Wednesday, November 29, 2023

In Praise of...Czech Beer Snacks

The very first post of 2023 on here was "Year of Czech...Snacks", in which I held forth on the notion that if 2023 was to be the "Year of Czech Beer" then I really hoped that we would also see more elements of Czech beer culture come to the fore. With just a few weeks until the end of the year, I can honestly say that I have not really seen a noticeable increase in the number of Czech style lagers available in this part of the world. The cynical side of me kind of wonders though if "America", when it comes to beer trends, is largely limited to the West Coast, Colorado, and New England. Czech beer styles really haven't swept the nation in any meaningful way, and I say that with a tinge of regret, for obvious reasons, and a tinge of relief for equally obvious reasons if you know me at all.

Anyway, unless you have been under a rock recently, you will know that I spent a few days back in Czechia a couple of weeks ago. As you can tell from the last pair of posts, I drank a lot of seriously good beer, and there are several places and beers that I simply haven't mentioned. Drinking tankové Svijany in a pub in Malá Strana was a delight, as was Plzeňský Prazdroj at Pod Petřínem, all of which happened before midday. While it is true that Czechs make the best beers in the world, sorry everyone else, they also have the kind of pub culture that resonates most with me - admittedly my decade living in the city sorely colours that, but for a deeply shy person (I know some of you will be stunned by that admission), Czech pub culture is a safe space lacking the forced bonhomie of much of the modern Anglophonic world.

Essential to such a pub culture are snacks, small bites of something to mop up the booze that is going down in prodigious amounts. Sure, many tap rooms and bars over here do snacks, but a side of fries or a pile of tortilla chips with cheese just don't do much for me.

On the Friday afternoon, I got to introduce Dave and Chris to the place that is, for me, the epitome of a proper Czech pub. A place that doesn't have a bank of taps serving dozens of beers from breweries of varying quality, there were only 3 beers on tap that day. A place that doesn't have garish lighting, modern fixtures and fittings, or a sign in English, or even a menu in English. A space with just the bar and about 6 tables total, I have said this many times, but if I had the building skills to do so, I could replicate it pretty closely in one half of my garage. I am referring, of course, to Hostomická nelevarna (sorry Evan for drawing more attention to it), the brewery tap for Pivovar Hostomice, and a bastion of Czech pub culture in an ever more westernised (read generic) experience in Prague.

As Chris and I were starting our journeys home the next day, we were planning to only have a few pints before relatively early nights. Well, that was the plan, but it went out the window. The only picture I took while we were there was this one.

Despite the mug of desítka in the foreground, that was not the focal point of the picture, rather the three plates and basket between it and the glass in the background. When the munchies hit, we looked at the board of available snacks and just decided to get one of each of the options, knowing that they all came with bread. And, so we had nakládaný hermelín, utopenec, and škvarková pomazánka, with classic Šumavský chleb to spread all the unctuous goodness onto. I am not going to go into detail about how to make the snacks, I did that in the post from January, though since being back I realise that Mrs V and I sorely need to make more of the first two, and I really need to get on with making my own škvarková pomazánka.

While this is the only picture of snacks that I bothered to take, we had similar morsels in several of the places we went to, always accompanied by dense, chewy Czech bread. At Únětice we had a delicious game pâté, and at Pivovarský klub a magnificent duck liver pâté and more škvarková pomazánka. All of this delightful food got me thinking about what makes a good pub snack?

Let's start with the basics, it can't be fiddly. Food that you have to mess about with is a pain in the prdel in general, but when it is accompanying good beer and fine conversation, it is even more important that it be easy to eat. When I think specifically about Czech pub snacks, grease is the word. Nakládaný hermelín, a piquantly spiced wheel of soft cheese, somewhat akin to Brie or Camenbert, is marinaded in oil, and served with a pool of said highly flavoured oil. To eat it, you smoosh the cheese, oil, onions, and any of the spice paste that came along with it into an unctuous goo to be spread on a slice of the dense bread. While not marinaded in oil, the škvarková pomazánka being made with lard and crispy bits of unrendered meat is likewise a study in greasiness, again spread on a slab of rye bread.

The more I think about it though, I think the key is actually the bread. Now, I will happily own the fact that I am a big fan of Czech bread. I love that it isn't some fluffy, light, airy nonsense, but rather dense, chewy, and it sticks to your ribs. Sure, you can buy seeded rye bread here in the US, and while it may taste similar, it doesn't hold a candle to Czech rye bread. The tight crumb is ideal for spreading whatever cheese or meat based snack it is that you want with your beer. Another superb traditional Czech pub snack is some form of topinky, basically fried bread, sometimes with a topping like a cheese paste, or with cloves of garlic to be rubbed across the crispy bread.

I feel as though I could wax lyrical about Czech pub grub ad nauseum, but for the sake of my grumbling stomach I will stop, and work out some plans to make more versions of my own.

Monday, November 27, 2023


I worked out the other day that each day I was in Prague I walked about 7-8km, which is about 4.5-5 miles in old money. The longest walk though was on the Thursday, when I dragged my mate Dave - well ok then, not much dragging was involved - up to the park at Letna to recreate one of my favourite wanders from when Mrs V and I called Prague "home".

Taking the tram to Letenské náměstí we walked to the edge of the park that overlooks the Vltava, along the escarpment to the Metronom where once the world's biggest statue of Stalin stared out at the city. We carried on, eventually to the castle, and thence on to the abbey at Strahov and a place that I was gutted I failed to visit back in 2019, Klášterní Pivovar Strahov. Strahov, both the abbey and the brewery are special places in my world, perhaps even liminal in that I always feel a deep sense of peace and well being there. I have been fortunate enough to go into the abbey beyond the usual tourist realms, by virtue of a friend of mine being friends with a priest who ministered to the brothers there - I even got to sign the visitors book on the same page as King Charles, though he was merely the Prince of Wales at the time.

Strahov's flagship 13° polotmavé was the hair of the dog that day, and very welcome it was too after walking for quite a while. It was pretty much everything I recalled from many years ago, solidly tasty amber lager, very much in the mold of what most folks call a Vienna lager. We sat outside in the courtyard to begin with, but it was a touch nippy, especially when the sun ducked behind the clouds, and so we took up stations at the bar inside, and I perused the beer menu, gutted that the Autumn Dark Lager was not on the list.  For reasons that escape my mind right now I decided to take a look at the tap clips and discovered to my delight that the dark was on tap, just not on the list, an executive decision was taken and two pints were soon in front of Dave and I.

When I designed Morana for Devils Backbone in the dim and distant past, this was one of the inspirations, and I traded emails with the brewer at the time, Adam Matuška, who went on to create Pivovar Matuška with his father Martin. Now, some 13 years later it still hit the spot perfectly. I then did something that would likely have had many of my friends here in the US scratching their heads and wondering if I had taken leave of my senses. I ordered their current special, a doppelbock flavoured with povidla, that's plum jam to you, poppy seeds, and vanilla.

It was lovely, like a koláč in a glass. Admittedly it would have been all the more lovely if the vanilla had not been bothered with, I am yet to have any beer, by any brewery, or in any style, where vanilla has actually made a positive difference. If you want that flavour profile, a little whisky barrel aging will serve you better. My willingness to try it though highlights something that I really feel is important, being able to trust a brewer to make quality classic beers. I will try something like this doppelbock purely because the brewery has shown to me that they are competent technical brewers rather than just clowns tossing shit around. One was enough, but I enjoyed it. And off we the most beautiful view of Prague, the one from the path on Petřín hill.

I will never tire of this view, I could have stood there all afternoon just gazing at the city that for 10 years I called home, though this time tinged with melancholy. I was missing Mrs V, and the Malé Aličky, and promised myself that next time I come back to Prague, they will be coming with me. Several times as we strolled through the orchards on the side of the hill, I stopped and just listened, marvelling that such peace and quiet is still possible in a major European capital city. Coming off the hill at Ujezd I spied a brewery sign I hadn't seen in many years, that of Primátor, and then noticed the sign behind it was for one of our old hangouts, Dobrá Trafika.

Serendipity was calling my name, so obviously we stopped in for one, or maybe 4. It was as if time had stood still, nothing had changed. Even the other customers could so easily have been plucked from one of Mrs V and I's many visits back in the Noughties. Dobra Trafika has always attracted a young, artistic crowd, and today it was no different, other than a pair of 40 somethings drinking jedenáctka.

Time was getting on, and threatening to get away from us. We still needed to meet up with my mate Chris for dinner before heading up to u Slovanské lipy to meet up with as many folks as possible given the short amount of time I was in Prague. As in 2019 my hotel was 2 doors down from Pivovarský klub, though these days owned by Břevnovský Pivovar and having been renovated with a very sleek, modern aesthetic. Where once the house dvanáctka was Štěpán, today it is Benedict, one of the most flavourful, bracingly bitter, and intensely hop forward Czech pale lagers you will find in Prague. I am a big fan for sure.

Refreshed, both with liquid and food, we took the bus up to Tachovské náměstí, u Slovanské lipy, and an eclectic gaggle of friends with whom to roll back the years, and it was in so many ways like old times, both in people and place. 

To bylo dokonalost.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

An Out of Prague Pilgrimage

I was in Prague last week for a few days.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to be in Amsterdam for a conference in the middle of November, he pointed out that I may as well make use of the whole being in Europe anyway thing and hop over to Prague. Naturally I agreed entirely, and so did my best friends, one that lives in Slovakia and the other in Boston.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few months trying to decide what breweries and pubs I definitely wanted to get to, and often it came down to a choice of 2 for an out of town excursion, Únětice or Hostomice. I even considered the possibly of doing both in a single day, then looked at the logistics of public transport and train, yeah, no. It is a mere 60km, or 37 miles, from one to the other, but it would take 4 hours by public transport and train, so no. The deciding factor was the fact that Hostomice has a brewery tap in Prague itself, so we got the metro to Dejvická and bus 355 to Únětice, Na Parcelách, wandered down the hill a wee bit and stumbled into the cavernous, and practically empty on a Wednesday night brewery beer hall.

We didn't care that it was empty, only that it was open. Also need to give a shout out to the ticket inspector that we met on the way. For those who remember Prague ticket inspectors of the Noughties, you will understand the cognitive dissonance of a younger guy who was polite, helpful, and when my Czech ran out, spoke good English. My best mate that came up from Slovakia speaks very good Slovak, but as the Czech Republic and Slovakia drift further apart in terms of shared tv channels and the like, it seems fewer and fewer young Czechs readily understand Slovak. Anyway, having checked our main tickets on the metro, he then got on the bus out to Únětice, for which we had got the required additional ticket. I seem to recall him nodding appreciatively when we told him we were going to the brewery.

Any way, back to the brewery beer hall - sorry but terms like "taproom" or "pub" just don't do justice to central European beer halls, even though they serve the same purpose. I fully expected to sit down and order a half litre of 10° pale lager, yet my heart leapt when I saw the magic word "tuplák", which in Germany would be called a maß. My first beer in Únětice would be a litre of their desítka, and I knew right then that many of my favourite US made Czech style lagers would struggle for my attention when I got home.

If I remember rightly from a conversation with Evan Rail, recently the venerable 10° has been overtaken as the most commonly drunk Czech pale lager, usurped by it's stronger brother the 12°. My mate that lives in Slovakia and I though are devotees of the old school and love desítka, Únětice's is as classic a classic as you could ask for, and I may have wondered out loud more than once why it is that US made 10° lagers for all their trumpeting of authenticity and faithfulness to Bohemian beer just consistently fall a little short of the real thing, and that includes those that take the time to do decoction mashing, etc, etc. Maybe it's a sitz im leben thing, I really can't tell, and maybe it is ostalgic (not a typo) revelry on my part, maybe it's the firm 30+ IBUs that are crammed into the best Czech desítky? 

I am sure I followed the tuplák with another, this time with the filtered 10.7°, and then eventually the 12°, I wasn't taking notes, and clearly as the only 2 pictures I took are on this post, I was doing a shoddy job of thinking about blog content. That just wasn't the point of the visit, we were there to enjoy absolutely world class beer in supreme company. I do regret though not taking a picture of the game pâté that was a revelation, various forms of meat products and Czech bread were to be a feature of the trip.

Anyway, if you're ever in Prague, take the time to make the trip out to Únětice for some of the best beer on the planet and if meaty snacks with rye bread are your thing, that too.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

My House, My Rules

A couple of weeks back I wrote a post about the concept of a "house beer", in which I ask the question:

"which of your brews is the one that is the highest expression of you as a brewer, of the business that is your brewery? Which one would you stake your entire reputation on?"

Having put that question out there into the interwebs, several friends have asked me which of my various beers that I brew would I consider my "house beer"?

Obviously, here I am talking about my homebrew rather than any of the recipes I have provided to professional brewers. As such, while I love Morana to bits, my tmavé that was first brewed in 2010 with Devils Backbone and coincidently again this week, I would not call it my house beer as I haven't brewed my own version of it in over a decade. The same could be said of Session/Bitter 42, a best bitter that I did with Three Notch'd Brewing, and hasn't seen the light of their brewpub for nearly 4 years now.

However, in terms of the style of my house beer, it is a best bitter, for the very simple reason that any kind of bitter, other than overly heavy stabs at ESB (seriously American brewers stop making them all grain and use some invert sugar to lighten the load and enhance drinkability), is rarer than a speckled hen's tooth. I do have an ordinary bitter recipe that I will brew from time to time, but it is my best bitter that I probably brew more than anything else, at least 4 times a year, or about a third of all my brewing projects.

The recipe does have similarities with Session/Bitter 42 in that I don't use any crystal malts at all, my single specialty malt is a biscuit malt, the Three Notch'd version uses Briess Victory malt. I moved away from Victory for my version as I prefer the sweeter character of biscuit to the toastier notes in Victory, it rounds out the beer for me. In terms of base malt, I have also moved away from using one of the "traditional" British pale malts (fun fact, Golden Promise long ago stopped being Scotland's barley of choice, the most common these days for malting and brewing is a variety called Laureate). My base malt of choice is Murphy & Rude English Pale Malt, which is a tad bit darker than their standard pale malt, but still uses Virginia grown barley. I have made it my goal to use exclusively Murphy & Rude malt where possible, and I feel that using seriously fresh malt has made my beer several steps better than previously.

The grist then for my house best bitter then is:

  • 88% Murphy & Rude English Pale malt
  • 12% Murphy & Rude Biscuit malt
Hops is one part of this recipe that I change pretty often, purely on a whim. The classic version though uses East Kent Goldings to get about 40 IBUs, a little bit lower than the 42 IBU that goes into Session/Bitter 42. The targeted number of IBUs at each addition is pretty much set in stone regardless of the hop variety in use:
  • 25 IBU for 60 minutes
  • 10 IBU for 15 minutes
  • 5 IBU for 5 minutes
When it comes to yeast choice, I will happily admit that I use one particular strain far more than any other whether I am brewing my brown ale, stout, or best bitter. I love the reliability and character of SafAle S-04, the very subtle floral and fruity esters play nicely with the malt in particular. Oh and it flocculates superbly, leaving me with a lovely clear beer without having to fine my brews with isinglass or gelatin.

The water just comes straight out of my well.

Assuming everything goes to plan when I brew my best bitter, which I don't really have a name for beyond [hop variety] Best Bitter, I end up with something like this in the glass.

Can't be bad, eh?

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 ...