Wednesday, 30 April 2008


A quick break from my endless holiday tales. Today is Koninginnendag (Queen's Day) which means I get a day off. Not that sort of queen. Queen Beatrix. It's her official birthday.

The main feature of the day is the "vrijmarkt" ("free market"). Everyone is allowed to sell their old junk on the street. Amsterdam is transformed into one giant flea market. We took advantage to unload some of the kid's old stuff in Vondel Park. We earned a massive €7.50. That would last me - oh - 5 minutes in the pub.

"What's this got to do with beer?" Good question. But I'm prepared for it. Do you think I start writing without knowing where I'm going? I do quite often, but not in this case. I only have one thing on my mind at vrijmarkt time: beer glasses. Like I said before, people sell off the stuff that's cluttering up the house. Beer glasses fall into this category. Often they're just the free glasses given away in packs of beer. But sometimes they're ones nicked from a pub while on holiday. That's when it gets interesting.

I've found some dead cushty stuff in years past. Really nice branded Weizen glasses for 25 cents. Pub pils tumblers from defunct Belgian breweries.

This year is just OK. Just a couple of Austrian jugs (from a small, independent brewery), a Leeuw glass and a decanter. Though I need a glass decanter. For pouring out my Whitbread beers, seeing as I don't drink out of a 75cl glass. Together they cost less than the €7.50 we took for selling our crap.

Free glasses for dad. Brilliant. If only every day were like this.

You can read Lexie's version of the day here.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Týn nad Vltavou

As a child, I found Sundays deathly dull. Even school days were more fun. This Sunday is anything but tedious.

By 13:30 we already have two breweries under our belts and are on the road again. We slip through the beautiful rolling countryside of southern Bohemia. The only slight downer is the preponderance of Pilsner Urquell signage. What percentage of pubs are tied to SABMiller? it seems somewhere around 90%. That can't be true, can it?

A quick stop is scheduled in Protovin to drink the local Platan beer. But Andy takes a wrong turning at České Budějovice and we're already on the way to Lipan. At least Andy thinks we are. Just to make sure, we stop at a pub on the outskirts of Týn nad Vlatavou to check. "You may as well have a beer while we're here." says Andy generously.

Restaurace Sportovní Hala
Týn nad Vlatavou

We aren't going to miss out on Platan because that's what the pub is selling. Just before we enter, we realise that it's attached to a sports centre. Inside the only sport being practised is on the TV. Everyone is staring at a tennis match. The pub is bright, modern and rather bland. A dangerously attractive barmaid makes any aesthetic shortcomings of the interior irrelevant. (I don't care much for brick bar counters at the best of times, but a fake one using brick-effect wallpaper? That's super crappy.)

I try to order a Platan 11º Tmavé but it's off. I have to make do with an 11º Světlé. It arrives in a stemmed glass. A trail of bubbles is rising from the base. Not a good sign. It's way too fizzy. The others haven't noticed. They're still drooling over Miss Dangerously Attractive. Put your tongues away, lads. It's disgusting. Andy's eyes almost pop out of his head when she bends over just behind Jim.

Platan 11º Světlé: Pale amber, manky head. It tastes of boiled sweets, dust and caramel. Pretty poor, stuff, I'm afraid. Nothing much except for a very heavy pasteurised flavour.

A bloke in red football kit, a 4 gallon beer gut leading, comes in from the sports hall and orders a beer. He disappears back into the sporty area with it. I bet he's told the wife he's exercising.

When we're about to leave a barmaid comes over (not Dangerously Attractive) and presents Andy with a beer glass. That's very nice of her. What a friendly bunch these country people are.

We're loaded into the bus and Andy is just starting to reverse out of the parking space when suddenly there's a commotion in the back seats. A rusting hulk of a bus has just pulled up inches behind us, blocking our exit. The driver looks at us disdainfully, a fag hanging from his mouth. "What the hell's he up to?" inquires Andy. Jim stands and tries to get out of the bus. He's angry and wants to confront Fagman Driver. Andy quickly locks all the doors and Keith tries to get Jim back into his seat. "Steady on, Jim. We don't want to get into a fight." This is where Andy's peacekeeping experience in Bosnia comes in handy.

Andy manages to just about squeeze us past the dilapidated bus. Then he gets out to have a word with Fagman. He doesn't unlock our doors. Some scornful waving by Fagman in the direction of a "buses only" sign seems to indicate that we'd been parked in an area reserved for buses. Not that there were any there, other than Fagman's rusty wreck. And that only turned up when we were trying to leave. Perhaps it was our German plates he really took exception to. We'll never know.

We were on the right road, in case you were wondering. Soon we 're back on it, the rolling hills rolling past cinematically. Until we hit the small village that is Lipan. Brewery number three. At three in the afternoon.

Pivovarský dvůr Lipan
Dražíč 50,
375 01 Týn nad Vltavou.

I'm not sure about the dark shade of green the pub is painted. Still, it's better than seeing another green Pilsner Urquell board. Inside it's simple to the point of being Spartan. It reminds me very much of a brewery tap in Lublin. Being 15:00 on Sunday, it isn't exactly packed. At least we get served quickly.

Lipan 12º Tmavý Ležák: Near black with a dense tan head. Roast, black chocolate, caramel, liquorice, pepper. Wow. It has everything - loads of dark malt flavours and spicy hops.

This is much more like it. The best dark beer so far, by a mile. The pub is staring to liven up, too. A young couple sit at the next table. A group of what looks like foresters comes in and gets pop bottles filled with beer. Sensible chaps. It's delicious.

A young bloke who doesn't look more than 17 comes over and introduces himself. He's the brewer. Five years he's been brewing. He must have started when he still at primary school. Originally a distillery, they still take in fruit from local farmers and turn it into schnapps. Before we can say no, the brewer has poured each of us an apple schnapps. It's 63% alcohol, but wonderfully smooth and dangerously drinkable. And it has bags of apples flavour. I'm seriously impressed. This spotty teenager is turning out great beer and great booze. Maybe it's time to revise my retirement plans.

The brewer takes us on a tour. An adjacent room, that looks like an informal village hall, houses the copper coppers. They gleam in a slightly battered, well-used sort of way. In another room behind are the more prosaic guts of the brewery. I've been around lots of breweries, but this is one of the strangest I've seen. I can't make head nor tail of what anything is. There are certainly lots of stainless steel things and lots of piping. Look at the photo and see if you can make any sense of it.

The brewer tells us that the locals complain about the price of his beer. At 26 crowns, it isn't exactly pricey. But Staropramen is a couple of crowns cheaper. Much crappier and ever so slightly cheaper. I just don't understand some people.

Once through the brewery, we continue on into the distillery. It has even more cobbled-together charm than the brewery. Very Heath-Robinson. And there's an old TV on the desk. Totally charming.

So there you have it. An afternoon of unexpected generosity and aggression. It's still only the afternoon, but the excitement is by no means over. We still have another brewery and a castle to visit. Will the beer be as good? Will we make it to the castle? You know what I'm going to say now - read about it here tomorrow.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Budvar and Třeboň

Budějovický Budvar
Karoliny Světlé 4,
370 21 České Budějovice.
Tel: +420 38 - 770 5111,731 1167
Fax:+420 38 - 731 1135

We have breakfast half an hour earlier - 08:00 - to be at the brewery on the dot when it opens at 09:00. (Excellent breakfast - very classy. What a great hotel. ) We arrive at the gates of Budvar a couple of minutes early.

The side of the brewery we approach is all shiny and new. But beyond it, in the brewery yard, a wall of crates a couple of stories high hides the brewhouse. Our guide, a young girl with a pretty decent command of English and decently pretty, whisks us off through the gates. I try to remember if I've even been around a lager brewery of this size. I think not.

First stop is the well. Not that you can see a great deal. Just a few pipes sticking out of the ground. But we don't linger. We head for the business end of the building: the brewhouse. It's Sunday, so no actual brewing is going on. The coppers gleam in the way they do and we snap away. Sorry homebrewers, I didn't enquire about their mashing schedule.

On the way to the lager cellar we pass the bottling line. No action here, either. Though I notice all the bottles are green. The guide explains that Budvar has recently gone form brown to green bottles. "Why?" She didn't know. I suggest it's to look like Pilsner Urquell, which doesn't go down too well.

On the stairs are photos of the brewery in bygone years. I'm drawn to one picturing the old open fermenters. They look much like those at Eck, just on a larger scale.

Here's what the guide answered to my questions:

- all their beer is brewed to the Reinheitgebot
- the mash tuns and lauter tuns are copper outside, stainless steel inside
- the coppers hold 550 hl
- primary fermentation takes 10 days at 7-10º C
- excess CO2 is collected and used for bottling
- yeast is harvested for repitching
- the lager cellar is at 4º C
- beer is lagered at 1-2º C
- 10º lagered 1 month, 12º 3 months, Super Strong 250 days
- the use Zatec (Saaz) hops
- roasted malt used to colour the dark lager - only 1 or 2% of roasted malt in the grist
- sometimes the beer is sold unfiltered, but it only lasts 4 days
- canning is done at Ottakringer in Vienna

Once down in the cool of the lager cellar, it's quite a walk to the tank we'll be getting a sample from. A cellarman is ready waiting for us and pours beer directly from the tank into paper cups. Despite being a bit too cold (obviously, it's at 2º C) it has loads more character than the version we drank in the pub yesterday. The hop flavours are much stronger. Though it still is far short of being a great beer.

And that's about it. We've passed by various conical fermenters as we've walked around. But what is there to see? It's not as if you can look inside them. We are back at the entrance and gift shop. I invest in a miniature mug. I have no room for full-size glasses at home. One miniature per trip is all I buy now.

There's a multi-media 3-D show, but I'm really not in the mood. The others are. I have a walk around the area surrounding the brewery in the vain hope of finding a pub open. There isn't. So I read Viz in the minibus. "Harness the power of the drunken mind. Learn while drunk." How very appropriate.

When the others have finished multi-mediaing, we head off for Trebon, our next stop. The Regent brewery tap, to be specific. Třeboň is just as pretty as Cesky Krumlov, but tourist-free. Another arcaded square with lollipop-coloured houses. There's something strangely familiar about them. Where have I seen those houses before?

Bohemia Regent
Trocnovské nám. 124,
379 14 Třeboň.
Tel: 384 721 319, 384 721 320
Fax: 384 721 321

The brewery is just a couple of minutes stroll from the square. As in Cesky Krumlov, a castle occupies much of the town. Though here it's really a palace. All the defensive bits seem long gone. The tap is at the entrance to the brewery yard. I look longingly at it for a minute or two, take a few snaps and then go into the pub. It's pretty dark inside. It takes a while to be able to see it properly.

It's a comfortable enough pub in a folksy sort of way. But, as I've already said, I'm getting to quite like that. Our young waitress has piercing blue eyes and a lovely smile. It's my turn to go on a charm offensive. When she's reluctant to be photographed, I say: "Ale jsi tak hezká!" ("But you're so pretty!") That does the trick. I even get a shy grin.

Sadly, the 16º Kvasnicové is off, so I have to make do with 12º Kvasnicové, as do the others. Except for poor Andy, who's on the coffee again. It's a hazy gold colour, bitter with yeast, pepper, grass, pine and citrus aromas. Light, hoppy and very drinkable. It gets 70 out of 100. I'm starting to see a trend here. The Kvasnicové beers are a huge improvement on the standard versions. I'd love to have tried the 16º one.

We order snacks. I have an Utopenec. A sort of spam sausage in a watery onion sauce. Quite nice and not too heavy.

Why don't they sell their dark lager? That's a bit strange for a brewery tap. The darkest on offer is 13º Rezane (mixed), which is amber. I try one. Sweetish with a a bit of caramel and nuts. It's disappointing after the Kvasnicové - thin and rather dull. I score it just 45.

Andy is looking through his ancient Rough Guide to Czechslovakia (yes, it's that old). There's something about the cover that draws my eye. "That looks like the square here" I say, pointing at it. "It does a bit, doesn't it." replies Andy.

Jim mentions Robust Porter and I manage neither thump him nor start frothing at the mouth. I'm making definite progress. Just 12 months ago either the police or the vet would have been called.

A couple of beers a bite to eat and our visit is over. We walk back to the minibus a slightly different way, walking through the castle precinct. Very pretty, it is. There are a couple of people in period dress, which make it look even better. Isn't this fun? The power of my drunken mind must be working.

Back at the minibus, we compare the Rough Guide cover to the houses in the square. They do match. No doubt about it. Never underestimate the power of the drunken mind.

A brewpub in the village of Lipan is our next destination. During our journey we will receive a gift and Jim will nearly get into a fight. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Read tomorrow to learn the full story.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

České Budějovice

It's a real relief when we arrive at our hotel in the centre of České Budějovice. We've done way too much travelling today. Now it's time to relax.

The hotel, Malý Pivovar, is owned by the Budvar brewery and has a beerhall on the ground floor. In my years of travelling I've stayed in plenty of hotels. Many I wouldn't exactly recommend. Most of my journeys have been on a tight budget. My room here is notable for two reasons:

  1. it's the nicest
  2. it's the largest

Most I've had elsewhere were smaller than this one's bathroom. I'm intrigued as to the size and pace it out. I make it 70 square metres. That's larger the most of the flats my friends inhabit in Amsterdam. Well done, Andy.

Before we go up to check out our luxurious accommodation, Andy arranges for us to meet 30 minutes later in the beerhall. I only pause to take a few snaps of my room to show Dolores.

Budvarka Pivnice
ul.Karla IV 8-10,
370 21 České Budějovice.

Long and low, with a bar counter at its heart, it's reminiscent of many Prague boozers. The copper beer taps gleam cheerfully. At the front booths line either wall. The rear are long tables and benches. It's 16:00 on Saturday, but is already quite full. I immediately notice that there's no smoking ban in the Czech Republic. I've got used to the clean air in Bavarian pubs. The blue air as quite a shock. What will it be like later in the evening?

"I really love faggots." I say. "You better not say that in the US." Jim remarks. In case you're wondering, we've been talking about haggis and we've progressed to talking about offal-based food in general. I really do love faggots. With peas. Or pease pudding.

Just for a change I start with the Budvar Světlé 12º. There's really very little I can say about it. It's wet, the right temperature and has some pleasant hop flavour. The nice spicy Saaz type. Apart from the hops, there's very little to it. So little, I have no other words to describe it. 48 out of 100.

Andy tells us a tale of when he was here researching. He got talking with a couple of locals. Everything started fine, but soon they were knocking back booze at breakneck speed and went leary. "That looks like one of them over there." he said, pointing to an adjacent booth. "I hope he doesn't recognise me." He edges sideways to place Keith between him and his former mate.

Andy's glass appears to have a hole in it again. I didn't realise driving was such thirsty work. He's soon a couple of beers ahead of me. Jim makes a brave effort to keep up. Where does he put it? You could make at least two of him out of one of me.

I try the Tmavé 12º for my next beer. It's quite bitter with roast, chocolate and liquorice flavours. It's a big improvement on the pale. I've not come across that chocolate flavour in a Czech beer before.I give it 59. It's another beer let down by having little aroma.

Small "reserved" signs were one of the most annoying features of communist-era pubs in Eastern Europe. It didn't usually mean that someone had actually reserved the table, just that the staff couldn't be arsed to serve it. Often half the tables were out of commission this way. I didn't expect these signs to still be as common. At least they now do really mean what they say. Then Andy does something that has never occurred to me. He reserves a table for later. The plan is to come back around 19:00 to eat. Reserving a table makes sense. I experience a disturbing sense of Schadenfreude at the thought of other drinkers' frustration at the reserved sign.

Andy has already warned us that the centre of town isn't exactly a pub hotspot. It's not even lukewarm. Only been out of the freezer for about 3 minutes describes it best. I remember the enormous central square from my last visit. It has no more pubs on it now than in 1986. I thought it was crap then. In 2008 that level of boozering is double crap. If this were Holland or Belgium there would be nothing but pubs lining it.

The square is attractive enough, with the cloister-like colonnades and gaily painted houses found in every Czech town. Do you remember me mentioning being here with Little Dave last time? I've managed to dig out some photos. Given how anarchically my photographs are stored, that' s quite an achievement. See for yourself if the square has changed much. The photo from 1986 is the one with Little Dave in it. (I wonder what's happened to him? He always was the friend most likely to be dead. He didn't lead the healthiest of lifestyles.)

You can see many of the same buildings in each photo. (If you can't work out which they are, you shouldn't be reading this blog. Really. Leave now.) Not that different, are they? The same isn't true of the backstreets, which were pretty shabby in the old days.

With nothing doing on the square, we branch off into the side streets, where we find:

Potrefená husa
Česká 66,
České Budějovice.
Tel.: 387 42 0560

Even if you were unaware that this was part of an Inbev-run chain of pubs, you'd realise as soon as you looked at the draught beer list: Staropramen Světlé 10º, Staropramen Světlé 12º, Staropramen Tmavé 12º, Staropramen Granát, Staropramen Velvet, Leffe Bruin, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden. The Stella is 43 crowns, the Staropramen Světlé 12º just 30. What sort of mental deficient would drink the Stella? No, don't answer that question, I already know the answer. A young trendy with neither a sense of history nor tastebuds.

This isn't exactly my taste in pubs. You could find somewhere similar in any city in Europe. Over-designed and with zero charm. It's what the young'uns like nowadays. We were born around 30 years too early to be regulars.

Andy is looking for girls. He likes snapping them sitting amongst his tour groups. He uses the photos in his advertising. To prove it isn't only sad old blokes who go on his tours. No luck here, apart from the podgy lass in the corner (I'm not exactly slim myself). Hang on - another girl's just come in. She has stomach issues, too, but I suppose being pregnant is a good excuse.

The room is deserted apart from us, and the two lasses and their consorts. When I go to the toilet, I realise why: we're sitting in the no-smoking section. The smokers' room is packed. The toilets are an absolute disgrace - modern and spotless. What happened to the dirty toilet competition they used to hold in Czech pubs? (That was I only explanation I could think of for why bogs were so willfully filthy.) This country has gone right downhill since the end of communism.

I'm drinking a Staropramen Granát. It hasn't improved since I last tried it. Virtually flavour-free. 15 out of 100.

Not being too impressed, we go in search of somewhere better. It's much more difficult than I expect. Few of the rare pubs we encounter are open. It was easier to find a beer when the communists were in charge. They had their priorities right. The price of beer didn't increase between 1968 and 1984.

You might be surprised to hear that I have quite a good memory for pubs. That's why I immediately recognise:

Restaurace Masné krámy
Krajinská 13,
370 01 České Budějovice.
Tel.: +420 387 201 301
Fax: +420 387 201 302

It's still one of the few pubs in town selling Budvar. In the old days, that was because it was all exported, being one of the country's best sources of hard currency. I'm not quite sure what the reason is now.

Andy is quite keen to enter when I tell him it's called "Meat Market". He's disappointed when he finds out that's because it used to be a market where meat was sold. What did he think it meant? Why do they use crossed axes as a logo?

In the mid-1980's it was converted to a pub and was pretty posh by Czech standards. A renovation last year has left it posh by any standards. That's pretty tacky. Except for giant TV screens showing ice hockey. Most of the tables are adorned with little "reserved" signs (punishment for my Schadenfreude?) and we're ushered into a corner.

Two couples are on the adjacent table. One of the blokes is groping his girlfriend under the table, unseen by their companions. At least I assume she's his girlfriend. She isn't trying to beat him off. I can see him, but that doesn't seem to bother him. (You can see the girl in question in the top right-hand corner of the photo to the left.)

I order a Budvar Super Strong. It tastes like the tramp juice that the name implies. Another 15 out of 20.

Back at Budvarka, I suck down a few more Tmavé's with my goulash. When we're finished eating, the waiter suggests a Slivovic as a digestif. Good idea. "Could I have a Myslivec instead, please?" I ask. "No. Slivovic." says the waiter, who brings us four Slivovic. You have to admire his self-confidence. There's no use trying to argue. He knows what I want better than I do myself.

I leave at the shockingly early hour of 20:30 and watch "The Big Lobowski" in Czech on the TV in my room. A suitably weird ending to a very long day. It's hard to believe that just this morning we looked around Brauerei Eck.

We have an early appointment at the Budvar brewery tomorrow. I wonder what that will be like? Read the next installment to find out.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Berliner Weissbier - the long version (part 7)

This post is for Mike. He was disappointed that I'd interrupted my marathon series of Berliner Weisse posts just to write about my holidays. Don't worry, Mike. I'll carry on to the bitter end. After attenuation, yeast and bottled Weissbier, there's still yeast-free Weissbier and illnesses of Weissbier.

During primary fermentation, the attenuation of a 9-12º Balling wort is 66-75%.

The high degree of attenuation is due to the yeast, a high-attenuating of the Frohberg type.

The attenuation is also helped by the diastase that remains in the wort which, in conjunction with CO2 and lactic acid, breaks down the maltodextrins into more easily fermentable sugars.

As the level of acidity rises, it destroys the diastase, so this is only active at the beginning of fermentation.

Because the pitching yeast consists of two completely different organisms, the usual methods for handling yeast cannot be employed. Washing and schlämmen disturb the ratio of yeast to bacteria because, being lighter, the bacteria is easily washed away. Any reduction in the amount of lactobacillus reduces the amount of lactic acid produced in the fermenting tun.

Weissbier yeast doesn’t keep or transport well. The Stoffwechsel products from the bacteria damage the yeast. Also the yeast generates protein-splitting enzymes within the yeast cells which eventually destroy them. These two factors mean that Weissbier yeast is more quickly susceptible than other top-fermenting yeast to Zerfetzung and Verflüssigung.

Because of the above, yeast which has lain for several days is not as effective as fresh yeast.

The best yeast for pitching is that collected from a fermenting tun and put directly into fresh wort. Yeast shouldn’t be collected at the end of fermentation as this is more likely to be infected with acetic acid bacteria or sarcina bacteria.

Český Krumlov

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.

Pivovar Eggenberg
Latrán 27,
381 01 Český Krumlov.
Tel: +420 380711426
Fax: +420 380711761

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.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Coming attactions

Time for a short pause in my travel posts. I worry they might get tedious if I have too many in a row. Here’s a preview of what to expect in this blog over the next couple of weeks.

  • More about Berliner Weisse. Believe it or not, I still have loads more material on this subject. And I haven’t even looked searched all my old German books properly yet. I’m bound to find more. There’s another book on German top-fermenting beer I’ve got my eye on. When I finally get paid, I’ll probably buy it.

  • The remaining 5 days of the Franconia/Bohemia tour. Judging by past experience, the posts will shrink drastically as I approach the end. To your delight, no doubt.

  • Hausbrauwesen in Bavaria. You may remember me mentioning the book I bought in Nuremberg. It’s packed with the sort of statistics I just can’t resist. OK, I admit it: I can’t resist any statistics. I’m hoping that the book will reveal more about the fascinating phenomenon of Zoigl.

  • 20th century Mild grists. Part 1: 1900 to 1940. If you think I’m being deliberately obscure, you’re probably right. More light reading based on the Barclay Perkins and Whitbread brewing logs.

  • Dutch Münchner: a lost style. The title says it all. A bunch of random information about the dark lager that was once brewed throughout The Netherlands.

  • Kulmbacher: another name from history. This rather depends on me doing some fresh research. Don’t hold your breath.

  • K Ales: grists from the logs.

  • Amsterdam pubs. The weather’s getting better. Good time to go exploring in Amsterdam. I may even get to Amsterdam Noord.

I’m making no promises. It may be some while before (or never) that I get around to writing on these topics. This is just my provisional plan.

Bayerischer Wald (part 3) and Šumava

Brauerei Gasthof Eck
Eck 1
94255 Böbrach.
Tel.: 09923-84050
Fax: 09923-840555

The following day (Saturday 12th April) we get a pleasant surprise after breakfast. The friendly brewer we met the day before, Mike Schönberger, gives us a private tour around the brewery.

We soon discover why he speaks such excellent English: he worked at the Gordon Biersch Brewery in California. It makes things a lot easier for us. No need to struggle with German when asking questions. I have lots of questions.

The current brewery was built in 1970 when around 20,000 hl a year were brewed. It's way too big for their current output, which is just 2,000 hl. Their beer used to be distributed as far as Munich but, as they were making no money out of it, in 1992 they decided to produce just for the pub and the local area. It's a story that is depressingly common. Most German breweries are producing far less beer than 15 years ago. Making the most out of their site - all that diversification I mentioned yesterday - is a smart way of compensating for the vicissitudes of the beer market.

I won't pester you with my questions. I'll just list the answers.

They brew once a month, but 3 brews one after the other. In total 36 brews a year of 6,000 litres.

60% of the beer the beer is sold draught, 40% bottled. (In Germany as a whole just 19% of beer is draught.)

80% of production is Dunkles. That's what the tourists drink. In the local villages, it's just Helles.

Three beers are produced:

Dunkles 13.5º
Helles 11.5º
Festbier 13.5º

The large brew length relative to total output means that less popular beers, like Maibock, have been discontinued.

In the summer, unfiltered Helles is sold in the beer garden. Like many of his colleagues, the brewer is convinced of the superiority of unfiltered beer. But it has to be sold quickly and this is only possible in the high season.

The Dunkles is brewed from 100% dark Munich malt, the Helles and Festbier from 100% pilsner malt. The hops are Hallertauer pellets and extraxt. The Dunkles has 800 gm of of alpha acid per 6,000 litre batch. The Festbier and Helles are boiled 1.5 hours, the Dunkles 2 hours. The hopping schedule is:

start of boil 40%
after 60 minutes 30%
5 minutes before end 30%

The primary fermentation, in open fermenters, lasts 7 days, starting at 7º C, ending at 9.3º C. When the wort has dropped to 4-4.5º Plato, it's cooled to 2º C and put into the lagering tanks.

The cellar is naturally cool and need no artificial cooling. Lagering lasts three months, starting at 2º C . In the last 4 to 5 weeks the temperature is slowly dropped to 0º C. The pressure in the lagering tanks is 0.9 bar, dropping to 0.5 bar 1 week before kegging.

Bottling is not done on site. The beer is shipped in a tanker to another brewery.

Sorry, I asked no mashing questions on the tour.


From Eck it’s just a short drive to the Czech border. As we approach it the hills turn into snow-capped mountains. There are even a few skiers descending a slope.

Hard against the German side of the frontier is Bayerisch Eisenstein, a trim town of pensions, pubs and a few Nordic walking pensioners. No doubt it’s livelier either earlier or later in the year. I spot an Augustiner pub and make a mental note. You never know. I may be back this way one day.

German and Czech customs posts enclose 100 metres of no-man’s-land. Both are deserted. Stuck into the bank of the stream that forms the border is a forlorn sign: “Pozor! Statni hranice” (“Attention! State border”). The only token of life is the pretty young Czech girl selling motorway stickers in a kiosk. Andy buys one for later. We won’t be hitting motorway until we leave Prague.

Once across, the road is lined first with shops selling vegetables and tourist tat then with “non-stop nightclubs”. They aren’t the sort of club where you dance, if you get my drift. Once through the rather scruffy, shabby settlement, there’s little sign of human habitation kilometre after kilometre. This is the Šumava – a part of Europe barely touched by man. It's nothing but green forest, beige marshland and off-white snow stretching to the horizon. In places the snow still lays in piles half a metre deep along the roadside. Aside from the occasional walker or cyclist, the land is deserted.

Stopping by a raging stream, we step out and breathe in the chill but pristine air. The silence is only disturbed by the rushing brownish water. It looks too clear to be soil. Is the discolouration from iron ore?

The villages we pass are mere clusters of wooden sheds, bereft of even a church. We go tens of kilometres without seeing a pub. That’s what I call a wasteland. We eventually pull up in what passes for a town. There’s a wood-shingled church, a freshly-painted town hall and a few down-at-heel hotels, none of which appear open. Not surprising, as there’s still snow on the ground. Is it really April? It feels as if we’ve been transported back to January. Yesterday we were sitting in shirt sleeves in a beer garden. Today we shiver in our heavy coats.

The cash machine is working and we load up on crowns. It’s always useful to have some local currency. I need beer tokens. I rashly take out 2,000, the equivalent of 80 euros. It turns out to be an enormous miscalculation.

We don’t linger. As we penetrate further into the Czech Republic, the land becomes flatter, the villages more frequent, though no less desolate. In one, dominated by the rusty frame of a deserted factory, a family of gypsies traipses disconsolately along the road, not even glancing up as we pass. It’s no wonder no-one wants to live in this area. Racing through it is depressing enough.

By the crossroads that at the centre of another town barely worthy of the name, two women sit surrounded by empty cans. “They must be hitchhiking.” says Keith, “Everyone does it in Rumania.” Yet there’s something about the way they wait impassively, with hollowed eyes, that hints of some darker purpose. At another junction just outside town stands a thickset woman of indeterminate age, a tiny strip of a skirt stretched across her bulging thighs. It’s not a lift she’s waiting for. Not in those clothes, in this weather. We realise that we’re close to the German border again. Hooray for a Europe without frontiers.

At least we see more pubs. Though some look ready to collapse. Those in a better state of repair have shiny new green Plzensky Prazdroj signs. What about the local breweries? Isn’t their beer sold anywhere? I guess in the semi-derelict places.

Surely Cesky Krumlov won’t be as run-down as this? Will it? Find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Bayerischer Wald (part2)

We intend having a beer in the Dampbierbrauerei tap opposite the brewery, but the tour took rather longer than expected. Instead we head straight on to Eck, through a wondrous landscape of wooden hills and rolling green fields. Just outside Zwiesel a bicycle heads towards us up a hill. As it passes we notice that the woman riding it can’t be less than 70 years old. Another fit granny for Andy.

I’m rather surprised when Andy announces “We’re there!”. This village isn’t Eck, which is where I thought we were heading. It’s called Böbrach. Despite consisting of just a couple of streets it has two butchers and a handful of pubs. Looks promising. But we drive straight through and back out into countryside. Approaching a handful of buildings I notice a sign with “Eck” written on it. Eck isn’t a hamlet, more like a farmstead.

Brauerei Gasthof Eck
Eck 1
94255 Böbrach.
Tel.: 09923-84050
Fax: 09923-840555

It turns out that the whole of Eck is part of the brewery complex. There’s a brewery, hotel, pub, beer garden, holiday flats, distillery, distillery museum, distillery shop and an off-licence. That’s what I call diversification. The only thing missing are any farm activities.

Being off-season, it’s pretty quiet inside. Eventually, we find someone to check us in. He turns out to be the brewer. A friendly young chap with an excellent command of English. As we clamber upstairs to our rooms Andy tells us to meet him downstairs in 10 minutes for a quick look around the distillery museum.

It’s quite a small museum. The attached shop is just about as big. I’m surpised to see “Vogtland” stamped on some crates. I happen to know where the Vogtland is, because I’ve been there. One of Dolores’s university friends comes from Plauen. It’s in the former DDR. Then I spot a heap of bottles with VEB Erzgebergische Likörfabrik Bockau and EVP 11.90 M. They must have got all this stuff from a small distillery in the East that closed.

Five minutes and I’ve done with the museum. I only took that long because of my curiosity about the origin of some exhibits. In the shop, where the others have already gathered, a nice lady is pouring out free samples. This is more like it. She gives us a Blutwurz (the local speciality) to try. It reminds me very much of Becherovka. Then a plum brandy. Unsurprisingly, that tastes like Slivovic. This is turning out to be good practice for the Czech Republic.

Half a dozen samples later, I start feeling guilty. The guilt isn’t inspired by knocking back the shots so early (it’s 16:45). More that I really should buy something after so many freebies. Keith and I gaze longingly along the shelves of fruit schnapps. After one last sample to make certain of its quality, I leave clutching a bottle of Obstler. Well, not actually clutching it. It’s packed away neatly in a black fabric Blutwurz bag. I’d forgotten to bring a bag in which to carry my pub-crawling necessities: camera, notebook, notes.

“What about a beer?” asks Andy. Does the pope shit in woods? His first one barely touches the sides. All that driving gives him a right thirst. I’ve barely touched my first and he’s slurped down two. “I’m off to the sauna, see you in half an hour.” says Andy. I would join him, but for two facts: I hate heat and naked flesh makes me uneasy. The rest of us go to check out our rooms.

I forgot to mention the view. We’ve spent the day driving through some wonderful countryside, but I still have to stop and gape in awe. My room has the best view of anywhere I’ve stayed outside Jamaica (itself one of the most beautiful spots in the world).

After a quick call home to let the family know I’m not lying dead in a gutter, I’m ensconced again in the beer garden with a mug of Dunkles. Jim and Keith soon join me. We sit for a while without speaking, breathing in the silence and drinking in the wonderful vista of hills, woods and fields. Earlier in Zwiesel I thought the day pretty damn perfect. How wrong I was. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

Eck Wilderer Dunkles: red-brown in colour, sweetish with liquorice, pepper, roast and toffee flavours. My score - 66 out of 100. Very, very drinkable - as our bar bill attests.

When it starts getting chilly we go inside to eat. The pub is charming, but nearly empty. Who cares? It means the service is quicker. Like everything else, the food is perfect. How can anything live up to this? I may as well top myself now. Deciding that may be a little drastic, I order their special beer liqueur instead. It comes in a tiny beer mug and is topped with whipped cream. It looks like a miniature version of the Dunkles the others are drinking.

Once again, I astound Andy by being the first to go to bed. I really have learned my lesson.

Will the rest of the tour be a huge disappointment? Has this been the highpoint? Find out tomorrow.

Just happened to see the rating for Eck Dunkles on RateBeer. Half the ratings are from a single, obviously duff bottle. I find it really annoying that people post ratings like this, especially when there are so few others, that create a totally false impression of a beer's quality. Why do people do this? I can understand why brewers get really pissed off with ratings sites.