The Roadmap of Palate
U Fleku is the venerable (“from 1499”), world-famous tavern brewery in Prague. I’ve spent some time in Prague, and Slovakia, but hadn’t the chance to visit U Fleku.
Modern reports on the place vary. Some love it, some are disenchanted with commercialism, but all seem agreed the beer is prima.
And for me, that’s what really matters in the end. Whether the place changed as Prague became a magnet for tourism post-1989, concerns me much less.
As many who read my accounts know, that’s my main interest in brewing: the palate and taste. I like the history – a good deal to be sure. I follow the beer business closely. But I’m primarily interested in taste and production methods: the roadmap of palate.
The same for my interest in food history: what did it taste like?
It’s interesting to compare two portraits of U Fleku in different periods. The first is from March 1982, by Henry Kamm of the New York Times. The other is from December 1956, an equally detailed account published (but likely not originating) in the Iraq Times of Baghdad.
1956 was still the Communist era in what is now the Czech Republic. This is addressed in the 1956 article, including the effects of the 1950 nationalization of the brewery.
Nonetheless a quite active business was still being run. Some 2,600 gallons were produced weekly, using three brewers.*
The tavern was undergoing renovation when the 1956 account appeared, and the details will interest those who follow its architectural history.
Like Henry Kamm’s story, attention is given to frescoes and paintings, the different rooms, and personalities associated with U Fleku including some legendary tipplers.
Where both accounts especially shine for me is they give a recipe of sorts for the single dark lager of U Fleku. Well, not really a recipe, but a list of ingredients. But that’s of value unto itself, especially as no official recipe has ever been published, to my knowledge.**
Both accounts state that four malts were used, and sugar, apart hops of course. The NYT’s enumeration is more accurate technically, but considering that beer journalism hardly existed in 1956, the earlier account can be parsed as consistent.
Henry Kamm had it that “fixed percentages of Pilsen, Bavarian, caramel and porter malts, hops and unrefined sugar” were used. Hop type not stated.
So, pale malt (the Pilsen), Munich malt (darker), caramel malt (a stewed form of malt, sugar-rich), and roasted black, or porter, malt. There are many kinds of brewing sugar, type is not stated.
The 1956 account specifies four malts as well, type not stated, with “caramel cream, roasted sugar and … white hops” also used.
White hops have no fixed meaning to my knowledge in modern brewing, so it is hard to tell what was meant.
The term was sometimes used loosely in 1800s British brewing, to contrast hops meant for pale ale, a high grade drink, with “brown” hops, often used for porter. Brown hops were said often to have a coarse or “strong” aroma. This was considered acceptable when porter was aged for months in vats to soften the taste.
I think perhaps “white hops”, as conveyed to the reporter in Prague in 1956, simply meant top-quality hops.
Caramel cream was probably a misunderstanding of caramel malt, likely one of the four malts the story stated were used in brewing.
As to roasted sugar, that is not a trade term to my knowledge. I’d think probably it meant some type of dark, unrefined (per 1982 account) sugar. Maybe Muscovado, or one of the Belgian “candi” types. See an example of candi here from Amazon.
The 1956 account specified the amount of hops used, 250 grams per hectolitre of beer, useful to know.
Of course we aren’t told details of yeast, the mashing regime, aging, boil length, and more. But to my mind, indications look good for consistency of results over that time span, anyway.
The apparent use of sugar was a reminder to me that German-style, all-malt brewing, while characteristic of pale lager brewing in Czech Republic, didn’t apply to all beer types in the country, when these accounts were written. I’d think that is still true today, but have not checked.
*This number seems high to me even for the time and such an institution, but perhaps it was that.
**That said these are unofficial sources, to be taken for what they’re worth.