We know. If you are planning your trip to Prague, you've already heard it all about Pilsner Urquell or Budweiser, the two largest and traditional breweries in the Czech Republic. And the truth is that even the basic products of these two brewing giants are actually very good and definitely worth a try.
We met Lukas Svoboda, the man in charge of beers for the ubiquitous Ambiente group of restaurants, at the beer pairing he organized in the Cestr restaurant. We immediately liked him to the point where we started planning his abduction and involuntary service in our apartment. (We do that with chefs or baristas or bartenders that we like - is that wrong?) We have also, for the longest time, thought of signing up for his draughting school at Lokal u Bile kuzelky. Six hours full of nothing but beer and food? Sounds about right.
We met him for the interview in Lokal u Bile kuzelky, his home pub. He was talking to the regulars and clearly in command of the place. It is absolutely clear that he loves beer and his guests, and it is even cleared that they love him back. And why wouldn’t you? Always smiling and talking with a slight Moravian accent, Lukas is the best promoter of Czech beer we could think of. He was, of course, having a glass of unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell from the big 500 litre tank.
When did you taste your first beer?
I may have tasted my first beer when I was fifteen or sixteen. I could not drink at home, so it was with my friends, in secret. I was not impressed. For me, it was the cheapest alcoholic drink. But I was social and alcohol was a thing associated with parties. I preferred Coke or Pepsi. Seemed more interesting. It all changed when I began working at U Pinkasu. I was intrigued by how the bartender pampered the beer and how the beer created a community of regulars.
And then my buddy and I opened Konvikt in Bartolomejska street. I was there for 3.5 years. I managed to take all the good things I learned at U Pinkasu and leave all the bad things there. It created a great community of regulars and friends. And that’s where the inspiration for the draughting school came from: the bartender should be a personality, have a relationship with the customers and have respect for the beer. We want to teach that.
How did you end up at Lokal?
Mr Karpisek, the owner, had a vision for an honest Czech pub: Lokal. He started looking for people and he heard about me. It was funny: Tomas and his pals were coming regularly over to check me out, just smiling and nodding at me when I worked. He was introduced to me and asked me later to take care of the beer at Lokal. That was in 2009, about five months before the opening. I focused only on beer and on the draughting school.
I was a young gun, and now I wanted to introduce the alternative pours: the “sweet", the “snyt" and so on. These beers were available only to a few regulars at two or three pubs but not to the general public. The older bartenders did not like it: they though it was just theirs. Now it’s common place. And we keep adding more: the beer aperitifs at Cestr, and now Radlers, or Shandys, at Lokal.
What is the story behind the draughting school?
When we opened Konvikt, Mr Berka, the master brewer at Pilsner Urquell, really liked it. And he mentioned he would love to see a school where the best bartenders would share their experiences. That was 2007, and the school was opened at 2011. I had no premises at Konvikt, but I do have them at Lokal. Also, Ambiente [group of restaurants] gives me lots of freedom. At first, the school was targeting professionals but then we said no: we would open it to the public. Six hours of beer history, beer pairing and training.
Our US guests say the tank Pilsner Urquell tastes completely different than the thing they get there.
When you have a beer from the keg, it is important that you drink it as fresh as possible. We buy Pilsner Urquell for our NYC pub from the local distributor and always make sure it is not older than two months. We want the kegs to be all empty within three months of production.
What is interesting that the wholesale price of Pilsner Urquell is nearly the same here as it is in the US. The difference is in the markup. Cheap beer is a Czech tradition: for nearly 50 years, the Communists centrally planned beer production and they just made two types of beer in huge numbers with a set price. Just domestic barley and hops, no imports for specialty beers. The production was motivated politically.
In the 17th century, we had 3000 breweries in the Czech Republic. Tiny ones. Every town had at least one. Before WWI, the number dropped to about 600, and at the end of WWII, we only had 200: the wars really took their toll. And at the end of 1989, we only had 48 huge breweries. Now we are seeing a revival of smaller breweries: we have 46 big breweries and about 240 smaller ones. The funny thing is that we have nearly 300 breweries but only 90 master brewers. :-)
Besides Pilsner Urquell, what beers do you like?
I love small, craft breweries. I travel around the world and try them. On principle, I like any beer that is well poured. And that’s a problem. We have good beers but the bartenders don’t know how to pour them. Antos is great, and I have liked Matuska for a long time. Well, there are many. I chose Antos for Nase maso because it goes well with the meat. Now they’ll have the 10 degree beer for the summer. It’s great.
Do you miss any beer on the market?
Many. I still miss high-quality beers. We still have reserves. We can do better. For instance, the cyclist’s 8 at Hostivar brewery is fantastic.
Your favorite venues?
Whenever they pour beer well. Lokals, of course. Konvikt, Malostranska beseda, Tygr because of the atmosphere, Bredovsky dvur, U Pinkasu for one beer. I don’t have one place that would be my favorite. I like to try new things.
Your favorite Sunday or Saturday?
When the weather is bad, I like to have a lie down and read a beer-related book, or go see a movie or listen to some music. When the weather cooperates, I do my favorite pastime: downhill mountain bike riding. Otherwise I like to go to the great outdoors, especially when combined with a visit of my family in the Beskydy mountain. That’s great. Oh, and I have actually tried golf for the first time and I think I will like it!
Where do you go for beer in Prague?
I only visit venues that treat the beer properly. I primarily watch how the beer is poured, especially with my favorite, Pilsner Urquell. I am very strict about that. In that respect, I like all Lokals, Konvikt, Malostranska Beseda, Tygr etc. and then I like small craft breweries more and more – Strahov, Beznoska, Hostivar… But again, I like to try new things.
What are four beers visitors to Prague should taste?
If I were to have my four last beers in Prague, I would have Pilsner Urquell at Lokal, the dark lager at U Fleku – although the place is super touristy, their beer is great! Hostivar 15° at Hostivar – it’s damn good. And finally unfiltered Radegast at Konvikt with the regulars at their table.
“Food is not a toy!" Do you remember your mom telling you off at the dinner table when you were a child? And do you remember disagreeing with her, convinced that, in fact, food in an excellent toy? Well, if you still carry some inner wounds from that time of your life, we have some good news for you: there is somebody who was not afraid to make this unfulfilled child's dream come true and they are based in Prague, too!
Usito [read "oo-shi-to"] is a fun label run by two friends, Kateřina Holaskova and Veronika Holadova, who create food-themed hand-made toys and decorations from fabric. They met in college in the Moravian town of Zlin where they both studied arts. One day they were having a cup of coffee in one of Prague's cafes, when suddenly they got inspired by the poor little bored face of Katka's child... And that is how the idea of cloth pizzas and cakes was born; to make sure kids enjoy some quality coffee time, too! Yes, the Slivovitz plum brandy toy particularly makes you wonder who the stuff is REALLY designed for, but everyone who has ever been on our tour knows that… ehm… “cultural heritage” must be passed on to the next generation from early age!:-)
1) What do you love the most about Prague?
V: I'm a Prague native, so my relationship with the city is quite typical; I love the old center, all the sights, Petřín... What I love about Prague is all the possibilities. The fact that you get an idea and you can also go and make it happen. There are pubs, galleries, theatres... In the real life, nobody actually has the time for all these things, but it's the feeling that you simply CAN."
K: I'm quite the opposite: I was not born here, so even I've lived here for 10 years, I'm still getting to know the city... or actually, I don't know it at all! I haven't had time to walk it all around yet. But I love all the classy Czech pubs!"
2) Do you have any secret tip for a hang-out place in Prague?
V: You mean where we hang-out together with Katka? Definitely pubs! ;-) Well, I love walking so I have my own routes that I like. I start, for instance, in the Vinohrady district and go to the Lesser Town as I like passing trough the city center. Then Petřín and also Letná. This is where I live right now and I just feel like I can walk anywhere I like from there!"
K: This is sad as I don't actually have any secret tip and listening to you, Veronika, I have just realized how little I have walked trough Prague! This is also why I'm so glad when someone comes to visit, because that's my chance to get to see the city. I don't really feel any urge to go to the Charles Bridge, to be honest, actually, I avoid that, but just Iike Veronika, I do love the Lesser Town.
3) What does your ideal Saturday in Prague look like?
K: I go to see an exhibition when I have some free time. Veletrzni Palace or Rudolfinum Gallery are my favorites. I make plans only for myself and... don't really care about the kids now when I think of it! :-D But even with kids you can often go to a gallery as they usually have some activities for children too.
V: When I have some time off, I definitely don't go to the city center. :-) I prefer parks and a nice and calm walk like to the ZOO and back. Stromovka and Letna parks or even the green suburbs of Prague like Dablice or Cimice. No people, basically!:-)
5) You get the best coffee at...
K: I agree!
V: Oh, and a real heart-warmer is that little tiny place close to U.S. embassy... Kafirna is the name! It's a small family business with just two tables or so.
6) Where do you shop for toys when you don't make them yourself?
V: I must confess, I prefer to buy books over toys because, being from the "industry”, I'm a bit biased. I feel like there are toys everywhere, so I rather buy a book or a board game.
7) What are your favorite eating out places in Prague?
K: Recently, we started going to Wine & Food Market on Strakonicka street. That's not quite as Czech, sorry for that,:-) but it's guaranteed for quality! For the proper Czech classics it's definitely Lokal.
Where can you get Usito toys and decorations?