Naturally, the biggest, brashest, busiest, and best beer festival in the world is Oktoberfest. Or so I’ve been told. One day I will experience the glory of that sacred drinking turf, but not just yet. Instead, I may have found a worthy replacement complete with similar style and similar drunkenness – the Czech Beer Festival.
For the uninformed, the Czechs have a tremendous brewing history. Their first brewery was the Brevnov Monastery which started in 993, and for the Americans out there I have some bad news – Budejovicky Budvar is the original Budweiser, and was started in 1785. Pilsners also originated in the Czech Republic, with the arrival of Pilsner Urquell in 1842 in the town of Plzen. At 160 litres per person the Czechs also down the most pints out of any country in the world – an effort worthy of congratulations surely. Therefore, if any city is to hold a beer festival, Prague is an apt location.
From Old Town you cross Charles Bridge, dodging the array of painters, caricaturists, handicraft peddlers, masses of tourists, and of course the odd pickpocket and head into the Letna Park area. Climbing up the stairs you reach one of the many landmarks in Prague: The Metronome. Erected in 1991, it was constructed on the plinth left vacant by the destruction of a giant statue of Stalin. Stop briefly, admire the view, take a snapshot (seriously do it, Prague is beautiful), and head onwards through the park. It may appear as if you’re heading towards just fields, but keep on traipsing and you will spot the big white tent.
You head in and are confronted with huge long tables, waiters and waitresses ferrying litres of beer to some of the 10 000 customers, local bands playing on the stage, and the smell of smoked ham, sausages, and other Czech delicacies. Most importantly you spot the four bars – each one with 25 beers to choose from. For those thinking “Sure, give me two days and I’ll taste most of them”, I have some bad (good?) news. Turns out that the Czechs aren’t really big on the whole 50ml taster idea. No, your options are a half or full litre. Only those with huge drinking ability – and possibly alcoholism – will sample a large portion. Having said that, if you are in Prague for all 17 days of the festival you might get there!
Now, you really don’t have much of a clue what you’re ordering most of the time, but that’s the beauty. Pick a number (or funny looking name) and away you go. It’s a hit and miss affair – one American I was drinking with ended up with a green beer – but there are clues to help you along (I researched these afterwards mind you…) Czech beers most of the time will have a number next to them. These refer to the percentage of malt sugar before fermentation – called the Balling Scale. So you will see beers such as the Gambrinus 10º, the Staropramen 12º, or the Brevnov IPA 15º. Your vycepnis (‘tap beers’) are brewed between 8 and 10, your lezaks (lagers) will weigh in between 11 and 12.99, whilst your ‘special beers’ are anything above 13. Obviously, the higher the number the darker and heavier the beer sill be. If there’s no number, never fear. Pale beers are dubbed svetle, amber brews polotmave, dark beers tmave, and black brews cerne. Sorted!
The atmosphere was awesome – mixed groups of tourists and locals at long tables – all enjoying the location and sunny weather. The beers are tremendous, varied, and worthy of exploration. Better yet, the Czech ice-hockey team was playing, and immediately afterwards the Champions League final began. Baying crowds, beers, bands, (new) best friends. What better way to spend time in a foreign city?