Tag Archives: beer history

Prague is, like, immortal

The writer’s notion of peeling away layers, looking for truth below the surface– that’s Prague. Its history is literally buried within itself, plastered over and adorned in progressing aesthetics, chronologically made over. Building facades in the Old Town may be scraped away to reveal the tastes of the wealthy and innovations of architects from hundreds of years ago. Down a flight of stairs, walls and doorways of different eras mingle in the hallway of a school, a library, a knight’s quarters.

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Looking through a Renaissance doorway to a Roman doorway. Notice the thickness of the walls.

Simultaneously, traumatic cultural memories are preserved. The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial that depicts the names of all of the Czech Jewish holocaust victims, written on the walls, organized by town and family name. Upstairs is an exhibit of work done by children in the camps; the adults tried to form at least a shell of an educational system to keep the chaos from fully subsuming the youth, and art became a way for many children to process their experiences. Some of the drawings and paintings are very dark, and show more truth than a photograph ever could.

A sculpture installation on the way up the hill towards the Prague Castle, the Communism Victims Memorial, depicts duplicates of a tall, skinny man cast in bronze; as the statues recede they deteriorate, becoming stripped away of identifying features, of their humanity.

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Communism Victims Memorial in Prague

There are far fewer of these totems in the U.S. That’s a function, I think, of the country’s relatively short existence, and of its half-hearted acknowledgement of the damage it did through slavery and the displacement of the Native Americans, to really lean in and call it what it is, to give it a proper title. Maybe in time; maybe there will be memorials to the poor, too. Those are my thoughts about that; Prague provokes a lot of thought.

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Pilsner originated in Pilsen, and it is only beer from Pilsen that’s called Pilsner in the Czech Republic. That’s what it means: from Pilsen. Other pale lagers are Světlý Ležák, and the dark lager is Tmave, or Tmavy. There is not, as far as I’ve had, anything in the U.S. called a Czech pilsner that looks or tastes remotely like any of the local beers I tried in Prague. The exception would be Krusovice, which was okay but nothing to write home about. It was thin and lacking in flavor compared to the others.

It is an advantage to serve one’s beers mere feet away from the brew deck, and that’s not uncommon at breweries here. Some brew houses were literally just inside the front door, in full operation. Visual “wow” factor aside, the beer is served as fresh as can be for a lager, which has presumably sat for weeks or months before serving. Funny thing is, very few of the draught beers were crystal clear. Many had haze that ranged from slight to glowing; some were quite clear but not as brilliant as, say, a Kölsch. None were the bright pale gold that identifies a U.S.-brewed Czech pils. All had the same wonderful zing of Saaz hops.

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The brewery just inside from the beer garden at Pivovar Narodni

The wildest thing about these lagers was the texture, the way the maltiness, bitterness, and unfiltered bits played across my tongue. There was a suede grip that I attribute to decoction (boiling a portion of the mash) that mediated the sweetness-bitterness balance, negotiated a congenial division of lingual custody, all the while refreshing the palate, leaving only footprints.

The characteristic buttery/butterscotch/slick tonsil sensations of diacetyl were alarmingly absent from these beers, and I’m not sure if it was my own rapturous glee at drinking the beer from the place, or if the fermentation byproduct was so well masked by the bitterness and malt flavor, or if my low sensory threshold was also on vacation, or if the beer being alive and unfiltered had allowed for the reabsorption and dismantling of the molecule by yeast, which can happen. Either way, the normally offensive compound, (CH3CO)2, was a blurry bassist on the album cover of Czech lager.

Pub and bar culture in Prague is, to put it lightly, strong. And we didn’t even get into the mixology. Lokál Dlouhááá is one of a small chain of bar/restaurants located a hip section of Dlouhá Street. Getting to anywhere from anywhere in Prague is a data-suck for tourist phones, and Lokal proved no different. Our first attempt took over a half hour, twice as long as it should have from our Airbnb off Wenceslas Square. The place was jam packed, with at least an hour wait. We were hangry, gave up, and crammed down very salty burritos from next door. (Why burritos in Prague, you ask? Because they’re fucking comfort food and the easiest thing to order anywhere, except when the kid making them is a prick. See? Hangry memories.)

We returned the next night and followed some other guys in, past the front bar that had some craft beers on tap but was too packed to read, into another large room full of tables and maybe another bar, and finally into a third room (about 1/4 mile from the door) with a long copper bar atop glass cases containing large stainless steel tanks of Pilsner Urquell. We got the attention of a server, who, despite the din and ruckus of the place, kindly acknowledged our presence and said we would probably get a seat in 20 minutes. So we stood near the bar for a while trying to suss out the situation, then elbowed up and ordered beers from the busy bartender. The Urquell here was served three different ways: regular pour, “slice” (half foam), and some other word, which was pretty much a glass full of foam. Why foam, you ask? Well, it’s sort of a gimmick and sort of a beer geek thing. When a beer is poured like that (I ordered a “slice” first), it breaks out all this CO2 that evacuates the glass, and the beer, as the foam settles. What’s left, after you’ve coated your upper lip and the tip of your nose trying to get some beer, has the equivalent of cask conditioning and is very smooth. The whole balance of the beer is different with lower carbonation. But I do prefer a full mug of beer.

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The scene at Lokál Dlouhááá

We walked about 10 miles a day, each day wandering in a different direction, finding museums and cool buildings and pubs. In a riverfront park with a playground close to our hotel, a handful of wooden booths were being built. One of them served beer, sodas, and snacks. Beer. Served at a playground. These people know what’s important. Incidentally, the playgrounds we saw in Europe were amazing; they still design play structures that kids can injure themselves on, not these static plastic things with rubber floors you see around the States. I would go back just for the playgrounds with beer.

 

Thanksgiving Beer Pairing Time!

You can smell it, walking down the streets of Eugene: fermentation. The aroma of leaves and apples on your neighbors’ lawns is the byproduct of the work of a whole civilization of bacteria, yeast, little bugs, and fungus breaking down the summer’s bounty into next year’s tilth. Those aromas, the ebbing daylight, the imminent rains: signals to bundle up and share warmth with our friends. This is epic meal time.

To paraphrase a superhero movie: With great flavor comes great pairing opportunity. Yes, that was a terrible paraphrasing, but let’s keep moving. The impending feast and its traditional accouterments lay out a gauntlet of flavors, all at once, that can be hard to navigate. Additionally, the imagery of a stuffed Thanksgiving table presents a limited view of acceptable beverages– carafes of wine in straw diapers astride cranberries, corn, and sweet potatoes tilt the tables away from a more versatile and traditional drink (I think we all know where I’m going with this).

I’ve been thinking about what beers I want to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. The hosts are vegetarian; I probably won’t  be bringing a smoked porter. But when I think of turkey, I feel it’s fairly forgiving, and pretty much absorbs whatever you put on it. It can (but hopefully doesn’t) turn out somewhat dry, which I’d want to counter with a fuller-bodied beer. IPA would be fine, if you must; Sam Smith’s IPA has plenty of body, and enough hop presence to liven up a bite of turkey or salad.

The real challenge is to find a couple beers that will pair well with most anything on the Turkeyday table, and IPA is a little too specific. My first inclination is to save the rich and sugary beers for dessert, and lagers for pre-game; we’re looking for richness and earthy flavors. If you’ll be doing traditional dishes like candied yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes & gravy, I would pick a strong Belgian ale; they are rich in flavors, but are drier than most other strong beers. Because you’ll be filling your plate multiple times with everything in sight, don’t worry– just start light and go dark. If you are among the few capable of restraint in the plating department, you will likely enjoy the progression of flavors more. A Belgian-style pale or saison with salad and veggies; a dubbel or brown (like Nostradamus), with richer earthy-spice flavors and a sweeter aroma will be complemented by buttery mashed potatoes and your bird. If you want to break some pinot fans out of their box, pop a bottle of Flanders Red, like Rodenbach Grand Cru; its rich oak, dark fruit, and hint of cocoa pair well, and won’t be subdued by the butter on your corn.

At this point, no doubt you’ve lost count of your trips to the buffet table, and all the food is absorbing the alcohol faster than it can get to your head. I recommend a short break for a sip of peppermint tea. Peppermint is a digestive aid vis-a-vis slightly irritating your stomach lining, causing it to work a bit harder. Licorice helps too– anything with that flavor, like fennel, is helpful after a big meal. You’ve probably had (or noticed) the little candy-covered bits at Indian restaurants. Those are fennel seeds, and help freshen your breath and soothe a stuffed stomach at the same time.

And now it’s time for dessert. Pumpkin, apple, blueberry pie… gingerbread and ice cream…

One of the best beer desserts I ever had was Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale (a 13% doozy) with a well-prepared glass of absinthe alongside. If your guests are sticking around / have a designated driver, I’d recommend a hearty conversation along with those two (not for the faint-of-heart!). But you might want something a little more… normal. Barrel aged beers make excellent dessert pairings (or just desserts), as do Belgian quadrupels, barleywines, imperial stouts, and Scotch strong ales– really anything with a good dose of sweetness will keep the pleasurable feeling of a rich, sweet, creamy dessert rolling right along. Breaking into the stash of old, strong beer is a great way to thank your friends and loved ones. Come on in and ask us for some recommendations, we’ve got plenty!

A bit of history: the early European settlers definitely brewed beer in their first years here; some of it may have been made from maple or birch sap and flavored with herbs until they began importing malt from England; the Native Americans definitely made birch and maple beers. No doubt these were primitive by our standards, but there are extensive records that brewers knew the effects of the various wild-harvested herbs they used; most have medicinal value, some enhance the effects of alcohol (yarrow, for example, is a famous “intoxicant”), increase mirth (St. John’s Wort), or prevent scurvy (nettle, spruce). This brings back a whole new meaning to “seasonal beer!”

Isn’t beer fun?