21 Mar 2016

Back to the roots reviews: Pivovar Narodní & Pivovar U Dobřenských

As a personal policy, and unless I'm given a good reason to do otherwise, I wait at six months before I decide to give a new brewery my money. My days as a novelty chaser and ticker gone, and I want to have some degree of certainty when I buy a beer; there's plenty of very good stuff on the market to waste time financing crap.

That time has passed (a month or two ago, actually) and, not having any reason to do otherwise, I decided to finally pay visit to Pivovar Narodní and Pivovar U Dobřenských; both, brewpubs making beer happen in Prague's Old Town since last summer.

Pivovar Narodní actually opened its doors in spring, basically next door to the National Theatre, but it would take them another couple of months to fire up the mash tun. They weren't particularly open about that fact, and the beers they sold were from Kácov; whether it was something contract-made or relabelled is not clear. The brewing gear, by the way, is originally from the now closed brewpub in Průhonice, and I think the package also included the brewmaster.

But here I am, early afternoon on a rainy, late-winter Tuesday. The interiors have been heavily influenced by the Potrefená Husa school of interior design, but it kind of works, even with the display of souvenirs by the entrance. Maybe it's the large, wood (or coal?) fired grill on one side. The bar is also at the entrance, but has no room to perch. The only place for a quick beer on the go is a repurposed barrel standing under the stairs leading to the loft. There's another, rather nondescript, room further in and a beautiful beer garden in the back—closed, of course.

There's quite a bit of people for this time on a weekday—many are locals—and most aren't drinking beer (there are five German speaking kids 20 or so, who've all ordered Coke!). It takes me a bit too long to order my first pint as there's only one waiter on duty and it seems everyone has arrived pretty much at once.

There are three beers on tap, or rather, two and a half: a Světlá 11°, both filtered and unfiltered, and a Polotmavá 13°; the only beers they make, and all sold in bloody 0.4l portions.

I order the filtered 11° first, wondering why would a brewpub bother with filtering and which of the two versions sells better. In any case, what I'm brought is not what I could call a good beer. It is served way too cold, to the point that it almost numbs the tip of my tongue, and I start to suspect it is not an accident: there is a mild, but persistent note reminiscing of a cheap beer out of a PET bottle unfamiliar with the inside of a fridge, bought at a small Vietnamese Večerka in a summer afternoon. I don't want to know what it tastes like once it catches some temperature.

The rawer version follows. To be honest, I don't notice much of a difference in the looks, but it tastes better, and it's been served a bit warmer. However, there's something not entirely right. I feel I'm listening to a symphonic orchestra with a flute player missing out his part; unlike Dr. Lecter, I can't figure out which. Whether it's the off note of the previous beer still clinging to my palate, I can't say.

I close the session with the Polotmavá 13°. Unlike the other two, I don't find anything wrong with this beer. Nor anything particularly right. It's the beer equivalent of a veteran bank clerk who has long run out of fucks to give and now does the bare minimum to keep his job.

Overall, it was an unsatisfying experience. I'm sure Pivovar Narodní will do fine as a business: the food I saw looked nice, the service was good in the end, the prices are reasonable and they have a prime location. But I find it redundant. For this kind of beers, I'd much rather go to the relatively nearby Vinohradský Pivovar or Bašta, where I will get a full portion of better beer at a better price, or even the neighbouring U Medvídku.

Let's hope U Dobřenských turns out better. It has to, it's considerably more expensive.

Pivovar U Dobřenských is located in the premises formerly occupied by a similarly named, but short-lived pub that served Kout na Šumavě, in the namesake street that, for some reason, I always seem to have trouble to find. Like Narodní, it'll take them a month or two after opening to get the brewery to work. Unlike Narodní, you could be 100% you would be drinking their beers and not somebody else's with a different jacket.

What sets this brewery apart is their use of unconventional ingredients in all their beers, but not in the Opat fashion—an otherwise finished product flavoured with extracts and syrups—but they actually brew with those ingredients: tribulus terrestris, sage and sea-buckthorn. Their price is another thing that sets it apart: depending on the beer, 65 and 72 CZK bloody for 0.4l portions—about 80 and 90 for a half litre. It thought it was the most expensive, until I saw Strahov's updated price list.

The pub itself it's more my type; it's gorgeous in fact. Vaulted ceilings, exposed masonry, wrought iron, the brewing gear and the tanks and the custom-made taps, and the fireplace create a beautiful ambiance to sit, at least in the taproom. The other room, with more tables, though still very nice, is bland in comparison.

The only people when I arrive are a waiter/tapster and a group of four, of whom two seem to be either the owners or associates of the owners, talking business—Matuška and Hendrych are mentioned in relation to a pub or café, but I can't bring myself to follow the conversation too closely, the excellent Jazz they're playing keeps on grabbing my attention. The one thing that really surprises me is that smoking is allowed in the taproom.

I begin the session with the sea-buckthorn beer, the first in the list. I'm brought a glass with a liquid so murky that it would be considered Proper Craft Beer in some places. The menu has explanations of the botanicals used. They might include tasting notes, but I choose not to read them; I prefer to go in blind, trusting my senses and not somebody else's. There is mild tart note, which I assume comes from the berries. It's well balanced, but I'm not too happy with this beer overall. It needs some polishing; though it's possible I'm drinking the bottom of a keg or tank. In any case, for this price I was expecting something that wouldn't taste like a homebrew.

Moving a notch down the list is Tribulus, the most expensive of the bunch and the house's flagship. It looks considerably better than the previous: about the same colour, but almost clear. I've no idea what this herb is supposed to taste like, but if the beer was given to me blind, I'd probably believe it is a Pale Ale of some denomination brewed with a hop cultivar I'm not familiar with. In other words, it doesn't taste like spiked iced-tea but like beer, and a superb one at that. It's gorgeous, it prances around with joy, delighted to make your acquaintance and be at your service.

That leaves me with the Stout with sage. Stout is not the most aromatic style, and I'm very familiar with the herb (we grow it in our garden and I use it a lot for cooking), so I can easily pick it when I get my nose close to the glass, it's a fairly intense, but at the same time, restrained aroma. In the mouth, fortunately, everything has a perfect balance, even if a bit more precarious. I won't bore with tasting notes, to get an idea what this beer is like, get a good Stout, rub the leaves of fresh sage on your fingers and imagine what those two would be like together, only better. It's muscular, manly, a blacksmith of a beer. I could drink it all day and never get tired of it.

Like Tribulus, Salvia Stout looks and tastes like the product of a Brew Master who knows what he's doing and it's not afraid to show it.

Although I'd heard good comments about the beers, their prices (and their portions) put me off coming before, but I must say that in the end it was money very well spent (at least in two out of three), which is a lot more than I can say about Narodní. I will come back to Pivovar U Dobřenských, and you should go, too.

Na Zdraví!

Pivovar Narodní
50°4'53.031"N, 14°24'56.807"E
Narodní 8 – Praha-Nové Město
+420 222 544 932 – pivovar@pivovarnarodni.cz
Mon-Sun: 11-23:30
Trams: 6, 9, 17, 18, 22 – Narodní Dívadlo

Pivovar U Dobřenských
50°5'2.632"N, 14°24'56.012"E
U Dobřenských 3 – Praha-Staré Město
+420 222 222 141 – info@pivovarudobrenskych.cz
Mon-Sun: 14-24
Trams: 6, 9, 17, 18, 22 – Narodní Dívadlo

PS: Apologies for the lack of photos. I left the camera at home. You'll find some at the brewpubs' webpages.

14 Mar 2016

The Tram Beer Challenge (5): Nákladové nádraží Žižkov - Perunova - I.P. Pavlova

Well, fuck!

I knew fate would eventually bring me to a stop I've been before. I was only hoping it wouldn't be so soon; and to Perunova of all places! (and I'm still burping U Kozla's cellar)

The problem here, and one I didn't take into account my first time around, is that the tram stops are very close together, even the ones in Vinohradská, which restraints me even more (in fact, I cocked up when I went to Restaurace Orion, but it's too late to bother about that now).

The nearest place is a rock bar that only sells Pilsner Urquell in 0.4l measures. I'd rather drink a full portion of Staropramen, which is what I will have to do, I reckon, at U Michála.

It looks like the kind of pub I would probably avoid even if it was the only one in town. Not only because of the brand they sell, it's simply unattractive an uninviting. It's quite small, with a Spartan decoration; almost as if they'd just moved and they were still waiting for some boxes to be delivered.

All that being said, the place is almost full, with a very lively crowd of fifty-somethings (being in my mid-forties, I get an irrational pleasure out of being the youngest person in a crowd).

I take a seat at the bar and order a Světlý—well tapped, it has to be said. The other geezers perched there are having a pretty good time. The one next to me is telling a story about a time he and his mate went to Austria and drank everyone under the table, back when the soudruzi were still running the show here. Does this man remember what those drinks tasted like? Did he care at the time what it meant to be drinking there, or going to Austria was just another day in the job for him? Those are things I would love to know, but would never dare to ask a stranger; and listening to the conversation makes me none the wiser as it has branched out into other, still alcohol-related topics.

The pub is still kind of ugly, but these people don't care. I have stopped caring myself, but don't fancy staying for a second pint; I feel a little as if I were crashing a party. I pay and go back to the tram stop.

Can you bloody believe it? I'm heading to I.P. Pavlova, again. This time, though, I know where I'll go.

If I recall correctly, Pivní Mapa opened a bit over two years ago, with 45 taps. I never bothered to go, but did walk past it a couple of times. The pub wasn't much bigger than my living room and looked like a kebab takeaway. Apparently, it was a takeaway of sorts. According to what I heard (but never confirmed), the idea was that people would come to have bottles filled to drink at home, making up for small premises. On paper, it looks interesting; unfortunately, however, the location was shit—almost at the corner of Legerova and Anglická, a place with hardly any foot traffic, where you can't even stop a car. Not surprisingly, the rotation was less than ideal (even when only 30 of the 45 taps were used at any given time) and it didn't take long for Pivní Mapa to draw comparisons with U Radnice.

What was surprising was finding out that it was still open; well, sort of. The premises I think it used to occupy have been turned into a kitchen studio. The only clue of its existence is the logo on a blackboard by the door of a pub next door, Sklípek U Munků, which also sports a Bakalař sign.

If this is indeed Pivní Mapa—and to be honest, I'm not sure*—their ambitions are far more realistic: six beers on tap (though it appears they have more some days). The place itself is in a deep, gloomy cellar and looks like the restaurant of a small town 3 star hotel. Other than the owner, a Russian woman in her 40s, and the lady she's having a business meeting with, it's empty (and quiet, the only sounds are the humming of a fridge or cooling system and someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen).even if it's been more than half hour since opening time, I've good reason to believe I'm the day's first patron. Saying that my expectations are low is an understatement.

The beer list features names that would've got me really stoked when I started blogging—Primátor, Litovel, Bakalař, Beroun. I pick Bakalař 12° and hope for the best.

Bloody hell! It's brilliant! The right temperature, properly tapped after flushing the line and rinsing the glass, tastes fresh and surgically clean; it's a textbook example of what a Světlý Ležák should be like. The best beer I've had so far in this game.

They've turned on the music, generic Pop of the blandest and most inoffensive sort (which goes well with the decoration, to be honest), and I'm still alone in the pub (if you don't count the book I'm reading, Cannabis a History, by Martin Booth). But I'm a fairly good mood, so good that I feel adventurous and, instead of getting another pint of Bakalař, I choose Berounský medvěd tmavý 13°. Like the previous one, it's in top form, and a real bargain at 30 CZK a half litre.

Two blokes, Russian or Ukranian, arrive as I squeeze the last drops of the dark beer and make me wonder what this place is like in the evening, and what kind of people patronise it. In any case, it's been a real surprise and a much welcome change, at least beerwise. Should check it out again some evening.

Back on the road, hoping I won't end up in Újzed again.

Na Zdraví!

Kafé Bar U Michála
50°4'30.685"N, 14°27'9.266"E
Korunní 86 – Praha-Vinohrady
+420 605 869 351 – michal.synek@gmail.com
Mon-Fri: 8-23, Sat-Sun: 14-23

Pivní Mapa
50°4'36.310"N, 14°25'50.220"E
Legerova 76 – Praha-Vinohrady
+420 721 250 180 – info@pivnimapa.eu
Mon-Fri: 14-23, Sat-Sun: 15-23

(*) Pivní Mapa's original website announced the move to U Munků. I guess I should pay attention to these things. On the other hand, nobody's paying me for that.

11 Mar 2016

Pivní Quinceañera

Černokostelecký Pivovár is inviting everyone to their 15th anniversary party next Saturday 19/3, and, if you are around, you shouldn't miss it. Seriously.
What these people have done is nothing short of amazing. 15 years ago they took over the ruins of a brewery that had been shut down by the Communists in the 1980s, and they've been carefully, slowly and painstakingly restoring it ever since.

Unlike most of the other “phoenix breweries”, Černokostelecký Pivovár is one of the few where the brewhouse wasn't scrapped after it was shut down. And the best about it? It could be said it's the heart of the restoration works and it should soon (this year, maybe, Vodouch?) come back to life. Now, bear in mind that this is not your puny, automated, computerised gear that you can see at pretty much every microbrewery. No, this is a 160 hl wood or coal fired bugger with two 80 hl coolships under the roof, and they will use it all for making beer. Even cynic cunt like me must acknowledge that there's something more than having a successful business that is driving these people, and “passion” is the best word I can come up with.
The coolships, which they hope will work fine.
Anyway, even if you can't make it next Saturday, do try to go someday to Černokostelecký Pivovár. Believe me, you will not regret it. For anyone with a even passing interest in brewing and its history, their museum is well worth a visit, not to mention having a look at the restored brewery; and their pub is really good, too, as are the beers from the in-house Minipivovar Šnajdr.

Na Zdraví!

Černokostelecký Pivovár
50°13'47.938"N, 14°5'19.052"E
Českobrodská 17 – Kostelec nad Černými lesy
+420 774 533 672 – spravce@pivovarkostelec.cz
Mon-Sun: 11-23
Bus: 381, 387 – Kostelec n.Č.l.-náměstí (from Háje)

3 Mar 2016

A Postscript

Fuck me sideways! How could I have forgotten about it when I wrote yesterday's post! It only hit my mind like a bitch slap from a primary school bully in the evening, when I was making dinner, and it's the best evidence to support my argument that in the Czech beer discourse, minipivovar = Craft Beer.

Do you remember last year's Gambrinus marketing stunt? With the fake Pivovar Patron, what Gambrinus wanted to prove (or at least so they claim) was that, stripped of prejudice, their beers were every bit as good as those from minipivovary.

I reviewed media coverage of the campaign and I wasn't able to find a single mention of řemeslné pivo(var), not even in blogs and fora; minipivovar, in contrast, appears in every article and post. I also watched the official video of the “big reveal” where actorsrandom consumers say that Patron tastes like something from a malý pivovar.

This is clear proof that, even for marketing illusionists, mini/maly pivovar means a lot more than just size; that consumers have invested those words with attributes equivalent to those the Craft brand enjoys in other countries. Whether they are deserved or not, it's another question; the worst, most overrated and overpriced beers I've drunk in my life were from Craft Breweries/Minipivovary, but so were the best.

At the end of the day, though, it's all marketing, where words are not much more than something that can be twisted, squeezed, used and abused in pretty much any way that may be useful to get some sales.

Na Zdraví!

2 Mar 2016

The redundancy of "Řemeselné pivo(var)"

As someone who makes a living out of languages and loves to have fun with them, I facepalmed when I read the press release of Česká a Moravská Pivní Koruna. Not because of who was awarded (disclaimer: in January, the organisers asked me to nominate 10 minipivovaru, which I did, and then invited me to be part of the jury that would choose the winners, which I wasn't, so I don't know what criteria was applied; in any case it's irrelevant), but because of what they were awarded for: being the best Craft Pivovary in the country.

Craft Pivovar? What the lagering fuck is that?

I'd heard it mentioned in certain beer circles and I always dismissed it as “bollocks people say”. This is the first time, however, that I've seen it printed in an “official fashion”, but it doesn't make it any less stupid; quite the contrary, in fact. It is also further proof of how silly and redundant the ”řemeselné pivovar” denomination is, and has always been.

Last week, when I commented that last bit on FB, Zemské Pivo took issue on Twitter, which prompted a lengthy but civil debate on the matter. I won't link to it, nor embed it here (following an old Twitter conversation is disheartening, especially when more than two parties are involved and hashtag-prefixed are liberally thrown around) I will tell you why I believe řemeselné pivo(var) is a waste of time and intelligence. Bear with me.

It's redundant because we already have a denomination in widespread use that does a perfect job: minipivovar. Zemksé Pivo argues that it's not enough because it refers only to the size of a brewery and not its philosophy, approach or heart, or whatever. Notwithstanding the vagueness of those words, they're still wrong. Hospody nowadays tout ”piva z minipivovarů” just like “Craft beer” is touted by bars in other countries, which I see as clear indication that for the average Honza, minipivovar means a lot more than just a annual production volume bracket. And there's an alternative in case it was not seen as encompassing enough. The other day, the father of one of my daughter's classmates told me that when he goes on trips he likes visiting the local soukromné pivovary (which can be translated as “independent breweries”). I've heard it enough times to make me believe that it carries the same meaning as minipivovar, at least for people who might not know what IPA stands for, but still prefer to drink something other than Europivo. In contrast, I don't remember ever seeing řemeselné pivo in the wild.

There is, by the way, one detail that the řemeselnists seem to ignore (or conveniently forget): what we, and the entire world, understands as Traditional Czech Beer is not the product of idealistic iconoclasts fulfilling their dream of making the world a better place one půllitr a time, but a child of the industrial revolution; the birth of Pilsner Urquell, the most iconic of Czech beers, is a great example of that. But that is not why I think řemeselné pivo(var) is silly.

What Zemské Pivo et al are trying to do is shoehorn into the Czech beer vernacular a concept (for lack of a better word) that's been co-opted and debased by various business interests and marketing illusionists, to the point that a growing number of people are wondering whether it ever had any meaning to begin with, only because they feel that the words Czechs use to describe the very same thing are too objective and not romantic enough. Even if I shared that view (which I don't), I wouldn't see any need to import and translate an empty label when the Czech language already has a word for it: Poctivé. I know that I sort of dismissed it a few years back, but regardless, it is still a beautiful word, and one that, unlike řemeselné, needs no explanation; everyone will understand what Poctivé Pivo is. And maybe that's the problem? After all, “Craft” in any language mutation is known to have been used as an excuse for poor consistency and less than stellar brewing skills and attention to detail (as well as inflated prices).

But what would I know, I'm just an opinionated pisshead.

Na Zdraví!