The Ultimate Beer Run in the Czech Republic
IN the jagged Jizera Mountains of the northern Czech Republic, the village of Stary Harcov seems an unlikely place for an epicurean pilgrimage. Driving through a dark forest on a linden-lined lane barely wide enough for a single Skoda, I approached a row of timber-framed houses that felt as idyllic and lazy as a Sierra Nevada ski town in midsummer. The only sound was the buzzing of insects from a nearby meadow.
But as the sun set, a crowd formed outside a barnlike family house, taking seats at three roughhewn picnic tables in the front yard. Dressed in T-shirts and plumbers coveralls, they lined up at a small window, fetching half-liters of Vendelin, a honey-colored lager, as if it were liquid gold, even though the price of 15 koruna (roughly $.70) was only about half the usual rate for a Czech beer.
Why travel all this way, near the borders of Poland and Germany, for a cold one? For starters, the beer is outstanding, with an unusually complex aroma: a bouquet of apricot blossoms with a note of fresh-baked bread, like fruit jam on sourdough toast. In the mouth, the taste is rich and sugary followed by a long, crisp finish.But more importantly, this is the only place where you can sip this particular Czech lager. Brewed in small batches in a tumbledown shed by the owner and namesake, Vendelin Krkoska, the beer has a distribution zone of about two mountain meadows. It is available nowhere else, and nothing else Ive ever tasted is quite like it.
Of all the lager beers, Czech beers are certainly the most unchanged, said Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster and author of The Brewmasters Table, speaking via phone from his office at Brooklyn Brewery. And when you go back there, you go back to the original flavors.
Going to the source is an emerging pastime for beer lovers. The wine trails of Napa, Bordeaux and Piedmont need no introduction. The same, however, cannot be said for the beer trails of Bohemia and Moravia. And yet, in recent years, amateur beer hunters have begun carving their own paths through these ancient Czech kingdoms, tapping into the same passion for local hops and barley that drives oenophiles to cross the globe for zinfandel and nebbiolo.
Wine snobs might call this overreaching, but great beer is inextricably tied to its environment in much the same way that a great Burgundy displays a characteristic terroir. Real Pilsner, for example, is made with the low-sulfite, low-carbonate water of the Czech city of Pilsen, its original home. Many have tried, but its nearly impossible to make a good Pilsner elsewhere without doctoring the water, and even then, it will never taste the same.
Around Europe, a handful of beer trails have already emerged, like the lambic breweries of the Senne Valley in Belgium, the seven Trappist monastery breweries of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the dozen or so Kölsch beer makers of Cologne. But the Czech lands are, in some ways, the birthplace of modern beer making, with a brewing history that dates back more than a millennium. Today there are some 450 Czech beers made by about 100 breweries, ranging from golden Pilsners to black, Baltic-style porters. It is also the beer-drinking capital: Czechs consume more beer than any other country in the world more than 320 pints annually for every man, woman and child.
Bohemia is it, Mr. Oliver said. It is the fountainhead, if you like, of most beer in the world.
The Czech tourism bureau recently started to promote this fountainhead, alongside its historic castles, spa towns and cosmopolitan capital. There are now beer festivals, packaged beer trails and a new brochure, Beer Travels the only English-language booklet on Czech breweries. Beer makers, too, are now actively courting visitors, with factory tours, slick tasting rooms, gift shops and even beer hotels.
For my own beer trail, I decided to start with two of the largest and most beloved, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, which together constitute much of the countrys zymurgical and political history. To round out a four-day trek, I looked to the countrys smallest makers: Vendelin, which struck me for its picturesque remoteness, as well as Novosad in north Bohemia for its colorful backstory. And I would check out one of the countrys newest breweries, hidden inside a 540-year-old pub.
I started off with the most controversial. From Prague, I drove south for three hours, past fields of white poppies, carp ponds and thick pine forests, until I reached the city of Ceske Budejovice, home of the countrys most famous or infamous brewery: Budvar. It makes a flavorful lager called Budweiser Budvar, and for years it has locked horns with the American giant Anheuser-Busch over the rights to the iconic name.
Budvars argument is straightforward: its hometown, Ceske Budejovice, is known as Budweis in German, and Budweiser refers to someone or something that originates from that town. Like Champagne and other gastronomic appellations, Czechs argue that the name is specific to the beers place of origin. (It is also a point of national pride: Budvar, which is government-owned, was originally founded in response to an earlier, German-owned brewery in town.)
Anheuser-Busch disagrees, arguing that it brewed its first Budweiser in St. Louis in 1876; the Budvar brewery, it points out, was founded in 1895. Courts around the world are still working out the details.
One thing is certain: Ceske Budejovice, the largest city in south Bohemia, is nothing like St. Louis. Its preserved Old Town is a sleepy warren of candy-colored Renaissance and Baroque buildings, spread out under a 16th-century Black Tower. At the pubs around the main square, waiters serve Budweiser Budvars to the strains of Czech polka. (Dont even think about asking for a Bud Light.)
The beer is made about a mile north of the Old Town, in a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood surrounded by green hills. On a hot Friday afternoon, a dozen people gathered inside the sleek visitors center, furnished with plasma screens, plush banquettes and multimedia displays showing Budvars global distribution. A gift shop was piled high with souvenir shirts, backpacks, bottle openers and just about anything with room for a Budweiser Budvar logo.
Although the brewery was founded 111 years ago, it is surprisingly modern. Six copper kettles that resembled giant, upside-down goblets sparkled in a vast, sunlit brew house. The smell of fresh hops punctuated the air, a sweet and slightly peppery funk that is somewhat similar to marijuana, its botanical cousin. The hops come from the town of Zatec in northwest Bohemia, widely considered among the finest in the world. They give Budvar its characteristic citrusy nose, adding brightness to the sweet golden body.
The tour concluded in a factory-style tasting room, littered with plastic cups of Budvar. Having sampled beers all over Europe, I was surprised by how much more vibrant the brew tasted at its source. The hoppy bitterness arrived like the chirpy opening notes of a Hammond organ. The malt struck a rich, deep bass. The only thing it shares with the other Budweiser was the name.
After visiting the countrys most disputed beer maker, it was time to sample its most beloved: Pilsner Urquell. It is home of the original Pilsner, which revolutionized beer making in 1842 as the worlds first non-cloudy golden beer to go into production. It is still rated the best by a majority of Czechs.
From Ceske Budejovice, I drove two hours to the western Bohemian city of Pilsen (thats the name in German; its Plzen in Czech), along a winding road dotted with castle ruins, old monasteries and pilgrimage sites. The sizzling June sun nearly overheated my borrowed 20-year-old Skoda.
Pilsner Urquell is a pilgrimage site in its own right, or at least it should be. As the original Pilsner, it has gone on to inspire imitations around the world. But few, if any, have achieved Pilsner Urquells unique bittersweet taste, a combination of the towns soft water and regional ingredients like Moravian malt, Zatec hops and proprietary strain of yeast.
Though the city of Pilsen is not nearly as attractive as Ceske Budejovice, the brewery is dressed to impress. A sprawling campus that spreads out behind the double-arch brick gate that appears on every bottle, the brewery looked more like an Ivy League school than it did Laverne and Shirleys bottling plant. To the right of the gate is the sprawling Na Spilce, one of the largest restaurants in the Czech Republic, which serves traditional Bohemian dishes like roast pork and dumplings. To the left is a polyglot visitors center, which opened in a former hop plant in 2002.
The tour begins with a 10-minute film that trumpets the glory of Pilsner Urquell, which produces more than 1.5 million pints a day. Afterward, the eye-opening tour took us from a sauna-hot brew house to the arctic-cold cellars.
Its fair to say that everyone in the group had tried Pilsner Urquell before. But few of us had sampled the prototype, when it was aged in pitch-lined oak barrels, a practice discontinued in the early 1990s when the brewery switched to stainless-steel tanks. Fortunately, the brewery still keeps a few oak barrels around partly to compare tastes between the two methods, partly as a novelty for tourists.
We walked to a dark corner, where several massive oak vats seemed to gurgle under a cap of thick foam. I noticed a sharp tang of hops in the air as I was handed a glass of the oak-barrel Pilsner. It was far more dynamic than its imitators, and noticeably better than the supermarket variety. The sugary malt body was more pronounced, as were the sweet notes of caramel and the tart bitterness of the hops. Pilsner Urquell from a store would never taste the same to me again.
Not only are breweries opening their doors to tourists, but some are also inviting guests to spend the night. Encouraged by the steady flow of visitors, breweries are starting up their own hotels. The Krakonos brewery in Trutnov, for example, whose brewing history began in 1582, opened a 18-room hotel last year with rooms beginning at 650 koruna a night (about $29 at 23 koruna to the dollar).
On the flipside, some hotels are now starting their own breweries. U Medvidku, a beer hall and hotel in Prague that dates to 1466, just opened a tiny brewery of its own, though it remains something of a secret.
Most visitors never get past U Medvidkus busy beer hall, with its wooden booths and ceaselessly replenished trays of Budweiser Budvar. But hidden upstairs is one of the newest microbreweries in the country. It produces just one beer: a semi-dark amber called Oldgott that is brewed at 13 degrees on the Balling scale. (The Balling scale is based on the percentage of malt sugar before fermentation, and many Czech beer drinkers specify a number 10, 12 or 13 when ordering. Higher Balling numbers usually mean more alcohol, though not always.)
Oldgott is also a kvasnicove pivo, or yeast beer, a rare subspecies of Czech Pilsner that has fresh yeast added after fermentation. The extra yeast makes the beer extremely crisp and vibrant. It seems almost alive which, in a sense, it is since yeast beers are usually unpasteurized. And since unpasteurized beers do not travel well, they must be consumed quickly, usually right where they are made. The lack of pasteurization also leaves the flavors at their most forceful: the malt undertones are richer and sweeter, the hops sharper and more bitter.
Pasteurization cuts the taste in half, said Ladislav Vesely, U Medvidkus brewer, as he handed me a half-liter glass tapped directly from the lagering barrel.
The malt was so rich and unctuous that I hardly noticed the alcohol, which comes in a bit above the Czech standard of 5 percent. Which brings up a word of warning: the Czech Republic is home to some of Europes strictest drunk-driving laws. It is illegal to drink even the slightest amount of alcohol and operate a motor vehicle.
Instead of driving from the brewery, I found it easier to check into a hotel, then taxi to the brewery and back. (In the case of a beer hotel, the problem is moot.) Moreover, you can take a train or bus to just about any brewery anywhere within a few hours.
From Prague, I took a winding, three-hour bus ride to Harrachov, a resort town in the northeast Krkonose Mountains. It is home to one of the lightest and, perhaps, most storied beers in the Czech Republic.
Harrachov is famous for ski-jumping, with a single road lined with chalets, hotels and shops. It is also home to the Novosad glassworks, a 300-year-old factory where workers still blow glass by hand. On a recent visit, the factory floor was filled with burly bare-chested men who were sweating profusely near the hot kilns.
As the story goes, the glassworkers used to cool themselves off in the 120-degree heat with so much store-bought beer that management decided it would be more cost-efficient to make their own. So four years ago, the factory built a microbrewery next to the factory floor and started making a special low-alcohol brew. Only later, the story continues, did Novosad realize that guests visiting the factory might also enjoy the beer as well.
So the glass company added a pub, furnished with wide pine tables and long benches. I grabbed a seat as a Czech country band played a Buck Owens cover. The waiter brought an 8-degree: it was refreshingly bitter, as thin and sweet as an energy drink, though far more vivid. But what stunned me was my next pint, Novosads 12-degree, a pale gold kvasnicove pivo with a thick and foamy white head. Hints of orange and vanilla were apparent, followed by an extremely long-lasting finish.
As I left, I spotted a glassworker pushing a wheelbarrow of glass shards, his back glistening with sweat. It was hard work, but he had a few pints of fresh-made beer to look forward to at the end of his shift. Some people, I thought, have all the luck.
The Czech Republic has about 100 breweries scattered throughout the ancient kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia. New ones open every year.
Pilsner Urquell (U Prazdroje 7, Pilsen; 420-377-062-888; www.prazdroj.cz) is the gold standard of Czech beers. Despite its enormous scale, it remains a beer of exceptional quality. Tours are 120 koruna (about $5.50 at 23 koruna to the dollar).
Budvar (Karoliny Svetle 4, Ceske Budejovice; 420-387-705-347; www.budvar.cz) is not just a famous name. The beer has earned top honors, including at a recent tasting competition in Seattle. Tours are 100 koruna.
Pragues homegrown brewer, Staropramen (420-257-191-402; www.staropramen.com) is part of the huge, Belgium-based InBev beverage conglomerate. Tours are 120 koruna.
Novosad (420-481-528-141; www.sklarnaharrachov.cz) is a glassworks first, brewpub second. From the mezzanine, you can watch glass-blowers work up a thirst.
Vendelin (420-485-163-096; Lukasovska 43, Stary Harcov, just outside of Liberec) is so underground it doesnt even have a Web site. The beer tastes better that way, but only if you can find it.
Czech brewery hotels are usually family-owned affairs with a small brewpub and restaurant on the ground floor.
U Medvidku (420-224-211-916; www.umedvidku.cz), one of Pragues oldest beer halls, is now home to its newest microbrewery. It is near the Narodni trida metro station, just a short stumble from Pragues Old Town Square. Doubles are 3,000 koruna until Sept. 7.
Krakonos (420-499-819-190; www.hotel-krakonos.cz) in Trutnov shares its name with an ancient giant who is said to guard the local mountain range. The year-old hotel was a former millhouse. Doubles are 1,300 koruna.
The Czech Tourism agency publishes a brochure, Beer Travels, the only English-language booklet on Czech breweries. The current edition lists about half the countrys breweries (free by e-mailing your postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org).
For more listings in English, go online to www.pivovary.info, a Web site run by amateur Czech beer historians. It may be rudimentary in design, but it lists nearly every Czech brewery.
Another good English-language Web site is Ron Pattinsons list of Czech breweries (www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/czecbrew.htm), which includes historical information, beer ratings and opinions.
Trains and bus schedules are listed on the Czech national timetables Web site (www.idos.cz). A reduced-fare train ticket called the Sone+ is good for two adults and three children up to the age of 15. Perfect for a weekend getaway, a one-day fare starts at 160 koruna.