I've always had a soft spot for Mate's, a polotmavé pivo from Hostinský pivovar U Bizona, Čižice brewed with Yerba mate, not only because of my country of birth, but also because it's a good example of how a beer with an unusual or novelty ingredient should be made—it still tastes like beer. The rest of their production, however, was of the sort that I wouldn't mind drinking if I see it at a pub, but wouldn't go out of my way to find, either. That's why I was quite surprised when about a month ago I got an e-mail from Robert, U Bizona's owner, inviting me to join a group he was putting together for a trip to Bamberg at the end of February.
To be perfectly honest, if the invitation had been for a festival or something else along those lines, I might have politely declined, but I'd been wanting to go back to Bamberg ever since I was there a few years back, even if it'd be only for a day trip. So, after getting permission from the boss, I accepted the invitation and began looking forward to it.
Since the plan was to leave at 8 in the morning on Friday, I decided to go to Čižice already on Thursday evening, so I could get a decent night of sleep. Robert was waiting for me at the Pilsen's train station. I had never met him before and, other than a short phone conversation the day before, hadn’t spoken to him, either, but he looked like the sort of cool bloke you can only meet at a proper pub.
We went first to the pub he has pretty much in the centre of town, U Bizona. It was pretty full, and noisy. I liked it right away. I had a couple of pints, something to eat and then we left to Čižice. Robert lives there with his wife in a small, two-bedroom flat above his brewpub.
U Bizona is a pretty nice village pub. Robert has been running it for 12 years. In the past, it used to serve a social purpose that went much beyond having pints with friends. Besides the pub proper, decorated with a sizeable part of Robert's collection of vintage tin advertising signs, there is a now unused room, quite large, with a stage, were balls and other events in the village would be held (I can imagine them being not too different from the Fireman's Ball in “Hoří, má panenko”, with a similar cast of colourful characters)
In Winter, Robert told me, there isn't much business going on—only some of the locals will drop by—while the “Pilsen branch”, which started a bit over a year ago, does fairly well. In Summer is the opposite, thanks to lots of cyclists. In some way it reminded me to the brewpub in Bělec nad Orlíci.
Like that one, U Bizona is one of the few brewpubs that doesn't have the brewing gear greeting visitors, but it's out of sight, hidden in a room in the back.
It's not much of a looker, either. But Robert was able to secure the services of Lubomír Svoboda, a Brewmaster with decades of experience under his cap, which is a lot more important than having a pretty brewhouse. Robert met him through a common friend, but why the brewery came to be is more interesting.
Robert had a bloke working for him nicknamed Bizon, whose health had got so bad that he would've been forced to let him go, which he didn't want to do. The brewery was the best solution, Bizon could take care of that part of the business, which is less physically demanding.
After he showed me around, we sat in the almost empty ballroom, and my host produced samples of the test batches of his three new beers made with yerba mate. The Lager was the same recipe as Mate's, but with a different type of yerba, a smoked one. It was excellent! Once again, very well balanced, but just so, as the new type of yerba is more intensely flavoured. The other two, with the working tiles of APA and IPA, though far from bad, were a bit redundant as a product. If they had been as hoppy as one'd expect from those styles, it would've defeated the purpose of the unconventional ingredient, provided they'd been able to work together to begin with.
We chatted like two old friends until we realised it was well past midnight. We went to sleep, we would have to get up pretty early on Friday.
I slept surprisingly well (Robert had prepared accommodation at his place) and woke up feeling rested and eager to get on going.
The rest of the group started to arrive after seven. Lubomír, the Brewmaster, Pavel Karásek, owner and brewer a the soon-to-open microbrewery in Pilsen, and Michal Staněk, the owner of Kočovný Pivovar Holy Farm and Pivoteka pod Ořechem, in Petrov. The other two people in the group, Michal Horáček, a.k.a Pivní Partyzán, and Tomáš Fencl, from Pivovar Lobeč were arriving in Pilsen by train and we would pick them up at the station a bit later.
Robert's idea organising a trip with a group of total strangers was a stroke of genius. Nobody knew each other, or hardly so. I had only met Partyzán a couple of times, but it was the first time I was meeting the rest. It didn't matter, quite the contrary, we were a bunch of lads out for beers, after all.
The way to Bamberg felt almost like being at a pub. We had case of beer in the back of the van, and the first bottle was opened before we had even left Pilsen. A few more would fall in the line of duty during the three-and-a-half hours that took us to reach the Franconian beer Mecca.
Our agenda was very simple. A tour of Weyermann, followed by couple of pubs in the city centre. Nothing could go wrong.
We arrived in Bamberg sometime after 11:30, and didn't have too much trouble finding the maltings. We did some looking around and shopping at the visitor centre while we waited for Dagmar to come pick us up. She's a Czech woman who's been living in Germany for 35 years and has been working with Weyermann for a good part of that time. I had met her several times before, and it was nice to see her again.
She gave us a bit of a VIP tour of the plant. Impressive place, really. I loved tasting the different malts they make from little plates in the roasting room, and, while chewing the grains, imagining how many cool beers you could make mixing some of them.
The tour was capped at the in-site pilot brewery, where we tasted five or six beers and some Kirschwasser. The beers were quite good (though the Czech-style Pils was a bit on the thin side), even the peppermint Weizen was something that I wouldn't mind drinking on a hot day. It was a lot of fun, really.
But the tasting had made the tour of Weyermann a longer one than we had expected. We wouldn't have much time to piss about town.
It was past lunchtime already. After hardly any debate, it was decided that we would eat at Schlenkerla and then go to another one of Bamberg's beer temples, before hitting the road back to Pilsen. Mahr's, unfortunately, wouldn't be among those.
What a gorgeous town Bamberg is! I'm not saying anything new, I know, but it's still worth a mention. The absence of crowds made it even nicer.
Although it wasn't packed, neither of the rooms of Schlenkerla had a free table big enough to accommodate the seven of us. Fortunately for us, though, the waitress in the more restaurant-like room was in a good mood, apparently, and she opened a small private room for us.
Sitting there was a bit weird. Most of the space was taken by a massive table—without standing up and stretching your arm, you wouldn't be able to shake hands with the person opposite you. It was very 19th century; I could almost feel my belly getting rotund and my facial hair taking on Habsurgian proportions. But, as VIP as it made us feel, private rooms don't have much of an atmosphere going on for them, and I wish we'd been where everyone else was drinking and dining.
The food was very German—big chunk of pork, dumpling, cabbage—it wasn't as good (or big) as in Au, but it did the job more than well enough. Even Partyzán, a vegan, was satisfied with the massive bowl of salad he was brought to graze. And they had Fastenbier on tap, which was good, and everyone rejoiced.
After the meal I still had room for dessert. A liquid desert, that is.
I felt it would be wrong to leave Schlenkerla without grabbing a gravity dispensed Märzen from the window at the taproom (I love those taproom windows, I know of only one place in Prague that has one, U Bergnerů, I wish there were more). That also was good, very good, and Partyzán, Tomáš and I rejoiced greatly.
We had time to visit only one more pub. It was decided it'd be Spezial. Mainly because we would have to cross the centre of Bamberg to get there, and everyone was up for a walk.
The evening crowd hadn't arrived yet, so getting a table wasn't a problem. The house's rauchbiere arrived promptly, in those elegant half-litre mugs. I remembered it differently, drier, but I'd drunk quite a bit already by then, and my senses might have been tired. Not that I was evaluating the beer very carefully, really, I wish we'd had time for another round, just to be sure, but it was already getting late, and Robert was waiting for us in Pilsen (amazing as it might sound, the guy who'd organised this trip stayed home because of things).
The return trip was pretty much like the one in the morning. Bottles of beer were opened and passed around. My attempts to catch some sleep were futile, my two back seat companions insisted that I had to booze on. The bastards.
The evening session was at U Bizona in Pilsen. After going through two or three of the house beers, that didn't quite work out for me, I decided to stick to Klíšťák, a 13º Red Ale that turned out to be perfect for the the evening. An evening that was as good as any evening with friends at a pub can be, and then some.
During the trip, Brewmaster Luboš told me about a good friend of his who had lived a few years in Argentina, working with a company that builds power plants, and had loved it there. When we got to the pub, he called him and then gave me the phone, telling me that I should speak to him in the most Argentine way possible. Needless to say, I didn't quote from Borges or Cortázar. It took Láďa a few seconds to make sense of what I was saying, and when he did, he dropped whatever it is that he was doing and came to the pub, and we had a great chat together.
The evening went on, and on, and on, and the beers flowed on, and on, and on. Robert's wife took us home. It was about 2:30 when I hit the bed.
I woke up a lot earlier than I would've liked, with quite a bit of a hangover—mild but annoying headache, and the brain struggling to make sense of a world that appeared to be running slightly faster than the day before—but nothing that some fresh air, a strong turka, a sausage and a pint of Klíšťák couldn't take care of.
It was a great trip. My deepest thanks to Robert for putting it together.
Disclaimer: Lunch at Schlenkerla was paid by Dagmar's expense account. Beers at U Bizona were on the house. Thanks to everyone.