Beer is king and space is limited in a classic old Prague pub, writes Peter de Graaf.

Wizened old regulars debate the latest corruption scandal, which part of the pig is tastiest, or how much cheaper beer was in the old days.

The Czech pub is much more than a place to sit around and drink beer.

It's also a home away from home for a nation long forced to live in cramped apartment blocks; its an egalitarian and thoroughly democratic institution where writers, labourers, tourists and even the president can bump elbows and argue the issues of the day.

A classic example is the pub U Zlateho Tygra (The Golden Tiger, named for the gilded cat crouching over the lintel) in the heart of Prague's old town. The long wooden tables and a few dimly lit alcoves are packed within minutes of the 3pm opening.

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There's an instant buzz of conversation as wizened old regulars debate the latest corruption scandal, which part of the pig is tastiest, or how much cheaper beer was in the old days.

There's no such thing as a table to yourself so you squeeze in anywhere you find a space. The result is an instant set of highly opinionated drinking companions. Whether you can understand them is another matter.

Tourists aren't turned away but they're not exactly encouraged either.

My request for a photo was greeted with a grunt of assent and a response that translated: "As long as you don't want some bullshit dhinterview."

U Zlateho Tygra has been the haunt of some of the Czech Republic's great writers and was where the late President Vaclav Havel took his US counterpart Bill Clinton to see a real pub. Apparently Clinton had three Pilsners and skipped his jog the next morning.

Moves to close the pub in the 1990s provoked a national outcry and a petition signed by thousands, including Havel. The Tiger survived.

The president was not available so I asked Simon Gill - who traded Liverpool for what was then Czechoslovakia 25 years ago - about the appeal of the traditional Czech pub.

If beer was a university discipline, Gill would have a PhD.

"When I first came here the pubs were fairly rough, but I enjoyed going to them. They showed society off-guard, not as it wanted to be seen," he said. "I like the masculine bonhomie of the pub. It's a repository of a kind of bedrock decency, timelessness and honesty. You go to these old Czech pubs and you have the feeling that you're somewhere that's pretty much untouched by time, that you're tapping into a kind of essential Czechness ... that you've struck a nerve deep within this society."

Later I share a table, worn smooth by age, with IT consultant Krystof Zacek who, like most Czechs, is an expert on the history of his national drink. While I sampled a frothing glass of Pilsner Urquell, the original lager invented in the city of Pilsen in 1842, Zacek told me the climate of Bohemia, the western half of the Czech Republic, made it unsuitable for wine-making. Bohemia and beer, on the other hand, have gone together since the Middle Ages.

"In the past, beer was barely considered an alcoholic drink. It was a high-energy drink for hard-working people in a cold climate. It has always been cheaper than wine, which was a drink for the privileged, for nobility," Zacek said.

Beer is still the cheapest drink in the pub - even mineral water will cost you more - but its popularity goes beyond simple economics, to a dark place deep within the psyche of this self-doubting nation.

Blame their history.

"Czech people are desperate for something to be proud of, and Czech beer really is not bad. It's something we can be proud of, and it distinguishes us from the rest of the world ... Plus Czechs have been oppressed through almost all their history, so they drank as a kind of resistance, way of escaping and surviving," Zacek said.

The statistics seem to prove him right: alcohol consumption doubled after the 1968 Russian invasion and the spirit-numbing era of Soviet "normalisation" that followed.

Though beer consumption has fallen since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Czechs still lead the world: 132 litres per head per year, well ahead of the second-placed Germans on 107 litres.

New Zealand ranks a lowly 21st place with 70 litres.
These days you hope the Czechs are imbibing not to escape, but because they know they're lucky enough to live in a country that makes some of the world's best beer.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Emirates A380s fly daily from Auckland to Prague with a direct connection at Dubai. Economy Class return fares start from $2119.