I first went to Prague in the hot summer of 1997. It was my first ever self-organised trip, with the all the excitement of sorting out transport and accommodation all on my own. There were no direct flights so my friend and I got the bus from Belfast to London, overnighted there, somehow totally managed to avoid seeing any news on the morning of 31st August on the way to and through Stanstead airport, and only five days into the trip happened into an Irish bar with Sky News which was showing a carpet of flowers outside Kensington Palace for some unfathomable reason. Before we left Ireland, I had bought a guidebook. The 1997 Rough Guide to Prague also served me on my return to welcome in 1999 amid the amateur pyrotechnics of Old Town Square, and for the eight hour layover on the way to Istanbul in 2002, just weeks after the city had been ravaged by the rising waters of the Vltava. I remember noticing that 2002's Prague was bouncing back from the disaster in a way that 1997's wouldn't have.
I toyed with the idea of replacing the book for this trip, but in the end I didn't need to. Fellow beer blogger and ex-resident of Prague Velky Al has produced a pub guide to the city, and since that thoroughly covered the theme of the trip I didn't really think any other documentation was necessary. Al makes it clear in his introduction that it's a pub guide, not a beer guide, though almost every specialist beer bar is listed. I didn't get to much over a quarter of the 40 pubs he describes, but here's what I found in some of them.
Picking up in Zlý Časy, my only venture into pale lager was Otakar 11° Světlé, a simple and tasty chap, bitter with just a little bit of a yeast tang to make it interesting.
On our first night we took the tram up to Svijanský Rytíř to have some food and be svijazzled by the Svijanský beers. Just the two were on offer, brewed at Svijanský itself, north east of Prague heading for the border with Poland. Máz is a light 11° lager, vaguely sweet with a little hint of bananas but mostly cold and eminently sessionable at 4.8% ABV. Hazier Kníze (pictured) beefs things up a bit at 13° (5.6% ABV) and here those fruit flavours veer towards marker pen, saved at the end by a lovely dry graininess. It reminds me of a lighter, more fun, version of märzen. A couple of these and a stonking plate of brewer's goulash and we were off again.
At a nearby supermarket I picked up three bottles from the Master range, brewed by SABMiller in response to the growing number of smaller brands in the country. I found it to be a three-beer-range of two halves. In the middle is Master Polotmavy, amber and really very tasteless. Master Zlaty is the pale one and has a fantastic honey-and-wax bittersweet taste on a full and filling body. I also really enjoyed the Master Tmavy, heavy and fizzy with a cola sweetness, tempered by liquorice and a touch of classic Czech caramel.
The main event as far as your standard Czech lager was concerned centred on a slightly scruffy and brightly-lit neighbourhood boozer called U Slovánské Lipy. Al designates it as "an absolutely must visit pub" on the strength of the Kout na Šumavě range (Kout na Šumavě is over at the western point of the Czech Republic, just beyond Plzeň). We had a choice of five beers, one of which was available in both filtered and unfiltered form. The difference between the two versions of Kout na Šumavě 10° is surprising, especially the appearance: one limpid gold, the other opaque amber. While the filtered one is a smooth and big bodied helles-like lager the other is rawer with lots of crunchy grain in it. Both very enjoyable, but I think they're too different to designate one as any way better than the other. It's great to have such an opportunity for comparison, though.
On trading up to Kout na Šumavě 12° you get an extra hit of citric zest in a cloudy pale gold beer, finishing with just a pop of full-on bitterness at the end to keep you on your toes. On the sweeter side there's Kout na Šumavě Porter, another 18°-er, enormously heavy and balancing its big caramel with an almost acrid bitterness. Not quite up to Pardubicky standards, in my opinion, but really close.
My favourite of the lot, though, was Kout na Šumavě 14° Tmavé. A clear cut above your standard dark Czech lager, incorporating all the usual sweet smoothness with extra chocolate and even a bit of smoke. Complex and very very drinkable. If you feel like it you can get this mixed with the 12° for something resembling an English brown ale, but really you're better off keeping them in separate glasses.
From near Poland to beyond Plzeň, that's enough of a Bohemian round trip. With just a final glass tip to Al for his guide, we'll be keeping it relatively local for the rest of the week and looking at the city's brewpubs.