The most peculiar rumor has long been shared throughout Czechia. You hear it everywhere. But whether it is based on anything more than the usual diffuse Bohemian paranoia no - one can really say. The rumor is simply this: that Czech beer is radioactive.
The reason is simple enough.
Czechoslovakia did its bit for socialism by mining uranium; and the methods used left something to be desired from an ecological point of view.
It is hard to imagine it now, but many of the people involved in Soviet-bloc heavy industry lived under conditions that have not existed in the West for a century; unbreathable air, devastated, tree-less landscapes, headache causing concrete, chemical dust and soot over everything, the sky brown or purple at noon... and the level of industrial pollution was correspondingly high.
This was Uncle Joe Stalin's special personal brand; increase heavy industrial production at all costs, concentrating on production with a high military value. In Siberia, say, they probably thought they could do as much damage to the environment as they wanted, since the largest and filthiest complex would still seem like a tiny dot in a measureless wasteland.
But even on this huge Soviet scale they succeeded in seriously disrupting the balance of nature. With a vast expenditure of time and money, and with an awe-inspiring display of the superiority of Soviet scientific methods, The Aral Sea was poisoned and drained. Poisoned first, that is, and drained afterwards.
The result has been the creation of a gigantic poisoned swamp where nothing can grow; whereas the rather pleasant sea-side towns that had grown up while the water was still there are left perched on crumbling cliffs, from where they can survey the cracked and sterile and sterile bed of the former sea. It was done to improve the local agricultural conditions, of course, and is a development feat worthy of the World Bank itself.
The radioactive beer is a sort of minor Bohemian Aral Sea situation. One of the methods used to produce uranium went like this: First, drill a long hole. Then pump millions of gallons of sulphuric acid down the hole. Count to ten. Pump the now radioactive sulphuric acid out of the hole again, and use chemical processes to extract the uranium that is now dissolved in the acid.
This means that you can get uranium salts out of the ground without having to dig actual mines, and it's a much cheaper and quicker option. But you are left with the small problem of what to do about the radioactive sulphuric acid sludge that is left behind.
In Czechoslovakia though, the answer was simple; just pump it into the fields and the rivers and forget about it. For mining uranium was a high-priority task, and no one was going to start asking questions.
The main ingredient of beer is water.
With similar standards of industrial technique applied to public sanitation and the water supply system, people are, well, rather careful about drinking tap water, especially now that a more health conscious ideal has been imported from the West; and breweries have long taken similar precautions, getting their water fresh from country springs.
Indeed, with brewing so long established in the Czech lands, some of them have had the same sources for centuries.
Well, it is alleged that the water from these springs has become slightly radioactive, and that this is being passed to the beer. The whole water table has been contaminated with the uranium salts by the decades long dumping of acidic sludge, that is, and even the springs that have slaked the thirst of Czech beer drinkers for five hundred years are not immune.
The half-life of Uranium-238 is 4,500,000,000 years (4.5 billion years), and so it doesn't look like a problem that's going to be solved overnight. The beer companies deny it, of course.
But then they would, wouldn't they?
Are some brands worse affected than others? No one seems able to produce reliable tests results to settle it one way or the other. The many dedicated beer drinkers in the country are on the whole trying to ignore it, apart from a few inevitable jokes about Červený Chernobyl and the like; but what the effect will be on exports is quite another question.
It looks as if the buck will get passed to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is ultimately responsible for beer production, but whether they will want to fuel the fire by issuing an official statement remains to be seen.