How to read a Slovak beer label

How does Plato fit into beer-drinking?

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: Gabriel Kuchta, SME)

This is an article from our archive of travel guides Spectacular Slovakia. It was written in 2004. For up-to-date information and feature stories, take a look at the latest edition of our Spectacular Slovakia guide.

It may look like Greek, but Slovak beer labels are actually easy-to-read sources of information, once you learn two key terms and one concept.

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You'll notice that most beer bottles in Slovak supermarkets have the word svetlé written on them. That's because Slovaks generally prefer light-coloured beer. But if you look around the shelf, you'll usually find a few bottles marked tmavé, which indicates a dark beer.

The concept you need to grasp involves the number that appears prominently on a Slovak beer label followed by a degree sign. The fact that state law requires this information shows remarkable sophistication on the part of Slovak beer drinkers. The number indicates specific gravity, measured in Plato units.

Put simply, specific gravity measures the density of pre-fermented beer, or wort. Wort consists of crushed germinated barley (malt) steeped in water. The higher the specific gravity, the more malt has been added, and the richer the beer will be, with a higher level of alcohol.

Most Slovak beers range between 10 and 12 degrees Plato, although some dark beers run as high as 16 degrees. By comparison, typical mass-market U.S. beers have about 6 Plato units. British beers such as India Pale Ale and Extra Special Bitter, as well as the German Oktoberfest, range from 12.5 to 15 degrees Plato. At the upper end, Belgian Tripples and English Imperial Stout reach 20 degrees Plato.

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To find the alcohol content of a Slovak beer, look for the number on the beer's back label next to the words "Obsah alkoholu min." Most beers of 10 degrees Plato contain 4 percent alcohol. Beers of 12 degrees Plato usually contain around 5 percent alcohol. The exact alcohol content depends on the amount of sugar from the malt that was converted into alcohol during fermentation.

How does Plato fit into this? The Greek sage did say: "It was a wise man who invented beer." But the Plato of Plato units' fame was actually a German engineer who perfected a tool for measuring specific gravity in fluids.

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