LIKE a roller coaster freed from its tracks, the double-length Karosa bus shook and dipped as the Bohemian countryside — beech forests, duck ponds and scrubby hills — spilled past our windows. The pastoral landscape temporarily belied our location in Petrovice, a distant village in medieval times but now just a bland suburb of Prague. Soon enough, the towers of panelaky, the prefabricated Communist-era apartment buildings, came into sight.
But unlike the workers returning from offices and factories, I hadn’t climbed aboard Bus 271 to go home; instead, I was searching for Obzerstvi, or Gluttony, a pub that was said to serve rare Czech craft beers that were almost impossible to find anywhere else in Prague.
On a stumpy brick building overshadowed by apartment blocks, I saw the tavern’s sign. Inside, I found long benches and rough-hewed wooden tables, a few outdated video games and my reward for making the journey: Oslavany, a rare craft brew from a far-off castle brewery in Moravia, the eastern half of the Czech Republic.
“Today it’s Oslavany,” said Pavel Holcak, the pub’s owner, referring to the yeasty unfiltered lager. “Next week it will be something else.”
Though Prague has become a hot spot for beer tourism, visitors can end up disappointed by the lack of options in the city’s pubs. Many bars in town are locked into exclusive agreements with large breweries, which often install and control the taps. (Obzerstvi’s standard offer is Staropramen, a mass-produced brew from Prague that is part of the giant Anheuser-Busch InBev.) But recently, a few pubs like Obzerstvi have begun selling rare craft beers on a so-called ctvrta pipa, or fourth pipe, a new term for an independent tap on which pubs can offer a greater variety of brews.
“First it was fourth pipe, then there was one pub with seven taps, then it went to 13 or 14,” said Jan Kocka, one of the owners of the cult brewery Pivovar Kocour Varnsdorf, in northern Bohemia, whose beers are often available at the British-style pub Tlusta Koala in central Prague. “So fourth pipe really just became the word for rotating beers.”
This fall I spent several days touring the city’s ctvrta pipa pubs, from Obzerstvi in the south to bars on the semi-industrial north and many stops in between. Along the way, I heard several fanciful variations on the origin of the term fourth pipe. None was particularly convincing, but one version that at least sounded plausible — in part because it was so simple — came from Jirka Stehlicek, the owner of a tram-themed pub called Prvni Pivni Tramway.
“The fourth-pipe term really started with us,” said Mr. Stehlicek, speaking over a pint at a brewers’ awards ceremony last month. “We originally had three taps that stayed the same, and the fourth was just whatever else we could get. And it took off from there.”
Earlier this year Mr. Stehlicek joined with the owners of four other pubs, including Mr. Holcak, to form the Aliance P.I.V. (www.aliancepiv.cz), a group whose aim is to spread the word about quality beer by grooming more knowledgeable bartenders and providing more informative beer lists in the pubs. “We want to educate people,” Mr. Stehlicek said. “We want beer drinkers to know how their beer is made, what are the ingredients, as well as what kinds of Czech craft beers are now available.”
Not all the fourth-pipe pubs I visited seemed quite so committed to consumer education. For most, consumption itself is the goal. All, however, have raised the bar on what is available for thirsty travelers in Prague.
The Czech Republic is home to about 125 breweries, ranging from tiny brewpubs to industrial giants, according to the list at www.pivovary.info. A couple of years ago, I counted just 23 Czech breweries whose beers could regularly be found in Prague. This fall I counted more than twice that number of just what could be considered Czech craft brewers, the small-scale producers whose products are preferred by connoisseurs.
In the United States, this might be taken for a yuppie trend, but in the Czech Republic ctvrta pipa pubs are often the exact opposite. One midafternoon at Klasterni Pivnice in the Holesovice district to the city’s north, I sat on an old wooden banquette and had my choice of two kinds of rarely seen Klaster beer and two other rotating regional specialties. As the afternoon light worked its way through the pub’s bottle-bottom windows, I sipped my lager and surveyed the sparse group of regulars. Many were asking each other about their grandchildren and how they were recovering from their recent operations.
The crowd was about 50 years younger at Merenda, a ctvrta pipa pub in the arty and ramshackle Zizkov district east of the city’s main train station. There the options are split, with four taps upstairs in a no-smoking restaurant and four others downstairs in the smoky rumpus-room of a pub. The pub professed to offer live accordion music every Monday night, but when I returned that evening, the accordion player never materialized. There were saving graces, though: a warm crowd of students and creative types; a superb plate of goulash; and the unusual Rarasek, a ginger-wheat beer from the Pivovarsky Dvur Zvikov brewery in South Bohemia.
Merenda still serves the mass-produced — but well-regarded — Pilsner Urquell. But other pubs have adopted a more militant attitude. The new pub U Prince Miroslava offers Gambrinus, the country’s most popular pint, alongside 12 craft brews, but the menu described Gambrinus as “meant for undemanding consumers” and listed it dead last.
“We wanted to heat the soup a bit,” said the pub’s owner, Miroslav Wagner, who prefers to steer customers to his hometown brand, Primator, a well-regarded small producer from eastern Bohemia.
Another pub, Zly Casy, has cut all formal ties to the Czech Republic’s industrial breweries and augmented both its taps and its bottles. It is in the city’s Nusle district, the same area where I found my first studio apartment when I moved to Prague nearly 10 years ago, and it felt a bit like coming home when I stopped by for lunch recently.
What was unfamiliar, however, was the variety. Above the bar, a banner of hand-lettered signs listed 16 rare beers on tap, including my first sightings of offerings from the new Czech microbreweries Tambor and Chotebor. In the refrigerators, bottles of Kocour, Matuska and other new craft brewers were ready to be taken away quickly. Compared with the days of “one pub = one beer,” it felt like a strange new world.
Sipping a pint of Chotebor’s pale lager, I contemplated the peppery spice of the Saaz hops, a renowned varietal, and decided I was O.K. with the change. But after a moment, the pub’s owner, Hanz, stopped by. With a slap on the back, he told me not to get too comfortable with the number of beers available. Next year, he said, he was planning to expand to 24 craft beers on tap.
IF YOU GO
Pubs specializing in rotating selections of craft beers have sprouted up all around the Czech capital. For those looking to make a day trip of it, a pass costing 100 koruna (about $5.90 at about 17 koruna to the dollar) is good for a full day of travel on trams, buses and the metro.
Last time I was in Prague ('94 or '95) there was none of this craft brew stuff, though we did enjoy quite a few pints of Budvar on tap from Ceske Budejovice. Better known as the original Budweiser Budvar and currently sold in the states as Czechvar (but sadly lacking, not surprisingly, in comparison to the in-country fresh out of the tap righteous pours we enjoyed some 15 years ago!)
Sculpin from ballast point is a good one and easy to find. Pliney is getting harder to find by the day. wtf
Btw, a cool place to have a good beer is Instant Replay in the Valley at the corner of Saticoy and Topanga Cyn. Neighborhood dive type place with 8 craft taps and Tacos Reyes next door. All the regulars are sucking down crap, but they have AleSmith Yule Smith DIPA (9.5% ABV) on tap now during Happy Hour for $5/16 oz. lemonade glass. Screamer deal.