A visit to Prague's famous U Fleku Brewery and Pub

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Today's edition of Czechs in History is dedicated to beer lovers. Historically Bohemia has a long tradition of brewing beer, and one hundred years ago there were dozens of small brewing houses throughout the country, the majority of which no longer exist. But there's one that continues even today, a renowned pub and brewery called U Fleku, where you can get a taste of days gone by. In existence since 1499, it is safe to say this pub is a must for any visitor to the Czech capital, and for any beer drinker worth his salt. And if brewing beer for more than 500 years seems incredible to you, and it should - keep listening. We'll be taking a tour of the pub's famous premises and sharing a pint with U Fleku's maltster, a master brewer who'll tell you a thing or two about the delicious dark lager he watches over. Perhaps even you will find yourself thirsting for a glass by the end of today's programme.

The Czechs do love their beer. Countless essays and articles have been written about the role of the Czech pub in public life - that magnet, that centre, that attracts so many people here in the evenings with the slim excuse of having 'just one'. Innumerable discourses have been held over why one beer tastes better than another, pubs have been the settings for many political meetings, and the backdrops for much fun and sometimes debauched behaviour, as well as inspiration for literature, music, theatre, and art. The sheer number of drinking establishments in Prague alone is quite remarkable - but it is easy to take it for granted - it is such a regular part of Czech daily life. One fact remains: going to the pub in the Czech Republic often means more than simply going out to drink - when Czechs say they are 'thirsty' the expression somehow connotes more than simple thirst: it is a compound desire, a thirst for company, for discussion, and a confrontation of ideas. Historian Radko Pytlik has noted in his rather blandly-titled - but otherwise beautifully written - book of essays 'Prague Restaurants' that "The pub is where ordinary people dare to improvise... the pub is improvised theatre". Even more worthy is Radko Pytlik's quote from the late great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal:

"Waiter, what you have there is a beautiful pint. It is a pint with a wonderful frothy head. But it isn't froth. It's whipped cream. It's a chilled pudding. But it's not a pudding; it's a fantastic goal. Waiter, your bar here. It's not just any old joint. Your bar here is the Bethlehem Chapel, in which every guest becomes what he used to be, through conversation, or what he would like to be. Waiter, your bar here is not just any old joint. Your bar, waiter, with it's resounding solitude, is one in which one has the best dreams. Waiter, Holy Mother, what you have brought me there is a pint of beauty!"

Hrabal, of course, was a regular at another famous Prague pub U Tygra - At the Tiger - a place, it sometimes seems, that will forever miss his presence. Every great pub must have a great patron. And how many have passed through Prague's oldest pubs, including U Fleku: founded in 1499, it has seen more visitors than one could imagine or care to count, famous and unknown alike. Even today it continues to brew its renowned dark lager, enjoyed in the past by such well-known figures as the writer Jan Neruda, the song writer Karel Hasler, and occasionally, even the "divine" Ema Destinnova, the famous opera singer. U Fleku, that oldest of pubs and brewery, a large compound that boasts enough seating for 1,200 guests at one time, where you can order a typically hearty Czech meal, visit the on-site museum, or take a tour of the brewery. As I did. Ivan Chramosil, in his mid-fifties, is the maltster at U Fleku. I had the opportunity to meet with him and was able to ask him both what it's like to work at U Fleku and what traditions the pub upholds:

"I've been working in this field for thirty-two years, and my favourite saying is that when you do something you should do it with 'love'. Everything here is done according to tradition - everything. We offer traditional Czech food, and have stuck with our traditional dark lager based on a 150 year-old brewing process, even though dark beer accounts only for some 5 or 6 percent of the Czech market. Just about all of that beer is consumed on the premises - we don't send it out except on special occasions, the odd industry fair or special beer celebrations, but otherwise its just for consumption here. Yearly we produce some 3, 000 hectolitres for the restaurant and pub."

So when you come as a visitor to the U Fleku pub and brewery there is of course a possibility to have a tour and the tour begins with visitors taken through the bowels of the brewery itself to see how the beer is made and that's what we're going to do now:

"Here is the brewing room where the U Fleku beer is made... The vat holds 64 hectolitres. This is were the beer production starts, using four kinds of malt that are mixed in proportion. The containers are over one hundred years old. Otherwise, the most interesting thing about this room is the ceiling, which is made from fir wood, dating back to 1360. That has been documented, and also proven through isotopic testing of the wood."

The original ceiling is fantastic, with drawings of the original ingredients used in the beer...

"The surface of the ceiling was reconstructed about ten years ago, and because the wood survived for so long, it was resealed using the original ingredients: bees wax, cow blood, and egg yolks, which were discovered to be the original conserving elements. Since it has survived so long they didn't want to put anything else on but the original method."

How often do you make a new batch of beer?

"During the summer we make two to three batches of beer a week, in the winter just one, because the restaurant garden, with seating for four hundred is closed. So, in the winter just once a week."

Let's go on...

"In that container the batch ends up at 100 degrees Celsius. In English it's called a cool ship, something you won't find in an ordinary dictionary. That's the way it is. Proof that the beer has been well boiled is when the surface is as reflective as a mirror. It has to be a mirror. Here the beer is air-cooled at a low height and the beer cools from 100 degrees to 50. This system otherwise went out of use in Czechoslovakia in the 80s..."

Moving downstairs there is a marked difference in the temperature. There are huge barrels containing the beer...

"This is the fermentation cellar. This is where you have the main fermentation taking place. By the time the beer reaches here it has been cooled to seven degrees Celsius. Upstairs the principle of boiling the beer is that the malt, basically starch, is turned into sugar by the enzymes and high temperature. Then - here - the adding of yeast ferments the sugar into alcohol. After 13 or 14 days the beer goes into the cellar."

What about the quality of the water that is used in the brewing process?

"We use town water which is good enough for new-borns to drink - excellent quality. We also have three wells, so we use a kind of mix."

Which is secret of course...

"Yeah!"

How strong is the final result, in terms of alcohol?

"The beer has 13 percent extract, which in England they call original 'gravidity', and it has 5 percent alcohol."

5 percent beer indeed! And I have to say I was more than a little tipsy when I finally left the U Fleku pub, after sharing several pints with the most hospitable maltser, Mr Chramosil.

And on the way out, as I was leaving, I ran into a group of young Swedes was just finishing their tour of the brewery and I was able to ask them what they thought of U Fleku and the beer:

"Yes, it was very nice. I have never been to a brewery before."

"Fine. We found it very well. Very good!"

"It's very nice. The beer tastes good."

How would you describe the taste?

"It was surprisingly good. We thought it would be like Guinness, a very, very dark beer. But it wasn't. It tastes more like a light beer."

You're not a bit tipsy?

{girls laugh} "No!"

"We can take it."