12 January 2011

Bring a torch

Bratislava is a city for explorers. Not that there's a whole lot to see in it -- the Pharmacy Museum is about as exciting as it gets -- but the Bratislavans like you to put a bit of effort in to get to the pub. Not for them placing a door on the street through which the bar may be entered. Oh no, they'd much rather you followed a sign down an entryway, then up some stairs, along a corridor (the twistier the better), ideally down some more stairs, and eventually through an unmarked door you'll find yourself in a multi-room tavern wondering where the best seats are. Sometimes several different pubs will be located in different parts of the same rambling building. It's endearing, but it takes a bit of getting used to.

And then someone has to take it to the extreme. The grandly-titled Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, once you're off the street and through the red curtain, has its entry passage decorated as though it were a street, lined with tables and a miniature pub-within-the-pub. It culminates in a grand staircase leading up to a vast auditorium with a stage at one end, tables both on the lower floor and the galleries, and a bar in the orchestra pit. There's also what looks to be a brewkit, stage left. The menu speaks cryptically of "house beers" but says no more on styles, provenance or availability. Instead, the big draw for me here was Zlatý Bažant 10°, served in the traditional tankova fashion. Zlatý Bažant is brewed by Heineken Slovakia and is ubiquitous in Bratislava, usually in the 12° keg version. Tankova is naturally conditioned, served without extraneous gas and, crucially, is unpasteurised. The Flagship and its sister pub around the corner were the only places I saw Zlatý Bažant advertised as served this way. The resulting beer isn't spectacular but it does add an extra dimension of hop flavour to an otherwise rather dull lager.

The Zlatý Bažant stable also includes a dark version: Zlatý Bažant Tmavé. This, as you might expect, is smooth and sweet. In fact it borders on the saccharine but pulls it back with some lovely dry roast notes and burnt caramel. Very drinkable overall. And for a limited time only (said the ads) there was Zlatý Bažant Bock. Leaning towards the Dutch style of bokbier, this is 6.3% ABV, dark ruby and very sticky. Under the cream-coloured head there's a beer brimming with coffee and molasses, and while it's rich in sugar it's not sickly, lifted by a lively carbonation and complicated by green crunchy vegetable hop notes: celery and spring onions.

I hadn't been expecting much at all from the Zlatý Bažant franchise but I was pleased by what I found.

The other ubiquitous Heineken brand I saw around the place was Kelt (not to be confused with A-B InBev's former Prague-brewed stout of the same name). Kelt 10° was the standard pale lager, rather bland but perfectly drinkable. It's certainly nowhere near as impressive as the keg font: a massive broadsword sunk into the bar counter. Yes I know it's not meant to impress anyone with a mental age over ten but I thought it was kitschily wonderful.

I bought a variety of bottles in the vast Tesco just outside the old town. I was really in looking for tokaj (a dispute with the Hungarians makes Slovakian tokaj hard to come by outside its homeland) but couldn't resist grabbing a few random interesting beer bottles from the shelves. Urpiner Tmavý, in its 33cl bottle, was one that jumped out at me. Just under 5% ABV (11° Plato, to use the local convention) and a deep ruby red, this is quite a light and dry dark beer with quite high carbonation adding to the dryness and nothing more sugary than a touch of liquorice. Palatín was much more typical: dark brown and lightly fizzy with lots of caramel and coffee, perhaps even a hint of marzipan as well. Of all the roasted-yet-sweet dark beers I had on this trip, this one balanced the elements best.
Mrs Beer Nut's pick of the bunch, however, was Topvar Tmavé. I liked it too. It starts fairly typically with the caramel and molasses flavours and then the stouty roasted grains follow in after. It's filling and warming and just what you need when it's -5°C on a January day in Bratislava.

Because no divorce -- however velvet -- is ever final, there's plenty of Czech beer to be had in Slovakia. Pilsner Urquell is probably the second most common beer brand after Zlatý Bažant and is even available in tankova form some places (I recommend The Beer Palace; great food too). Topvar, though Slovakian, is an SABMiller stablemate, as is Gambrinus which often appears as a budget option in Pilsner Urquell-branded pubs. In Bratislava, by the way, the budget option means paying 99c for your pint rather than the full whack of about €1.30. Gambrinus 10° is harmless stuff: light and refreshing with just a hint of golden syrup, though tasting overall like diluted water when it follows a couple of Urquells. Bernard 10° is another pale light lager along similar lines with a lovely bitterness to it.

As far as dark Czech beer goes, Tatranský Zámok Dark was the only one I picked up, in the supermarket again. My glass here adds to the way it already looks like red wine. It tastes lighter than 4.8% ABV might suggest and cuts right back on the sweetness to make something drier, almost crisp. The only other Czech beer of colour I came across was in a bar. Velvet is a nitrogenated amber beer brewed by A-B InBev at the Staropramen plant. You might expect it to be in the smoothflow bitter/Irish red category, and the brewery does claim an English heritage for it, but on tasting it's much closer to a cold-fermented lager. Sweet, yes, but quite clean tasting and really not all that bad despite the blandness. Not that I'd be up for drinking it again or anything.

When I saw Budvar Bud in Tesco I knew I had to find out more about it. Extensions to the Budvar brand are pretty rare around here, and a 7.6% ABV tramp-strength version? Bring it on! Surprisingly, adding 50% extra alcohol doesn't change the beer all that much: it still displays Budvar's signature herbs and golden syrup, but with just more of them: a little extra pungency from the hops, a little bit more stickiness from the malt and some extra booze heat. While the beer isn't off-balance, though it comes close, I don't see why you'd want a 33cl bottle of this over a half-litre of Budvar. It's just not as enjoyable to drink.

I mentioned above about Bratislava's convoluted approach to pub entrances. There are exceptions, of course. When two Belgian ex-pats decided to open a Belgian theme bar they wanted an authentic front window with tables just inside and a zinc bar. And that's just what they've created with Café De Zwaan in the heart of the old town. For confused Slovaks, a narrow corridor runs up the side of the bar into a larger back room. The beer list is better than I thought: heavily influenced by A-B InBev but including a few hand-picked niceties. No fewer than five Christmas beers were on offer, including Bush de Noël. It's an uncomplicated chestnut-coloured beer, with loads of alcohol being its primary characteristic -- 12% ABV and feeling every bit of it. This is built on a heavy, rather syrupy base and has just a sprinkling of seasonal spices added to it. I quite liked it, but one bottle was plenty.

Feeling that I'd given the beers and bars of Bratislava a fair shake, it was time to head home, but not before one last run around Vienna.