From 2017: “When it comes to beer, less might yet be more”

Prague, 1995.
Herold Březnice Castle Brewery, 1997.

This column was written in 2017. Pints&union came along in 2018, and Common Haus Hall in 2022. At both these establishments, owned by Joe Phillips and beer-tended by your truly, the majority of taps are kept constant (Anglo-European at P&u, and German-themed at CHaus). My point? I’m practicing what I preached, and it’s been successful. 

I remember being in Prague in the mid-1990s. We’d wander through downtown neighborhoods hunting beer, sometimes hopping trams, other times using the subway, but most often on foot.

The objective was to find draft beers from as many of the Czech Republic’s breweries as possible, and having identified these beers, to drink them straight down.

In retrospect, it isn’t clear to me what sort of legal framework for beer distribution existed in the Czech Republic at the time. Something akin to a “tied house” seemed common, in that a pivnice (piv-nee-tsuh, or tavern) generally would serve beer from only one brewery.

These days, we’d probably decamp to a multi-tap and be overwhelmed by sheer choice. I’ve read that Prague now has such establishments boasting bountiful selections, as well as WiFi to enable the inevitable postings at Untappd, but this approach strikes me as tantamount to the king’s gamesmen running the animals past his shooting stand.

It’s also no way to conduct a drinking tour of a city, especially when traveling overseas, where there’s so much else to be learned quite apart from beer.

2Two or more decades ago, many of Prague’s pubs served beers from one of the city’s “big three” breweries: Staropramen, Braník or Mestan, the latter two apparently long since deceased as independent entities.

Other breweries were well represented, too, and it seemed the closer their home cities to Prague, the better chance of finding them. Pilsner Urquell was a given. Gambrinus, Velkopopovický and Radegast also were around, though at the time of which I speak, the epochal Budvar not as much.

Intriguingly, it remained possible in the mid-1990s to find watering holes in Prague that had hooked up with smaller breweries, or even larger ones further away from the capital. There’d be occasional appearances by Ferdinand (from nearby Benešov), Hostan (Znojmo), Regent (Třeboň) or Starobrno (Brno).

The trick was finding the places serving them, as they didn’t always correspond to familiar addresses amid the prevailing tourist routes. We’d forage down back alleys, through obscure archways and below street level in dark cellars.

An obscure brewery called Herold became an obsession for my band of beer explorers. It was founded in the countryside in 1506, surviving the threat of closure in the waning months of the Communist period only because its stubborn plant manager refused to do what the authorities told him and shutter the facility.

These authorities soon were gone, and the plant manager remained.

We traipsed over what seemed like half of Prague one evening trying to find the sole pivnice that we’d been told poured Herold, and stopping frequently for directions at other establishments along the way. These wayfinding tips generally came accompanied by beers of thankfulness, which might explain our ultimate failure.

Resolving to locate the Herold brewery itself, eventually we were able to do so in 1997 with the help of a savvy travel agent in Prague, who secured a minibus and driver for a day’s journey deep into the Bohemian hinterlands.

Lobkowicz brewery (since 1540).

First we visited the town of Velké Popovice for a Velkopopovický Kozel tasting, then Vysoký Chlumec (home of Lobkowitz), and finally the tiny town of Březnice, where a farmer on a tractor pulling a wagon overflowing with manure slowly guided our careful man at the wheel to the Herold brewery gate.

Herold brewery in 1997.

I’d contacted the manager, but he had an untimely emergency and wasn’t there, so his second in command made a hasty phone call, ran out the door, and soon emerged with a local schoolteacher in tow to serve as interpreter.

Our Herold brewery tour lasted all of 20 minutes, yielding to a considerably more intensive two-hour survey of the lagering cellar. By the end of our seminar below ground, we had absorbed so much knowledge that the ancient stone staircase leading back to the top began wildly undulating to the beat of non-existent music.

The magical motion very nearly kept us subterranean, which would have been just lovely by me.

Pre-cellar aperitifs at Herold, 1997.

Obviously much has changed in the Czech Republic, and everywhere else in the world. Many of the old-school Czech breweries are gone, and a new crop of “craft” brewers has arrived. Herold has survived, first under American ownership, and since 2009 under Czech control again. I haven’t tasted Herold’s beers for many a moon, and can only hope they’re as good now as during our visit.

Granted, the range of beer choice in Prague used to be far narrower, but it was a beer paradise nonetheless, and while it may sound as though I’m waxing nostalgic for a bygone era – one I devoted a full quarter-century of my professional life to revolutionizing – it’s very important to understand that yes, you bet I am … unless of course, I’m not.

Just as trudging eight miles clothed in primitive bearskin through six-foot-high snow drifts helped transform a previous generation of mid-20th century schoolchildren into improved parental units, hunting beers the hard way had its merits.

Beers taste better when you work for them, and breweries, too; we’d follow a canal or rail line, sniff the unmistakable aroma of a boil in progress, and follow our noses to the goal line. The biggest problem was finding our way home. Somehow, we managed.

The real reason I’m broaching this topic is because, speaking as a consumer, there exists a little-known, positive connotation to the tied house: If it’s a Fuller’s pub, you know there’ll be Fuller’s served there. No guesswork is involved, and at times, this can be a good thing.

In the present era, unceasing “guest” tap rotation has morphed into something that’s incredibly diverse, but also no longer comes moored to any system or routine. It’s wonderful and chaotic, all at once.

Rotating guest taps made for a refreshing trend when acting as the changeable component alongside a non-revolving core selection, but we’ve long since settled into the rigid orthodoxy of a daily (hourly?) spin-the-flavor-wheel approach. Accordingly, fresh ideas for marketing and retailing a profusion of better beer choices have steadily diminished.

When the only constant is dizzying change, then surely, at least for some establishments in search of a noteworthy market niche, resolving to give the pendulum a nudge in the opposite direction is both merited and praiseworthy. Either a semi-permanent selection of acknowledged classics, or a single brewery’s popular range, would make for a distinctive strategy.

Naturally, I’m not sanctioning tied houses if by “tied” we mean a contractually narrowed choice, especially via a swillmonger like AB-InBev. And, of course, the tied house isn’t exactly legal in America, even when it happens, which is lamentably often (witness the hegemony of Coors Light at sports bars nationwide).

Rather, I’m suggesting the veracity of a voluntary “self-tie” of sorts, and as always, I’m insistent that beer and brewing knowledge emanate from behind the bar, as reflected by an intelligent and coherent (if narrowed) selection, and mirroring the conceptual contours of an establishment’s wine and spirits program.

After all, everyone knows that a bar simply must have a core selection of liquor (bourbon, vodka gin, tequila) and wine (white, red, blush). So, how does this paradigm not apply to beer styles?

Conversely, many bars in metropolitan Louisville proudly feature Brown-Forman wines and spirits. So, why not follow suit with an exclusive selection of Falls City’s genuinely independent local drafts?

Wouldn’t it make sense for an eatery on the Indiana side of the river to feature all Sun King drafts? And isn’t it true that if one did this, Sun King’s three flagships – Sunlight, Osiris and Wee Mac – would be the biggest sellers, day in and day out? Of course the same might be said for Daredevil or Upland.

There are many ways of cultivating loyalty. My contention is that more customers than we tend to think actually like the idea of “their” favorite brand or style of beer, and when it comes to better (“craft”) beer, the merits of continuity are being vastly undervalued.

Accordingly, there’s a case to be made for making the process of choosing a preferred everyday beer easier for those who might become regular customers just because they know what to expect when they drop in for a sandwich.

After all, regulars order the same food regularly, right?

If there were a pub pouring draft Guinness, Pilsner Urquell and Fuller’s London Pride all the time, with just one or two guest taps on seasonal rotation to round out the lineup, would it be suicidal or innovative?

Aside from the absence of representative beer localism, itself a correspondingly viable strategy for a half-dozen largely fixed taps, I’m voting for innovative. In fact, there’d be something I personally like on tap, all the time. The deciding factor would be if the pub were a comfortable place to drink and converse. If so, six well-tended faucets might well be preferable to fifty-six.

Given there’s only so much time in the first place, it would prove highly beneficial in weeding out the beer rating narcissists.

Brewhouse office, Herold, 1997.