To find out if the drinks scene in Brno really did rival Prague’s, one fall evening I caught a fast train and checked into one of the city’s recently renovated hotels. Housed in a former savings bank, the Grandezza Hotel overlooked the scenic Zelny Trh, or Cabbage Market, a small square that predates Brno’s official founding in the 13th century.
From my window, I could see the jagged spires of the city’s most imposing church, the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, rising behind the Baroque buildings on the other side of the square, while the tall, ornate Parnas Fountain, built in 1695, looked almost within reach. The three spurting gargoyle spouts at the base of the fountain reminded me of my growing thirst.
I decided to try one of the new craft bars I’d heard about. But before I did, I made an impromptu stop for a half-liter of traditional Czech svetly lezak, or pale lager, at U Richarda, a taproom and restaurant for the U Richarda microbrewery on the city’s outskirts. I had visited the brewery a decade earlier, and while coming across the new location was a surprise, the familiar bready taste of U Richarda’s excellent unfiltered lager was just as I’d remembered it.
But now it was time to try something new: a bar called JBM Brew Lab. I turned down a narrow residential street featuring some great examples of Brno’s celebrated functionalist architecture, and found the pub in the middle of the block.
Taking its name from the owners’ initials, JBM was narrow, warm, boisterous and blissfully smoke-free, unlike many of the country’s traditional pubs. The beer list, too, was up to date, as well as international, featuring 10 taps of unusual brews, including Kapitan Drake, a sour but incredibly refreshing “mojito Gose” from the cult Polish producer Browar Setka that tasted of limes and fresh mint. After finishing the Gose and a better-than-decent pastrami sandwich, I tried an aromatic wet-hop IPA from a favorite Czech microbrewery, Clock.
I figured that was enough for one evening. But then I encountered a bustling scene behind a magnificent Gothic church on the way back to my hotel. It looked like a late-night religious service had just ended, but instead of the faithful, the crowd turned out to be spillover from a nearby pub with tall windows. Both inside and out, just about everyone was holding a pullitr, or half-liter beer glass, and the atmosphere was remarkably festive.
I stuck my head inside and recognized it from my list of places to try — just from the décor. One of the nominees for the best beer bar was called Na Stojaka, a name that roughly means “standing up,” a Czech term for a quick cold one. Inside, almost everyone was standing, with the chest-high tables packed to overflowing, forcing some customers to move to the square like congregants.
I ordered a traditional low-grade pale lager from Beskydsky Pivovarek, a tiny microbrewery I’d once visited in the remote Beskid mountain range, which starts northeast of Brno. Brewed at just 10 degrees on the Plato scale, it had a crisp finish with a nice note of Saaz noble hops, despite having less than 4 percent alcohol. Such a brew wouldn’t be impossible to find in Prague, but it wouldn’t be easy, either. And I couldn’t think of a single beer bar in Prague that had such a fun late-night atmosphere, certainly not with its clientele taking over the sidewalk and square out front. It felt as if I were in a warmer, more outgoing country much farther south.
“Oh, it’s a lot easier to find good coffee in Brno than in Prague,” a bartender had boasted the previous night when I had asked him to name his favorite coffeehouses. “As I left to look for my coffee fix the next morning, I wondered if Brno’s southern European feel might also extend to cafes.
My first stop felt like the opposite of Italian, however. Instead, it had a distinct Nordic feel. Called Skog Urban Hub, it featured windows overlooking another tiny square. The menu listed two types of espresso beans from Rusty Nails, a micro-roaster just upstairs: Kelloo from Ethiopia, and Santa Christina from El Salvador. A single-estate Kenyan coffee was available for filter drinks.
I ordered a flat white, enjoying the Kelloo’s fruity peach flavors, then tried the Ethiopian espresso with tonic water while I took in the scene. The high ceilings, hardwood floors and stark, white-painted brick walls gave it a minimalist vibe, and the cafe’s English-speaking staff members looked as if they could have been shipped in from Copenhagen.
The next cafe felt less foreign, though it seemed even more serious about its drinks. Called Kafec, it listed three kinds of hot chocolate on the menu — Peruvian, Tanzanian and São Toméan — along with tasting notes. Above the bar, a chalkboard highlighted the five kinds of beans available, most of which I’d never heard of, including the type of bean, the processing method, the farm, the individual farmer and the roaster, as well as tastes and aromas and a recommendation for how to serve each type.
I ordered a cappuccino of something called Kenya Kii AB and wrote down the rest of the details from the board. I wasn’t sure if I really needed to know if my coffee was made from the SL28 and SL34 cultivars, let alone that it came from the cult Brno roastery Fiftybeans, but I figured such details might come in handy, perhaps at a name-dropping competition among food snobs in Prague.
My cappuccino was light but nutty and fruity, tasting remarkably like one of the cafe’s hot chocolates. With a tile floor and bentwood chairs, Kafec felt modest, but it clearly took pride in what it served.
I rode my caffeine buzz through a visit to the Moravian Gallery, taking in sculptures and paintings that included a 14th-century limestone statue of St. Procopius, then wandered around the historic center, enjoying its nearly tourist-free churches and palaces. After an excellent meal of strozzapreti pasta and pan-fried sea bass at a restaurant called Retro Consistorium, I was ready to try more beverages.
First on the list: Bar, Ktery Neexistuje, or the Bar Which Doesn’t Exist, on a narrow street northeast of the main square. The room was full, and I felt lucky when a hostess found a seat at the bar. Soon I was sipping a pitch-perfect cognac Sazerac and admiring the rare bottles on illuminated shelves that reached to the ceiling.
A fellow barfly, in town from Germany on business, started up a conversation. “I always come here when I’m in Brno,” he said. “It’s one of the best bars I’ve ever been to.”
I had to agree. I had watched Prague’s cocktail scene blossom in recent years, but even great watering holes like Hemingway Bar and Bonvivant’s CTC in Prague lacked the combination of intimacy and energy at the Bar Which Doesn’t Exist. My cognac Sazerac was beautifully balanced and aromatic, the juicy bar hamburger the best I’d had in the country, and the crowd was friendly and fun. In the war between Prague and Brno, the Bar Which Doesn’t Exist felt like Brno’s greatest weapon.
At least until I visited its sister bar, Super Panda Circus, on a busy street west of the main square. At first I walked past the front door, which I found locked. After ringing a buzzer I was greeted by a woman wearing something like a ringmaster’s uniform. She took my coat and offered me a cup of green tea.
The bar’s name, she explained, came from the Super Panda, a famous rum cocktail invented by Alex Kratena at Artesian. She left to check the seating upstairs, and soon I found myself inside the craziest bar I’d ever visited.
Was it dark? Yes. Loud? Yes, but manageably so, with a “rave in the jungle” style of deep house music that masked the intimate conversations around me. And was it weird?
Well, let’s just say that I chose my first drink by picking a rubber ducky instead of a plastic rocket from the tray of colorful toys that functioned as the drinks menu. I should probably add that this drink was served to me in a baby bottle, and that it was accompanied by a toy panda.
Called the Innocent, it was delicious: a daiquiri variation composed of Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, kumquat, fresh lime juice, house bitters and kombucha. The crazy drinks — and the pick-a-toy means of choosing them — were backed up by more mainstream cocktails and a normal menu, which also listed six unusual variations on the old-fashioned. Among them was the squid-ink version, made with Nikka blended whiskey, the first sugary, mineral-inflected taste of which finally pushed me to admit that Brno really did have something cool going on.
I still had one last stop: another nominee for the country’s best cocktail bar, the recently opened Spirit Bar. At close to midnight, I found the last free seat at the grand piano in the front room. Old brass trumpets, converted to light fixtures, hung over the bar. A giant antique display cabinet housed modern liquor bottles, as well as engraved, unlabeled heirloom vessels.
The menu focused on Golden Era cocktails like the martinez and the boulevardier, with interesting variations like the smoke, blood & sand, a house twist on the classic blood & sand that added peaty Laphroaig. I settled on a refreshing mai tai with Pusser’s Blue Label rum.
Later, I learned that I wasn’t the only one impressed by Brno’s new drinks scene: Super Panda Circus ended up winning the award for the country’s best cocktail bar from the Czech Bar Awards. More surprising, the winner for the competition’s best beer bar prize was also in Brno, though it was one I didn’t know: Zelena Kocka Pivarium.
I felt a pang of disappointment on missing what was said to be the best beer bar in a country that truly loves beer, and I wondered if it, too, was a worthy rival of the pubs in Prague. But I could console myself that at least I had a new reason to return.