Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: Once upon a time, Pilsner Urquell as the "best beer" in Prague.

Today's writing constitutes a rerun of sorts, because this week's tragic wholesaler error also, sadly, is a repeat. To paraphrase a favorite line of mine: You can depend on Monarch Beverage -- it'll ALWAYS let you down.

Pilsner Urquell has been pouring at the Public House since about 1993 or 1994. Continuously. Never stopping. All the time. Always. Get the picture? Those interested in knowing why will continue reading the essay reprinted below.

Now, these many years later, it is revealed that Monarch, the whoa-stud examplar of beer sales in the Midwest, has become unable to sell 24 quarter-barrel kegs of Urquell in the entire state of Indiana before the sell-by date expires.

That's right: The entire state.

Sales sloth and corporate indifference aside, you'd think that after all this time, someone in a position of authority would take it upon themselves to personally explain to the Publican (that's me) why his or her company is dropping the draft version of a staple product that has been on tap at my place for more than 15 years.

But that would require something approximating a commitment to customer service, wouldn't it?

These guys are worse than Big Red Liquors. While I contemplate ways to make them pay, consider the following.

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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 pay grade, and 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.

However, on scattered occasions, I’ve taken a stab responding to, “What’s the best beer you ever tasted?” Usually a disclaimer is merited: “At the time.” The essay that follows was written in the early 1990’s. I wouldn’t offer the same answer today. But the story recounts one of my fondest travel memories.

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The times of one’s life, the places, and the people ...

To be as precise as possible, the best beer I’d ever tasted (at the time) 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. We bowed to the edifice, and set off by foot for the central train station to hop the sole overnight non-express to Czechoslovakia.

We’d been 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 felt unfazed at the prospect of the trip ahead.

Of course, these being the days of waning Communism, our jovial mood couldn’t have lasted very 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 finally ground to a halt, and we stumbled into Prague’s Hlavni nadrazi station 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 storage 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 were at long last 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.

Armed only with an inadequate tourist map, Barrie and I crossed the Vltava River on the famed Charles Bridge, ascended Castle Hill, wandered down the other side, crossed the river again at a second bridge, and finally were devoured by the twisting alleyways that we knew eventually led back to Wenceslas Square. At length, having paused briefly two hours before for a sausage dispensed from a tiny streetside window, we glimpsed the familiar green script of Pilsner Urquell adorning the fa├žade of a faded, orange-painted building.

The final steps were the hardest. We passed through the stout wooden doors of U Dvou Kocek, where Pilsner Urquell indeed was the house beer, the daily beer, and in fact the only beer available.

Blissfully unaware of protocol, we slumped heavily into wooden benches in an interior hallway. Unconsciously drooling, our beleaguered senses slowly were revived by the cozy, smoky, conspiratorial warmth of the main room, where clusters of Czech workers, students, soldiers and officials sat conversing.

Huge platters of pork and dumplings sat before many of the customers, but to man, each and every patron cradled an indescribably lovely mug of beer – and make no mistake: They were glass mugs, not the more stylish half-liter glasses that supplanted them not long afterward. It seemed too good to be true … and almost was.

Alarmingly, the waiters completely ignored us.

We opted for direct action. I limped to the long, imposing counter where a brawny, mustachioed man stood next to a pair of matching taps, both pouring the exact same nectar, and with a wheeled cart filled with clean mugs. Mustering my courage, I flashed four fingers and muttered, “Pivo, prosim,” having miraculously recalled the proper words without stealing a glance at the guidebook buried somewhere in my day pack.

He looked at me quite seriously, then smiled and complied, relieving me of roughly $2.00 while pushing four half-liter drafts across the slick countertop.

The brilliant golden liquid was cool, not ice-cold; frozen beer only numbs the palate, and though appropriate for Pabst, it certainly isn’t necessary for anything as grand as Urquell. The noble hop aroma was evident and enticing, fighting through the billowing white head to reach my nose even at arm’s length. Everything about the beer itself and the venue in which it was about to be consumed spoke of quality, respect, tradition, and the sheer, unbridled joy that one feels to be an adult and to think, feel and understand what is good about life.

When Barrie saw me approach, he bolted from the wooden bench and fell to his knees in a spontaneous demonstration of faith and appreciation that I’ve seldom witnessed in any church – such was the genuine, heartfelt intensity prefacing his gesture of supplication. Seconds later I spotted his eyes, wet with unrestrained tears, his cheeks flecked with beer foam, all visible through the thick base of an empty upturned mug.

Needless to say, my reaction was comparable. I’ll never forget this moment of triumph and revelation, of this sense of beer ecstasy that will never be understood or truly appreciated by anyone who defines beer by the number of calories it contains or the volume of advertising revenue it commands.

1 comment:

Phil said...

We blew it and you’re justified in being disappointed with us. We regret that we have disappointed you and regret even more that the demand for Pilsner Urquell draft is not sufficient for us to stock it. We agree that discontinuing that package is not evidence of our sales skills. Of course, we should have contacted you directly about this. You’ve not only been a great customer for Monarch and Pilsner Urquell, but you’ve carried the beer for 15 plus years which is absolutely remarkable.

As we continue to increase the selection and variety of beers that we bring to Indiana there have been some brands that have suffered as people explore new brands. Pilsner Urquell is one of those that has suffered and the lack of demand for the draft version of it makes it impossible for us to keep it as fresh as it should be. Continuing to bring it in with it selling slowly might mean that kegs will get stale before they have a chance to be tapped and we are very concerned about jeopardizing the quality of this great beer.

Pilsner Urquell is doing fine in bottles and we will keep bottles in distribution. We agree that Pilsner Urquell draft is exceptional and if demand increases even slightly for the bottles, we will bring back the draft promptly.

Phil Terry, Monarch Beverage