Pursuing Pivos in Prague

For reasons that are not completely obvious to me Czech beers have had less impact on  American brewers than beer styles from elsewhere in Europe. Have a look at the commercial examples listed with each of the four subcategories of Czech lager in the BJCP style guidelines and you won’t find many familiar names.  When I was preparing for the BJCP exam I had to reconcile myself to the fact that three of the four substyles were effectively out of my reach. When was the last time you saw a Czech Tmavé on tap at an American craft brewery?  Have you ever seen anyone ISO a Únětická 12° or a Kout na Šumavě Koutský tmavý special on a beer trading site? I realize that AB’s Budweiser was originally formulated to emulate a Czech beer of the same name, but comparing 21st century Bud to traditional Czech lagers is like comparing Eddie van Halen to Eric Clapton. Eddie might have been influenced by Slowhand, but good luck finding any semblance of the blues while listening to Hot for Teacher.

Czech beer may not have a big following in North America, but it’s much beloved in its homeland.  The average Czech downs 140 Liters of beer per year, far more than any other nation.  Prague is home to multiple beer museums, a brewery hotel, an ice pub, nearly thirty breweries/brewpubs, and countless bars.  Pilsen is the birthplace of pilsner, the world’s most emulated beer.  All of this makes the Czech Republic a dream destination for beer lovers the world over.  Unfortunately, European vacations are expensive, and while this recount of my recent three day stay in Prague is no substitute for the real thing, it is free of charge.

Czech Beer Vocabulary

Before we go any further let’s establish some necessary vocabulary, and touch on some common themes that one encounters when beercationing in Prague.  Ordering beer is not a complicated process in the Czech Republic. Most pubs and beer halls are tied houses, meaning that they only serve the beer of a single brewery, and most breweries only make a few beers.  The variety of Czech beer, such as it is, can be summed up with one word for the color and another for the strength.  Of these two the color descriptor—světlé (pale), polotmavé (amber), tmavé (dark)—is the most important [1].  The strength descriptor—výčepní (original gravity 7–10° Plato), ležák (original gravity 11–12° Plato), and speciální or special (original gravity >13° Plato)—are less important because many places simply list degrees Plato on the menu [2].  While Americans, including yours truly, tend to talk about Czech pilsner as a style, the term pilsner refers only to Pilsner Urquell within the Czech Republic.  The more general term for a “Czech pilsner” is světlé ležák, but quite frankly just about everywhere I went the servers just asked me if I wanted light or dark, unless they only had one beer, in which case “pivo, prosím” (beer, please) is all you need to know.

Not only is finding and ordering beer easy, I’m happy to report that it’s ridiculously affordable.  In most of the places I visited a 500 mL (17.5 ounces) mug of beer would set you back 45-50 Czech crowns, which translates to a little more than $2.  Even in the most touristic spots a pint of beer doesn’t get much pricier than $5.

For those interested in learning more about Czech beer than this post offers, I strongly encourage you to consult Jeff Alworth’s writings.  Czech beers and brewing techniques are described in detail in The Beer Bible and The Secrets of Master Brewers.  Reading his books did more than anything to prepare me for experiencing Czech beer firsthand.

Strahov Brewery Sign

 

U Medvídku Brewery-Hotel

When I was looking for a place to stay in Prague I stumbled across a place called U Medvídku Brewery-Hotel. When I saw that it was centrally located and not exorbitantly priced (roughly 120 Euros per night for a family room with breakfast included) I knew I’d found the ideal base of operations.  The brewing history of U Medvídku dates back to 1466, though the brewery was closed in communist times and the building fell into disuse.  The 21st century has seen a major revival that includes a reasonably large restaurant/pub on the ground floor, a small brewery that claims to be Prague’s smallest in the back, and a 45 room hotel in the upper floors.

Given this was my first stay at a brewery-hotel I was curious what the experience would be like. My head was filled with visions of a direct tap line to my room, aromatherapy diffusers filled with essential hop oils, and spent grain toast at breakfast.  Sadly, the reality was not quite so grand.  You do get a glass of beer at check in, a novelty that was much appreciated. The bathroom is stocked with travel size bottles of beer shampoo and body wash.  The walls are decorated with black and white photos of mustachioed men drinking beer and old timey brewing equipment.  The centuries old building did have a lot of character, but they may have taken the authentic recreation a bit far because the furniture, including the mattress in our room, had the feel of a throwback if not to the reformation, at least to the communist days.

The claim to be Prague’s smallest brewery seems legit, because every time I went to the pub and tried to order one of the house beers I was told they were out.  Fortunately, U Medvídku is one of the few Budweiser-Budvar tankovna pubs in Prague, so you can get über fresh Budvar here.  Budvar is known for insisting on exceptionally long lagering times, 90 days for their standard světlé ležák, and it shows in the exceptionally clean taste of the beer. U Medvídku offers both the světlé (light) and tmavé (dark) versions of Budvar, and both are worth trying.  If like me you are curious to try the house beers they do sell refrigerated bottled beers to hotel guests at the reception desk, which allowed me to try a couple of U Medvídku beers.  They have an unexpectedly fruity character from the yeast, despite being lagers (I think), and a fair bit of residual sweetness.  I had a peek in the brewery and I believe they are going for an old style approach to brewing, open fermentation tanks and lagering in wooden barrels.  It’s not too hard to imagine these might taste like beers of centuries past.  There is quite a bit of promotion of a beer called X33, which they claim is the world’s strongest beer.  Although at 12.6% abv it wouldn’t even qualify as the strongest beer in Ohio.  I decided to steer clear of that one.

On the whole, I’d say the great location, novelty, and presence of a good pub on the ground floor make up for drawbacks of the early 20th century furnishings.

Budvar Tanks
The tanks at U Medvidku that store the unpasteurized Budvar that they serve on draft.  You can see the polypropylene bags that hold the beer if you look closely.

Světlé Ležák from a Tankovna Pub

The birth story of the world’s first truly pale lager in 1842 is familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in beer.  It’s birthplace, the Czech city of Pilsen (or Plzen), lends its name to the world’s most popular style of beer.  I will describe my pilgrimage to Pilsen where they still brew Pilsner Urquell in a follow up post, but for now suffice to say the stuff you get in green bottles in the supermarket is no substitute for a pint of fresh Pilsner Urquell.  Short of going to the brewery, the best place to get a fresh pint of Czech lager is a tankovna pub, a place where they serve unpasteurized beer transported directly from the brewery in refrigerated trucks, where it is pumped into polypropylene bags.  The bag is kept in a pressurized tank that squeezes the bag from the outside forcing beer to the tap.  The concept, which bears more than a passing resemblance to wine in a box, is described this way on Pilsner Urquell’s website:

 

The beer that goes into the tanks is unpasteurized, meaning it must be drunk fresher than pasteurized beer—the shelf-life for tank beer is just three weeks from leaving the brewery, and only one week once the tank is first opened, so you can guarantee that a pint of tank Pilsner Urquell tastes as close to cellar beer as we can achieve.  That freshness means you get a fuller flavor and a deeper taste.

Before going any further, I should point out that Pilsner Urquell has been owned by various multinational brewing conglomerates since 1999.  The history of who owns Pilsner Urquell reads like the crib notes for the consolidation of massive brewing companies into even larger international conglomerates. Pilsner Urquell was first purchased by South African Breweries (SAB) in 1999.  In 2002, SAB purchased Miller brewing to form the brewery thereafter referred to as SABMiller. In 2016 AB-InBev purchased SABMiller, which necessitated the shedding of some brands, including Pilsner Urquell, to avoid running afoul of antimonopoly laws (and rightfully so). Pilsner Urquell is now owned by the Japanese brewery, Asahi.  The old Frank Zappa quote about needing a brewery and an airline to be a real country loses some of its charm when nearly all of the national breweries are owned by a handful of international corporations.

While it’s wise to take the marketing spin of multinational brewing conglomerates with a grain of salt, the notion of tank beer seems scientifically sound—fresh beer that isn’t pasteurized and is kept refrigerated from the bright tank to the pub must be a hell of a lot better than bottled beer that has been shipped across the ocean using packaging that invites skunking.  Tankovna pubs are not too hard to find in Prague, but they aren’t on every street corner.  On the advice of my friend Hans Gorsuch I headed for Lokal, a pub located not far from the old town square that offers a modern take on the Czech beer hall (there are other locations around the city).  We arrived around 5 pm for an early dinner and some fresh Pilsner Urquell.  Though it was still early, over two-thirds of the tables in the long but narrow interior were already full.

While Lokal only serves two beers, Pilsner Urquell světlé and Kozel tmavé, you do have to make the unusual decision of how much head you would like on your beer.  Aside from draft Guinness, I haven’t encountered a beer culture where you’ll find the same level of detail placed on the pour.  A pint in any decent pub will come with a good two fingers of creamy white head.  I’m all for this approach, because few things irritate me more than getting a glass a beer filled to the rim with no head.  Pilsner Urquell has taken the cult of foam to a new level with no less than four different ways to serve their beer—hladinka, the normal pour; mlíko (sweet), where the glass is filled almost entirely with foam; šynt (slice), a compromise between the two where you get a glass with two-thirds foam and one-third beer; and cochtan (neat), a beer with no head.

In an attempt to get the best of both worlds I started the evening with slice pour of Pilsner Urquell and a plate of wild boar goulash.  That seemed adequately adventurous for a Midwesterner. The sight of a mug over half full with snow white head is one I’m familiar with from overshooting the priming sugar additions on my homebrew, but not one I’ve seen before in a pub.  Given Pilsner Urquell’s historical place as the world’s first pale beer, it’s a little surprising to see the deep golden color of the beer that sits underneath the foam. The deep color, and the corresponding rich malty taste, can be chalked up largely to their use of triple decoction mashing.  A process whereby one-third of the wort is drawn from the mash tun and heated to boiling before being added back into the mash to raise the temperature.  At Pilsner Urquell they do this not once, not twice, but three times during mashing. Decoction mashing, once used throughout Central Europe, is a complicated way of making beer that has largely fallen out of favor in Germany, but it remains a central pillar of Czech brewing.

The aroma of Pilsner Urquell is a mix of bready pale malts accented by Saaz hops. Once you work your way past the head to the liquid underneath you are greeted with malts that are decidedly richer than you find in a German pilsner, or many of the competing Czech pilsners for that matter. The bready malts are accented by subtle notes of caramel/toffee that make for a fuller malt flavor (once again decoction mashing is likely responsible).  There may the slightest touch of buttery diacetyl as well. I’m not very sensitive to this flavor so it’s hard to say for sure, but it’s not hard to convince yourself there’s a subtle butterscotch note that helps round out the malt profile. Like all classic beers, the taste of Pilsner Urquell is masterfully balanced, in this case with the glorious spicy notes of the native Saaz hops (the Czechs call them Žatec, after the town where their signature hops are grown).  The hops are definitely more assertive in this beer than any bottled Pilsner Urquell I’ve encountered stateside.  I love the fruity, citrusy new world hops as much as the next person, but if pressed to pick my favorite hops Saaz will always have a place in my top five.

It’s hard to put into words how much better the Pilsner Urquell at a tankovna pub is compared to the stuff you get in a green bottle at the supermarket.  If you live in the US and want to experience a really good Pilsner Urquell I suggest you seek out somewhere that pours it on draft.  I had a pint this past summer at the Columbus Gateway location of World of Beer, and the taste was not far off from what you can get in Prague.  You can even get it served with varying levels of head there, and some WOB locations even get the unpasteurized version.  If that’s not an option, the next best thing would be to seek out cans, or the 12-packs of bottles that come in a cardboard box to protect them from light.

I can’t leave Lokal without trying a glass of Pilsner Urquell poured mlíko, which is listed on the menu simply as “beer foam.”  Given Lokal’s central location in a city teeming with tourists most of the year, I can see why they opted for the literal description to avoid the inevitable complaints of Americans and Brits indignant at being served a glass full of foam.  The point of the foam heavy pours like slice and mlíko is to afford the drinker a chance to slurp in the head rather than waiting for it all to settle out.  The head not only has an airy, creamy, soft mouthfeel (duh!), but the spicy, herbal notes of the Saaz hops are accentuated in the foam.  It might be the best way to understand the taste of Saaz hops. I later learn that the proper way to drink a mlíko pour is to slurp up all of the head before it condenses into normal beer, something I fail to do.  Instead I slurp up a bit of foam, but finish most of the beer after it has settled out to a more conventional looking beer.  Oblivious to the condescending glances of locals who must realize I’m a bumbling foreigner, I finish my beer, pay the modest bill, and we head to the Charles Bridge to take in the beauty of Prague as the sunset approaches.

Plisner Urquell Head
A mlíko (left) and normal (right) pour of Pilsner Urquell at Lokal.

U Flecku

After several hours walking through the narrow streets, past countless shops selling crystal vases and all manner of jewelry featuring garnets and amber, past absinthe bars and more Pilsner Urquell pubs that I can count, my wife and I head for U Flecku, a 500 year old brewery that produces a singular dark lager.  My knowledge of this brewery’s existence can be chalked up entirely to Jeff Alworth, who devotes a chapter of his book “The Secrets of Master Brewers” to U Flecku and their venerable tmave.  My curiosity was piqued by his description of their mashing procedure:

“… it begins at 100 °F (38 °C), goes to a protein rest at 122 °F (50 °C), and then goes all the way past the amylase rest to mash out at 167 °F (75 °C).  This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I had to track down a couple off local brewers to see if they thought it would even produce a fermentable wort.”

For those readers who haven’t at least dabbled in all grain brewing these temperatures probably don’t mean anything, but just about every recipe for making beer involves steeping the malts in water that is held somewhere in the 142-162 °F range. Within this temperature range enzymes in the barley can effectively convert starches into sugars, which are subsequently fermented by the yeast.  Below that range the enzymes are not active, and above that range they are rendered inactive by the heat.  Most recipes call for holding the mash somewhere in this temperature range for an hour or more to get a fermentable wort.  While U Flecku’s wort will have to go through this temperature range to get from 122 °F to 167 °F, it’s highly unusual that they don’t stop to hold the mash in the range where the amylase enzymes are active.

I’d read online that U Flecku was the largest restaurant in the country, with a total capacity of 1200 people, so I was expecting a massive beer hall.  However, it’s divided up into many different rooms which makes it seem more modestly sized. Upon arriving we are seated in a side room at a long communal wooden table between three men speaking English with east European accents and two young Japanese women sharing a big chunk of pork.  An old man playing accordion wanders through the pub, occasionally posing for a picture.  The place may be occupied mostly by tourists, but the atmosphere seems authentic to me and everyone is having a good time.

There’s no need for a beer menu here because they only serve one beer, their signature tmavé. Minutes after being seated a waiter carrying a trayful of beer comes over and puts two heavy mugs filled with dark brown beer on the table.  He makes two marks on a piece of paper sitting at our table and moves on looking to empty his tray before going back for more.  His job is little like the beer vendor at a baseball game, but the assumption here is that everyone is drinking until they say stop.  Before we get very far into our first beer another man comes around carrying a tray of shot glasses, roughly half of which are filled with honey wine (mead?) and the remainder with an herbal liquor.  We initially decline, but our server is insistent, so we take one of each. My wife takes the mead, and by default I get the herbal liquor, which I soon find out is considerably more potent.  If you visit U Flecku it would be wise to watch out for these.

What about the beer?  It’s dark brown in color and completely opaque, topped with a thick layer of beige head.  It’s unquestionably malt-forward, with a bold flavor that’s vaguely reminiscent of espresso beans dipped in dark chocolate.  Not surprisingly it leans sweet, but there’s an underlying roasty bitterness that balances the sweetness and stops it well short of cloying.  In retrospect that makes perfect sense, after all this beer is not meant to be nursed from a snifter on a cold winter’s night, but enjoyed in big mugs one after another.  I wouldn’t put it on my desert island menu, but it’s unlike anything I’ve had before.  Roastier than a dunkel, sweeter than an Irish stout, it offers a unique, historical perspective on the tmavé style.

U Flecku
Yours truly enjoying a pint of U Flecku tmave.

Starhov Monastic Brewery

When traveling with companions who aren’t totally obsessed with beer, it’s always challenging to schedule beer stops in a manner that would pass for a normal vacation.  It takes planning, a little creativity, and the right spin to pull it off.  I suppose people who have an unhealthy obsession with antiques, or sausages, or medieval torture instruments face a similar dilemma.  For our second day in Prague my prime target is the brewery at the Strahov Monastery, or as the Czech’s call it Klášterní Pivovar Strahov.  The journey entails quite a bit of walking, all of it uphill, an activity that my wife Laurinda typically views with considerable skepticism. Fortunately, the monastery does have charms that extend beyond beer—a gorgeous library, a location on a hill that affords a majestic view of the city, and a taproom that serves hearty Czech fare.  When you throw in the fact that it’s only 1 km up the hill from Prague Castle, a plausible itinerary starts to take shape.

Strahov Library Philosophical Room
The philosophical room at the Strahov library.  This is a must see if you make the trek up the hill to visit the brewery.

After visiting the castle (full of tourists, but St. Giles cathedral is an impressive sight worth seeing), and the Strahov library (only two rooms, but stunningly beautiful), it’s mid-afternoon and the hunger pangs are becoming too loud to ignore.  Fortunately, my planning has paid off and we’re perfectly positioned for a late lunch at the monastery brewery.  The brewery complex is divided into three parts—a restaurant on one side, a pub where some of the brewing equipment is located on the other side, and an outdoor courtyard between the two.  Since the weather was cool and rain seemed likely we opted to eat in the pub. Upon entering you immediately encounter two large, shiny copper kettles; one presumably is the mash tun and the other the boil kettle.  I haven’t visited many brewpubs where you can drink and dine amongst such elegant brewing equipment.  The allure is not limited to your eyes either, the aroma of sweet wort emanating from the copper boil kettle fills the room.  Before I even see the menu, I can already tell this is going to be a good place.

There are four beers on the menu, extravagant by Czech standards, including two ales, an IPA and a seasonal pale ale, the only ales I encounter during my stay in Prague.  Instinctively I start with the seasonal, a beer called Antidepressant Autumn Pale Ale.  I don’t know why I would gravitate toward the seasonal, all four beers are new to me.  I’m sure it has something to do with the potpourri of hops on the ingredient list—El Dorado, Columbus, Citra, Centennial, and wet (freshly picked) Mandarina Bavaria—an irresistible draw for my American palate.  After several days living in lager land, the taste of a vibrantly hopped, citrusy pale ale is a wakeup call for receptors in my olfactory system that had been hibernating since arriving in Central Europe six days ago.

By the time our food arrives it’s time for another beer.  This is my first chance to order a polotmavé, a Czech amber lager.  The menu says this beer accounts for 70% of their production, and glancing around the room it does look to be a popular choice.  Served in a tall, sleek mug, the hazy, amber colored liquid shimmers beguilingly in the ambient light, topped as you would expect with a healthy dollop of white foam.  The nose is full of rich malt aroma, not so different from the unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell I had yesterday. The malt richness is similar to Pilsner Urquell with a slightly more pronounced caramel note, but the Saaz hops are even more assertive here, bursting with glorious spicy notes that harmonize with the rich bready malts, neither gaining the upper hand.  The finish is clean, with pleasant hop bitterness that slowly dissipates.  It’s got all of the ingredients of a classic Czech beer, yet at the same time the intensity of the flavors seems very modern. I know these things are subjective, but this drinks like the best amber lager/ale I’ve ever tasted.

Strahov Amber
Strahov Amber, the world’s tastiest amber?  Notice the copper kettles in the background. 

Closing Thoughts

After experiencing Prague first hand I can start to understand why Czech brewing traditions haven’t translated to American craft brewing.  Czech beers tend to follow relatively straightforward recipes, eschewing the use of unconventional ingredients, always striving for balance and harmony between the ingredients.  This approach relies on the flavors of the base ingredients to do the heavy lifting, and they do not disappoint.  Czech malts are made with locally sourced barley, and in many cases produced the old fashioned way using floor malting techniques.  The larger breweries like Pilsner Urquell may not use floor malting, but they insist on malting the barley themselves.  The use of Saaz hops is an integral component to Czech beers, both light and dark.  The attributes of this wonderful old world hop are somewhat muted in beers that have been shipped across the ocean.

Nevertheless, American brewers have access to malts and hops from the Czech Republic.  Sure the raw ingredients would be a bit more expensive, but if the market existed I feel they could successfully recreate Czech beer styles, and kudos to those breweries who do pay homage to Czech traditions.  Land Grant’s Pool Party Pilsner uses floor malted Bohemian pilsner malt if I’m not mistaken, and Victory’s Prima Pils uses only noble hops in their pilsner.  There are of course many other examples, but not anything close to the number of saisons, porters, dubbels, and helles lagers on the market. I would offer up two factors for why more American craft brewers don’t seek to emulate Czech styles.  Firstly, the processes used to make Czech beers—decoction mashing and lagering—are more time and labor intensive those needed to make an IPA or a kettle sour.  Secondly, the American consumer is asking for new beers on a monthly, if not weekly basis.  It’s hard enough keeping up sales on your core brands, can you imagine a brewery or brewpub in the US that only served two varieties of beer.

Let me leave you with two thoughts.  Sometimes simple is better than complex, and most of the time balance trumps intensity.  That’s why you should visit Prague and experience their beer culture first hand if you ever have the chance.  I refer again to Jeff Alworth who recently posted 9.5 theses on beer. Thesis #4: Prague is the finest place to drink beer. You can make arguments for other places but Prague has to be in the conversation.

Check back later in the week for a write up on my pilgrimage to Pilsen, where I tour the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

Prague from the Castle
A view of Prague taken while walking from Prague Castle to the Strahov Monastery.

8 thoughts on “Pursuing Pivos in Prague

Add yours

  1. Great Post. Maybe we should send you to a different continent every other year to continue Ex-Pat’s journey of discovery. Or like Bill Bryson, maybe you need Ralph or I to serve as your Katz.

  2. Well, that’s decided, if I ever get my idea for a blendery and tap room to happen it will definitely include a philosophical room. Though, I’ll be sure to stock it with far more than just philosophy books.

    1. In the context of the monastic library philosophy refers to all of natural science, but regardless I’d love to visit a tap room with a philosophical room. By the way the other room at the Strahov library is called the theological room, over half the books are the bible. It’s beautiful but so great for variety.

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