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Beer in Eastern Europe

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My husband and I will be heading off to Eastern Europe soon, specifically to Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic and I need some advice about beer choices in those countries.

Here's some background to help you advise me: I've only recently started drinking beer; it's not an age thing, since I've got an AARP card in my wallet. I just never seemed to like the taste of beer. Then, on a trip to China, I began drinking Tsing Tao and found I liked the taste. That led me to other Asian beers (Singha and Sapporo) when eating ethnic food back home in the US.

What beers will I find in the countries on our trip that I'm likely to enjoy? What beers might my husband enjoy since his favorite is Smithwick's?

Thanks!

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  1. Czech beer is widely reputed to be the best in the world, and I would agree with that assertion (as do, grudgingly, even my German friends). Pilsner Urquell was the first ever beer that was golden coloured and not darkand cloudy (all beers anywhere in the world before the year 1842 were more or less dark and unfiltered). I think it is still the finst Pilsner around (BTW, "Pilsner" because it comes from the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic).

    Budweiser (so called after the city of Budweis in the south of the Czech Republic) is another very famous Pilsner type beer. It tastes completely different from its watery American name-sake. American Budweiser plagiarised the name in the 19th century, and the Czech brwewery and Anheuser Busch are still involved in trademark disputes around the world. (Interestingly, the Czechs win in all countries that have a proper beer culture, like Germany, while Anheuser-Busch tends to win in countries that just drink to get drunk, like Finland).

    American Budweiser, like the vast majority of Asian brewers, uses rice in the brewing process. The result is a light-tasting, watery "beer". I am mentioning this because if you are used to American lagers or Asian beers like Tsing Tao or Sapporo, you may be shocked when you have a Pilsner. It has a much stronger flavour, although the alcohol content is exactly the same (many people initially wrongly think that the beers must be a lot stronger because they have so much more flavour). The Thai Singha beer you mention also has a lot of flavour, but at 6.2% is also quite alcoholic for a Pilsner type beer.

    The Czech Republic also does dark beers and ale-type beers, if your husband likes those. I don't know Smithwicks, so I can't tell you if there are similar beers in the Czech Republic. I have tasted a fair few very good microbrewed American beers, some of which resembled certain Czech beers. The mass market beers were bland and watery though.

    When you are in the Czech Republic, do not get confused when it says 10% or 12% on the bottle. That is NOT alcohol content, but gravity. A 12 beer is always more full-bodied than a 10 beer, which tastes lighter. The alcohol content is usually the same, between 4.4% and 5%.

    Polish, Slovak, Hungarian and Austrian beer is not great. There are a few pretty good brews (in Poland, foreign toursits seem to like Zywiec, in Slovakia Zlaty Bazant or Topvar, in Austria, the Viennese Ottakringer Gold Fassl is good, with Gosser being very widely available), but none is likely to blow your mind. There are some good, small breweries (luckily, most countries manage to produce at least some really good beers), but I don't remember specific names and defer to people with better knowledge of such countries' beers. In Hungary, the situation is not great. Dreher is OK, but Hungary is more of a wine country (and they do produce some excellent wine).

    5 Replies
    1. re: Asomaniac

      Thank you so very, very much. What a fascinating and informative post!

      Since I'm a wine drinker, I won't have any problem in Hungary, although recommendations will be needed and appreciated. I was just assuming that I should drink beer with my food in beer-drinking cultures, but your post has indicated that I've made some incorrect assumptions. What should I be drinking with my meals in Poland, Slovakia, and Austria? Wine or beer?

      I've sipped my husband's Smithwick's and I can report that it is less bitter than Guinness, which even he can't take. Samuel Adams in most of its varieties is another favorite of his.

      Again, thanks for your lovely reply.

      1. re: Indy 67

        The most important thing is that the beer from a tap will be extremely fresh. Drink whatever is local and on tap at whatever place you are in. In Poland and Slovakia you should drink Beer. In Austria, try the local wines, especially if you haven't heard of it before. How wrong can you go, especially if you are not indulging in an expensive bottle? Just explore without worrying that you won't like it.

        1. re: Indy 67

          We had some pretty good beers in Prague, but in Poland, Austria, and Hungary we mostly stuck to wine. The Austrian and Hungarian wines are very much worth trying. Don't go for the most expensive, the moderate priced ones are excellent. Just explain what kind of wines you prefer, and the server should be able to advise. Poland is not known for wine, but French wines are very reasonable there. Also be sure to try Krupnik, a delicious honeyed vodka served as both an aperitif and a digestif in Poland.

        2. re: Asomaniac

          This is a good post. As someone who knows their beer, this is a good primer. I wouldn't say that Hungary is more of a wine country, because many people here like their beer. (there's a lot of Hungarians people that have German heritage who settled here generations ago) However, most Hungarian beer drinkers haven't learned to cultivate a taste for anything beyond the watery pilsner or lagers. Dreher is top of the class of beers that are brewed by the multi-nat'l corporations, with Dreher Bak, a brown dunkel-type, and their lager being the best.

          Of the smaller brewers that are harder to find is Szalon which is made in the southern Hungarian city of Pecs. The best beer of theirs is the Szalon Barna, which is also a brown dunkel, and to my mind, the best beer in Hungary. Ilzer is also a smaller brewer that have good fresh-tasting beer. If you can find it on tap, by all means get it.

          While I don't have the same background in wine, I can be confident in saying that wine in Hungary is at a very high standard. The only problem would be for budget-minded diners, as restaurants here charge a huge mark up on glasses and bottles of wine compared to what one can get in wine stores and supermarkets. (at the big supermarkets like Tesco there is an incredible selection) House wines at restaurants are generally quite good, so there's no need to feel bad about ordering them.

          1. If you're a wine drinker, definitely try some local wines in Austria. They have lovely, food friendly wines there: gruner veltliner on the white side, and zweigelt on the red.

            1 Reply
            1. re: cavafan

              I'd say skip the Zweigelt and go for Blaufränkisch, which is similar but more interesting. And don't miss the Blauburgunder/Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). Austria has an ideal climate for this grape and they can do wonderful things with it, totally unlike what you get from Burgundy.

              If you find yourself in Western Austria, near Bavaria, then you should go for the beer. They make some very nice herby/floral Hells.