As I sit down to write about this month’s adventures, we’re less than six weeks away from this year’s Steel City Beer Festival. Poppy and I have been fulfilling our roles from afar; the food stalls are finally all sorted, press and trade invites have been sent and attendee numbers on the Facebook event have surpassed this point last year. This all means we’re sadly into the last month of our travels, but with the number of places we’ve visited I think these articles will be continuing long after our return!
The Baltics now a distant memory, our next destination was the Czech Republic, a nation well-known for its love of beer. In fact, it is the world’s biggest consumer of beer per capita at more than 140 litres per person each year. For comparison, the average UK drinker only manages 68 litres so we have a fair bit of catching up to do. Our first stop was Ostrava, a frankly rather odd town near the Polish border. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find the whole town shut down… apparently, everyone who lives there goes to the mountains every weekend, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Like Sheffield, Ostrava developed around the steel industry, but unlike our Steel City it doesn’t quite have the same beer heritage. Nevertheless, there were a couple of places to find a good beer in town. Two of the best bars, U Segala and Kurnik Šopa, were tucked away on council estates and both had a small but well-curated list of beers, mainly from local microbreweries. A particular highlight was Valášek Čokoládový Leoš (6%), a chocolate IPA – I promise it tasted better than it sounds! Also worth a mention was Pivotechna, a fairly typical craft pub with a decent international selection, including of course a few Thornbridge bottles. They do get around!
The next town, Olomouc, was pretty enough but didn’t offer too much in the way of beer, although the Moritz brewpub is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. The offering was fairly simple, just a light beer and a dark beer, but they were brewed well and provided the perfect accompaniment to the home-cooked food.
The search for good beer continuing, we headed to the country’s capital, Prague. Like any European capital, Prague has a wealth of local and international craft beer bars offering something for drinkers of any persuasion. As you can imagine, we did some pretty thorough “research”, travelling to all parts of the city to find the best bars.
There were some great contenders, but all things considered my highlight was probably Zlý Časy – ironically, the name translates as “Bad Times”. With its bare floors, solid wooden furniture and uncompromising barman, it reminded me of a classic East London boozer. Despite appearances though, the pub had an excellent range of craft beers, from local breweries to international names like De Molen.
Another bar we both thoroughly enjoyed (and not just because it had air conditioning, although that was very welcome) was the Bad Flash Taproom in Prague’s trendy Karlín district. I’d actually had one of their beers a few years ago in the Sheffield Tap and hadn’t been that impressed, but they seem to have really improved lately. The bar offered around 10 of their own beers plus plenty more in bottles. We enjoyed the Torpid Mind (10.5% imperial stout) and Bikini Ale (4.8% IPA), the latter of which recently featured on the international beer bar at the Great British Beer Festival.
Now, no beer tour of the Czech Republic would have been complete without visiting some of the country’s well-known breweries. First up after Prague was Pilsen, the birthplace of pilsner lager and the home of Pilsner Urquell brewery. We were shown around the modern brew house and the enormous bottling plant, but the highlight was down in the cellars. In times gone by, all the brewery’s beer was matured in oak casks underground.
Nowadays, only one barrel out of every batch is matured in this way, and as tour guests we had the chance to try some straight from the cask. This was so much better than the usual Urquell beer; more body, lower carbonation and a rich, sweet flavour – a unique treat for any beer geek.
A somewhat dilapidated and uncomfortable train took us to our next brewery town, České Budějovice. Perhaps better known by its German name of Budweis, it is home to Budweiser Budvar, the Czech Republic’s last remaining state-owned brewery. Much of the tour focused on the company’s long-running legal battle with a certain similarly-named American beer (you’re left to make up your own mind about which came first!). Afterwards we visited Budvarka, where we sampled four of the brewery’s offerings. Poppy might always be more into lager than I am, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the B:SPECIAL Kroužek (5%), a special edition beer with a delicious yeasty flavour reminiscent of a Belgian blonde.
Last up on our circuit of the Czech Republic came Brno. Unlike most of the country, Brno and the wider Moravia region are really better known for their winemaking than their beer so we couldn’t resist trying some of the local specialities of the grape variety while we were in town. Fear not though beer lovers, there were still plenty of places to find a decent pint.
Výčep Na Stojáka in the city centre was worth a visit just to see the tap master at work; in the Czech Republic there are three styles of beer pouring and he was an expert at each of them. “Hladinka” is the standard style, mostly beer but with the traditional large European head; “šnyt” is the opposite, around one-quarter beer and then the rest foam; while “mlíko” is 99% head with just a sliver of beer. We never quite managed to work out the proper etiquette for when to get which one, but simply watching him pour the different styles was a simple pleasure.
With that our Czech adventure came to an end and we headed to Slovakia, but more on that next month… In the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with our travels please check out hoppingaround.co.uk – thanks for reading!