It’s burčák season in Prague! Try it, with caution

This weekend I was in Prague, happy to be reminded, thanks to signs hung in pretty much every bar and cafe window, that it’s once again bur?ák season!

Huh? you say.

From now into November, most drinking holes outside of seedy herna, or gambling, bars will be offering bur?ák, which is barely fermented wine.

If Beaujolais is the French answer to early wine, bur?ák — pronounced, more or less, bore-chuck — is the Czechs’, though you really can’t compare the two. Some describe bur?ák as having a taste much like orange juice. The white version is cloudy in the glass (to me it looks like pear juice), and while I don’t get a lot of orange taste, it definitely reminds one of fruit. It’s sweet, somewhat refreshing, and very drinkable.

That’s why you’ve got to be careful: It’s very easy to overdue it on a drink that taste good and doesn’t appear to be that alcoholic (hey, it’s only partially fermented, right?)

Don’t let bur?ák’s sweet taste and benign appearance fool you. Glasses are still around 5-8 percent alcohol (though fully fermented wine usually hovers around 11-12 percent). And bur?ák is one of those odd drinks (actually, I can’t think of another one like it) that actually gets more alcoholic as it sits on the table. It is fermenting right in front of your eyes. So the pitcher that you gamely order up is going to be more alcoholic by the time you reach the bottom.

But that’s only one reason to be careful. Really, it is not a good idea to have so much of this stuff, uh, fermenting in your stomach. Now, people will tell you that it is a myth that bur?ák continues fermenting in the blood stream. Maybe it is scientifically impossible. But I know what my stomach feels like a few hours after 4-5 good-size glasses of the stuff. It’s unsettled, to put it mildly.

I don’t want to imply that bur?ák is some kind of unique drink; many European countries mark the early grape harvest with their own versions. In Germany, where I live, feder weisen, which is quite similar to bur?ák, is currently in most establishments. But bur?ák does have a unique taste, and if nothing else it’s a reminder of how, in Europe at least, we mark the change in seasons less by meteorological and arboreal observation as by the food and drink that begins showing up in the places where we like to eat and drink.

The stuff is here one day, and gone before you know it.