Bohemian Rhapsody in brew
Forget Bavaria's over-hyped Oktoberfest - the eastern Czech Republic is the best location for an autumnal beer-hopping trip
Last Saturday afternoon began with a sip, a pair of raised eyebrows, a slight frown and a concession. I'd met Erik, a student from Pilsen, in the queue for the bar at the Sun in the Glass festival. He'd been intending to buy a lager. I was trying to persuade him to try an ale. An extremely hoppy IPA to be exact. His face revealed a hint of shock as he took a swig of the citrus-bitter brew. Then, the verdict. "It is different. I quite like it, I think."
While the beer-drinking world was travelling to Munich to put on silly hats and celebrate the first day of the misleadingly titled Oktoberfest, I had made my way to another of the world's beer capitals – Pilsen. You may never have been there, but the name will resonate with those who prefer their beer yellow and bubbly. Back in 1842, brewer Josef Groll put the town on the map when he discovered for the first time a way of brewing clear, pale, crisp lagers. The beer took the name of its birthplace, and to British drinkers Pilsner became the drink to accompany barbecues in the sunshine.
But if Oktoberfest is about lager drunk from arm-breakingly heavy stein glasses, Pilsen's newest and most exciting beer festival is about something quite different. Namely ales and other craft beers, served from tiny jam-jar-like beer mugs. So much easier to lift for those of us who don't often frequent a gym.
Sun in the Glass takes place every September in the courtyard of the Purkmistr brewpub in Cernice, an otherwise unremarkable suburb of Pilsen. For someone with a habit of ordering the most unusual beers I can find – not always an approach conducive to a good drinking experience – the festival is pure heaven.
It's a gathering of the country's most innovative small brewers. As the craft brewing scene has exploded in Britain in recent years, so too has it in the Czech Republic. When communism fell in 1989, there was just one craft brewer in a country dominated by state-owned producers whose remit was to make cheap lager for the masses. Now there are around 150.
Forty-four were present at the festival, offering more than 150 different brews. The Czechs are now brewing mad, bad and dangerously tasty beers: from coffee lagers to cherry-flavoured porters, and from stouts to Czech interpretations of smoky German rauchbiers, not forgetting heavily hopped American-style IPAs. Stalls constructed from scaffolding sagged from the weight of bottles and beer pumps.
Hence the teeny-weeny cups – the experimentalist's glassware of choice. Armed with one of these, you can try a drop of as many brews as your taste buds can take. In Erik's case, that turned out to be just the one, before a swift reversal back to the more familiar golden lagers. He tapped me on the shoulder later, holding up a glass of lager and told me: "This is better." At least he tried.
Though attendance at the festival is dominated by young people, there are older men here, too, beer-drinker clichés with fantastically cultivated beards and spherical stomachs. But they, too, chose to sup from the jam-jar glasses while Britney Spears and heavy metal songs rattled through the courtyard from a tinny radio.
I tried as many as I could handle, but beer of the day for me went to Sumec, a brew from one of the most innovative brewers of Czech's new wave, Kocour. It gives you a flash of grapefruit, before a mouth-filling dollop of marmalade and a lingering dryness, like ginger biscuits. Then it was my turn to raise my eyebrows – and head for bed at the brewpub's adjoining hotel.
Purkmistr's rooms, though basic, are a cut above much of the standard accommodation available, where old-fashioned décor suggests a stay at grandma's house. The rooms are modern, with free Wi-Fi, marble sinks, dark-wood furniture and the little luxuries you shouldn't take for granted when staying in the Czech Republic, such as bedside alarms.
Pilsen and the festival comprised the final stops on my Czech beer tour. My journey through the Czech menu of beer had begun, as most tourist visits to the country do, in Prague. If you're here in search of traditional Czech lager, seeking it out will take you off the route most travelled by visitors. But Prague remains – by virtue of its excellent transport links– an obvious place to start. Well-known brewpubs include Pivovarsky Dum in the heart of the new town. The brewing equipment dominates the bar's interior, and you can sample beers of unusual flavours including sour-cherry and nettle. But there's too much to see outside the city to stay put.
I took a 30-minute bus ride from the city to the village of Velke Popovice. Cycle routes criss-cross the 14th-century village, with its mill ponds and medieval houses – but it's also home to the country's third-largest brewery. You smell it before you see it, the sweet, toast-like scent of a fresh brew.
Housed in the original 1874 building, the brewery is picturesque, too. Kozel, meaning goat, is brewed here. (It's a 4 per cent lager you could most kindly describe as having mass market appeal.) Local operators combine the tour with an excursion to the 14th-century Konopiste château, formerly owned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination triggered the outbreak of the First World War.
As with many brewery tours, visitors pass through the brew house with its gleaming copper kettles, watch a film that explains the brewing process, and then pass an interactive display detailing the brewery's history. Unlike most tours, you'll also stop off to see a goat. The brewery keeps two: one inside the grounds by the bottling plant, another near the roadside to appease passing Kozel fans.
Later, I headed 80 miles south from Prague (via a two-hour bus ride) to South Bohemia's regional capital, Ceske Budejovice, whose German name is "Budweis". This is home to the Czech beer known as Budvar Budweiser – no relation to the mass-produced fizz produced with the same name in the US.
The brewery is still state-owned, and it still makes lager in the traditional way, in which the beer is aged for 90 days.
Here, I tried the unpasteurised and unfiltered version – a nuttier, smoother sup, which you can buy from the Masne Kramy beer hall just off Ceske Budejovice's main square. Beer is poured straight from the tank at what was once a 14th-century meat market and is now a swanky bar.
At Masne Kramy, I was offered delicacies such as duck liver in fat and blue cheese on toast with chilli. But Petr, my guide from Budvar, was not eating. With a straight face, he said: "When you have too much food, you are not able to drink afterwards."
South Bohemia is the preferred holiday destination for residents of the Czech Republic, its landscape punctuated by lakes, castles and forests. Ceske Budejovice itself is a mix of gothic, fairy-tale architecture – including a fine square, lined with medieval colonnaded townhouses, most of which are now bars – and the butch utilitarianism of the Soviet era.
About 18 miles down the road is Cesky Krumlov, a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains towering castle fortifications and hodgepodge houses carved from childhood bedtime stories.
The 85-mile rail journey to Pilsen from here takes two hours, spent aboard a hulking Soviet-era train complete with old-fashioned compartments. Pilsen itself is an ancient city, with some staggeringly beautiful buildings: the town-hall façade looks as if it has been spun from lace.
Its selection as 2015 European Capital of Culture will almost certainly provide visitors with even more reasons to visit, but the primary lure will probably always be the Pilsner Urquell brewery – a sprawling city within a city, with miles of 150 year-old dank cellars cut from the bedrock, and the biggest beer hall in Bohemia, seating 550 people. It's a heady mix of the quaintly old fashioned and really, really great beer. Much like the Czech Republic itself.
Travel essentials: Czech Republic
* British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Wizzair (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) all fly from the UK to Prague.
* If you want to begin your journey in Ceske Budejovice and work your way back up to Prague, the nearest international airport is Linz, across the border in Austria, served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
* Trains and buses run between Prague, Ceske Budejovice and Pilsen. See idos.cz for times. Student Agency (00 420 841 101 101; studentagency.eu) runs an hourly bus service between Pilsen and Prague, (one hour, 100 Czech crowns/£3.50). Pilsen to Ceské Budejovice by train is 130Kc (£4.50).
* Plaza Alta Hotel, Ortenovo nam 22, Prague (00 420 220 407 082; plazahotelalta.com). Doubles start at €71 including breakfast.
* Purkmistr Hotel, Cernice, Pilsen (00 420 377 994 311; purkmistr.cz). Doubles start at Kc2,290 (£80), including breakfast.
* September's Sun in the Glass festival takes place at Purkmistr brewpub in Cernice, Pilsen. For details of next year's event see purkmistr.cz.
* Velke Popovice Brewery, Velke Popovice, near Prague (00 420 323 683 425; pivovar.kozel.cz). Brewery tours, including tasting: Kc100 (£3.50).
* Budweiser Budvar Brewery, Ceske Budejovice (00 420 387 705 347; budweiserbudvar.co.uk/brewery). A tour of the visitor centre and museum with a tasting costs Kc60 (£2.10).
* Pilsner Urquell Brewery, Pilsner (00 420 377 062 888; prazdrojvisit.cz/en) Tours cost Kc150 (£5.30).
* Czech Tourism: 020-7631 0427; uk.czechtourism.com.
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