Berlin to Prague is another semi-epic train journey, but an incredibly beautiful one at that. It's all well and good already until you pass through Dresden; thereafter, the track aligns with the winding Elbe as you follow wooded valleys across the border into the Czech Republic. The six-seater glass-doored compartment of the train only emphasises the old world Romance of the trip.
This is pretty much carried on throughout Prague itself; the old town is a preserved medieval streetscape with an abundance of churches, bridges and beer. Only the constant herd of high-season foot traffic threatens to spoil the authentic oldness of the place.
Old Town Square is where you flock when you're a tourist, and the restaurants that circle the square itself are each represented by a big Czech brewer, the name of which is on the awning. It was by accident that we found ourselves sitting in a Krušovice joint looking directly at the face of Old Town Hall, albeit through a swarm of Segways.
Being a sucker for dark lager I went straight for Krušovice Černe. It's dark alright, but it lacks the bodily heft that it needs to be called chewy, an essential component of my perfect dark lager, be it Czech, Bavarian or otherwise. The fact that it's light and comes with low carbonation makes it eminently drinkable while placing it pretty low on the scale for memorability. This is in spite of the fact that I obviously drank plenty of it over the few days. What I will remember it for is how much I enjoyed the delicious pumpkin soup I had with it on one of the chillier afternoons.
The Černovar Černé next door was marginally better, although this may have been by virtue of being served in one of those hand-grenade mini-dimpled beer mugs. It felt a little less bland with some actual toffee chocolate creeping into the otherwise still quite coppery, thin and wan dark lager.
Back in the Krušovice restaurant I decided I'd take a break from the Tmavý and try the wheat beer, helpfully called Krušovice Wheat. Like it's darker brother it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of being a properly great beer, but it does at least show off slightly more flavour to begin with; there's plenty of sweet banana to taste but only an optimist can find clove on the nose. OK, so not more flavour, but more of one flavour - it begin to cloy near the finish.
I couldn't go to Prague and not try some Pilsner Urquell; it's not quite home turf, but it's close enough. Surprisingly it's not nearly as ubiquitous as I'd expected it to be, but there are official Pilsner Urquell-endorsed bars and restaurants dotted around the place. The one we stopped in here was on a neat little cobbled roundabout in the staggeringly beautiful Jewish Quarter. Pilsner Urquell comes unpasteurised here (tank beer, they call it) and it's delicious. The bready graininess is ridiculously intense and there's a decent, robust straw or grassy bitterness that lingers for ages, while the whole thing remains undeniably quaffable. Good stuff.
On the other side of town is U Fleků, where the beer is good, the environment is breathtaking and the service is downright spooky.
They will watch you come in.
They will watch you sit down.
One of them will appear at your table and listen to your order.
He will not make eye contact with you.
He will carry an expression that tells you that if it wasn't for his pesky 'job' he'd be choking you to death where you sit.
He will not acknowledge that he heard the words you vomited from your abhorrent tourist mouth. He will simply walk away.
This one offers you an unnamed, unlabelled shot from the tray he carries.
He won't believe you if you say 'no thank you'. He needs more convincing than this,
It's not certain whether, whence or where one would awake after accepting the mystery shot.
The first one returns. Good, at least he heard you.
The beer is clear, so you can verify that, no, he didn't shit in the glass. That's good too.
Did he spit in it? Who knows.
What I do know is that U Fleků Flekovský Tmavý Ležák 13° is without a doubt the blackest lager I've seen and this one does have some chewy toffee and roast malt goodness, a cold, clean raisiny finish and... oh, a disappointing and surprisingly anaemic overall impact. It's good but it still doesn't scratch the itch and it certainly isn't worth walking to the lest welcoming place in Prague to try. Remember, it is the only beer they serve, and while I find that Romantic and admirable, if you don't like it or the place itself you've wasted your time.
The final day in Prague had probably the most enjoyable beer stop, at U Tří Růží, back in the cosy embrace of Old Town. The downstairs bar is the only part I explored but it's a pleasant people-watching space with some supposedly functional copper-finished brewing equipment on show. Being the devotee that I am, I had to begin with the U Tří Růží Tmavý Ležák, and it proved the Tmaviest Tmavý of the trip. The nose lacked a certain anything but there's no doubting the simple but satisfying concoction of raisiny toffee and barm brack maltiness on the palate. There's a decent heft to the texture too, being rather full but not too filling.
There was only time for one more so I knew I had to make it count; no pils for me, thanks. Instead I opted for the Klášterní Speciál Sv. Jiljí (No. 4, I think), a 7.2% 'monastic special beer' we're told. I'll take that.
It comes a handsome clear gold and smells immediately of sweet, candied pineapple and caramelised sugar. There's a sort of tingling clove thing hiding in the back somewhere, and, rather surprisingly, a suggestion of a good dose of fresh New World hops - juicy and tropical but ultimately of the sweeter persuasion. I'm not sure what style this is trying to be or indeed what style it would even fit into but I'm not too worried. It's a nice change of pace and, with the possible exception of the crisp Pilsner Urquell above, might by the most hops I've seen since Amsterdam.
With that, the Prague leg of the trip comes to a close. Next up was supposed to be Budapest, but as it would have felt terribly inappropriate to walk through a refugee-packed Keleti dragging a tourist suitcase and looking for beer, we opted to head directly to Vienna.