Back in July I spent 5 days touring around the sound and west of Czech Republic (in the midst of a month away), tasting a few (or more) of their fine Pilsners. Here is the post from my blog, thought some might find my ramblings interesting...
Though we flew into Prague Airport, that was as close as we got, as we had already been to Prague many years ago. This trip was about touring a bit of the Czech countryside and, surprise surprise, visit some fine Czech Breweries with the Good Beer Guide: Czech Republic in hand.
It was certainly an interesting trip. Straight away it was clear it was a strange country, where you are offered a choice between a Mercedes-Benz and a Ford Focus as your rental car – pretty easy choice that! And the roads themselves were very interesting. There seems to two trucks to every car on the road, the result being that the roads themselves are in pretty bad shape. The right-hand lanes of the motorways seem to be one endless series of potholes.
The Czech drivers themselves seem to be of two breeds. One breed seems to be perfectly comfortable driving 60km in a 90km zone. The other seems so concerned to check that their steering is working, they have to change lanes or overtake every 2 seconds, and seem intent on reading the maker’s name on the screws that are holding your license plate to the bumper!
But out in the countryside it is very scenic, with bright green rolling hills studded by attractive little towns (that’s where there isn’t some hulk of a Communist concrete block towering above them). The Czech countryside reminded me of how intensive livestock farming and forestry have ruined much of NZ’s countryside. The Czech people seem to take advantage of this as well – with plenty of hikers and cyclists about. Though this is in sharp contract with the rest of their lifestyle – which involves a lot of smoking (especially in pubs and restaurants, which is difficult getting used to again) and not what you would call the healthiest of cuisine’s. Stodge, stodge and more stodge. I love a dumpling as much as the next man, but after 5 days of them it was admittedly getting a bit tough. Not that it seems to be slowing down reproduction, there seemed to be newborn babies everywhere.
And there is also lots of water. Every town seems to have to have a pond or lake of some description – most of them dammed. You wouldn’t swim in them though. Perhaps they are used to farm Carp, which is on the menu everywhere, but has to be the top nomination for the most flavourless fish around.
So our first destination was Telc in South Moravia – a beautiful Renaissance town that was probably the pick of our trip. We had a room overlooking the town square and I got my first taste of some good Czech beer (Bernard) – though what stunned me more than anything was the price, about $1.80 for a pint!
The next day we criss-crossed our way across southern Czech Republic, arriving at Ceske Budejovice for lunch and the famous Budejovicky Budvar – famous for being the original “Budweiser”. I was able to sample two of their beers that are not as commonly available – the krouzkovany lezak (which is “yeast beer”, where a dose of young beer – fresh yeast and wort – is added after lagering), and the svetle vycepni (which is a lighter version of their Premium beer).
After lunch we drove through South Bohemia up to our destination of Plzen (we skipped the awesome Ceske Krumlov, as once again we visited it on a previous trip), stopping by at a couple of breweries, and though their beers were OK, not worth a special mention. Plzen itself is nice enough (it is a big student city), but the main reason it was our destination was because it is home to Pilsner Urquell Brewery, and also the opportunity to taste their amazing kvasnicovy (yeast beer again). The citrus sweetness combined with the yeasty dryness to make it very moreish.
After walking around the grounds of Pilsner Urquell Brewery the next morning, we made our way out to the small town of Dobrany just outside Plzen to lunch at the Modra Hvezda brewpub. This was a real find, as we sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed one of our better meals on our trip. They had a range of four different beers on tap, and I couldn’t find too many faults with any of them, the tmavy (dark lager) and a stronger bock particularly good. Anna also had her first taste of what we saw a lot of people drinking – Birell, a 0% alcohol beer. The Czech Republic is a zero alcohol level for driving, and these Czechs enjoy their beer so much (they have the highest beer consumption per person in the world), they knock back this 0% beer in large amounts. I guess is was OK for what it was – but I was happy that Anna was doing the driving...
From Dobrany we were just making the relatively short trip to Chodova to the brewery/hotel/restaurant/spa, where we were both staying and taking in a massage and beer bath. Yes, that’s right, a beer bath! In a warm, brick-lined cellar, a steel tub-for-two was filled with a 50:50 mix of mineral water and a specially brewed low-alcohol bathing beer, at a temperature of 34 degrees. Admittedly it was a bit weird. The water was pretty murky and full of little bits, which I am assuming is some of the mash. But it was hard not to enjoy when you just sit back and get passed glasses of a light Chodovar lager. But then things got weirder…
After 30 minutes we were ushered out of the bath – the woman didn’t seem fussed that we were naked – and led to another even warmer room where we were swaddled with blankets and told to lie down on a chaise-lounge. It didn’t take long to get a big sweat on – and I guess that is the point, a bit like a poor man’s sauna – in the midst of the sweet malt and spicy hop aroma rising from your skin. It was difficult to decide whether to relax or laugh.
After that experience, later that night we ate at the Chodovar restaurant, which is set within lagering caves from the 12th century. While the setting was cool, our fellow diners were not. It seemed that a couple of busloads of pushy German tourists had also turned up without reservations and intent on squeezing in on our table. Even Anna’s evil-eye didn’t seem to work on them.
The next day we drove around the northwest Bohemia, famous for its spa towns. They are bizarre affairs, very opulent, but now also very touristy. The towns were made popular because of their mineral waters, which people were prescribed for various ailments. Now it seems tourists buy the ridiculous porcelain mugs things and drink the sulphury tasting water, the irony of also smoking a cigarette lost on many of them. We could only take so much of these spa towns, so decided to pop over the border into Germany for lunch – Bavaria no less, so it would have definitely been rude not to – and found the very nice town of Waldsassen. I relief at eating a meal not involving goulash or dumplings could probably be heard back in the Czech Republic as we enjoyed schnitzel (of course) and venison, as well as a couple of local brews, including a delicious Hefeweizen.
Back across the border and we only had a short trip to Loket – where we would be spending our last night. This fairy-tale town, perched on a mountain ridge with a river that serpentines it way around it on three sides, is also known for featuring in Casino Royale. We stayed at the brewpub/hotel, where their one beer was one of the best of the trip.
Our last day brought something new on this trip – rain. Until then, we had had beautifully warm and sunny days. Driving back towards the airport and with time to peruse the Good Beer Guide, I found one last brewpub that I wanted to visit – and it was only 15 minutes from the airport. And what a great call that was, as it had the best beers of the trip. The Chyne beers were absolutely stunning, my favourite was their cerny (dark lager), but the potomavy (half-dark) and svetle (light) were equally good. It was with much regret that I had to pull myself away – and even more so when we got to the airport, only to discover that our flight had been delayed for three hours.
It was a very enjoyable 5 days in the Czech Republic. There might not have been the wow factor, but a very enjoyable place to travel around. It was only the cuisine that we tired of; you can only take so much stodge – even me. And on the beer front there were some real finds. Though not typically beer styles I warm to, when they are brewed with such skill as were on offer here, it is hard not to be impressed by the bittersweet qualities of the variety of Czech lagers. A fine education for a Yeastie Boy.