Sarajevska Pivara, Sarajevo

sarajevskapivara

Franjevačka 15, Sarajevo 71000

The best traditional brewery in the Balkans, a visit to Sarajevska Pivara for a beer and a nosy around is essential, almost regardless of the externalities.

Sarajevsko lager would be fairly anonymous were it sold in England or Germany but it just shows the paucity of real options in the former Yugoslav states that such a beer manages to stand out.

There’s no point being too sniffy about it though, they aren’t bad beers brewed here by any means, especially if you can drink the tank stuff which gets sent across the city, or if you visit the brewery itself, where the best tasting Sarajevsko can be found.

The brewery is located close to the centre, so can be joined on to any pub crawl near the old town fairly easily. The building sticks out like a sore thumb, as it was a concern of the Austro-Hungarian empire, constructed in 1864, so you won’t have any trouble finding it among the apartment blocks and ottoman buildings of the old town. Even if you have a poor sense of direction, don’t worry, the enormous backlit sign against the frontage will guide you there.

Although anything Austrian was a target of hatred for the Bosnians, over time the locals have grown an attachment to this place, having gradually appreciated it to be an asset and a source of jobs rather than grumbling about it being some imperial vestige. Astonishingly some people still hold a grudge despite the Empire ceasing to exist over a century ago.

Once you arrive, keep heading through the doors in order to find another shock, as the pivnica inside is a grand beer hall with a theatrical shape, a central area surrounded by balcony levels. This isn’t some modest or unconvincing imitation of another country’s style, it would be as impressive were it in Munich or Vienna. Opulent would be the word – it’s certainly there to make a statement. Take a seat and before long one of their ambling rotund servers will approach to take your order. Splutter ‘Pivo molim’ if you’re on your own, ‘piva molim’ if you’re in a group.

Gender politics are perhaps not quite as progressive in Bosnia as they are in the UK, and you can still expect the marketing of their beer to feature a sizeable bosom, often with a plate of meaty food. If you meet any Bosnians aged over 30, the strategy will hardly surprise you. See below:

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The beers are served in sturdy dimpled mugs and are fresh as you’re ever likely to get. The ‘tamno’ dark larger is much more generic, and probably best avoided out of winter unless you’re trying to increase your check-in count on Untappd. Sources reveal they have brought out an unfiltered lager since my visit, which will almost certainly be an improvement and is something I’d encourage anyone to try straight away.

It’s such a large venue, large groups are required to build the atmosphere inside. As it is rarely busier than ‘ticking over’, there is an unexploited potential here, however neither does it feel particularly abandoned. There’s a pleasant atmosphere as the disparate conversations bounce across the room. Take a minute or two to explore the bar area and the upstairs, as it really is a grand place.

A beer won’t set you back more a few Bosnian marks, so there’s no impediment to staying here for the duration and getting sloshed. Keep an eye out for the museum and lunch deal, if you’re coming during the day, which at 12 euros 50 represents pretty good value.

It’s always interesting seeing attempts to transplant one culture into another, and this pivnica/pivara allows you to experience this AND go to the pub. A slight improvement to the beer and the atmosphere aside, this place is fascinating, good fun and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Spiż, Wrocław

Spiz

Ratusz 2, 50-106 Wrocław, Poland

The history of the ‘Ratskeller’ in central Europe is rich and fascinating, not least because the concept of the main social meeting place being in the epicentre of the town was the signature of medieval towns. Yet for various reasons this has become lost, even countries famed for such traditions, not least Germany. The cities expanded, the places became victims of their own success? Who knows.

Wroclaw has a great deal of crossover culture with Germany, being known as ‘Breslau’ by their neighbours, and along with that, the drinking culture centred in traditional fashion on the city’s extremely large and impressive Rynek. Today, the Ratskeller ‘Spiz’ delivers to modern Poland such an correct feeling representation of the style, it acts as traditional cultural anchor in the city’s otherwise modern and often alternative-edged social scene. Despite having only existed since 1992, it has basically revived a periodically forgotten historical purpose and in a short space of time picked up quite a bit of character to boot.

Upon entering the Spiz cellar, you will discover a Germanic, Gothic and stately subterranean beer hall with its impressive mash tuns, giant barrels, cloistered ceiling and interesting display cabinets, acting as a mini-museum. You can order these straight from the bar which makes a nice change from having to wait for table service. The bar area is a fairly amusingly disorganised affair with servers handling money slightly grouchily and seemingly not fully comfortable with the concept of direct interaction with the general public. Alternatively you can wait for the waiting staff to make an appearance, and these matronly sorts are not to be messed around with. Apparently carrying heavy beers around all day gives you muscles!

Importantly too, Spiz brews what it sells, and yet freakishly it competes with two other breweries also on the square itself – talk about keeping a tradition alive! All Spiz beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised giving them a hard-to-match freshness, and their whole range from the light lagers, yeast beer and honey mead fall somewhere between okay, good and very good.

They are geared towards either hearty winter drinking or refreshing high volume summer drinking and although you may quibble here and there about not hitting a certain level of finesse, their drinks hit a good mark consistently. None of their beers will come close to breaking the bank, even by Polish standards although with it being central it’s not the cheapest place either.

 

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Conversely, there is a huge seating area outside, including an outside bar which on a sunny day becomes the ultimate drinking spot in the city, as one can recline with a beverage and enjoy the sights and sounds of a buzzing and vibrant Rynek. On my last visit the weather was gloriously sunny and although I’m not hugely taken by terrace drinking usually (as often you may as well be anywhere), it hardly gets any better than this. To your left, glance upward to the clock tower of the Ratusz, then straight ahead a line of magnificently restored and individually painted burgher houses, then to your right the join onto the Maly Rynek, which, through depth of field provides a fleeting illusion that this beauty and artistry stretches throughout the city. If you just keep sat there chugging away at the lovely beer, you can convince yourself it does.

A passion for preserved historical features isn’t just borne of an interest and preference in historical architecture, also a yearning for the atmosphere and simplicity of the time. Sat outside spectating on the various forms of life passing by does on a temporal level transport you to a previous era. The Rynek in Wroclaw is terrific and Spiz has the number one location for enjoying it.

If there wasn’t anything else to do in Wroclaw it would be enjoyable in itself to spend your entire time at Spiz. As can be seen by the various reviews, the positive experiences are well founded. However, Wroclaw is a terrific city as I highlighted here on my sister site Undiscovered Europe.

Yes, it’s entirely obvious as a destination and about as alternative as the use of the letter E in the word sentence. The service may not be all that, and it can be very busy at peak hours. Similarly, the TV screens downstairs in the beer hall garishly advertising info about its horrendous looking disco nights do detract from the experience. It needs to be very very good to overcome these – and it is.

Very few pubs will ever take such a short time to embed themselves in the landscape and cultural of such a big city, and they’ve done, by heavens they’ve done it.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Schlenkerla, Bamberg

schlenkerla

Dominikanerstraße 6, 96049 Bamberg, Germany

The number one purveyor of rauchbier‘, Schlenkerla are a big international brand and export their strange smokey ale across the world. Bamberg’s tradition for beer brewing is well known about in Germany with nine active breweries in the centre itself, all of which existed long before this decade’s revival of small scale brewing. You might expect Schlenkerla’s brewery tap to be along the lines of many other German breweries, a vast beer hall serving high volumes to the masses, as the place certainly fulfils one of Bamberg’s central tourist functions.

It comes as a very pleasant surprise then to visit Schlenkerla and find  a small-to-medium sized pub, connected to a cloistered medieval banqueting hall, which while rather impressive to look at isn’t enormous either.

This certainly isn’t a criticism, quite the opposite. In comparison to many other breweries who go in for a far more corporate business-like approach to style and service, hard to hate but at the same time difficult to love, at Schlenkerla the preservation of the tradition, and a determined low-key approach seems to be the modus operandi. For whatever reason, outside of the peak weeks of summer, maintaining this normal scale pub seems to meet demand and work just fine.

There is a luxury to be had bathing in stereotypes from time to time, and you will find the unabashed gothic agricultural charms of Schlenkerla’s tap house so distinct and powerful, encompassing a stereotype of the traditional Germanic identity, (the Middle Ages in particular), as to make a lasting impression.

The exterior of the pub is a beautiful traditional fachwerk house (as could be expected) with the classic Schlenkerla motif on the lantern outside, the name loosely translating to ‘limping man’ (though I believe the direct translation is slightly less politically correct). The location of the pub could hardly be more central, almost at the epicentre of operations in Bamberg’s Altstadt and just a short walk from the absurd and brilliant Altes Rathaus perched halfway across a bridge over a fast-flowing river. You can read more about that in my general review of this modest yet spectacular city here.

Turn left as you walk in to enter the pub room, and notice the Schlenkerla beer served gravity pulled direct from the barrel at the bar. The interior is black beamed, previously having been washed in ox blood, presumably for some superstitious reasons. Bamberg was one of the centres of witch trials in the middle ages and like a few corners of Germany, does enjoy trading on a rather gruesome history. The room itself feels like it could have existed hundreds of years ago, and save perhaps for certain added sounds and smells that would take you there it is remarkably transporting all the same.

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The pub offers communal seating, and was so appealing to dive into on a winter’s day none of my inherently reserved Britishness about sharing communal space came into play. Find any space going and place yourself there – perhaps be polite to ask first, but it’s unlikely anyone will decline – it is the done thing. The serving wench (I do use that term advisedly) is stodgy and middle aged, which suits the place perfectly, being after all, a stout and venerable operation. With her level of dour scrutiny over proceedings, your beer will arrive in short order and be replaced just as swiftly when you’ve finished drinking. Keep the bar mat handy as she will be keeping tabs via pencil marks and you’ll settle up at the end.

Schlenkerla’s rauchbier overwhelms your mouth at first with smoke and bacon flavour, but once it has laid the flavour there, that recedes to the background, or at least becomes the ‘medium’ if you like. From there, drinking the rauchbier becomes milder, with their Marzen being similar to a sweetish nut brown ale, with that background smoke and a refreshing hoppy finish to boot. Similar to trying your first pint of Guinness or other stout, once you overcome the initially strange flavour there is a fantastic drink to be had and one you can put away volumes of in one sitting. The guy I sat next to assured me it takes three full pints before you appreciate the virtues of a rauchbier.  And check out the value as well! Germany has generally offered a large beer for 3 euros 50 cents for a while now, but in Schlenkerla it’s well under that for a glass, meaning you can have a whole session in here without worrying about rapidly draining your funds. Good value is hardly a common feature of any sizeable brewery tap I’ve been to, so here’s another feather to its bow.

The pub room is really cosy and friendly, with many traditional pub staples, including even a serving hatch with a stained glass window, and a door leading to a courtyard of high medieval design where one can get fresh air and nosy around at the general environment at this terrific venue. At the time of my visit it was even snowing in the courtyard heightening the atmosphere further. Diving back inside I spent a good few hours alongside a Brazilian family who were being introduced to Bamberg by their daughter’s husband. Even though I was suffering from a bad sore throat at this point it still counted as one of the highlights of the stay. You know there will be little stories and vignettes shared every day by people who bumped into some stranger or other in Schlenkerla and for a brief moment in their lives because well-acquainted. Such socialising cuts to the heart of a pub’s function.

Although they serve food in the pub area, the best place to be for that sort of thing is their banqueting hall through the other side of the building. The styling inches even further towards medievalism without going over the top as with some themed-restaurants. Schlenkerla serve food built to withstand the power of a smoked beer, and the offerings are intensely flavoured, stodgy and agricultural. The Bamberger sausage is charred black, comes on a spartan metal plate and will make your breath stink for weeks. It’s delicious. The Bamberg Zwiebel is a giant onion stuffed with mince. You’re probably getting the idea. You can even push the boat out and order Schlenkerla’s doppelbock beer. The combination of a complex strong beer and smoked effect on top pushes the boundaries of what a tongue can cope with, and it’s a specialist kind of brew.

All venues that see a high volume of traffic such as this one can suffer from the service being a little jaded and that also applies to Schlenkerla if you’re doing any more than drinking. I got the impression the majority are well meaning but they certainly seem to tire as the day goes along. Most of the negative comments online also pertain to this, and I think they have little patience for the more ignorant tourists, finding their other tasks quite challenging enough as it is. However, that’s a rather mild criticism in what otherwise is a richly enjoyable experience.

As a pub I would recommend this all day long – it is one of the finest drinking spots I’ve ever been to and I wince with regret that we haven’t developed matter transporters so I can press a button and visit every week with impunity. In many ways Schlenkerla sums up what pub going is all about and takes several of those aspects to the very highest level of enjoyment. Stunning.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • E: Value for Money – 9/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

U Černého vola, Prague

ucernehovola

Loretánské nám. 107/1, 118 00 Praha 1, Czechia

A gem of a pub, U Černého vola (the Black Ox) is a place you could walk past a hundred times without knowing it was there. Granted, you’d have to be a bit stupid and not like drinking beer at all, but there are billions alive that fit that description. This boozer shares streets with typically touristy, overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops due to its proximity to Prague’s castle. You can watch the changing of the guard and have a cheap tasty beer sat in front of you while sat among locals in the space of ten minutes. You’d hardly believe it, but it’s true.

Diving through the plain doors outside (albeit with a rather impressive facade above the doorway, if you stop to look at it) offers you immediate refuge from the hustle and bustle of the crowds outside, with a very unprepossessing entrance area that looks a bit more like the front of a mechanic’s garage than a pub. It’s almost as though they’re actively trying to keep the crowds at arms length. Head right on into the taproom through the door to your right. You may already spy a few fellows milling about in the standing areas having a quick drink and a smoke.

uc1

More inconspicuous than you may think….

The pub operates a similar tapster/server set up to many busy Czech pubs, a reliable system involving in this case a mute, middle-aged bearded man silently dispensing light and dark Kozel, while an amiable enough server trots around doing the necessary interaction. The understated pride and commitment with which they carry out their jobs may be easily overlooked but it is worth acknowledging and all adds to the overall feel of the place. As with many of these places, once you get started on your pint, your near empty glass is replenished with military efficiency, and only your beer mat on your glass and a wave of your wallet will cease the pouring of your next beer. These pubs hug you and grip you in their boozy welcome and it’s extremely tempting to let entire afternoons go by in them. And mmm, that black Kozel is absolutely delicious.

When the tourists disappear from Castle Hill, the locals emerge (along with nearby backpackers) and seek out U Cerneho Vola for a few jars, transforming the venue’s fairly sedate afternoon atmosphere into a vibrant, sometimes rambunctious destination. Getting a seat is essential to fully enjoying your time here, but be aware space can be in high demand. Don’t be shy – if it means sitting shoulder to shoulder with a stranger, so be it. You never know what conversations or chance meetings might be in store. Don’t be too British about it either – the tapster will lose patience with any loitering and shout at you (in Czech of course) to sit down with the rest of the crowd and stop being such a wallflower. You will notice the seat by the taps is permanently reserved, a necessary evil in this case to ensure the pub retains its purpose and isn’t consumed by tourists. If you ever want to incur the wrath of the staff, just try going anywhere near it!

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Yours truly on a recent jaunt…

The venue is largely set up for communal pubgoing, with bench seats filling up quite quickly around lunch hours. Except for a slightl lull in the afternoon, the pub becomes fairly busy from early evening onwards until chucking out time (still a sadly old fashioned 23:00 hours). No music though, the sounds to enjoy are that of the conversation going on around you, the clink of glasses, the occasional plate of pub grub (fried cheese, smoked sausage etc) emerging from the kitchen. Grab the food menu – nothing on there pushes 100czk. It’s that kind of place. It’s all basic as hell – salty, bland and piping hot – enough to work up a hankering for more beer.

In terms of the décor, there are some attractive stained glass windows which temper the light to an almost constant ‘early evening’ type feel. You’ll note medieval insignia painted above the dark wooden bench seats, otherwise it’s the typical curved Czech pivnice/hospudka type ceiling with walls stained yellow from smoke. There is a rather kitsch bulls head with red lights for eyes which I’m not sure quite works, but at least proves it’s a living pub and not a museum. Otherwise, U Cerneho Vola is pubgoing stripped back to its core and none the poorer for it.

Additionally, Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof has advised that U Cerneho Vola are run essentially non-for-profit and the money they make goes towards social projects. The place was due to become one of those Pilsner Urquell Original type places until the intervention of a benevolent bureaucrat. While such altruism might not be foremost in your mind as to where to go for a pint, it’s good to know in the background a pub has its heart in the right place, especially if the gruff Czech service ever puts your nose out of joint! Even if they bark their dissatisfaction with you for your foreign indiscretions, it’s only because they want you to sit down, eat their food and drink their beer. Suck it up! Happily: a thousand times over.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 9/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10 (mainly for the social projects and the cheap food)
  • E: Value for Money – 10/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10