31 Aug 2008

Clear and cold truth

The other day, on the post Spreading the Gospel, someone left a comment complaining that I was disrespecting their tastes by implying that beers like Heineken are crap. I've got no problem with anyone's tastes, I don't judge people based on what they do or don't drink. I also didn't want to imply that Heineken is crap. I am 100% convinced that it is. But that's my opinion and you may or may not agree. But it isn't something capricious, it is based on irrefutable facts provided by Heineken themselves.

Just like wines, beers have their right temperatures for drinking, which vary from type to type. In the case of lagers, most of them at least, (and Heineken is one of them), the right temperature for dispensing is between 6 and 8°C. It is there that the beer expresses itself best allowing the consumer to appreciate all its characteristics, for better or worse. Actually, Czech beer wisdom says that the right temperature is that of the seventh step going to the cellar.

It seems that the people at Heineken don't think so. The other day I saw on the metro the poster shown below:
"Served Extra Cold Experience". I wonder what is the experience of drinking something that you can't taste. At extra cold temperatures the mouth is numbed, nothing can be felt. It doesn't make any sense to sell something this way. Unless Heineken actually doesn't want you to feel the taste of their beer. And they don't want you to taste it because it is rubbish.

This event that took place yesterday (needless to say, I didn't attend it) is no more than a pathetic marketing trick. They want to public to consume a product of low quality the only way it can be consumed, without tasting it, disguising it as something cool and modern. But actually it's an insult to Czech beer culture and tradition and also to the consumers, who are used to products of better quality.

But it's not only Heineken actually. Every brewery that directly or indirectly promotes the consumption of their beers as "ice cold" is saying the same: "I don't want you to realise how awful our beers are".

And please, don't come to me with "it's a cultural thing" or "it's because of the hot weather here" and stuff like that. They are just silly excuses (not to say, utter bollocks). You are served your beer just as cold in winter and you don't drink wine at Artic temperatures no matter how scorching hot it gets. Besides, a lager of at least medium quality served at a proper temperature is just as refreshing as an ice cold one and, in my opinion, a lot more pleasant.

Of course, everyone is free to drink their beer as they see fit. It isn't my intention to change anybody's tastes, but to open your eyes a little so you can see why many breweries sell you their product they way they do.

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27 Aug 2008

La Ronda #3: A tasting for beginners

La Ronda is a community project of the beer blogs in Spanish that is inspired (if not an outright rip-off) of The Sessions, started by Stan Hieronymus and spread throughout the English beer blogosphere.

This month, Delirium, from "De Cervezas y Otras Cosas" has proposed a very interesting topic that I thought it is worth sharing with my English speaking readers. The idea is to choose 5 to 8 beers to put together a tasting aimed mostly at people not very familiarised with the different kinds of beers available out there. There are a couple of catches, though. The beers shouldn't be from obscure craft breweries that can be got only once a year and the likes, but stuff that can be relatively easily found locally.

It really gave me a lot of food for thought. It wasn't easy to put together a line-up. From the very beginning I decided that all the beers would be Czech. Not because I have anything against (good quality) imported ones, but because I believe that although being considered among the best in the world, Czech beers are also among the least known.

But what could I choose that was representative of Czech brewing art? I could have easily put together a tasting of 8 ležáku (Pilsner Lagers, as they are known elsewhere), but everybody knows how good they can be, so there wouldn't be much of a surprise there. I also though of doing a numerical progression from 11 to 18, based on balling graduation, but, though it could be fun it lacks much of a concept.

In the end, I decided to do something similar, and I think better, than a tasting I organised last year with the people of Pivovarský Klub. So I put together a list of 8 beers (plus a surprise one to clean the palate, I know it bends the rules, but you'll see there is a reason for it) divided in four pairs.

First pair, we start on the golden side:
Bernard Svateční Ležak(12°balling, 5%ABV). It is the only one that more or less fits in the most famous Czech style, Pilsner Lager, but at the same time, it is a good representative of the style I probably like most, kvasnicové. A beer that is refreshing, with a fantastic balance between fruit, flowers and citrus; light but with a firm body thanks to the added yeasts in the bottle.
Primátor Weizen (5%ABV): Another kvasnicové, according to Czech publicans, this time made of wheat. It's a beer that is getting more and more adepts each day. Different to its German counterparts, yet nonetheless good. Fruitier, with a bit of a fuller body, less sour and terribly refreshing. So far the only pšeničné in regular industrial production, I hope there will be more.

Second pair, we go amber:
Ferdinando Sedm Kuli (13°balling, 5.5%ABV): There might be better ones out there, but I've chosen it because it has proved to be a favourite among foreign visitors. That different touch it has is thanks to the herbs that are part of the recipe.
Primátor Polotamvé 13%(13°balling, 5.5%ABV): Another from that great brewery in Náchod, and the beer I like the most in its category. Perfect balance between caramel and herbs. Brewed with a wheat adjunct, it is one of those beers that everyone seems to like and that I never get tired of drinking.

Third pair, things get dark:
Regent Tamvý Ležák (4.4%ABV): A great beer that deserves more recognition. Light in body, yet with intense flavours that mix the caramel, toffee notes of many Czech dark beers with more interesting roasted and coffee flavours.
Herold Bohemian Black Lager (13°balling, 5.2%ABV): One of my most favourite, that, like the one above, deserves to be better known. With very intense flavours, full of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and a delicious roasted and dry finish. An excellent beer by all means.

Fourth pair, a display of strength:
Vyškov Jubiler (16.8°balling, 7.5%ABV). Another one of my top favourites. Alcohol integrated to perfection, incredibly well balanced notes where hoppy bitterness sets the pace without overwhelming delicate hints of honey and fruit. A beer I love to sit down and drink slowly.
Pardubický Porter (19°balling, 8%ABV). A seriously strong beer and, again, with beautifully integrated alcohol, which does not interfere with tastes or aromas, but actually reinforces them, giving more character to the mix of prunes, port and pleasant sourness.

The surprise is Bernard s Čistou Hlavou (Bernard with clear head), the nealko from the great brewery in Humpolec. A non alcoholic beer of surprising bitterness and even body. Its short and refreshing taste, together with the lack of alcohol makes it a very good option to clean and rest the palate between pair and pair, or even sample and sample. It also shows that Czechs can also make very good beers of this kind.

I believe the selection is as varied and broad as the rules allowed. I could have included a lot more, but I think these beers can prove without any trouble that Czech brewing is a lot more than only Pilsner Lager. And being that, with the exception of Primátor Weizen, all beers in the list are lagers, it would be shown to beginners or the pseudo knowledgeable that the word lager doesn't mean the fizzy, yellowy, hyperindustrialised drink of the big global brands.

Na Zdraví!

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20 Aug 2008

I'm glad I'm not Canadian....

Not because I have anything against the country of Canada or its people. My relief is a product of these writings on a can of Molson Canadian:
"Only Molson Canadian has true Canadian taste. It comes from over 220 years of brewing experience, a unique cold brewing process and only the finest ingredients this land has to offer. The result is a premium lager that pleases the world's toughest beer critics - Canada's beer drinkers."
What can you expect after reading such words? Not much, actually. Anyone with something other than air between their ears will realise that they are no more than marketing bollocks, of the populist kind.

What comes out of the can doesn't disappoint (when there aren't expectations, there isn't disappointment). Molson Canadian is a non-beer, no distinctive taste, no character, no body; fortunately forgettable. I've had nealko piva better than it.
As I've said, the fantasy written on the can can't be taken seriously. However, I can't help but think, who are the people that write stuff like this? Do people really believe in it?

Molson Candian is not the only one by any means. Stella Artois is doing something similar in the UK, as reported by Boak & Bailey (the bollocks here are of the pseudo-historical kind, though). Gambrinus wants to make Czechs believe that it is brewed with the best ingredients, when most people know that it isn't much more than a cheap version of Pilsner Urquell. Now, the price must go to Quilmes for what's written in the press release announcing the new "Leftover" Red Lager. It is difficult to keep a straight face after reading this masterpiece of marketing fiction:
“Brewed with finely selected ingredients, with a mild aroma, delicate bitterness and creamy flavour. Quilmes Red Lager invites you to enjoy its quality and sofistication.”
But that’s not it, it goes on like this:
“Its copper red colour is the product of finely selected malts and the natural roasting of the barley tannins during the malting process”

Have you seen, read, heard any other beer related gems of marketing magic that made you laugh or hit the roof?

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17 Aug 2008

Spreading the gospel

A few months ago we discussed Beerevangelism. Which is what many of us beer bloggers usually do.

Thanks to my offices many of the people I know have discovered that Czech beer is not only Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus, and that there is a lot more and better to be discovered and drunk. And they weren't only foreigners, but also quite a few Czechs, among them some of my clients.

A typical case of someone who has seen the light was that of one of our new neighbours. He and his girlfriend moved in a few weeks ago, and with my wife we paid them a visit to see how they were doing in their new house. They were tired, but happy. They had just finished working for the day. The offered us beer. "What do you have?", I asked. "Staropramen Ležák", he said. Before I could say anything my wife started laughing and told him that I didn't like that beer. Our neighbour said that it was very good, and that he liked it a lot and insisted that we take a bottle. Without any joy and with a bit of curiosity (I hadn't drunk that beer for a long time) I accepted the offer and we went to sit outside.

God! What an awful beer that is! It is horrendous, worse than I remembered it! At some point the conversation turned towards Stella Artois and Heineken (Am I repeating myself?) y our neighbour told us, full of enthusiasm, how much he liked them. The disgust that was now showing on my face was not only due to what I was drinking, my wife again took the words out of my mouth to insist on how bad those two beers are. Our neighbour would not agree. With a lot of effort I finished that swill from Smíchov (or is it brewed in Ostrava?) and invited our hosts to our place, promising that there would be pravé pivo (real beer).

Once there I went on to open a couple of bottles of Svijany. Milan's (that's our neighbour's name) reaction said it all. He simply could not believe how good that beer was. He finished his first pint, and asked for another, and then another. He drank them all slowly because we wanted to enjoy them. I felt really good.

However, once he had left I started thinking. Yes, he did like Svijany a lot, but when he goes to do the shopping at whichever outlet of whichever supermarket chain he usually goes, it is unlikely that he will find it, or anything similar and he will sure end up buying his usual Staropramen (though he might not like it so much anymore). In fact, it will be easier for him to get Heineken or Stella than most of the very good regional Czech beers. And that is simply sad.

Things seem to be slowly changing, though. One of my clients told me that he buys Svijany at the Billa (a local supermarket chain) in Prósek (a neighbourhood in Prague. Others have told me that you can find Klášter at Hypernova Chodov or that many of the special beers from Primátor can be found at other supermarkets. Yet they all seem to be isolated cases, one of the dozens of branches of one of the several local supermarket chains carries a regional beer. Could it be that they are pilot tests? Is it possible that someday the beer shelves at supermarkets will offer as much variety as wine shelves? I think I'm daydreaming.

Na Zdraví!

14 Aug 2008

Down there

Skanzen is too close to my favourite Pivovarský Klub, which many times makes me forget about it.

It is a strange place. Pretty much opposite Florenc metro station and located in a very deep cellar (I never pay attention to my mobile while I'm dining, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't pick a signal down there). After going down a couple of floors by a stairway decorated with crude Czech comics, you will be facing a wall. On it there are signs pointing to the bar (right) and to the "sál" (left).
The former is divided in a couple of areas by the bar. The furnishing looks cheap and not too comfortable, more appropriate for a garden than a cellar, the walls are also decorated with Czech comics as well as with interesting drawings and pictures (plus the almost mandatory array of junk and old bottles). The latter is is a pretty big room with tables and benches like those used at beer gardens, and dominated by a big screen where sports events and music videos are projected. A nice place to sit down and have many beers with friends.

In summer they put some tables in the courtyard at street level. There you can see something that sometimes makes me feel a bit strange. A metal plaque marking the level the water reached on August 14, 2002 (over 2m). That was the peak day of the worst flood in Prague's history. All the area of Florenc and Karlín (among others) was pretty much devastated by the waters of the Vltava, which is about 500m from the place. Since then, nothing similar has happened, and the only thing that has risen are modern office buildings. However, memorials like this can make me doubt the wisdom of it all. For the time being, though, it is dry and comfortable and in a act of wisdom rare in Prague there is a waiter assigned exclusively for the patio armed with a portable beer tapping system and kegs so he doesn't have to go up and down every time someone wants a pint.
The food at Skanzen is serviceable. Nothing out of this world and without pretensions, but very edible. Now and again, the kitchen gets inspired and can come out with really good stuff. The prices are more than moderate. During lunch, this pub is fairly popular with the slaves of the nearby offices, and later with noisy people that want to have a good time and drink good beer.

And the beer is very good. Three from the Bernard family, plus the kvasnicové guest starring occasionally. The surprisingly malty and hoppy 10° (22Kc/0.5l), a great session beer by all means, and incredibly refreshing; the 12° (27Kc/0.5l), every bit as good as Pilsner Urquell tanková, without any of the fuss; and černé 13° (28Kc), with all its flavour full of roasted and caramel notes, great to wash down grilled or roasted meats.
Skanzen is not a place for a romantic meal, nor to sit down for a quiet conversation. It is a place to go and have a few pints without paying too much attention to the environment. Good for groups.
Restaurace Skanzen
Sokolovská 352/23
186 00 Praha-Karlín

8 Aug 2008

A corner hospoda

Literally and spiritually speaking.

Šumavan, better known as Klášterní Pivnice, is located a few metres from an old favourite of mine, Svijanský Rytíř. It is small and divided in two rooms, at the entrance there are the taps and a couple of fruit machines, then there is the main room, with tired looking tables and chairs, yet still comfortable, it is also very nicely painted, olive green on the wood panelling of the walls, and terracotta for the rest. This gives it a very pleasant atmosphere when the sun goes through the windows in the morning.
And I say in the morning because this hospda opens at 9.30, quite a rarity. And that is the time when I prefer going, it is almost empty and quiet and, better still, it is possible to breath, once the patrons start filling it, the place becomes a smoke cloud and your clothes and person acquire a bouquet reminiscent of a well aged ashtray.

But before that happens this is a very pleasant hospoda for a late breakfast. They have a good choice of good beer snacks at ridiculously cheap prices and very good beer, Klášter 11° Světlý, unpasteurised for 18.50CZK a pint. Golden as a youth dream, without any visible carbonation and an elegant crown of immaculate white. And it's so well drafted! Its nose mixes ripe fruit with fresh herbs and in the palate mild caramel notes can be felt behind fruit and malts, all seasoned by fresh mind, which predominates in the short finish. It's a perfect example of what a good session beer should be. On a hot day, no matter the hour, the first půl litr will go down as if the bottom of the glass was pierced, only to be quickly replaced by a second one that is enjoyed with more care. It's a beer without pretensions that does very well what it's supposed to do.
Soon the tables start being taken by neighbourhood characters whose average age is closer to the anniversary of the First Republic than the Velvet Revolution's, and they all seem to know each other, and they are all seem to be well known by whoever happens to be tapping the pints. It is then that this place reminds me those neighbourhood cafés in my native Buenos Aires, those that still haven't become victims of modernity.
I finish my sekana and my second půl litr, pay and go to my next appointment of the day. Mi mood has considerably improved and I'm already thinking when I'll be able to go back to Klašterní Pivnice to have a similar treat.

Klašterní Pivnice Šumavan
Ovenecká 1022/15
170 00 Praha-Holešovice
9.30 - 22.00

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7 Aug 2008

August, the Session Beer month

A couple of months ago we in the Spanish beer blogging community started our version of "The Sessions" called "La Ronda". Last month's was really interesting (if you read Spanish, you should go and check it out here). Anyway, the conclusion we arrived after that Ronda was that we all like beer (actually, that was well known long before). But it turns out that, though it might not seem so, we don't drink just any kind of beer in any kind of place or situation, there are some beers that most of us prefer to drink when we are alone and with time, and others we prefer when we are with friends and getting noisier as the glass empty to be filled again to be once again emptied.

This is the ideal environment for the session beers, which are those that we can drink in more or less considerable quantities with more or less controllable and tolerable consequences the day after. In their honour, we have decided to declare this month, August 2008, International Session Beer month.

There are several reasons for this. First, the above mentioned conclusions from the Ronda. Second, most of us live in the Northern Hemisphere where now is summer and session beers are great for this season. And third and most important, is that these beers are way too under appreciated. Yes, the Westvleteren of this world might get all the awards and the highest possible ratings at sites like Ratebeer; and yes, they are beers of unarguable quality and complexity, these are the kind of beers we like to drink when alone, enjoying every sip. Now, can you imagine having pint after pint of one of them with friends at a beer garden or a pub? No, because after a couple you would en up absolutely spannered, and you will regret it even more the day after. Not to mention the damage done to our finances.

It is in situations like those where we prefer the humble session beer, which unfortunately bears the cross of being associated with the extremely mediocre eurolagers of the big brands. However, a true session beer doesn't have to be that insipid, characterless swill, expended at Arctic temperatures. A good session beer, despite its low ABV, welcomes us with mild flavours that still have plenty of character, it is of a light body and has a short finish. It is a beer that before even finishing the first glass makes us think about ordering another one, after which it takes a secondary role, leaving the lead to the moment we are spending with people we like. The only moment when it will demand our attention again is when our glasses are empty (that of course, unless you happen to be at one of those hospody where pivo comes without having been ordered). Apart from that, the session beer will make the meeting more fun, and maybe even longer.

I've read somewhere that a brew master really shows his or her craft when he or she is able to brew a quality session beer. I'm so lucky then to be living in Prague, Czechs are masters when it comes to good session beers, there is so much and so good to choose from. That is why this month I will be talking only about this kind of beers, the best to drink with friends.

Na Zdraví!

4 Aug 2008

The Summer goes on

And it is still hot in Prague. Which makes it all the easier to drink beer, not that I have much trouble doing that in Winter, but there are certain brews that can be enjoyed better in a weather like this we are having. For example, Sezon from Pivovar Kocour Vandorf, which has been coming out with pretty interesting beers guided by its mastermind Honza Kočka and its young, but talented brew mistress. Sezon is of intense golden colour with a slightly acidic nose with yeasts, herbs and flower notes. It's hot a sily mouthfeel, that starts fruity but slowly becomes herbal and dry. Delicious for a hot summer day.

Another lovely summer beer that caressed my palate was Harrach 12°, which I hadn't enjoyed for a very long time. It's got interesting contrasts, both in its bouquet (spice, sweet cream almost vanilla) and flavours (caramel, cream and an intense dry herbal finish).

Wheat beers couldn't be absent in this torrid summer. Not in the numbers of last month, though there were a couple of intersting samples. Pšeničné from good old Pivovarský Dům, just great, and U Richarda Weizen, which seems to want to mix the best of a wheat beer with the best of a Bohemian lager, meaning light and refeshing body together with more intense and floral notes tipical of Saaz hops. I liked it a lot.

But maybe the most interesting one in this group came from an industrial bottler. Not so much for its quality (not too bad, yet still far from Primátor), but because of simply existing at all. This beer came from Pivovar Kutná Hora, a member of the Drinks Union group, recently acquired by Heineken and with a more than uncertain future. The fact that they have come out with this beer gives us some hopes.

There were also a couple of very interesting beers in visit to Pilsen. The highlights of that day were Lochoty 14°, Lotr 11° and Pilsner Urquell Nefiltrované.

But the beer of the month can't be any other than Kout na Šumavě 12° Kvasnicové, simply, a wonderful beer.

Na Zdraví!

In July I tasted 36 different beers, briging the count to 232 so far this year. It seems that my goal of drinking 400 different beers in 2008 isn't so far fetched...

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1 Aug 2008

Ignoring the giant, well, almost (III)

First part
Second part

When I walked out of U Rytíře Lochoty I noticed that there was a bus stop right in front of the door. Both the 32 and the 40 could take me back to the centre. Brilliant. The 40 arrived shortly, and in less than fifteen minutes I was getting off at Pilsen's main square Nám. Republiky. It is a very nice square, really, with its impressive Gothic church and the beautiful (Neo?)Rennaisance building of the city hall. I'm sorry I didn't take any pictures. The camera was running out of battery and I wanted to save it for the important stuff.

I located Rooseveltová, a street in the northeastern corner of the square, and followed it until going over a brige. From there I went to a parking lot that can be seen on the right. LOTR was behind it.
Like Purkmistr, it is a hotel - restaurant - brewery. I walked around the building until I saw some tables outside, then I wen to through the first open door I saw, to the left of it there was a bar.
I was a bit confused at first. The place was empty, it wasn't very big. In fact, much of the room is taken by a U shaped bar. All the tables are tall and small. It's modern, yet not cold. I picked a table in one corner and soon a girl, whom I thought was a patron, came to take my order. I went for the beer that she discribed as a "lehké polotmavé 11°" (light amber). The price, not bad, 28CZK.
A few seconds later I had on my table what was in fact a beer of light amber colour, with no visible carbonation and topped by a thick and creamy white head. Notes of grain, fruit and mild yeast enticed the nose. It had a silky mouthfeel that caresses the palate, where, at the beginning, moderatedly sweet flavours can be felt that then evolve into a dry bitter finish. I really liked this beer. It is of the kind I would like to have in the fridge when coming back home on a hot day. I couldn't resist the temptation of having another one. I went to the bar to order it, and also to ask if they brew anything else. Not for now, I was told, but there will be a dark 11° ready by Christmas.
While I was enjoying the second pint of this lovely 11° I started chatting with the couple that was in charge of the place. Both very friendly and interested in what I was doing there, where I am from, and what I thought about Gambrinus. They were glad to know that I liked their beer and invited me to have a look into the bowels of the brewery.

It is new, it opened last March, and small. Neverhteless, it is pretty interesting. Fermenting and lagering are done in oak barrels. According to what the brew master (who looked like some sort of hippy Gandalf) told me, the beer lagers for up to two months. We went up the stairs, to the restaurant. The kettles are there, and how beautiful they are! Mandatory bronze, but partly encased in what looked like a kachlová kamna, one of those wood fired ovens that used to be very common in country houses.
We went back to the bar. I didn't really feel like leaving, I liked these two people, but it was time to say good-bye, with the promise of going back. I wished them good luck while at the same time thinking whether, if they are successful, it would be possible to expand the capacity of the brewery, which didn't seem too big. I hope so.

Later, while looking at the photos I had taken that day, I noticed something that I had missed. I banged my head on the desk, how could I have forgotten to ask? I tried calling, but the person who picked the phone was not able to give me any answer. Is that beer bottom or top fermented? Look again at the picture above.

But my tour wasn't finished yet. I had one more stop before taking the train back to Prague.

My (successful) plan had been to visit each of the three brewpubs that are currently open in Pilsen, while snubbing Pilsner Urquell. But not stopping at Šenk Na Parkánu would have been almost a cardinal sin. Because that is the only place in the world were Pilsner Urquell Nefiltrované is tapped.
Let me remind you that much of the huge success of the original Pilsner Lager was due to its looks, intense golden cristaline colour, which could be fully appreciated with the glassware that, thanks to contemporary technological advances, had become affordable for the middle classes.
The Nefiltrované subverts an important part of Pilsner Urquell's concept as designed by Josef Groll. The result is a spectacular beer. Foggy, but keeping the colour. The nose is cereal and Saaz, both intense and perfectly balanced. It can almost be chewed, it's a symphony of fruit, citrus and flowers. Amazing!
After enjoying every molecule of it I rushed to the train station, while its delicious finish slowly vanished. I also started to think. It's impressive that the biggest and most famous brewery of the country where the most beer per capita is drunk bothers to brew something so delicious. However, at the same time I was asking myself, why can't this beauty be enjoyed everywhere in the country? Why most consumers have to be happy with the every day more one dimensional Pilsner Urquell from a barrel?

I had a beautiful day, regardless of the squizofrenic weather. At times I felt like in my backpacking days in a city I barely knew, naviganting its public transportation system and getting my bearings from maps to help me live new experiences. Pilsen by itself is a nice destination for a day-trip. It's easy to get there from Prague, and the reward from the bother is big. Not to mention being able to drink unfiltered Urquell. But the whole lot is well worth it.

Na Zdraví!

Pivovar Purkmistr
Selská náves 21/2
326 00 Plzeň-Černice

Pivovar U rytíře Lochoty
Karlovarská 103
323 17 Plzeň

Minipivovar Na Rychtářce (LOTR)
Truhlářská 10
301 00 Plzeň 3

Šenk Na Parkánu
Veleslavínova 4
301 14 Plzeň-Vnitřní Město