16 March 2011

Cardinal points

Prague has brewpubs all over, and a fantastically simple yet comprehensive barrier-free transport system. Visiting the outliers could hardly be easier.

On the western bank of the Vltava, above even the castle and cathedral and tucked away behind a nondescript streetfront, sits the Norbertine Strahov monastery. It's still very much in the god-bothering business (the order's founder is buried on-site), but presumably on a much smaller scale than hitherto as parts of the complex have been repurposed for other things: there's accommodation, a restaurant and, in one quarter of the courtyard, a brewpub. The indoor barroom is small, with just five tables, encouraging punters to make use of the large and sunny terrace outside.

Three beers are produced all year round, plus one of six seasonals. For March it was Masopustní (picture, right), the Lenten beer. Once you get past the overzealous fizz, there's a wonderful beer here: lots of body and a highly complex blend of bitter flavours incorporating orange pith, herbs and crunchy green veg. If you're going to stick to one beer for seven weeks, this is a definite candidate.

Somewhat less traditionally monastic, there's Sv. Norbert IPA (picture, left), a fantastically fresh-tasting US-style example packed with zingy peaches and mandarins. Only the big bitter punch on the end hints of a more serious side. For al fresco drinking on the terrace I can't think of a better beer to have.

Oddly, there's no pale lager. The nearest is the märzen-a-like Sv. Norbert Amber. Only the extra strength (5.3% ABV) and a bit of Germanic nettle hop flavour distinguishes this from any other average grainy brewpub lager. Sv. Norbert Tmavé is a step up, being a decent and simple dark lager with some lovely sweet coffee notes. I'd hammer through it quite happily, but having reached the end of the menu it was time to pack up the notebook and move to the next one.

Tram 25 goes from near Strahov over to Bulovka in the northern end of town, home to Pivovar u Bulovky and the Richter Brewery within. There's a distinct Germanic feel to the beer range in this tidy, friendly, neighbourhood pub. Richter Weissbier, for instance, hasn't just been hobbled together because the brewer reckoned they needed one. This has clearly been designed and crafted by someone who likes weissbier and wouldn't be content with a less-than-excellent one. As such, it's a lot like Schneider-Weisse: dark red-brown with a perfect balance of bubblegum and clove, plus some extra hoppy green complexities. There's also a Weizenbock: a powerful vinous flat black beer which leaves the drinker in no doubt of its alcoholic clout. Dark fruit -- grapes, black cherry and blackcurrant in particular -- plus caramel and a not unwelcome smack of heady marker pen phenols. You wouldn't drink a lot of it, but a little goes a long way.

And for the less adventurous locals there's Richter Ležak: the opaque orange colour of many an unfiltered pale lager and more of those green vegetables from the weiss. It tastes of squeaky leeks to me. Not a bad thing in a beer, to be honest. The inevitable Richter Tmava has a slightly fusty aroma and an interesting mix of chocolate and lavender in the flavour: Turkish delight as beer.

I liked U Bulovky a lot. It surprised me with some interesting and quite iconoclastic takes on beer styles I thought I knew. Time to move on, though.

Representing the southern end of the tour is Pivovar U Bansethu, a short walk from Zlý Časy and worth dropping in to when you're in the area. It was brewday on our visit, and the small narrow premises was thick with malt smells, like you could get a full day's nutrition on just a lungful. Just two beers were on and we ordered one of each, noting without looking the moment the brewer threw the first hops into the boil as the atmosphere changed from cookies and sweet porridge to grapefruit and cut grass. Basta Světlé is a remarkably bitter unfiltered lager, weighty and with that rough waxy flavour I've encountered in a few Czech microbrews. Nothing darker than Basta Polotmavé was on, a red-amber lager tasting lightly and pleasantly of milky toffee, finishing with a nice herbal complexity. Workmanlike is how I'd describe U Bansethu's beers, though it could well be that I caught them on one of their less interesting days, drinkwise, if not smellwise anyway.

And that brings us back to the heart of the city. There are several brewpubs I could pick for the eastern point, but two will have to suffi