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Old bridges and new breweries: a postcard from Prague

Where past and present swirl around each other in a beery snowglobe.
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Charles Bridge. Photo by Joe Stange.

Charles Bridge | Photo by Joe Stange

It’s a snowy morning. With a heavy pack on my back, I check out of the hotel and take a long detour on foot. On the other side of central Prague, my train leaves in the afternoon. There is no rush. First I want to cross the Charles Bridge in the snow, just to say I did and to snap a few photos that will inevitably fail to do it justice.

On the way there, walking along the west side of the river, I catch whiffs of brewing happening somewhere nearby. I try to work out which micro it might be before I remember that one of the country’s biggest, Staropramen, is in the neighborhood. The sweet, nutty smell of its decocted mash wafts down the Vitava River.

Along the busy bridge, crowds of fellow tourists throw snow in the air to make their selfies look even snowier. Apparently this is a thing. It seems like cheating to me.

The Charles Bridge is more than six centuries old, though there were earlier bridges on the same spot. It is large in mass and in the minds of the Czechs, it is strategically and symbolically important, and yet somehow it’s avoided the destruction of war. It’s seen its share of blood though. Not quite 400 years ago, we would have seen the heads of Bohemian rebels on display from the tower, warning us to respect Catholic Habsburg rule. A couple of centuries before that, legend holds, King Wenceslaus tortured and tossed John of Nepomuk off the bridge for the crime of hearing the queen’s confession, then refusing to divulge what she said.

John of Nepomuk is said to be a patron saint against lies and flood damage, but if that’s true, his magic did not stick. The Charles Bridge’s true enemy has been nature: Severe flooding took out chunks of it several times. Always, the Czechs rebuild.

By now a layer of snow has formed on my head and backpack, so I walk into the Old Town trying to work out the quickest way to my preferred destination: a traditional pub near the station. I hear it’s atmospheric, with cheap but good food and beer—my kind of place.

I never do make it there.

U Supa. Photo by Joe Stange.

U Supa | Photo by Joe Stange

Instead I spot a new brewery, just in time to rest my feet and warm my hands. It’s called U Supa, and as far as I can tell it’s only the second brewery to open in Prague’s Stare Mesto, the Old Town, in recent times; the other is Tri Rizu, or three roses, a well-regarded brewpub nearer the Charles Bridge. U Supa recently opened on Celetna, which might be the most heavily touristed street in Prague (if we don’t count the bridge). It’s amid the souvenir shops and wax museums, a prime spot to attract foot-weary travelers in need of a break.

As elsewhere, small and independent breweries are multiplying in the Czech Republic. A decade ago, there were little more than 100 breweries in the country; today there are at least 377 by one count, which inevitably is missing a few of the newest ones. That’s how it goes with counting breweries these days.

Also: There are nearly 40 breweries in Prague now, up from only eight a decade ago. The excellent Pivnici.cz site says there are 36, but it doesn’t yet include U Supa, which certainly exists since I’m looking at it right now.

In fact, I’m not only looking at U Supa. I’m looking through it. Specifically, one of the coppers on the brewhouse in the front of the pub is transparent, its barrel made of glass. Sadly it’s not a brew day, so I can’t see what a proper decoction mash looks like on the inside, but it’s a neat piece of gimmickry.

Given U Supa’s location, I know it would be relatively pricey to eat here—fried potato pancakes with a pile of soft, chive cheese for about $7.50, which must sound like robbery in other parts of town. Still, a half-liter of lager is less than $2. It’s a new place but they’ve done a nice job making it feel older, with the vaulted ceilings, long benches and dark wood. The logo claims the year 1431; the restaurant doesn’t try hard to explain that the date references evidence of a 15th-century brewery on this spot. No doubt some tourists will be allowed to suppose it’s been here all along.

Photo by Joe Stange.

Photo by Joe Stange

When the waiter seats me by the window, where I can watch the snowfall and my fellow tourists trudging through it, and when I try the very tasty, dark gold svetly lezak, with its balance of floral-herbal bitterness and malty residual sweetness, it begins to feel like I was meant to be here. That feeling is confirmed when the brewer himself walks in. Ivan Chramosil is something of a legend in Czech brewing. For more than 44 years he was brewer at U Fleku, famous for its age, its atmosphere and its rich but balanced dark lager. (That is the only beer that U Fleku brews, and thanks to Chramosil, it does so superbly.)

So I should not be surprised that the beer at U Supa is good too. Chramosil is the longest-serving brewer in the country; he is in Czech brewing’s hall of fame; and he is supposed to be retired. But here he is, walking in to check on this new Old Town brewhouse that he helped establish. His title here is emeritní sládek—brewer emeritus.

We say hello and he explains that the beer I’m drinking was brewed elsewhere, near Prague. He has been brewing on this new kit, but those beers won’t be ready for a few weeks yet. I’m not bothered about where it’s made. The svetly is very good, and so is the polotmavy, the “semidark” amber lager that shows rich caramel malt but with enough spicy bitterness to balance.

I watch as Chramosil climbs the brewhouse, and then a waitress climbs up to assist him. She has longer arms than he does, so at his direction she is reaching into that unusual transparent copper—there are only a handful of these in the world—to adjust something. Then I hear a “clink” noise … she has just dropped a screw into the kettle.

The result of this accident is that she has to climb, with some help, into the kettle to try and retrieve it.

Occupied glass kettle at U Supa. Photo by Joe Stange.

Occupied glass kettle at U Supa | Photo by Joe Stange

That is how it happens that I am watching and snapping photos of an entire human being contorted into one of the world’s few transparent brew kettles. This is even more entertaining than a decoction mash, I decide, and I wonder if some divine guidance has brought me here to record this miracle. Maybe it was Nepomuk, whose statue I saw on the bridge.

As I ponder this, I watch one of the Supa waiters construct a small snowman on a table outside. A lot of tourists point and smile at it, and a few even stop to pose for photos. Then some jerk walks by and intentionally knocks it over.

I mean, who does that?

In the long run, the isolated act of violence doesn’t matter. I tell the waiter. He nods without smiling, and he vows to rebuild.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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