little”. So, for example, čarodějn is warlock, and čarodějnice is witch (cute little warlock … see?). And slivovice is cute little “sliv” (plum) — the local plum brandy. Some are good, some are terrible; if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to some that are homemade (it’s a huge tradition that people make their own -ices; think of it as the Czech version of moonshine). Some of the more common -ices include slivovice, hruškovice (pear), malinovice (raspberry), and ořechovice (nut … I’m not sure … maybe walnut?). Be sure to try some -ices, but be prepared. Some will be deceptively sweet, but knock you on your ass; others you’ll never consume enough to need to worry, because they’ll be rocket fuel.