You know what they say: ”The best Czech wine is… beer.”
Of course, this is disrespectful of the beautiful Czech and Moravian wine production that we are so fond of, but the undeniable fact is that the Czech beer culture is one of the strongest unifying themes in the Czech national identity. While ”Czech Republic means beer” may sound as a cliché, it is mostly right. We Czechs actually do love beer and drink a lot of it. And the Czech beer culture is unique in several ways. Beer is to Czechs what wine is to the French - just walk into any restaurant and order their “house beer”, and it will be cheap and good. It’s the default beverage. A no brainer.
So you should have a beer in Prague. Make it several beers. Not having a beer in Prague would be a mistake even if you think you don’t like beer. Honestly, don’t diss beer until you had a tank Pilsner Urquell (more on that later) on a hot night. It might be a game changer. We know it has been for many guests of our Prague Foodie Tour. We’ve had many beer converts on our tours actually.
The following is a short guide to beer in Prague. Of course, this is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive - most travelers don’t spend more than three nights in Prague, so this mostly for them. The idea here is to get you introduced to the world of Czech beer and get some basic lay of the land, teach you what you should drink and where, what to look for and what to avoid in your Prague beer experience. So let’s do this! Na zdraví! (Which obviously means Cheers in Czech!)
What beers should you drink in Prague?
Easy: Pilsners. Yes, one of the most popular types of beer in the world comes from Pilsen, a town about 40 miles south of Prague, so it makes sense to have some Pilsners where they actually come from. It’s like having ramen noodles in Japan, or macarons in Paris. You just gotta have some. Pilsners include Pilsner Urquell, the biggest brewery in the country that has actually brewed the first Pilsner in history and that still controls a large chunk of the local beer market. This is not Bud Light - Czechs generally adore Pilsner Urquell, which is actually a premium option and a thing of pride for many Czechs. If in doubt, just go for Pilsner Urquell. Other popular options are Budweiser (the Czech Budweiser, which actually comes from another Czech town called Budweis), and the brewery that sells most beers domestically, Gambrinus. You may also see a lot of Staropramen, a Prague-based brewery, but you should have some decency and just go somewhere else. Same applies to Krusovice. Come on, you can do better. (Just kidding. Those beers are totally passable.)
As an addition to the classic Pilsner, an honorable mention should go to the dark lager, which is your ”gateway beer”: even if you think you don’t like beer but want to try, everyone can tolerate the malty, smoother and less hoppy expression of dark lagers. Look for the Kozel brand, the most typical representative, but most bigger breweries may serve a dark lager, too.
Another thing you should definitely try in Prague is “tank beer”, or “beer from tank”. Since big breweries distribute their own beer, and given the sheer volume that is consumed, it makes sense to distribute beer like they distribute gas: in stainless steel tanks that drive around the country and pump fresh, unpasteurized beer into cooled steel tanks installed directly in pubs. These beers are only a few days old, have a shelf life of three weeks or so, and taste, for lack of a better word… fresher. Pilsner Urquell was the first brewery to popularize tank beers (in a successful marketing effort to associate their beer with “fresh”), but many other big breweries quickly followed suit.
The Czech Republic also has a booming craft beer culture. Those super hoppy, fruity and alcoholic IPAs? Yup, got them. That said, the Czechs like their beers “drinkable”: drinking beer is a social affair and you still want to make at least some sense after a few pints, so most Czechs would opt for beers you can “drink” as opposed to “taste” - lower alcohol beers that go down easy. Pilsners. We will break down some popular craft beer places below. If you absolutely insist on craft beers, the usual suspects would be beers by Matuska, Clock, Kocour and Falcon but there are so many others it feels a bit unfair to point out just these few. Just ask the staff and they will help.
One final bit: what should you eat with the beer? Again, easy: “things that go well with beer”, smaller plates that you eat alone or share with friends. These will sorely disappoint vegans because they focus around meats and cheeses. The classics include marinated cheese (often incorrectly listed as “pickled cheese”, basically Camembert-style cheese stuffed with herbs and spices and marinated in oil), sausages of all kinds, headcheese with raw onion and vinegar (you like gummy bears, right?), “utopenec” (pickled sausage), marinated carp and herring (horrible for Instagram but tasty), the stinky, I mean fragrant, “beer cheese”, or Olomoucké tvaruzky, another local stinky cheese. Still hungry? The classic pub mains include goulash, fried cheese, schnitzel with potato salad, and, yes, the pork knuckle. Tripe soup is for the more adventurous but absolutely delicious.
What makes the Czech beer culture unique?
Let’s fly through this, you must be thirsty by now:
Czechs drink the most beer per capita in the world. Champions! The margin between the country placed second and the Czechs is so big it’s not even funny.
As a follow-up, we’ve learned that Czechs who visit the Lokál Dlouhá pub drink nine beers (where 1 beer = 0.5 litre/ 17 oz) per person on an average night. We hope you like a challenge. (Drink responsibly, though.)
Beer tends to be the cheapest beverage on the menu, often cheaper than tap water. Czechs are rarely willing to pay more than 2 EUR for a beer. Fancy craft beers? Make it 3 EUR.
The biggest brewery in the country makes delicious beer that is adored by the Czechs. (Compare this to the US, UK or Australia.) Yes, Pilsner Urquell is a premium option that sells one of the most expensive lagers on the market, while still controlling about a fourth of the market.
Czech pubs don’t turn tables. Yes, you’re drinking nine beers, but in about five hours. Pub crawls? Why would you leave the pub if you like the beer? We don’t get it.
Breweries distribute their own beer to pubs, so classic pubs will have an exclusive contract with one brewery, selling beers from their portfolio only. All the mugs, coasters and other things are supplied by the brewery. Want a bigger selection? Gotta visit a craft beer place.
Czech pubs don’t really play music or show a lot of TV. Still, the conversation and alcohol can make for a fairly noisy environment. The pub is not a library.
The pour is as important as the beer. Great bartenders can reach iconic levels of stardom. To get your mind blown, ask for a snyt or a mlíko, the alternative Pilsner pours. Have your camera ready because yes, you will be posting that on Instagram.
You don’t order beer in some classic pubs at night. Beer comes to you. Bartenders pour beers without orders, and waiters walk around and distribute them among patrons who are just finishing theirs. Think dim sum, but with beer.
Classic Czech pubs don’t have maitre d’s who escort you to the table. See an empty spot? Just go ahead, ask the other people at the table if the spot is available, and have a seat.
You don’t disrespect Czech beer in a Czech pub. Ever.
And while we’re at it, don’t ever share beer by pouring beer from one glass to another. That’s just gross.
The focal point of the Czech beer culture is the hospoda, the pub. Just the word “hospoda” creates a warm, fuzzy feeling inside of most Czechs. It is a phenomenon, and institution, and - especially in villages around the country - the central point of all things public where truly “everybody knows your name.”
It is an equalizer: it does not really matter much who you are or what you do outside of the pub. Once you sit inside, you get the same treatment like everybody else. No, you cannot buy a better beer. No, there is no VIP section. (Except the regulars’ table.) It’s just like the social media, but offline and with beer - everybody can say what they want, and after the ninth beer, you will have solved all the world’s problems sitting down.
One last word about the pub: the service can easily seem rude and mean. Don’t take that personally. It’s partly about speed - you want to get that beer to the table before the head falls. The menu rarely steers away from the regular fare, so no explanations are necessary, or given. This is not about smiles and pleasantries. How are you doing? My name is Jan and I will be your waiter tonight! You need anything, just call me, okay? I am here for at your service. We don’t think so. Pub service is about efficiency. So don’t hate. It’s not about you or where you come from. We get the same shitty service you do. Understood? Good. Now, the only question is…
Where to have a beer in Prague?
Again, a disclaimer: This list is a short list of places that we think matter. It is in no way exhaustive. We are writing this assuming you will not spend more than a few days in Prague. More detailed articles will follow. Eventually.
Lokál is a great introduction into the Czech beer culture: a top notch Pilsner experience with arguably the best beer service in town in a room that is a perfectly recreated retro experience. Yet it is ready for foreign visitors, so people will speak English and you don’t get any of the attitude of some very traditional Pilsner pubs. As a result, it may be a less intimidating experience than, say, the Golden Tiger.
On the other hand, some local beer lovers criticize Lokál for being “too meta” in its effort to recreate the classic Czech pub, and just smell a big business and money behind the operation. Perhaps like the Shake Shack is “too meta” in its effort to recreate a classic fast food experience. That said, people love both Shake Shack and Lokál, and the atmosphere, the beer and the surroundings are all memorable. For a beer hall experience, visit the location at Dlouhá street in the Old Town, but for a more neighborly feel, visit any of the locations outside of the city centre, like Hamburk or Nad Stromovkou.
The classic Pilsner pubs are a very specific genre that can be very compelling and intimidating at the same time. In terms of the beer, they’re pretty boring actually. Just good old Pilsner Urquell or Kozel, a popular dark lager, from the tap. That said, the atmosphere, the history and the beer culture is unique and it would probably be a mistake to miss them if you’re really into beer and visiting Prague. Also, the 2017 ban on smoking in restaurants was literally a breath of fresh air to the classic Pilsner pub, opening them to patrons who would otherwise steer clear of places that were capable of causing lung cancer before you finished your first pint.
U Zlatého tygra is the obvious choice (since it famously was where Mr Havel, the first post-Communist president, took Mr Clinton, then the POTUS, for a beer, among other things). The beers are great. The service is rude. The patrons are half loud regulars, half scared tourists. Not a hidden gem this one: everybody knows about this. U Pinkasu is another classic pub that’s been there forever. Great pours of beer, slightly touristy. And U cerneho vola is a great one if you get thirsty in the Prague Castle area. (Also, check out the Rennaissance entry.) Expect great beers, cheap pub food and a bit of attitude in all three. For more tips, see our Martin’s “Prague Zoo” tour in our Prague Foodie Map.
In the summer, the way to drink beer is outside, in a ”beer garden”. There is something magical about having beer with lots of locals just enjoying the vibes and drinking. Note for beer lovers: beer gardens are not about the beer, which can be mostly served into cheap plastic cups by students on summer jobs. That said, visiting Prague during the summer and not having a beer in a beer garden? We’d call that missing out.
The obvious first choice would be the Letná beer garden: great vibes, fantastic views of the Old Town, and if you fancy something more, you can just walk across the pavement for the grill by the Letná Chateau. The second choice would be, in an ideal, the Riegrovy say beer garden, sitting some 1400 thirsty drinkers in the Vinohrady district. The problem? It’s actually closed right now (July 2019) due to some disputes over rent. Our not-so-secret tip would be Hospudka na hradbách, aka the Vysehrad beer garden in the Vysehrad fortress: it’s smaller than the two, but walking back into the centre from the beautiful Vysehrad fortress with a few beers inside of you on a breezy summer night is a truly magical experience.
If you think the current craft beer scene full of cool lumbersexuals drinking hoppy IPAs with a dose of know-it-all attitude is hell, Ossegg, a no-thrills, unpretentious pub in the Vinohrady district, will feel like a glass of cold water. It is the essence of what makes the Czech pub alluring: good beers, proper comfort food, no fuss, come-as-you-are attitude. We really like their beer tasting board (you get four beers in smaller portions) and their roast duck or schnitzel. They do serve cheaper daily specials until 3pm on weekdays though, so you may want to come later.
The love child of Adam Matuska, one of the famous craft brewers in the country (check out his excellent interview in our Prague Foodie Map), and Mr Svoboda, the guy responsible for beer service in the Lokál pubs, Dva kohouti in the Karlín district is where the worlds of craft beers and the great pours Czechs are so proud of meet to create the perfect Prague beer experience in the funky tap room or in the beer garden outside. This is a fantastic place to see where young urban professionals, families and craft beer aficionados go to have a pint or two. One beer brewed on site, one guest tap and the full Matuska portfolio from the super cool concrete tap. This is a must if you love craft beers.
The mother and father of all craft beer pubs in Prague is also very conservative when it comes to the visuals. We’re talking wooden cladding in a pub spreading over several rooms and two floors with tables crammed near each other. So in essence, Zly casy (pronounced: “zlee chasi”) is the best of both worlds: a traditional Czech pub that has been serving a well-curated selection of craft beers before anybody in Prague could spell “IPA”. To complete your experience, have the roast duck and tank Pilsner Urquell in U Bansethu, a classic Pilsner pub nearby.
Not one but two locations of this craft beer place will satisfy all craft beer fans in the Vrsovice and Karlín districts. We are talking a few beers on tap plus hundreds in bottles. This is again a place to get nerdy about your beers and it’s a refuge for anyone who’s just about sick and tired of Pilsners. Compared to Pivovarský klub, this place aims at a slightly younger, cooler crowd.
Now first, make sure you actually go to the “bar”: Beergeek runs a beer shop nearby, which has caused confusion among some guests of our Prague Foodie Tour in the past. The bar was one of the first truly popular craft-beer places in town: 30 beers on tap, run by guys who can bore you to death with their beer nerdiness. This is a low-cost affair that focuses only on what is important: the beer selection, which is top notch. Can become a real party place on Fridays and Saturdays, and it’s a great introduction to the world of craft beers in Prague, and to the Vinohrady district in general.
One of the first craft beer places in town (old enough to be featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show), Pivovarský klub, the “ground zero” of Czech craft beers (we stole this from our friend Evan Rail) really focuses on the beer without all the BS or marketing around it. Just six beers on tap, some 300 in bottles. Would you like some? What we like about it is its welcoming, inclusive atmosphere devoid of any I-am-cooler-than-you attitude. Try the beer cake. It’s quite delicious.
OMG, this one is so touristy it hurts: yes, sure, all Czechs play the accordeon and live in a parallel universe where every day is Octoberfest. (Not.) That said, the fact is this legendary, iconic pub has been there, brewing their own dark beer, since 1499. And the dark lager they’ve been making literally for centuries is pretty damn good. Think of U Fleku as Prague’s Katz deli: sure, it is super touristy, a bit of a spiel and theatre, but you can’t argue with the product. So you either love or hate that place. We’ll leave that judgment to you.