I drink no cider,
but feast on
in a letter to his wife Abigail
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You have undoubtedly noticed that there hasn't been much to notice around here lately. The thing is, I've been busy. I'd apologize, except that I've been busy, y'know?
That's a good thing, trust me. Should I get non-busy enough, I'd have little choice but to resort to visiting you people, one at a time, hang out 'til I've finished all your beer and then move on. Granted, I'm great fun to have around, kind and gentle and the sort of sweet soul who will withhold his opinions rather than offend, but the dogs, I gotta tell you, smell. A lot.
Anyway, let's see what we can do here. Would you settle for this?
We went to the Czech Republic. Ah, I thought not.
We drank beer.
It was good.
Okay, we'll give it a shot. But I won't have time for my usual long, rambling, more-than-you-want-to-know report with incriminating pictures of people you don't know....Stop that wild applause! It's rude!
The eight-hour flight was relatively easy, although there was a brief and somewhat fierce tossing about which occurred roughly an hour into the flight, somewhere off Greenland I'd imagine, which brought on a Flight attendants! Take your seats! Right now! message from the captain.
That four to five minute stretch had most everyone looking about the cabin nervously, but once I'd determined that the panicked look in the eyes of the young woman across the aisle was more Oh my God, I'm going to die! than I think I'd like to have sex one last time, I concentrated my efforts, successfully, into not allowing the full glass of red wine I was holding spill all over me, a not insignificant achievement given that I could neither put it down or bring it up to my lips, given the bouncing and rolling of the plane.
Oh, I suppose I could report on how "the lovely and talented Sheryl Barto" (© 2003, Liquid Diet Online) asked to sleep with me, but that seems ungentlemanly in the extreme, although I will acknowledge that my response was an unequivocal Yes.
Oh, all right. All she wanted was to lie down on the empty seats beside me, but the story seems much more interesting if I tell it my way, dunnit? I mean, I gotta have some fun here.
I, of course, remained awake through the night, since my penchant for immediately falling asleep on planes fails me whenever it's an overnight flight and I know I'll have to stay awake for a full day when I arrive. Ain't that always the way?
Cast of characters.
We were traveling, as I've noted previously, with Distinguished Brands International, the Colorado-based distributor who brings, among other brands, Budvar (Czechvar) to these shores, and visiting the Budvar brewery was the primary purpose of the trip.
Our traveling party consisted of Jeff Coleman, president of DBI; DBI sales reps Kiff Forbush and Terry McSweeney, both of whom appeared in my October 2003 account of a previous DBI trip and have somehow still held onto their careers; DBI's Jillian Blodgett and husband Nate; four representatives from New Age Beverage in Denver (Chuck Northrup, Brian Keller, Melissa Kier & Rick Hunt); Ralph Mauriello, owner of S K I Wholesale Beer Corp. in Brooklyn; the Director of Hockey and Head Coach of the Englewood (Col.) Junior Eagles (this will makes sense eventually), and Ms. Barto and Teri Grove, a friend who was embarking on a multi-week adventure which would take her from the Colorado to the Czech Republic to Los Angeles to Amsterdam to, if I've counted correctly, Tuscany and Umbria at this very moment, plus six, count 'em six, beer writers.
Ah yes, the writers. An evil bunch, all in all, as you might imagine: some local guy named Bryson; Kerry Byrne, out of Boston, who spent the whole trip agonizing over problems with Cold, Hard Football Facts, his new website which was offline the whole time while he seethed; Ron Givens, a New Yorker who beer stories often appear in the New York Daily News; Greg Glaser, who's a regular with Yankee Brew News, All About Beer and other publications; Jim Lundstrom, of the Appleton Post-Crescent, whose "Beer Man" columns are syndicated by Gannet Newspapers, and li'l old me.
Nineteen total, not all of whom were on the plane but explaining what happened is more than can be accomplished here, I'm afraid. Here's an idea: catch me at the bar someday, buy me a beer and just say Melissa did WHAT? and I'll give you the whole story.
Or make one up.
Day One: Budvar.
We landed in Prague around 8 am their time (2 am ours) and hopped on a bus for a two hour ride to Ceske Budejovice where the brewery is located. At this point we met our regular bus driver, whose English was restricted to standing in the aisle each time we boarded, grinning evilly and saying loudly No democrats here. I dictator! and then shouting Seatbelts! Seatbelts! until everyone complied (you don't want to imagine what happened when he found our trash left behind), and our translator, a very nice lady whose technique consisted of telling us the same thing over and over in different ways in consecutive sentences. Once we stopped and bought a case or two of Budvar for the bus, none of that seemed to matter much.
We checked into Hotel Dvorak (I managed to squeeze in a shower in that scheduled ten minute process, having learned on the past DBI trip that there would be an added period of mindless milling about of which I could take advantage) and then drove to the brewery for lunch and a tour.
Since I'm in the process of writing at least two, and maybe more, stories about Budvar as a result of the trip (kinda what the DBI folks hoped would happen), I'll not give away the good stuff here. We did learn that, as of last year, Budvar began producing a Dark Lager, which quickly became a favorite among the writers and that brewmaster Josef Tolar is, shall we say, a very cautious man who is obsessed with the quality of his product. And, oh yeah, it's a very good product. Of all the best known Czech brews that we tried during this whirlwind journey, I'd say it was clearly the best tasting and most interesting (and yes, that includes Pilsner Urquell and further yes, I say that because it's true and not because we were, in a sense, guests of the brewery).
Tolar gave us a tour of his very impressive brewery, during which I, and others, tried to pin him down a bit about when draft Budvar (Czechvar in this country because of the ongoing legal battle with Anheuser-Busch over the use of the Budweiser as a brand) would begin arriving in the U.S. You can read the results of that effort in this Beer Yard news story)
That evening, we had dinner at a place called Maly Pivovar, a (surprise!) Budvar bar, where I was reminded that one of the basic questions about meals in certain parts of the world is what sort of pork do you want with your pork? and where the missing members of our party finally arrived (the ones who weren't on the plane), as did Honza Kocka.
Honza, you will recall, is a Czech I met in Washington, DC in 2002 while attending Michael Jackson's 60th Birthday Party at the famed Brickskeller. Both Givens and I had been in email communication with him and he'd promised to set us up for further beer experiences once we settled in Prague. He told us about his plans for Sunday, our free day of the four we were on the ground and there were smiles all around. You'll find out about that when we get there in this, despite my protests, long and rambling tale.
After dinner we went someplace else, a spot with various rooms and corridors, some settling up front for music and dancing, others in the rear where more drinking ensued. The only thing of note I can recall about this period (we'd been up about 30 hours now, I note in my defense) is that talk during dinner of shots of Absinthe had been mentioned as dinner ended at Maly Pivovar, but were somehow sidetrack by shots instead of Becherovka and Slivovice. That was nice, but still....a promise is a promise.
Promise fulfilled! Here came Kiff across the room, bright, almost luminous green color radiating from the glasses on the tray he carried. I reached out and took one, raised it to my lips...
And here the curtain falls (perhaps the "curtin" as well) on Day One.
Day Two. Lew dances (wait until you learn what he does on Day Three).
On Friday, the morning was devoted to a tour of the Castle of Cesky Krumlov in a town about half an hour from Cesky Budejovice. This involved a strenuous walk up a very long and very steep hill, during which it appeared that we might, well, kill Bryson. I was very worried, of course, not because I love him like a brother but because I was walking behind him and, well, if he went down, he was likely to take me with him.
Once we were up by the castle proper, we were afforded our first really striking views in the Republic, looking down over the old walled city and the new city which grew up around it and the river Vltava on which the city sits. References to the city of Krumlov appear as early as 1253 and if you use the link above to scroll about, you'll see much of what we did...without Bryson panting at your side.
We had lunch at the Gold Hotel, an event which was a bit over the top for our sort, including a martini, two wines, sherry, cognac and, thank the beer gods, Czechvar. Afterwards we were on our own for a few hours, a period which involved finding an internet cafe (203 email messages after I'd been away less than two days, only two of them of any import at all), various pubs, a brief side trip by taxi by the writers to the Eggenberg Brewery and much else lost forever in brain cells damaged by the day's activities (and possibly the previous evening's Absinthe.
In the evening (have you noticed that there is never any time for sleeping in all this?), we had dinner at Hotel Pavlac and then, well, it got confusered (© at some indeterminate time in the past by Carl Pietrantonio, who had nothing better to do ).
When we'd finished eating, the writers, who tended to hang together in a pack, accepted a vague direction by our host, that nice Mr. Coleman, to follow those guys to some place called Palm Beach (likely name, that) where we would all meet up again. But "those guys" instead were off to an Irish pub which, apparently we'd tried to go to the night before but which was closed (I kinda remember Coleman and somebody else pounding on the door). We chatted with "those guys" for a bit, during which Jim Lundstrom, whose real job at the Appleton paper is writing about music and entertainment, learned that one of them was an extra in a forthcoming movie directed by one of the Monty Python guys and that they were headed for a party where one of the directors would be in attendance and, well, abandoned us. the rest of us, having no such useful options, set out to find the rest of the group.
Which we never did. We in fact ended up stumbling into, horror of horrors, a karaoke bar where a large lady immediately grabbed Bryson and hauled him out on to the dance floor (okay, she grabbed me too, but I'm slippery and rapidly snuck away).
Karaoke and Bryson dancing? Not to mention the song YMCA in Czech? The mind reels. Can you even harbor a doubt when I say I don't recall the rest of the night? Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Day Three, Part One: Hockey. You remember hockey, right?
It's Saturday and we're up early on the bus to Prague, where we will settle at Hotel Grand Bohemia, and grand it truly is. Here I could stay for a while, except that we don't actually "settle in;" we drop off our bags since our rooms aren't yet ready and head off for lunch at Resturace & Penzion U Medvidku, a fine place which has, amazingly enough, a Budvar bar. Imagine that.
Then it's off to Pardubice, where the local hockey team is up 2-0 in the National Czech Hockey Championships and we have seats. Honza, by the way, has arranged for us to pick up a case of "the only porter brewed in the Czech Republic" at a local brewery near the arena where the game will be played if we can work it out; that, sadly, never happens.
You all remember hockey, right? White guys on skates? Lots of inept fighting? Scoring at pace below which only soccer ranks? Yeah, that game. This match starts out--how to put this?--so bad that the mind boggles. Guys are missing passes by ten feet or more. Shots on goal? It is to laugh. It's 0-0 at the end of the first period, some of which I actually slept through (get it where you can), and I offer, if need be, to throw myself on the ice late in the third period and create a distraction so one team can score if it appears we are heading for overtime. But the pace picks up, Pardubice scores twice and wins (they would take the championship in a sweep the next night) and I am spared giving up my body.
Highlights: shapely young women in increasingly skimpy outfits keep coming out onto ice in pregame ceremonies and at breaks, but this most interesting progression sadly stops when the ice-cleaning teams, two girls each, in tiny halter tops and tinier shorts, make their appearance (still, this quartet returned at every stoppage of play, so no complaints here). The crowd does the wave and chants PAR-DU-BICE over and over. And when the game ends, several members of the winning team, including the goalie, who has been spectacular, come out and dance for the crowd on the ice, still in their skates, while leading cheers. Most of them sport mohawks, orange hair and other manifestations of the 21st Century which have Coleman muttering to himself, appropriate payback for having sent us off in the darkness the night previous.
We have a fine dinner at a place called, or maybe not, Saverka, a short walk away, where I sit with the aforesaid Coleman and am reminded I have never asked the man a question to which he has not come back with a mind-boggling story to make whatever point he has to make. This night his stories are tales of one-legged hockey moms, crazed hockey parents and other matters best left unrevealed. On my other side is previously mentioned hockey guy Mike Caple, who is along because it turnes out that Coleman, who also coaches junior hockey, has insisted he come, presumably so he'd have someone to talk hockey with. Caple, as nice a person as I've met it some time, has just recently been married, so that was some strong insistence, y'know.
Back in Prague and finally checked in, the best and the brightest and the still awake gather at the hotel bar for beers and decisions. Where shall we go next and what shall we do? Bryson pulls out a map (he, by the way, though we never took advantage of it, was the only one of us to come to Prague with not only a list of good beer spots, but also of bakeries and pastry shops, and I'm not kidding) and allows as how there's a brewpub right around the corner.
With that, the beer writers are on the streets again, heading for....
Day Three, Part Two: Worst. Prostitute. Proposition. Ever.
It's now somewhere between 1 and 2 in the morning. We are lost, in the sense that we can't find the place we've set out to find (we learned the next day that it's closed for renovations) and determined not to retreat to the hotel in shame. The other four guys are about half a block in front of us while Lundstrom and I lag behind. Suddenly a young woman rushes out of the shadows and grabs him, but he breaks free. Now she turns her attention to me.
She grabs me--and by "grabs me" I mean "grabs ME," if you get the picture--presses herself against me and says
Sex! Sex! Two Minutes! Two Minutes!Two minutes? Holy cow, I say to myself. She wants to have a cigarette and talk about it afterwards? Or maybe foreplay?
Okay, I don't think that. Or say that. What I do say, loudly, several times, is Gay! Gay! which I think is damned clever. And it works. Before I can even add the obligatory Not that there's anything wrong with that, she steps back and walks away.
It is then pointed out to me, when I catch up to the others, that she might have had her brother waiting there in the shadows and I could really have been, well, screwed. I shudder and we move on.
Day Three, Part Three: Lew farts.
Eventually we came across Tlusta Koala, which appeared to be a small pub and turned out to be a large one, with a much bigger back room not visible from the street. We went it and sat down and ordered beers. Next to us was a table of four women, on a platform raised about two feet above ours. That elevation and juxtaposition apparently did not serve them well as they were the prime beneficiaries when Bryson, to put this more politely than I did in the headline above, broke wind. Proficiently.
It turned out to be, in my experience at least, the most memorable, I'd have to say unique, "opening line" in barroom history. Who the bloody hell did that? yelped one of the ladies, who turned out to be from England, Scotland and Ireland. And the game was on. Glaser, who was seated closest to the women (and over whose head Lew's salvo had apparently passed harmlessly), soon became engaged in a serious conversation and Givens, whose appearance would lead one to believe he was the most angelic of the bunch, announcing my hearing is bad and I can't understand Scottish from a distance, promptly joined their table.
I didn't participate immediately, having had my quota of strange females for the evening, which was probably wise, because the topic of discussion quickly became international politics, with U.S. policy as the focus. This led to an eruption of sorts when Byrne joined in, the women's less than favorable evaluation of the Bush agenda clashing with his, um, troglodyte political perspectives. Between that and all of them casting the occasional wary glance toward Lew, it was a weird conclusion to a long day.
Day Four: In the hands of Honza.
Sunday morning we--that, is, the writers, and I guess it's about time to let you see us in all our glory, so below please find, left to right, Byrne, Bryson, Glaser, Lundstrom, some guy not smart enough to hold his stomach in when a camera is pointed his way & Givens; photo courtesy of "the lovely and talented Sheryl Barto" (© 2003, Liquid Diet Online)
--joined in the first part of a pre-arranged sightseeing tour of Prague, the Old Town part, then left the group and walked over the historic Charles Bridge to wend our way, with the help of Jiri Klang, Budvar area manager and our invaluable aide and guide during the visit whose name I should have mentioned earlier, to Pivovar U Fleku, the famed brewpub which has been pouring beers for more than 500 years.
Honza was waiting in front, having arranged a special behind-the-scenes tour for us, a good thing indeed, as the quick impression of the public face of U Fleku is that it is now mostly a tourist spot. Honza confirmed that few Czech citizens go there, but attributed that to the prices. Not that I wouldn't visit the place if I were in Prague on my own, understand--and the beer is quite good--but it's nice to be privileged now and then, and that we were.
After a brief introductory presentation--and beer--in a downstairs tasting room, we were given a complete tour. The historic brewhouse dates back to 1900 and the fermenting tanks were still oak until a more modern reconstruction went into place in 1986. This is a beautifully maintained, unique facility and tours are available to the public (for a price); I'd recommend you take one if you're ever in the city.
Our next stop was Pivovarsky Dum ("Home of the Brewer"), a brewpub which opened in 1998, which offers both a light and dark lager (sort of de rigueur in the Czech Republic) and a variety of more adventuresome brews, six of which we tasted. Among the latter, a lager made with, of all things, nettles, was the best (then again, the best soup in Ireland last time I was there was made with thistle). Other options: sour cherry, chili, coffee. banana and wheat). Brewer Jan Suran's basic lager was the best we had during the entire trip, albeit softer and smoother and more in the German style than most Czech lagers. We happily enjoyed that with lunch, along with samplers of the other brews.
Honza then brought out five cases of various Czech beers, five bottles each of roughly 20 different ones for our sampling. Bryson and Byrne abandoned us at some point during all this, I should note, just so you know who was on the case and who wasn't. Among the beers we tried, and I admit to having given up on my notes after a bit, were Ostravar, a strong beer (6% abv) from Staropremen and the strongest beers made in the Republic, Primator Knight's Lager (9% abv) and Double (10% abv), the former much more drinkable than the latter.
We ended with several beers from Pivovar Herold, a 500-year old brewery in Breznice which is currently being managed by American David Porteous, who fortuitously showed up as we were doing so. Herold is now being distributed in the U.S. and I'm planning to write more about them for, y'know, money, so no stories here. We sampled Herold Bohemian Black Lager, Herold Bohemian Wheat Lager and Herold Midnight Wheat, which has, not surprisingly (though you'll have to wait until I write that story to find out why), been featured by Michael Jackson's Rare Beer Club.
Glaser left us at that point, but Givens, Lundstrom and I pressed on with Honza to Kalsterni Pivovar & Restaurace Sv. Norbert, where we were greeted by brewmaster and Martin Matuska and enjoyed what was probably the best dark lager we had during the trip, as well as a sample of his amber lager. Very nice place, this one.
Finally, it was back to the hotel, just in time to catch up with everybody and dinner at Celnice, near the hotel. This was probably our best meal of the trip, After than, and a brief milling around at the hotel, most of us ended our adventure back at Tlusta Koala which, as we should have guessed from its name, turned out to be an "Aussie pub."
Thus endeth these chronicles.
Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
--A. E. Houseman
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