The Most Dangerous Beverage in Prague

There’s a specter haunting Central Europe. A very quaffable, sweet-tasting specter, that is. And no, it’s not absinthe. This bibulously inspired drink is only around for a few weeks in September. Which means there’s much debauchery happening right now in the center of Europe. If, like me, you’re in the Czech capital this week, you’ll understand when I say that it’s the most dangerous beverage in Prague.

Meet Burcak [pronounced Bur-chahk], a Central European phenomenon where vintners take a batch of the young wine just after the grapes have been crushed, add sugar, and let it ferment a bit. The result is something that’s no longer grape juice yet not exactly wine. And it tastes dangerously close to an addictive juice concoction, which nearly ensures a hangover in the morning. As far as I can tell, it’s only available in the Czech Republic and Austria (in the latter it’s called sturm)

The word “burcak” is just starting to pop up in Prague right now, scrawled across chalkboards that hang outside wine bars. So if you’re in or heading to Central Europe, don’t miss the small window with which burcak is available. Burcak purists, however, will tell you it’s best drunk in southern Moravia, the main wine region of the Czech Republic, particularly in the town of Znojmo.

The last time I took a trip to the region, it was as if some alien intoxicant had overtaken an entire town. When my Czech friend Libor and I pulled into Mikulov, a small castle-topped town on the Czech-Austrian border, there were guys weaving down the tiny cobbled lanes, women vomiting into rubbish bins on the main square, and couples passionately disrobing each other behind trees. What was going on?

It wasn’t that there was something in the water to make the villagers both ill and amorous. It was the first day of the weekend-long annual burcak festival and the town was already collectively inebriated.

But besides its dangerously good taste, here’s how burcak is even more cause for alarm: There is a curse of burcak. While it only contains about five percent alcohol, it continues to ferment while inside your body. Despite the thoughts going through your head right now that some kind of yeast-reeking alien beast is going to explode through your stomach, it means that the alcohol level of the beverage you’ve been consuming the last three or four hours has grown to that of a normal, matured wine (about thirteen percent) while still in your body. Hence, the reason why this entire town of Mikulov was drunk on the day I arrived.

While I’m in Prague this week, I decided to seek out some burcak for myself. At one wine bar, situated next to The Globe, a pretentious and condescending (though I’m referring to the staff) English language bookstore and café, the burcak was overly sweet with a coarse texture. I still finished the half-liter jug, but was looking forward to finding something better. I found it at U Sudu, a cavernous wine bar that has always had a good reputation for good burcak. It didn’t disappoint. The “young wine” was smooth with a more subtle hint of sweetness. U Sudu, by the way, is only for serious drinkers, evidenced by its 9am opening time on most days.

I stumbled away from U Sudu, on my way to meet a friend for dinner. He had been, it turns out, drinking burcak as well. Which was good because he had no way of detecting just how intoxicated I may have been becoming from the still-fermenting burcak we’d already drunk.

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.