Much the Same, Thank You

The Politics of Beer by | Apr 2011 | Issue #51

I am grateful to have been young when I was. The 21st-century beer explorer is a pussy. He or she expects beer bars to be welcoming, grateful to see them, interested in their customs and prepared to serve a selection worthy of the most knowledgeable clientele. The 21st-century beer explorer will complain if their food is not up to snuff. They know little of surviving in this world. Thank god we do not need them as pioneers.

Last month, I dined once more at Obecní Dum and loved the experience in the forgiving way of all tourists. It was suave and expensive. A confident maître d’ took note of my discerning eye, pinned the back of it with his steady gaze, sized up my tipping potential and allocated to me a table appropriate to my status and likely donation to his pecuniary gain. I ate Mediterranean, as one does in chichi modern Prague.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in ’85, before the Berlin Wall came down and took the grip of the gray with it, we foreigners were rare visitors indeed at this palace for the peasantry. The first time we pushed through its brass-edged swing doors, I was unsure whether to touch the acid-engraved window panes or their carved oak frames. I recall my first peek into the vast, high-ceilinged emptiness of this national-monument-cum-state-run-kitchen and sighting the pink, squat, pinafored waiters, their hair oil applied too generously above peevish expressions that spoke of suffering too much for their trade.

Where is the odor of cabbage and boiled ham now? Or the church-like silence? The trembling of a hand on an empty wine glass as a mug of rare Pilsner Urquell replaces it on the lightly stained, cigarette-burned tablecloth has been banished forever by the new masters. We may never know its like again.

Instead, the city that most impressed my youthful self with its unfamiliarity has grown to be “one of us.” In smoky dives where once the passionate nightly debate was of politics and ideas, the now fatter, better-groomed regulars watch Manchester United playing Champions League football on wide-screen TVs, just as they do in every other lazy bar this side of the Atlantic.

Brewers who once coaxed oddly distinguished lagers from ancient kits left to rot by state-approved neglect now use robots to spew rivers of perfectly formed, dull beer from mountainous steel contraptions designed for maximum speed and profit. Precisely shaved waiters hope that I will have a nice day and ask me if I want milk on the side with that, as they truly appreciate my custom. Where once were blocks of badly cooked pork belly, clod-like dumplings and a puddle of some approximated industrial sauce, are now sheets of trim, fresh-roasted lamb, potato sautéed with onion, a chef-made deluge of cranberry and, well, a light, fluffy dumpling.

In oddly located bars created by entrepreneurial Czech beer lovers, I chat with like-minded drinkers of many nations, comparing our impressions of Scandinavian versus North American micros and trying to best guess where Eastern European brewers will head next. The air is agreeably smoke free and the local beers well chosen, each accurately described in four languages on the daily-changing menu.

Modern Prague is not a bad experience. On the contrary, it is many times better than it used to be. People smile. Conversations in the street are no longer hesitant or interrupted by eyes darting around, trying to spot whoever may be noting their occurrence. But I am glad that I was young when I was, and saw different worlds from the one that has become familiar, wherever on Earth I find myself, or consider showing to my children.