Showing posts with label Czech Republic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Czech Republic. Show all posts

Monday, 13 September 2010

Showering in Famous Brewing Water

Burton-on-Trent and Pilsen are epicentres of brewing past and present. Burton is Beer Town. Its world renown comes from the eponymous ales, the pale ales and India pale ales it produced 150 years ago. Pilsen is the home of pilsners and pale lager and it’s the style which has become the most aped and consumed beer style in the world. Pale ales, IPAs and pilsners are all very important styles to the beer world, but one thing, above all others, made these towns ideal for brewing these particular styles: the water.

Pale ales benefited from the mineral-rich hard waters of Burton, giving them a snappy, dry quality, and the pilsners of Pilsen had a soft and smooth body thanks to the mineral-free soft waters. The difference between hard and soft water is the volume of minerals in each, primarily calcium and magnesium (in Burton’s case there are also significant levels of gypsum and sulphates which give the famous eggy aroma of Burton Snatch); soft water has very lower levels of these minerals, whereas hard water has much higher levels. Both are good for brewing in their own ways but hard water has minerals which can actively help out the brewing process (calcium helps balance acidity, magnesium is used by yeast in the production of enzymes to help with fermentation, sulphates give a dry, sharp flavour which can compliment hops).

This is naturally very interesting, of course, and the beers are delicious and all that, but there’s a more pressing question: what are these famous waters like to shower in?

Picture this: it’s the morning after a night out and I roll from my bed, head spinning, mouth dry, stomach rolling. I smell and I need a wash. I’m currently in Burton. The bathroom is lovely and big with a wide shower head. I climb in, turn it on, adjust the temperature and stand under it for a few minutes, trying to wash away the stinking hangover. I grab the shower gel – my usual variety – and I pour the typical amount and lather up. Only the lather isn’t coming, instead it’s just leaving little scummy bubbles on my skin which don’t wash away easily. I pour some more shower gel and it still happens. I turn to my shampoo – my usual variety – and again it doesn’t do much, leaving my hair feeling strangely dry, despite having water pour onto it constantly for 10 minutes. I persevere and eventually clean myself to a near-acceptable level. Leaving the shower my skin feels a little dirty still, a little dry. I’m unsatisfied and my hangover feels worse.

Now picture this: it’s the morning after a night out and I roll from my bed, head spinning, mouth dry, stomach rolling. I smell and I need a wash. I’m currently in Pilsen. The bathroom is small with a handheld shower head. I climb in to the shower box, turn on the water, adjust the temperature and hold it over me for a few minutes, trying to wash away the stinking hangover. I grab the shower gel – my usual variety – and I pour the typical amount and lather up. Within moments the lather is overflowing magnificently, with bubbles everywhere, lavishly covering me. I wash them off and then try again and there are even more bubbles this time, like a white foam eruption. I turn to my shampoo – my usual variety – and seconds later I have a white perm of thick creamy lather on my head which feels wonderful. Leaving the shower my skin feels ultra clean and soft. I’m very satisfied and my hangover has washed away.

For shower lovers, I can’t recommend Pilsen highly enough. The sheer, generous volumes of bubbles are simply wonderful. The problem with hard water is that the minerals and ions in it don’t react kindly with the chemicals in the soap and rather than bubbling up they just create a sticky scum which isn’t easy to wash away. Soft water showering is a treat; hard water isn't. Thankfully both are good in their own ways for brewing and for that we should all be very grateful.

There we have it: front line beer reporting on the topics which really matter.

I’ve now done bathing in beer and showering in brewing water. Next I need to swim in it and then enjoy a beer Jacuzzi… can anyone help me out?

In writing this post I used this and this as well as the link above, to help me out. This post is also interesting as it gives a list of water profiles from notable brewing areas. Photos from here and here (I spent about 20 minutes looking for an appropriate image to use for this post and these are the best I could find... you get a lot of filthy results when searching for innocent showering images).

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The most incredible drinking experience (so far)

We’re underground. Possibly as deep as 12m. It’s less than 7°C. We are just a short way into the 19km of cellars, somewhere amid the 32,000m² of tunnels. It’s dark and cold. There’s a mineral cleanliness to the air, the air which hangs still. The cobbled floors are wet, the white walls are damp, the ceiling arches high above us. Every crossroad of tunnels leads off in new directions, visible only for a few metres before it fades to black. A map shows us the full network, an unbelievable snaking myriad of channels carved out of the rock. We try and work out how far they stretch under the city; what landmarks they lay dormant beneath. How many men have worked down here? What was the beer they made like? What stories can they tell? Our guide is leading the way but we’re only following in a strange not-quite-concentrating kind of way, our legs moving but our minds filled with wonder and awe, open-mouthed like school boys who have just seen the T-Rex at the Natural History Museum. It’s when we pass by the giant oak casks that we all stop and stare. Magnificent and grand, blackened by time, they run along the sides of the cellars, stacked two high, filled with beer, just waiting. I silently say ‘wow’ and a cloud of breath disperses in front of me. Around another corner and the cellar is stacked with casks on both sides, maybe 40 casks in total around us. Two dark figures wait in the middle, slightly hunched. They start pouring beer as we arrive by them, serving them charmlessly without even a hint of a smile. Beer in hand, we pass through the narrow corridor between the barrels and into another cellar where we stop briefly, looking back to where we were served, like the ultimate beer theatre. It’s here, in the cellars underneath Pilsner Urquell brewery, that I have the most incredible drinking experience of my life so far. The beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised and it’s come straight from the oak barrel. We’re deep underground, it’s cold and mesmerising; the stories that this place could tell are haunting. The beer is a cloudy gold with a chunky white foam. It’s unbelievably smooth and rich, there’s a slight sweetness to begin and a herbal, dry bitterness to finish. It’s perfect. It’s unlike anything else I’ve had before. It’s undoubtedly one of the best drinking experiences in the world.

Does anywhere compare with this? Is there a better drinking experience? What’s the most amazing beer experience you’ve had?

The map of the cellars. The tour only walks around a tiny block in the middle, which you can just make out as the white lines are thicker with wear from fingers tracing our route. 

Monday, 6 September 2010

Pilsen: The Movie

While we were in Pilsen it seemed like a camera crew were following our every move. At one point I got a bit freaked out (I was tired and drunk at the time, no doubt) and thought that we were actually trapped in some kind of Chuck Palahnuik story and were the unwitting stars of some horrible live action drama… thankfully it all ended well and they turned out to be very nice chaps who were making a film about beer in Pilsen for Czech Tourism. They were filming with the wonderful Evan Rail showing the sights of Pilsen and PilsnerFest, plus a few bars and some of the underground tunnels (where you can see us in hair nets and hard hats). This film does a pretty good job of showing the two days we had there, which were great fun (UPDATE: I've changed the video below so that it now includes my introduction - we were all asked to do a short intro and they've sent us our own videos. The rest of the video is exactly the same).

Pilsen is a cool place. I recommend it to anyone who goes to the Czech Republic, even if they only go there for one day (it's a one hour, £3 trip from Prague). Pilsner Urquell is a great place to look around while there are a few really good bars nearby for good beers, particularly Pivovar Groll and Small Breweries Klub.

Here’s the video (it's widescreen so cuts off in the blog; to see the whole lot follow the link to YouTube). See if you can spot me, Tim, Adrian and Pete throughout...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Chodovar Beer Baths

No, my bath wasn't quite like this...
“Get naked, wrap in sheet, don’t shower.”

Either it’s a crudely simplified translation by Jan, our guide from Czech Tourism, or that’s what the Czech woman has just said as she passes around crisply folded, thin white sheets.

Heavy, clearly audible gulps drop around the tiny changing room as the door closes behind us. Grasping at the sheet and clinging to our soon-to-be-unnecessary clothes, we look around at each other trying to work out what’s happening, as if we’d just been told that we need to strip naked and sit in bath of... oh, yeah.  

“We don’t wear shorts then?” I ask, gripping to a strange hope that the ones I’d packed would still be of use.

“No. Naked with the sheet.” Jan replies.

Usually this wouldn’t bother me. I don’t make a habit of getting naked in public but I’ve changed in front of blokes often enough to not worry, yet there’s something different about it this time, about being hurried into a room and told, rather urgently because we were late, to get naked ready for a bath. It must be the element of the unknown, unsure whether we’ll all be climbing into one bath together (that’s what I imagined, Jacuzzi-style, like below - image from here), or if we’d be alone, modesty kept slightly intact. Plus it’s a bath and I’m not in the regular habit of sharing baths with friends...

It’s as I slip off my shoes that I really wonder what I’m doing. The promise was a beer bath. Put another way, it was a bath in beer. Now we’re standing in a changing room, cold tiled floor beneath our feet and hand-painted pictures on the wall in a Ralph Steadman meets Quentin Blake kind of way. Barely a stretched-out arm from each other we silently and awkwardly undress, stuffing our clothes into a locker and wrapping our dignity beneath the see-through sheet.

The Czech woman – short, rather dramatically made-up – returns to collect us, opening the door in a way which suggests sees seen it all before and really doesn’t care. She leads us through to the baths, a small, open area with curtains closed around it, piped music playing quietly. Here, waiting for us, is Christiano Ronaldo’s rugged lookalike, a beaming smile and open arms, pulling across the curtain and revealing the squat bath.

On top of the bath is a thick foam spread across the water, literally like a giant pint of beer served in a silver tankard. My eyes immediately notice the golden glass of beer next to the bath, condensation dripping down the sides; a comfortingly recognisable beacon in the middle of a very unusual experience. The less pretty Ronaldo still smiles, his eyes directing me towards the bath, nodding towards it eagerly. Aware that this is a rare moment in my life which mixes awkwardness and brilliance in a perfect balance that must be captured on film, I take a quick photo, trying to juggling the sheet, a phone, a camera and a camera case, while Christiano Mark II watches on politely.

“Just don’t get a picture of me in here.” I laugh as I turn the camera off and put it on the chair beside the bath. To either side I see shadows of men climbing into their baths and reclining with ohhs and ahhs as the curtains close behind me. The top of the bath is thick, speckled with what looks like tiny hop pieces, slightly mottled brown at the edges, possibly sticky but I can’t tell until I touch it. I unwrap the sheet and lay it to the side, stepping into the warm water, slipping down through the foam as the smell of fermenting beer circles around, a lovely wort-like sweetness. Just as I disappear below the bubbles and with my shoulders and head still dry, the curtains reopen and the tanned chap with the greased-back hair returns, disturbing my recently-rediscovered privacy.

“I take your photo,” he says, smiling, while making the universal photo-taking gesture. Presumably, my ‘don’t take a picture’ comment was misheard and mistranslated, but how can I say no now? Slipping and splashing I hand him the camera and attempt (and fail) to create a foam-shaped shield in the water above my lower regions, before grabbing the beer and saying cheese. He nods to say the photo is good and returns the camera, pulling the curtain shut, leaving me alone in my beer bath.

The water is so satisfyingly warm without being too hot, while the foam gently pops against the skin, not sticky but still clinging. The beer in the glass is cold and delicious and a rare treat to drink in the bath. It would all be very relaxing if it wasn’t for the giggling that I try so hard to suppress throughout, a giggling that at one point threatens to break into a full-on laugh (one of those laughs that gets funnier and funnier inside, increasing with intensity as you think about how funny it’d be if you actually laughed, making you want to laugh even more, and so on). I’d never experienced anything like this before.

The bath is filled with mineral water, yeast, hops and at least 8 litres of dark beer. It’s proven to lower blood pressure and help with circulation. Around I can hear elevator music broken with the occasional splash, sigh of pleasure or swallow of beer. Finally relaxing, I feel my arms and legs getting lighter and floating to the surface, the hangover I’ve been fighting with all morning is finally drifting away, the aching behind my eyes dispersing. This is nice.

Avoiding the curious desire to take a gulp of the water I’m lying in, I finish the glass of beer instead.  Just as I’m ready to fall asleep the 20 minute bath-time is up and our guy returns, opening the curtain. I expect a nod and for him to say that I need to jump out and follow him, instead he walks in, takes my sheet and holds it out in front of him and waits. I don’t move. He looks out from over the sheet at me. I stare back, unsure.

“You get out now,” he says. I still don’t move.

Finally I get it. This guy wants me to get out of the bath and then he wants to wrap me in a sheet. Here we go. I stand carefully, not wanting to slip and fall. I climb as gracefully as a naked man covered in beer can and then back myself like a reversing tanker into the sheet, which falls across my shoulders, immediately turning more see-through. “Follow me,” he says to us as we all wait, walking off as I wrap the towel around me, ensuring nothing is hanging out beneath. With the patter of wet feet we follow him into the next room which is a dark, bricked red room. Another beer is served to us as we lie down for 20 minutes, air-drying, drifting to a gentle sleep, completely chilled out.

We’re told to dress again after it’s done and not to shower for at least four hours (for the full effect of the water, apparently). I leave totally relaxed, my skin cleaner and softer than before, a joy inside of me bursting out: the last hour was wonderfully unique, strangely excellent and so much fun. The awkwardness is just shocked Brit in me; in reality it’s tasteful, charming and sensitively done, more importantly it’s a bath in beer. We all return to the restaurant and sit down to eat, everyone delighting in the last hour’s entertainment, invigorated, unlike anything we’ve done on a beer trip before.

I can’t recommend the baths highly enough. For about £20 you get the bath, the relaxation after and the two beers. In fact, the whole of the Chodovar site is excellent with a range of good beers, two restaurants, a spa and hotel. One of the restaurants is in the old granite and sandstone cellars where the beer used to lager, filling the air with a wonderful clean mineral smell and mixing it with the roasted meat aromas of Czech food. The unfiltered 11° yeast lager straight from the cellar is delicious (and only served at the brewery), made even better as the barrel-chested brewmaster Jiri Plevka talked to us about the history of the brewery and his family before taking us on a fantastic tour of the grounds, including the cellars, leaving us to enjoy the bath and then a gut-filling meal with more beer (Pete has already written about the place). Not your usual brewery visit... and all the better for it!

Anyone for a beer bath?

(And here's the picture of me in the bath. I may have doctored it slightly to preserve a little dignity)

Monday, 30 August 2010

Prague and Pilsen: The Executive Summary

Airport and a pint with Jan, our Czech host, Adrian, Tim, Pete and Peter from the Porterhouse - we begin; flight with no working toilet making for an uncomfortable entrance into the country; hustle onto a minibus and into the centre, dump bags in plush hotel, bust a groove to Zly časy (Bad Times); meet Evan Rail, drink a fantastic selection of beer, a sherbety Tambor 10° with a big Saaz hop finish, a Kocour Pale Ale, snappy branding and bold hops, trays of food, cheese and chilli, sausages cooked in beer, ribs - fantastic place; to one of the best bars I’ve been to in ages, a trip simultaneously back in time and looking to the future, the První Pivni Tramway (First Beer Tramway), serving BrewDog and Matuška while playing football from the 80s in a bar that looks like a grubby cafe; to Jáma (The Hollow) for more Kocour, more Matuška, a whisky nightcap and a hot dog on the way home (hot dogs all round except for Adrian who had a can of Pilsner Urquell); wake up in the middle of the night and see Czech babestation is blaring light and lovelies my way, hit standby, go back to sleep; bitch of a hangover only kicks in as we jump on the minibus for an hour drive to Pilsen, hang my head towards the window in hope that the fresh air will revive me; drop bags at great, quaint hotel, back on the bus to Chodovar, a tour of the cellars, the tanks cheekily poking out like bare buttocks, a not-ready special beer was passed around, making for a one-off drinking experience; this was followed by the beer spa, one of those unforgettable life experiences, lying naked in beer while drinking it (a fresh one, not bath water); back to Pilsen, a tour of the grand square before another brewery, this time Pivovar Groll, brewing in the imposing shadows of Pilsner Urquell, making a ballsy lager, hop-forward and full-bodied, a tour of the kit made us all want to stay for the night; to Pilsner Fest where we attempt to break a World Record which is so ridiculously complicated that we have no idea what’s going on; dinner under the brewery, our first unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, a revelation; Jan meets his cousin and he takes us to the Small Breweries Klub which is like a taxi rank meeting an ineffective DIY-ers shed, but one which serves great beers to glass-chinking drinkers; morning breaks, a tour of the tunnels under Pilsen is extraordinary, a strange stage show tells us the history of Pilsner Urquell (to test the quality it was poured on a bench and if whoever sits on it gets stuck then it’s good – try seeing that acted out by two enthusiastic Czechs, speaking just Czech); more unfiltered Pilsner Urquell; a tour of the brewery, wonderfully done to appeal to everyone, the walk through the cellars is mind-blowing, almost as mind-blowing as drinking the beer from a giant oak barrel, deep underground, a mouthful of silky beer, as cold as the air around us, as intoxicating as a beautiful smile; a walk around town, a quick beer, another quick beer in Pivovar Groll; a tour of Gambrinus, the biggest-selling beer in the Czech Republic, where a guy is so happy that they’ve started tours (this is the first day) that he suggests we all sing; another unfiltered Pilsner Urquell; to Pivovar Pašák, a tiny brewpub with coppers in the corner, a deeply fried meal and some great beer; onwards we beer travellers go, to drink Kout na Šumavě at Pálavě, a delicious 12° unfiltered lager, smooth, a faint orange pith Saaz bitterness, delicious; to Zach’s Pub for 19° porter from Pardubice outside in a cool courtyard playing jazz-funk, then for more Kout (10° this time), then a spirit Becherovka which tasted like bitter Christmas Pudding; morning, urgh; a film crew, who have followed us all weekend, get us to talk to camera; we go to Pivovar Modrá Hvezda (Blue Star), a small brewpub out of town which leaves us all buzzing with excitement after trying 5-6 of their great beers - my favourite, the 10°; to Purkmistr for lunch, beer and a brewery tour, another cracking unfiltered lager, a real glugger, great with ‘Mouth Scorcer of Cernice’ (deep fried chilli, a great beer snack); to the airport; to England; to home; to bed: to Czech Republic, wow, that was awesome.

This is the executive summary. More to follow...