Saturday, January 06, 2007
Part One: Once upon a time, the "best beer" in Prague.
Many times I’ve been asked to name my favorite beer, or to identify the best beer in the world. Just as many times, I’ve responded that these are questions beyond my reach, and are queries that simply cannot be answered.
To take it a step further, such questions make me wary in a philosophical sense. To find the “best” or the “favorite” implies conclusiveness, but certainty in this fashion neither suits the pursuit of the perfect pint nor lends itself to a world in constant flux. The definitions change, and the criteria are altered. It’s why the search continues, and won’t ever yield finality.
Recently, while sorting through file boxes of archives dating back a quarter-century, I’ve had occasion to locate numerous scribblings on beer, travel and other topics. One item unearthed is the essay that follows, with the first part appearing today and the conclusion tomorrow. It was written in the early 1990’s, and in response to the question, “What’s the best beer you ever tasted?”
As the preceding should make clear, I wouldn’t offer the same answer today. At the same time, the story recounts one of my fondest of all travel memories. Next time you’re at the Public House, go to the stand-up bar. On the wall, to the left of the blue toilet seat, there’s a picture showing two very young hooligans in front of a bus. It was snapped just days before the story told below.
With the minimum of editing, here is part one.
Best beer? Favorite beer? It’s impossible to choose. The answers hinge not only on the quality of the beer itself, but on other factors: The time of one’s life, the place, and the people.
But … having noted that, I’ll give it a shot.
To be as precise as possible, the best beer I’ve ever tasted was consumed at two o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, July 13, 1987. The beer was draft Pilsner Urquell, known in its native Czech as Plzensky Prazdroj, and the setting was an old tavern in that great brewing nation’s lovely capital, Prague.
In June, 1987, I joined my good friend and longtime drinking companion Barrie Ottersbach for a group tour of the Soviet Union that began in Moscow, passed through Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Latvia and Lithuania, and ended in Warsaw, Poland. As evening approached on July 12, Barrie and I stood alone in the shadow of the monstrous Stalinist Gothic Palace of Culture in downtown Warsaw, having concluded the tour in appropriate fashion with a session at the hard currency bar of a nearby hotel, and set off by foot for the central train station to hop the overnight non-express to Czechoslovakia.
We were dazed by an afternoon of inexpensive Bulgarian cabernet, amazed at having uncovered a few bottles of Austrian-brewed Kaiser Bier at the Hotel Forum’s foreign currency bar, and largely unfazed at the prospect of the trip ahead.
Our jovial mood didn’t last long. Although our essential documents – passports, train tickets and couchette reservations – were in order, we had neglected to pack food and drink for the journey. It was Sunday. All stores were closed, and mini-marts were in short supply in Communist Poland in 1987; in fact, so short that they had yet to be written into the five-year plan.
Our backpacks bulged with Soviet black market booty, and we strained to lug them along while desperately foraging for victuals in the vicinity of the rail station’s platforms. Even with handfuls of colorful Zloty, there was nothing to purchase except grainy licensed Swiss chocolate and returnable bottles of imitation cola. The final whistle blew. We boarded hungry, and did the best we could to sleep in the stifling summer heat.
Twelve hours later the marathon rail crawl ground to a halt and we stumbled into Prague’s Hlavni nadrazi looking like bedraggled refugees from a war zone. Stomachs audibly growling, poorly rested, filthy and quite thirsty, the sodas having long since been drained, we dragged our belongings to the baggage check and lightened the load.
Departing the station, we were treated to our first glimpses of Prague’s timeless majesty and the city’s then-current reality: Standing in front of the museum at the top of the long, gentle rise of Wenceslas Square, against a backdrop of the old city sparkling in a bright morning sun, a taxi driver sidled over and asked us if we’d like to change money.
Several minutes later, one of the three official room finding agencies placed us for three nights in an athletic club dormitory on the outskirts of the city. It would be several hours before we could check into the room. Starving and parched, we were cast into the mysterious, gorgeous, crumbling city to fend for ourselves.
Exhilaration temporarily overcame fatigue as we ventured into the winding streets, over cobbled roadways and through strange arches. Soon, to our growing excitement, we found that the city boasted more than spires, spies, stucco and scaffolding – beer was all around us, and pubs were in abundance!
After two weeks in the Polish and Soviet lands, where vodka reigned supreme, we finally had landed in Bohemia, the Euphrates of European lager brewing tradition, and the home of the original Pilsner beer. We resolved to walk a bit more before finding a good place to enjoy a draft beer – preferably Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, or another Prague brand if necessary.
(Part two tomorrow)