Roman Halbhuber, bearded and six foot three, strode out to greet me as I drove through a pine branch gateway, past a flag sporting a flying horse with a beer keg torso. “Welcome to Free Land of the Vogelsang,” he said, and handed me a cold Budvar.
I had motored to Ranch Vogelsang, a trekkers’ lodge in the Czech Republic near Šmava National Park, after a tour of the Budweiser Budvar brewery. The American beer Budweiser was named after the world-famous style perfected here, in Bohemia’s vast expanse of rolling hills, verdant pine forests, and soaring church steeples. But until very recently, that was about as close as Americans could get to the Czech original. Now craft brewers like Lagunitas in California and Stoudt’s in Pennsylvania are creating fine examples of pilsner—golden, bitter, clean-tasting beer that has been “lagered,” or cold-stored, for smoothness. Considered the hardest beer in the world to perfect, it can take a lifetime to hone the beer’s color, effervescence, balance, smoothness, and crispness. Bohemians have had since 1842 to get it right. And here, every other town (and at least one trekker’s lodge) boasts a local brewery, each with its own flavorful hops.
That night, while Halbhuber and I cooked up a batch of home-brewed pilsner, he explained his vision for the lodge. Vogelsang, he said, would someday be its own, independent country, a nation dedicated to “good friends, good times, and good beer.” He’d even printed up money and fashioned a passport stamp. So as I worried about what U.S. Customs officials would think of my trip to Vogelsang, Halbhuber raised his glass and toasted the first (but certainly not the last) American to visit. Na zdraví! —Christian DeBenedetti
How to Get There: Ĉeské Budějovice, home of Budweiser Budvar, is an easy three-hour train trip from Prague. Vogelsang lodge and saloon, on the German border, has its own mini-brewery (a converted chapel) and sits alongside hiking-friendly Šumava National Park (from $27; vogelsang.cz). Stateside, Whole Foods carries all manner of good pivo (beer), including Lagunitas Czech Style Pilsner, Stoudt’s Pils, and Czechvar—Budvar’s court-enforced alias in the U.S. ( czechvar.com).