Why We’re All Drinking ‘Canadian’ Beer

A few facts about beer:

  • In ancient Babylonia, where the first beer was supposedly made, they took the sudsy stuff so seriously that if you made a bad batch, you’d be drowned.
  • The Vikings’ version of heaven, Valhalla, was really a great meat and beer hall in the sky, complete with a giant goat whose udders spewed-you guessed it-beer.
  • Light makes beer go bad, hence the reason one usually finds it in a tinted glass bottle. When exposed to prolonged light, beer gets a skunk-y smell (Corona, anyone?).
  • The melody to the American national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner,” was taken from a beer drinking song. Seriously.
  • Much of the corporate brewery beers from other countries that you might consume in the United States was either made in Canada or America.

[Record scratch across the heavens] Wait, what? That’s right. Big breweries don’t necessarily fall over themselves to keep this a secret. But they don’t exactly advertise it, either.I had never thought about this or the effects of travel on beer until I was recently at Hospoda, a Czech restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. There was something about the taste of the Pilsner Urquell on draught was so…good. It was crisp and light yet the flavors were not muted, as is the case sometimes when I drink it on tap at other bars in North America. And then Lukas Svoboda, who is in charge of the beer at Hospoda, told me that restaurant is one of the few or only places in North America that has their Pilsner Urquell kegs shipped to them in air conditioned containers.

All the Pilsner Urquell one’s drinks in the world is made in Plzen, in western Bohemia. But almost none of it shipped with an air conditioning unit inside the shipping container. And that, apparently, makes all the difference.

Which is one reason why most of the big breweries open up localized breweries to make their beer. Like Japanese beers such as Kirin, Asahi, and Sapporo? It’s brewed in North America by Molson and Anhueser-Busch. Foster’s? Nope, that didn’t come from down under, but rather from up over: it’s made in Canada. The same goes for Beck’s, Heinekin, Bass, and many other “foreign” beers.

Which gives some incredulity when you see “imported” on some beer labels. It’s not lying; it’s imported. But likely from Canada.

I always liked drinking foreign beer at home because it gave me a taste of the world, a bit of travel on my palate, knowing it was made half a world away by guys (and gals) who toiled over the beer making process. But I guess I just failed to read the fine print on the back of the label that says it was made in a not-so-distant land.

I turned to beer expert and widely published writer, Evan Rail for an explanation. “Big industrial breweries usually have one reason for everything they do: to maximize profits,” said Rail who is the author of “Good Beer Guide: Prague & the Czech Republic,” and the Kindle singles “Why Beer Matters” and “In Praise of Hangovers.” “Beer is heavy. Shipping it can be really expensive. And shipping it under refrigeration – which a good beer really deserves – adds even more to the cost.”

But does it change the flavor? Does it destroy any sort of “terroir” that the beer would have had if it was still brewed in the land for which it originally hailed?

Rail says: not really. “Heineken, for example, really shouldn’t be any different when it is brewed in Canada: modern industrial brewing is so incredibly precise that the beer should taste almost exactly the same – at least within the occasional variations for the brew in its place of origin. This is more true for industrial lagers like Heineken and American Budweiser, which are relatively flavorless anyway.”

Interestingly, some previously smaller breweries are getting into the game. Brooklyn Brewery is building a facility in Sweden to make beer. San Diego’s Stone Brewery has been, according to Rail, trying to build a brewery in Europe for a few years now.

The best thing you can do, whether you’re home or traveling, is to drink whatever brew is made nearby.

Rail puts it nicely: “In terms of cost, taste and the environment, there’s really no substitute for drinking local beer.”

[Photo courtesy of deege@fermentarium.com via Flickr]

Low-Brow Wine-Cellar Hopping in Moravia

Getting away from cities. Folks in costumes. Plenty of cheap wine to go around. If this concept frightens you already, you might as well stop reading now.

Most people visiting the Czech Republic–some 8 million annually–come only to Prague. For those trying to get away from all those tourists, I suggest heading to the south eastern part of the country: the wine growing region of Moravia. September is a great month to go because the wine harvest is in full-swing and wine-tastings readily available.

I am not going to lie to you. Don’t expect Napa Valley or Bordeaux. Don’t even bother with the red wines. Too cold for them. The whites, however, range from Pinot Blancs to Rieslings, and are generally very good. Above all, the wine cellars are all different and their owners tend to be generous, eclectic types.

You can also do a bicycle tour of Czech/Moravian wineries. Just remember as of last year, you can actually get a ticket when riding your bicycle drunk in the Czech Republic. Thankfully, no “open container” laws, yet.

The Birthplace of the Dollar

Not many people know this, but the “dollar” (and lager beer, but that’s another story) had it’s origins in the lands of what is now the Czech Republic. The word “dollar” is actually from the German word “taler.” The taler was the official currency in the Holy Roman Empire from the mid-16th century until the mid-19th century, and spread throughout the world, getting adopted as currency as far as Arab lands.

The word “taler” was a shortened form of the name of a Bohemian town, Joachimsthal, where great veins of silver were discovered in the 15th or 16th century. Joachimsthal (now Jachymov) was the main source of the silver coin, “thaler,” later “taler.” Of course, many years later, the name was adopted as the “dollar.” (Try it yourself: say it out loud.)

Much later, Jachymov was also found to have some naturally-occurring radium below ground, which, combined with hot springs in the area, helped make it a spa town, where people would “take the waters” to cure common ailments. The town is still a spa town, but there’s no focus on radioactive cures anymore…but the water is still hot!

Literary Gadling: Goethe’s Spa Romance

As another tip in my irregular series of literary travel destinations, I suggest visiting Marianske Lazne (aka Marienbad, in German), a spa town in Western Bohemia (Czech Republic), which Johann Wolfgang Goethe used to frequent in the 1820’s.

Goethe, a German poet and novelist, most famous for “Faust”, used to come here to relax …although some sources say that he actually came here to get treated for syphilis. It is peculiar to imagine how a hot mineral bath would cure venereal disease, but even more peculiar is that people actually came to this disease-laden place to seek romance. It was here where the 73-year old Goethe fell in love with the 18-year old baroness, Ulrike von Levetzow. He wanted to marry her but , shockingly enough, she rejected him. Instead, he wrote the “Trilogy of Passion” for her.

Marianske Lazne, smaller and more authentic than Karlovy Vary, still has the feel of a town frequented by the royalty, although nowadays you are more likely to see a busload of German pensioners than beautiful baronesses. The town and its numerous spas have been restored and it is still a great place to sip mineral waters, take baths and, of course, munch on the famous spa wafers. Thankfully, more effective medication for STDs have been discovered.