31 July 2010

Video: Platan 11

Platan 11 (bottle)
Prague, Czech Republic
4.8% ABV

A simple review for a simple beer. We passed this brewery on the bus while on the way to Cesky Krumlov, but stopping wasn't on the agenda for the day. A decent lager, worth a shot, but nothing amazing.

My numerical rating: 4.5/10

30 July 2010

Postrizinske Doktorova 8 (bottle)
Nymburk, Czech Republic
3.8% ABV

The cheapest bottle of beer I've yet found in the Czech Republic. A light lager that costs 4.90 Czech Crowns for half a liter, which works out to something like twenty cents American for the bottle. Is it better than similar light lagers in the States? Not so much, but for twenty cents who can really complain?

My numerical rating: 3.0/10

29 July 2010

Video: Kocour Lezak (Tomcat Lager)

Kocour Lezak (bottle)
Varnsdorf, Czech Republic
4.6% ABV

"Kocour" is Czech for "Tomcat" and "Lezak" is Czech for "Lager," so translated this is Tomcat Lager. Kocour is a microbrew that's only been around since 2008, but they're bringing a Stone or Brewdog-like badassery to the Czech beer scene. This lager is delicious, obviously made in small batches, with a crisp light flavor and a healthy wallop of citrusy hops that really show what a true Czech malypivovar (microbrewery) is capable of.

I was really excited when I reviewed this beer, as I had just visited the Kocour website, and they seem to have the same ballsy, take no prisoners attitude of some of the great American microbreweries, like Stone or Dogfish Head. I have one more Kocour brew here in the dorm, and I'm still on the lookout for their weizen, so look forward to that.

My numerical rating: 8.5/10

Video: Desperados Beer

Desperados Beer (bottle)
Schiltigheim, France
5.9% ABV

Beer flavored with tequila. Made in France. Bought in Prague. Need I say anything more? Not the absolute worst beer I've had, but pretty close.

My numerical rating: 2.5/10

28 July 2010

Primator Double 24%

Primator Double 24%
Nachod, Czech Republic
10.5% ABV

I decided to double down on the alcohol and go ahead and review my other huge Czech beer, the 10.5% ABV Primator Double. BA lists this as a Baltic Porter, and I liked it quite a bit. It's more astringent than the Rytirsky 21%, but the darker malt masks the alcohol and makes it much more drinkable.

My numerical rating: 7.0/10

Primator Rytirsky 21%

Primator Rytirsky 21% (bottle)
Nachod, Czech Republic
9.0% ABV

Nine percent is huge for a Czech beer. I've gotten out of the habit of checking out BA before recording these reviews, partly because many of the beers I review aren't even in BA and partly because I've just gotten to the point of trying not to use BA as too much of a crutch, but on the site this is marked as a Euro Strong Lager. Sounds good to me. I don't say it in the vid, but it reminds me a bit of some of the Baltika strong lagers I've had, but better quality.

Anyway, this is pretty good for the style, but it's definitely not as balanced as it could be. Very sweet, malty, strong caramel notes, with the alcohol well-hidden but definitely present on the finish. Not as astringent as it could be, so it's probably worth it if you're just looking to get fucked up on cheap malty beer.

My numerical rating: 6.0/10

Video: Klasterni Pivovar Strahov Sv. Norbert India Pale Ale

Klasterni Pivovar Strahov Sv. Norbert India Pale Ale (bottle)
Prague, Czech Republic
6.3% ABV

This brewpub is listed on BA, but this beer isn't. If I felt a greater connection to BeerAdvocate at the moment, I'd add it and throw up a review, but I feel strangely apathetic to contributing any further to that website.

Anyway, this was my second beer review of the day, but I think my palate was plenty clear enough to handle the review. I've had this before at the brewery, and it was very similar in the bottle.

My overall rating: 8.5/10

27 July 2010

Video: Olivetinsky Novic

Olivetinsky Novic (bottle)
Broumov, Czech Republic
3.5% ABV

I'm trying to bang through reviews so that I get everything done that I wanted to get done here, so I did an afternoon review of Olivetinsky Novic, which was a random beer purchase I made at the local Tesco. It turned out to be a pretty crappy light lager, but with enough citrusy lemon and a thick enough head that I didn't really feel like slamming it too hard on the rating.

My numerical rating: 4.0/10 (probably more than it deserves)

The Disneyland of Beer

This is the Radbuzy River that runs through Plzen.

This river, and the natural springs underground, are world-reknowned for having incredibly soft water, i.e. water with very few metallic impurities.

It is from this river that some ninety percent of the world's beer produced by volume stems. It is from this source that all American macrobrews and most large breweries around the world get their style guidelines.

This tiny little water source, barely a trickle compared to the world's largest rivers, has had amazing impact on the world of beer.

Because this river flows along the site where, in 1842, German brewer Joseph Groll was hired to make quality beer in Plzen, in what is now the Czech Republic. And because of the nearly unique water chemistry in this river and the springs nearby, it was possible to make crisp, clean, golden lagers for the very first time.

The guided tour didn't mention it, but to set eyes on this location was to be at one of the very centers of the history of brewing in the world. This may be the single most important location in the last two centuries of brewing.

But let's get back to that guided tour, shall we?

Standing in front of the visitor center
Getting to Plzen wasn't a huge deal. We ended up taking a Student Agency bus, two tickets on the 11:00 to Plzen ran about 100 crowns each, so for less than ten bucks and an hour of our time we were in Plzen. We hopped a cab from the bus station to the brewery, me using the extremely limited Czech I had to supplement the cab driver's limited English.

"Pivovar Pilsner Urquell?" I queried.

A nod.

"Kolik to stoji?"

"One hundred crowns, more or less."

Five bucks. We could handle that. Along the way the driver pulled out a map, spread it across the steering wheel. "You want Museum or Pivovar?"

I hadn't realized they were separate. "Uh... pivovar... Pilsner Urquell."

The guy nodded, folded up his map, took us the rest of the way. We pulled in through a metal gate and he looked back at me, "One hundred twenty crowns."

Wouldn't you love to drink that beer?
I paid him,  then said in careful Czech, "Vy... anglickty je dobre. Dekuji." He smiled, nodded, and went about his day. I find that complimenting the English of the locals is usually the kind of thing that gets karmically rewarded, and since even the most rudimentary English is better than my Czech, I tend to err on the side of gratuity when complimenting the English of others.

Anyway, we went inside and found a large gallery of Pilsner Urquell advertistements from decades past. We also signed up for the tour, in English, which was cheaper if we paid in Czech crowns than in Euros. Definitely worth keeping Czech crowns, at least as of now. The tour was to begin in about twenty minutes, so at the advice of the woman behind the desk, we both used the restroom and sat on a bench waiting for our tour guide.

The tour group.
Soon, the guide appeared, greeted us in English, and bade us outside. We then were given a brief outline of what we were to do. First we'd visit the bottling plant where we could see, well, the bottling and canning line. Then we'd take a quick walk over to an area where we'd see what kinds of ingredients were used in the beer. Third we'd see the old brewery, no longer in use, but kept in condition for historical purposes, then we'd go and see the new, working brewery.

Sounded good to us. First we got on a packed bus over to the other side of the brewery to visit the bottling

On the way over I started to get a strong aroma of boiling wort and crisp Saaz hops. It smelled like a brew day in my garage, but ten thousand times stronger. It's clear that the brewery operates basically 24/7 to keep up with demand, but it definitely set the mood well to be able to get that kind of whiff before even getting to the tour itself.

 The bottling facility was about as interesting as bottling facilities are ever going to be, lots of industrial moving of green bottles and a few bored workers trying to keep their quotas up.

Bottling is probably the most visually interesting part of the brewing process, and it works well at impressing those uninterested in the details of brewing, but it's actually pretty dull. Lots of loud machinery moving moving around, lots of clanking glass. I haven't see the bottling operation of a small brewery, but Pilsner Urquell is a monster, a large industrial brewery that makes enough beer to quench the thirst of a large proportion of the world. I'm sure it's small potatoes compared to what we could find in St. Louis, but it's clear that current owners SABMiller really get their money's worth out of this facility.

The water tower in the center of the brewery, now unused
Next we went into the "ingredients used in making our beer" facility. I'm about ninety percent sure I was the only person who'd ever brewed in the group, as this was by far the least interesting part of the tour for me.

There was a large stone wall from which dripped "pure Plzen water" from which the beer is made, and they had huge amounts of pilsner malt in pits on the floor that you could handle. I took a nice sniff of the malt, and am pretty sure that if the tour is accurate, they're not using any specialty malts in the brew.
They also had a large barrel of leaf hops, dry with age, but still fairly aromatic. I'm pretty certain it's only Saaz used in the brew. I ended up taking a few of the leaves and rubbing them into my hands and forearms as a kind of beer cologne.

They also has a litle bit where you could "look through a microscope" at yeast, but they were just little eyepieces attached to video feeds of yeast cells. Not that I'd necessarily expect a random tour group to know how to handle a microscope, but it'd have been nice to actually have to exert some slight bit of effort.

Um... I'm just gonna hang out here, okay?
Going to the next building we really got into "Disneyland of Beer" territory, as there was a short video displayed on a panoramic screen describing the history and making of Pilsner Urquell beer. The whole process reminded me of nothing other than that scene in Jurassic Park where you see John Hammond do the big audio-visual spectacle version of how cloning works in context of the movie. This, plus the chirpy tour guide and the cardboard displays, is really the impetus for the whole "Disneyland of beer" title we've beststowed on the place.

The most interesting part of the presentation was the claim that Pilsner Urquell is "triple-mashed" and "triple-hopped." Marketing hype, or something real? They claim that the wort is drained from the mash three times, but is that to make a kind of decoction mash, or are they just doing it in stages for eventual re-mixing and boiling? The triple hopping makes a bit more sense, as Urquell is by far the hoppiest beer I've had from a mainstream Czech Lager perspective while here. Attempts to glean information from the tour guide were unsuccessful, as her knowledge of the technical aspects of brewing were minimal.

Next it was time to visit the old brewery. Rows of old brew kettles, all copper, currently unused. The tour guide claimed that the particular roasted taste of Pilsner Urquell comes about because of the extended boil in copper kettles. Since seeing the actual boil kettles, I have started noticing a bit of roasted caramel way down at the bottom of the flavor profile of Pilsner Urquell, but that could easily just be me fooling myself.

After the old brewery, we got the chance to see the new state-of-the-art industrial brewery. Upon stepping inside it became obvious that brewing was going on (had it not been obvious already), not only because of the amazing smell of boiling wort filling the air, but the steam-room like conditions. It was definitely above a hundred degrees, humid as hell, and we were a good twenty feet above the actual kettles.

Then it was time for the historical portion of the tour. We saw numerous documents relating to the history of the brewery, namely the original proclamation giving the brewery the right to make beer, that sort of thing. We saw a huge iron sandbox-looking thing that I'm assuming was either a mash tun or a malting bed.

And we saw a piece of exposed wall, a hundred-and-fifty years old and more, that was one of the original walls of the brewery. While the rest of the group was filtering out I took a momentary opportunity to get a shot of myself standing in front of it. Such a piece of brewing history doesn't come along every day, you know, even if it's not so visually impressive.

Then it was time to go into the cellars. We were warned it was cold down there, but after the ninety-plus degree heat we'd been living through for the last couple of weeks, it was actually quite welcome. I got a shot of Shana standing next to the marker of where the most recent flooding filled the caverns, way back in 2002. Such markers are all around Prague, as that was truly a hundred-year flood, and it seems that everyone in the Czech Republic has commemorated it in some way or another. Seeing it in the cellars here made me wonder how much beer was lost to the flood....

To the left you see the tour group standing in front of large wooden lagering barrels. It turns out that while these caverns and these wooden barrels were used for nearly a century and a half, modern-day brewing at Pilzensky Prazdroj is done with more modern equipment, with lagering done in refrigerators instead of in this more traditional way.

So what's going on in the barrels? Well, as it turns out, visitors to the brewery get a bit of a special treat. They actually make a small amount of Pilsner Urquell in the traditional way, aged in the oak barrels, and served unfiltered and unpressurized. The only way to get ahold of this substance is to (wait for it) go on the tour we'd just been on.

This is me standing in front of the fermenter. That's right, an open fermenter in a dank cavern, with a nice thick layer of yeasty scum on top. Looks disgusting, right? Well, not so much to the eye of one who has made beer themselves, as we're all too familiar with how the yeasty nasties actually make great stuff.

Still.... an open fermentation process? Wouldn't that make the beer... sour in the absence of strict environmental control?

And well it did, as the sample I got had very slight but distinct sour notes, alongside a strong yeasty quality. I shot a quick-and-dirty review of the sample on Shana's digital camera, but I haven't had the chance to edit it and upload it yet. Suffice to say that it was a fascinating sample, and I would have loved to have spoken to the brewers at the facility to pick their brains about how it was made.

Then, after a quick trip to the old ice cellars to see how brewers handled lagering without refrigeration (and which wasn't really interesting enough for me to take photos of), it was that time again. That's right: time for lunch.

To be honest, I don't even remember what we ordered, but I remember it was simple, hearty, and reasonably priced. And when I was asked what I wanted to drink, my response was, "Pilsner, of course," as we were eating in the restaurant attached to the brewery.

Then it was time for the brewing museum, which as it turned out was only a few minutes' walk from the brewery itself. Along the way, we saw some pretty cool street art pieces and some great old architecture, photos of which you can see in the Facebook photo album I posted a few days ago.

The museum staff didn't seem all that happy to help us, probably because it was a slow period and we were about the only ones taking any of their time, but they gave us a couple of English-language comb-bound guides and we were on our way well enough. The guides were decent, but not organized very well, and I found myself just disregarding them and figuring stuff out for myself most of the time.

I was looking through my photos and I thought I took more from the museum, but I really only got about ten or so. It was an interesting museum, I guess, but just not a whole lot worth taking photos of. Lots of old brewing equipment and some brewerania from Pilsner Urquell and other, now defunct, Plzen breweries, but not much else.

After the museum we stopped by the attached "1930s-style" pub (Pivnice Na Parkane), where I picked up a half-liter of the unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, which is naturally yeastier and a bit drier than the normal stuff. I haven't seen the unfiltered in bottles anywhere, but it's quite a nice beer if you can get it.

Shana ordered the garlic soup, which is a nearly perfect dish you can get in many Czech restaurants. Perfect because it's basically just broth infused with tons of garlic, with maybe some onions and bread to top it and give it some substance. This bowl had the added surprise of having cheese slowly melting at the bottom, which after it had picked up the huge amounts of garlic was simply amazing.

This pub was actually a really great experience overall. You'd expect such a place to be tourist-heavy, but about half of the patrons there seemed to be locals visiting the corner pub, and the server was one of the nicest guys I've had wait on me while I've been here. He asked us where we were from, seemed genuinely interested, and after we paid our (small) bill, offered to call us a cab so we could get back to the bus station and thus to Prague. I'd definitely recommend stopping by this pub to anyone visiting the museum, if nothing else for the garlic soup and the unflitered Pilsner.

So that was our trip to Plzen. Not exactly the most stunning prose I've ever produced, but hopefully interesting nonetheless. Soon I'll put up posts detailing the other brewpubs and breweries we've visited, as well as a beer bar or two.

Video: Primator Weizenbier

Primator Weizenbier (bottle)
Nachod, Czech Republic
5.0% ABV

Primator is definitely a Czech brewery to keep an eye on. They make several really nice beers, including some high-gravity stuff. This is their weizen, which I'd had before when I first got here but have just now gotten around to reviewing.

My numerical rating: 7.5/10

26 July 2010

Video: Eggenberg Smoked Dark Lager

Eggenberg Smoked Dark Lager
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Unknown ABV

I can't find any listings for this beer anywhere. I had a plastic growler fill over at the Pivovarsky Klub in Prague, and then had to wait a couple of days before I could review it because we had a two-day trip out of town, and I was feeling under the weather and not up for reviewing besides.

I was tired enough last night when recording this that I forgot to give it a score. I'd probably give it an 8.0/10 overall, though.

23 July 2010

Video: Staropramen Lezak

Staropramen Lezak
Prague, Czech Republic
5.0% ABV

Still no Pilsner Urquell brewery visit post. I've been feeling under the weather today, so I just don't feel like I have the energy to write it up. Everyone here seems to be getting sick. Dammit.

Anyway, I took a few minutes to record a review of Staropramen Lezak (i.e. Staropramen Lager) yesterday, so you can see it now and tell me what you think.

My numerical rating: 7.0/10

21 July 2010

Video: Sladkuv Mestan

Sladkuv Mestan (bottle)
Prague, Czech Republic
3.8% ABV

I reviewed this at around 11:00 AM before meeting Shana for lunch when she got out of class. Some of what I post here is relevant to the Youtube beer review community, so anyone not plugged into that can probably skip the first ninety seconds or so of the review.

While reviewing the beer, I do talk a bit philosophically about the way we think about beers and beer reviewing in general, so even if you're not interested in this particular brew you might find those comments interesting, or at least a place to begin discussion. I'll definitely have more to say on those kinds of topics when I get back to the States and do more regular, edited reviews.

My numerical rating: 3.0/10

19 July 2010

Video: Staropramen Granat

Staropramen Granat (bottle)
Prague, Czech Republic
4.8% ABV

I don't generally like to review beers back to back like this, but in the interest of getting through as many beers as possible in Prague, I decided to go ahead and review this one.

My numerical rating: 5.0/10

Video: Budejovicky Budvar

Budejovicky Budvar (bottle)
Cesky Budejovice, Czech Republic
5.0% ABV

I review the original Czech Budvar. Not a whole lot else to say, except that at the beginning of the vid I talk a bit about what's going on here in Prague at the moment.

My numerical rating: 6.0/10

17 July 2010

Video: Pilsner Urquell (can)

Pilsner Urquell (can)
Plzen, Czech Republic
4.4% ABV

Check out yesterday's post for my review of the bottled version, and some context for my feelings on Pilsner Urquell. We're planning on visiting the brewery tomorrow, so look forward to some commentary on that in this space in the very near future.

My numerical rating: 8.5/10 (same as the bottled version)

16 July 2010

Video: Pilsner Urquell (bottle)

Pilsner Urquell (bottle)
Pilzen, Czech Republic
4.4% ABV

In my original review of this posted January 25, 2006 (when I'd only been drinking beer for about a year and a half), I summarized thusly: "I don't find these very drinkable, for I would never want more than one. But for a Czech Pilsener, this is pretty great. If you like beers of this style, go for it." Fast forward four and a half years and move me to the source of the goodness, and I guess I have to eat my words. If you can find un-skunked bottles of Pilsner Urquell, and in the Czech Republic that's pretty damned easy, this is one of the greatest examples of this style you can find, and it's incredibly refreshing on a hot day.

My numerical rating: 8.5/10

(Note: I'm going to review the canned version soon: watch this space.)

15 July 2010

Video: Branik Svelty

Branik Svelty (bottle)
Prague, Czech Republic
4.2% ABV

When did "svelty" (i.e. "light") beers start being sold in the Czech Republic? Was it before or after the introduction of such in the US? Either way, I'd rather drink a svelty beer than a light one -- at least here in Prague you don't have horrible adjunct flavor in all the major beer brands.

My numerical rating: 5.5/10

13 July 2010

Video: Primator Premium

Primator Premium (can)
Nachod, Czech Republic
5.0% ABV

I had a can of this the other night at the end of my drinking session, but didn't get a strong sense of it, mostly because I ended up drinking it straight from the can. Last night I decided to give it another shot and actually video a review of it.

Overall, not a bad golden lager, worth a try if you're into that sort of thing, but nothing really amazing.

My numerical rating: 5.5/10

12 July 2010

Catching Up: Tank Beer and Pivovarsky Dum

I haven't done a long text post in a few days. The patterns of our life here have become a little bit more regular, and it'd be pretty dull to just write, "and then we went and had a pint of Pilsner Urquell at a pub, walked around Old Town, and went home" every evening. Even if it's basically true.

Two beer-centric locations deserve some kind of notice, though. The first is The Pub (Pilsner Unique Bar), which is right around the corner from Charles University where Shana is studying, and was supposed to be pretty decent. It's definitely a touristy kind of bar, which we've been trying to avoid, as many of the signs were in English and all the bar staff spoke the same. I don't think I heard more than a half-dozen words of Czech the entire time I was sitting there.

But we're here to chat about the beer, which had a pretty neat setup. Each table had a small touchscreen and a four-tap "tank," from which one could pour the desired amount of Pilsner Urquell. Up on the giant screen in the front of the bar, a contest was being waged to see which table could consume the most Pilsner. Since only two persons at our table were drinking at all, there's no way we could compete with the tables filled with seven or eight excitable German or English tourists, but I think we did pretty respectably, putting away some three liters of beer in an hour and a half.

(An aside: Urquell has quickly become my beer of choice here in Prague. It's always fresh, clean, refreshing, but has a really pleasant hop bite that differentiates it from some of the cheaper mass-produced lagers here. It's a shame it's bottled in green bottles, because that means it's next to impossible to get it in the States without at least some skunking, and the style just doesn't age and travel well, which means that to get it in its best state you have to travel all the way to the Czech Republic. It's been in the upper eighties most of the time we've been here, and Pilsner Urquell has been refreshing and thirst-quenching more times than I have bothered to count. I'll miss being able to get the fresh, good version when I get back home.)

Laura eyes the tap mechanism.
Could such a bar exist in Kalamazoo? Would beer sellers be legally allowed to have their customers pour their own drinks, to be wary of their own consumption? I've certainly seen a few drunks here in Prague, but most of the really disgusting behavior has been from American tourists and students: we are the ones who don't seem to know our limits, who take the opportunity provided by cheap beer to make fools of ourselves. Here in Praha, the pub is the center of social life, a place to go after work with friends and/or family to relax, watch some TV, enjoy life. A Czech resident might drink ten beers in a night, but they'll do it over the course of several hours, and be able to walk back home (or take the tram) afterwards.

American tourists, on the other hand, just sit and drink the cheap beer as fast as they can, pouring it down the gullet and looking for more. This is an affront to my beer geekery, sure, as treating a fine product like locally-made Pilsner Urquell like you'd treat a thirty-rack of Natural Light is repellent, but even more so as a guest of this country, as a representative of America. Every asshole tourist I see abusing the Czech beer scene makes it that much harder for me to enjoy the fine products made here, to absorb the atmosphere and have a pleasant conversation over pivo with my friends. Just as every English-speaking tourist barking orders for directions of a Czech person makes it that much harder for me to find my way around. It's sickening, and tiring, and depressing, and makes me embarassed to come from the same country as them.

Anyway. The other important beer place we found was Pivovarsky Dum, an American-style microbrewery near the shopping district. The servers spoke English and menus were available in my language, and the beers were very American-brewpub inspired. Besides the Czech-style light and dark lagers, there was a nettle beer (the green one), a banana beer a weizen, a coffee stout, a sour cherry, and a summer stout. All of these were quite good, even by American brewpub standards.

It's amazing to see the way that Czech beer culture has been influenced by American microbreweries. Partly I'm sure this is the tourist influence, but the authentic Czech beer culture is very much based on a rejection of outside influences, on focusing on those things that are historically "theirs." This makes sense for a small landlocked country trying to maintain a cultural and ethnic identity even after decades and even centuries of hardship, but it does mean that cuisine, and yes, zymurgy, are arts that might stagnate without the influence of outside ideas. Seeing a sour cherry ale, a Coffee Stout, and even a Nettle beer made in small batches right here in Prague gives me hope that the locals are being reinvigotated by taking what is best about the American beer culture and adapting it to themselves, without losing sight of their own heritage and accomplishments.

If this sounds condescending or ignorant, it's not intended to be: a single taste of Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen here would convince even the most hidebound American beer geek that some of the best brewers in the world work right here in the Czech Republic, and I for one am very excited to see what kinds of products they will be able to produce when inspired by what we in the States have accomplished. The few brewpubs in town and the handful of microbreweries in country are just the first signs of what might eventually be accomplished, and to my mind is one of the most telling signs I've seen about the rebirth of life and vitality here after the fall of oppressive totalitarianism.

This is a spot to watch not only for beer geeks, but for lovers of creativity and humanity in general.  This is a country that is flourishing again, that is retaining its love of history while forging ahead, and the people here are fantastic. Look at the arts, literature, architecture, hell -- just look at all the construction that's been going on since I've been here. Prague has its problems, its poor and homeless, and certainly they've been affected by the same economic conditions as the rest of us, but these are a sturdy people, and they seem to be making it as well as anyone.

Love live great beer in Prague. Long live the great people of Prague.

Video: Kozel Cerny

Kozel Cerny (bottle)
Velke Popovice, Czech Republic
3.8% ABV

A friend of mine named Mick says this was her favorite beer when she was here in Prague last summer, so I knew I'd have to do a review of it sooner or later. I didn't realize how low the alcohol was on this when I tried it, which would explain why it's so smooth. Good beer, worth having again.

My numerical rating: 7.5/10

08 July 2010

Video: Primator Stout

Primator Stout (bottle)
Nachod, Czech Republic
4.8% ABV

I was working on my "Survival Czech" homework last night when I decided to open the bottle of stout I bought at the Tesco. And since I didn't know if I'd decide to have it again before I left, I turned on the camera and did a quick two-minute vid about the beer.

It gets a bit more bittersweet as you get to the bottom, and the dryness evens out a bit when it warms. I'd still give it about a 7.0/10.

07 July 2010

Another Brewpub in Praha

Shana had an extra hour off between classes today, so I met her in front of her building at Karluv University for a nice lunch. Which, here in Prague, generally involves beer in some way. I'd seen Minipivovar U Medvídků a couple of times walking to and from the shops downtown, and it's only about a twenty minute walk from the University, so we decided to give it a shot.

The brewery is actually located in a building within a mall area, and only the second floor is actually a microbrewery. Bottom floor contains a bar serving standard fare, which I didn't visit. The topmost floor is a hotel and seems to contain a small standing-room "caberet" with some tables. Walking up we saw a sign advertising "the smallest brewery in the Czech Republic," which I well believe. A small corner, really, with a few long tables. Pretty slow when we got there but with a few well-off locals filtering in and out.

We sat down and checked out the laminated beer menus on the table. The bartender spoke little English (although enough to get by -- I just couldn't really ask her any questions) but pointed out their beer selection. They had a "light," an "amber" which was some kind of half-and-half from her description, a beer with some kind of rose hips added, and their X-33, which is laughably called the strongest beer in the world. (It's listed at 12.6 ABV on their website, which means I could name at least a dozen beers stronger just off the top of my head.) At that strength, it's very likely the strongest beer in the Czech Republic, however, which means something.

I wish I had gotten the camera battery charger earlier so I could have taken pictures, because I doubt I'll go back there before we leave. Shana left it up to me what to order, so I picked a 0.5L serving of the rose hip beer and the light, figuring that anything considered a "blend" was probably not something I'd be interested in. The sweet beer came first, on the nose it had a strong cherry-like aroma with some very slight sour characteristics, reminded me of a very weak lambic. Tasted similar, but with a kind of dry yeasty malt character that was actually somewhat unpleasant. Shana didn't care for it either.

The second, the light, was a much hazier body than the Czech Lager I was expecting, and the flavor was no different. Very yeasty, definitely an unfiltered version of a lager. It reminded me more of someone's homebrew than a commercial beer, a homebrew made by someone still working out the recipe and technique. No fruit characteristics, but still with those faint sour notes....

Then I realized that this pivovar was brewing in open fermentation tanks, made of wood, and very near the serving area. How sterile could this process really be? The slight sourness was very likely due to some spoilage in the wort, which was either intended by the brewer or simply not noticed by the patrons.

How do you rate such a thing? I certainly wasn't a fan of those two beers, although I finished them, and they definitely improved as they got warmer, but can I really say that I know what the brewer intended better than the brewer? Ratings for the place on BeerAdvocate are mostly fairly positive, so did I just arrive on an off day? Did I just not try the right beers? My visit to Strahov was almost like coming home to a brewpub in the States, but this experience was alien and unpleasant. By saying that, I'm not trying to say that I expect all brewpubs to act like American beer-geek brewpubs, but I have drank fairly widely of dozens of styles of beer, as well as making beers of my own, and these beers tasted somehow off to me.

To give the brewery one last shot, I tried the aforementioned X-33. which was better than the other two. Very sweet malt presence, slightly sour (again), with a very slight hop presence that was overwhelmed by the alcohol. This was clearly an experimental beer for the brewery, and again, I felt like the experiment didn't quite work. Everything was a bit too unbalanced, and nothing really stood out all that strongly except that the brewers were clearly trying to brew strong beer.

If this place were in the States, I'd tell people to avoid it, but I can't say that the willingness to experiment is a bad thing for a minipivovar in the center of Prague's Old Town. The fact that locals were eating there led me to believe that this is a very authentically Czech place, rather than feeling like a tourist trap, an if this is the future of Czech brewing I'm definitely interested in seeing where it goes.

06 July 2010

Video: Gambrinus

Gambrinus Premium (bottle)
Plzen, Czech Republic
5.0% ABV

I'll give you more on my adventures here in Praha in the next day or two. I took a few minutes to record an upload a beer review here from the kolej (dorm), so here it is:

My numerical rating: 4.0/10

03 July 2010

Brewpubs and a Walking Tour

Who would have thought you could find a really great American IPA in Prague?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday I woke up at about 1:00 AM, having slept since about eight the previous night. Jet lag, I suppose. I'm composing this post at 4:00 in the morning local time, so it's not out of my system yet. Dammit.

Anyway, woke up and read for a few hours. Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns was what I was reading in the airport, so I'm finishing that before starting anything else. I do have some Kafka here and Shana has been talking up Unbearable Lightness of Being, so I will get some more locally-sourced literature before I leave. I read for a few hours, then slept from about 5 AM to 7 AM before getting up, showering, and eating the free breakfast provided by the dorms. Basically lots of cold cuts and bread, but I had a couple of cups of coffee and it did a nice job preparing me for the day. Isn't peasant food awesome?

After breakfast we wandered around a couple of blocks nearest the dorm, just generally scoping out the area. We found a couple of little markets where we'll be able to buy some basic groceries and, of course, beer. Shana picked up some bar soap and a couple of other items, then we sat in a park for a few minutes. Basically just a lazy morning.

We headed back to the dorm around 10, where Shana took a nap (she woke when I did yesterday, and didn't get the nap like I did) and I composed yesterday's post and caught up with email. Around that time a few of our friends started showing up in the dorm, including John and Katie, which was cool. Around 2:00 we were getting hungry, and Shana and I had talked about trying one of the brewpubs in town for lunch, because one was located about five minutes' walk from the dorm.

Originally I think it was just going to be she and I, but it ended up being a bit of a production because maybe eight or nine people decided to follow us for lunch. Some people we've known for a couple of years, but mostly new people, so I was a bit apprehensive about taking people to a place I've never been in a city where they speak a language I don't.

I figured out how to get to the place on the map, and pretty quickly ended up in Klasterni Pivovar, otherwise known as the Strahov Monastic Brewery. Where they had not only the expected Czech lagers and dark lagers, but a German-style Weizen and even an India Pale Ale on the chalkboard menu outside.

Obviously, I was intrigued. Our motley crew found a table and checked out the menu. Great prices, very decent-sounding food, and the aforementioned beers. The weizen and the IPA were both seasonal, but they were on-tap. Great. I decided on the weizen, as it was getting up in temps and I always love a good German-style wheat beer on a hot day.  Shana got the IPA.

One sniff and I knew my hefe was great. Lots of cloves and banana, very much like Schneider Hefe. Tasted very authentically Munich.

But how good could an IPA made in Prague be? Would it be watered down for a market not used to hoppy beers? Would it have crisp hop floral qualities, or be a mushy mess? I have to admit, I would have bet on a fairly lame interpretation of style, not because the Czechs don't know how to make beer, but just because the English Ale tradition from which modern IPAs come from is just very out of the general comfort zone of the region. There's no doubt that the Czechs make great beer, but could they make a great IPA?

The IPA and the Weizen. I want one of those glasses, too.
I have to admit, yes they could. Poured rich orange, left significant lacing, and smelled sweet, grapefruity, with a very good hop profile. I was in a social setting that didn't really encourage note-taking, but I'll definitely go back for a full review of both beers, which were excellent. I finished off the session with a serving of their Dark, which was also quite good. Definitely recommended to anyone looking for a great pint in Prague, although I know the weizen and the IPA are summer beers only.

Along with the beers, we had a bit of food. I had the chicken schnitzel with potatoes and chives, and Shana had goulash with some bread. Very nice comfort food, and pretty inexpensive.

After lunch, we had a walking tour scheduled with a local Czech professor of architecture and art. His name is Milos, and this was far from the dry, stuffy tour that you might imagine. Milos was personable, clever, willing to explain even the simplest concepts without condescension, and just an overall fascinating guy. He's lived in Prague his whole life, and told stories about his own history during the Communist era alongside the architecture lessons. Also a bit of a music geek, he claimed he started to learn English by listening to the Beatles, and told emotionally-charged anecdotes about the importance of Western culture, most specifically music, to the people of the Czech Republic during the period he described as "a half-prison." I'll leave it to Shana to give details of the tour, as she took lots of pictures and remembers a lot of it better than I, but suffice to say that we enjoyed the tour so much we're probably going to take it again today at 10:00, because Milos said that he likes to vary up the route between the two sessions, and while much of what we see will be the same, I'm sure we'll learn even more the second time.

I drink my first real Pilsner Urquell.
Plus Milos is just an awesome guy. After a fairly extended rant about the way tourism has destroyed what he loved about Old Town in Prague, he asked, "Is anyone ready for a beer?" Oh, hell yeah Milos. He took us into one of the bars just off the touristy strip and told us not to buy food, because it's outrageously expensive, but that they had the cheapest drafts of Pilsner Urquell in town, at only 29 karony. That's a little over a buck US, and let me tell you that's a steal. Urquell in the states is usually lightstruck and old, but fresh from a keg a few dozen miles from the source, it's amazingly fresh, hoppy, grassy and green -- just an amazing beer. I'm definitely going to try to get a video review of the stuff while I'm here, even if just a can or bottle, because it's worth it.

After the beer we completed the tour, then Milos showed us how to ride the tram. Before coming here, we each paid about fifty dollars for tram passes that allow unlimited rides for a month, and this looks to be our primary way of getting around. Public transport here is great; I'm not sure I'd even have a reason to own a car if I moved to Prague.

After the tour we went out with our friend Laura to buy some stuff at Tesco and to try this amazing gyro place she knew about near there. Except it turned out that Tesco closed at nine, and the metro stops have changed since last year, when Laura was here for the same program. It was a bit of an adventure getting back, but only because we were all tired and it was getting fairly late. Decent gyro, though.

The laptop is starting to die on me, so I'll wrap up for now. Hopefully Shana will post more details about the walking tour, because it really was amazing. You can view her photo album here, from which all the photos in this post are taken.  

First Day in Prague (and the flight!)

Do I really have to do the obligatory "oh my god that flight sucked I've been awake for twenty-nine hours and haven't eaten a solid meal since I was on the other side of the Atlantic" post? Because you can read about travel woes in about a billion places on the net, and every horrible stand-up in the nineties had a whole bit about airline food. Go read one of those, or whatever, and you'll get the nature of the experience.

Long flights suck, but I like to keep in mind this routine from one of my favorite comics, Louis CK (embedding disabled on vid, click on the link to see it). I got to wake up in my house in Kalamazoo and be in the middle of Prague less than thirty-six hours later -- to complain about the lines or the food or whatever is just looking the modern technological miracles in the wrong way. And in truth, my trip really wasn't that bad. I don't know if I was just lucky or if I just was in the right airports, but I stood in line for less than ten or fifteen minutes for the security checkpoints, and even waiting for boarding wasn't really that much of a pain.

Here was our itinerary. Took the train from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, which was maybe two and a half hours. I took a couple of minutes of video, intending to document the stops each time, but exhaustion and general malaise prevented that from continuing. There was a cute kid traveling alone in the seat next to ours, which was pleasant. Once in Dearborn we cabbed it to the Wayne County airport, got the boarding passes, checked our one big bag of luggage (that plus two carry-ons is all we've brought to Prague; we're traveling light), and went through the security checkpoint. Everyone was very pleasant and the whole experience up to this point was uneventful.

Our flight to Amsterdam was scheduled to leave at 4:00, but when we boarded we were told that the plane was having software issues communicating with the airport, so we couldn't lift off right away. I dozed off during this period, but woke back up before we were told to deplane, because the computer issue that was supposed to be fixed in a few minutes was going on a two hour fix. I sympathize, as my own experience working out software kinks means that I have some notion as to how frustrating they can be.

We deplaned and were given meal vouchers worth six dollars in any of the airport restaurants. There was a hotdog place nearby, so Shana and I decided to snack. I had a chili cheese dog and she had a Chicago dog -- we also shared chili cheese fries. This was a bit of a tactical error, as when we got back to the gate twenty minutes after deplaning, they were already loading people back up. Let me just say that one shouldn't have a chili dog five minutes before getting on a seven-and-a-half hour flight.

I meant to sleep some, but I found myself quite awake. There were quite a few movies available to watch in-flight, so I ended up amusing myself watching Cop-Out (terrible in places, really great in places) and The Green Zone (complicated feelings on this one, but suffice to say that taking real events and fictionalizing them into an action movie didn't fulfill my needs for either docudrama or action beats). I also watched a bit of Sherlock Holmes and the Hangover, but since I'd already seen both of those I just skipped around.

I did have a beer on the flight. They had the options of Corona, Heinken, and Miller Lite. I picked the Miller Lite mostly because the stewardess already had her hand on it, and I hadn't had a really bad beer in awhile. Yeah, just as crappy as I remember -- the Heineken would have been a better choice. I would've gotten another if they'd come around offering again, but that was not the case.

Eventually landed in Amsterdam, battling intestinal distress from the chili dog and the in-flight meal, and I have to be honest -- I couldn't stop grinning like a fool in the airport. We had about a five-hour layover, and this was my first-ever trip overseas, so even just wandering around the overpriced shops in the airport was a bit of a treat. I didn't buy anything, but it was still pretty awesome wandering around the dual-language bookstores and trying to puzzle out the Dutch advertisements.

Everyone at the airport was incredibly kind, including the man who had the misfortune of frisking me after the metal detector went off. Professional, relaxed, but prepared -- I was half-expecting a harrangue, but after a simple search I was allowed to go about my business. Shana had gotten a migraine at the end of the flight and was looking for tylenol, as she forgot her excedrin at home, but over-the-counter medication isn't as easy to find in Europe as in the US. A very pleasant airline employee helped out considerably by giving Shana two asprin from her purse and a bottle of water, though -- one more for the "Amsterdam people are awesome" column.

Anyway, after the layover we ended up on a Cityhopper flight. This reminded me greatly of my only other time on an airplane, which was flying Southwest to New York City for Tim's wedding. All the instructions on the plane were broadcast in two languages, though, which was pretty freakin' adorable to my American ears. I especially like the pronunciation of "Prague" in Dutch, which is "pragh" with a kind of pleghmatic hard-H at the end. Being in Europe really makes me want to learn another language.

Landed in Prague and went directly to baggage claim while Shana tried to exchange currency. We'd had warnings that the airlines lost baggage regularly, but ours was out almost immediately. The ATM at the currency exchange was out, but we found one near the airport exit, where we both picked up a few Czech crowns. There was some question about the exchange rate, but Google claims that 1000 koruny is about 48 US dollars, so I'm rounding to 50 and figuring it's easy to divide by two and lop off a zero to get a handle on pricing. Prices in general have been decent here so far, which should make this a relatively inexpensive trip.

Took a cab to the dorm, which is really a small hostel near Old Town. We came in, did a bit of procedural stuff, and went on a walk in our search for non-plane-related nourishment. The girl running most of the dorm stuff for the program recommended a nice Tibetan place, which sounded good. And, yeah, it was. For about 400 karony we stuffed ourselves silly, and Shana had more food than she could eat. She'll get a smaller dish next time. I also had my first-ever beers in Europe (I was considering getting a Heineken in the Amsterdam airport, but not even I am sanguine about drinking in an airport at 8:30 AM, even if it's around two AM by my body clock.), which ended up being Gambrinus (not sure which variety). Gambrinus on draft in Prague was sweet and malty, with a nice grassy aroma, and I hope to do a more formal review later.

I had a couple of these with dinner then off to do some exploring. We were exhausted and only took a couple of pictures, but had a great couple of hours walking around the parts of Old Town closest to the dorm. It's a very touristy area (read: many signs are in English) but very pretty and with some pretty cool art galleries and plenty of restaurants. We're going on a walking tour this afternoon guided by a Czech native, so I'll just talk about that more when we get to it.

On the way back in we stopped off at a little cafe where Shana could get some water, because she was getting pretty dehydrated. (Note to self: Carry a filled water bottle at all times in Prague.) I got another beer, because, why the hell not? This was a Budvar bar....

(An aside. In the Czech Republic, as with a fair part of Europe to my understanding) most bars have agreements with particular breweries to only serve their products. So unlike in the US where you'll see Bud/Miller/Coors taps right next to each other, here each bar advertises the type of beer they serve prominently out front, and then only has one tap for that kind of beer. In America the three-tier system prevents this sort of thing, which is probably the single best justification for the tree-tier system. I've read that these types of agreements are slowly becoming less common in Prague, opening the way for more beer variety, but every place I've seen thus far has been a one-tap shop.)

Anyway. This was a Budvar bar, so I got my first taste of what is labeled in the US as Czechvar on this side of the Atlantic. Crisp, hoppier than expected, an less grassy than my memories of the beer in the states. Very nice. We're planning a day trip to the Budvar brewery, where I hope to take some video, so look forward to that.

That's all I've got so far. I'll try to keep everyone posted on my experiences here, especially the beer, but for now I guess I'll see you later.