Beer may be the drink of choice for Czechs — who, after all, consume the most in the world — but come September there’s another local favorite. And not only is its purity and sale controlled by the government, but drinkers can never be sure just how potent their glass will be.
Still, you’ll see eager people sipping burčák (pronounced boor-chalk), an alcoholic grape juice made during the wine-making process — even before noon on a workday. It’s sold at vinárny (wine bars) and vinotéky (wine shops), as well as at the city’s farmers markets. It’s also one of the highlights of vinobraní, annual festivals that showcase the best from the Czech Republic’s wineries, from the sunny wine-producing region of South Moravia to a few of Prague’s very own.
Burčák’s tangy, cider-like taste and cloudy, sedimentary appearance often lead people to think that it’s harmless juice. It’s not. Its alcohol content can clock in at anywhere between 1 percent and 10 percent, and it continues to keep fermenting in your stomach after you drink it — a perfect storm of sugar and yeast — so its strength can take you by surprise.
An old Czech adage says that one should drink as much burčák as they have blood, but vintners are quick to point out this should not be all in one sitting.
The boozy juice’s precise origins are unknown, but burčák has long held a place in Czech viticulture, even dating back to — and most likely long before — the time of Charles IV, whose deep interest in winemaking considerably helped the country’s vineyards. While similar versions are available in places like Austria, Hungary, Germany and France, a drink labeled “burčák” requires must (the pulpy juice from a freshly pressed grape) that’s exclusively from Czech or Moravian vineyards.
And that’s not the only restriction. Because of its fragile shelf life, the sale of burčák is only officially allowed between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30. The State Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority also tries to crack down on artificially enhanced burčák; last year, almost 14 percent of 51 samples taken failed the criteria, with the most common offenses including added water, sugar or the presence of synthetic dyes, according to a recent report by daily newspaper Lidové noviny.
The juice ‘should taste fruity’ — of grapes and definitely not apples.
Martin Beránek, head curator of the St. Klára Vineyards in Prague’s Troja district
A good burčák is one that is as fresh and natural as possible, explains Standa Soukup, co-owner of the Veltlin wine bar in Prague’s Karlín district, and made from grapes that start “fermenting spontaneously” and are grown without chemicals or additives, he adds.
So it’s important to know what to look out for when choosing a burčák, which comes in both red and white varieties (white is more common). Appearance is key, according to Martin Beránek, head curator of the St. Klára Vineyards in Prague’s Troja district. Reds should be a ruby or bright cherry color, and whites “should be light yellow to whitish in color, cloudy and nicely sparkling,” he says, adding that the juice “should taste fruity” — of grapes and definitely not apples.
Drinking burčák at the city’s vinárny is an intimate, laid-back affair — in stark contrast to Prague’s sprawling beer halls and rowdy beer gardens. Often it’s just a few tables in a cellar space. At Vinárna Náplavní, just off the embankment of the Vltava River, 200 ml of white burčák goes for a cool CZK 30 (about $1.40) and a takeaway liter for CZK 82 ($3.70). Pavel Maurer, a Czech food guru who organizes the Grand Restaurant Festival in Prague, recommends Blanicka, one of the city’s oldest wine bars, located right in Old Town, for a quality glass of burčák.
While smaller vinárny often pour wines from just a few choice vintners, the vinobraní festivals are a way to sample the best from South Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia. The biggest festivals take place in the wine region itself — the city of Znojmo even hosts an exclusive BurčákFest for hard-core enthusiasts — but there’s no shortage in Prague, either, and several are hosted by active vineyards. This year St. Klára boasts three types: a red from the Modrý Portugal varietal and two whites, Muller Thurgau and Chrupka bílá.
When armed with the facts about burčák — and perhaps a supplementary liter of water — it can be a refreshing way to discover another facet of Czech culture. But Soukup and Beranek both offered the same words of warning for thirsty visitors: “Don’t drink too much!”
Go There: Prague Wine Fests
There are many outdoor wine festivals that feature fresh Czech, Moravian and Silesian wines along with fresh burčák, local food specialties and live music and family entertainment. A few have passed us by, including Vinohrady (Sept. 14–15), Prague Vinobrani (Sept. 15–16) and St. Klara Vineyards, but there are still some left to look forward to:
- Grebovka Vineyards: Sept. 21–22 at Havlíčkovy sady (trams to stop Krymská). Free entry.
- Znojmo BurčákFest: Sept. 28–29 in Znojmo, South Moravia. Tickets CZK 100–810 ($4.50–$36.50) available through Ticketportal.cz.
- Karlstejn Vinobrani: Sept. 29–30 in Karlštejn, Central Bohemia (30 minutes by train from Prague). Free entry.
- Festival Jak Vino: Sept. 28–29 at Náplavka, Rašínovo nábřeží. Free entry.
Pro tip: If you can’t make the festivals, farmers markets are a good option. The Náplavka farmers market (Saturdays) is a short walk from Prague’s city center, and the market at Jiřího z Poděbrad Square (Wednesday to Saturday) is a few metro stops from downtown. Plus you can also load up on fresh produce, local baked goods and lunch.
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