27 Jun 2008

Out of tune

This is an entry I should have written long ago. The reason why I didn't do it before is that when I went to visit Louis Armstrong I wasn't carrying my cammera, so I promised myself I would go back some day and make photos of the place.

I never did.

Why? You might be asking.

That visit was a distaster. I decided to go to Armstrong because it must be one of the few places in town that stock Litovel, beers with which I wasn't very acquainted. It has two branches, both in Vinohrady, both in quiet streets. I chose the one in Manesová because it was the most convenient for me at the time.

I liked the decoration very much. To many, it might be a bit too much on the kitch side, but I found the jazz theme kind of amusing. When I walked in I took a few seconds to admire the décor. I spotted a table for two in one corner and there I was heading when one of the waiters with a pose, attitude and speaking like a bouncer at a posh disco (though much, much smaller in frame) asked me if I wanted anything. "To have lunch", I answered. Then he asked me if I was alone and when my answered was affirmative, he escorted me to the table I had previously chosen. For a moment I felt like sitting at a nearby table for four, to see his reaction, but I was hungry I couldn't be bothered with the trouble.

His colleague, with a slightly less bullish attitude, brought the menu. Good price, in those days the lunch menu went for 69Kc that would buy you a soup, main course from a choice of four and a drink, which included a small beer.

I went for a classic. Fried mushrooms with potatoes and tartar sauce. The soup that day was a pea cream, nothing remarkable, but did the job. The main course, on the other hand, was awful. The mushrooms were tasteless and the sauce watery, but the medal goes to the potatoes. Is it possible to ruin something so simple as boiled potatoes? It seems that it is in Louis Armstrong. They were so rubbery that I think I could have played a game of squash with them. Maybe there were part of a batch the the late trumpetist cooked on a visit to Prague, because they certainly weren't fresh.

Service didn't improve much during the meal. After I got tired of eating those rubber balls, I put the plate on the side and got no response. Even after I finished my beer neither of them came to ask if I wanted anything else. I am a patient person and I know that sometimes, when the place is really full, it is hard for the service to be on top of everything, even more if you are sitting in some remote corner of the restaurant. But here I was in plain view, and only a couple of tables were taken. The blokes had simply decided to ignore me. Can it be that they don't like long haired men with beards?

If only the beer had been fine. But no, keeping in rythm with the place, it was also horrible. Litovel Premium, pale gold, too much carbonation (I would blame that on the place) and pretty much nothing that could be called a distinctive flavour. Best word to describe it, Eurolager.

For several months I told myself that I would give it another chance, that I should go to the branch in Čermákova, not far from Nám. Míru. But after reading and hearing less than flattering comments about these restaurants, I thought it would be better to save some Crowns and stay with the first, and very bad, impression.

To be avoided

Louis Armstrong
Italská 30 y Čermákova 4
Praga 2

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24 Jun 2008

The Golden Spring

This is another one of those beers that I didn't like at the beginning, that I always tried to avoid. Zlatopramen 11° was in the list of my least favourite beers. But as it was the case with Platan, at some point something changed for the better and I stopped running away from it.

Zlatopramen is the flagship brand of Drinks Union, Heineken's brand new asset, joining Krušovice and Starobrno. It was actually this beer that started the trend of jedenáctký. Now, there are only a handful of breweries that don't make a 11°balling beer, in many cases they are almost indistiguishable from the 10° or 12°. Such was the market success of this beer that made Zlatopramen, once some sort of cheaper version of Březňák, be favoured by DU's people. Much is owed to the advertising campaigns and the slogan "O stúpen lepši" (a degree better). This is a beer that aims to compete with the most popular desítký, nothing too ambitious in quality terms.

The other day I fancied drinking something different with lunch at home. I was nearby one of the outlets of one of the local supermarket chains and I decided to go it to see what they had. I wasn't surprised (neither happy) to see that it's easier to find imported rubbish like Heineken, Stella Artois or even Corona (?!?!) than Czech regional beers. I took a bottle of Zlatopramen 11° because it had been a long time since I'd drunk it last.

When pouring down it builds a nice head, that stays there for quite long. The colour is deep gold, and has very little carbonation. A pretty handsome beer. On the nose I felt some mild caramel playing together with equally mild sweet cream notes, all as some sort of garnish for fruit like pineapple. It goes in mostly fruity and caramelly, and it ends in a more bitter herbal note, very pleasant I would say. It's not a beer I would actively seek, but I wouldn't walk away from it if I was thirsty on a Summer day. Neither would I put any objections if someone suggests it as a session beer.

The biggest mystery is what will happen with this beer, and the others from Drinks Union, once Heineken finally takes control. I hope they go the Starobrno's way and not the Staropramen's.

Na Zdraví!

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17 Jun 2008

Well connected

At first sight Privní Pivní Tramvaj (First Beer Tram) might look like a dive, and maybe at second and third sight as well. It's located right next to the last stop of tram 11, in Spořilov, the northern end of that monument to twisted Communist social mentality that is Jizní Město, an endless forest of paneláky that can bring down even the most upbeat character. It can't be any further from the tourist crowds.

After gathering a bit of courage and walking in, we can see that, what looked like any other of the millions of Gambáč pubs, is actually something much more interesting. We can notice a very particular atmophere. It's a small place, its chairs are actually benches rescued from old trams and the walls are decorated with paintings and rock posters. It's eeriely quiet in the afternoon, you can almost start to miss the almost dispossed local drunkard loosing his last coins at the fruit machine while cheap vodka, but that's just for a second or two.

Surprises don't end there, though. Beer is what brought me to this SPP hospoda of 2006. Of course they tap something else and better than the usual stuff from Pilsen, I wouldn't have gone all the way there if not. There is Primátor Weizen at 26Kc for a very well drafted pint. That might be enough, but there's more; the fourth tap. This pub must be the pioneer of the rotating taps in Prague. Anything can be found there, on my last visit they had Opat 12° kvasnicové, a very fruity light amber beer that can be almost chewed.

It's really worth going all the way there. I don't think the service speaks any language other than Czech, but they are really friendly and I don't think they will mind a few barbarians visiting in small numbers.
První Pivní Tramwaj
Tram 11 - Spořilov
opens at 2PM

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14 Jun 2008

Weekend flash

For those in Prague between June 20 and 22 who want to taste some good beers, I recommend you make it to Zlý Časy. They will be tapping beers from Plzeňský Kraj, some of which have never seen the light in the capital.

The represented breweries will be:

Kout na Šumavě (that according to Evan Rail brews the best Pilsner Lager in Czech Rep.)
U rytíře Lochoty
and if there is space, that Urquell one

Each will have to beers that will rotate in the 7-9 taps.

I won't miss it this time

Na Zdraví!

13 Jun 2008

Something is changing

I really like cafés, but the old fashioned ones. I don't like at all those with plastic or metal furniture, LCD screens on the walls that only play MTV, and with a decoration that seems to have been designed by a robot. Fortunately, in Prague, there are still several, and very good, ones from the others.
Dobrá Trafika is one of them. It has two branches, one in Malá Strana and the other one in Vinohrady. Both are well known, but I'm sure there are many who have walked by the door without taking a second look at them. That's because in the front there is a "trafika", basically a news agent, where you can also buy tobacco, alcohol, etc. However, both have a room in the back, and there is were the café works.

Dobrá Trafika has been one of my favourite cafés for some time already. It has many things that make it ideal to sit down in the afternoon to relax a little while reading a good book. The decoration is of the kind I like the most at a café. Old and worn out mismatching furniture, improvised looking accessories and pictures that looked like something out of an old man's attic, and blues or jazz in a moderate volume as soundtrack. It's one of those places where you can loose track of time, the somewhat slow and informal service helps in this. And for coffee lovers, it is also a pretty interesting place to visit, they offer coffees from around the world at nice prices (33Kc for a cup of Ethiopian coffee). They also have a wide variety of teas, some snacks and sweets, wine and, of course, beer.

And it's beer what I wanted to talk about (surprise!). They always had Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell in bottles. Obviously it wasn't the beer what kept me going there, but there were a few times when if I'd had something more decent to choose from, I would have stayed a bit longer after finishing my cup of New Guinea coffee, or maybe to wash down the nakladaný hermelín that I sometimes fancied, and that I invariably ended up eating somewhere else.

Things changes a few months ago. Tired of the increasing mediocrity of Gambáč (believe me, they aren't alone), the owners decided to change the brand. In an act of wisdom, instead of stocking any other of the big brands or, worse still, and imported eurolager, they decided for the beers from Primátor. The whole line can be bought bottled, and in the Malá Strana branch, you have a choice of three on tap, Světlý Ležák 12°, the brilliant Polotmavé 13° (this must be the only place tapping it in Prague) and the increasingly popular Weizen.

And so it was that the other day, during a break in the afternoon, I decided to stop by the Malá Strana branch. It was rather warm and very sticky. From the entrance to the café I spotted an empty table in one corner of the patio, and there I went. I ordered a Poltomavé 13°. It felt so good on a day like that. Primátor beers bottled can be very good, but some of them get even better when on tap, perhaps because they aren't pasteurised. That amber lager is one of them. It's got a fuller body and a more citrusy finish, delicious for a summer afternoon.

It was followed by Weizen, which has slowly become one of my favourite beers. It's sweeter than the German wheat beers, and that makes it very good for those who want to start exploring these family. I drank it with a nakladaný hermelín. Having lived already six years in Prague, during which I must have eaten hundreds of these marinated cheeses all over town, I fancy myself as a connoisseur. I liked that, when I first ordered, the waitress didn't want to sell it because, as she said, they had just put it to marinade. However, she came back shortly after to tell me that they had another jar, and if I still wanted it, I could have one. The hermoš had a very nice presentation and a lot of oregano. It wasn't bad, but a couple more days in the jar woudln't have hurt. Anyway, it went really well with my Weizen.

Really, being able to sit metres from the rat race of the centre, in such a quiet place, ejoying such good beers at a good price (31KC/0.5l) it simply great.

But Dobrá Trafika is not the only case in Prague. Logos from small breweries are being seen more and more often, more pubs and restaurants are starting to stock lesser known beers. Brands that before were only known by a minority are starting to show up in supermarket chains. Are we in the first moments of a slow revolution? Is this the hour when the owners of restaurants, cafés and pubs start to realise that they don't have to stock rubbish such as Stella Artois in order to be modern and different? Let´s hope so, and let´s also hope that the Czech consumer finally opens their eyes and sees what they were missing, and what they will miss if they don't start supporting the smaller breweries a bit more. The same goes for foreign residents and visitors.

Dobrá trafika v KORUNNÍ
Korunní 42
Prague 2

Dobrá trafika na ÚJEZDĚ
Újezd 37
Prague 1

9 Jun 2008

We had to wait so long

Pražský Most u Valšu is the newest brewpub in Prague. We had to wait long for it. Its opening was planned for the end of last year, but a series of technical and bureaucratic problems resulted in their beers not seeing the light until a couple of weeks ago.

They didn't make much of a fuss about it. I think the owners were afraid of announcing the "opening" and then another problem would come up. Fortunately for them, though, u Valšu is a restaurant that has been open for quite some time already, so the business was not much affected and things were more or less normal (except, maybe, for the constant questions about the kettles in the cellar or when the beer would be ready). Even before their beer was ready I had visited it a couple of times. They were already a sort of rarity in the neighbourhood since they stocked Rohozec and Březňák, which are reason enough to drop by every now and then. Still, I wanted to wait for the brewery to be fully working before writing a review about it.

And there I went, full of expectations. Despite being metres from Betlemské Nám. and its historical church (that is where Jan Hus started his reformist preaching), the place was almost empty at lunch time. I went straight to the cellar, followed by a smiley and friendly waitress who took my order.

The beer came quickly, I also ordered something for lunch. I really fancied Svíčkova, even though it was quite warm outside. They had it as one of the lunch specials, the waitress was really great in drawing my attention to it, I had ordered it from the regular menu, where it costs 115Kc, whereas the lunch special went for 85Kc and included soup.

The soup was a pea cream with bits of smoked meat, it was alright. Done with that, it was the turn of the Svíčkova na smetaně. It's one of my favourites, but here at u Valšu, at least this day, it was prepared in the best tourist trap style. The sauce was watery, almost flavourless. It actually tasted more like UHO (universalní hnědá omačka - universal brown sauce) without salt or spice than the classic sauce made with root vegetables and cream.

The beer? Nothing to write home about either. It leaves so much to be desired, if craft beer is what we are talking about. Comparing isn't always fair, but in this case is valid; so I will compare U Valšu's Světlý Ležák (the only one they had) with those of Pivovarský Dům and Richter. It can't hold a candle to them, actually, it couldn't even sit at the same table. I would even put it several steps behind Novomětský Pivovar's. It's got a nice body, yes, but not enough of it either. The flavours are too mild and finish is a fleeting glimpse. At moments it gave me the impression that I was drinking a nice industrial 11°, and not something out of a microbrewery with 5hl capacity.

I will go back in a month or two to see how it has evolved. I wasn't at all impressed by the first round. And I was even less impressed by the fact that there was only one beer to choose from (apart from the above mentioned industrial ones).

But to be fair, it should be mentioned that Pražský Most u Valšu, thanks to its location and atmosphere, could easily be a tourist trap. However, the prices are moderate. 30Kc for a pint in Old Town is not at all bad. I just hope their beer improves.

Na Zdraví!

Pražský Most u Valšu
Betlémská 5
Praha 1 - Staré Město

6 Jun 2008

We all win

May was a brilliant month in terms of beer. I started it sampling the very good Spanish beers that my friend Andrés sent me, and finished it at the Festival. Between that there were the unconvincing beers from Erdinger and a couple of very forgettable Polish beers. There was also some new stuff, Majové Polotmavé 13° from Pivovar Louny, a very tasty beer, new in the market (I reckon) and that gives some hopes that the new Dutch owners will keep this pivovar open. It reminded me a bit of Primátor polotmavé, with just a bit more caramel in it. Nice beer to sit down and sip slowly. And what can I say about Bock 16° from Richter. They make some really nice German style beers there at U Bulovky. This one was an amber with a creamy white crown. Its nose mixed apple, caramel and mint. The caramel dominated the palate, together with some bitter nose, somewhat like burnt sugar. The caramel continued in the finish, now joined by citrus notes. All that with a permanent subtone of apples. Delicious.

I was also able to enjoy the much awaited Majový Kozlík 16°, another May Bock, this one from Pivovarský Dům. Also amber, but with ochre sparkles. The nose also had caramel, this time mixed with sour fruits. The taste was glorious, started fruity, turned caramelly and finished herbal, the end of each fading into the beginning of next one. Glorious.

In any other month Kozlík would easily collect the award, but not in May 2008. This month the winner is not one, nor two beers, but the beers from small breweries that took part in the festival. Not because of their quality (which was not lacking), nor for the novelty (though I had a couple I'd never tasted before), but fact of having been the most popular ones. The beers from the big brewers could only watch with resentment how most of the festival's visitors avoided them to taste something new, more interesting and, in many cases, of better quality. It's still too soon to celebrate, but if that was the beginning of a market trend, then we will all be the winners.

Na Zdraví!

I was almost forgetting about the count. During may I drank 35 beers that I hadn't tasted this year, some of them, never before. That makes a total of 168 different beers so far in 2008.

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2 Jun 2008

Second round

Just as I had promised myself the other day, I made my second visit to Pivní Festival Praha. This time the weather was a lot nicer, pretty warm and with a lot of sunshine. Ideal to sit and have a few beers under the shade of leafy trees.

I got there early, again, there was a bit more people than the previous Friday. I went around a little to make some pictures and noticed that most of the stands were already open, and were offering a rather wide assortment of food and merchandising.

Not being able to score a free pint this time, without further ado, I headed towards the K Brewing tent. Big was my surprise when I noticed that the tent had been expanded to the neighbouring one, which the first few days had offered only Staropramen and Braník. Svijany, Platan and Janaček had been now joined by Herold. I took a seat and ordered a pint of excellent Herold Polotmavé 13° to drink while I waited for one of my mates, who was already on his way.

I enjoyed the beer slowly and noticed that, already that early, there was more people at the small breweries' tents (the two mentioned above, plus Konrad's). Actually, the only people that were at SAB-Miller's and Budvar's seemed to be tourists o Scottish football fans.

My friend Mark arrived, we had each a pint of the brilliant Herold Tmavé 13° and went to the Konrad's tent. It had been a while since I drank any of their beers, and I had never tasted Jocker, a gold lager brewed at 14°balling that didn't really make it. I found it a bit out of balance, with the added sugar overwhelming a fruity bitterness that, had it been stronger, would have made this beer a great one. I didn't think too much of their 11°, again, the sugar. Anyway, we both enjoyed the service at that tent. They were really friendly with broad smiles and spoke a more than acceptable English when they heard us speak in that language.

We moved to the original K Brewing tent. We wanted to have some Rohozec, Černá Hora and Jihlava. All the time talking about how most people seemed to be at these tents, avoiding the others as if it was bad luck to go there.

Soon we were joined my friend Eric and Evan Rail, and later my queen. What can I say, we had a great time. We moved between tents, we had really a lot of very good beer. I also had the chance to have a short chat with one of the organisers, Max Munson. He gave me a press accreditation that, unfortunately, I wasn't able to use. Pity I didn't get it before.

There had been changes in one week. The offer from the small breweries had been expanded, as well as the space dedicated to them, taking it away from the big boys. The ironies of life. Ten years ago Staropramen was about to close down Svijany, now they were sharing a tent where surely, the very good beers from North Bohemia were outselling the very deficient ones from Smíchov.

The policy for ordering food had also been modified. There was no need anymore to go to another tent to get it. The servers will bring your order just as in every restaurant.

I found the service efficient and friendly. The taps of the small breweries were now properly tagged and there none of the mistakes of the first days (at least not while I was sober enough to notice). One of the problems that I had heard and read many say, the slowness of the service, had apparently been solved by dividing the six breweries that, at the beginning, were in one tent.

I haven't got any figures, but to me, and regardless of criticisms, the first edition of the Czech Beer Festival Prague was a success. The organisers showed that they are able to put together an event of this size without any major problems, and also that they are smart and flexible people. They quickly realised the popularity of the small breweries and acted accordingly, giving them more space and offering more.

There are of course several aspects to improve. Here are some of the things I would like to see next year:
- Free entrance, at least until 7 or 8PM. With the level of prices once inside, charging 120CZK just for getting in make no sense. During the week, when I had a long break, I really fancied stopping by there to have a couple of beers, the admission fee made me change my mind. I wonder how many more people thought the same.
- Cheaper food. I might be asking too much here. But 156CZK for guláš is way too much. As is 195CZK for a 200g portion of roasted steer, which I tasted and didn't think it was worth that much. And I'm not so sure about the price tag for the soups. We had kyselo (a sour vegetable and potato cream soup) and gulašova, they weren't bad, and they came in a loaf of pretty good bread, but if it hadn't been for the limitations of the tolar system, they should have been cheaper.

- More small breweries, specially Bernard and Primátor (the biggest absentee). This seems to be already a fact.
- Evan would like the multinationals to be dropped. I don't agree. Whether we like it or not, Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and the local brands of Heineken are an important part of the Czech brewing world and they must be there. Of course, with a lot less space and maybe even sharing one tent.
- It's not entirely the organisers' responsibility, but I would really like to see more official support. Beer is national drink here and it is an important part of popular culture. However, the event wasn't even mentioned in Czech Tourism and only the mayor's visit at the opening received some space in the website of Prague's City Hall.

The real winners of the festival were the small breweries, and thus, the consumers. The tents where they were tapped were the most popular by far. People told me they actually had to wait to get a table when they went, while there were plenty of free seats in the other tents. As mentioned before, the relatively high price played in favour of these beers. Not many are willing to pay 39CZK for a pint of Gambrinus when it can be found at every corner, and cheaper. But when we are talking about something little known or totally unknown and (after having drunk one) of better quality, the price doesn't seem so high anymore.

Svijany, Platan, Konrad, Herold, Janáček, Jihlava, Černá Hora, Rakovník and Rohozec proved that, when everybody plays with the same rules, has the same conditions and opportunities, regardless of size and marketing budgets, can put up a good fight if not outright beat the biggest breweries in the Czech Republic.

It has been a fine celebration of Czech Beer. Let's hope next year's will be better

Na Zdraví!