Monday, August 31, 2009
An ode to Czech beer. Volume one.
Cruzcampo no more.
I think the people at Lonely Planet guides will forgive me for borrowing some from their overview of Czech beer, and its central importance in the culture.
"Czech beer is so famous it needs little introduction...the superlative taste of their pivo is one reason Czechs drink more per head than any other nation."
Czechs destroy competition in beer consumption, slamming 166 liters (293 16-oz. pints) for each and every man, woman and child of the population annually. Germany comes in a distant second at 144 liters (253 pints).
The superior quality of the beer is difficult to explain without experience. How do you define quality? You just know it when you taste it. It's clean, it's balanced, and you feel pretty great the next day.
The beer quality here is attributable to a few measures taken: first, the Czechs have something of their own Reinheitsgebot (German purity law) that allows for strictly water, hops, yeast and barley to be used in the brewing process. No rice derivatives, no adjuncts, just beer. Think about it America.
Storage is also a huge factor. The beer you find at a factory is always superior due to its freshness. It is such a fragile thing, its taste can be distorted by even the slightest handling and transportation. Domestics dominate practically 95% of the market so beer doesn't have to move far in a country that is slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina. It really makes a difference.
Even so, led largely by the Pilsner Urquell company, pubs have recently come up with a remarkable solution: the tankovna, which are large specially designed vertical storage tanks that keep unpasteurized beer fresh and especially flavorsome, and eliminate taste-distorting kegs and taps from the equation.
Stroll by some pubs at 10:00am on a weekday, and don't be surprised to see dudes working on their second half-liter of the day. There's a joint around the corner from my flat that I wandered into because I saw a sign outside advertising 19-crown Kozel svelty (one of my preferred choices - though you can't really go wrong with any brand). It was around 11:30am on a Wednesday, and the place was packed. I almost immediately regretted going in, because heads turned in the smoke-filled hall next to the bar.
Imagine a dozen or so Czech equivalents of Billy-Bob the mechanic/construction dude shooting you a "I knows yer ain't from round' her, boy" look. I contemplated backing out slowly while at the same time I thought about but failed to spit out: "prosim, pivo...dj'equi" (beer please, thanks). Though I was just slack-jawed staring at the tap, the tender knew what I needed and put a cold one in front of me. I calmly sat at a table covered in grease, dirt, and cigarette ash. All the comforts of blue collar Praha. Awkwardly, I took out a book and drank fast.
Your standard draft at a restaurant or bar comes in .5liter mugs (roughly 17 ounces), and as previous mentioned runs around 19-40kc ($1-$2) depending on the joint. I'm now in the habit of sticking my nose up at prices over $2, something I may have to work on in preparation for life anywhere else in the world...
To be honest, the differences between styles and brands here are few. 99.9% of beer are light lagers/pilsners ranging from 10-12 degrees (4-5% ABV). I'll do my best to distinguish them for you in the next post (see list below). There are a few cerny (dark) varieties, but you often have to really look for them.
TOUR DE STAROPRAMEN
Forgive me if after my first beer factory tour in the Czech Republic, I believe the Staropramen brewery will be tough to top. Showing up 10 minutes early paid off. I thought Staropramen would be appropriate to start with as the #2 domestic producer and one of the few actually located in Prague.
Originally I walked in around 2pm and said my "dobry den" to the woman at the counter. The problem with politely using their greeting is they sometimes take this to mean you speak Czech. So I waited for her to finish before I asked if she spoke English. She told me that the next English tour would not be until 3pm, so I decided to go sit on a tram stop bench around the corner and read. I shuffled back over around ten of.
This time the woman was gone, and there was a dude behind the bar on the other side of the divider in the room, chatting with a girl. He again spoke Czech to me and I asked about the tour. For some reason he had a quizzical look on his face, but then assured me I could go along no problem. I didn't know what this meant at the time. I didn't have a moment to really think about it because he then offered me a beer. Though usually reserved for the completion of the tour, my arm, as always, needed no twisting. I learned that the girl was in fact a friend of the guide. Her name was Judith from outside Frankfurt, Germany. Her parents are Czech and she had studied in Prague the previous year.
Soon a group assembled on the other side of the divider, and Tomas (toe-maa-sh - very Czech) the tour guide led us into a room to watch a short film about the history and tradition of Staropramen. These brew tours are already starting to look pretty similar.
Despite Tomas' best effort to engage during the tour, the group could not have cared less, paying little attention and having their own loud conversations. We soon realized they were all a bunch of Slovenians together on a school trip. I mean I would understand if they were restless at a pottery museum, but come on. Overall though, they're alright in my book. I now think I know why Tomas gave me a look, but let me "tag along." It's possible the Slovenians paid a group rate of sorts and Tomas just let me slip in, because I later learned that although I didn't pay anything, the tour was not free, it cost 150 crowns. Thanks Slovenia.
11-meter wide vat, one of the largest, most modern machines in European beer production.
Fermentation vats. To demonstrate their capacity, Tomas asked us how many beers we could drink in a night. Someone said "ten," he told us that if you were to drink 10 every night, it would take around 140 years to finish a vat. Yikes.
With the completion of the tour came the tasting, which had less built-up anticipation that I'm used to since I'd already had a preview. Tomas made it clear to Judith and I that while the Slovenians and all guests of the brewery get one beer at the end, we were free to as many we liked. I found this very pleasing.
Once the Slovenians made their way out, Tomas, Judith and I hung around the bar while the next tour group assembled. Tomas had one more tour for the day, and Judith was waiting up for him to get off work. He suggested we just wait there and as he left to lead the next group through, he muttered something to Judith in German. She told me that he said we were free to self-service at the bar. WHAT
So there I found myself, alone with a rather pleasant German gal commanding unlimited reign over the taps of the Staropramen brewery. Yes, indeed. By the time the tour came back around, Judith and I were feeling pretty good. Tomas ditched our plastic cups and started grabbing the beautiful glassware on sale behind the bar and pouring for us into those. Naturally, the group had to have been wondering who are they, and why do they get those? As I said, it pays to show up 10 minutes early.
Volume two preview:
An overview of brands and their varieties
A review of local microbrew-pubs
Pivovar U Bulovky
Posted by Weblogger in Chief at 4:58 AM