My great grandparents immigrated to the United States from Europe just after WWI. As a third generation American, I am not very connected to my roots. I never knew my great grandparents, and our family retains little of their culture, apart from a few stories.
I was nonetheless excited to visit the Czech Republic with my mother, as she is half Czech, and I, therefore, am a quarter Czech. One pair of my great grandparents immigrated from Northern Bohemia, now the border between Poland and Czech Republic. Almost a century later, my mother and I are visiting for the first time.
This is how I discover that beer is in my blood.
I spent my
formative drinking years young adult life in Wisconsin, where good beer is as easy to find as good cheese. For all those who have not visited a Wisconsin grocery store, the beer section and dairy section, combined, are easily half of the entire store space. With the exception of a magnificent beer festival in Poland, on this trip I have mostly encountered weak industrial lagers. I have been missing the vibrant and creative American craft brewing scene, with complex flavors and crisp finishes.
But in the Czech Republic, there is an abundance of good beer. Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world, about 40 gallons, or 150 liters, per person per year. (It works out to about an American-sized bottle of beer a day for everyone. You know what they say, a bottle a day keeps the doctor away!) “Liquid bread” sustained people before reliable, potable water. And today, potable water aside, it is still beer that sustains the Czech.
My mother and I started our trip in Český Krumlov, an old town centered around a large castle in southern Bohemia. With a Rick Steves (the demigod for Americans traveling in Europe) book in hand, we explored the busy restaurant scene. While many restaurants served delicious food, we were preoccupied with the beer, trying a different brand every meal. My mother, always organized, even jotted down the names of each one and our impressions. We devised a star system for rating different beers, giving Pilsner Urquell and Budvar Budweiser the highest number of stars. (For my American friends, no, it is not the same Budweiser. After a long trademark fight with Anheuser-Busch, the Czech Budweiser changed its name to Czechvar in the states. In return, American Budweiser here is marketed as “Bud”. The two beers differ greatly in quality.)
After leaving the beautiful Český Krumlov, we headed to Prague. With beautiful weather and the ice hockey championship on in every bar in the city, my mother and I found plenty of reasons to sit outside and try new Czech beers. But no matter how good the beer was, we never drank on an empty stomach.
Czech food complements Czech beer. In general, Czech food is heavy on meat, potatoes, bread, and cabbage, like in many surrounding countries. A classic meal like knedliky, or dumplings, for example, would be served with gravy, roasted pork, and cabbage. It is a heavy but substantial meal, perfect for fueling long nights of Budweiser. If you want to drink like a Czech, you must eat like a Czech.
The Two Marys, a wonderful restaurant in Český Krumlov, takes “traditional cuisine” even further. The owners, having conducted a lot of research into what ancient Bohemians actually ate in the Middle Ages, aim to replicate ancestral diets. There, the more recent bread and potatoes was replaced by older cereals, like millet. Our meal also included beautifully steamed trout and cabbage, lightly spiced and delicious.
Traveling with my mom, sharing these two weeks together, was a lovely séjour in my trip. As we dug into our meal at The Two Marys, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was also similar to the diet of my great, great grandparents. Did they too raise a glass of beer, toasting to family, and yet another delicious meal?
I like to think so. If not, I do it in their honor. Cheers!