Friday, August 29, 2008

In praise of staff

It may seen as though I am stating the obvious here, but a pub needs more than just good beer and good food - I have never quite understood the point of a "wet lead" pub to use the industry parlance for a pub with little or no food. Food is an eseential part of drinking, an Irish chef friend of mine once told me that in the first pub he worked in their top selling food was spicy potato wedges, which of course stoked the drinkers' thirst and so they drank more beer. Essential though for a pub in my opinion is good staff, but that in itself is difficult to define.

There are a few bars in Prague I go to regularly and each of them has decent staff for varying reasons. For example Zlata Hvezda, where Mrs Velkyal, myself and my mates watch Liverpool perform the footballing version of the cruciatus curse, has good efficient staff. Perhaps because Zlata has been our "home" pub for 9 years now, we always get good service. But despite this, I would be reticent to suggest that their bar staff can be classified as "good", not that they are bad, but they don't for me get beyond decent.

When I say good staff, I mean the kind of barman or barmanka (I love that word, better than barmaid) who understands the customer and builds a relationship with them. Of the pubs I frequent in Prague, the staff I like the best are at Pivovarsky Klub - honestly I am not on a stipend from these guys, I just happen to love the place. Some would say that it helps that I am there a couple of time most weeks, but that would be the same for Zlata - depending on how far in the Champions League Liverpool go.

Take last night. Most Thursdays the guys I work with go for a drinking session - and being the dictator I am it is usually to a place like PK, Pivovar U Bulovky or recently Pivovar Basta - last night we went to PK. One of the guys is leaving Prague to go back to the UK, so of course a leaving bash was required. I was particularly looking forward to going to PK because I knew Ambrose was working. Ambrose for me is the barman supreme, friendly, knowledgable about the beers and having built a friendship with him, he knows what kind of beers I will enjoy and what to avoid. Also in that league is Klara, possibly the only barmanka I know who when she come to the table and asks what I want I can say "I don't know, what do I want?" and she'll pick just the right beer for me. Last night I had polished off a Bakalar from Rakovnik, followed by a Herold Blonde Lager and just wasn't enjoying the beers as usual, so I asked Klara to just bring me something. The result was a Comenius 14 degree lager from the Janacek brewery in Uhersky Brod which hit the spot perfectly.

In many ways, Pivovarsky Klub is like my Cheers, because everybody knows my name and they always look glad I came, always a sign of a great pub in my book.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My little cellar

As noted in a previous post, I bought a couple of bottles of Belgian Trappist ales the other day, what I hadn't bargained for was the serving instructions on the label for the bottle of Orval. According to our enlightened friends at the Abbaye D'Orval their beer should be enjoyed at between 12 and 15 degrees Centigrade - 53 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually when I get hold of ales, I chuck them in the fridge a few hours before I want to drink them, so I can bring them down to a standard cellar temperature of about 8 degrees Centigrade. But with these ales, I read that it is recommended to store them at the same temperature as that recommended for drinking.

Thus it was I stubbled across my little cellar. Just under the window of my flat is a heater, which is always turned off - I am not sure which genius came up with the idea of installing radiators under windows but you can imagine it is fairly useless when winter comes and all the heat drifts up and out of the window. So we have a moveable heater, which at the moment is sitting in front of the static one as it is not cold enough to justify using it, even by Mrs Velkyal's standards. For various reasons there are a couple of boxes either side of the heater, creating a little darkened area next to the outside wall of the apartment - effect? My little cellar, which is currently playing host to said bottle of Orval and Rochefort, at an almost perfect 15 degrees centigrade. Now safe in the knowledge that I can store the beers in the right conditions, I intend to stock up on the Trappist ales and simply enjoy myself with Belgian ales, and traditional Belgian food - unfortunately that won't be moules et frites.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

To the monastery

I was joking with Mrs Velkyal the other day that I should do a Masters degree in theology, which is strangely enough what my Bachelors degree is in. She asked what my thesis would be, and I thought how about "Monasticism and the development of Beer"? Thus I could combine two of my favourite things - theology is endlessly fascinating, as long as you remember that religion is more the study of humanity than the study of God. So it was with this thought in mind that I decided to pop down to Pivovarsky Klub for my dinner (Mrs Velkyal being at her school's, beginning of year curry bash).

After a rather nice goulash I decided that it would be a good idea to re-visit a beer I used to think was muck - so bad I would rather drink water than bother with it - Klaster. I first had Klaster at an open air rock festival near the little Czech town of Mnichovo Hradiste, and couldn't stand it. Admittedly this was before I really started to enjoy beer from smaller breweries, which explains why I tried again last night, give it a second chance, turn the other cheek you might say. The name Klaster means "monastery" and the beer is made in a former monastery brewery - given the fact that the building hasn't been a monastery for nearly 600 years, the name is rather tenuous.

I have learnt to trust my first opinions on many things, and my opinion of Klaster won't be changing any time soon - for me it leaves too bitter a taste in the back of my throat, one that by the time I am half way down the pint makes me regret I ever bought the stuff. I am really not a fan.

So in order to wash away the taste I reached for one of my favourites - Gottschalk, a proper monastery beer, brewed by real monks in a monastery! Sometimes it is difficult to believe that in such a non-religious country as the Czech Republic that monks are still operating here and making greating beer, I realise that is not their calling in life but it is one hell of a sideline. Gottschalk is smooth, slightly sweet and just a wonderfully pleasant drink, even if every time I pour it the head is non-existant.

On my way home I decided to follow up a lead from Evan Rail. In his articles for the Prague Daily Monitor he mentioned that a small chain of cheese shops in the Czech Republic also stocked Belgian ales, in particular the Trappist ales and for half the price of other places. Conveniently, there is an outlet near Pivovarsky Klub so I nipped round in the hope they were still open - they were! Low and behold there they were, so I bought an Orval which is already 16 months old, and a Rochefort 6. The problem, if it can be called such, is that this is a cheese shop and they sell quality cheeses and I love cheese. Having gone in to buy two bottles of beer, I came out with two bottles of beer and several wedges of fine cheese, including a farmhouse cheddar!

In the coming days Mrs Velkyal and I will be having various cheese eating sessions and I hope to be reveling in the delights of Belgian Trappist beers.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A saunter through Prague 4 beers

Last night, after a few pre-meeting warmers at Pivovarsky Klub, I went to the magnificently titled "Sousedsky Pivovar U Bansethu", a newish brewpub in Prague 4 whose name translates as the "Neighbourhood Brewery U Bansethu". Whilst at Pivovarsky Klub I decided to pay homage to the 2008 World's Best Lager, Primator Exklusiv - a 16 degree beer weighing in at 7.5 % abv. It has to be one of the most robust drinks I have had, yet it is far smoother than many weaker lagers. More great stuff from Primator, a brewery which is rapidly becoming my favourite.


Pivovar U Bansethu has been one of the places I have wanted to get to for quite a while, unfortunately I didn't get there before Jay went back to States, he would love it! What can I say about this place - put simply, it is superb. Great beer, called Basta, wonderful atmosphere and quite possibly the best goulash I have had in the Czech Republic, and the only pub to have chillis growing in the courtyard.


Of the range of beers that they make, they had 3 available last night, 12 degree and 15 degree light lagers and a 13 degree amber lager - which is called Polotmave in czech, which literally means "half dark". Unfortunately I never got round to trying the 15 degree as it had sold out by the time I fancied one. The amber lager though is quite simply wonderful, I would ever go so far as to say that it is best beer I have had in Prague for quite some time.


After a goodly intake of Basta, we wandered down the street to a pub called Zly Casy, which translates as "Evil Times" - if evil times comes with great beer then I am more than happy. On tap they had a 10 degree light lager from Pivovar Kacov - the guys who make Stepan for Pivovarsky Klub, Litovel 12 degree light lager, and the Svaty Norbert Weizen from the Klasterni Pivovar Strahov. Prague seems to be getting quite a few pubs who are shedding the ubiquitous Gambrinus, Staropramen and Plzensky Prazdroj mega-brands for micro-brews, the thing I liked most about Zly Casy was that it was a run of the mill Czech pub - and I loved it.

I was drinking the weizen, which is something of a surprise for me because it isn't so long ago that I couldn't stand wheat beers. The Svaty Norbert Weizen is very refreshing, with a lovely aroma and a nice creamy head. And it drank great too, which is afterall the main thing!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ingredients snag

My quest to make my first batch of homebrew has hit a slight snag - the cost of getting the ingredients shipped from the UK to the Czech Republic. For a 25 quid order the shipping is 46 quid - which is just uneconomical for me, so I need to find an alternative, maybe in Germany or Austria.

Thinking hat back on, though I will not be deterred.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dandelion wine and mead

This weekend saw the development to the next phase of our alcohol producing projects. To refresh memories, about 3 months ago we made some dandelion wine as well as some mead. This weekend we finally racked them into bottles – thank goodness for IKEA having a range of one litre bottles which are ideal for the job.

/Of course our little “factory” is somewhat rudimentary, and the small is neither being humble nor an over exaggeration, we made 3 litres each of wine and mead. With as much care as possible it as my job to siphon the liquids into the bottles – which I think went quite well. Or at least I didn’t end up with cascades of booze all over the floor. This little video was fun to make - with the camera we bought as a wedding present.

video

I must admit that the temptation to try both the wine and the mead was too much for me to overcome, so I took the tiniest of sips. The wine is sweet, but has a nice fresh aftertaste, which I imagine is the product of the oranges and lemons from the original boil. The wife describes it as “like being in a field of sunflowers on a summer’s day”, although when she isn’t being flowery she describes it as sweet, smooth yet potent. To coin a phrase my wine loving dad uses often, the wine has legs, it is slightly sticky. I would happily drink it in its current state as a light dessert wine, or an aperitif. If, in common with most alcoholic drinks, the wine improves with age, we will be having a very merry Christmas.

As for the mead, I was disappointed – the recipe I followed called for the use of baker’s yeast, which I found somewhat strange. It assured me that after about 6 to 9 months in the bottle, the mead would be smooth enough to drink. That’s just as well, because at the moment it is somewhat rough.

The most important thing in these experiments from my perspective was to test the viability of 5 litre glass bottles as fermenting vessels – in the absence of homebrew shops in the Czech Republic. Next up will be my long awaited debut into the world of brewing beer. I have decided to start off with an extract-based ale, although I plan to use speciality grains to give the beer body, colour and freshness.

As with the products used in the dandelion wine, I will be returning to the Hop Shop in the UK for my grains, hops and yeast.