Wednesday, June 13, 2012

History of a Beer Snob

By Beth Green

I have a confession to make. I’ll eat anything. I’ll go anywhere. I’ll try most things if they won’t put me in the hospital or in prison.

But I won’t drink bad beer.

In a pinch I’ll sleep in an airport or a train station—even (at least that one time) on a park bench. I’m not choosy about what I wear or the company I keep.

But I am a beer snob.
Beer is my particular snobbery.

I blame most of the reason for this on my parents, who in my formative years took an interest in home brewing when we visited New Zealand on our sailboat. I was 12, and years away from drinking beer myself (obviously), but I was intrigued by the whole madcap science of it—the strange giant tins of strong-smelling hops, the crazy jerry-can and tube set-up my dad tinkered with.

My parents got progressively involved and sophisticated with their brewing once we returned to the USA (Mom even took home a prize a few years ago for her Blonde Beaver Pale Ale at the Great Alaskan CraftBeer and Homebrew Festival in Haines, AK.). But I was still a few years away from being a beer snob. In college, perhaps making up for my nontraditional upbringing, I made sure I embraced the all-American university culture of drinking copious amounts of the cheapest beer available, occasionally utilizing household objects, such as funnels, for the consumption thereof.

But everything changed when, during my junior year of university, I went on academic exchange to Spain. I spent months beforehand reading up on wine, assuming in my naivete that that was pretty much all sophisticated Europeans drank.

So it was a complete surprise when I realized all that information I’d been absorbing about wines had actually made me appreciate beer more. I started noticing the metallic taste of canned brews, the nuances in flavor between the stouts, the hefeweizens, the lagers. One weekend trip to Madrid my friends and I ran into two Irish people in town for a rugby match—they introduced me to Guinness while my other friends chose cider or wine spritzers.
The author and her mother in the Czech Republic in 2004.

But even with this newly defined interest, I wouldn’t have called myself a snob of anything. Until, a few years later I moved to the Czech Republic, which, (at least in the
biased opinion of 10.5 million Czechs) is the world’s best place to live if you like beer.

And, boy, the Czechs like it. In 2010, they drank 132 liters per capita, according to the Kirin Institute Food and Lifestyle Report. Think that’s a lot? Well, that amount is down 21 bottles per person from the year before, in part to improved public awareness about the dangers of alcoholism and the creeping realization that too much of a good thing gives you liver problems.

If you ask a Czech, they invented the stuff—pilsner (a type of pale lager) is named, after all, after the city of Pilsen. Now, while their neighbors to the west, the Germans, have their own firm opinions about who truly invented the drink, the Germans haven’t put their money where their mouth is, only consuming a piddling 107 liters per capita per year. Does that give the Czechs the right to call themselves the inventors of modern beer? After a few glasses, I’d say so.
Fresh beer.

In the Czech Republic, beer has a cultural significance I’ve found no other beverage to hold in any other part of the world. In China, tea still reigns—but Chinese people don’t love their the way Czechs cherish a pivo. The French, Spanish, and Italians bicker over who has the best wine—but their pride in viticulture is shadowed by the Czech mania for beer.

Within the Czech Republic, I soon learned, there are factions of beer lovers. You choose a beer brand to support like in other countries you’d choose a football team. In fact, for Czechs, choosing a beer brand may influence your later choice of brew-sponsored soccer club.

Budvar, the brew from České Budjějovicky which has been involved in convoluted tradmark disputes with American Budweiser beer and is sold in the US as Czechvar, has a certain crowd. Pilsner Urquell, the most famous of Czech beers internationally, is drunk by tourists and certain Pilsen-loyal Czechs. Staropramen is a favorite among native Praguers. The list is long, and the tasting and choosing a laborious, though delightful, process. At long last, I chose Gambrinus.
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Gambrinus, made by the Pilsner Urquell brewery and owned by SAB Miller, is a clean, light-colored beer that a non-beer snob could probably quaff as easily as they would drink any other Czech beer. It’s sold in brown bottles to keep the flavor from turning skunky, but tastes best from the tap of a busy pub. After three years of trying the various brews around the country, I realized I could do a blind taste-test and always name Gambrinus as the superior drink. The SAB Miller web page describes it as having a “distinct and refreshing ‘bite’ which does not compromise its soft beer flavour.”

Watching Czech films or reading Czech literature will provide a small insight into the importance of the beverage in daily Czech life. One of the country’s most celebrated and respected authors, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997), was a famous beer lover. The brewery Hrabal’s stepfather managed, Pivovaru Nymburk, has Hrabal’s portrait on their Postřižinské beer label. The beer is named after his novel Postřižiny, translated into English as Cutting it Short.
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Beer is a happy pleasure, a luxury in China (where I now live). Of course China has its own beers, not all of them bad, but none of them as good as a wet, frothy glass of Gambrinus.

So, what’s your secret snobbery?


  1. I've become very fond of IPAs since moving to Portland, but I think my favorite beers remain Belgian (many types). Think I might have to have one right now after reading this.

  2. Oh Edith, one of my favorite finds in Portland was Henry's bar which has something like 100 beers on tap and a little ice rink strip along the bar so your glass never warms up. They serve several Belgians and even some Czech beer! Portland is definitely a good city to live in if you like beer.

  3. I've been, but not in a long time. Will have to try Henry's again before I leave.

  4. I agree with Edith - the Belgians make the best beer. But when I'm in Berlin, I always order a Berliner Weisse. I like it with a shot of Waldmeister, which turns the pale brew green.