15 May 2015

On being self-published and some short news

There is one massive disadvantage about being a self-published author, you're limited to writing in your free time. It doesn't matter how passionate you're about your project, it will eventually have to take second place to the stuff that pays the bills (and, if you have a family and/or anything resembling a social life, to that as well). It's true that you don't have any contractual deadlines to meet, but you still want to get that thing out, perhaps because you want to start working on another project—as it is my case—or simply because of pride and ego (which is also my case).

When I started work on the 2nd edition of “The Pisshead's Pub Guide”, I set myself a 2nd half of May deadline. The first part—the introductory sections—went really well, but I hit a bit of a wall when I was set to start with the crawls; first, with finding time to do the research, and then to actually writing the bloody things—the new ones and the updates to all the rest, because they all need to be updated. Basically, it was hard to feel again the enthusiasm I had when writing the first edition. But I overcame that, eventually, and set a work schedule that I believed would help me reach that self-imposed deadline. But just when I had found my groove back and was picking up steam, I got sent a lot of work, really demanding stuff that would take most of my waking time and would leave me exhausted every day. I'm not complaining, it's well paid, and welcome in its own way.

I finished with all that at the beginning of the month, but getting back to writing has been proven harder than expected—it might be because I need to rewire my brain from translating technical documentation of a bunch of things (some of it awfully written) to creating contents that are supposed to be fun to read. The thing is that I'm not going to make the deadline, and I'm not sure when I will be able to finish the book, which, given the news, might not be such a bad thing, after all.

At the beginning of the month, Dno Pytle announced on their FB page that they were moving to a bigger place. I knew they were looking for new facilities, and I had hoped that they would find something close to their current (well, ex) location, so I would keep it in the same crawl. It didn't turn out like that. Their new address is in Vinohradská, and should open before the month is over. I will need to re-write one of the crawls I had already finished, but I'm happy for them, they deserve their success.

This month should also see the reopening of U Klokočníka. A few days after the pub closed, it was announced that an agreement had been reached with the Municipal Authority of Prague 4 (the owners of the premises) and the pub should reopen in May, after renovations.

I looked for news on the reopening, and ended up back in the place where it had first head of it, this excellent obituary by Pivní Partyzán. If two of the most recent comments can be given any credit, things don't look very good. One of them was posted last week by one Ondra, who says he had been around and saw that there hadn't been any changes and that the place was still empty. The other, posted by an Anonymous a month earlier, claims to have heard from a former staff that is very unlikely that Kácov will be the beer on tap once the pub reopens. I guess I will have to go have a look for myself and ask around to confirm.

The one pub that is sure to reopen very soon is U Šumavy, in Štěpánská. The Budvar tankovná closed last autumn for renovations following a change in ownership. The new owner is Vodouch, the same of U Vodoucha, U Slovanské Lípy and Černokostelecký Pivovar. For what I've heard, the place will follow a similar, if not the same, template of the others. I will have to see once it opens.

That's pretty much it. As for the book. It will have 16 crawls, maybe 17. In total, it will cover well over 100 pubs. Stay tuned.

Na Zdraví!

29 Apr 2015

On the latest unfortunate corporate choice of words

I swear to you, I've looked everywhere, I've even asked my neighbours! But I couldn't find a single fuck to give about the latest sexism in beer brouhaha that had some people almost frothing at their virtual mouths a few days ago.

Is not that I don't believe there is sexism in the brewing industry. There is, and there is racism, xenophobia and homophobia, and abuse of power, and greed, and hypocrisy, and cuntness. Just like there is everywhere in our societies, unfortunately.

The thing is that I can't be arsed with this culture of outrage. The way I see it, many, if not most, controversies these days are hashtag driven, blown out of proportion—if not fabricated—by political correctness (that enemy of free speech), the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and by people who, I suspect, get a kick about being offended. Or not, I don't care. I've got other more important and urgent things to gripe about than the imagery breweries use for their marketing, or what their managers do during a corporate outing. I'm an adult, intelligent enough; and if a company does something I don't approve of, I vote with my wallet.

But that's me, a private person. I can make sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and worse, jokes with my mates at the pub, or on FB, without fearing any real backlash. Companies, on the other hand, can't afford that luxury.

Companies like ABIB, for example.

I would really, really love speak to the person who thought «The perfect beer for removing “no” from your vocabulary for the night» was a good idea for a slogan and ask him what the fuck was he thinking!

Yeah, yeah. I know they didn't mean it “that way”. That they are very, terribly sorry, and everyone in the organisation is hanging their heads in shame, and all that... But really, what the fuck were they thinking?

Fortunately, this will be all but forgotten as soon our attention is drawn by the outrage caused by the next PR cock-up and poor corporate judgment. Or does anyone remember Mouth Raper?

Na Zdraví!

27 Apr 2015

The King of Gimmicks

Gimmicks. They are a staple of (not only) the brewing industry, at all levels. Macro brewers have their special edition labels/cans, usually in sets, celebrating an event or tied to something they happen to be sponsoring. But it's the smaller breweries who have elevated the gimmick to almost an art form.

They come in all shapes and sizes: there was this beer that tried to profit from an event the brewers opposed; beers that claim to be brewed according to some ancient recipe, even if said recipe isn't much more than a list of ingredients that were probably used to make beer and lot conjecture; beers made with animal parts or with a product that's passed through the digestive tract of an animal—excrement, by another name—and a bunch of other weird ingredients. There are also the collaborations, the manufactured scarcity, the brown paper bag events and anything that claims to be the -est, among others, too numerous to list.

We have also beers that are gimmicks to cosmic levels of stupidity: there've been a couple made with gold flakes, one made with moon dust and another made with yeast that'd been sent to space for reasons that can be best described as attention whoring.

To some extent, you can't really blame the breweries. Gimmicks, after all, have proven to be an effective way to get the name of a brewery “out there”, mentioned by lazy bloggers and writers (and some that should actually know better by now), who celebrate them as if they were the best thing since the invention of malts; or by the media, in pretty much the same fashion as a sex-tape or manufactured controversy of a D-list celebrity do.

Quite often, however, they result in inflated prices without equivalent value in return—other than being able to claim in social media that you've just come from the brown paper bag event with your three-figure IBU, double-figure ABV collaboration brewed with shit that was sent to the moon from a nuclear submarine, that is.

But let's be fair. Like taste, value is the palate of the beholder, and some people will swear that those beers are well worth the price, and hassle, because they can drink them, unlike...

Let me introduce to Mefisto, the king of gimmicks. A beer so special that, according to its maker, you aren't supposed to drink.

Mefisto, by the same people that brought you Faust Gold, is made with colloidal silver, something that quacks like Dr. oz will sell recommend to people afraid of very long words—they must have been invented by Big Pharma and Montsanto—as a cure for everything, including easily preventable diseases.

It's just brilliant! You brew the worst, cheapest sort of crap, add a few drops of what that magic water and sell it for 450CZK. And if it ends up tasting like shit, “We told you not to drink it, didn't we?”.

As I said before, though, value is a matter of perception and there must be people out there who are convinced that Mefisto's beautiful bottle is well worth the price.

Na Zdraví!

19 Apr 2015

Popularity, personal tastes and beer culture

There was a time, a few years years ago, when it seemed that Statorpramen was improving. It was back when the brand from Smíchov had been made the flaghsip of a bunch of Eastern European breweries a Belgian investment fund had bought from ABIB, and named Starbev.

It didn't last too long. In 2012, Starbev was sold to Molson-Coors and those days are now gone. If they existed at all. My impression might have been a product of wishful thinking, or of drinking the beer in one of those where-and-whens that make everything taste good. Whatever. The thing is that today I find myself in agreement with Pivní Recenze's review of Staropramen Světlý.

The closing comment on the other hand. Well...

According to Moro, the author Staropramen je českou dvojkou na trhu – toto dosti vypovídá o pivní kultuře v našem státě. (Staropramen is second on the Czech market – this says enough about the beer culture in our country).


If Staropramen says that much about Czech beer culture, I wonder what Jupiler, Oettinger Pils and Carling Lager say about the beer cultures of Belgium, Germany and the UK, respectively. That they are the same as the Czech, and everywhere else, for that matter?

This map shows the best selling brands in every country. As far as I can tell, they're all mass produced, Pale Lagers of the sort we may call bland, characterless, if not downright crap; owned by multinational corporations, most, if not all of them. Just like Staropramen. (The only exception, Ireland, provides a distorted picture. According to a comment by the Beer Nut at Stonch's, Pale Lagers outsell Guinness 3-to-1, but the market is split among several brands, all of them big, multinational ones.)

Is this telling us that distinctively local beer cultures do not exist, that they're only a myth; something artificially preserved for tourists and romantics?

Now, that'd be a pretty stupid thing to say, wouldn't it?

Pivovary Staropramen's position as (a distant) second on the Czech market has little, if anything, to do with beer culture. It's due to other factors, the most important of which, in my opinion, are availability and general consumer behaviour.

I don't think there is a single supermarket, samoška, večerka (vietnamská or otherwise), smíšené zboží or nápojka in this country that doesn't sell at least one of the beers of Pivovary Straropramen. This is very important, more so now that 59% of the beer sold in the Czech Republic comes in bottles (PET or glass) and cans. There are people who may prefer another—let's say better—brand, but if they don't find it while Akce! chasing at Kaufland or Albert, they will buy Staropramen, Braník, or something similar, because they're cheap and do the job just fine thankyouverymuch—just like most of the other stuff they have in their shopping cart. Add to this the still more than considerable number of pubs, bars, restaurants, etc. that sell Starorpamen, and the picture will be very clear to anyone willing to look at it.

What do we get from this, then?

a) That unless we're willing to re-examine the concept of “beer culture” as a whole, what Staropramen's popularity says about the Czech beer culture is fuck all.

b) That personal preferences and tastes are hardly ever a good vantage point for broader observations.

Na Zdraví!

29 Mar 2015

An afternoon with Nela

Last Thursday, the Missus had a do in the evening. It had been originally scheduled for Wednesday, but for one reason or another it had to be moved to the day after. This meant that I would have to take Nela to her ceramic class in Roztoky.

I'd lie if I said I was jumping with anticipation—the thing that bugged me, really, was the trip, which includes switching buses in Velké Přílepy, meaning that we wouldn't be home until almost 8. But I didn't complain, I want my wife to go out and have fun on her own, she needs it.

Nela had stayed home that day; she hadn't been feeling well the day before, and we thought it'd be better to let her rest. She spent the hole day lying in the sofa. We even considered skipping that ceramic class, but somewhere before 3, she got her life back and was her usual self—she really loves that ceramic lesson.

Since she would be in town, my wife said she'd go early to take care of a couple of work related things, and do some shopping perhaps. She dropped us in Roztoky on her way, which was great, it saved us the two-bus trip there.

When Nela and I got out of the car at Tyršovo náměstí, we had more than an hour to kill. Her ritual with mum is to buy some snack and then go to look at the fish tanks in a pet shop by the square. But that would only take a few minutes.

Had I been alone, I would've gone to a quite OK pub not far from there. But I wasn't, and that place is not the sort where you can take a 5 year-old child for almost one hour, and the restaurant of the Hotel Academic isn't of the sort where I would like to spend almost one hour. Fortunately, I'm a keen observer—at least when it comes to watering holes—and remembered that there are two cafés in Tyršovo náměstí.

We did go to see the fish (at least that part of the ritual had to be observed) before heading to the cafés—they are a few metres apart. The first one, Cafe del Rio was small and looked a bit boring. The other, Cafe-bar EIFFEL looked a lot more interesting—it had a beer sign at the door, Schwartzenberg, which, as we got closer, turned out to have company, Únětický.

When were in front if the place, Nela said she'd been there once, and that had liked it. I did, too. The place turned out to be better than I'd expected.

I'm pretty sure that, until not that long ago, the place was pretty much like that pub at the Czech TV series Okresní přebor—the kind that, had I been alone, I wouldn't have minded too much spending an hour at, but not a good place to take a 5 year-old child—but now it's run by pretty smart people.

The room is quite large and pleasantly put together. The bar is on the right side, in the centre, and a big part of it in the back has been turned into a playroom for kids, with plenty of toys and even a mock castle with a slide. The beauty of it is that the playroom is only open until 6:30, so the people who come in the evening to take care of the serious business of drinking, won't be bothered by the sound—noise—of kids playing. It's a brilliant business model, really.

Nela wanted us to sit at one of the tables in the playroom. Luckily for me, they were all taken, but one in the main room, right next to the entrance to the playroom, with a good view to the castle was free. She accepted the compromise and, after ordering a juice and cake, took off her shoes and ran to the castle.

Beer-wise, I couldn't complain. On tap they have Schwartzenberg 10º and 11º, Únětická 10º and 12º, Guinness and a guest beer—Černá Hora Kern, a polotmavé výčepní, was on that day, and I was happy to see it, it's a sort of beer that I really like, but hardly anyone makes.

Nela was in the playroom only a few minutes. She came back to the table and we spent the rest of the hour eating and drinking our snacks—she was very happy with her cake and juice. I was very happy with my hermelín (one of the best I've had lately) and the two pints I had: Úňa 12º and Kern.

We paid and got on our way to the ceramic lesson (which I enjoyed a lot more than I'm willing to admit). While we walked there we both agreed that Cafe-Bar Eiffel is a pretty swell place and that we must go back some day.

I didn't have a camera with me, nor did I take any notes. I didn't need any of that. I will always remember what I ate and drank that Thursday afternoon in Roztoky, and what it tasted like, while I spent time with my girl, watching her play, chatting and joking with her, making fun of each other.

The place and the moment, the where and the when. That's what beer is really about. All the rest, as interesting as it might be, is largely superfluous and dispensable at the end of the day.

Na Zdraví!

Cafe-bar EIFFEL
50.1606464N, 14.3941233E
Tyršovo nám. 480, Roztoky u Prahy
+420 603 411 465 – petrap@volny.cz
Mon: 15-22:30, Tue-Wed, Fri-Sun: 14-23:30, Thu: 12-22:30
Bus: 340, 350 – Roztoky-Tyršovo nám

PD: I love living in a country where a parent having a beer while watching over their child in a playground/room isn't frowned upon, but seen as a normal aspect of life. There was one dad sitting in the playroom who had two beers while his daughter was playing, and there was a mum sipping a glass of wine.

10 Mar 2015

On the piss in Pilsen & Bamberg

I've always had a soft spot for Mate's, a polotmavé pivo from Hostinský pivovar U Bizona, Čižice brewed with Yerba mate, not only because of my country of birth, but also because it's a good example of how a beer with an unusual or novelty ingredient should be made—it still tastes like beer. The rest of their production, however, was of the sort that I wouldn't mind drinking if I see it at a pub, but wouldn't go out of my way to find, either. That's why I was quite surprised when about a month ago I got from Robert, U Bizona's owner, inviting me to join a group he was putting together for a trip to Bamberg at the end of February.

To be perfectly honest, if the invitation had been for a festival or something else along those lines, I might have politely declines, but I'd been wanting to go back to Bamberg ever since I was there a few years back, even if it'd be only for a day trip. So, after getting permission from the boss, I accepted the invitation and begun looking forward to it.

Since the plan was to leave at 8 in the morning on Friday, I decided to go to Čižice already on Thursday evening, so I could get a decent night of sleep. Robert was waiting for me at the Pilsen's train station. I had never met him before and, other than a short phone conversation the day before, hadn’t spoken to him either, but he looked like the sort of cool blokes you can only meet at a proper pub.

We went first to the pub he has pretty much in the centre of town, U Bizona. It was pretty full, and noisy. I liked it right away. I had a couple of pints, something to eat and then we left to Čižice. Robert lives there with his wife in a small, two-bedroom flat above his brewpub.

U Bizona is pretty nice village pub. Robert has been running it for 12 years. In the past, it used to serve a social purpose that went much beyond having pints with friends. Besides the pub proper, decorated with a sizeable part of Robert's collection of vintage, tin advertising signs, there is a now unused room, quite large, with a stage, were balls and other events in the village would be held (I can imagine them being not too different from the Fireman's Ball in “Hoří, má panenko”, with a similar cast of colourful characters)

In Winter, Robert told me, there isn't much business going on—only some of the locals will drop by –while the “Pilsen branch”, which started a bit over a year ago, does fairly well. In Summer is the opposite thanks to lots of cyclists. In some way it reminded me to the brewpub in Bělec nad Orlíci.

Like that one, U Bizona is one of the few brewpubs that doesn't have the brewing gear greeting visitors, but it's out of sight, hidden in a room in the back.

It's not much of a looker, either. But Robert was able to secure the services of Lubomír Svoboda, a Brewmaster with decades of experience under his cap, whicha lot more important than having a pretty brewhouse. Robert met him through a common friend, but why the brewery came to be is more interesting.

Robert had a bloke working for him nicknamed Bizon, whose health had got so bad that he would've been forced to let him go, which he didn't want to do. The brewery was the best solution, Bizon could take care of that part of the business, which is less physically demanding.

After he showed me around, we sat in the almost empty ballroom, and my host produced samples of the test batches of his three new beers made with yerba mate. The Lager was the same recipe as Mate's, but with a different type of yerba, a smoked one. It was excellent! Once again, very well balanced, but just so, as the new type of yerba is more intensely flavoured. The other two, with the working tiles of APA and IPA, though far from bad, were a bit redundant as a product. If they had been as hoppy as one'd expect from those styles, it would've defeated the purpose of the unconventional ingredient, provided they'd been able to work together to begin with.

We chatted like two old friends until we realised it was well past midnight. We went to sleep, we would have to get up pretty early on Friday.

I slept surprisingly well (Robert had prepared accommodation at his place) and woke up feeling rested and eager to get on going.

The rest of the group started to arrive after seven. Lubomír, the Brewmaster, Pavel Karásek, owner and brewer a the soon-to-open microbrewery in Pilsen, and Michal Staněk, the owner of Kočovný Pivovar Holy Farm and Pivoteka pod Ořechem, in Petrov. The other two people in the group, Michal Horáček, a.k.a Pivní Partyzán, and Tomáš Fencl, from Pivovar Lobeč were arriving in Pilsen by train and we would pick them up at the station a bit later.

Robert's idea organising a trip with a group of total strangers was a stroke of genius. Nobody knew each other, or hardly so. I had only met Partyzán a couple of times, but it was the first time I was meeting the rest. It didn't matter, quite the contrary, we were a bunch of blokes out for beers, after all.

The way to Bamberg felt almost like being at a pub. We had case of beer in the back of the van, and the first bottle was opened before we had even left Pilsen. A few more will fall in the line of duty during the three-and-a-half hours that took us to reach the Franconian beer Mecca.

Our agenda was very simple. A tour of Weyermann, followed by couple of pubs in the city centre. Nothing could go wrong.

We arrived in Bamberg sometime after 11:30, and didn't have too much trouble finding the maltings. We did some looking around and shopping at the visitor centre while we waited for Dagmar to come pick us up. She's a Czech woman who's been living in Germany for 35 years and has been working with Weyermann for a good part of that time. I had met her several times before, and it was nice to see her again.

She gave us a bit of a VIP tour of the plant. Impressive place, really. I loved tasting the different malts the make from little plates in the roasting room, and, while chewing the grains, imagining how many cool beers you could make mixing some of them.

The tour was capped at the in-site pilot brewery, where we tasted five or six beers and some Kirschwasser. The beers were quite good (though the Czech-style Pils was a bit on the thin side), even the peppermint Weizen was something that I wouldn't mind drinking on a hot day. It was a lot of fun, really.

But the tasting had made the tour of Weyermann a longer one than we had expected. We wouldn't have much time to piss about town.

It was past lunchtime already. After hardly any debate, it was decided that we would eat at Schlenkerla and then go to another one of Bamberg's beer temples, before hitting the road back to Pilsen. Mahr's, unfortunately, wouldn't be among those.

What a gorgeous town Bamberg is! I'm not saying anything new, I know, but it's still worth a mention. The absence of crowds made it even nicer.

Although it wasn't packed, neither of the rooms of Schlenkerla had a free table big enough to accommodate the seven of us. Fortunately for us, though, the waitress in the more restaurant-like room was in a good mood, apparently, and she opened a small private room for us.

Sitting there was a bit weird. Most of the space was taken by a massive table—without standing up and stretching your arm, you wouldn't be able to shake hands with the person opposite you. It was very 19th century; I could almost feel belly getting rotund and my facial hair taking on Habsurgian proportions. But, as VIP as it made us feel, private rooms don't have much of an atmosphere going on for them, and I wish we'd been where everyone else was drinking and dining.

The food was very German—big chunk of pork, dumpling, cabbage—it wasn't as good (or big) as in Au, but it did the job more than well enough. Even Partyzán, a vegan, was satisfied with the massive bowl of salad he was brought to graze. And they had Fastenbier on tap, which was good, and everyone rejoiced.

After the meal I still had room for dessert. A liquid desert, that is.

I felt it would be wrong to leave Schlenkerla without grabbing a gravity dispensed Märzen from the window at the taproom (I love those taproom windows, I know of only one place in Prague that has one, U Bergnerů, I wish there were more). That also was good, very good, and Partyzán, Tomáš and I rejoiced greatly.

We had time to visit only one more pub. It was decided it'd be Spezial. Mainly because we would have to cross the centre of Bamberg to get there, and everyone was up for a walk.

The evening crowd hadn't arrived yet, so getting a table wasn't a problem. The house's rauchbiere arrived promptly, in those elegant half-litre mugs. I remembered it differently, drier, but I'd drunk quite a bit already by then, and my senses might have been tired. Not that I was evaluating the beer very carefully, really, I wish we'd had time for another round, just to be sure, but it was already getting late, and Robert was waiting for us in Pilsen (amazing as it might sound, the guy who'd organised this trip stayed home because of things).

The return trip was pretty much like the one in the morning. Bottles of beer were opened and passed around. My attempts to catch some sleep were futile, my two back seat companions insisted that I had to booze on. The bastards.

The evening session was at U Bizona in Pilsen. After going through two or three of the house beers, that didn't quite work out for me, I decided to stick to Klíšťák, a 13º Red Ale that turned out to be perfect for the the evening. An evening that was as good as any evening with friends at a pub can be, and then some.

During the trip, Brewmaster Luboš told me about a good friend of his who had lived a few years in Argentina, working with a company that builds power plants, and had loved it there. When we got to the pub, he called him and then gave me the phone, telling me that I should speak to him in the most Argentine way possible. Needless to say, I didn't quote from Borges or Cortázar. It tool Láďa a few seconds to make sense of what I was saying, and when he did, he dropped whatever it is that he was doing and came to the pub, and we had a great chat together.

The evening went on, and on, and on, and the beers flowed on, and on, and on. Robert's wife took us home. It was about 2:30 when I hit the bed.

I woke up a lot earlier than I would've liked, with quite a bit of a hangover—mild but annoying headache, and the brain struggling to make sense of a world that appeared to be running slightly faster than the day before—but nothing that some fresh air, a strong turka, a sausage and a pint of Klíšťák couldn't take care of.

It was a great trip. My deepest thanks to Robert for putting it together.

Na Zdraví!

Disclaimer: Lunch at Schlenkerla was paid by Dagmar's expense account. Beers at U Bizona were on the house. Thanks to everyone.

5 Mar 2015

A short comment

The other day, at home, I opened a bottle of your average ČIPE—Český India Pejl Ejl, a bit of a scruffier cousin of IPA—and by the way, it was a half litre bottle, as it should be for pretty much anything below 8% ABV, I hate třetinky, and I'm not a big fan of sedmičky, either, but I digress.

It was a new beer for me (its name isn't important, this isn't a review), so I paid extra attention. It started juicy, quite nice and juicy, until a mineral note crept in, getting more intense with each sip, to the point of becoming almost unpleasantly pervasive. But then, about two thirds down the pint, someone smacked it on the back of the head and told it to stop behaving like a twat and play its role, which begrudgingly did, and I ended up enjoying the beer, not as much as at the beginning, but a lot more than I thought I would.

The moral of this: to properly evaluate a beer, drinking is far better than tasting.

Na Zdraví!