Wednesday 2 May 2012

Czech Mate!

So I'm going to the Czech Republic….

Prague; that old dirty medieval slut of a city, with its crocked corners and Neo-Disney castles, where Scandinavian beer zombies crawl around with their fat fanny packs loaded with oil money and greed. The plane leaves at 06:20 sharp and I got a ticket with my name on it. I`ll spare you all the sticky details, but I`ll give you some facts about this awesome place, and the impact this old Bohemian region has had on how the majority of people in the world today drink beer, and how their old and proud tradition of craft brewing has been twisted, manipulated and industrialised through lesser worthy brewers and international corporations.

Let`s begin. The plane is waiting……. Kafka is calling from the grave. Prague; Here I come. The Czech Republic; known for being one of the most economically successful countries in Eastern Europe after the fall of the iron butterfly, only beaten by tiny Slovenia, but who cares about Slovenia anyway. They`re tiny….*. They’re also the world heaviest consumers of beer. Winning! The first thing that strikes you ´when you enter Old Town Prague is the amazing architecture, the grand castles and tall church spires that’s stood around for centuries. It’s really a stunning city to behold. Just thinking about the graves of kings, that’s been entombed for over a millennium up at the castle really puts things in perspective, and tells about what a seat of power this place must have been. As you push your way through the hordes of Japanese and American tourists, climbing up the church spire of Prague Castle and gazing over the ancient city it really makes you want to have a beer. To bad you have to climb down the narrow 280 step staircase again, causing several seizures along the way. You get yourself back to town as quickly as you can. I took the time to do a little bar hopping along the way, as I had already done some research on which bars could be interesting to visit.

First up was the Pivovarsky Klub just outside Old Town. A nice little shack which reminded me a little bit of a rundown Brewdog Bar in Aberdeen, only not as classy or hip. The first thing that struck me was the selection of beers on display, and you could almost mistake it for being a beer shop had it not been for the tables and the bar of course. They had a huge selection of Czech and German lagers of which I couldn't even pronounce the names of. They also had a very respectable selection of Belgian Trappist beers and some more familiar Brewdog and other famous craft beers, but mostly lagers. Since I had already done some research about which beers could be interesting to try, I went straight for the Primator Stout, which I had read a great deal about from other beer bloggers. I knew from the start that this was probably not going to be similar to American stouts that I am so familiar with, so I kinda reset my “asshole beer reviewer” system and went for it. A good stout, no more, no less. It was good to have something different than the super sweet Pils Urquell and Kozel that dominate the bars in Prague and I would definitely recommend it to others. I then went through a list of different local lagers, all of which was a bit too sweet for my tasting. The Czech apparently has no problem adding loads of sugar in their beers and when the beers are low ABV, light bodied and with no special malts it gets a bit too sweet for my pallet. A sweet IPA or Stout I can handle, not to many sweet lagers I`m afraid. That’s why I was so glad to get my hands on an Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen, one of the few lager beers that I really hold up high. Awesome! It`s like drinking sausage flavoured charcoal. Truly a beer with balls that will give you hair on places of your body you never knew existed. It's probably one of the smokiest beers you can get your hands on, and truly something worth checking out. The Pivovarsky Klub is a place I can recommend to everyone. It was quiet, they served food, even though I only had some cheese with the beers, and they had a fantastic beer menu. I will surly come back to this bar in the future.

The second waterhole I dragged myself into was the Zly Casy, another bar with lots of local brews on tap and a very respectable bottle selection, most of which were imports like Mikkeller, De Molen, Flying Dog & Emelisse. Entering the door I got a bit surprised. There was just an empty corridor, looking very abandoned. Dirty floor, no lights and a crocked Heineken sign on the wall. There was a staircase going down to the cellar and I followed it. Coming around the corner there stood three mean looking enormous guys there where one was holding a huge Rottweiler in a leash. This is where I start asking myself; “wtf have you got yourself into now?”. As I passed them nervously I kindly asked if this was the way to the bar. The guy holding the beast on a leash grunted and nodded downwards. I walked on, expecting to get a swing from a crowbar in the back of my head and gang banged back in some alley. This didn't happen of course and as I came to an arched door with a curtain over it I could hear music coming from the other side. Expecting to enter the lair of Jabba the Hut, I could almost picture the fat slug laughing his ass of as he throws me down to the big frikkin Sarlacc. I pulled the curtain aside, and what do you know: It`s a bar, yeah! Finally I can get down to business. I think I counted around 20 on tap and they probably had roughly around 100 beers on bottle, so it was a fine selection indeed. I went straight for some of the local stuff trying out a nice Matuska Winterbock and a Tambor Tmavy Special 13 dunkel. They also served food here, even though I didn't try it. The place was very nice, located as mentioned in a cellar. Nice, cozy and a place I would have liked to spend some more time in. As they had such a large selection of bottled beers that I wanted to bring back home, I asked if I could buy some with me home. The bartender looked at me like I had just eaten a booger out of my nose, nodded and went back to his business. I then spent about half an hour, like a kid in a toy store, picking out some awesome imported beers. As I was about to leave I remembered that there also should be a beer store located around here somewhere. As I only had the address but not a map I asked the bartender where this store was. “Up street to left” he said in his bad English. I grabbed my severely overloaded plastic bag containing bottles of pure awesomeness and walk back up the stairs proud as a peacock. I walked outside, turned to the left and what do you know, it was the next door building. I now know why the bartender looked at me as if I was wearing my pants on my head when I wanted to by some bottles from him. He probable thought I was the dumbest tourist ever, and I felt like it. 

The beer store was off course Pivkupectvi, and what an awesome store it was. They had stuff from Brewdog, Mikkeller, Hoppin Frog, Great Divide, Nøgne Ø, de Molen etc. and all were awesome. Luckily for me they had none of the beers I bought at the bar so I didn't bother with the fact that I probably paid twice the amount than what the beers would have cost in the store had they had them. They also had a very respectable selection of various Czech and German beers as well and many Belgian beers too. The girl behind the counter knew her stuff and was very helpful and I ended up spending about an hour in there just talking about beer with her and getting recommendations on Czech brews. I probably took with me around 20 beers from here, including the last two Sweet Horizons and Red Horizons they had left. Winning!!! 

I now actually had so many beers I needed a bigger suitcase. As I lined them up on the table at my hotel room I finally became aware of my madness. Who buys so much beer with them home that they not only have to buy bigger luggage, but also almost certainly have to pay overload on the plane trip home, not to mention the fact that they have to pay a toll when declaring it to customs. Who goes out and buys 20 cheap t-shirts from the small souvenir shops in order to tuck in the beers so they won’t break during transport. Who lines up their beer according to brewery, size, and style and takes perverted pictures of them. Me!!! I do that. I`m that stupid. But hey, everybody`s gotta have some kind of malfunction right? All of them made it home safely. Yeti, Schlenkerla Eiche Dobbel Bock, Old Foghorn, Lost Dog and Wood Aged Double IPA from Great Divide was just some of the ones I brought home. They are down in my cellar, waiting for that special moment. They're awesome and they`re mine, my precious...

I tried to use this trip as a mind opener for lager beers. I`m not too keen on lagers, and here is why. If you exclude all the obvious blend brands I am still sitting here with a feeling that ales are far superior to lagers, just because of the fruitiness and complexity the ale yeast brings to the brew. I always feel there's something missing in a lager, even in the really good ones. There is an element that should be there, but which isn't. Even when drinking fantastic beers like eisbocks and dobbelbocks I can never quit escape the fact that I`m sitting there comparing them to ales. But that`s just me. That doesn't mean that I don`t like them or that all lagers are bad. I just prefer ales, with few exceptions. I also found the Czech lagers to be extremely sweet, since many add sugars to them, so it didn't help me either as I explained earlier. So instead of becoming a born again lager drinker, I became a bit curious about the history of lagers and the main difference in lager brewing and ale brewing.

So what is the difference between lager and ale? Well, beer can usually be separated in the two mentioned groups plus wild fermentation, yet there are many different types and styles within those types, which I`ll not go into details here. But...

Ales (Stout, IPA, Porter) are beer that is fermented warm, usually meaning in room temperature. The beer ferments quickly, creating a sweet, fruity and full bodied drink. The yeast strains used are top fermenting yeasts, meaning that the process of turning sugars into alcohol takes place at the top of the cask.

Lager (Pilsner, Bock, Dortmunder, Export and Märzen) is a type of beer that is fermented and conditioned at low temperatures with a bottom fermenting yeast, creating a mild tasting beer where hops play a bigger role (even though this is no longer relevant to most lagers). Most people have drunk it. Most have drunk too much of it and most that drink it will never leave it. You have it in every pub in the world, with a few exceptions. It is everywhere, and usually butt cheap. Norwegians would probable disagree with me here, but compared to most craft brews and other beer styles, lager is the cheapest beer to make, especially 95% of what you buy at the local store or giga mall. They are the most tasteless, least hopped, less malty and generally drunken ice cold, making them even more tasteless, yet they have become so popular across the globe. Why?

It all had to do with the invention of the refrigerator, and all the effects that had on cooking and the everyday household. Suddenly you could store food for longer periods of time, without having your wife dig a deep hole in the ground in your backyard, or if you were lucky, lived next to a deep cave. Actually storing lagers in caves was a common practise throughout the medieval period where bottom-fermenting yeast seems to have emerged as a hybridisation in the early 1400s. The German word “lager” actually means “storage”. So now you could produce large quantities of this beer all year round by refrigerating it during fermentation thanks to the industrial revolution. (Pilsner Urquell was one of the very first to produce their beers like this.) Nothing like a cool drink in the summer months while working in those coal mines eyh.

Since darker and maltier beers costs more to produce due to higher percentage of malt, and they are preferable drunk at higher temperatures, the pilsner quickly became popular during the nineteenth century with the help of intense marketing. Since the beer now also could be made quicker, they replaced ale as the preferable drink during the middle of the 1800`s as the breweries could make cheaper beer for the people. Just in Bohemia ale breweries were reduced from 281 to 18 in just ten years while lager breweries went up from 135 to way over 800 in the same period. In USA another factor also contributed to the rise of the pale lager. They were not bound by the German Reinheintgebot, a purity law, which the only allowed ingredients of beer are water, hops, barley malt  and later yeast.  The law was actually just a means to prevent competition from beers brewed elsewhere with a wider range of ingredients. Could you see my middle finger right now you`d know exactly what I think about the Reinheitsgebot. The Americans introduced corn and rise to the beer, reducing the body and increasing the alcohol content of the beer, reducing costs and upping profit. Welcome Bud, Miller and Coors. I love beers that mix in new and different ingredients. It`s all about making new types of beer and keeping it fresh and interesting, but corn and rise has no part in beer as they add no flavor, no body and nothing else that will make a beer interesting. These ingredients are there just to increase profits for the brewery and trick you into thinking you`re drinking something nice by telling you to drink it ice cold and spewing fancy expensive commercials in your face. There is a reason why people don`t like their beers warm. It`s because you finally get to taste how shitty it actually tastes. A good beer can be drunk at room temperature (depending on the style), as different temperatures will enhance other levels of sweetness and aroma, and if you for example start drinking your Imperial Stout very cold, and let it temper for a while, you will suddenly sit there with a completely different drink at the end, try it.

Enough about that. So now you know why Bud Light has no taste. It`s designed that way. Every time you twist the cork, they laugh in your face, taking your money and spending it on increasingly costly advertisements making you buy more shit they produce. I`d rather spent that money on a trip to Prague any day. Good food, good people, good beer and good bye!

- Kjetil for Die By The Beer blog!

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