Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
“You must love this country more than I love a cold beer on a hot Christmas morning.” – Homer Simpson
I moved to the Czech Republic in early 2011 and since that time there have been few things I enjoy doing more than drinking their beer.
The Czech Republic is not a religious country. But, in lieu of a deity, beer is god and the pub is church. I’ll one day get into what pivo means to this place, but that is not my intention today. No, today I’m here for more practical purposes.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not qualified to give any “expert” opinions on any one Czech thing. However, I have spent enough time in the pub to at least help out any travelers, foreigners, visitors, and expats who may one day stumble into the pub. With that in mind, I’d like to present to you the Idiots Guide to Drinking Beer like a Czech.
Boys, if you’re with a lady, the custom is that you will enter the pub first. This is an old tradition and goes back a ways. It was established to make sure there were no fisticuffs going down inside and it kept your lady from entering the pub and getting met with a wayward chair or pint glass. Nowadays, it’s a signal for the old drunks to stay away.
Seat yourself, anywhere you like. Be aware that in most locals there will be a table or two reserved for the regulars. These are the štamgast, the daily drinkers, and their tables – usually close to the taps – are not for you.
There may be a non-smoking section, but there probably wont be. Go ahead, have a dart while you wait for your drink. Your jacket’s going to smell like smoke anyways, so you might as well enjoy it.
Sometimes you’ll have to wait a moment or two before you’re noticed, but don’t get too worked up about it. Once the service starts coming, it usually won’t stop. It’s actually a lot harder to get staff to stop serving you. And still, table service in every pub is a lot better than having to get up and grab a round for the whole table, no? So don’t be a turkey and complain if things take a moment or two to get going.
Also, throw a coaster down on the table. That means you’re here for beer.
In Prague, your choices will likely be a couple of the bigger brands: Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Kozel, Staropramen, Budvar, and maybe Svijany. All are good and there isn’t much variation – all are pale lagers. The lone exception being that Pilsner is in a category by itself: better than the rest.
Still, I’d recommend trying them all out. Why not, they don’t cost very much.
One thing to note is that sometimes beer is presented on the menu (or ordered) as 10°, 11°, 12°, and so on. These figures, expressed in degrees Balling, refer to the density of certain ingredients during brewing. But this is the idiots guide, so, in short: 10° isn’t very strong, 3.5-4% ABV, while 12° is usually around 4.5-5% ABV.
Cheers-ing / Na zdravi
Look each other in the eye when your glasses touch. If you come from North America this is probably something you’re not used to doing. After touching cups, some Czechs like to ground their glasses – tapping the bottoms on the table – but I still can’t really get behind this one.
Only cheers on the first round, unless a buddy joins you late, then you’re free to do it again for their first.
Never mix old and new beer, that’s a sin. Don’t taint a fresh pint with your old beer, because that’s not how it was meant to be enjoyed. If you don’t want to drink it all, go ahead, leave half a pint. There’s no pressure to finish. After all, it’s cheaper than a cup of coffee.
There will be no pitchers, instead there are half litre cups for all. Big glass mugs, often with handles. It’s an every man for himself logic: If I drink faster than the rest of the table, I don’t have to drain the pitcher or sit around waiting for my slow-drinking mates. Everyone goes at their own pace (if you want one, just milk it; if you’re looking to tie one on, feel free) and everyone pays what they drink.
If your beer is nearing the end, the bartender should walk by and ask Ještě Jedno (another?) Respond with one of the following: Repeat Ještě Jedno affirmatively, say Ano (yes), or Jo (this also means yes … but it’s more fun to say, since it sounds like our “Yo!”), and if that’s too hard just nod your damn head.
Advanced visitors may also want to learn Ještě Ne, which essentially means: not yet.
I’ll try my hands at a bit of pronunciation help here:
Ještě Jedno: yesh-tey yed-no
Ještě Ne: yesh-tey nay.
A shot on the side is fine. In fact, it’s better than fine and it’s quite common to boot. I’m currently in the middle of some enjoyable research on popular Czech spirits, but a good place to start would be with zelana. It’s 20%, bright green, and it’ll make your breath smell real fresh (peppermint). Zelana is my personal recommendation for something to backup a cold pint of Czech beer. Even if leaves you swaying on the way home, it won’t kill you the way a slivovice can.
Another good thing to remember is that, nowadays, a lot of these places are gastropubs so almost all of them will have decent kitchens. Most of these snacks and meals are designed to be devoured with a beer on the side, so it’s hard to go wrong. If I could toss one term into your dictionary it would be Nakládaný Hermelín. This is marinated Camembert cheese, soaked in oil for a few weeks until it becomes delicious. Slice off a piece, spread it on some bread and you’re good to go. An insanely great companion to a cold beer.
The Czech Republic is one of the first places I’ve ever been where they will happily divvy up your bill between the table without so much as a scoff. In fact, it’s probably more common to pay that way. If you’re paying together, say dohromady. If separate, zvlášt, and then tell them what you had. It couldn’t be easier and you no longer have to split a huge tab three ways when all you had was a side salad and water.
I have heard tales of the changing dynamic with regards to where you wanted to be in the payment line. In high school, for example, if you were the last one to pay your part of the bill you’d most likely be stuck with a few extra beers that your friends didn’t bother to cover (either by lack of funds or blind inebriation … after all, keeping count gets really hard after four). However, when everyone hits their mid-twenties the script is flipped. It suddenly becomes more common to overpay your share at the outset, so the last one to pay is often left with only about half of their actual tab to cover. Beautiful how things shift like that.
The expected tip will likely be a lot less than you’re used to and you don’t have to feel too guilty about that. As a rule of thumb, if you eat something, a 10% tip is normal – and that’s only if you actually liked the service. Czechs have a tendency to simply round up sometimes. A total of 195 will just be rounded to 200 and everyone calls it a night. The roundup is a better technique to use if you’re just there for drinks (no food), as the 10% is not likely to be expected.
It’s better form to simply hand the server your money and say the amount that you wish to pay (including tip). Leaving cash on the table is a lot less common.
Like entering, but in reverse. Let your lady leave first, and you bring up the rear. The bartender will likely say “Na shledanou!”* (Goodbye) and it’s just good form to say it back.
* Na skled-an-oh
So there it is, a crack at everything you may need to know if you’re looking to come to this great land and have a cold one. Leave a comment if you disagree with something or think I’ve missed anything.