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Friday, October 10, 2014

Locals and Tourists

My latest All About Beer post is up--a survey of five Prague pubs to visit that will get you up to speed on the current moment in Czech brewing.  This is how I framed my choices:
But if you happen to have the good fortune to visit you’ll find one of the easiest cities in the world to navigate, a feast for the eyes and surprisingly cheap travel. And within two days, the scales will have fallen from your eyes and your entire understanding of Czech beer will have blossomed.
In any town with as many drinking holes as Prague, there is always going to be room for disagreement.  And indeed, on Facebook, a Praguer (please tell me residents of Prague are Praguers) lodged his complaints:
U Fleku is full of tourists. Which is not always a bad thing. But in this case it's full of tourists because no locals would ever go there. The single beer they serve is nice enough, but it's ridiculously overpriced, and totally not worth the money...

Strahov is okay for a brief visit on the way past, but again, overpriced because only tourists really go there, and they don't care about the price because they're happy to pay for the experien
ce of drinking beer which is supposedly brewed to an ancient monk memory...
This raises an interesting division between what locals and tourists value.  It's an especially sharp divide in Prague, which is perpetually awash in tourists and where the standard beer, so commonplace to locals, is new and rare to visitors.  (And where, ironically, the more exotic beer--IPAs, stouts, sour beer--is fairly old hat to American beer geeks.)   The reality is, the needs of locals and tourists differ.

As much as tourists to a country want to be in the know and want to avoid tourist traps, a certain amount of that is critical.  You must understand the basics before you can get a feel for the subtleties. The first time I went to Prague, I skipped U Fleku because of its reputation as ground zero for tourists.  But it's ground zero for a reason!  The brewery has been there since 1499, which makes it far and away one of the oldest in the world.  Perhaps even more impressive, the dark lager has been brewed there roughly the same way and to the same formulation, since the year after Josef Groll first brewed Pilsner.  For obvious reasons, locals probably don't frequent a place with just one beer and throngs of tourists; that doesn't mean beer geeks should skip it, too.

It's possible some people visit Strahov because of a silly invented story, but I guess I'm immune to those.  Trying to embroider a brewery's rep with ecclesiastical thread is so common I always tune it out.  The reason to go is for the beer.  Locals may despair at the price, but once you've spent thousands of dollars to travel half way around the globe, you're not about to let the marginal expense of a pint dissuade you.  As someone who chafes over the price of Rogue and the McMenamins in Portland, I get why price is a relevant factor for locals.  It's just not a reasonable objection for the tourist. 

All of this comes to mind in part because I'm about to start writing about the beer and beer scene in Victoria, BC.  It will necessarily be an outsider's perspective: I'm an outsider.  But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  It's okay to try to cover the basics when you visit a new town, to try to interpret things for those who have a baseline of zero experience back home. But Praguers and Victorians (another great demonym) will have to forgive me.

Anyway, go check out the piece at All About Beer if you missed it.


  1. Hear hear! You can skip U Fleků on your second and subsequent trips, but keep going back to Strahov because the beer is superb.

  2. The problem with U Fleku is the prices and the, somewhat deserved, bad reputation the place has got throughout the years. In the past, it used to be a hangout for students and intellectuals. Nowadays, unfortunately, the owners are happier with catering to the bus tour crowd than to the locals, which is shame, the place is gorgeous and the beer is really, really good.

    With Strahov. Prices are an issue there, too. And it's the main reason I don't go there often. The beers are very good, yes, but I know the city well, and I know I can get stuff of comparable quality that is cheaper. The reason behind the price policy? I don't know, but I'm sure rent there is far from cheap. Another problem with Strahov, too, is its location. Hardly anyone live or work there, and with so many good pubs around town, there's not that much motivation to go there. All that being said, Strahov is far more popular among the beer crowd than U Fleku, which says a lot.

  3. Max, just curious. As a former outsider who has become such an insider that he literally wrote the book on Prague pubs, if you were to compile a "five stop" list that learned up foreign drinkers, which would they be?

  4. It will depend on what those drinkers want. Is it the beers, or is it the pubs?

    As a drinker, I gravitate more towards the latter. The beer selection might get me through the door the first time, but it won't be the reason why I would like to go back. And there's also great pubs with widely available, mass produced brands where I love drinking, even if nearby there might be another place with beers that we could call better or more interesting. Case in question, U Černého Vola and Pivovar Strahov.

  5. I used to love Strahov, especially on a Sunday afternoon in the autumnal sun.

    I agree with Max that beer might get you thorugh the door, but it is the pub itself that keeps you there.

    I have half a mind to try and get back next year, something to do with turning 40 or something or other, and will hopefully update my own minor pub guide to the city.

    One thing is for sure, Pivovarsky klub will always have a very special place in my heart.

  6. Nine times out of ten, I would agree with you, Max. It's exactly the advice I'd give to anyone traveling to England (the the horror, I think, of English beer geeks): point your feet in a direction, start walking, and stop at the first pub you come to. Drink, exit, repeat. Pay absolutely no attention to all the information about craft beer bars. Go instead for the extraordinary experience of hanging out in an English (or Scottish, or--probably--Welsh pub).

    But Americans know bupkis about Czech beer, and my advice would be to explore that dimension. Get to know good beer. Try different styles, different breweries, different presentations. Study how and why it is not like German beer. So I'd send 'em where the beer is and let them enjoy the pubs on days 3 on (or trips two on).

  7. Come to think of it, the alternatives don't have to be exclusive to each other. Without getting too bogged down in names, the list could be: A good neighbourhood tankovna, a pub dedicated to a good regional brand--Ferdinand, Bernard, Svijany, Kácov, etc--a pub where big brands and smaller brands are side by side, a good brewpub and one of the better multi-tap pubs