Czech Republic, modern lager beer home

Sunday, July 8, 2012
Tanks in the cellar at Pilsen. (Tom Harte)

"Beer is proof God loves us," Ben Franklin supposedly said. If so, God must have a special fondness for the people of the Czech Republic. At least that's my conclusion having just returned from Prague. I went there to attend the annual Czech Beer Festival and to make a pilgrimage to nearby Pilsen, where modern lager beer was invented.

The beer festival is the country's answer to Munich's Oktoberfest. Once inside the main tent, which holds 10,000 people, you develop an appreciation for what beer means to the Czechs. There are more than 70 brands available, all served in quart-sized tankards.

Beer, believed by some to be the oldest fermented beverage known to humankind, is the most heavily consumed alcoholic beverage in the world. The Czechs are doing their part to keep it that way. They rank No. 1 in world beer consumption.

Though it's their national beverage, the Czechs didn't actually invent beer, of course, though they are quick to claim credit for "real" Budweiser, despite what Anheuser-Busch has been saying in litigation over the past 100 years.

People have been making beer, what Jack Nicholson calls "the best damn drink in the world," for centuries. The Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known collection of laws, established a daily beer ration, and the ancient Egyptians are known to have composed some of the earliest drinking songs.

But the discovery of fermentation, a happy culinary accident like fudge, puff pastry and the chocolate chip cookie, may go back even further than that, perhaps as long ago as 10,000 years. Thus, because some sort of grain is necessary to the process, some experts even contend that the brewing of beer triggered the beginning of agriculture, making beer, in the words of German beer authority Horst Dornbusch, "the midwife of civilization."

All of this happened long before there was a Czech Republic, though the country was as quick as any in Europe to get on the beer bandwagon. Back in the 10th century King Wenceslas, the country's patron saint, persuaded the pope to revoke his prohibition against making beer. No wonder they call him Good King Wenceslas.

Barrels in the cellar at Pilsen. (Tom Harte)

Then in 1842 the Czechs revolutionized the process of making beer, as I learned when I journeyed to the town of Pilsen outside of Prague to tour the plant where the first pale lager beer in the world originated. Passing through the factory's iconic gate, I eagerly headed to the cellars beneath the brewery to see the barrels and tanks where the modern pilsner was born. A "bottom-fermented" beer as opposed to the traditional "top-fermented" beer (referring to where yeast collects in the vat), it is a light, clear, golden beer that created a sensation when was it was introduced. Though Pilsen's unique water, yeast and hops make it difficult to truly duplicate the city's signature brew anywhere else, it is nonetheless the prototype of almost all modern beers. So I suppose it is true that somebody up there really must like the Czech people.

Drunken Sausages and Peppers

Besides using beer to wash down foods, you can also cook with it, as the Bellavista restaurant adjacent to the Strohav Monastery atop Castle Hill in Prague knows only too well. This dish is similar to the one I enjoyed on the restaurant's terrace recently while drinking in the commanding view of the city below. The recipe is adapted from Yummly.com.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound smoked sausage, sliced

1 red bell pepper, sliced

1 yellow bell pepper, sliced

1 orange bell pepper, sliced

2 yellow onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup beer

1/2 cup barbecue sauce

Brown sausages in the olive oil over medium heat. Remove from pan and add peppers and onions, sauting until golden brown. Add garlic and continue to saut until fragrant. Stir in tomato paste, beer, and barbecue sauce. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, add sausages back to pan, reduce heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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