Friday, September 22, 2006

Hopping over to the Zatec hop festival.

Zatec (ZHA-tets) is a small, recovering city located northwest of Prague. It is the Czech Republic’s one-stop center for hop production, with a processing plant, research institute, museum, recently upgraded commercial brewery and an annual festival, all rolled into one easy package, and accessible from the capital by train or bus.

Seeking greater efficiencies of time, on September 2nd our group of five beercyclists parked the two-wheeled conveyances for the day and climbed into a van hired from Mike’s Chauffeur Service – and driven by Mike himself – for the hour’s drive to Zatec and a visit to the hop festival.

Having noted the city’s degraded condition during a previous visit in 1999, I was pleased to see that redevelopment is gradually radiating out from the central square, while not unexpectedly, the back streets haven’t yet benefited from what will be a long-term process of rebuilding after forty years of Communist neglect.

The festival was a delight for all of us. It is a celebration not micro-designed for beer enthusiasts in the geeky sense, but instead a pleasing community-wide street party with many different beers available for sampling, ample entertainment on multiple stages, and plenty of food – especially sausages, which were smelled cooking on grills throughout the central square … and a few of which were happily consumed.

23 Czech breweries were announced as participating, although we never found StaroBrno and Herold. Most had more than one beer for offer, so it’s likely that somewhere between 75 and 100 brands were present.

Most were of the standard strength or lighter golden lager styles, but there were dark lagers, unfiltered beers and a sprinkling of others, among them innovative brews from the Chyne microbrewery near Prague. Follow the link and read a report written by the Czech Beer Man, who was at the festival and provided us with invaluable insights into the Czech brewing business during a brief chat.

Chyne’s ginger-infused beer was not present at the Zatec festival, but we’d tried it the night before, as provided by our accommodating campground restaurateur, and I can state without exaggeration that it was the best such spiced beer I’ve yet tasted, with the ideal balance between the ginger flavoring and the amber, malty backing.

None of the beers consumed during the hop festival were bad, and the system for reclaiming used plastic cups was especially creative.

It’s also hard not to like dogs in hop garlands, which were being plucked from a trellis apparently grown just off the square for the express purpose of festive silliness during the annual weekend.

Twinned Belgian hoppy city Poperinge boasts the great parade during its hop fest, which takes place every third year, but the atmosphere at the yearly Zatec bacchanal is uniquely its own, and well worth a visit, perhaps during the 2007 group beer trip by motor coach that’s beginning to take shape in my mind.

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