Czech Republic


There are few things that make opening your most prized bottle of beer more inevitable than carrying forty pounds of cat food/litter nearly a mile–after a long day of data entry.  So, after quickly catching my breath, taking off my coat, and putting some chickpeas in the pressure cooker, I reached deep into my refrigerator to unearth my bottle of New Glarus Bohemian Lager.

Yes, in a fridge that contains a bottle of the Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA and a Founders Breakfast Stout, I chose a Bohemian Lager.  Not a oak-aged imperial barleywine, or a weiss beer brewed with grains of paradise, saffron and dry-hopped with amarillo hops, or even a 2002 vintage of some high-gravity Belgian nonsense that you can’t even buy in the states; instead, I was saving a single bottle of a simple, Czech style lager, brewed in the traditional style of the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Granted, this beer is part of New Glarus’ coveted “Unplugged” series of beers, which, according to the label, is “a very limited edition and we make no promises to ever brew this style again.”  So, considering my love for Czech pilsners, New Glarus beer, and the fact that this beer would most likely only be brewed once, I delayed the inevitable for months before finally succumbing this evening.

As for the beer itself, the brisk (but not effervescent) carbonation, the billowy head of foam (great retention, by the way), and the nose provided all you’d ever expect from this style.  The beer itself is not as crystal clear as most Czech lagers, but this may have been a result of the beer having been lagered in unlined oak casks (a rarity in modern brewing, even in Central Europe).  I do mot mean to be dramatic or overly hyperbolic, but as for the taste, it instantly reminded me of this scene:

More specifically, the malt character was excellent: very bready and light (think baguette, not pumpernickel).  It tasted, actually, like barley, which was refreshing and familiar.  As Czech lagers go, its closer to the more roundly balanced, almost amber-colored Budvar (aka Czechvar in the U.S., tragically) than the classic, sharp Urquell.  The difference is subtle, but impressive, and this beer nailed it.  The piney and peppery Saaz hops are there, but they’re neither screaming, nor cowering; they are, in fact, announcing themselves courteously.  Unlike the vast majority of American craft-brewers–who often can’t resist to cascade-ify their versions, making them too hoppy, like a lagered pale ale–Dan Carey, New Glarus’ brewmaster, has created a beer that is understated to a fault. Vyborne!

As I’ve written previously, brewing a traditional czech pilsner in the United States is a risky endeavor.  The extreme beer types will be unimpressed by the lack of innovation, and the newly converted former bud light drinkers will have difficulties teasing out the complex subtleties of a beer like this.  Strangely, it’s a style without an audience.  In 1915, this beer would have flown off the shelves, but in a time after prohibition and the resulting abundance of mass-produced “pilsners”, the style has been, more than any other, left behind.  That is why I’m savoring this beer so much, as the odds of it making a repeat appearance anytime soon are slim.

Where (some of) the magic happens.  The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin.  As their bottle-caps proclaim: Drink Indigenous!

Where (some of) the magic happens. The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin. As their bottle-caps proclaim: "Drink Indigenous!"

As the beer itself is already long-gone, and difficult to come by, I’m not going to even bother grading it in my quest to find the best U.S. brewed pilsner.  Pislners are inherently available, easy drinking beers.  The kind you drink when you’re more interested in your conversation than getting drunk.  So, the NG Bohemian Lager, a beer that’s both expensive and hard to come by will have to be excluded on a technicality.  While I seriously doubt that I’ll find a better tasting pilsner or one that tugs so strongly at my memories, it fails in the proletarian sense.  Whichever pilsner is crowned champion, it will have to be one that (in the region where it’s brewed and distributed) it’s always around, and at decent price.

Sorry, Dan and Deb.  Let’s all hope the fine people of Wisconsin start demanding this beer again, and you can get it into your regular rotation.  Na Zdravi!

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Somewhere along the Williamsburg Bridge. I have no recollection of taking this photograph.

Now that the weather has begun to turn, and the longest winter in recent memory is receding in the rear-view, I’ve begun walking places again.  I’ve resumed my semi-regular walk home from work: a constantly evolving, jagged path through the fire-escape-gilded Lower East Side and the pungent lanes of Chinatown. Aside from the sidelines–Broadway to the west, and the Co-op (balcony-clad) and NYCHA (balcony-less) towers to the east–no street is safe.  Anything in between is in-bounds.

A couple weekends ago, I offered to bring a case of Brooklyn IPA to an afternoon of watching baseball in the vicinity of Gramercy Park.  Ordinarily, the trek to the Brooklyn Brewery involves the L-Train, but I decided to walk instead.  Having never walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, I headed straight down Avenue D (and then Columbia, as I crossed Houston). After I realized that I couldn’t access the bridge at Columbia and Delancey, but before I started to backtrack west, I ran into something that reminded me of Iowa: Masaryk Towers.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948.

Masaryk Towers: Named in rememberance of the Third Defenestration of Prague in 1948. (It's private, not public housing: notice the balconys!)

Masaryk Towers, according to New York Songlines (a spectacular site for DIY walking tours of Manhattan), was a 1967 Mitchell-Lama co-op development, sponsored by SOKOL (A Czech organization similar to the German Turner’s Society).  As I suspected at the time, this development was named after Masaryk the younger, Jan Masaryk, who while acting as Foerign Minister, was (though there is some speculation of suicide) thrown out of his bathroom window in 1948 by Soviet-sympathizers.  This defenestration, was actually the third in Prague’s history, thereby emblazoning this unfortunate event as the “Third Defenestration of Prague.”

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

Tomas Masaryk, first President of Czechosolvakia, and father of the victim of the Third Defenestration of Prague.

I spent the fall of my third year at Grinnell in the Czech Republic, and during my senior year I studied Jan’s father’s personal and literary relationship with Karel Capek, for whom this blog is named.  Tomas G. Masaryk, a philosophy professor turned politician, led the exiled Czechoslovak army (literally) around the world during the First World War.  After the War he became the country’s first president, and was a strong crusader for small nations during the inter-war years.  Masaryk’s story and his writings are fascinating, and I would recommend “The World Revolution” (translated meekly in English as “The Making of a State”) to anyone with an interest in European history.

Back in New York, I rounded the corner of Columbia and Delancey, and headed west until I hit the bridge.   Of the three East River bridges I’ve crossed, the Williamsburg Bridge may be the most visually interesting.  And, like the elegant Brooklyn Bridge, it is most striking in that it reflects the character of the neighborhood you’re traveling to (that is, if you’re coming from Manhattan).

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All gray steel and rivets, save the red stripe elevating pedestrians and cyclists above the roadway, the bridge is mesmerizing and beautiful and repetitive, while at the same time transparently functional.  Nothing is showy; there is no artistic stonework; and the girders themselves are straight and simple, unlike the curved and stylized metalwork of the Manhattan Bridge.

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As the cables between the towers began to rise in front of me, and as the slope of the bridge began to tilt Brooklyn-ward, I was reminded that my comparison between the bridge and Williamsburg itself was fragile and tenuous.  On the south side of the bridge, uninteresting condominium towers jutted upward from what was once a completely industrial area, and much of the industrial buildings that have been left standing have long since become residential.

I like Williamsburg, and I like to an extent what it has become, but after two years studying cities and Urban Planning, there is one constant despite the chaos and diversity of American cities that is nearly universal.  Once manufacturing areas are rezoned and turned to residential, they never go back.  Jobs may be lost for residences, but residences are never lost for jobs.  And in a society that requires vapid consumption just to survive economically (as we’ve seen recently with the demise of Circut City, Chrysler, and, (*gasp*) even the strategic shrinking of Starbucks), the permanent loss of manufacturing and industrial infrastructure in favor of residential development in communities like Williamsburg, Willets Point and Red Hook is a historic act whose reprocussions will be far reaching, and, most likely, irreversible.

These were the sorts of thoughts in my head as I got off the bridge and walked north on Berry towards the Brooklyn Brewery.  But to finish my story, I made it to the Brewery, had a Blast! (the beer) while reading Lush Life (Richard Price’s most recent novel), and trudged back to Manhattan and up First Avenue to my destination: this time with a case of beer in hand.  Thankfully for my back and my arms, I took the L-Train.

The moral of the story: Good beer tastes even better under the following conditions:

  • it cost only $25 for a case,
  • you drink it in good company, watching a good baseball game, and
  • you just walked 4 miles to retrieve it

CHEERS!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

Around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery: Silly, I know, but really well done!

In honor of my recent move to New York City, and in order to keep up with a quest that has been AWOL for more than six months, I have decided to preemptively announce the next Pilsner in my quest for a good, Czech-style lager in the United States.  That beer will be the Prima Pils, brewed by Victory Brewing Company from Downington, Pennsylvania.  Technically, we’re talking about a German Style Pils; but given the American micro-brewer’s tendency to go over the top, I’m assuming that Victory’s German Pils will come off more aggressively hopped, and, therefore, more Czech.  

This post will accomplish two primary objectives.  (1) It will motivate me to continue updating this blog; and (2) it will force me to update this entry, post-tasting, within the next couple of days.  Just call it a contractual agreement between my tastebuds and my brain–the latter of the two being in the arena that could use the extra motivation.

I think I’ll be heading to the irredemably frat-ish (but well-stocked) East Village Tavern after work today, to see if they’ve got the Prima Pils on tap… so stay tuned!

Although the original aim of this quest was to find an excellent, American-made, Czech-style Pilsner, I am prone to enjoying Czech beers that I am able to find in America–especially when that beer is particularly rare. When I went to Discount Liquor to pick up yet another $100 dollars worth of assorted booze, I noticed a Czech beer that I hadn’t seen before, even when I was in Europe: Zatec. (The “Z” has a reverse “^” on top, resulting in a “zh” sound; and the czech “c” is pronounced “ts” as in “tsar”. Thus the beer is pronounced “ZHA-tets”.)

At $2.69 for a 0.5 liter bottle, the price was reasonable, but high enough to respect. The bottle is sleek, with a classic blue, red and white label. The bottle cites the beer as being “since 1004”. This is hard to believe, as the brewery itself dates to 1801, and the beer itself from 1261 according to the brewery’s website. What happened in 1004, then? I’m not sure…but perhaps it marks the incorporation of the city of Zatec?Zatec

First of all, this beer (like all good Czech pilsners) presents itself magnificently! The color is a beautiful light amber, with perfect clarity, brisk and even carbonation, and a persistent, white fluffy head. The nose itself was simple: bready, with just a trace of hops. And the taste: like a quality pilsner should. Bready, with a sturdy hop spiciness throughout. The finish is clean, with a slight cidery (perhaps?) flavor. All in all, a very drinkable Czech pilsner, much like the beers I used to enjoy at the Submarine Bar (Ponorka) in Olomouc.

That said, the beer did little to separate itself from the pack. A quality pilsner, but probably not worth nearly $5.50 per liter. While you’re drinking a fine beer, the slightly high price comes more from its rarity that from its quality (as far as I can tell). A good Czech Pilsner, but not the best I’ve had.

Not the perfect pilsener.

Despite my Milwaukee patriotism regarding all things boozy, I cannot quite endorse the so-called Blatz “Pilsner”, left. However, it is a pretty cute bottle, as well as an apt reminder of the unfair struggles Pilsners have had in asserting themselves on the American craft beer landscape over the last decade or so.

As anyone familiar with American brewing history can tell you, Pilsners are the ugly step-children of the craft brewing world. This distinction has little, in fact, to do with either taste, refinement, or brewing sophistication. It is a product of the popularity of mass market, massive-batch, low-quality beers that were–and unfortunately continue to be–the staple of the American Beer scene since Prohibition. Brewers such as Miller, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, and Gettelmann and Braumeister (to a lesser extent) in Milwaukee, as well as other nationally distributed brewers such as Anheiser-Busch in St. Louis, rode the popular wave of lagering that had struck the nation in the wake of German immigration, and latched onto Fordist mass-production techniques to produce what has now become the “American Pilsner”: a flavorless, over-carbonated, urine-colored, bland lager that priced smaller breweries around the country out of business. This “Pilsner” deservedly ruined America’s brewing reputation in Europe.

With the rise of microbrewers in the late 80s and through the 90s, Beers (certain beers, that is) got better. And as Americans were becoming accustomed to bizarre and foreign elements in their beers: such as taste, texture, and quality, the noble pilsner (one of the best and most challenging lagers in the European brewing tradition was left in the dust.

I don’t blame American microbreweries for ignoring the Pils. Everything in their experience had equated Pilsners with all that was wrong with American brewing for decades: bad taste, mass-marketing, and the like. However, while this admission is historically admissible, the Pilsner is a distinct and highly-drinkable, excellent lager that deserves a resurrection. Let me explain…

The Czech Republic (second only to the Belgians in brewing prowess; apologies Germany and England!), a small land-locked nation of just over 10 million people has been quietly brewing the best Pilsners in the world since the style was invented in the mid 19th Century. The country far outpaces the rest of the world in beer consumption, (yes, Ireland, including you!) and their pubs are as numerous as their vacant renaissance churches: the nation is nearly 40% atheist. And, they invented the Pilsner.

“Pilsner Urqell”, the first Pilsner in the world was named from the town in which it has been brewed for over 150 years: Plzen, a city in Western Bohemia. The beer was famous for its impressive lightness of color and clarity, as well as its distinctive crispness (the two principal characteristics of the Pilsner). These qualities were the process of a revolution in lagering that led to the absolute clarity of the Pilsner, as well as specialized Czech Hop varieties and an the hardness of the drinking water in Plzen.

I lived in the Czech Republic in the Fall of 2004, as part of a study abroad program in Central European Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, a college-town in North Moravia: three hours by train from Prague. From the first week in was in Olomouc, I fell head over heels for Czech pub culture, and especially Czech Pilsners. When I was there, I was drinking before class, between classes, after classes, and late at night (just like the rest of the people there), and yet, I never got all that drunk. The drinking habits there are so ingrained in social behavior, that drunkenness never finds a foothold. People are always drinking, but always slowly, and always as a companion to the task at hand: conversation.

As y’all can no doubt imagine, when I got back to the States, I was blind-sided by a number of things. (1) The high price of bad beer; a half liter of Czech Pils was between 40 and 60 cents in any pub, compared to the 3.00 bottle of Miller Lite in the states. (2) The emphasis of drunkenness over conversation and camaraderie. And (3) the lack of acceptability of drinking socially at 11:00 in the morning. After a month or so of stocking my dorm fridge with after-lunch microbrews, my pocketbook began to suffer, and I gradually weaned myself off of the glorious ritual.

Nevertheless, as my drinking habits gradually changes to mirror those of my fellow Americans, my taste for Czech Pilsner never faltered. Unfortunately, the imported Czech Pilsners that are available in the States, while great, are not nearly as fresh as they are in Europe, and the quality of American microbrew pilsners has yet to impress me to any great extent. Therefore, I am embarking on a quest: the quest to find a good, affordable Pilsner in the United States.

I’m embarking on this quest with a great deal of skepticism, but like any quest worth believing in, its at least worth my best shot. In the coming months (and probably years) I’ll be reviewing the Pilsners I’ve found, and posting the results on this site. Stay tuned, and wish me luck.

Coming soon: Zatec (Imported Czech “Bright Lager”).

Karel ČapekIn a 1925 essay titled Let’s Be Revolutionary (Bud’me revolucni in Czech), Karel Čapek wrote:

The word “evolution” seems, if I may say so, to imply very long periods of time, and amounts to procrastination. It may be true that a man must evolve from a child or an executive from a clerk, but this is only because the process takes so long. When a man wakes up in his bed in the morning, we don’t say that he has evolved from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness; its a sudden change, and if you’re hard to wake up, even a violent upheaval. A hungry man doesn’t become a satiated man through a slow evolutionary process but as the result of a revolutionary act: eating his fill in a hurry. Sleep is not an evolutionary stage of wakefulness; going to sleep is almost like a jump into darkness. A young man who has fallen in love hasn’t evolved through countless leisurely changes from an imperfect creature into a perfect fool; rather, he goes through a sudden precipitous revolution which rocks his very being with passion…A thought doesn’t usually evolve slowly; it jumps at you like a spry flea. From morning to night, life is more a series of small revolutions than a smooth evolution.

But what modern physics is doing to us is even worse. It turns out that all activity in matter is just a lot of small revolutions. Some electron suddenly hops like a crazy man into another orbit; all material processes are supposed to internal, so to speak, communal revolutions in atoms. Everything that happens takes the form of a constant jumping back and forth from one state to another. Matter has neither gentle continuity nor smooth transitions, but only jumps; its really quite terrifying. The ink from my pen dries by means of violent and precipitous events taking place in its black interior. A hundred thousand atoms carry out a homemade revolt so that one letter can dry. The ink itself, however, dries and blackens slowly; I would say that it evolves.

And precisely here we see the strange and profound thing about nature: electrons may prance about, but an inkwell isn’t going to prance about a desk. The atom is terribly revolutionary, but the mass is basically peaceful. The last individual atom undergoes a violent transformation, but matter changes slowly. Human life during a day is a series of revolutions; during a year it is a small piece of evolution. But if we have to change the world, let’s at least be revolutionary like atoms; let’s each of us take a step forward by himself. The world won’t take a step forward; the world is broad and peaceful, like matter. We need millions of individuals to accomplish revolutions in themselves, so that people as a whole can evolve. We need every individual to do what he can do best; then mankind will change a bit too, at its endless leisure, of course. The natural order of things dictates not one revolution, but making a million revolutions. This is the only morality flowing from the revolutionary order of nature.

This quote is by no means a manifesto, a raison d’etre (pretentious phrase or pretentious beer) for this blog. It is more of an example of the type of passage I like: laced with awkward historical phrases, full of contentious concepts, rife with inconsistencies, yet containing a few glistening shards of truth. That said, this passage has been one of my favorites for a few years now, primarily for its fundamental argument–that no act is too small to be significant, that every act has the potential to be, in a sense, revolutionary, and that millions of revolutions on multiple geographic scales (atomic, self, neighbor, street, block, neighborhood, city, state, etc.) are necessary to achieve real change. Change comes from neither the “top, down” or from the “bottom, up.” It comes from all directions simultaneously.

That’s what I’ve been thinking, and I think that its about time that I started writing some of these things down…