Prague’s tourist center has a number of medieval-themed cellar bars — think arched ceilings, old armor and weapons, cabaret shows with belly dancers and fire eaters in pirate garb, large mugs of dark lager, and maybe a dragon skull or two to evoke Ye Olde Westeros.
They’re fun. They’re also overpriced and fake. The beer in those places — probably Budvar — is fine. But you can find it anywhere.
You can do better.
Instead, just after you visit Prague Castle, take a 20-minute tram ride west to the Břevnov Monastery. Here is hospitality with pedigree. Established in 993 — three digits! — the monastery can claim to be the world’s oldest brewery.
OK, the math is fuzzy: There was a brewing hiatus of about 120 years until today’s Břevnovský brewery re-opened in 2012. We can assume occasional stoppages for sackings and plagues. Meanwhile, Bavaria’s Weihenstephaner makes a thing of being the oldest “continuously” operating brewery (pssst, don’t mention the wars). Yet Weihenstephaner’s date is a relatively recent 1040, which clearly has 33.3% more digits than Břevnov’s founding date. But who’s counting?
The year is not the point. Břevnovský’s setting is beautiful — its 18th century Baroque architecture is impressive and imposing enough that my daughter thought it was a proper castle — and the victuals are well worth the detour.
For example, bacon.
The abbey’s tavern, Klášterní Šenk, features rustic Czech fare like game, stews and dumplings. But we couldn’t get over the cold starters, so we ordered several: smoked pork belly with mustard and horseradish, pork cracklings in lard with fresh onions, goat cheese with blackberry sauce. We never made it to the bacon dumplings. We tried to order duck liver pâté, but the waiter said they were out. Perhaps. I suspect he was trying to protect us from gout.
Oh, and there is beer. Superb beer.
At the tavern I try the dark lager called Tmavý Ležák. It’s immensely drinkable at 4.2% strength and need not be analyzed — but those who do might taste roast coffee, licorice and toasted pumpernickel. My wife goes for the fruity IPA, 6.5% strength and with a smack of caramel. I think it tastes like many others, but she — having grown bored with my lager obsession — finds it to be a ray of sunshine.
The showstopper, though, wasn’t on draft at the tavern. Instead, thanks to our friend and fellow writer Evan Rail — by the way, go and read this — I had tasted it a few nights before. This was at the Pivovarský Klub in downtown Prague, a savvy pub and shop that stocks 246 beers. I never really made it to the other 245.
Some people, when they want you try a few beers, think strategically. They might save what they think is best for last, or throw it in the middle somewhere. Evan wasted no time. I sat down and found the Břevnovský Benedict Světlý Ležák waiting for me.
Světlý Ležák just means pale lager, usually about 5% strength. Boring, right? No. No, no, no!
Some quick context: Eight years ago there were about 100 breweries in the Czech Republic, a country of 10.5 million people. Today there are more than 300 breweries, the growth driven — as elsewhere — by microbreweries and brewpubs. Evan, who ought to know, estimates that as many as half of those breweries are making some kind of IPA or hoppy pale ale, and often imperial stouts or other things that would not have been considered very Czech a few years ago.
But virtually all of them must make a 5%-ish pale lager. And they must do it well. No doubt many of these breweries were always making a flavorful product (ever had a fresh Pilsner Urquell?). Meanwhile, common sense suggests that many of the newer micros have a taste for hops and don’t mind dropping more of them into the kettle. Anyway: that’s what the Břevnovský Benedict pale lager suggested to me.
Served unfiltered, it is a hazy dark gold color, its aroma something like sticking your nose into a bag of fresh malt — and finding some freshly crushed herbal-spicy hops in there too. It has a honeyish, grainy malt taste without ever being especially sweet, and a deeply juicy-herbal hop flavor that I am still trying work out after, oh, six glasses of it here and there. Instead of a beer that tastes like coffee or a beer that tastes like wine, this is a beer that tastes like beer, but with the beer flavor cranked up to 12(°).
The story — as told to Evan — is that this unusual hop flavor comes from a special, older variety of Saaz, grown from bines that have been going strong for more than 70 years. Normally, hop growers replace the bines every 20 years or so. These are lower in alpha acids than typical Saaz and have a different flavor more like stinging nettles. I can’t say. I’ve never eaten nettles and I’ve never seen these bines. But I can say that the beer is addictive and, for now, only available in Prague. The Břevnovský brewhouse makes just about 17 barrels per batch and, let’s be honest, do any of us really want to see it grow? No. Just go there, please.
The brewery sells beers to take away. Some, including the pale lager, are in 1L screw-cap plastic bottles for about $2 each. Also available are a strong porter, an imperial stout, and an “imperial pilsner” at 8% strength. In the corner I saw two whiskey barrels filled with stout and porter, doing their thing.
Those concerned about the dangers of drinking and tramming can rest easy: There is a hotel on site. The Hotel Adalbert — named for the saint who founded the monastery — has nice, clean rooms starting at $72 per night.
The tavern is open daily until 11 p.m., incidentally. There are no fire eaters or belly dancers, but I don’t think you’ll miss them.