40 Years in Beer, Part Eighteen: In Ostrava, the beer of the people at the factory gates

Nová huť Klementa Gottwalda, Ostrava, 1950s. Photo credit.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Seventeen: Uncle V’s beery introduction to Bohemia (June 1989).

In 1989 the city of Ostrava (population 330,000) was communist Czechoslovakia’s hard-knock, grit-inflected, coal-fueled, factory-filled equivalent of the robber baron era in Pittsburgh. It would have been an unlikely tourist destination if not for my émigré friend George’s parents, who lived in Ostrava and graciously consented to house me for almost two weeks.

Uncle Vlasta refused to let me take the train, and instead we drove to Ostrava from Prague, a distance of 230 miles via Brno and Olomouc. Our destination was a mid-century house situated quite literally in the shadows of smokestacks belching the residue of Nové Hutě Klementa Gottwalda, a sprawling postwar steel mill named for one of Czechoslovakia’s founding communist luminaries, who incidentally was a syphilitic alcoholic with an attitude problem.

George’s father Vladimir worked at the mill as an engineer, and his mother Ilona was a secretary at a nearby firm. Vladimir was a hearty, extroverted, hard-working man. In addition to his responsibilities at Czechoslovakia’s largest steel mill, he maintained a cow, a copse of plum trees and a tidy vegetable garden on a minuscule plot of land behind his home.

Each day in Ostrava unfolded as a study in meticulously planned perpetual motion, punctuated by phrases in Vladimir’s native Czech, as well as Slovak, Russian, Polish, German and the English he’d only started amassing when his stepson defected to America three years prior to my visit.

Illona was eager to hear about her son’s life in Indiana. She had engaged the services of Ladislav, a retired teacher, to help her learn better conversational English. Eventually I’d come to meet Ladislav, who inadvertently played a huge role in my subseuent travels. It’s a story I’ll relate in due course.

My first full day in Ostrava began as rainy, sooty and thoroughly bleak morning fully in keeping with the prevailing industrial landscape. Vladimir had a few hours off work, and he took me on a tram trip to the city center, but only after we visited a nearby potraviny (grocery) to buy transit tickets and cross off the items on Ilona’s list.

The tram trundled past block after block of work spaces comprising the vast grounds of the steel mill, culminating with the barracks-like campus of a technical school. Then came what might have been middle class suburbs during the interwar period of the 1930s, when Czechoslovakia was a prosperous democracy, prior to the ravages of Nazism during World War II and subsequent moribund years of communism.

We disembarked near Ostrava’s historic central square, faded but still vital. Vladimir was quite well aware of my fondness for beer, and following a brief orientation stroll, we adjourned to a nearby pub to drink lunch. My chaperone was loudly hailed by a table of friends as we entered.

Was everyone playing hooky from work that particular day? Even before I’d finished mumbling garbled Czech pleasantries, a half-liter mug of local Ostravar lager beer was waiting on the table in front of me.

Vladimir’s friends were roughhewn, wearing simple work clothes and smoking acrid, unfiltered cigarettes, which I politely refused. They worked dirty jobs and at first glance might have seemed intimidating, but to a man they were jovial, courteous and genuinely curiosity about the sheer unexpected novelty of an American somehow landing in their neck of the woods.

As we all cradled big, fluted half-liter mugs of cool draft Ostravar, I searched for something meaningful to say. Recalling the phrase that Uncle V taught me back in Prague, I downed my beer and let the words fly: “Chesko pivo je lepshi nezh Ameritsky pivo.”

Frighteningly bad pronunciation notwithstanding, Vladimir’s buddies roared with delight, as I’d just informed them in their own tongue that Czech beer was better than American beer. Not only was it a fine way of breaking the ice, but the words were by no means insincere.

In 1989, the American-made craft beer revolution was still a faraway dream to a lad from flown-over New Albany, and the typically well-made Czech golden lagers never once got old. Although generally on the sweet side, tmavé (dark) lagers were seen here and there, and if you got really lucky, a strong bottom-fermented Porter might turn up.

Exploration and roaming took up the days to follow, although there were excursions to Olomouc with George’s uncle Franta and the Beskidy mountains with my hosts. I bought a map of Ostrava, rode cheap public transportation, and walked all across the city. Every now and then, I’d get a sausage and a bottle or two of beer, sit on a bench, and watch the denizens of the city pass by.

2017. Paint, lots of paint.

During the second of two Sunday mornings in Ostrava, as we breakfasted on coffee, cold cuts, tomatoes, cucumbers and plums, Ilona informed me that later in the afternoon there’d be a social visit or three. I was more than welcome to join them as they made the circuit.

Of course, I replied. I’d love to. As his wife left the kitchen, Vladimir leaned over conspiratorially, informing me that first, we had another very important appointment to keep.

“You must come to MY pub,” he said, taking pains to stress a regular customer’s sense of ownership.

Shortly thereafter we began a vigorous 15-minute walk to his neighborhood watering hole. Several streets into the stroll, there came a shortcut across a vacant lot, following a well-worn footpath until it intersected with a rough concrete sidewalk. This led down a ramp into a urine-stained pedestrian passage underneath the railroad tracks facing a largely deserted satellite rail station, where we exited the tunnel. Unkempt weeds peeped through the cracks in the platforms.

The day was fast becoming hot and muggy as we reached a hilly street proceeding dustily into a hazy distance. Vladimir abruptly halted and gestured at a small, nondescript building. I cannot recall discernible signage or any indication of it being a pivnice (pub in Czech), although that’s what it was.

The door was open, and from our sidewalk vantage point, golden-colored beers and several of the customers renting them could be seen inside. Simple square wooden tables were topped with faded but clean cloths. The room was small and sparsely decorated, and there was no bar as such, just a service counter in the Czech fashion, extending outward on both sides of the draft beer dispensing station that featured a solitary handle.

Czech “rum” was always made from potatoes and sugar beets, not sugar cane. It still is, but cannot be called “rum” owing to EU regulations.

Behind the counter was a sink for washing the mugs. There was no kitchen, although crunchy snack items were available. A dozen or so males were smoking and drinking beer, and many of them also had small tumblers of indeterminate liquid arranged in a jagged lineup with their mugs and ashtrays.

As I was about to discover, the liquid was none other than rum (tuzemský rum), albeit a spirit not to be confused with Caribbean rum as Americans know it, but rather the raucous ersatz Central European variant, an inexpensive concoction seemingly tasting of alcohol, brown sugar and artificial tropical flavorings – tasting somewhat like a planter’s punch, without any of the subtle qualities one might expect from an expertly mixed cocktail.

Rum did the job, and was extremely popular with Vladimir’s peers.

The exact brand of beer on tap that day is lost to my memory, although it surely would have been one of three dominant regional brands: Ostravar, Zlatovar (from nearby Opava) or Radegast (brewed in Nošovice), all familiarly styled lagers in the pilsner mode, and each with a devoted, clannish following among the workers and soccer fans of Ostrava.

Probably it was Ostravar, and as such, perfectly acceptable, and in fact far preferable to Pabst, Miller High Life, Milwaukee’s Best Beast or the wayward ghost of Iron City.

A work buddy of Vladimir’s was waiting for us. He had already gone through most of a pack of smokes, and the butts were threatening to spill over onto the tablecloth. The men began to gossip about work, with an occasional pause to attempt an explanation of the topic in their limited English. It was plenty enough to keep me entertained as the customers came, drank, and then went, preparing for their own Sunday social engagements, afternoon errands and sodden naps.

Soon a forty-something bearded man in a tank top began glancing at us from an adjacent table. After eavesdropping for several minutes, he caught Vladimir’s attention and said a few words – maybe a joke, since the Czechs at my table were unable to contain their mirth at the stranger’s remark.

As it turned out, he had politely observed that Vladimir was speaking very good Czech for an American, to which Vladimir replied that nearly six decades of Czech living surely had broadened his language skills, but the only American in the room was this other fellow from Indiana.

And everyone looked at me.

In fact the bearded man was a Cuban guest worker employed in Ostrava, and the delightful juxtaposition of imported New World ideological “enemies” was too much for the locals to pass up. He was promptly invited to join us.

The Cuban called himself Freddie. He knew some English, and had learned passable Czech. As it transpired, he had a wife and children to support back home in Havana but also had gotten married to a Czech woman, as he could find no compelling reason not to maintain a second family during what was expected to be his lengthy stay abroad.

As an adult, he’d already worked in Angola, Ethiopia and all around the East Bloc. For all I know, he might well have had added new families at each workplace.

2023: Colours of Ostrava, a music and art fest, is held at the city’s Dolní Vítkovice site (protected former ironworks, mine and steelworks).

Vladimir’s friends and Freddie got on well, but foreign guest workers tended to be the subject of disapproval in Ostrava. For one, they were a visible and irksome symbol of Czechoslovakia’s subservient status as Soviet pawn, but it also owed to what I interpreted as a thinly-veiled racism.

Because: Many of the guest workers were from Vietnam and Africa. They looked “different” and quite naturally kept to themselves, which was construed as threatening by natives already unwilling to accept their presence.

But it’s another story for another time, and a phenomenon by no means confined to Vladimir’s sector of the globe. Freddie seemed to fit in, and as one might imagine, the afternoon dissolved quickly into the illogic of liquidity. Shots of rum and fresh beers came and went like the skewered, rapid fire images in a music video.

Between gulps, we attempted to construct lists of words comprising all the languages present at a table that continued to attract newcomers as we drank. We’d count to twenty in Czech, English, Spanish, Russian, German and even French, then recite phrases (“I like to drink beer”) in each, ending inevitably by a collective and precipitous lapse into the slurred, ad hoc second language spoken by drinkers everywhere.

At some point, trudging back home far later than originally anticipated, we turned the corner to find Ilona at the door, awaiting her husband and their American guest with a big iron frying pan in hand.

For a brief moment I contemplated flash sobriety, but as it turned out she was only washing the pan, nothing more. No injuries were suffered, apart from the self-inflicted pain in my head the following morning. Our social itinerary on Sunday evening (coming down) went off without a hitch, albeit in an atmosphere of dignified, restrained silence.

Bazaly stadium in Ostrava, 1989. Smoke is emanating from the Přívozská hulda (Přívoz slag heap), an artificial hill created by coal mining waste.

More than three decades later, when I think back on the Sunday afternoon at Vladimir’s neighborhood pub in Ostrava, it perfectly encapsulated my month in Czechoslovakia. The uncut weeds at the commuter train station, the dusty street, the threadbare yet functional pivnice and the Cuban guest worker combined to paint a picture of a nation sentenced to geopolitics, and caught in a time warp imposed on it from outside.

More importantly, the chatter and shop talk of Vladimir and his friends, my host’s exemplary work ethic and his well-organized days of achievement at home and at work, along with the multilingual conversations – simple yet comprehensible – revealed something about fundamental humanity and decency, and the similarities between the lives of people no matter where they live.

Six months after the blurry Sunday recounted here, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia crumbled almost overnight. Appropriately, the man who best symbolized the Velvet Revolution became the liberated nation’s first president: Václav Havel, a beer drinker and former brewery worker (he wrote a wee bit on the side, too).

I persist in thinking that if Havel would have wandered into Vladimir’s pivnice on the day of my visit, he would have been welcomed at our table.

As for the post-communist outcomes of the three beers most commonly encountered in Ostrava, Radegast (named for an entity in Slavic mythology) has become the best known, which was the aim when its modern brewery was built in 1970. It’s now a monolith.

Ostravar remains in operation and Zlatovar doesn’t, having wound down a decade ago, with its historic building repurposed as a shopping center. Apparently a version of Zlatovar is still being brewed by the Nymburk brewery in Bohemia.

Next time: 40 Years in Beer, Part 19: Moscow skyline in Twilight, 1989.

Ostrava in 1989.


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