Late Monday morning, and after a walk through the washed out January streets of the Vinohrady district of Prague, past patches of dirty snow and skeletal droppings of ice, it’s early doors at the Vinohradský Pivovar restaurant. Tables are already occupied with diners, including one where a chef in whites looks like he’s studying the menu for ideas as he ladles spoonfuls of soup into his mouth.
At the back of the room, which is next door to one of Vinohradský’s two breweries, a flushed-faced, grey-bearded, thick-set man is contemplating his half full glass of beer. I might as well accompany him in his endeavours and order an 11˚ světlý ležák, gold in colour, a light biscuit-like sweetness on the nose and a dry bittersweet finish, crisp and evenly matched on the palate. The carbonation of the beer is gentle but subtle, unforced but still present, and I think about how the all-lager-is-fizzy nonsense still spouted by some members of the CAMRA crowd is just tribal nonsense.
The next day I make a lunchtime visit to Klášterní pivnice Prašivka, an old school corner pub, located on the ground floor of an apartment block, which was maybe built under the communists and tarted up in the last few years. It is midday and every table is occupied, while sine waves of conversation cut through the air, voices of different timbres, the odd laugh, an occasional murmur and a loud male voice gruff and substantial, a peak of sounds before subsiding into silence.
I have a fondness for this place, which if I imagined it as a person it would perhaps be a take-no-nonsense bar tender, male or female, the kind of person that turns even the biggest of mouths into timid people-pleasers. Here the food is basic, home cooked, hearty and relatively cheap, while the Klášter ležák 11˚ is crisp and refreshing, an ideal companion for this first sip of the day. Meanwhile, the man on whose table I have set down on seems to be nodding off as his head seems to droop a couple of times. Given that he is on a large glass of beer and an accompanying shot, maybe that is not a surprise.
Drinking in both the modernist surrounding of Vinohradský Pivovar’s restaurant and the traditional Klášterní pivnice Prašivka pub plugged me into the city’s drinking culture, where I caught glimpses of the importance that beer plays in people’s lives. Men and women drink beer, bar-tenders take pride in the way they serve beer and the very best beers can be drunk with both gusto and respect.
The way goes for the beers I contemplate and then consume on the following evening in Nuremberg in the front bar at Hutt’n, a pub and restaurant, which is opposite the equally engaging brewpub Hausbrauerei Altstadthof (home of the original Nuremberg Rotbier). As the evening proceeds, people come and go, laugh and tell tales, while I speak with the Rumanian barkeep, who tells me of his experiences as a teenager in the Romanian Revolution of 1989: ‘I recall seeing people shot to shreds, and how loud war is, especially for a 13 year old kid.’ Meanwhile I also devote time to a couple of large glasses of the rich and malt-driven bock from Brauerei Neder in Forchheim.
I was away for eight days, starting my beer journey in Prague and finally arriving in Brussels for four nights (after a 10-hour coach journey from Nuremberg). The aim of the trip was not just to see friends, research a couple of articles and drink beers, but also to understand and articulate the experience of drinking three separate countries’ beers one after the other and aim to achieve an insight into their respective cultures, without the time lags of three different visits.
I wanted immediacy and intimacy with these beers and that I think I achieved as I noticed how I adapted from the clean, bittersweet pivos of Prague to the hefty, malt-flecked beers in Nuremberg and finally to the earthiness of a Brett-tinged Orval that was the first beer I drank when I arrived (and the last on the morning I left).
This was a journey of exploration, a research trip, a pilgrimage even, that helped me understand these three separate beer cultures and also an example of how beer still lures me into its welcoming arms. Sure you can order beers from these three different countries and drink them at home or try them in a beer festival, but in order to understand a beer culture you have to travel and drink the beers in pubs and bars where locals gather. It is only then you will get a glimpse of the meaning of beer.