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.

Deciphering a Slovak Beer Label

It may all look like Greek at first, but Slovak beer labels are actually terse, easy-to-read sources of information - once you learn two key terms and one concept.

As you pore over the shelves of the local grocery, you'll notice that most bottles have the word svetlé on them. That's because Slovaks generally prefer light-coloured beer. However, look around a bit, usually toward the bottom of the shelf, and you'll find a few labels marked tmavé, which denotes dark beer.

The only other thing you'll need to know about is that number that appears prominently on labels, followed by a degree sign. The fact that this information is required shows remarkable sophistication on the part of Slovak beer drinkers, for this is the beer's specific gravity, measured in Plato units. In the U.S. and Great Britain, only home brewers and other hardcore beer nerds care about this.

However, it tells you a lot about the beer you're about to get. Put simply, specific gravity measures the density of the beer mixture before it has gone through the fermentation process. Pre-fermented beer is called wort, and consists of crushed germinated barley (malt) steeped in water, with hops added. The higher the specific gravity, the more malt has been added - and the richer and more alcoholic the beer will be.

Slovak beers typically range between 10 and 12 degrees Plato, although some dark beers such as Popper's Palatín product run as high as 16 degrees Plato. By way of comparison, mass-market U.S. beers typically have about 6 Plato units. British beers such as India Pale Ale and Extra Special Bitter, as well as the German Oktoberfest, range from 12.5 to 15 degrees Plato. At the upper end, Belgian Tripples and English Imperial Stout might be as high as 20 degrees Plato.

As for alcohol content, look at the fine print on the back label. After the words "Obsah alkoholu min." the minimum percentage alcohol content appears. Typically, beers of 10 degrees Plato are around 4 percent alcohol, while beers of 12 degrees Plato are around 5 percent alcohol. But this varies from beer to beer - depending on how much of the sugar from the malt has been converted into alcohol in the fermentation process.

And how does Plato fit into this? The Greek sage did declare that "It was a wise man who invented beer." But the Plato of Plato units fame was a certain German engineer who perfected the measurement of specific gravity in fluids.

- Tom Philpott

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

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