Under a list of “Problems I with we had here”, one from restaurants and bars throughout the Czech Republic tops my list. It turns out they are up in arms about the possibility of the price of water (or another non-alcoholic beverage) being priced at least as cheap as beer. Imagine, beer is currently the cheapest drink on the menu at many, if not most, establishments. However, the country’s health minister wants to change that as he tries to put Czechs on a lower-hops diet.
It won’t be easy. In the birthplace of pilsner, beer is known as “liquid bread.” Czechs drink an average of 37 gallons of the stuff per person per year, the highest per capita consumption in the world and more than double U.S. levels.
For at least a thousand years, beer has been a staple in the Czech lands, and the country’s native hops are renowned for being aromatic and bitter. St. Wenceslas, a martyred 10th-century Czech nobleman, is a patron saint of brewing and malting, in addition to being the patron saint of the nation.
When the city of Plzen, about 60 miles southwest of Prague, got its charter in 1295, its people were given the right to brew beer, helping ensure the settlement’s prosperity. (In the 19th century, the city gave its name to the bottom-fermented lager made there and now known as pilsner.)
The country’s oldest brewery still in operation, Prague’s U Fleku, was founded in 1499. Beer was so important to the Czech political economy at that time that knights and nobles fought for and won the right to brew beer under a landmark royal decree in 1517.
Nearly half a millennium later, beer remains at the center of Czech social life. It is common for people to head to a pub after work to relax and socialize with friends. Barkeeps often don’t ask customers what they would like to drink. Instead, they just plop down a glass of lager and start a tab.
At a typical local pub, a pint—500 milliliters—costs about $1. A similar portion of water, juice or soda generally costs twice as much. Offering free tap water as at North American eateries is extremely rare.
At U Zelenku, a neighborhood institution for more than a century, for instance, a pint of the cheapest beer goes for 99 cents. The same size of soda water is $1.30. At the fancier Kolkovna restaurant in touristy Old Town, a pint is $2.50, while mineral water is $2.29, for a bottle less than half the size.
Speaking from personal experience, I remember how great it was to walk into any convenience store, grab a 500ml can of cold beer for no more than 50 cents and wander the streets of Prague. If you tried to do the same here you’d be looking at a 400% price increase and, I am sure, a swarm of authorities…