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.

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