5 Food & Music Questions - Evan Rail, Czech Beer Pundit
Twelve years ago Evan Rail’s passion for beer led him to Prague, one of its historic homelands and the per-capita consumption leader. But he wasn’t just another expat looking for a party. The appreciation for authentic artistry he nurtured as a young independent music fan guided him through endless travels, tours, and interviews. Now the author of several books and a blog on the subject, Rail has been called upon by The New York Times, Saveur, and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations to serve as an expert on the beers of Central Europe.
You wrote about music for the SF Bay Guardian out of college. It is safe to assume some drinking implied by a job that requires you to see live shows a couple nights a week. But when did your interest in beer take on a life beyond that?
Yeah, I used to see a lot of bands in SF, sometimes seven or eight nights in a row, and beer was usually a big part of going to shows at the time, Gilman Street notwithstanding. But my real interest in beer came about once I moved to Prague for good in 2000, after leaving SF for good in 1999 — it was a way to understand the country better, since beer is so important here. It’s actually kind of ironic, because SF and Northern California are definitely at the forefront of contemporary craft brewing, but my own connection to beer comes largely from a nation that is one of beer’s most traditional homelands.
Beer as field recordings. Was the transition between covering the two different cultures abrupt or subtle?
Very subtle. Basically, the work of writing about culture is pretty much the same, no matter what you’re covering: food, drink, music, photography, dance, whatever. The process doesn’t really change — you try to ask non-yes-or-no questions, take good notes, and keep yourself out of the picture as much as possible. If you write about music, you can write about anything.
Moreover, the two subjects really have a lot in common. Twenty years ago, we all thought that indie rock was going to save the world. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to have the same idea about craft beer. They both have a strong DIY component — people making their own music, setting up their own record labels or brewing their own IPAs. And they both focus on individuals paying attention to what they consume, whether that means what kind of music they choose to listen to or what they choose to slake their thirst. Beer and music share that common impulse, the idea of making a conscious choice and not just accepting whatever shows up, either on the radio or on draft.
And, it should be said, both music geeks and beer geeks can get a little arcane, where — for some people, at least — a band isn’t cool anymore once people have actually heard of them, and a beer is only interesting if it comes from the most obscure brewery on earth. Coffee culture can be like that, too. A lot of food culture is like that now.
Things can definitely get territorial. Were you made to feel like an outsider or is that less of an issue there with it being more about tradition than the new new thing?
That’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, for a story I hope to put out in a few weeks. I would say it was more of a linguistic thing, being someone who didn’t speak the language when I got here. (My Czech is still pretty terrible, to be honest.) I would say people throughout central Europe, maybe most of Europe, are often wary of outsiders, understandably so. But I felt like I got some nice breaks in that regard. People have been far more open than I would have imagined.
On the subject of nice breaks, how did you hook up with Bourdain for the Prague episode of No Reservations?
A couple of his producers kept coming across my name when they were planning for their trip. We corresponded via email for a while, then had a couple of long phone calls to talk about what we could do together and where we could shoot. I was pushing for Pivovar Kout na Šumavě, because the brewery is so old and run-down, and yet the beers are just amazing. Also, it’s pretty remote — no one goes out there.
How has your perspective on beer-drinking music changed after over a decade of living in Central Europe?
A lot, actually. When I started drinking beer, an appropriate soundtrack might have been, I don’t know, the Untouchables or Agent Orange or the Jam, which all seemed like perfect beer music at that age. Maybe they still are. Music and beer go together in interesting ways: the mood you’re in when you drink, which is affected by things like music, can definitely influence your behavior. I mean, Altamont was a Stones gig, right? I bet there haven’t been too many riots when Philip Glass performs.
Living here, you can’t avoid Central Europe’s traditional beer-drinking soundtrack, which the Czechs call dechovka. A lot of people hate it, but oom-pa music really seems to connect a bunch of different cultures: one of the best American beer-drinking songs of the past hundred years was probably “Roll Out the Barrels,” but that was actually a Czech polka, written right here in Prague. You still hear dechovka a lot here, at festivals or in small towns, songs like “Já Ráda Tancuju” or “V tom našem venkovském kostelíčku.” I think it goes with the traditional Central European beer-drinking atmosphere: very “up,” very positive, happy and lighthearted.
And it’s the weirdest thing, but when you hear a Czech polka from across a beer hall, it sounds just like mariachi music. And then suddenly you’re right back home in central California.