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Fantastic fourth

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It used to be that everyone was aiming for first place. But, today, the position of pride just might be fourth.

Or so it appears with the so-called čtvrtá pípa, or “fourth pipe”, a small but growing trend in pubs in Prague. While most bars here usually tap just three beers from one of the country’s well-known large producers, a growing number of bars have added a fourth tap – or “pipe” – to serve beers from independent brewers.

At Merenda in Žižkov, the first three taps pour familiar macrobrands such as Kozel and Gambrinus, while the fourth serves up rotating regional specialties like the hard-to-find yeast beer from Moravia’s Hukvaldy. At Smíchov’s U Buldoka pub, you can have a Pilsner Urquell – or you can order a ginger-wheat beer from South Bohemia’s Zvíkov brewpub. At První Pivní Tramway, you can sip Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus – or you can enjoy a beer such as Herold’s Bohemian Black Lager from the tap reserved for the country’s independents.

“It’s good for consumers because it allows them to try these regional beers without having to travel,” said Honza Kočka, owner of the microbrewery Pivovar Kocour Varnsdorf. His IPA, stout and other specialty beers have appeared on the fourth pipe of the Prague pub Tlustá Koala, where the other taps are devoted to well-known beers from the country’s second-largest producer, Staropramen. “And the fourth tap is good for small brewers, because it gives them a chance to get into pubs that are otherwise tied up by large breweries.”

The pubs are not just tied up by large breweries: In many cases, the big breweries actually own the taps themselves, meaning that pub and restaurant owners couldn’t serve another beer if they wanted to. Quite clearly, many don’t. After considering the huge expense of setting up and furnishing a restaurant or pub, many restaurateurs have said that the benefit of having a brewery supply the costly taps and pipes is a convenience that cancels out any disadvantage.

But for those who want to offer something different, the fourth pipe – so-called because it comes after the traditional lineup of one dark lager, one 10° pale lager and one 12° pale lager – offers a way around the problem. For the fourth pipe, most pub owners buy their own equipment, freeing themselves up to offer whichever beer they want. Some choose a constant offer of a type of beer that isn’t made by their regular suppliers, such as a yeast beer, wheat beer or ale. Many pubs follow the route charted by První Pivní Tramway, one of the first to employ a fourth tap, serving a constantly changing lineup of different kegs from different brewers.

The level of choice is still hardly at the calibre that it is in some other countries: Most pubs here still carry only one or two beers from industrial breweries, while Kočka notes that many cities abroad have bars with 20 or more beers on tap.

But the fourth pipe phenomenon is a remarkable improvement from just a few years ago, when craft beers like Hukvaldy, Zvikov and Herold had become nearly impossible to find in Prague.
At this point, there are about a dozen fourth-pipe pubs in Prague, though a few of those have found enough success to expand to sixth and even seventh pipes. And it’s not just that regional brewers use the fourth pipe to get their beers to Prague, as a few seem to have taken the fourth-pipe concept back home with them.

“There are now fourth-pipe pubs in Hradec Králové, Brno, Olomouc and Plzeň,” Kočka said. “So it’s spreading.”

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