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.
Our complimentary beer downed and tattered nerves repaired, we were ready to take on Prague. Armed with a copy of the Good Beer Guide to Prague and the Czech Republic, we ventured out on to the streets of Staré Město, Old Town.
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.