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!

8 Feb 2015

The Session #96 - Festivals

A few years ago I may have responded to the topic of this month's Session, hosted by the English version of Birraire, in a different way. But now festivals are something that don't excite me anymore. Crowds and queuing aren't very much my thing, and I don't like the sort of consumerism they promote, especially the bigger ones that brag about having hundreds, if not thousands of different beers. It's not that I have something against them, mind you, like with romantic films, I'm simply not their audience.

Those very, very few that I attend, I like them more for the atmosphere and the people I know I'll find there than for the beers; after all, good, interesting beers is something I can find any day, without hardly any effort. In other words, a festival is to me not much more than a glorified beer garden.

This is, by the way, the reason why I adamantly refuse to pay an admission ticket for a festival, be it overt or covert. Pubs and beer gardens won't charge me a fee for the privilege of buying beer, so I don't see why I should pay any to get into a festival. Once again, I'm not against the charge itself; festivals are private enterprises and organisers will have legitimate reasons to set that charge, or not, it doesn't matter because either way, I don't think I'll be getting any real value in exchange of my money.

As for the role festivals play. As someone without any stakes whatsoever in the industry, I can only speculate, and likely is that I'll reach the wrong conclusions. Each festival is different and organisers will have each their own goals. Goals that are, and should be of no concern to us, the consumers. Since we haven't assumed any of the risks associated with putting together an event of this sort, we have no right to question their purpose.

At the end the day, though, and regardless of why we go to a festival (which sometimes can also mean spending quite some time and money to get there), what we all really want from a it is to have a good time, and as long as said good time is delivered, whether the purpose of the festival is to promote an industry—or a segment thereof—make a bunch of geeks happy or solely profit from a hot fad, is of very little relevance.

Na Zdraví!

2 Feb 2015

Hostinec U Tunelu - Love at first sight

Love at first pint, that's something that's happened to me quite a few times. I think you know what I mean, you walk into a pub for the first time, without really knowing what to expect, but when you're sipping your first beer, you realise you've come to the right place.

Love at first sight with a pub, however, that's something I don't remember ever happening to me until I stumbled upon Hostinec U Tunelu a couple of months back.

I had been in Lower Žižkov that afternoon, doing some research for the upcoming second edition of the Pisshead's Pub Guide*. After finishing at U Slovanské Lípy, instead of taking the bus or walking to Florenc, I decided to go to Karlín through the tunnel and then catch the tram to Dejvice in Sokolovská. And there I found it, as its name implies, right by the exit of the tunnel.

It had only recently replaced a namesake pub I had never felt compelled to patronise. Gone were the Gambrinus signs that covered the large windows; it was now possible to see inside, and it was beautiful! First Republic chic all around, and I'm a sucker for First Republic chic. Gone was Gambáč, too, replaced by Konrad, a regional brewery from North Bohemia that I've come to like a lot.

I had to go in! It couldn't resist it. I checked the time; there was enough for a quick pint, maybe two.

In I went. I didn't mind that there didn't seem to be a place to have one na stojáka, especially after noticing the wood-burning stove next to the bar, with a couple of large, gently steaming pots on top. Yup! You've come to the right place, I told myself.
Being a new pub, in the mid-afternoon, I wasn't surprised to find it almost empty, which somehow added to its charm, as it is small enough to make that quietness cozy. I took a table in one corner and ordered my pint of 12º from a waitress that came as soon as I had sat down.

Then I started noticing some details that made me like U Tunelu even more: there were no paper coasters with the logo of Konrad, but those thick, small ceramic plates that seem to have been the norm in the old times; there was a tapster, a bloke whose main job is pour beer and, surely, look after it as well, the tapster taking a thick-glassed, half litre mug (the perfect glass for this sort of beer, and many others) from a sink filled with clean, cold water by the taps and proceeding to pour the beer in one draw.
The beer tasted good, very good, of course. Even before it was brought to me, I had decided that I wouldn't drink it quick, and that it wouldn't be one. I would get home a bit later than expected. The missus would understand, I was doing research for the book.

Things were going according to plan until something ignited a conversation with the two merry gentlemen at the table next to mine. I've told you already how things usually turn out when someone asks me where I'm from at a pub. This one was no exception, and soon my two new friends insisted on buying me each a pint.
Refusing would've been impolite. Not that I had much of an internal conflict; I'd pretty much made up my mind that I would stay for a pint longer when I ordered the second 12º, with a soup to go with it—čočková, just like babička used to make it, if I'd had a Czech babička who made lentil soup.

In the end, I got home a couple of hours later than I'd said I would, in a very good mood, and very enthusiastic about my discovery. My wife's disapproval lasted until I started to put together dinner (without chopping any fingers), while I told her about how lovely that new pub was.

I went back to U Tunelu as soon as I could. I wanted to make sure if my infatuation wasn't a case of the beer goggles—I had five pints under my belt before that first visit. It wasn't, the place is great through and through. And it is very popular with the denizens of the nearby offices—no wonder, the limited lunch menu is great value, and so are the beer snacks, and the service is very good, too. I've been several times more since—once with the missus even!–and my first impression was reinforced with each visit. This is a pub done right: beer minimalist, down to earth, following the modern trend of good food made with fresh, quality ingredients; it feels classic and creative at the same time, not to mention incredibly welcoming. You can hardly ask for more.

Na Zdraví!

Hostinec U Tunelu
50.0905706N, 14.4531067E
Thamová 1 – Prague 8-Karlín
+420 224 815 801 - utunelu@utunelu.cz
Mon-Sat: 11-23
Metro B; Trams 3, 8 - Křižíková

24 Jan 2015

So, ABIB has bought another independent brewery

You've all heard the news of ABIB's newest acquisition, so I'm not going to repeat it.

What amazes me, though, is, on the one hand, that many people are still surprised with this sort thing, as if it was something new, and on the other, the reactions of many of those people: sadness, anger, disappointment...

I could understand it if the brewery had shut down for some reason or another and the beers that had become their favourite aren't available anymore, that could be sad, we all tend to develop a personal attachment to some products and memories don't taste as good. But that's not the case here, the brewery still there, making the same stuff they were making the day before, they could keep on buying it, if they wanted, but they choose not to.

I'm not going to argue with that choice, the reasons are legitimate, but not enough to warrant anger, let alone questioning the owners' decision, as if they should have first consulted the thing with their fans.

Running a company, even if it is successful, especially if it is successful, is very hard and demanding, and the owners of a company choose to sell it, we should assume that a: the offer was good enough (perhaps more than they would have been able to earn on their own) and b: that they saw it at the time as a sound business decision.

Thinking, or even suggesting that this means in some way trouble for the industry is even more foolish to some extent. Macro brewers will keep on buying smaller breweries, at least for some time, it's something natural and expected. What will happen with those breweries, only time will tell, some will be shut down, or not. Either way, for every independent brewery sold to bigger corporations, I'm sure there are dozens more that either are not interesting enough as an asset, nor will they ever be, or whose owners wouldn't sell it to anyone, at least not for the time being, and in a market where brand loyalty isn't as strong, there's room for everyone, provided they are able to do things well.

In the meantime, if you were a fan of Elysian, feel happy for the owner, and go drink something else, if you want, I'm sure you've got plenty to choose from.

Na Zdraví!

20 Jan 2015

Since everyone is doing lists, here's my Top 10 Beers

In no particular order
  • The first beer I drink every day
  • The beer I drink after doing some hard work
  • The beer I drink to quench my thirst on a hot day
  • The beer I drink with friends
  • The beer I drink while making dinner for the family
  • The beer that surprises me for some reason
  • The beer I'm drinking right now
  • The beer I'll be drinking after that
  • The beer a friend gives me as a present or shares with me
  • The beer I can drink straight from a lagering tank
Can't argue with it, can ya?

Na Zdraví!

Disclainer: This list has been heavily inspired by this one here

19 Jan 2015

An afternoon with Zemský Pivovar

When I first got to know something about Zemský Pivovar back in 2013, I was impressed by their ambition. New micro-breweries are a dime-a-dozen these days, and unless one is opening near where you live, they are hardly interesting news anymore, but 20,000 hl/year one? That's not something you see every day, in fact, it's something we haven't seen here since Chotěboř opened in 2009!

But by the beginning of 2014 (if I remember correctly), it seemed that some things were not going quite well. To begin with, the quality of the beers had dropped to the point that some of the pubs that had received Zemské Pivo with enthusiasm were now reluctant to stock it (it should be said that the same was happening at the same time with Chotěboř, where Zemské is brewed).

It was also about that time when I head the rumour that the future of the enterprise was uncertain. Apparently, the company was not able to raise the necessary capital, without which Prague 4, the owner of planned site of the brewery, would not sign the lease. Had these people bitten more than the could chew? Well, not quite.

The rumour was unfounded, but only to some extent. There was a moment last year when the project, at least in the shape and location Zemský Pivovar wanted to realise it, was in jeopardy, but money had nothing to do with that. It was more complicated.

The municipal authorities of Prague 4 had always liked the project, not only because it would bring brewing back to Braník, but also because the brewery would be in Dominikanský Dvůr, a heritage protected building that has been almost empty (and largely neglected) for half a century. However, and maybe because 2014 was an election year, or for other reasons, instead of signing a contract with Zemský Pivovar, they chose to let the municipal council decide on the matter. And that's when the problems started.

When the project was posted on the official bulletin board, as the law requires, and ad-hoc civil association came out of nowhere, declaring their total opposition to it, without giving any particular reason.

This prompted Zemský Pivovar to organise a series or community reach-out events, but in spite of their success and the positive feedback they got from the from them, this group of concerned citizens still refused to meet the brewing company, while they lobbied the council members.

In the end, the council voted “AYE”, and a letter of intent was signed. It was only then that the civil association agreed to a meeting with Zemský Pivovar to discuss the project. And that is when things got somewhat funny.

The meeting can't be said to have started amicably, but after steam had been released, the group of concerned citizens, much to the surprise of the representatives of Zemský Pivovar, said that they actually liked the project. Like the municipal authorities, they loved the idea of Dominikanský Dvůr being revitalised, and with a brewery to boot. The problem was that MČ Praha 4 is considered the most corrupt in the city, where competition isn't exactly lacking, and they had assumed that this was just another one of their dodgy dealings. But after studying the project in detail, and realising that ZP were kosher, they promised they would do anything they could to help. Funny how people can find common ground when they actually sit down to speak in a civilised manner.

All this and more was told to me by Max Munson and Pavel Prchál, two of the people behind Zemský Pivovar, last October right in Dominikanský Dvůr. They had invited me to show me the place and to meet Joshua West, the American brewer that designed the recipe for Zemský India Brown Ale (brewed in Louny), a pretty fine beer, I must say.

When I first saw Dominikanský Dvůr “in person” , it was clear to me that there was a lot of work to be done for it to become a brewery. However, from the outside, I would have never been able to fathom just how much!

As I mention above, the place has been mostly unused for half a century, and the last tenants were very frugal with the fucks they gave about this historical building complex—in some of the oldest parts, layers of concrete had been poured right on the original hardwood floors, and some parts of the roof, at least in October, were literally falling apart.

How long it will take to restore Dominikanský Dvůr, nobody knows yet. At the time of my visit, they had just started with the proceedings to get a building permit. Fortunately, the heritage preservation authorities, the hardest nut to crack, gave their thumbs up, but it can still take a couple of years until construction works can begin,

The plan is to get the brewery up running as soon as possible, and then gradually work on the rest. Once finished, besides the brewery, the site will have a pub, small shops, a spa, offices for the company, and the courtyard will be turned into some kind of public square. Eventually, and if everything goes well, a fifth building should be added, pretty much on the spot where the one that was demolished in the 1960s-70s once stood. Another thing they would love to get done, even if they are aware of how improbable it will be, is to get the street Jiskrová—where the once main entrance to the complex still stands—down to its original level.

As for the brewery itself.

I must confess to having had my doubts about Zemky's claims to “resurrecting” a brewery. Not because I didn't believe that Dominikanský Dvůr once housed a brewery, but I thought it'd be something like in Břevnov, where the brewery also shut down at the end of the 19th century, and now there's no physical trace of it left. (As far as I'm concerned, for a brewery to be considered resurrected, first of all, the building must still be there, and the new factory should occupy at least a substantial part of it, preferably, what once was the brewhouse.)

Well, I was wrong. The brewery, or rather, the buildings that once housed a brewery, is still there.

As it stands now, Dominikanský Dvůr is a complex of four buildings laid out in a “U” shape. If you're standing in the courtyard, the one on the right is the oldest part of the complex (and the one in worst shape), dating from the 17th century. The building right in front of you used to be the maltings. The “humna” (the floor maltings) is still fairly recognisable regardless of the refurbishings someone did at some point that make it look like a black prison, but knock down those walls, add light, and you'll have a space that would look somehow like a smaller version of the restaurant at Únětický Pivovar—in fact, that is where the restaurant will be. Next to it, on the left, is the tallest structure of the complex, the kiln—surprisingly, the furnace still down there, next to the humna—while the structure on your left is where the brewery proper used to be. Closer to the kiln were the fermenters. Upstairs, under the roof was likely either the storage for grain, or the coolship, if not both. The brewhouse was most likely located in the space with higher ceilings, closest to the outer walls of the complex.

It is not known what layout the brewhouse had, or what sort of beers were brewed there (likely, not lagers, or at least that is what the lack of a cellar suggests), and actually, they are still not sure what will the layout of the future brewery be. The ceilings might be too low accommodate the modern technology necessary to brew 20,000 hl/year, which is quite a lot more than the 13,000 hl/year Dominikánský pivovar Braník, as it was known at the time, was brewing at its peak in 1870s, according to pivovary.info.

That brewery, by the way, was was shut down in 1899, when Společenský pivovar pražských sládků a hostinských, akciová společnost, later known as Pivovar Braník, was established as a response to the the onslaught of lager, the history of which ended a bit over a century later in a rather tragically ironic fashion.

Several times I've heard the people of Zemský Pivovar saying that the production of Dominikanský Pivovar was just shifted to the new, much bigger, and modern brewery down the road. I doubt that it's true. At most, their owners became shareholders of the new brewery, and only shut down the one they already had, because keeping it going wouldn't have made any sense; just as the owners of U Medvídků did in 1898 when they became shareholders of První pražský měšťanský pivovar, in Holešovice, curiously, also shut down by Staropramen. History aside, it'll be interesting to see how they sort out the space issue without getting in trouble with the heritage preservation authorities.

Anyway, although Zemské Pivo in it's current manifestation is not among my favourite brands—it's one of those that I don't actively look for, but don't mind finding—this is the sort of project I can get a bit excited with. I love seeing breweries being resurrected, even if they haven't brewed for well over a century. I wish them success.

Na Zdraví!

PS: There's one thing I don't quite understand, the name change, from Zemský Akciový Pivovar to Zemský Řemeselný Pivovar. They have a cool story and a great location, and “Akciový”, besides sounding nice and needing no explanation, makes sense from a historical point of view. Why then shoehorning an imported, tired and worn out term like “Řemeselný” (craft)?

Disclaimer: After the very thorough tour of Dominikanský Dvůr, I was treated to a few beers while I chatted with Joshua West at a nearby restaurant. A few weeks later I was also invited to the official presentation of Zemský India Brown Ale at Jáma-The Hollow, where I was treated with several butt-plug shaped glasses of the beer and a bottle to take home. Thanks Max and both Pavels.