The Netherlands has gin taverns, and Japan has saké, but the drinking culture of the Czech Republic is all about the crisp pleasure of cold beer—a beverage that encompasses everything from Pilsner style to bottom-fermented ales to the honorary Budweiser hailing from the capital city of Budweis. Drinking a Pilsner Urquell here is more than just drinking a lager: It’s an opportunity to learn about a historic culture through immersive local living.
Czech’s reputation for producing quality brews is well-founded—it’s the top-ranked country for per-capita beer consumption and the home of Pilsner and Budweiser—but it is not generally thought of as a country with great dishes that boast beer as the not-so-secret ingredient.
“Unlike wine, using the malty, bitter drink to create nuanced flavors in cooking is elusive, but not in Czech,” says Alois Novák, a sommelier with Pivní burza Veve?í beer hall in Brno. “It is a generational tradition alive and thriving.”
In Brno, beer floats take center stage with Matuška’s stout, a rich roasted malt that can give dark chocolate caramel a run for its money. In Pilsen, travel beyond the Urquell brewery, and you will discover mussels simmering in pale lager near curbside markets. And in Ostrava, the gentle smoky note of beer sauce on beef cheeks comes out extremely juicy with several innovative toppings.
The influence of beer on the style of cooking can be found in other cities as well—?eský Krumlov, Karlovy Vary and Kutná Hora come to mind—but Prague is notoriously popular for bringing in the most variety and promise for the culinary use of beer.
The restaurant Pork’s just off the Charles Bridge wants you to experience a specialty that reinvents dark beer like no other spot in town. Newly restored with an expansive seating area for 150, this restaurant has a menu that includes everything from schnitzels coated in a secret spice to a comforting pulled pork sandwich. But the specialty remains a beer-braised pork knuckle doused in lager and served with horseradish and pickles.
Backing up this iconic dish is a dark, beery secret that boasts a sweeter finish of malty Czech lager: roasted malts. The result? A heaping plate of juicy, fall-apart-tender ham hock. Wash it all down with a selection of Pork’s house brew, and then find someplace scenic to walk off some of it and come back for a beery dessert.
For travelers who have only a short time in Prague, U Sadu is the place to go for a slightly adventurous delicacy known as pivní sýr (beer cheese). This pungent cheese spread has somewhat of a cult following as a frothy snack commonly served in bars. Add the classic components—sardines, mustard, paprika and onions—to the creamy soft cottage cheese before you stir in the tmavé pivo or the house dark lager. Pair it with nothing but another glass of the same beer, or ask the bartender to recommend one.
Like many great beer halls and taverns in Prague, the Plavecká Polévka bistro near Wenceslas Square is easy to miss. It sits close to the bustling Rašínovo náb?eží embankment with no eagerness to advertise its menu or a Tripadvisor score. Even so, if you don’t plan an early visit, the line outside can wrap around the block on summer weekends, and a particular soup on their menu is to blame.
“Here, you will find beer on the menu and in your soup,” says Beatrice, a craft brewer from the city of Pilsner who offers private beer tours and visits Plavecká Polévka when she is in Prague seeing family members. Pivní polévka—which loosely translates to “brewing soup”—is both a beloved appetizer and a fitting metaphor for the culture of cooking with beer. “The unique recipe combines dark Krušovice beer with milk, cinnamon and cream and gets little attention over its famed counterparts like goulash. And its flavors, along with the inspirations that it draws from the local breweries, becomes obsolete.”
Yet cuisines that feature staple beverages from a wide variety of brewers in the Czech form an important part of the local fare thanks to the preservation of generational recipes and homegrown chefs and restauranters who continue to promote them through their cooking. Pivovarsky dum, a brewery house near Nové M?sto, is one of them.
The brewpub, which started operation in 1998, is a favorite among locals and features eight tap beers to pair with courses of traditional cuisine. It is one of the first establishments to design a menu around the dynamic flavors of beer in dishes unique to Pivovarsky.
“It is baffling to watch people ordering crepes and pancakes during happy hour,” says Sébastien Pierre, a 24-year-old student from Clermont-Ferrand, France, who arrives at 11 o’clock every morning to order rolled crepes with an heirloom beer jam that can make you order breakfast after sundown. “It’s obviously not boozy, but the flavor is that good.”
Crafted using an in-house recipe with light beer, sugar cane and lemon juice to balance the sugary goodness, the jam is served with an assortment of baked goods. “[These underrated beer dishes] are ingrained in our native culture but remain largely a secret,” Pierre added, “to paraphrase, you can have your beer and drink it too.”