Beer in Prague, 1958

Detail of 1958 Prague transit map.

Among the various piles of crap useful things that we hoard collect, there’s an ever-growing stack of old tourist guidebooks, including a 1958 guide to Prague, from the Czechoslovakian state tourism board. Here’s an abridged version of the section that caught our eye this weekend.

Prague Breweries and Beer-houses

And still our acquaintance with Old Prague would not be complete if we did not visit the places where the citizens of Prague used to go to quaff a tankard of foaming ale or a glass of wine. Innumerable are the beer and wine taverns in Prague. Many of them are of ancient standing. Of the old breweries (of which there were for instance in Dlouhá ulice alone no less than twelve) only two still survive. The older of these is the brewery “u Tomáše”, in the Malá Strana. Today nobody could count how many barrels of excellent black beer have been drunk here since the time of Charles IV, when the Augustinian monks brewed their first hops.

[…]

The counterpart to the St Thomas Brewery is the brewery on the New Town side of the river, “U Fleků”, of which we first hear in the 15th century. More perhaps than any other beer-house in Prague, “U Fleků” lives in Czech literature and has become immortal as the bohéme who frequented it at the turn of the century.

[…]

We must only add that in Prague there are several modern breweries, of which the largest is the Smíchov Staropramen — which takes us unto Prague of the middle of the 20th century where, in an up-to-date alchemist’s kitchen, hops and malts are converted into beer, the traditional Czech beverage.

And so, let’s raise our bedewed and froth-topped glasses and drink to this city that also provides so well for man’s material wants!

The Global Aspect of Alterno-beer

Detail from a sign reading Praha, Prague, Praga, Prag.

Zak Avery’s latest blog post touches on the links between British and American brewing and how that has contributed to a ‘craft beer culture’. (The penultimate paragraph is particularly perceptive.)

Earlier this week, we set about trying to identify key turning points in the development of what we’re calling (for the moment) an ‘alterno-beer culture’ in the UK and, although we pondered the issue of cultural exchange, weren’t able to pinpoint many specifics.

Surely, though, the development of cheap trans-Atlantic flights from the seventies onwards; the opening up of Prague after the fall of Communism; and the birth of Brussels as a tourist destination with the coming of Eurostar, must all have contributed to a broadening of people’s beery horizons.

It’s certainly fascinating how many brewers, from all over the world, have official biographies which contain variations on this sentence: “Their interest in beer had originally been fired by a visit to Belgium in 1980.” (In this case, that’s beer writer Michael Jackson describing the founders of US brewery Ommegang.)

Of course, the only beer that tastes better than the free stuff is that which you drink on holiday, but isn’t it also natural to take for granted what you have around you? In our case, it took German and American beer to jolt us into really appreciating straightforward British ales, as per Zak’s Australian Chardonnay analogy.

Memorable beers #7 – Like, really cheap and really strong!

A tram in Prague.

By Boak.

Sixth-form history trip to Prague, some time in the nineties; I’m all Doc Martens and shapeless homemade jumpers, as are my friends. Staying in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of town, in the middle of a huge housing estate, we decide to hit the bar and buy lots of bottles to drink in our dormitory.

I have no idea what beer it was but, at the time, two things struck me: first, that it was absurdly cheap – around 20 pence a bottle – and, secondly, that it was 10%. Ten! Three times as strong as Foster’s! We were all amazed by this but also pleasantly surprised to wake up the next day without enormous hangovers. We put this down to the amazing quality of the beer, coz, like, it’s all the additives in beer that gives you the hangovers, innit?

I maintained the daft belief for the next decade that you could drink vast quantities of strong Czech and German beer without feeling the pain the next day because it was ‘cleaner’.

With my subsequently acquired beer geek hat on, it seems obvious today that the ‘10% beer’ was no such thing but rather a ‘desitka’ (10 degrees Balling) and so much more likely to have been around 3-4% ABV.

How many British students have imagined themselves into a drunken stupor on three bottles of weak lager because they’ve made the same mistake?

Inspired by a memory of a taste

Inside U Fleku, Prague.

As we neared the end of the lager brewing season (the point when our utility room stops being cold) we decided to make something dark, and the beer that came to mind — what we found ourselves craving — was the one at U Fleku in Prague.

We did some research online and found a few recipes, all wildly different, and cross-referenced them to come up with the following.

Malt: 4kgs Weyermann’s Premium Pilsner Malt (EBC 3-5); 0.5kg Munich Malt (EBC 20); 0.5kg Crystal; 0.3kg Chocolate (EBC 500).
Hops: 50g Pioneer 9.4% (90 mins); 50g Liberty 3.6% (20 mins); 50g Liberty 3.6% (5 mins).
Yeast: White Labs WLP800.
Notes: single decoction mash.

Without going into tons of detail, this all worked very nicely but, when we took it out of secondary fermentation ready to bottle, our hearts sank: it in no way resembled U Fleku. It had that homebrew smell and taste; it was too pale; it was like a crappy English bitter.

We put five litres into a polypin and dry-hopped it, hoping to rescue at least a portion. The rest we bottled, just in case a miracle might occur…

The first glimmer of hope came when we tapped the polypin and, despite a lingering ‘homebrewness’, found it kind of moreish. We drank the lot. Surely, though, this was just the dry-hopping at work, making the best of a bad lot?

Then, last night, with low expectations, we opened the first bottle and were delighted to find that a transformation had taken place. In an appropriately Mittel-European handled glass, it looked darker, clear as a bell and healthy red-brown. The head was like  meringue. Tasting it didn’t quite take us back to U Fleku, but it certainly made us feel that, if we were to go outside, a tram might be passing, on its way to a grand square somewhere nearby.

The moral of the story? Er… bottle it anyway and hope for the best?

We asked Velky Al of Fuggled fame for an appropriately Czech name and he suggested “Odštěpek” which he tells us means “a chip off the old block”. Thanks, Al!

Czech waiters aren't that bad

Perhaps living in London, one of the rudest cities on Earth, has given us a twisted perspective, but it seems to us that Czech waiters are getting a bad rep. Here’s a typical comment from a 2004 column in the Independent:

I thought French waiters were rude until I went to Prague. I saw a bullet-headed Czech waiter terrorise a French family, who asked if they could have half a meal for a small child without paying the full price. “Is not possible,” the waiter repeated over and over. “Is not possible. You better go now.” Whether this is Czech behaviour or post-Soviet behaviour I’m not sure, but the phrase “Is not possible” seems to be the motto of all Czech restaurants, hotels and taxi firms

On our recent holiday, we had geared ourselves up for sullen indifference at best; Fawltyesque rudeness at worst. Would we get shouted at? Insulted? Ignored?

In short, no. We found all but two waiters fairly friendly. A couple of the better ones were, well, downright cheerful — almost as if there was a spark of genuine human feeling behind their professional smiles.

It might have helped that we’d mustered a few words of Czech (“Hello”, “two beers, please”, “thank you very much”).

Of course, another possibility is that, having noted the uniform disgust with which their manners are regarded across the internet and print media, some of Prague’s bar managers and landlords have had a word with their staff:

“OK, impromptu staff meeting… I’ve had a crazy idea. I thought we’d try making our customers feel comfortable and happy here. Apparently, that goes down well. Weird, I know, but there you go. Let’s give it a try, see how it pans out.”

Pilsner Urquell: control subject?

Another Prague post we didn’t get round to putting up at the time…

On our first night in Prague, we grappled with a complex logic puzzle at the central station: how to buy an 18 crown tube ticket with a 2000 crown note, when everything is shut? It took us nearly an hour to make it to our hotel, by which time we were very grumpy indeed.

Fortunately, the pub across the road (U Ceskeho Lva) happened to serve Pilsner Urquell ‘tankova’. Tankova dispense is some complicated arrangement where the nasty gases used to pressurise the beer don’t come into contact with the beer itself, but push it out of a bag, resulting in a rather gentle, natural carbonation. It’s also unpasteurised, unlike the usual product. Nice. We sank several pints very easily and a bit too quickly.

It tasted just fantastic to us.

Five nights later, having made a whistle-stop tour of as many pubs and breweries as we could, we’d got a better handle on Czech beer, so when we returned for one final pint of tankova PU, we weren’t as blown away. It seemed a bit clinical; rather sharp; one dimensional. Where was the fruitiness; the body; the yeasty complexity of all those other beers we’d tried?

For all that, it’s still a great beer, and one we’ll continue to seek out in London. Our home city is a hard place to get decent pale lager, hence our enthusiasm for Meantime’s products, Moravka, Budvar and Urquell – and, for that matter, our tolerance for Staropramen.

You make the most of what you’ve got, right? And perception of quality is relative.

For more on tankova beers, this post by Pivni Filosof is very informative, as is Evan Rail’s Czech beer guide.

Prague pub roundup

It’s been a busy month or so since we got back from our travels — so busy we haven’t got round to mentioning all of the fascinating pubs and breweries we visited in Prague.  So, a quick summary is in order.

Straight after U Fleku, we headed to the Novomeststky Pivovar, probably the second most touristy place in Prague.  It was very empty, and had quite a dismal atmosphere as result.  The beer was great, though — very yeasty — so much so that it smelled like rising rye bread.  We completed our touristy trio by popping into the legendary U Medvidku.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get into the ‘pivovar’ bit, where you go to get the well-regarded Oldgott Barrique on tap.  We settled for a bottle of the same in another section, which tasted a bit sour and watery. Not really worth the bother.  The boring old Budvar on tap was great, though!

The two most interesting brewpubs took a bit more effort to get to.  Although Klasterny Pivovar Strahov isn’t that far from the Castle, it is up a ruddy great hill.  The beer and the food is a tad pricy by Czech standards, but we’d say it was worth paying the extra for.  On tap was a tmavy and the ‘jantar’ (amber), which was one of our favourite beers of the holiday.  It was almost like a British ale in its bitterness and fruitiness.  Lovely stuff.

Out in the suburbs, Pivovar U Bulovky is worth the trip for a lively and cosy atmosphere (although there’s a very scary waitress) and great beer.  Can’t really see the coach parties rocking up to this place, although we thought we spotted a few other beer geeks, notebooks and beer guides in hand.  U Bulovky offer a good lezak and a lovely polotmavy (amber), as well as a changing range of other beers. The ‘ale’ was more interesting in the fact of its existence than its flavour though — definitely a few too many pear drops going on.

One other pub we have to mention is Baracnicka Rychta, up a side street in Mala Strana.  It offers excellent beers from the Svijany brewery, the nutty “red” being the highlight.  We ate a lot of nakladany hermelin there, and felt very contented with the world.

Apologies for the lack of appropriate accents.  Life’s too short.

Beers of the Year

An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London
An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London

This year, we’ve been all over the place, including almost a full month in Germany, so we’ve had plenty of opportunity to stretch our palates (corrective surgery scheduled for the New Year). After some bickering in the pub, and in no particular order, here are the 10 beers we’ve tried and enjoyed the most in 2008.

  1. Uerige Alt — like a British ale, but not, thanks to some subtle, intangible quality of the yeast and the wonderful, alien manners and customs of the Duesseldorf pub scene.
  2. Oakham Hawse Buckler — dark, strong, heavy, hoppy as Hell, with that combination of chocolate orange/coffee and grapefruit people either love or hate.
  3. Zywiec Porter — was this sticky, treacly Baltic porter as good as we thought, or were we just delighted to finally get our hands on it after a couple of years hunting?
  4. Brewdog Punk IPA — smart marketing means we’ll be seeing this being swigged from the bottle by trendy types all over the country by next Christmas. And a good thing too, as it’s full of flavour and full of life.
  5. SternBrau-Scheubel dunkel-rauch — the highlight of the first Zeitgeist beer festival, organised by Stonch and Biermania, was this smoky, amber wonder which was so good, we drank them dry.
  6. Mahrs Brau Ungespundete — our return trip to Bamberg was a bit of ticking session but this is one beer of which we wanted second-helpings: dark, cloudy, spicy and liquorice-like.
  7. Vollbier, Brauerei Meister, Unterszaunsbach — this dark, ale-like dark German beer tasted great, although that might have been something to do with the fact we’d trekked over most of Franconia to get to it, and because the lady in the pub was nice to us…
  8. U Fleku, Prague — treacly sweet and fruity sour, the black beer here is a wonder; shame the pub’s such a world-class hole.
  9. Kout na Sumave desitka, Prague — we’d never have found this one ourselves — Velky Al recently described is as the best lager in the Czech republic.  Haven’t had enough Czech beers to compare (can one ever?) but this was a beautiful easy-drinker with an impressive hop flavour.
  10. Frueh Koelsch (but not out of a bottle) — we weren’t that impressed when we first tried Frueh at the brewery tap in Cologne, but have now been back twice — it’s so subtle and so perfect that it’s become our favourite whenever we’re passing through Cologne.

Velky Al has been rounding up his beers of the year, which is where we nicked the idea what inspired us.

U Fleku lives up to expectations

From cool back street beer bars to the greatest tourist trap in the world — U Fleku.

The first time I came to Prague, I was on a school trip in the mid-nineties. My well-travelled history teacher pointed it out to us and said that it was the best pub in the world.

The second time I came to Prague, I was with a lot of Polish students, and we therefore spent most of the time looking for places where we could get a pint for 15 crowns or less. U Fleku was not on the agenda.

The third time I came to Prague, in 2003, I was with Bailey, and we actually got through the door. We weren’t beer geeks at the time, but it’s in all the tourist books anyway, and I’d remembered what my history teacher said. We took one look at the hundreds of German tourists, the oompah band and the sneery waiters, and fled.

This time, we were determined to give it a go, having read up on it from various beer sources and having consulted our resident Prague experts. We picked Monday during the day to avoid the madness. However, it’s never too early for oh-so-friendly accordion players and waiters bearing trays of Bechorovka. Everyone seemed to know about the “free shots” scam (they’re not free) but that didn’t stop a waiter coming round every five minutes to try again. And they’re bloody persistent, too.

Which is all a big pity, as the beer is absolutely gorgeous, definitely one of my all time favourites. I was reminded of Fuller’s London Porter, with its mix of treacly sweetness and fruity sourness. Lovely, lovely stuff. It’s a shame we could only put up with the awful pushy, sleazy atmosphere for the time it took to drink two rounds.

Boak

Republika at the Czech National Museum

Part of the recreation of a between-the-wars village pub at the Czech National Museum
Part of the recreation of a between-the-wars village pub at the Czech National Museum

You have to do something between beers when you’re on holiday in Prague. We ended up at the Czech National Museum because (a) we’re big swots and (b) it was open. Expecting grumpy staff, dusty trilobites and grubby old paintings, we were delighted to find instead a fantastic special exhibition on the history of the First Czechoslovak Republic, from 1918 to 1938.

The highlight for us, of course, was the room celebrating the traditional village pub.

Early 20th century beer bottles, glasses and advertising surrounded an antique bar with two pumps. Some of the brands on display are long gone; others are still around. There was a lot of German as well as Czech in evidence.

The accompanying text explains how village pubs worked. Tables were reserved for smallholders, who were VIPs. Allotment owners (the scum of the Earth, apparently) “sat in a corner somewhere”. There was no food, except perhaps a pickled sausage or pretzel. If you really needed to eat, the landlord’s wife would bring down leftovers from their evening meal. Bigger villages had different pubs, one for each social group.

It was not uncommon for smallholders to drink away the value of their farm in a session. Blimey. Big sessions? Expensive booze? Or just really crappy farms?

The Museum is that big grey building at the top of Wenceslas Square that looks as if it ought to be the seat of government. The exhibition runs until March 2009. Arguably the most astounding exhibit is a set of blood-spattered medals Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was wearing when he was assassinated, kicking off World War I.