Tuesday, January 24, 2023

What a Pickle

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about some of my favourite Czech pub snacks, which left me in something of an nostalgic reverie. When Mrs V and I lived in Prague our Sunday tradition was to take a number 6, 8, or 26 tram from Masarykovo nádraží to Strossmayerovo náměstí and from there a number 17 to Trojská. Once at Trojská we would walk along the river, practically to the zoo and then cross the river Vltava into the expansive Stromovka park, once the hunting grounds of toffs. Having walked through Stromovka we would be near Letenské náměstí and would often have brunch at a restaurant called Fraktal before continuing our walk through the park at Letna, then down the hill, across Čechův most, and into Prague's Old Town to find a pub to sit in and fritter away the afternoon.

As a result of both the reverie and my post, I decided I needed to make some utopenci again. As I mentioned in the post, "utopenec" (singular) translates as "drowned man" in Czech, a name that allegedly comes from a Bohemian story about a pub owner and miller. The legend goes that in the town of Beroun, coincidentally one of Mrs V and I's favourite day trips from Prague for their ceramic festival, there once lived a man by the name of Šamánek, whose boozer was well regarded for the quality of the pickled sausages it served. One day, our friend Šamánek was making repairs to the waterwheel that powered his mill and had the misfortune of falling into the water and drowning. Henceforth the pickled sausages sold at his pub were called, rather darkly, after his misfortune to become a drowned man.

Several friends asked if I could share with them how to make utopenci (plural), and so when I got round to making a new batch at the weekend, I figured I'd take some pictures and put it all here. So...for the recipe you will need:

  • 1 packet of spicy smoked sausage
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 Hungarian wax peppers
  • 2 cups white vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 0.5 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 0.5 teaspoon allspice berries
  • 0.5 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 4 or 5 bay leaves

The traditional Czech sausage used in utopenci is called a špekáček (singular), which is a short, fat smoked sausage that is a mix of beef and pork. The Wegman's Smoked Hungarian style sausage below is the closest I have found to špekáčky (plural).

Before dealing with the sausages themselves though, we need to make the brine. In a smallish pot, mix the vinegar, water, salt, sugar, and spices then bring to the boil. Boil hard for 3 minutes, remove the pot from the heat, and let the brine cool. You don't want to pour boiling brine over the sausages, we are pickling not cooking them remember.

While the brine is cooling, prepare the sausages and vegetables. I cut one end off the sausages purely so they fit better in the type of jar I generally use. Finely slice the onions and peppers.

Next up split the sausages lengthwise without cutting all the way through to the other side and stuff them with slices of onion and pepper.

Once the brine is lukewarm, it is time to fill your jar with more sliced onions and peppers, and add the stuffed sausages so that you have a pretty well packed jar.

Before pouring the brine into the jar, I take a spoon to remove the allspice, peppercorns, and bay leaves, which I then add to the jar so they can macerate further and add more flavour. Gently pour in the brine to cover the sausages completely, using a chopstick or similar to allow the spices to penetrate further into the jar. Once full, tap the jar on the counter surface a few times to get rid of any air pockets.

Pop a lid on the jar and put it into the fridge to forget about for at least 10 days, though 2 weeks is my preferred minimum.

When it is time to eat them, just pull out a sausage, some of the veggies, which will have pickled nicely as well, and serve with a dollop of mustard, a couple of slices of seeded rye bread, and a half litre of some properly made Bohemian style pilsner, Pilsner Urquell would do the trick nicely.

Note: there is another theory as to the origin of the name, but it is less prosaic and hence, sadly, more likely, simply that the floating sausages look like drowned men. Meh, I prefer the story of Šamánek.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Through a Glass Darkly

According to one Dr Schulze, writing in 1890, "you shouldn't drink beer out of beer glasses". Schulze went on to state that the traditional German bierkrug was far superior as it protects the liquid from the deleterious effects of sunlight. This fact might seem fairly obvious to us here in the first quarter of the 21st century, but in late 19th century central Europe, this was cause for much concern and investigation.

It was in the decades following the creation of Pilsner Urquell, and the subsequent revolution in brewing as from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from the Baltics to the Balkans brewers turned their attention to mimicking Josef Groll's golden lager, that glass became a more common sight on the table of drinking dens across Europe. The industralisation of glassmaking, which resulted in a more affordable vessel, coupled with the sparkling bright transparent nature of the new fangled lagers, made being able to see you beer as you drank all the rage.

However, looks came at a price. If you didn't drink quick enough then the sunlight streaming through your golden pint, then your beer would start to "decompose" and the beer loses its condition "extremely quickly".

Step into the breach then one Wilhelm/Vilem Havlík, master brewer at the Kročehlav brewery near Kladno, about 19 miles/30km from Prague. According to an article in Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer from February 15, 1893, yes I have been browsing around the newspaper archive of the Austrian National Library again, Havlík invented "new, practical beer glasses".

The article claims that a "polish beer glass, in which the rays of light collect at certain points, is the least suitable beer container, since the harmful effects of the light are increased". The article goes on to suggest filling a ceramic krug and a transparent beer glass with beer, leaving them for 15 minutes before tasting. The ceramic is "still fresh and appetising", while the beer in the glass has "lost aroma and sharpness".

If I understand the article correctly, Havlík's glass was entirely opaque, other than for a clear base that would allow the drinker to check the clarity of the beer. The patent submitted by Havlík notes that the glass is entirely lead free and as such replaced the recommendation of a Director Schnitze to drink from gold or silver cups.

A fun element of the design is that these glasses had a "rough, etched plate or strip" upon which the drinker can write their name or some other note whilst at the pub to keep the same glass for the duration of their stay. Finishing off the piece, the editors of Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer hoped that the new glass would soon be available in drinking dens throughout Bohemia.

I couldn't find any definite examples of such glasses as I searching, whether on Ebay or Google, so if anyone knows of any out there it would be fascinating to see. However, it is clear (pun maybe intended), that the idea had very little long term impact as transparent glassware is the norm, though it does also show how little things change across the years, as even in the 1890s people were coming up with new and improved glassware.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Local or for Locals?

It is a mere 7.2 miles, via the back roads of Virginia, from my house to my local brewery, Patch Brewing, by far the quickest and easiest place for me to get to for a pint. I took advantage of this fact several times this holiday season, whether it was afternoon drinkies with my neighbour on Christmas Eve, getting my boys out of the house to run around in the kids play area on Boxing Day, or just having an afternoon drink with Mrs V and the boys whilst playing ludo in the main bar.

Patch has been open for a little over a year now, housed in a former VFW hall on something like 15 acres of land just outside Gordonsville. Their plans include things such as pick you own berries and walking trails in the woods to complement the existing pair of bars, I am a big fan of the outside space though it is sadly closed for winter right now. The brewery itself, and the main tap room area, are housed in the actual VFW hall, an open space with dartboards, a juke box, and trestle tables that remind me of central European beer halls.

When it comes to the beer itself, Erik is really starting to come into his own now that he has his brewhouse set up and has been brewing on it for about 6 months. Erik's previous job was working at the Devils Backbone Brewing Basecamp, and before that at Three Notch'd Brewing in Charlottesville. As such, he has worked under two of the best brewers I know in Jason Oliver and Dave Warwick respectively. An example of this would be his porter that I recently tried again over the holidays having not been wildly impressed when I had it on opening, it was excellent. Testament to the fact that it pays to give a brewer time to work out how to make his system work for him before passing judgement.

It was on my Christmas Eve trip to Patch that I was stood at the bar, there was basically no one there other than myself, my neighbour, and the general manager, who was tending the bar that day. I've know the GM for quite some time now, initially through the local homebrew club, but also as he has been in the beer industry for the best part of a decade I think at this point. The rest of the bar staff know me as a pilsner drinker, and Erik's Pylon Pilsner is definitely my most regular tipple at Patch, but the GM knew what I was there for, their "copper ale", which in my mind treads a fine line between dark mild and the kind of darker best bitter you get in the south of England.

As we chatted, I asked what the brewery's top sellers are. Pylon comes second to Lempicky Light Lager, an American light lager brewed with Murphy & Rude malted corn. When I tried it in the early days of autumn, having stumbled over the name several times (it is lem-piky, not the lem-pitz-ky my Czech brain reads it as), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, nicely refreshing, not wildly bitter, but also not bland in the slightest. In discussing the Lempicky, the GM noted that part of Patch's ethos is to make beer "for local people" rather than just being "local" by virtue of proximity.

I have to admit I really like that approach, as well as the fact that the malted corn used in Lempicky is grown and malted locally too, with Murphy & Rude being less than 20 miles from the brewery. Outside of bigger urban areas, Gordonsville proper has a population of about 1500, and away from major tourist haunts, breweries need to cater more closely to the tastes of the local populace, and as such have a broad selection of styles rather than going deep into a particular style. In Charlottesville you can afford to have your taps dominated by IPAs because you are always going to have transient business by virtue of it being the local major hub and a tourist destination.

This also got me thinking about how so many of the beer styles we love and take for granted are a combination of location in a physical sense and locale in a population sense. Take Pilsner Urquell, its location has insanely soft water, which extracts less colour from malt than the hard water of London, for example, and is a key element in what made it such a revolutionary beer. Yet, from my understanding of the history, the brewery was started because the people of Plzeň were drinking more and more imported lager type beer from Bavaria. The good burghers of the city basically decided they wanted a slice of the action, and thus gave the people something they wanted, and the world a new beer style into the bargain.

When I was a student, back in the dim and distant past of the 20th century, one of the things that came up in homiletics classes - yes, I studied to be a preacher - was the importance of understanding your audience, which is basically analogous to understanding your customer. When the majority of your customers come from your locale, presenting them with something they understand and like is key. Sure they may never become a dedicated craft drinker with a penchant for hazy IPAs, but if they become a loyal drinker of your light lager then you have gained both a customer and an advocate, and that can only be a good thing.

Being "local" is all good and well, but I feel as though being "for locals" is better.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Year of Czech...Snacks

I wish I could remember where I read it, I thought it might be Vinepair, but I can't find the article there. Apparently 2023 is to be the "year of Czech beer" in the context of the writer discussing Schilling's very respectable polotmavý ležák, Augustin.

That phrase "year of Czech beer" had me conflicted however. On the one hand, yes I would love to see more traditional Bohemian style beers, whether světlé, polotmavé, or tmavé, at whatever strength category is in order, lehké (8° or less), výčepní (8°-10°), ležák (11°-12°), speciální (13°+), or porter if it's dark and over 18°. On the other hand, I dread the market being swamped with second rate brews, trading on the popularity/trendiness of Czech beer, a pale lager hopped with Saaz does not a Bohemian pilsner make, neither yet does adding a slug of Carafa to your "pilsner" recipe make a tmavé.

Inevitably, along with screeds about how Czech beer is the IT beer of 2023 will come the "hanger-on" content around what foods pair with what beers, how the Lukr tap is "traditional" (retro-revival is far more accurate), and the mythological dumping of beer by the good citizens of Pilsen that is claimed to be the catalyst for the advent of Pilsner Urquell.

What I would love to see though in all the inevitable content, is an appreciation of broader Czech pub culture and the kind of things you are likely to see or get in a Czech boozer - preferably one outside of Prague 1, 2, and the posh bits of 3. In particular it would thrill my heart to walk into a brewpub that is showcasing a triple decoction světlý ležák, hopped to the nines with Saaz, open fermented, extensive horizontal lagering, and be able to order an "utopenec" or "drowned man". 

Utopenci (plural here, hence change in spelling) are pickled sausages, served with a slice or two of rye bread, some of the onions from the pickling liquor, and a good dollop of mustard. They were one of my absolute favourite bar snacks when I lived in Czechia, usually fished out of a great jar behind the bar, and served with little ceremony. In my unhumble opinion you need to get out of Prague altogether to find truly great utopenci, from memory the ones I had in Velké Hamry were superb. In a fit of ostalgia (not a typo) last year I decided to make my own...

The method itself is pure simplicity, split some spicy sausages, in this case Hungarian style smoked paprika sausages from Wegmans, slice a couple of onions and Hungarian wax peppers, layering them in a clean container with an airtight lid. For the brine I made a mixture of white vinegar, salt, a tiny bit of sugar, along with a bay leaf, a few allspice berries, and some black peppercorns, boiled it for a few minutes then let it cool to blood temperature. Once the brine had cooled, pour it over the sausages, onions, and peppers, and seal up your container, then put it in the fridge for a couple of weeks to mature. Some recipes include thinly sliced chili peppers, but I didn't have any, so I didn't use them. The great thing about peasant snacks is recipes are wonderfully flexible depending on what is in your cupboard.

Another gastronomic treasure to be found in many a Czech pub is nakládaný hermelín, which really means "marinated heremlín", "hermelín" is a soft cheese in the mold of brie. Evan Rail best described it in his article for Vinepair as "a type of gooey, marinated soft cheese that serves as a popular beer snack in the atmospheric beer halls of Prague". Again, this is something that Mrs V and I make fairly often, even though, as the article notes, here in central Virginia we have to replace the hermelín with brie.

As you can see from the picture, the brie is split in half, and a paste of garlic and paprika, add a little cayenne if you like a touch of heat, is smeared on the revealed cheese. The halves are then put back together and stacked in a sterile glass jar with onions and wax peppers, lots of onions - I think we used 4 large ones in this batch. Added to jar are a couple of bay leaves, some allspice berries, and black peppercorns - are you seeing a flavour theme here yet? The jar is then filled with oil, the blandest, most neutral oil you can find, and left to sit in the fridge for 10 days to 2 weeks. What comes out of the jar is an unctuous, pungent cheese that spreads easily on a slab of rye bread, best enjoyed with a half litre of whatever style of Bohemian beer is your fancy that day.

Bread...the staff of life, and Czech bread, chleb, in particular is something I loved. The standard loaf in Czechia is a dense, brown rye bread, that sticks to your ribs, and goes with absolutely everything. I never understood expats who didn't like it, and I even knew one who had his friends from the UK bring British bread over when they came to visit. Anyway, Czech bread looks kind of like this version I baked last year:

Another of my favourite pub snacks in Czechia is half a loaf of this kind of bread, sliced most of the way through, served warm, and with a pot of škvarková pomazánka, basically an egg, gherkin, and mustard spread that includes "škvarký" - the cooked, unrenderable bits left over from making lard from belly pork. This video shows the process far better than I can explain it, suffice to say it is fecking delicious, spread on the warm bread...I need to make more lard soon...

As I said earlier, if I were to walk into a taproom showcasing Czech beers and any of these snack were also available, I'd be in heaven. The best foods to pair with Czech beer are Czech foods, they go hand in hand so perfectly.

Get Your Coat Love

I have said it plenty of times on here as well as my various socials, I am an abysmal beer tourist. You see, I have this tendency to find a ...