The Czech Republic is known for one thing above all others – beer. And there’s a reason for that – green signs proudly announcing Staropramen or Pilsner Urquell hang outside every pub in the country, finding a $2 pint of fresh golden lager is stunningly easy, and the country’s citizens and their visitors consistently drink more beer per capita than any other country in the world. But there’s more to this country’s drinking tradition than pivo.
In the early fall, there is burčak, a young, still fermenting wine that is cloudy and deliciously sweet. Say you’ve taken the train out of the city for the day, to visit some 14th century ruin crumbling in the forest. Disembarking from the train, you follow the dirt road that runs parallel to the tracks, following signs that say hrad, castle. Outside of a small wooden house a woman stands with two huge vats of liquid, one a murky purple and the other the color of applesauce. Burčak, the sign says, 30 crowns per liter. You greet her, give her a handful of coins equivalent to $1.50, and in return she takes a huge plastic bottle and fills it to the brim with the sweet, bubbly nectar. You continue down the road, taking swigs of the delicious drink, enjoying the crispness of fall.
It is later in the year, and the weather has gotten colder, closer, and grayer. The cobbled streets and red roofs are still enchanting, but you crave warmth, camaraderie, and you begin to understand how drinking could become so important in a place like this. One particularly cold and gray day you are hiking in Moravia, and the fog is so thick and wet and cold that you are soaked through with chill. Through the mist a tiny wooden pub appears, and inside the yellow light and foreign shouting envelopes you with warmth. You order medovina and find yourself holding a glass mug of steaming honey mead. The hot fumes sting the inside of your nose, and when you take a sip, the slow spread of honeyed warmth throughout your chest dissolves the cold.
And now it is Christmas, and in the city square a giant tree sparkles. Smells of roasting pork, candied nuts, and potato pancakes drift out of the wooden booths that fill the square. It begins to snow, and the only sound is that of other people milling through the square, laughing. It is your last night, and so you head to the nearest booth and order svařak, hot mulled wine. You inhale the spicy sweetness that steams from the small Styrofoam cup. Slowly sipping the pungent wine, you stand in the center of the square and look up – up at the night sky filled with silent snow, up at the giant tree twinkling with light, up at the proud spires of the cathedrals, up at the world you’ve come to cherish so much. To no one in particular you raise your cup and toast, na zdravi! To you, Prague.
Svařak (Hot Mulled Wine)
Recipe adapted from Expats.cz
- .75L (1 bottle) red wine (use something cheap and fruity)
- 1-2 cinnamon sticks
- 5-8 whole cloves
- 1 small lemon, sliced
- sugar, to taste
Heat wine, cinnamon sticks, and cloves in a large pot over medium heat. Do not allow to boil, as the alcohol will burn off. Flavor with sugar and lemon slices after the wine has reached the desired temperature. You can also heat sugar with the wine and spices for a sweeter drink. If you are lucky enough to be in the Czech Republic, you can’t do better than using the svařak seasoning packets sold in nearly every grocery store!