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 of the soon-to-open Pivovar Ovipistán, 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!

1 Mar 2015

A double obituary

Last week was a sad one for lovers of beer minimalist pubs, with two of them closing on Friday: U Klokočnika and Hrom do Police.

I found out the former when I dropped by to make some photos for the new edition of the Pisshead's Pub Guide. There was a blackboard outside announcing the news, but I didn't take it seriously, anyone could have written it. It was true, of course. When I asked, the waitress told me it was because of the insanely high rent for the location—78,000 CZK + utilities (though I read 76K elsewhere)—and the shop's being in serious need of a refurbishing (on a side note, the premises don't belong to any greedy capitalist pig but to MČ Praha 4).

Later that day, a couple of hours after having posted the news on U Klokočnika on my FB page, I read on Pivni.info the news on Hrom do Police. The reasons behind it are quite similar: high rent—more understandable given its prime location—and the need of likely expensive renovations that nobody was willing to pay.

At first I felt that the boozer by the prison was the greater loss, as there aren't that many pubs in that neighbourhood, let alone pubs I would like to visit, while Vinohrady seems to be bursting with them. But then I remembered how I felt when almost a year ago I was informed that Kaaba Lucemburská was closing, and I realised that for the štamgasty of Hrom do Police it doesn't really matter how many pubs they have walking distance from their homes or jobs, nor it matters how good those pubs may or may not be, it just won't be the same. They probably won't have a place were are be in “ahoj” terms with the staff, where they can walk in any day knowing they'll find someone to talk to (which in a way is better than having arranged meeting someone). It made me feel a little sad and in the end I did go to Hrom do Police for a couple of farewell pints, even if I didn't have that much time; the place deserved it.

I went there on Thursday before catching the train to Pilsen. I sat at the bar and a short exchange about the news I overhead between a regular and a waiter reaffirmed my belief pubs are far more important than beer (even, to some extent, than the beers they have). Yeah, having a cellar, fridge or cupboard full of beers for every possible occasion, posting their photos and their tasting notes on the internet might be fun, but, as far as I'm concerned, none of that can come even close to being in a place that's neither home nor work with other people (even if they are complete strangers), where beer is more an excuse than a purpose.

Na Zdraví!

20 Feb 2015

Well, would you look at that

To be perfectly honest, I don't think I would bother to go to Haštalský dědek if it wasn't the only pub in Prague where I can redeem the vouchers Heineken sends me for their seasonal beers. It's not that there's something particularly wrong with it (though, being greeted by a soundtrack composed by a Czech pop radio isn't particularly right, either), but, like many other restaurants and bars in hotels, it feels like a mandatory feature, and not something that could, or should, stand on its own feet—something you can almost breathe.

But there I was the other day, holding a voucher for two pints of Krušovice Kazbek Ležák. I wasn't really planning to go, but my schedule changed almost at the last moment and I told myself “why not?”, I was, after all, a bit curious about this new beer.

Perhaps, curiosity notwithstanding, my expectations weren't very high, but I really liked this single-hop pale lager! I loved how they used this newish Czech hop cultivar (which I can best describe as a grumpier version of Saaz): as it should be in a Světlý Ležák, it didn't scream like Ian Gillan in the 1970s, but crooned like Tom Waits did those years. Very enjoyable indeed.

But then came the second pint.

Pivo vaří sládek ale ho dělá hospodský is what Czech beer wisdom states, and very rightly so. It doesn't matter all that much how good a beer is at the brewery, but how good it is in the glass. And not only that, the same beer will taste different at different pubs, something that I've experienced on countless occasions. But the other day, in Haštalský dědek, must have been the first time I experienced it at the same pub.

The first pint was poured by a young bloke in one draw. It looked perfect—thick white head that could almost eat with a spoon—and tasted likewise. Before I finished it, the bloke went on a break (it was early afternoon and the place was very quiet) and was replaced by a young girl with sculpted nails. She poured the beer in two draws, letting the head settle for a minute or two after first draw.

The pint didn't look as good. There was some visible carbonation—there hadn't been any in the previous pint—and the head looked more soapy. The beer had changed, too. It had lost a little of its balance; it was still Tom Waits, but Bone Machine than Closing Time.

In its own way, it was a very interesting experience that made me realise how relatively little* this (in my opinion, the most important) link in the beer-making chain is discussed, and that I should learn a lot more about it.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Thanks Heineken.CZ for the beer. Good job, really.

* with the exception, perhaps, of those who focus on Cask Ale.

13 Feb 2015

A happy reunion

It's something that must've happened to everyone. You're friends with someone, close friends, even. You've known them for years, and have spent a lot of time together, but then life starts drifting you apart. There's no apparent reason for it; you're both still living in the same city and neither has done anything could have made the other angry. In fact, you probably can't even tell when things changed because you didn't notice until they've become just another status update on Facebook, and you can't remember when was the last time you went for a beer together.

That's pretty much what happened to me with Primátor Weizenbier, one of my favourite beers at some point, and the first Weizen I developed a relationship with (and my relationship with wheat beers could have hardly had worse start). I loved that beer, and I drank it often, but for some reason or another, I can't really tell you why, it fell off my usual rotation. I thought about it often, but, like a telephone call or e-mail to that estranged friend, buying a bottle or going somewhere to have it on tap was always put off for a more convenient time that never seemed to happen.

Until the other day.

I was in in Vršovice doing field work for my book. Neklid was on the list. It was early afternoon, the place was almost empty. I walked in thinking of having some Únětické Pivo. It was only after I took off my coat and sat that I remembered Primátor Weizenbier used to be on tap here—I hadn't been to that pub in years. And they still had it! I ordered one, of course.
It was great! It tasted like seeing that old friend in a pub you had forgotten was one of his favourites, and both noticing the presence of the other at exactly the same time. We did some catching up, and it felt good, the memories felt good. Every sip was a reminder of why I've always liked that beer so much.

I had two pints, would've stayed for several more if I'd had time. Just as I would do what that friend, we parted, promising we'll try to meet more often from now on. And I've kept my promise; I've invited Primátor Weizenbier to my place after who knows how long. It also felt good.

Hmm... I think there's a telephone I should make...

Na Zdraví!