Earlier this week my family and I returned from a four day mini-break in Prague. This was my wife Eileen’s first visit to the Czech capital, son Matthew’s second and my fourth, so it proved to be an interesting combination of expectations and experiences. Being a family holiday, beer hunting wasn’t exactly on top of the agenda, but even so there was still a reasonable amount of beer drinking involved. The prime reason for our visit was to experience some of Prague’s Christmas Markets, which commence trading at the beginning of December, and we were not disappointed with what we found and enjoyed. On top of that I can safely say all three of us thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Czech capital, and will undoubtedly be returning again in the not too distant future.
Rather than writing a blow-by-blow account of the beers we enjoyed, and the pubs and bars where we drank them, instead I want to relate my impressions of the general drinking scene in Prague, along with how I see the market developing out there. The thing that sticks out above all others in the Bohemian capital is the widespread availability of unfiltered beer (Nefiltrované pivo). Even the big boys are in on this now, and we found unfiltered Staropramen 12˚ on sale in the restaurant attached to our hotel, and unfiltered Gambrinus 11˚ at the Hard Rock Café (Eileen's choice for lunch, and treat! ) just along from Prague’s Old Town Square.
The top Nefiltrované pivo, so far as I was concerned, was Unetické pivo 12˚, from Únětický Pivovar, a recently revived brewery in the village of Unetice which is almost a suburb of Prague. The original brewery ceased brewing in 1949, but re-started again in 2011 in the old premises, but using new brewing kit. This wonderfully tasty and bitter, pale lager was on sale at Na Slamiku, a real, traditional Czech local, situated right opposite our hotel, and the pub itself combined, with the Unetické pivo 12˚, turned out to be the perfect combination and the find of the trip.
We ate and drank at Na Slamiku on two of the four evenings we were in Prague, finding the atmosphere of this unspoilt local pub reminded us of what pubs were like back in the UK during their 1970's heyday. The freshly cooked, value for money food served was the perfect match for the excellent beer, and with indoor smoking permitted, as in many Czech pubs, Eileen was a very happy bunny. What amazed us was the way the pub was run by just three people; a husband and wife, plus a cook. On our first visit on Friday night, the place was heaving, and we were lucky to get a seat. During this time, the husband and wife team were kept very busy transporting plates weighed down with good wholesome dishes, and foaming mugs of beer, to the various tables. This they did with a cheery smile for us, and some friendly banter for the locals.
I said earlier that beer hunting was not the main objective of the holiday, and it wasn't, but nevertheless I was determined to try and track down some, what for me, are some of the best "mainstream" beers the Czech Republic's has to offer. Bernard of Humpolec, in eastern Bohemia, brew some fantastic beers, full of character, with a rich maltiness, balanced by a good hop bitterness.
We had spent the morning of our last full day in Prague at the colourful Christmas Market, in the city's Old Town Square. After a surfeit of hot honey wine, roast chestnuts, fried potatoes with bacon and a sweet, sugared-pastry dish cooked on large wooden rollers, I decided a beer was definitely in order. We had walked down towards the Charles Bridge in order for Eileen to buy a hat she had spotted in a shop a couple of day's previously, so after her purchase was complete a quick glance at Ewan Rail's CAMRA Good Beer Guide to Prague showed that Café Duende was close by, and what's more it was described as one of the best places in Prague to enjoy Bernard beers on draught.
Imagine my disappointment then on arriving, finding the place only half-lit and being told it wouldn't be opening until 4pm. The CAMRA Guide had indicated otherwise, but as this was published back in 2007 it is now obviously becoming out of date. How about a new edition, CAMRA? As compensation, I brought a few bottles of Bernard beer, back with me - Svetly Lezak (pale), Jantarovy Lezak (amber) and Cerny Lezak (dark). Like their draught counterparts, they are unpasteurised, and I will enjoy drinking them over the fast approaching festive season.
I did promise not to relate a blow-by-blow account of our drinking, but no trip to Prague, and therefore no description of a visit, would be complete without a mention of U Fleku - reputed to be the oldest brew-pub in the world, and the Czech capital's most famous drinking establishment. We visited U Fleku on our second day in Prague, but it had not been our original choice of somewhere to eat. The beer hall at U Medviku (at the Little Bears), was packed out when we arrived, and there was no room to squeeze even the three of us in. The Little Bears ended up as Matthew's favourite Prague pub on our last visit, and I must admit the standard of food and drink there was really high.
Disappointed, we made our way through the maze of side streets to U Fleku, where despite its obvious popularity, there was space for us inside the first beer hall on the left. Despite its reputation as a "tourist trap", I have to report the service and the food were very good, whilst the rich, black, house-brewed lager was excellent. When I first tried this beer, back in 1984, on my very first visit to Prague, I wasn't that keen on it, but I put that down to my taste-buds not being sufficiently matured at the time. When Matthew and I visited last year, I noticed a slight lactic taste lurking in the background which, whilst not unpleasant, should probably not have been there, but may have been down to the house yeast. This time around, the lactic character had disappeared; the result an excellent full-bodied and very malty dark lager which was worth every Kc paid.
So there we have it, whilst U Fleku carries on in its timeless, traditional fashion, the beer scene in the rest of Prague is evolving fast. On our visit last year I sampled a well-hoped, 6.3% IPA at the Klasterni Brewery attached to the Strahov Monastery, and I also brought a bottle of the excellent 8.0% Pardubicky Porter back with me (I brought two bottles this time!). What with this, and the increasing availability of both unfiltered and unpasteurised beer (tankovna), the Czech capital remains an exciting place for the beer hunter.