“Prague” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.
It had been nine years since our first and only visit to the Czech capital and, admittedly, we were somewhat reluctant to return. We find the Czech Republic a difficult country in which to travel, a place we just don’t feel comfortable.
Prague poses a challenge to any tourist, but for a beer geek, the rewards are well worth the effort.
For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.
On our little taxi excursion from the train station, our tour guide driver on several occasions gestured in the general direction of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. In his Czecho-Germano-English language, he indicated that’s where all the tourists were. Merideth and I smiled and nodded knowingly. We would tackle that beast the next day.
The plan for our second day in Prague was to cross the Vlata River to search out beer in the Malá Strana (Lesser Town). As our taxi driver had indicated, this part of Prague is the epicenter of the city’s tourist trade. Crossing the Charles Bridge late morning, we successfully negotiated the sea of globe trotters blindly following a person holding up an umbrella. Once across, we oriented ourselves and headed uphill in the direction of Strahov Monastery.
In the heat and humidity, I knew we weren’t going to make it in one shot. Consulting the Good Beer Guide, I found a pub roughly halfway to the monastery where we could get a break from the sauna-like weather and grab a beer. Our sanctuary was Baráčnická rychta, located on a side lane close the the Irish, German and American embassies.
Whether we were too far off the tourist trail or late-morning drinking is not fashionable, but we were the only customers. Passing on Pilsner Urquell, we both ordered a Svijanský Máz 11°, a beer from Liberec region of the Czech Republic. Beer had never tasted so good as the first sip of that golden brew.
In our second attempt at bonding with the locals by trying to learn the language, we asked our waiter how to pronounce the name of the pub. Where our waiter on the first day was more standoffish in giving Czech language lessons, today’s waiter was more helpful if not a bit confused. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to correctly pronounce Baráčnická.
Strengthened with a few beers, we continued our upwards journey to the monastery. Founded in 1142, brewing began at the Strahov Monastery in the 13th or 14th century and lasted until 1907. The complex was renovated in the 1990s and a brewpub, Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, opened in 2000.
Entering the gates, we were greeted with the sounds of an orchestra performing in the courtyard between the church and brewpub. The brewpub was doing a brisk lunchtime business but we managed to grab a table outside where we could still hear the music.
There were four beers, a wheat, amber, dark and somewhat surprising, an IPA. While Merideth started with the wheat, I had to have a Czech IPA. Really fruity, the IPA was more of a hopped-up amber than what my jaded West Coast palate considers an IPA. I still liked it. The wheat was somewhat a cross between a Hefeweizen and Kristallweizen. A bit thin and lightly carbonated, it still had pleasant hefe flavor.
Merideth also had her first and probably only experience with Czech beer cheese. Hoping for an obaztda like experience, the beer cheese looked, smelled and tasted very gamey.
Heading back downhill towards the castle, we managed to hit a few more pubs before we reached Charles Bridge.
The unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell wasn’t the draw for stopping in U Hrocha. It was just the icing on the cake. It was the picture of the cute hippopotamus sign balancing a beer on the end of it’s nose in the Good Beer Guide that had us wandering the neighborhood around the British Embassy. As we spotted the sign hanging over the pub entrance, I felt somewhat silly being so excited at seeing a metal hippopotamus.
There were only a few locals ‘At the Hippopotamus’. As we enjoyed our Pilsner Urquell, we played ‘spot all the hippos in the pub’.
Our final pub in the Malá Strana was U Kocoura. Three breweries were featured at this pub, including the well-known Budvar and Pilsner Urquell. The beer we stopped for was Bernard’s kvasnicové pivo, apparently a rarely seen brew in Prague.
The kvasnicové pivo was really good but after so many different golden lagers, it was becoming difficult telling one from another. On top of that, every single beer was a magical moment; the cool, golden brew offering welcome relief from the heat.
Unfortunately, our day didn’t end on a high note. We went to a brewpub for dinner. Service in Prague has a reputation for snarkiness towards tourists, something I really have no problem with. But our waitress at dinner crossed the snarky line into just plain rudeness. Prague is a city every beer geek needs to experience. But our treatment at the brewpub led us to decide that this was most likely our last trip to Czech capital. Two visits was enough for these beer travelers. With so many great beer destinations throughout the world, Merideth and I would rather go someplace with more a chance not being treated like shit.
Thankfully, we had one more day in Prague so our last memory wasn’t of this brewpub. Day three was more of a day of relaxation than tramp around the city in search of beer. We had a nice lunch with Evan Rail, author of the Good Beer Guide. And we returned to U Fleků our final evening to get that much needed video footage. Amongst a bunch of Germans and Spaniards, we had a fun evening drinking beer and acting like goofy tourists. And, yet again, successfully turning down the shots of Becherovka.
I’ll admit we were reluctant to return to Prague. One of the beer meccas of the world, our first and only visit to the Czech Republic capital was back in 2001. Since that visit, we have been to the Czech Republic only one other time. In our first beer adventures with a video camera in 2007, we traveled to České Budějovice to tour the Budvar brewery.
We find the Czech Republic a difficult country in which to travel, a place we just don’t feel comfortable. Neither Merideth nor I can get a simple grasp of the Czech language beyond ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Since we gave Berlin a second chance on this trip, we decided to give Prague the same consideration.
Arriving by train from Dresden, things didn’t start with a confidence boost. We were supposed to be picked up at the train station by our hotel but there was a mix up. On to plan B, we hopped in a cab and proceeded to get the “tourist tour” around the chaotic, traffic jammed city with driver commentary in a hybrid Czech-English-German language. We were so very happy to finally reach our hotel.
Our hotel, U Medvídků, was not just any hotel. It was a Budvar tap serving five kinds of Budvar. But more importantly, it was a brewery. Brewing first began in the building in 1466, ending in 1898. The current brewery, set up in the original malt house, brewed it’s first batch of beer in 2004. What was unique about the Czech Republic’s smallest brewery was the traditional methods employed such as open fermentation and lagering in wooden barrels.
Checking in, we were handed a little bag of malt with a coupon that was good for a beer in the brewery’s tap room. After our interesting cab ride, a beer was definitely needed, so we quickly went up to our room to drop our bags off. Then we negotiated the maze of dining rooms that was the Budvar taphouse and found the brewery towards the back of the building.
The beer we received in exchange for our coupon was Oldgott Barrique, an amber-ish 5.2% lager. It had a caramel sweetness to it. I liked it, Merideth not so much.
Crossing into Nové Město(New Town), it was only a short walk to Novoměstský pivovar, New Town’s first brewpub, established in 1993. We were somewhat confused as we approached the entrance. It appeared the two groups ahead of us were turned away. Very hungry at this point, Merideth and I threw caution to the wind and approached the two gentleman who appeared to be on host duty. Using simple English and two fingers to indicate, yes, there were two of us, we were escorted to the Gothic Room.
At Novoměstský pivovar, we were reintroduced to the basics of Czech brewing. There are two standard beers, světlý (light) and tmavý (dark). We both began with the světlý. The crisp, unfiltered lager was much more what we expected from Czech beer than the Oldgott Barrique. Merideth was much happier.
Since these were the first beers we paid for, we were also reminded of the main reason to embark upon beer travel in the Czech Republic, great beer at inexpensive prices. Half liters at Novoměstský pivovar were 38Kč. That is about $1.90.
Over lunch, we worked on our poor Czech language skills. We tried to enlist the help of our waiter but he seemed quite disinterested in helping out two Czech-challenged Americans.
After lunch, Merideth was ready to confront her white whale, U Fleků. Prior to our visit in 2001, Merideth read all the bad reviews for U Fleků. Most of the negative comments revolved around the shots of Becherovka, 76 proof herbal bitters, which the wait staff persistently peddles to the customers. Some people thought they were free only to be shocked when they received their bill.
Sufficiently freaked out, Merideth proclaimed before the first visit, “We are only getting beer! No food, no shots, only beer!” We obviously survived our first visit, successfully turning down the shots of Becherovka. In fact, we had a great time. We did leave wondering what gave people the idea that the shots were free.
We returned to U Fleků on this trip for two reasons. First, we needed to get the Hofbrauhaus of Prague on video for beergeek.TV. Getting the boisterous multitudes merrily drinking beer was a must for our Prague episode. Secondly, their one beer, a dark lager, is pretty darn good and worth a return visit in itself.
Arriving mid afternoon, Merideth and I were guided away from the beer garden and pointed to a corner table in the main hall. We quickly each had half liter of the blackish brew.
Right on the heels of our beer waiter was the waiter with the tray of Becherovka. Not sure how he knew to speak English to us, but he first said, “It’s like medicine.” As we were declining the offer, he quickly followed up with the “It’s tradition” sales tactic. We again politely declined and he moved on to the German teens who just had walked in. The waiter was more successful with them.
Unfortunately, there was no action at that time of day so video would have to wait for an evening visit. We finished our beers and moved on.
Having successfully turned down the Becherovka at U Fleků, Merideth and I were feeling pretty confident. It was time to tackle U Zlatého tygra, the Golden Tiger. Evan Rail refers to it in the Good Beer Guide as “the grandfather, forefather and godfather of all Prague pubs.” Known for the best unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell in Prague, it also has a tourist unfriendly reputation where most tables are reserved for locals. Taking the good with the bad, we had to go there.
Because of the reserved table situation, the Good Beer Guide advised to get there as close to opening time (3pm) as possible. We arrived about half past the hour and the smoky bar was maybe half full. Looking for a table, we saw that most had reserved signs on them. But Merideth noticed that the reserve times were hours away. We grabbed a reserved table in the corner that had a good view of all the action. The waiter came over and placed two dimpled mugs of Pilsner Urquell in front of us.
Feeling comfortable at our reserved table, I pulled out the Scrabble board and Merideth and I indulged in our favorite pub pastime. The staff was aloof, not friendly but efficient. Our waiter even brought me a new mug of beer when he saw me finish my first one. (He did this for me only. Merideth had to ask for her second beer. Must be a ‘guy thing’). We spent the next couple of hours playing scrabble and drinking great beer. Given the frazzled start to our day in Prague, U Zlatého tygra was a great way to finish it.