14 March 2011

When I went to see an ale revolution

More than anything, it was the promise of warm-fermented beer that brought me to the Czech Republic. Not that I've anything at all against lager, you understand, but it really appeals to me when a country with an entrenched national beer culture has decided there's room for other stuff too. What beers I've encountered from the likes of Kocour and Matuška have impressed. It was time to jump in at the deep end.

I had the pleasure of meeting Prague's ex-pat beer royalty Max and Evan, as well as visitors Brian and Gina over from New York. We met at Prague's craft beer point zéro: Zlý Časy, a poky basement bar engaged in a mission to re-educate the Czech beer drinker's palate.

To the ales then, and we'll start with the basics: Kocour IPA. Marks off straightaway for a nonic pint glass, however exotic that may seem here, and further marks off for an almost complete absence of hops! What were they thinking with this one? There's a light floral flavour on a thin body, and certainly nothing wrong with it, but it's much more in the style of an English bitter than a craft brewed IPA. We get onto much firmer ground with Quarterback, a spicy and full-on American-style Double IPA with lots of grapefruit yet still retaining those delicate floral notes. Samurai, another alleged IPA, is a remarkably pale shade of hazy gold and though bitter, delivers more candy and flowers than bitter ol' hops. Charming in its own way, but once again hard to square with the IPA designation.

I think Kocour are in a happier place with lager. I happened on Kocour Tmavý in one pub and was fascinated by it. More herbs than flowers, it tastes of fennel, eucalyptus, some violet, and a lot those big yellow chewy Refresher sweets that were a staple of 1980s sweetshops. Easy drinking for all that complexity: I notice that, as at home, most Czech beers I had were served with at least a squirt of nitro in the gas mix. Overall, Kocour seem to be still doing their best work with lagers, though if they toned down the features of Quarterback they could have an excellent range of hoppy American-style beers on their books.

The other Czech ale hero I'd encountered before was Matuška, having enjoyed their Raptor IPA in the Euston Tap last year. It's every bit as good closer to the source. Zlý Časy had their witbier on tap: Bruggy. I liked the look of Evan's pint so got one for myself. It wears its spices up front, and finishes dry with a bit of black pepper. Beyond that there's not a whole lot going on, but it's a perfectly serviceable example of a witbier I reckon.

We sail into less certain waters from here on in. I couldn't tell you for sure which of the beers that follow are warm fermented and which are lagers. What they all share, however, is a sizeable distance from golden Czech lager.

At Beer Museum, Prague's newest speciality beer pub, they have 30 taps. At the far right hand side are the conservative beers: the house pils (Bernard) moving steadily more radical as we move along. They love a good comedy political metaphor, do the Czechs. Needless to say, my interest was with all the weird stuff over at the loony left.

Like the two from the Opat range produced by Broumov in, er, Broumov. Opat Čokoládový is powerfully chocolatey, a lot like Porterhouse Chocolate Truffle Stout, I thought (yes, it's nearly that time of year again). Sweetness and cocoa in abundance. My only criticism is that the beer element really does take a back seat. Opat Pepper isn't a whole lot beerier, but I'd forgive it anything. Hazy yellow, it wastes no time smacking the drinker with big white pepper spices, like licking the top of the pepperpot. It's not just heat either: you get a fantastic green vegetal complication, with notes of asparagus and hemp, and it all lasts for ages. Yum.

It's just as well I got my hemp fix there, because I made the mistake of ordering Hemp Brou Czech later. Ugh! It tastes like a combination of cabbage and melted plastic coated in golden syrup. Enough to put any stoner off weed for life.

Also on the flavoured beer list at Beer Museum was Starladenské Cappuccino. Again, not much beer in evidence from this hazy ruby affair, but lots of gorgeous mocha aromas. It's very sweet and quite boozy: the sensation of Sambuca-soaked coffee beans comes to mind. There's a bit of bourbon biscuit too. It gets a bit difficult after a while, but as a post-prandial or nightcap I'd recommend it.

As with pepper and hemp, I'm incapable of passing blueberries on a tap list. So it was an immediate call for Černa Hora's Modrá Luna. It's dark amber, it smells headily of blueberries, but it's definitely a beer. The dominant flavour is dark chocolately malt, like a light porter or mild, and the blueberry fruit just finishes it off on the end. Quite simple really.

More chocolate maltiness is apparent in Sedm Kult, again at the point where brown bitter meets mild: a little bit of caramel and possibly some milky toffee. The let-down is in a sweet cheap powdery chocolate note that creeps in at the end. Rebel Černy is a bitterer beer on similar lines: liquorice and roasted barley coming into play. Full marks to whomever wrote the description on the Beer Museum menu, though: "pepper, basil, caramel, prunes, vanilla". I may be the highly suggestible type, but I didn't get any of that.

Back to Zlý Časy where Max was favouring Pegas Gold. I'm fairly sure this 16° stonker from Brno is a lager. It reminded me a lot of pale-and-heavy German bock: sweet, rich and just a bit too much work for me.

Beer of the trip, however, was a porter. Pardubický Porter is no young craft beer upstart: they've been churning it out since 1890. It's 19° (8% ABV) and a sinfully enticing dark ruby. The texture is purest velvet with lashings of whipped cream and thick caramel. Balancing this there's a striking herbal bitterness and the whole concoction slips down like silk. I saw it on draught and bottled in a few bars: it's no rarity. This is the Czech beer to be filling your suitcase with, if you're not flying hand-luggage-only like I was.

I think that's enough for one post. There will be more odds and ales when I look at Prague's brewpubs later this week. Next, however, some palate-cleansing lager.


  1. You do not see many cabbage beers. We should ask the B&C to add cabbage extract for their green St Patricks day pints.

    I know know what 'nonic' means. I half thought it was some sort of gnostic sect you had joined.

  2. I now know "nonic" is more gnomic nomenclature than I hitherto knew.

  3. Pardubicky Porter is a lovely beer, and an ideal nightcap. Surprised you didn't like the Kocour IPAs, but perhaps they have changed since I last had them.

  4. I liked all the Kocour IPAs, just mostly not as IPAs. No points off for untrueness-to-style in my book.

  5. Oh,and Pegas Gold is a lager. It is a pity they didn't have Pegas Tmavy Special - a fantastic tmavy for sure.

  6. Could the IPAs be a new one for the BJCP - Czech IPAs?! The higher-hopped ales I tried when out there all shared a similarity and a balance with more floral and flavour than tonsil-tearing bitterness. Perhaps not IPA in the US style but maybe a Czech variant? I haven't had enough to know - how did Evan and Max describe then?

    All sounds great though. I'm hoping to go back later this year. I very quickly fell in love with Prague and the Czech Republic.

  7. I didn't get an explanation for the flowery thing. I thought it might be the water, but apparently it's, er, not.

  8. Pardubicý Porter is also a lager BTW....

    @Mark: I usually describe them as Good, if not Very Good. or lovely :)

    Oh yeah... and it was really nice to meet the face behind the glass...