After what seems like several days driving through the desolate but beautiful Šumava, we reach civilisation. As road signs count down the kilometres to Český Krumlov, the villages become neater, surrounded by well-tended fields. Jagged peaks are replaced by a gentle roll of hills. We skirt lake Lipno, a reservoir created by damming the Vltava river. Chalets and holiday homes line its banks. This is the largest chunk of water in the Czech Republic and serves as a surrogate sea, much like Balaton in Hungary.
Finally we arrive at the day’s first destination: Český Krumlov. Or to be more precise, the Eggenberg brewery in Český Krumlov. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site, which guarantees tourist crowds. Four more shouldn’t make that much difference. As we thread our way through town, it’s clears why the town was honoured by UNESCO. Built on spit of rock where the river contorts into a horseshoe, the castle gazes down on jagged mosaic of red tiled roofs. The brewery nestles between the castle rock and the riverbank, a solid brick edifice, in a style I recall from Berlin factories and railway buildings. The cathedral in Warsaw’s Old Town is similar, too.
We’re in luck: we can park right next to the brewery. I gaze longingly at the brewery yard. For some reason they fascinate me. Sad, isn’t it? You’d think a grown man would have found a better objection of fascination. There isn’t a great deal going on in the yard, but I stop stare anyway.
Just outside the gates is another substantial brick construction: the brewery tap. It’s a massive beerhall split into two separate bars. We choose the smaller and less grand one. All that looking at tress has given me a thirst. This will be my first beer in the Czech Republic for almost three years. This is so exciting. A glance at the blackboard hanging at the bar speed my pulse even more. Written on it, amongst the 11º’s and 12º’s, the Tmavé’s and Světlé’s is a magic word: Kvasnicové. Thank you, god.
Before I go any further, a word about Kvasnicové Pivo (thanks to Evan Rail for setting me straight about this): it’s beer with yeast. As with most Czech brewing terms there isn’t an exacy English language equivalent, but there is a German one: “Hefenbier”. I wrongly thought that it meant the same as Keller- or Zwicklbier – unfiltered beer. It’s a bit more complicated than that. After lagering, the beer is reseeded with yeast. I thought the practice had died out somewhere around WW I. There’s reference to it in "American Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades" written by Wahl and Henius in 1902. During the communist period, no-one produced one. It’s reappearance is one positive development since 1990 (there have been plenty of negative developments: conversion to conical fermenters, the disappearance of air-pressure dispense). The best beers I had on the trip were all Kvasnicové. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the Eggenberg tap.
Unlike the good old days, it’s easy enough to find a seat. We sit down and wait. And wait. “It’s usually waiter service in the Czech Republic, isn’t it?” enquires Andy. We all nod enthusiastically. A few more minutes pass and Andy is growing increasingly impatient. My throat is as dry as Teheran on a Friday. Eventually we can stand it no longer and Andy and I approach the bar. The waiter immediately waves us back to our seats like schoolchildren. Some things haven’t changed in the last 20 years. Waiters are still a bossy bunch. We have a deal more waiting to do ourselves before he finally comes over to our table.
At last a chance to pretend that I can still speak Czech. I order a Tmavé for myself and Kvasnicové for everyone else except Andy, who has more driving to do. Just a coffee for him.
Eggenberg 11º Tmavé: dark brown, sweetish with liquorice fruit and caramel flavours. I give it 51, but it would have scored better if the aroma were better. Sweeter and lighter than the Bavarian Dunkles we've had so far.
Once I have some beer inside me I can start to relax and have a proper look at my surroundings. Then I start taking photos: of the room, our beer, the beer memorabila that decorates the walls and finally the blackboard that so excited me earlier. The moustache club in the corner – the regulars I guess – give me dirty looks. I don’t care. I want to preserve this moment of joy for posterity.
The waiter sidles back for our food order. Ordering is easy for me. They have one of my favourite Czech dishes: smažený sýr (fried cheese). What do I care if the moustache club are still throwing occasional hostile glance in our direction. I’m back in Czech heaven.
For pudding, I have a Kvasnicové 12º Světlé : hazy golden colour, bitter with yeast, pepper, butter and resin flavours. I'm impressed and score it 72. Buttery and bitter, some would probably slag it off for the diacetyl, which I personally think really lifts it.
We have a post-prandial stroll up to the castle. Despite being way off season, we have plenty of company: the inevitable Japanese, a few Americans and swarms of Russians. Time was the only Russians you came across in Eastern Europe were wearing polyester Red Army uniforms. Now they are in designer gear. They make me feel shabby, which, judging by the way they look at my clothes, is a sentiment the Russians share.
Up in the castle precinct, we have to queue for the best vantage points. What must it be like in summer? Best not to think about that. Just wait for those nice Japanese women to finish snapping the spectacular view of the town. Then it’s my turn. I won’t bother with any more of my O-Level English composition descriptive passages. I’ve got photos. Much easier to let them speak for me. They’re so much better with words.
We walk up the hill and then back down again. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds. Living in Amsterdam, I find just a plain old hill exciting. In fact any elevation of more than 2.5 metres sets my pulse racing. I often stare at railway embankments for hours.
We’re soon back in the van heading for our next destination: České Budějovice. Budweis to you. I wonder if it’s changed much since I went there with Little Dave in 1986? All will be revealed tomorrow.