Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Beers That Made Me Part 2--The Czech Years

I began this testimonial around four years ago, but had to stop it when I got up to around age 24 because so many beers had contributed to my making to that point that the post had already taken up a considerable amount of time. Now I am going to try to pick up that inspiration where I left off. Having gotten through the beers that I associate as the most crucial to my development up through college, I go next to that important interlude by which my life has been pretty starkly divided into two main parts, my time in the Czech Republic, where beer plays a more central role in everyday activities throughout the life cycle than it does in this or almost any other country. To me this beer was almost uniformly better in taste to anything I have had before or since. I have never been to Belgium or Germany, other than a layover I had in Frankfurt once which enabled me to wander around the downtown for a couple of hours, in which countries the quality, and especially the variety of beer and beer culture are rated superior by most experts, but what existed in Bohemia answered most of my beer drinking ideals pretty perfectly. The lamented lack of variety (most of the domestic beers on offer are a variation on pilsener), seemed irrelevant to me. In this, as in most areas, I don't especially crave variety or experimentation, though I have forced myself to seek it, a little. I am happiest when I have found something that I do not desire to be improved and reveling in and repeating or re-enacting the experience, or one approximate to it, as often as possible, which I have found to be a more elusive desire to fulfill as I have gotten older. I have no doubt that even if I were to wake up in Prague tomorrow morning enough time will have passed and general change have occurred that I would have some difficulty at first to find again an approximation of the atmosphere and general sense of comfort and well-being with which I associate these ideas. I suspect I could find such an approximation given enough time and effort, but it would come harder now than it once did, as it is with all of the especially-cherished associations of youth.


Most of the beers I am going to list here were the biggest and most popular brands, since they were what was most readily available in the markets and at hospody (taverns), which under the prevailing system at that time (I have no idea what prevails there now) were owned, or at least franchised or something, by the breweries, and they usually only served one kind of beer, their own, sometimes two if there was a dark version of the main product. I have to say that I generally found the bigger brands to be the best tasting, as did, it seemed to me, most of the Czech populace, since they obviously drank the big brands most of the time too. The only domestic beers I only ever observed my Prague acquaintance being really critical of the taste of were very localized products of small breweries in the country that we would run across on our weekend jaunts, though most said that the big beers were not as good as they had been during the Communist era due to the increased implementation of modern industrial practices.


Plzensky Prazdroj (Pilsener Urquell)


Probably the most famous Czech beer, made with the famous Plzen water and Bohemian hops, one of the classic brands of the world. An impeccably smooth and balanced drink in the Czech Republic, like ingesting a good impressionist painting into your body. The variety sold as export in the United States and elsewhere cannot replicate this sensation, I am told, because legally it has to be cold filtered, which process was not done in the Czech Republic. We took a very pleasant Saturday trip near the end of our time there out to Plzen, which is a medium-sized city with an atmospheric train station and central square, visiting the brewery among other places and drinking a lot of beer in shabby, unfrenetic old European style café-pubs, all at rock bottom prices. It was the kind of day I like.


Budejovicky Budvar (Czech Budweiser; Kristal)


Probably the #2 brand and the main rival to Pilsener Urquell, to which it is similar. Sometimes I thought it was the better of the two, depending upon where I was getting it, the batch that fell to my lot to have, the mood I was in. Made in the city of Cesky Budejovice in the south of Bohemia. I wanted to take a day trip there too, but other than passing through the city on the way to Austria and Cesky Krumlov, I never made it. The town is known as Budweis, and the beer Budweiser, in German, which has created trademark problems with its being able to import to the United States. The beer Kristal, which I have occasionally seen in specialty stores in Boston and places like that, is supposedly produced by this brewery for the American market, but as with Pilsener Urquell it doesn't taste anything much like the real Budvar.


Gambrinus


Seemed like the junior member of the Czech big 3, also brewed in Plzen. I liked it very much and went through periods where I thought it was actually my favorite kind. I would describe it as a kind of clean distillation of the essential qualities of the other two beers without their extra layer of grandeur, which one does not necessarily always want. I was also a fan of their label and glassware, which I found to have a classic appeal.


Radegast

Considered by many (foreign) experts to be the worst of the major Czech brands, it was popular among actual Czechs, and you would frequently be served this if you were visiting someone's home or attending a private party. I rarely encountered it in pubs, but there was one rather greasy tavern in Prague in alley in the Old Town that served it and the glasses I had at that particular place may have been the best glasses of beer I have ever had in my life. Unfortunately I drank so much that evening that I couldn't remember where the bar was afterwards and I never managed to stumble upon it again.


Staropramen


Brewed in Prague itself, this was the "local" beer and available everywhere in the city, though not as ubiquitous in the countryside. It was not considered great by most of the people I associated with, but I rather liked it. It was the only Czech beer on draft at the tourist-oriented and therefore expensive Irish pub that I ended up at one night when I had latched onto some other people from various Anglophone countries, and it was for some reason especially good there. I have a memory of the brewery being out on the edge of the city by the railroad tracks surrounded by a kind of weedy field, but I might be mistaken in that.


Bohemia Regent


The only time I remember having this was on New Year's Eve. It was very smooth. Nothing particularly interesting happened to me on this or any other night when I went out, but in a life as uneventful and remote from great events and urban scenes as mine has been it was exciting to be out in a European capital on a holiday. I went out to dinner by myself that night and had duck at a nearly empty, cavernous café with a Hapsburg era ambiance. The meal was a splurge, I think I spent around $7 or $8 on it.


Krusovice

The two pubs in my immediate neighborhood (Krc(h), near Pankrac metro station)--one was nominally a pizzeria, but you could just drink there if you wanted to--both served this on tap. I did not like it as much as the other kinds at first because it was yellower-looking and seemed less dense, but it grew on me.


Velkopopovicky Kozel


"Kozel" means "goat". They served this at the American expat bar where I would go sometimes to watch football games, which of course come on in the evening in Europe. It was a real meat market pick-up scene too, not for me it goes without saying. The Australians especially would often just nail girls in the bathroom they had just met. I liked the label of this beer a lot, very pretty and interesting colors, and it was a little darker and heavier-tasting than the usual pilseners. I never got really into it though.


I can't find any good Kozel pictures that I can upload at the moment.


Ferdinand


Named (I believe) after the ill-fated Archduke whose assassination sparked the first World War and who kept a castle (Konopiste) about 45 miles from Prague, which we went out to see on another weekend. This was the local beer in that village. Not the greatest beer, but a pleasant memory of sitting on a hillside beside some outmoded abandoned building looking on a few somber trees and clouds eating sausages. These days were very leisurely and unhurried, and being away from all of the excessive silliness of American life, and largely cut off from the Czech version of the same, I was very alert to my surroundings and what I was doing in them. Since I have returned to the United States, I have had very few experiences of a similar quality, certainly in which beer was memorably involved. So there may not be a Part 3 of this series, in which anything contributes to my development after 1997...

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