The Wheel Apizza Pub just released a new lager. Columns is a black lager – not a schwarzbier, tmave, or anything else official – brewed with Bohemian floor malted dark malt and other toasty dark malts, and local Sterling hops; the yeast of choice remains concealed. It is lager’s answer to easy-drinkin’ porter, and was, boldly, released on the summer solstice. It is also the third lager The Wheel’s put out in the 2 months its been open, a trend I hope continues.
I’m a self-professed Vanoraholic; the premiere lager, Vanora Amber Lager, at the new brewery got my wheels turning, especially after getting back from Europe and realizing that it’s actually the closest thing to Světlý Ležákin town. I’ve had more of that beer than any other lately (should I say, “and that’s saying a lot!”? Or would that be embarrassing?). I was prepared, despite confident assurances and my own time-tested faith in Toby’s ability to pull off most fermentations, for the first beers “out of the gate” to beg for a tweak. I can’t speak for the hoppy ales, nor is that what this column is about.
Each of the lagers has its own structure and place; rounded and mossy-soft (Vanora), staccato and sunny (Quest Pils), earthy and shaded (Columns).
The pizza at The Wheel is satisfying and just filling enough thanks to a sourdough crust; today’s lunch special was a Detroit-style pie served in big tile-sized slices, with a dollop of bright red sauce on top of the cheese/meat/mushroom toppings, and went as well with Columns as tomato’d pizza can go with beer. Both were devoured in short order.
If you’re local and haven’t been here, go. If you’re not local and you haven’t been here… go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At Pivovar U Supa
Světlý Ležák and Tmave at Strahov Monastery brewery
Notice the burnished gold color.
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.
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.
The European rail system takes a couple tries to grok–grok, that old hippy term for “I get it, but deeper”–and so we missed our train a second time. Remarkably, another train was leaving shortly. It whisked us at speeds up to 304 km/h (that’s about 180 mph) from Cologne to Bamberg. The agrarian landscape, spiked with windmills and scabby with solar arrays, whizzed by as I stood in the breezeway between cars. We did not make a reservation, and there was a small fracas involving a group of old women and a younger woman and who should sit where, so I relieved a seat of my bum to keep the peace.
Cologne, a city that runs in no small part on commercialism and one style of beer, is nearly the opposite of Bamberg, which wasn’t bombed during World War II and is well-kept, quaint the way a snow globe is quaint, and runs on several styles of beer.
We met our Airbnb host, Behn, a tall, jovial Canadian. His right arm was fully bandaged, and he had scabs on his forehead. With his smoky, confident voice he told us about the fight he’d been in the night before. A refugee, as he said, was harassing some women and he stepped in. Imposing as he is, the assailant brandished a broken bottle and got the better of him until the police came. Behn had gotten out of the hospital in time to meet us, and was probably on a fresh regimen of painkiller in addition to the can of Bacardi rum ‘n coke that occupied his left hand. We fist-bumped hello.
Our apartment was in the center of town, across the cobbled street from Mulligan’s on Obere Sandstrasse, where Behn worked part time, and just a minute’s walk from Schlenkerla, the historic rauchbier brewery. To get there from the Hauptbahnhof, we walked south through the market square, where veggie vendors were piled high with white asparagus. It was Sparglezeit! It was a German Spargle Party!
The sun was shining and I was thirsty, so we set a-walkin’. Up the hill to the southeast to Spezial-Keller we strode, confident that Behn’s promise that “you will get lost” would come to pass. Indeed. But once we arrived, the gates were shut; we were early! After a brief nature walk and pleasant sit on a bench overlooking the city, we returned. An old man was leaning against an old car on the side of the road, and he said something as we approached. All I heard was “bier,” and he gestured in a different direction than we were walking. So we turned.
OK, the beer. Our first order was, naturally, the rauchbier. It is a deep amber lager with subdued smoke character from a portion of beechwood-smoked malt. It came to us in stoneware; thick, rustic, grey ceramic steins, and topped with a seafoamy froth that completely hid the beer beneath.
Needless to say (but I have to)– sitting under huge maples just leafing out at an old table along the fence of the vast biergarten, feeling the cool breeze and dapple while listening to the foam on my beer abate and children laughing in the field nearby, and being with my favorite person on our best honeymoon ever– needless to say, I was happy.
The rest of that day turned into a beer tour. We were invited by our friend Don, who was passing through Bamberg on his own European tour, to Cafe Abseits, which has another fantastic biergarten in the courtyard behind the pub and features a handful of beers on tap and lots of bottles. I enjoyed two on tap, a Monchsambacher Maibock (my first of the season!) and Huppendorfer Vollbier.
The end of the night found us outside of Schlenkerla brewery drinking uber-rauchy rauchbier on the street, admiring a group of sketchy dudes being loud and macho in another language, and possibly making public displays of affection. Honeymoon! Actually, we bore witness to numerous acts of PDA; public snogging and butt grabbing on both sides of the binary gender fence became familiar sights everywhere, to our pleasure and amusement.
The next day, I went and took a tour at the Weyermann Malting Company’s headquarters and specialty maltings. Weyermann was started in 1879 as a coffee and malt roaster, and gradually grew, with a big expansion in 1904. Its famous ketchup/mustard red and yellow theme colors represent the bricks of the buildings and the barley grain.
Thankfully, there was an English tour that day. Our group was led through the entire process, starting at the lab where every truckload (Weyermann works with 500 farms in Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy) is analyzed for bugs, plumpness, protein, and moisture. Trucks deposit the barley into underground storage. It is then piped up to a machine that tumbles and shakes to separate pieces of straw and small grains. Then, the grain is steeped in water and moved to a germination room, similar to an oast but without heat, in very large beds around 140cm deep. A machine with sprayers and augurs moves up and down the bed, keeping the grains moist and loose as they germinate.
Because the germination process doesn’t stop, chemical analysis is not really an option to determine whether or not the process is done, so the maltster comes and looks and feels and tastes the grain, and can tell by sheer practice when the green malt is ready to go. This job, this dude, is responsible for quite a bit of the flavor and effectiveness of malt that is distributed all around the world. He is deep in it.
At the Bamberg plant, which is the original location of the maltings and a historic site that cannot be expanded or torn down for modern facilities, only specialty malts are produced, including the Rauchmalz. So the green malt is either sent to the roasted directly to be caramelized (before drying, so the long-chain sugars in the grain cook inside), or kilned and then roasted in one of 6-ish large drum roasters.
There is a pilot brewery, I think 5 hectoliters, that produces a bunch of different beers that are sold in the shop there. We saw that, then went to the warehouse. There are four bays, including one for local breweries to pick up their own orders. Inside, it is modern and streamlined for efficient and accurate movement of orders; much like a big beer distribution warehouse, workers on forklifts and electric-motor pallet jacks whiz around wrapping and moving pallets. The bags of malt are dated using a code; T is 2018, and the number following is the Julian date (this meant something to me, as lots of breweries use the Julian date coding for their bottles; it helps to know if your malt is fresh too!).
The tour finished in the newly built tasting room, a large space with a very nice bar and glassware, and about a dozen Weyermann beers on tap. I tried a pilsner, a roggenbier, and a rauchbier, all fantastic, and took a bottle of a Bohemian pils for the walk back.
Later, we visited the breweries Fässla, Mahr’s, and Keesman for more mind-blowing lagers. I’d give the run down, but really… just go.
If you want to read about Bamberg twice, click here.