Jeff Alworth is a great beer writer. In this brief essay, he takes us to Prague for one of those "Holy Grail" bucket list beers, originally described by the beer writer Michael Jackson, all of which packed off my butt to Europe so very long ago.
U Fleků Flekovský Ležák 13˚: Bohemia’s Definitive Dark Beer, by Jeff Alworth (All About Beer)
When citing the year of their inception, many breweries—well, how to say this delicately?—polish the apple somewhat. The date you find on a bottle may refer to monks who brewed there once, or an unrelated brewery from centuries earlier, or some other abstruse connection to antiquity. That’s why it’s nice to be able to highlight truly historic breweries. And, when they happen to make the classic example of a beer style, they deserve special celebration and acclamation. Thus I give you the sprawling brewpub at the heart of Prague, U Fleků, founded—really!—in 1499 ...
... As far as the beer goes, U Fleků’s tmavé, called Flekovský Ležák, is unusual even by Czech standards. By tradition, breweries list their beer by strength, using the Plato system for measuring gravity. Lower-alcohol beers are brewed to 9˚-10˚, medium-strength to 11˚-12˚, and stronger beers up to 18˚. Many have no other designation beyond the number. Flekovský Ležák is a 13˚ lager, which would typically indicate strength, yet in fact it weighs in at just 5% ABV. That means a lot of sugar has been left behind, which gives it a luxurious mouthfeel, like a pint of cocoa. There aren’t many hops, so you might guess it would be a cloying beer. Yet while it is sweetish, the malts evoke dark chocolate and coffee, and the lagering gives it a smoothness that clips the heaviness. It’s a velvety beer engineered to please the palates of people sitting in the pub for hours on end.
I'd always assumed Flekovský Ležák 13˚ to be slightly stronger than the norm, but Alworth's explanation makes perfect sense. The absence of cloying sweetness in such a beer is testament to the brewer's skill.
Last year, I finally got around to documenting "Roger and Barrie in Prague, 1987." Here's an excerpt. Subsequently I visited U Fleků on several occasions, and frankly, the overall experience was up and down. In 2006, the beer was thin and slightly vinegary. Consequently, I'm delighted to learn that the quality is back, because at its best, it's unforgettable.
30 years ago today: Our sports club beds, glorious Prague and beers at U Fleků.
At last, it was time for restorative beers and a square meal at the legendary brewery and restaurant called U Fleků. At the time, only one house beer was available, a rich black lager with more alcohol than most and a higher price tag.
In 1987, U Fleků had the faded ambiance of having seen better days, though the beer was solid -- not so much so in 2006, but seeing as the web site of today depicts a plush interior, let's hope beer and furnishings have been rectified.
30 years ago, U Fleků's higher prices remained a stunning bargain in American terms, but qualified the brewery as a tourist joint by local economic standards, and the waiters (mostly male) were both multi-lingual and comically theatrical in their snobby demeanor.
For instance, the food menu. If you didn't speak Czech, the offerings came down to three items: "Pork, beef, goulash."
Eight years later, revisiting U Fleků with one of my beer tour groups, it finally was revealed that a typical Czech restaurant menu had always been available. Tourists didn't know the system, and the waiters weren't about to reveal it, because it was easier for them to remember three words in a dozen languages than navigate choice.
In 1995, we watched in delight as a stubborn Frenchman refused the Holy Trinity and asked instead for a salad (in English, by the way).
He was exaggeratedly refused, but persisted. Finally he stood and guided his waiter to a menu posted on the wall, pointing to the words for his salad.
The waiter squinted, then dramatically pulled his reading glasses from the depths of a soiled apron. He stooped to read ... and shrugged.
The Frenchman got his salad.