A Shot at the Bar: The Duck & Rice, Soho

Duck & Rice

A new photo-blog series, taking in the most interesting bars and pubs in London and beyond.


Alan Yau (founder of the Wagamama chain and owner of several Michelin Star-awarded restaurants) is one the last people you might expect to get in the pub game. In what is seen as a dramatic departure, the OBE and restaurateur has given equal focus to beer as well as food at his latest venture – a ‘Chinese-influenced gastropub’ in Soho. The area has been worn down by its reputation into a bit of a parody of itself, but in doing so provides a number of unusual and striking venues, of which The Duck & Rice is undoubtedly one. I couldn’t quite place the theme of the decor, but I heard somebody say ‘Park Chinois’. There’s a very Hong-Kong-in-the-Empire kind of aesthetic: lavish colonial decor, striking marble, blues and pearl colours, art deco painted glass, reminiscent of a bar at the edge of the world and full of its riches. It seems decadent, but fairly relaxed.


The reason I was here of course, was the beer. Pilsner were sponsoring the press launch night, so their beer was flowing freely, but the bar also has an impressive variety of other cask, keg and a (rapidly growing) list of bottled beers from the leading lights of the beer industry. Still, the star on the bar was Tankovna Pilsner Urquell, freshly delivered from Pilsen. The stacked, copper 500 litre tanks greet you like a steampunk bouncer as you enter, and beer was on top-notch form: the almost cask-ale-like mouthfeel, nourishing breadiness and spiky bitterness all present and correct. Whilst upstairs is more restaurant-like, the focus here down in the bar area is just that, the bar, and food is focused on simple Chinese dishes and snacks to match with the beers. Light, crispy batter-coated delights melted sweetly with gulps of Pilsner, like they had known each other for ages. Suddenly, elegant Chinese food and pints of Czech Pilsner felt like the most normal thing in the world, as well as something quite special.



The Duck & Rice, 90 Berwick Street, London W1F 0QB.


The Golden Tiger

u Zlateho Tygra


Another pint of Pilsner lands on the table and another mark is made on our card. The server plonks down further pints wherever a glass is in danger of becoming empty, or rather, less than 1/4 full. He then returns to his place at the bar and starts pouring again. Every now and again a tourist will enter and try to order at the bar, only to be told in Czech to ‘sit the f*** down’ (if, indeed, a seat is available). This is more than table service, this is fresh pints on demand before you even ask for them, at Prague’s U Zlatého tygra (The Golden Tiger).

Once more, our mugs of fresh Pilsner clunk together with the satisfyingly hefty sound of marble statues butting heads. Syllabub-like foam packed with fragrant hop oils gives way to the bright, sweet and sharp palate, and conversation fills in the gaps between mouthfuls of beer. The Golden Tiger is pure beer culture, and whilst it is quintessentially Czech, it is a pub that anyone in Northern Europe will find both immediately familiar and refreshingly simple.

As it’s such a singular pub in Prague, it’s fitting that there’s only a single beer available: Pilsner Urquell (40 Czech krone or about £1.15 for 0.5l). In the UK, such an arrangement would typically indicate a heavily branded corporate lounge, the kind typically seen in lager adverts on TV. In reality, The Golden Tiger has more in common with my dad’s village boozer, including its grudging acceptance of non-locals proving they don’t take up too much room. It’s almost exclusively populated by men, sat shoulder to shoulder around long tables on long benches. The walls are decked with Pilsner breweriana and coat hooks at frequent intervals. Vaulted ceilings, stained glass and golden iconography suggest a religious following, but it just feels so pubby. You come in, you take your coat off, you sit, you drink. Eventually, you might leave, but the beer is just so good.

Unlike so many before it, Pilsner Urquell itself has been left largely untouched by the takeover of a multi-national. Here in its homeland, it is enjoyed by the half-litre with a good inch of head, and drank fairly briskly. Czechs believe the beer’s character dies the second its head recedes to expose the beer beneath to light (about twenty minutes), and would rather order another pint than sup the imperfect dregs. That zealous attitude towards beer, appreciating it through drinking it, is truly Czech.

The building the pub is in dates back to the 14th or 15th century, and there is record of it as a beer hall from 1816, thought it is likely to have been in similar use earlier than that, since it gained its distinctive wall relief of a tiger in 1702. It has gained a storied history and a reputation for truly ‘democratic’ drinking (the mayor sits beside a common labourer, who sits beside a famous writer, who is chatting to a visiting Bill Clinton and so on). But unlike many other extremely old pubs I’ve visited, The Golden Tiger feels like a real pub, not just an interactive museum exhibit. I try to judge these historic places in much the same way as a pub built yesterday: not on what it’s supposed to be like, or what its history is, but what it’s like right now, that very moment as a take my seat with a beer.

Pubs after all are buildings that generate atmosphere, whether they intend to or not. Controlling that atmosphere can be difficult and depend on myriad criteria, but that tangible sense of vibe and energy and other such words is what defines the place. The Golden Tiger, with no eclectic beer range or unusual concept relies almost solely on its atmosphere, which is incredible. It actually seems to breathe somehow, with life and noise and beer, and I think that has a lot to do with the rhythm of the place.

As a party arrives and takes seats, the server arrives with a sufficient number of pints of Pilsner and places a piece of card with the equivalent number of marks on it on the table. As more pints arrive, more marks are made on the card. To end the cycle, one must almost physically arrest the bartender in the act, and make it clear that you want your bill settled. Yet most of the time, when the chap returns, looks that say “one more?” are exchanged, answered by the thunk of more mugs of beer. That rhythm of beers hitting the table and the burble of conversation becomes a sort of music, a soundtrack to a flawless scene played over and over for everyone’s enjoyment.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man arrive and hang his shiny, multi-coloured tracksuit jacket on the coat hook. On the hook next to it he hangs a thin, flimsy red-and-white striped plastic bag, universally a symbol of a market purchase. He nods greeting to his friend, then looks over his shoulder as if to check his freshly-bought treasures are still there. I can see them through the thin bag: several vinyls, the one at the front bearing the logo of Def Leppard. This is probably one of the chaps Bill Clinton chatted to. I can just tell. I look back to my beer, and on cue the barman arrives with more mugs of Pilsner.

That moment left a strong imprint on my mind. When I reach the last few gulps of a great pint of Pilsner now, wherever I might be, I wonder if I’ll see a golden tiger at the bottom, a glimpse of a Def Leppard record, and look to see if someone is bringing me a fresh glass.


U Zlatého tygra

Husova 17
110 00 Praha 1
Česká republika

My trip to Prague was sponsored by the generous hospitality of Pilsner Urquell and Mark Dredge, their Beer Correspondent.

Buried Deep: Pilsen and Pilsner Urquell

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Back in September, I was invited to visit the Pilsner Urquell brewery by Mark Dredge. Whilst there I had a number of Beer Moments, and one of the biggest was had at the brewery itself in Plzeň, Česká republika (from here on: Pilsen, Czech Republic).


The cellars below the Pilsner Urquell brewery seem to go on forever. Some are collapsed, some chained off, others perfectly intact. One cavernous room once held tonnes of ice, the meltwater flowing through the cellars and the air recirculating to maintain the ideal lagering temperature. These cellars, covering the same area as the town-sized brewery complex itself above ground, would have been just as busy if not busier than the brewery above. A hundred years ago, the thunder of rolling oaken vats would have been the soundtrack to the work of 7000 coopers making 5000 wooden barrels a day below the earth.

Back in 2014, it feels like walking through the bones of some dead leviathan. There are five miles of these tunnels, twenty metres below the ground at their deepest. It’s so easy to think of breweries as a living thing – their veins and arteries pumping lifeblood from one metal organ to the next, procreating in its own unique way – but down here in the cellars, there’s something more crypt-like and supernatural in the atmosphere. Not a sense of death, but of life after death, returning ever stronger, keeping some spirit of what it means to be Pilsner alive in the soul of every oaken timber of every 40 hectolitre barrel. We are warned about the Devil In The Cellars – a ghoulish rock formation down here that’s currently chained off for undisclosed safety reasons.

Our group is led through the darkness by Robert Lobovsky, a native of Pilsen who, after spending his formative years abroad, returned to his homeland and petitioned Pilsner Urquell to give him a job. His job now (Beer Master) is to tell the beer’s story around the world, the story of a beer that to him was part of his Czech identity when he was growing up in Australia. To be Czech means to be from a nation of brewing, and the creation of Pilsner is the Czech’s gift to the world.

On a hill at the highest point of the brewery site, and the city itself, stands a 100 metre high water tower, containing two vast metal tanks that once held the brewery’s water. Below that tower, the ground is seeped with ancient blood. As the highest point in the city, it was the favoured spot for public executions in bygone ages. The brewery’s water is still drawn from the same 100 metre deep well nearby. We joke that the blood and bones of traitors gives the beer its distinct taste but it was that simple, soft water, drawn from 100 metres below ground to sit 100 metres above it, which became the body of one of the world’s most important beers.

Pilsner’s beginning is an unusually precise one in comparison to many other beer styles. I’m so used to bookending historical accounts of beer’s origins with ‘Sources indicate…’ and ‘…or so it is believed’ that Pilsner Urquell’s story seems starkly rigid and underlined in fact by comparison. For one, we have an official origin story for our opening scene: the burghers (property owning citizens) of Pilsen pouring away 36 barrels of beer in the town square in protest against the poor quality brews being made, and forming a co-operative venture that built the brewery used by Joseph Groll to brew the first pale lager beer. We even have an exact date when the first batch was ready and tasted: 11 November 1842. It all seems so black and white – and I have read criticism of this origin story – but as stories go it remains compelling.

Back in the cellars, it’s with barely concealed excitement that I pour myself a glass of unpasteurised, unfiltered Pilsner from the 40 hectolitre wooden vat. These things weigh a few tonnes even when they’re empty,  and every gram of that weight and every year of this beer’s history is weighing down on my mind and on my fingers as I turn that tap handle. It pours like frothy milk at first, eventually churning into a hazy, golden syrup-coloured liquid bright with life. I hold the glass to the dim lights in the cellar, peering into its thick, cloudy, burnished gold colour, topped with an ice-cream scoop of foam the texture of whipped egg whites. I’m expecting something special. Of course I am. Its silky, luscious palate disarms me, that dab of butterscotch so important to its character becomes caramel, then lemon tart, but there’s also a gripping, oily, herbal bitterness that lifts the entire palate up to meet it. It’s raw and alive. It’s perfect.

So much is said about the authenticity of the beer, how closely it compares to its original iterations, with the same culture of yeast, triple decoction, wooden vat maturation and so on. Up until the moment I tasted the beer, it was all I could think about: I wanted to be sent back in time with a sip, to understand and truly comprehend a moment of flavour from a bygone age.

When I tasted it, all those daydreams were shattered, blown to pieces by the sheer excellence of the beer in the glass. We returned later for more, and all I could think about that second time was not how amazing that beer must have seemed the first time it was made, but just how amazing it tastes right now. That’s why a portion of Pilsner Urquell is still matured this way, to taste-match the conventional batches matured in metal, so that they know it still tastes the same.

Like the cellars, this beer’s legacy seems to go on forever. It was the first pale lager beer, so it had little competition at the time, but in the lager-soaked present, it remains head and shoulders above so many lesser Světlý Ležáks (other Czech pale lagers) it shares a country with and the hundreds of foreign imitators. It remains The Pilsner. It’s buried deep.


Of course, there’s a great deal more to Czech beer culture than just one beer, and I’ll try to cover more of it in a couple of future posts. Thanks to Mark Dredge and Pilsner Urquell for their hospitality.




“Coming up midweek, the giants of Ipswich play host to the titans of Charlton, making them both seem normal sized!” – from a sketch in That Mitchell and Webb Look, parodying the dramatic promotional trailers of Sky Sports.


Two of the major sponsors at EBBC14 this year were Guinness and Pilsner Urquell. One obviously had a lot more to do with beer in Ireland than the other, but it occurred to me that they actually have a lot in common.

Here we have two global brands, not just beers, that to many people define their respective style. Each has a dominant presence in their respective home countries (to put it politely), and each is highly accomplished at communicating their history and provenance. Each is owned by a drinks giant (Diageo and SABMiller). There’s a slickness to both, too, that sense of size and power that only comes from beers that old and well-known.

Yet, if you asked a room full of beer geeks which of these brewers is more traditional/skilled/‘craft’ I suspect that the majority, if not all, would choose Pilsner Urquell every time. Why?

Guinness, despite or perhaps because of its history of accomplished advertising is perceived as the silky, suited salesman, more interested in your money than your satisfaction. Pilsner Urquell by comparison may seem just as cool and indifferent as a global brand, but it seems to care more about its beer, which by extension makes us care more about it, too.

On some imaginary sliding scale of corporateness and craftness, with Guinness at the corporate end, and a microbrewery that started yesterday at the craft end, Pilsner perhaps sits closer to, say, Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn Brewery. Like Sierra and Brooklyn, Pilsner has a widely-respected brewmaster who doubles as a global brand ambassador. Václav Berka talks like a man with rehearsed speeches, and rightly so, but also as someone with real pride in his work. He’s a figurehead, but one that people want to actually meet and talk to. Guinness, meanwhile, has a variety of high-ranking brewers, vice presidents, senior executives and so on… but there’s no real sense of a human ‘face’ to it.


On Tuesday night, I attended the judging of the Pilsner Brew Off competition at the White Horse, organised by Urquell, with six competing brews facing off to win the chance of being produced at a commercial scale. The six teams included beer bloggers, writers, bartenders and other people from the trade. The beers they had created (see the Craft Beer Channel’s, Tandleman‘s and Martyn Cornell‘s blog posts for more details of their beers) were as diverse as Bock-sweet stronger lagers, citrusy, New World-hopped modern examples, and more traditional, by-the-numbers pilsners. None were bad, and several were very accomplished.

The most impressive thing to the casual observer and competition entree alike, was how much effort Pilsner Urquell had put into the event. From easel-mounted posters displaying the recipes of each beer with photos and names of the teams, custom-printed ‘ballot papers’ (beer mats) to the specially-commissioned labels for each beer, the whole event had that thoughtful touch to back up the obvious marketing spend that had gone into it.

If that possibility of engagement with the people who make the beer is important us in our appreciation of beer, and I think it’s crucial when deciding whether that brewery is craft/good/whatever, would it change our minds about Guinness if it adopted a similar approach to Pilsner? After all, as giant as Václav Berka may seem, up close, he’s (almost) normal sized.


Traditionally Modern

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The new Pilsner Urquell cans coming soon to the UK


Breweries with an illustrious heritage often struggle to shake off the fusty, traditional image that grates with modern artistic design. In an effort to stay modern and relevant, any attempt  at a violent rebrand is usually clumsy, and often ends up sacrificing what people liked about the brewery’s image in the first place. It’s refreshing then, to see the beautiful labels of the new canned version of Pilsner Urquell that should be arriving on these shores in the next couple of months.

As you can see from the image above, these aren’t just any labels. In a nod to the brewer’s rich history, Urquell are selling their new cans in four packs, with each can bearing a different, limited edition label, based on four different designs from the brewery’s archives (my favourites are the two on the left). It’s slightly reminiscent of the arty labels that Becks had commissioned a while back, yet in Pilsner’s case I think this really keeps true to the brewery’s history and branding without pandering to fashion.

They look really, really good, especially in the rather *craft* cardboard sleeve, and the beer inside tastes on a par with draught Pilsner Urquell in terms of freshness and mouthfeel. They should be hitting shelves in the UK in time for summer.

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In more Pilsner packaging news, Urquell will be selling bottled Pilsner entirely in brown glass in the very near future (EDIT: likely to arrive in the UK next year), and there are plans for more of their Tankovna (brewery-fresh, unpasteurised pilsner tanks) to be installed in pubs both inside and outside of London. I’ll be discussing the Tankovna version of Pilsner in a future blogpost, but rest assured, it’s damn good stuff. Like the freshest pilsner you’ve ever tasted, with the smooth, quaffable mouthfeel of cask ale.

The brewery has also sent some wooden casks of the unfiltered version of Pilsner (enjoyed by the attendees to EBBC13 last year) to several pubs around London this week. There’s info about where you can find some today or tomorrow on this page of their website (has an age checking thing).

Thanks to Mark Dredge for getting me an advance four-pack of these cans. Yet more evidence, if more evidence were needed, that 2014 will see the Summer of Cans.

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#EBBC13 – Day 1 Highlights


The first day of EBBC13 has been an intensive combination of sampling, absorbing information and talking to some of the world’s best brewers. So far it’s been a fantastic experience, and deeply useful to me as a writer and blogger,

Below are my brief thoughts on the main events of the first day of the conference…

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Keynote Speech (Garrett Oliver)

Garrett Oliver was his customary, affable, genial self. He dispensed anecdotes, philosophy, business advice and stories with ease, though the US craft brewing industry’s biggest star may have been overshadowed by his own hat. You can read a full live blog of Garrett’s speech here.

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Scottish Brewing History (John Martin)

John Martin, of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association, gave a wide-ranging talk on beer in Scotland. Unfortunately, the talk have been a little too wide-ranging, leaping from one topic to the next with barely a breath, but it still provided a massive amount of information to bloggers hungry (or thirsty) for Scottish brewing knowledge. Read Sam Parker’s live blog here.

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Whisky barrel aged beers talk by Stuart Cail (Harviestoun)

Stuart gave a great talk on the fine art of barrel aged beers. Given Harviestoun’s excellent reputation in this area (Old Engine, Ola Dubh, Engineer’s Reserve, all of which we got to sample), Stuart was the ideal host to guide us through the minutiae of this exacting and specialist aspect of craft brewing. Our live blog of Stuart’s talk is here.


Pilsner Urquell Dinner

We were also treated to a very exciting dinner in the Edinburgh Council Chambers from Pilsner Urquell, who laid on several wooden casks of unfiltered pilsner for our delectation. Head brewer Vasclav hammered each cask himself, and poured foaming handled mugs of pilsner for all to wash down delicious meals of beef, salmon and dessert of strawberry shortbread. A grand meal in opulent settings, enhanced by the exquisite unfiltered lager.


Stewart Brewing

The evening was capped off by a marvellous visit to Stewart Brewing, a forward thinking beer operation on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where bloggers were treated to collaboration beers between the brewery and Herriot and Watt students in the form of Natural Selection Brewing Co. The Darwin saison (featuring the Hop Beard Darwin logo as tattooed below) was bold and defined by its Belgian yeast. A favourite of several bloggers was the Radical Road Triple Hop IPA, which was absolutely bursting with clean, sharp, tropical fruit. As a growing brewer, it was great to be able to see the various stages of Stewart Brewing’s development, and the different brewing equipment they have used and evolved with. A great night had by all.



Read the highlights of EBBC Day 2 here.

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