Czech Drinking Etiquette: A 12-Step Program
Czech Republic is very proud of its beer, and a visit to the country would not be complete without stopping by a few pubs for a taste. Beer to the Czechs is like wine to the French or rowdy behavior to the Aussies: it’s a part of the culture. But this isn’t your college-frat-party-keg-stand sort of beer culture and should not be treated as such (even if it only costs 60 cents for a half-liter.) In order not to offend your hosts and to make sure that you get the most possible from the finely fermented ingredients and brewing techniques that the Czech brewmasters have spent generations perfecting, I’ve created this easy to follow 12-step program of local drinking customs and traditions. So when you do go to belly up to the bar, keep these things in mind and enjoy the beverage that Central Europe was born to brew, without the bitter aftertaste that cultural unawareness can bring.
1. What’s available
Coming from a capitalistic world in which variety and individual choice is of the utmost importance, it may surprise many people to learn that pubs in the Czech Republic do not offer a wide selection of brews to choose from. In fact, each pub will have only one brand on tap, usually the owner’s favorite. This isn’t some left over, Soviet-era custom that has just stuck around; it’s a matter of marketing. Because each pub sells only one brand, that company provides pretty much everything required for the place’s functioning: tablecloths, coasters, umbrellas if it’s outside, even the taps and tap handles come from the brewery. In return, the pub vows to serve only that brand, whether it be Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Bernard, Litovel, or any of the hundreds of other small breweries that call the Czech Republic home. Whatever is on the sign out front, that’s what the pub serves, so don’t embarrass yourself or offend the owner by asking for something different. If you want a change of pace, bounce from pub to pub, sampling their offerings.
2. The menu (degrees)
Just because the pub only offers one brand of beer doesn’t mean that there is literally only one choice available. Just as Budweiser has Bud, Bud Light, Bud Ice, Non-alcoholic Bud, Bud for Kids, etc. so too do Czech breweries. And they are much, much better. You are likely to encounter on the menu beers of different “degrees,” (10°-12° is most common). These are not references to proper serving temperature, vintage, or alcohol percentage (although alcohol level does depend a bit on it) but rather to the amount of malt in the brew. A higher degree means higher malt and a little bit higher alcohol content. The difference isn’t substantial, and the higher percentages cost a bit more, but if you want to test your taste buds, this is a good way to do it. And from time to time, usually in the winter, breweries will come out with a 13 or 14 degree treat, so if you see one of those on the menu, make sure to take advantage.
3. The menu (light and dark)
The most traditional and most tasty beer in the country is a light pilsner, which is what you will find filling the glasses of just about every person at the pub. But if lighter beer just isn’t your thing, most places offer a dark alternative, called tmavÃ© (t-mah-vay). Darker Czech beers are not like the manly stouts or porters that most people think of when they consider dark beer. They are much sweeter – sometimes too sweet – and are considered inferior to their lighter counterparts. They are not as complex and are viewed in the country with a fair amount of distain by those who spend too much time judging such things. Frequently, pubs don’t even carry them on tap, and you will receive yours in a bottle, or lahovnÃ© (lah-hove-nay), sometimes accompanied by a snort of disgust from the server. Best to stick to the good stuff.
4. Ordering (Part I)
It’s unfortunate that it takes until the fourth step of our guide to begin tackling the process of ordering, but this step is usually rather straight forward. And it is here that you learn the most important word in the Czech language, if you haven’t already: pivo (pee-voh). You can walk into any bar, restaurant, supermarket, or antique store in the country, say the word pivo and get the refreshing beverage you so earnestly crave. It’s that simple. And if you want a dark beer, you just have to say “tmavÃ© pivo.” If you want to be really polite, you can even say please, “prosim” (pro-seem) when you order and thank you “dekuju” (de-koo-yu) when you are served.
5. Ordering (Part II)
That was easy, right? You have a beer in front of you and now you can relax and start considering what you want next. How about trying to get a different beer? When you just order a pivo, the server always gives you the least expensive beer they have (it’s all relative, as prices range from about 60 cents US for the cheapest to a bank-breaking 75 cents US for the most expensive). This is not an insult to your taste as a consumer, it’s just customary. If you want a specific label of beer, you have to order it by city name, because many of the larger breweries own a couple of smaller under-breweries which they serve in their pubs as well. The most frequent pair is Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus. The latter is less expensive, so if you just order a “pivo” you will be treated to a Gambrinus. But if you want a Pilsner Urquell, you would ask your server for a “Plsen” (pil-zen), the city where it is from.
It seems odd to American and British visitors to have a beer come out with an inch of foam at the top and be called full. But don’t worry, there’s a whole half-liter of the good stuff in there. Foam is very important to the Czech beer culture, because good foam means a good level of carbonation, a good level of carbonation means a good pour, and a good pour means a good beer. The foam should be thick, and some of the best bartenders can make it thick enough that you can literally cut it with a knife. (Really. I had a friend who tested this to show me and was successfully able to lift off the top half-inch of foam and place it on the table intact. This is not culturally sensitive and should not be attempted; just take my word for it.) When you are finished with your glass, there should be lines of residual foam marking where you took each sip and a little dollop of foam at the bottom of the glass. If it is a good pour, the foam should not dissipate completely until after you have finished your beer.
So now you have the beer in front of you and you are ready to drink, right? Not so fast, Yeltsin. First you need to toast to everyone’s health, a process which is fine when there are just a couple of friends at the pub, but a logistical nightmare with a crowd. First, you say “na zdravy!” (nah z-drah-vee) and touch glasses with one of your companions while looking them in the eye. Always look them in they eye, as you are saying, literally, “to your health” and if you don’t make eye contact, it is a sign of severe disrespect. You must do this with everybody at the table, not an easy feat to begin with. But it gets even more difficult if you want to avoid seven years of bad sex, as I’m sure we all do (see below).
8. The Rules
In order to steer clear of such a disastrous fate, you have to avoid two things: first, no beer is allowed to spill from the glass. Second, and most difficult, no two people are allowed to cross arms. If any two people’s outstretched limbs intersect in any way, the two will suffer seven years of bad luck in the bedroom. And to make matters worse, all of this has to be done while looking, not at your hand or anybody else’s, but directly into the eyes of the person before you. Sometimes it will take a minute or two to make sure that everyone is insured good health without the Tithonus-style ramifications of a bad sex life. And yes, you have to wait for everyone to be finished before you can drink. The good news is that you only have to do this for the first beer, because it would become near impossible as the night draws on.
9. Table, Drink
Once everyone’s health has been toasted to and all are sufficiently assured that their future sex-lives have not been impacted negatively in any way, it’s time to relax and let the brain-numbing begin. The only thing to do now, and this is simple, is to touch your glass to the table before lifting it to your mouth. Everyone I knew was emphatic about this rule, but no one has ever been able to give me a reason why. They didn’t even bother trying to make one up! Apparently crossing arms while trying to wish someone good health can have disastrous long-term effects concerning one’s libido, a curse that most simply laugh off. But failing to touch the table prior to drinking opens a Pandora’s Box that no one dares mess with. So be it. At least now you get to drink.
10. Drinking, finally.
Now that everyone is consuming and insured that the risk of seven years of celibacy has been successfully avoided, you can finally relax and enjoy some of the best beer in the world. It’s interesting, then, that most Czechs don’t sip their beer; they gulp it, taking a full mouthful of the nectar into their mouths at a time and then putting their glass down for a few minutes before repeating the process. At first this may seem a bit counterintuitive, especially in a society that reveres its beer as much as the Czechs do. But just try it. I can’t explain why, but it just seems to taste better, and sometimes it appears as though the more you take in at one time, the more refreshing it is. So even if you aren’t keen on downing four or five ounces at a time, give it a whirl. At least you’ll fit in better with the locals.
11. Ordering Another
Probably the most difficult thing about drinking in the Czech Republic is to stop drinking in the Czech Republic. But before I continue, I should point out that to leave a beer unfinished, for any reason, is the highest insult you can give to a server, a bartender, and the bar itself. If you don’t like what you’re given, there’s probably something wrong with you, so drink it anyway or have someone else finish yours. Whatever you do, don’t leave an unfinished beer on the table. You might as well punch the bartender in the nose and take his milk money. But back to the reasons you can’t stop. First, and most obvious, is because the beer is just so darned good that you never want to pass up another glass. But also because the servers have such a terrific sense that, before you get to swallow the end of your first glass, they will be at your table, asking if you want another. And who are you to say know? So much is beer a staple of Czech life that servers don’t even write “pivo” on the order slip: they just make tally marks, which they add up at the end of the night. So don’t worry about being able to order another beer when your first one is gone; just worry about being able to say no.
When, at last, your liver can stand no more, and the time has come for you to pay your tab, if you have a server, tell him “Zaplatime, prosim” (za-pla-tee-meh pro-seem). He or she will then tally up your bill and write the final charge out for you. If the establishment has no server to collect from you, just bring your ticket up to the bar and they will tally it for you there. Tipping is customary in Prague, which is flooded by foreign tourists with money to burn, and about 10% should be okay, but 15 or 20 will not be turned away. Outside of the capital, it is normal simply to round up the bill to the nearest five or, if you are in a generous mood, ten Korun (the Czech currency.) For example, if your tab is 142ck, you should probably give at least 145ck or 150ck for your server. If these prices sound steep, keep in mind that US$1 is equivalent to about 25ck, so you are only paying about $6 for an evening out.
It was said that, under communism, Czech workers used to go to their jobs from 7:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m. and then spend the rest of their days at the pub, where the average patron would consume around five liters (about 1.3 gallons) of beer per day. The pub was where the people could meet and talk freely, forgetting the everyday hassles of life as a member of the proletariat. So with such an important place in Czech history, it’s no wonder that they take their beer very seriously. And with this czechlist (get it?) you can fit right in. So when you head out to the pub, keep these tips in mind as you take a seat with one of the locals, and enjoy the beverage that this country was born to brew.