These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

A Thousand Years of Beer

Slovakia has long been and remains an important producer of barley, the main ingredient in beer.

Text by Tom Philpott

    An old Bratislava brewery
 An old Bratislava brewery
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

Slovakia's Beer Industry operates under the long and proud shadow cast by the Czech Republic's Bohemian region. "What we produce in Slovakia are essentially Pilsen-style beers," says Ján Čerkala, production manager of Šariš brewery in Eastern Slovakia referring to Bohemia's most famous beer town.

But that doesn't mean that Slovakia doesn't have a long tradition of beer making. As early as the 11th century, Slovak serfs were home brewing beer from hops and barley grown in their backyards. Alas, that state of affairs didn't last long. Feudal authorities, sniffing a lucrative market, banned home brewing and set up officially licensed breweries in towns, which were fed by the tithes serfs had to pay in hops and barley. Beer-loving serfs then had to buy their favorite beverage from these breweries, which acted as little monopolies in each region. This probably explains why beer, while now quite popular in Slovakia, for centuries played second fiddle to home distillates such as slivovica (plum brandy) in the hearts of many Slovaks.

But beer production continued, mainly geared to town dwellers. Among the first towns to claim exclusive brewing rights was Podolínec, which by 1292 acted as the sole producer and seller of beer within a mile of its borders. By the 15th century, virtually every free town had its own municipal brewery.

The Catholic Church, too, played a role in Slovakia's beer history. Benedictine monks were great lovers of beer, and they imposed a malt levy on tenants who rented their land. A document from 1247 reveals that one Benedictine monastery even demanded finished beer as a levy from its tenants. As in Belgium, clergymen sometimes produced beer themselves; in 1297, a fraternity of monks in the Spiš region gained the area's exclusive beer license.

Another great center of beer activity was in the northern mining regions - no great surprise, given that these areas had been colonized by Germans as early as the 12th century. By the 15th century, Banská Štiavnica, Kremnica, and Banská Bystrica all had booming beer industries to go along with their world-beating mining operations.

Like almost everything else in the Hungarian Kingdom, beer-making declined in the 16th century as Turkish aggression and the growing economic importance of the Americas impeded the economy. But it rebounded strongly in the 19th century. New technologies such as the steam engine and artificial cooling revolutionized the beer industry throughout Europe. Bohemian breweries such as Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen were among the first to adapt these technologies and use them to make great beer. Pilsner Urquell started making beer in 1842; by 1857, a new breweries using similar methods opened in Košice; Bratislava, Nitra, and other towns quickly followed suit. This is when Slovak beer took on its distinctly Czech style.

With the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the influence of the Bohemian style on Slovak beer became complete. When the breweries nationalised after the post-war rise in Communism, the main technical school for budding brewers, the one from which breweries throughout the Republic recruited for their top positions, was in Prague.

It's also important to note that Slovakia has long been and remains an important producer of barley, the main ingredient in beer. By 1894, Slovak territory - particularly its southwest region - was producing more than a third of Greater Hungary's barley yield. Slovak barley has long been prized for its high starch content - meaning that it tends to create rich, hearty beers. Even today, Heineken, the world's fourth-largest beer maker, produces most of its malted barley for the entire Central Europe region in Hurbanovo.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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