Tastings School - Prowling around Prague

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Prowling around Prague

City breaks for the beer enthusiast have never been easier, and you couldn't do better than Prague. But where's the best place to find a good beer? Lubomír Sedlák reports

Neither of the two biggest and most famous Czech breweries Plzensky Prazdroj (part of SABMiller) and Budejovicky Budvar (still state-owned) is located in Prague. The first, as most Beers of the World readers probably know, can be found in the west Bohemian city of Plzen (better known abroad under its German name Pilsen), the second in Ceské Budejovice (Budweis), in the southern part of the country.

This fact does not, however, mean that you cannot gulp down as many pints of Pilsner Urquell or the genuine Budweiser in the nation’s capital itself.

The first obvious choice is a pub called U Zlatého Tygra (‘The Golden Tiger’) because local connoisseurs will confirm that here, care for the lager from Pilsen is above-average, if not actually superb. A pint costs 32 Czech crowns, which is slightly more than one euro, and it is definitely value for money.

The ‘Tiger’ is reputable not only for what is drunk there but who has in the past visited the place. Its most distinguished customer had been Bohumil Hrabal, considered to be the greatest living Czech writer until he died 10 years ago, apparently by committing suicide.

When United States president Bill Clinton visited Prague in the 1990s, his Czech counterpart Václav Havel took him to this pub to meet Hrabal in person over a pilsner. The three sat right opposite the entrance door and a photograph commemorating the event is hanging above the table in question.

Since U Zlatého Tygra is quite small, some tables are reserved solely for regulars (who actually account for some 90 per cent of all the visitors).

Owner Karel Hulata therefore advises anyone else to come between 3pm, when the place opens, and 5pm, before it gets too crowded.

Another Prague tavern where they have an excellent Pilsner Urquell on tap is a rather obscure pub called U Jelínku. Here it can be even harder to find a seat, even during the day, because it takes in 50 people at the most. It’s a tiny, somewhat smoky, affair frequented primarily by local men aged 50+ and since it is slightly hidden, even if in the city’s centre, you will barely find a foreign tourist inside.

About halfway between U Zlatého Tygra and U Jelínku is where you can drink a very good Budvar.

Called U Medvídku, it has not only the light version of the noted lager but also the much less frequent dark variety.

The Budweiser (28 crowns a pint) is served on the ground floor but if you walk through to the back and up the stairs, you will find yourself in the pub’s own microbrewery. Here, you can try the Czech Republic’s strongest beer (11.8% ABV) or the lager (5.2%), which is part fermented in barrique oak barrels.

In the basement, you will find a small beer museum (admission is free), which is combined with a store that sells things such as T-shirts and caps.

Next to the pub on ground floor is a small, three-star hotel run by the U Medvídku owners, an excellent place to set up camp during your visit to Prague. A single bed including breakfast costs around CKr2,000 per night, depending on the season.

Budejovicky Budvar has its “official” pub in Prague, too. Called Budvarka and part of the brewery’s restaurant chain, it is rather inconveniently located in one of the city’s suburbs. On the other hand it is on the way to the airport (a stone’s throw from the bus stop of the number 119 bus which will transfer you to your plane).

The third biggest Czech beer maker (after Plzensky Prazdroj and Budejovicky Budvar) Staropramen is located in the capital itself. Now under the wings of InBev, the brewery has its own pub facing the street (on your right when you walk in) and a bar (on the other side) called Na Verandách which is worth a visit even if again not quite in the city’s centre.

The place has three lagers on tap – the flagship Staropramen, both light and dark, as well as Granát, which is made from several malts. You can also order some of the specials such as Kelt, which is a stout of the Guinness or Murphy’s type, or the smooth and frothy Velvet.

It is also possible to visit the brewery itself with a commentary in English – a tour lasts one hour, including a tasting, but it’s best to book in advance.

The city also has its brewpubs. The only one which existed during the communist era (and, according to executive director of the Czech Breweries and Malthouses Association, Jan Vesely, is actually the oldest brewery in the world, having been opened in the year 1499), called U Fleku, is with its eight rooms and a patio one of the biggest restaurants in this Central European country.

The beer here is a dark, 5% ABV lager, and a very good one, too, I must say, even if by local standards somewhat on the expensive side, four-tenths of a litre glass coming to CKr59.

Visitors to U Fleku can make an excursion to its brewery with commentary in English. It is open Monday to Friday between 10am and 4pm (at weekends only if you reserve in advance and have something to drink or eat there first). The minimum number of people is 10, but the CKr160 ticket for one includes a glass of beer to drink, and a branded glass to take home.

The pub also has a beer museum, in this case the entrance is only 50 crowns but you must reserve beforehand even during the week.

The popularity of microbreweries mushroomed in the Czech Republic only after 1989, when the country discarded its centrally-planned economy system. In Prague itself there are now several, including the one on first floor of the already-mentioned U Medvídku pub, but the best-known besides U Fleku is probably Novomestsky pivovar.

The beer here is a somewhat less strong (4% ABV) non-filtered yeasty lager in both a light and a dark version. It is somewhat on the sweet side so closer to Budvar than to the more bitter Pilsner Urquell.

Just as in the case of U Fleku, you can inspect the three respective parts of the microbrewery, in other words the brewing tanks, fermenting room and storage cellar.

The excursion takes 20 minutes and costs 60 crowns per person.

This place is very popular with Russians.

Its brewer in fact told me that he has all their bank holidays noted down in his calendar because when such a date draws near, he has to make twice as much beer as usual.

Then there is the Pivovarsky Dum brewpub. Not in the very centre of the city, it is still within walking distance from Václavské Námestí, Prague’s main boulevard. It is one of the few bars (if not actually the only one) to have on its list of non-pasteurised and unfiltered beers – all with 4% alcohol – those flavoured with fruit such as sour cherry, banana or lime, as well as other more unusual flavourings such as nettle or coffee. I tried a little of each but being perhaps somewhat conservatively, went for a pint of the straightforward lager.

A guided tour in English through the microbrewery (which is in this case quite small) costs CKr100 but half the price if you settle for merely a leaflet in this language.

The last brewpub I would like to mention, if only in passing, is Klásterní pivovar, located up on the hill beyond Prague’s castle that towers above the city centre. It’s worth the walk from the Malostranská underground station for the views along the way, if nothing else. A small place, it brews two lagers, the stronger with an alcohol content of around 6% and the other one at approximately 5%.

The odd-one-out among the city’s most interesting pubs is Pivní Galerie. It is neither big nor a microbrewery, and in fact when I was there had only two lagers on tap (I ordered the Závis from the Policka brewery which was excellent). But you do have a choice of something like 180 different bottled beers, many of which are very hard-to-find, from the country’s numerous independent breweries. Then you have the choice of either drinking the beer on the spot or taking it away with you.

Or maybe both.

Info
U Zlatého Tygra
www.uzlatehotygra.cz
Nearest underground station: Národní

U Jelínku
Charvátova 1, Prague 1 (no website)
Nearest underground station: Mustek or Národní

U Medvídku
www.umedvidku.cz
Nearest underground station: Národní

Budvarka
www.budvarkadejvice.cz
(website in Czech only)
Nearest underground station: Dejvická

Na Verandách
www.pivovary-staropramen.cz
Nearest underground station: Andel

U Fleku
www.ufleku.cz
Nearest underground station: Národní

Novomestsky Pivovar
www.npivovar.cz
Nearest underground station: Mustek

Pivovarsky Dum
www.gastroinfo.cz/pivodum
Nearest underground station: Karlovo námestí

Klásterní Pivovar
www.klasterni-pivovar.cz
Nearest underground station: Malostranská

Pivní Galerie: www.pivnigalerie.cz
Nearest underground station: Vltavská