Interview: Prague-based beer expert Evan Rail on how you can support Czech breweries

Pour yourself a cold one and settle in for a chat with the expat community's most famous beer aficionado

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas
Published on 07.08.2020 08:12 (updated on 07.08.2020)

California native Evan Rail has been covering Czech beer for over two decades. In advance of International Beer Day on August 7, we asked the Prague-based journalist and editor at Good Beer Hunting to give us some insights on the implications of the current situation for the beer industry as well as advice on how to support Czech breweries in their hour of need.

Evan also offered up some mind-blowing (if you’re a beer geek) beer facts and revealed his current favorite brewery visit (hint: it’s not in Prague).

Read the full interview below:

One of our most popular articles during lockdown was a piece on how to support Czech breweries. What’s with the continued outpouring of passion for Czech beer?

This country has a lot of great things going for it, but one of the best clearly has to be the beer. People love it. People should love it. It’s excellent quality and it’s extremely affordable.

I think people are going to love the Czech Republic for its beer for a long time to come.

What do you make of the recent stats that say Czech beer consumption has dropped off exponentially?

I think that’s perfectly understandable. The Czech Republic is a draft beer culture. Most of our beer is consumed on draft. That’s changing. The numbers are shifting over to packaged beer.

But still, the majority of the beer we drink is served in pubs and restaurants. And those were all closed for most of March, all of April and part of May, if I remember correctly. So all of them, however much it was.

So it’s understandable that the consumption has dropped off this year, especially since the places that serve beer were closed. In addition, we didn’t have the large numbers of tourists who come here to enjoy Czech beer for those few months.

With the late Anthony Bourdain filming a 2010 episode of No Reservations / photo via Facebook Evan Rail

There’s also data that shows domestic consumers increasingly prefer bottles to draft beer. Is this worrying to a beer connoisseur such as yourself?

One of the big stories in the past few years isn’t just the growth of bottles, but actually cans as well; more Czech consumers are increasingly drinking beer at home from bottles and cans.

Bottles are still the largest share of packaged beer, but cans are growing quite a lot. Is this worrying? I like pubs and I’m not worried about the quality of bottled and canned beer, but I am worried about the vibrant cultural milieu of the Czech pub because there will be fewer of them if people do more of their drinking at home. I love Czech pubs and I want to see them stick around.

So I think it’s important to bear that in mind when we make choices about what we’re going to drink.

Has Czech pub culture taken a hit? Can you talk about how your personal experience of pub-going compares pre- and post-lockdown?

Normally before the pandemic, I would probably go to the pub once or twice a month to meet friends or with my wife or to a cafe to drink a beer, obviously during the lockdown, I didn’t do that.

And since the lockdown, I have not had beers inside a pub. I’m still not comfortable with it yet. And I have a feeling a lot of people feel the same way. So in terms of a post-lockdown, my visits are still on hold for now.

What’s the first pint you lifted after the quarantine and where?

I have had beer on draft after the quarantine. I just haven’t had it in the pub.

But there’s a cafe near me that serves beer outside. And I think the first beer I had was one of my favorites. It’s Benedict from Břevnov and they had Benedict on draft and I couldn’t not get one, so my wife and I shared one when we were walking the dog the first week after the lockdown ended and it was great.

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How did you enjoy beer during the lockdown period, did you experiment with homebrewing or get delivery from a favorite brewery?

I find it difficult to live without beer, so during the lockdown period, I did everything possible to make sure I had access to my favorite beverage. I brewed a batch of beer with an experimental hop that some hop growers had given me. So I had a reason to brew that just to see what the hop was like. And I shared a few bottles with my friends, passed out a few liters here and there because it was lockdown and everyone needed to chip in and look after each other, which is something we probably should remember even after being locked in.

In addition, I got deliveries or bought from local breweries, from Dva kohouti, which is over here by me and Czech beer in bottles and cans for home delivery from supermarkets.

Photo via Facebook / @Brevnovskypivovar

You recently tweeted about Pivovarský klub closing — have there been any other COVID casualties that you know of on the Czech beer scene?

Pivovarský klub is the only COVID casualty that I know of. So far, that’s the biggest one that’s come to my attention, at least there have certainly been a number of bars and pubs have closed, but not really big casualties yet.

How has the crisis affected your work as a journalist who covers beer and travel topics? 

I’m very lucky in that I have a regular gig as an editor at the online magazine, Good Beer Hunting. And in addition, I have a pretty wide range of subjects that I write about. I’ve recently written about media psychology and alcohol for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I wrote about whiskey producers in Europe who are starting to make rye whiskey, which is largely thought of as an American style of whiskey, for The New York Times.

I keep writing for places like Vine Pair and other publications, The Wall Street Journal, and so forth. And it’s not just beer, but it’s often beer. I would say that there’s probably not much of a market for travel articles aimed towards America from Europe because Americans are not traveling here. But I’m still writing about beer regularly. I have plenty of outlets and I’m very happy about that.

How can people support the industry? Any advice you can give us?

I think the best thing you can do is buy directly from your local brewery. If you go straight to Únětice and buy takeaway bottles from Únětický pivovar if you’re not dining there or drinking there, that’s a great way to do it. Břevnov brewery also sells beer to go, you can buy some of the world’s greatest lagers and enjoy those at home. And that really helps.

If breweries have taprooms, you can always patronize those if you are not comfortable drinking in your local pub, but you feel like drinking beer. Take a pitcher down there. I did that just the other day and I got my pitcher filled up with Hostomice beer from a pub by me and it’s a great way to support a brewery.

I’ve also noticed that Albert supermarkets have a refrigerator unit filled with beer from smaller producers like Hostivar and other local breweries from around the country. And you can find some really interesting and great beers in Albert supermarkets that are owned independently and not by major corporations.

Uneticky pivovar / photo via Facebook

Because people are staying home more this summer, can you suggest a few beer-themed trips?

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This is hard to do because there are now so many breweries in the Czech Republic. They are virtually everywhere. But if there is one brewery I would call out by name, it would be Wild Creatures Brewery in Mikulov, South Moravia. Wild Creatures just opened their brewery to the public this summer; they now have seating for the public. It used to be just a place where they made beer. But you can go there and sample the beers and have tastings there and if you meet the owner Jitka Ilčíková she can talk to you about her beers.

They’re made with spontaneous fermentation, which leaves them tasting a little bit like wine or like cider. They’re made with fruit, all local fruit. I think the vast majority of which Jitka grows herself. So you have sour cherry beers and apricot beers that are very tart and cider-like made with a spontaneous fermentation method. And you can drink them right at the brewery. And Mikulov is one of the most beautiful places in the country so I highly recommend everyone do that.

Wild Creatures brewery in Mikulov, photo via Facebook

What is the best way to celebrate Czech beer on International Beer Day?

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I would say drinking outside with your friends, social distancing, as responsibly as possible, but enjoy a good pale lager from a local brewery and have a good time. If you can, be on the water this summer. Having a good beer next to a river or a lake is just one of the great pohoda moments of a Czech summer, and I wish everyone could experience that.

Impress us with one obscure fact we don’t know about Czech beer (and we know a lot them).

I bet you do. I bet you know that the original Budweiser is from Budweiser and you know that the original pilsner is from Pilsen and you probably know that the original Michelob is from Měcholupy. So I’m not going to hit you with any of those obvious ones. But I will tell you this, and a lot of people don’t know this, and this needs to be researched more thoroughly to prove it.

But there clearly were, as I’ve discovered in my most recent research, golden lagers in the 1820s and 30s. There were pale yellow beers that were bottom-fermented that were lagers before Pilsner was invented in 1842. There are newspaper entries from the year 1821 that describe, hay-colored, bottom-fermented beer. So there’s this great myth about Pilsner being the first golden lager. And I’ve certainly repeated this common story.

But it looks like there were probably forerunners or ancestors, if you will, in the 20 to 30 to 40 years before Pilsner appeared in 1842. This might seem trivial to some, but if you are a beer historian, I just made your head explode. Sorry about that.

How do you see the future of the Czech beer industry, is there a spark of hope?

I think there’s going to be a contraction…and that would mean a few breweries are going to close and I think there will be a recession this year economically and it looks pretty likely that we’re going to have negative growth. But we’ll get back to where we were.

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There is basically no stopping the growth of small local brewpubs there. When my book came out in 2007, there were about 55 brewpubs in the country. And nowadays I think there are about four hundred, four hundred and fifty. And that’s in just 13 years.

I imagine in another 10 years there will be eight hundred, nine hundred, a thousand of them. That’s pretty much inevitable. Places that serve beer on draft only and serve food are going to be everywhere in the country even more than they are today. And from my point of view, that’s good news.

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It’s good to be back.

A post shared by Evan Rail (@evanrail) on

What are you working on, what’s next?

I’m working on a book about fly-fishing in Bohemia. I got into fishing a few years ago and I’ve been writing about it, spending some time up in the mountains, a lot of time in the Krkonoše and in Šumava and fishing and learning about the Czech Republic’s geography in a different way for me, learning about the mountains and the rivers and the places that are not as popular as Prague and more famous destinations. And it’s been really fun for me to get in touch with the natural world here.

You’ve died and gone to heaven. What’s on tap?

I swear, I love all kinds of beer, but if I had to choose one right now I’m hankering for a beer from home.

I would really like to drink a Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, which was my favorite go-to beer back home. But if I can have any beer on tap right now, it would be a Benedict Břevnov. And if I were in heaven and they had bottles, they would have aged Orval and probably some Cantillon gueuze.

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Follow Evan Rail on Instagram and Twitter.