16 Sep 2014

This is perhaps my last word in "Craft Beer"

A couple of weeks ago Alan and I got an e-mail from Stan saying that, in a moment of weakness, he'd agreed to write a piece about the phrase "craft beer" asking us if we believed that the phrase, or the concept created an "us vs them" mentaility.

The following is what I wrote back to Stan a couple of days later (with some minor editing), which are, I believe, my final thoughts on this whole craft beer bollocks:

First of all, I don't see “craft beer” as a concept, but as a brand, one that's basically in the public domain. As any other brand, it has a series of—more or less fanciful—positive attributes associated to it, which have made it a very successful and valuable brand, with a pretty loyal consumer base—people who, in many cases, don't drink Russian River, Stone or New Belgium, they drink Craft Beer. So far, so good. I've got nothing against that, quite the contrary. If using those two words can help a good brewer sell a few more hl, then it can't be bad.

Unfortunately, some people in the industry have used those attributes as some sort of foundation to build an “us vs them” rhetoric that, instead of sticking to “we are good and our products are great”, will point, disproportionately, to “they (the big brewers) are bad and their products are crap”, creating in the process the mythology of a revolution, a movement that expects everyone to believe that a nano-brewery in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada, a brewpub in Wyoming, a neighbourhood bar, a liquor store, and the consumers are all in the same thing together, and that the consumer is in the front-line of “the war against crap beer”. And they've been successful in that, too, not only thanks to the people on the other side of the counter selling that tale, but also thanks to not few writers and bloggers—buying is not quite enough, you must evangelise the masses, spread the gospel of craft beer.

That was working fine until the big, industrial, commercial brewers (as if craft brewers were not commercial) decided they also wanted to play the “quality game”, either with their own brands, or buying well established craft brewers. And they've done it really well, so well that some lines have become blurred to the point that the “big beer = bad beer” equation started to crumble, resulting in the “craft vs crafty” nonsense a couple of years back, where the BA was basically telling us that how good, interesting, well made, flavourful a beer may be doesn't matter as much as who makes it. They still urge us to take sides—theirs, of course—but now business has taken precedence over quality. You wouldn't expect less from a trade association, but it's the disingenuous way they've done it what has bothered many people, myself included.

And there's another thing. I can't avoid getting the impression that to, some extent, the craft vs crafty stunt was meant to divert the attention of the fact that for that nano-brewery in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada represents a much bigger threat than Blue Moon or Shock Top.

I don't know how much longer they'll be able to keep this charade going. There are signs that the edifice is slowly starting to fall apart—Lagunitas's bitching against Sam Adams Rebel IPA (funny coming from a Californian company that opened a factory in the Midwest), the Gypsy vs Brick and Mortar Brewers (another us vs them thing there), among others.

But I believe that we—meaning those who don't make a living out of selling beer—are making to much ado about nothing. Most people can't bothered with taking sides, least of all when it comes to something of such little importance to them; and, whether we like it or not, neither do they care too much about who makes their beer. One day they might go to the taproom of their local micro, the next to Wal-Mart to buy Sam Adams, and at the weekend they will happily drink Corona with a lime wedge at a party or Bud Light while watching the game with friends, without seeing any moral conflict in that. And rightly so. We've been painted a black and white picture, but the reality is full of shades of grey.

Na Zdraví!

15 Sep 2014

A short comment on Vykulení

What can I say that I didn't already say in May? Because as I did say last week, Vykulení is basically the same as Vysomlení, but bigger, which means that it is a bloody great beer event, even if not as minimalist. The beers were really, really good—at least the ones that I bothered paying attention to. I know some people weren't big fans of the Smoked Porter, I loved it, and kudos to Jarín for sticking to his guns and making the beer he wants to make, the way he wants to make it, and doing it well, which is more than you can say about too many new breweries these days. Not in the case of last Saturday at Černokostelecký Pivovar, fortunately. Once again, the beers were really, really good—at least the ones that I bothered paying attention to, but even among those that I didn't pay attention to, I didn't find anything I disliked. Not that I drunk everything, mind you. The single malt beers, those were good. Nice, simple exercise. Three of them, one with Pilsner malts from Kounice, and the other two with Munich I and II from Bamberg. My favourite were the first and third one, simply because they tasted better than the other. But all of the beers I drank were good, even those I paid hardly any attention to—who really wants to devote too much attention to beer when there were other, more interesting things to pay attention to. The atmosphere was great, but then, Černokostelecký Pivovar does have a very special atmosphere. Add to that a bunch of friends and known faces with interesting conversation, and you tend to forget about the beer your drinking, which is good because, come on! It's just beer, but very well curated beer. Why can't all festivals be like that? I don't know, I don't care. When you start drinking at 10 AM and stay up until 2 AM having more fun than anyone would sensibly expect to have—which you pay with the appropriate hangover the day after—that is a question that I can't be arsed with finding an answer to. The fact is that the people at Černokostelecký Pivovar know how to put a beer event together better than anyone I know.

So what can I say that I didn't say in May? I don't know. It was great, and that should be more than enough. No, it's not enough! Even though I said it in May, I will say it again. Thanks Vodouch, Milan and Jarín (for letting my crash at the brewery, what a beautiful thing that is) and to everyone there for such a fantastic day, and congratulations and respect for the great job you are doing.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I don't know how much I drunk, but it was a lot, both of the stuff I bought and the beer from a separate tap reserved for the friends of the house (Únětický Posvícenský Ležák

10 Sep 2014

See you this Saturday at Vykulení

I'm really looking forward to this Saturday! I'll be going to Vykulení at Černokostelecký Pivovar.
Vykulení is quite similar to Vysmolení, but bigger, with more beers and breweries, including some imported ones (you can see the whole list here) and with a focus on floor malts. Like at the sibling festival in May, there will be beers drawn from the wood in different ways, but also a few single malt beers brewed by the in-house Černokostelecký minipivovar Šnajdr.

It all looks quite interesting, but, more importantly, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun!

See you there.

Na Zdraví!

PS: As in the previous occasions, I've been invited to spend the night in Kostelec. What a beauty it is to not have to worry about getting back home after a whole day on the piss!

1 Sep 2014

The Straw Challenge

I don't quite subscribe to the theory (for lack of a better word) of the “right glass” for this or that style of beer. Firstly because sensory experiences can not be objectively evaluated or quantified (EDIT: outside of a controlled environment), and secondly because, although the science behind it is more or less solid, there are many other factors that contribute to the experience of drinking beer than the theory fails to take into account. But I don't want to argue about that. I believe we will all agree that beer is best enjoyed when drunk from a glass (well, I prefer an earthenware mug, but let's not argue about that, either).

However, if you still have friends among the normal people—you know, people who don't give more than a fuck and a half about beer because, it's just beer—sooner or later you will face a situation where glasses (let alone the “right one”) won't be available. At best, there will be some plastic cups, but quite often not even that, and your only alternative will be to drink from the bottle or can, which is something very, very bad to do. It's a disrespect to beer, in particular to the beer your surely brought, because you'd rather not drink the industrial crap your friends drink, and because there's not better place to spread the gospel of craft beer than a barbecue.

Of course, you could bring your own glass, but do you really want to be that person? And if you do, are you really willing to get up, go to the kitchen and wash the glass every time you finish drinking a beer? (Because if you are obsessed enough to bring your own glass, then that's the least I would expect).

There has to be an alternative. One that will spare you the opprobrium of drinking from a bottle, but won't get too much in the way of enjoying the party.

What about straws? They are inexpensive, you can buy a pack at pretty much every supermarket, they're easy to carry, you can leave them on a table inconspicuously and then make fun of drinking beer with a straw. At worst, people have you for an eccentric, which is a lot better than “weirdo who brings his own snifter to a party”.

When I was a kid in Argentina I remember people saying that drinking beer with a straw or with a spoon will get you shitfaced like no other thing (I can see why some people would think a straw is a good idea, but a spoon? Who the fuck has ever drunk beer with a spoon?). In retrospective, it must have been some sort of urban legend, not unlike that about the lethal combination of watermelon and wine, but I never thought of drinking beer with a straw and I don't know anyone who did. Neither do I ever reading something about it. So, instead of googling it, I thought that taking the matter empirically would be a lot more fun.

I chose two beers—Hubertus Světlý Ležák, from Kácov, because it'll be the most likely type of beer you'll find, and Staffordshire IPA, brewed by Marston's for Marks and Spencer, because, just because. At first I thought of doing a blind tasting, but I quickly realised that I was an idiot, so I did my best to leave behind all prejudice, and evaluated the above mentioned alternatives—glass, plastic, bottle, straw—with an open mind. I also drunk a full bottle in each case as, outside competitions (and who cares about competitions?), there's no point in evaluating beers like those two (or any other for that matter) in a smaller measure (and because, if I'm going to do something silly, let's get at least mildly pissed as a result).

(And no, I didn't drink all eight bottles in one go, it was in two separate days)

Hubertus presented notes that suggest a walk at dusk, in late summer, on a freshly mowed lawn while eating a baguette freshly baked by a jolly fat Frenchman. The IPA, on the other hand, was biscuity—shortbread perhaps? Not the real stuff from Scotland mind you, but a cheaper imitation you can buy at Lidl—and a bowl of.... Bloody hell! They tasted like a pretty good pale lager and a decent IPA should taste like.

To be honest, I had planned to write silly tasting notes like the ones above, but the experience turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. The glass was the control sample.

Plastic cup:
In both cases, there was a lot more head than in the glass, and it had a different consistency—like the dollop of froth you get on a latte, or something like that—and it also stayed longer. Must be the material. They also tasted more bitter, as if the hops had taken a step forward.

This must be the first time that I drink a beer straight from the bottle paying attention to it. Hubertus was awfully carbonated, to the point that the bubbles would wreck most of the structure of the beer. Things improved as the bottle emptied, with the beer also getting more bitter. The IPA, on the other hand, fared much better. It was still gassier than from glass and plastic, but not as much as the lager. Maybe it was the design of the bottle—with a shorter, stubbier neck—or it could be that the beer was less carbonated to begin with. Either way, I kind of enjoyed it, and it also kept a more uniform profile.

I wasn't expecting much, to be honest, but it was even worse than that, at least with the Lager. It was like drinking beer while suffering from a strong cold or a pollen allergy. The dullness wasn't so bad with the IPA. The bitterness was still there, but almost like listening to music through a thin wall, and the malts were almost absent. It tasted a bit like a weak hop tea with a pinch of something sweet. It wasn't unpleasant, but not something I need to do again, either.

What do I get from all this? Both beers tasted best from a glass, but not by that much, really. I can see other people liking them from a plastic cup better. After all, it's all a matter of taste, so probably you should try it yourselves and make up your own minds.

Or not. Really, if you fret about things like this when you are at a party, or some other similar situation, chances are that you are taking too seriously something that is supposed to be fun. Quite often (if not always) the best way to drink a beer is the most convenient and comfortable available. Remember that.

Na Zdraví!

25 Aug 2014

A day out with a mate

I had been planning it for awhile, the first non-work related beer day trip since who knows when. I had studied train schedules and connections, including different alternatives for the return leg, opening times, addresses, maps. It didn't even bother me that, because I didn't want to get back home too late to make dinner, I was forced to downsize the trip from three to two breweries. I was still excited. I'd even found a friend to come with me, making the thing even more fun.

We had arranged to meet Tuesday last week at Hlavní Nádraží at 10. Our train to Zadní Třebaň was leaving 10:20, and the trip would take a bit over half and hour.

It was an uneventful ride on one of those City Elephant trains (they are really cool!) that we mostly spent catching up—I hadn't seen my mate for more than a year. We arrived in Zadní Třebaň on time, but when we got off the train I realised I was a bit disoriented. I wasn't sure where Pivovar Bobr and Hostinec U Mlýna—where the brewery has a tap—were in relation to the station. I tried asking a couple of people, even the cute girl at the ticket office, but they weren't locals. After cursing myself for not having printed the map, I chose to go left, but I wouldn't be sure we were going the right way until I asked a woman playing with her child in her garden.

Not that it was of much use, really. The place was closed. A blackboard at the pub's beer garden (quite good looking, BTW) said that the on Mondays and Tuesdays the place opened at 15. Fuck them! The website said it opened at 10! You can't trust anyone these days.

But we were two men on a mission and, with God as our witness, we were not going back to the train station without a beer in our bellies! Fortunately, we weren't far from a pub—we had seen a sign pointing to one just around the corner.

It was in a camp site—Kemp Ostrov—and looked quite nice, and equally dead. In fact, it looked it hadn't opened for the day yet. But it was, or so two štamgasty assured us. They turned out to be quite friendly, and without the tapster anywhere in sight, one of them, seeing how thirsty we must have looked, got up and poured us our beer.

Country Hospoda is, by all means, a multi-brand pub. They have Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus 10º, Staropramen Nefiltrované and Svijanský Máz. We chose Máz (I didn't expect PU to be too fresh there, and I don't like the other two) and went to sit outside.

I've never liked Máz too much, even when Svijany was my favourite brewery, but I must say that it tasted really nice that day. Maybe the capacity expansion at the brewery sorted out some quality issues, or it was a case of the “where factor”—the day was gorgeous, and we were in a very nice, and very quiet place.

Neither of us would have minded staying for another round, but we had to leave after just one. With all the talking, and the slow pace of the place, we had drunk our beers unusually slowly (at least as far as I'm concerned). Our train was leaving in ten or so minutes and, if we missed it we would have to wait to hours for the next one. We had enjoyed the pub and the beer, but not really THAT much.

The train was already at the station. It was one of those old, red, diesel single carriage ones that look like a bus. It was a fairly pleasant ride through, fields, meadows and forests, in what by all accounts appeared to be a very remote area of Central Bohemia, with the train sometimes stopping at slabs of concrete seemingly randomly placed by the tracks.

It took only 22 minutes to get to Všeradice, although it felt longer, but in a strangely pleasant way. This time we didn't have any trouble finding our way to brewery we wanted to visit from the (boarded up) station—there was a very visible sign indicating to get to Zámecký Dvůr Všeradice in no time.

After our disappointment in Zadní Třebaň, the one thing that kept on bothering me was that his place would be closed, too. Seeing construction works right by the gate to the Chateau complex didn't make me feel better. Fortunately, it's only one of the buildings that is still being renovated, and the restaurant was indeed open.

If you asked me, the tennis courts that take most of the courtyard look as out of place as a stripper at a toddler's birthday party, but it should be said that the owners have done a really good job with the restaurant inside. It's located in the old stables, barely decorated, all painted in white, with high, vaulted ceilings—it feels almost like being into Husite church—the bar in one end, right by the entrance, and the brewery in the other. Unlike almost all other brewpubs, or, rather in this case, a brewstaurant (let's see if this word catches up), the brewhouse of Pivovar Všeradice is not part of the room in a way that you can touch it, nor it is out of sight, in another part of the building, but it's in a box-like structure, with only a window that gives a view to the brewing gear.

Not surprisingly for a Tuesday early in the afternoon, the place was woefully empty, but we didn't mind it, really. And we minded it even less when we got our beers. They had four on tap: Světlá and Polotmavá 11°, Světlá 13°, and Polotmavá 14°.

With time on our side now, I decided I would work up my way through the taps, and started with the Světlá 11°. What a gorgeous beer! A true beauty! It had everything a proper Světlý Ležák should have*, and then some—a jedenáctka with swagger, one that would make anyone claiming that pale lagers are bland and boring swallow their teeth in one kick.

The Polotmavá 11° and Světlá 13°, though to me not as impressive as the previous one, were still excellent beers in their own right. The former reminded me of a Landbier, or perhaps a Kellerbier, or two, without actually trying to be one. The latter was basically like its 11º sibling, but with the hops more subdued by a slightly beefed up malt profile.

I had only one beer left to drink, the Polotmavá 14º. For some reason, I was expecting it to follow the same pattern as the two Světlé. Instead, my palate was hit with a sockful of hops. It was the house's IPA, of course. I just didn't think they had it on tap that day because the waiter didn't mention it by name. Not that it mattered, it was delicious, just as I remembered it, and a perfect way to cap the session.

The reputation of Pivovar Všeradice is more than well deserved. All four beers tasted clean and very well made, something that, as far as new breweries is concerned, sometimes feels like getting closer to an exception than a rule.

The ride back to Prague was a bit more eventful. We took the bus-looking train to Lochovice, where we could catch the express train to Prague coming from České Budějovice, at 15:20. It had a 15 minute delay, and we didn't mind one bit; the weather was still beautiful and we were not in a hurry (and we had beer). In the end, we made it to Prague by five, as my plan had intended.

Mission accomplished, it was a very fine day.

Na Zdraví!

Pivovar BobrHostinec U Mlýna
N49°55'10.702'', E14°12'33.994''
U Mlýna 8 – Zadní Třebaň

Country hospoda "Na Ostrově"
N 49°55.25573', E 14°12.52732'
Ahí en Zadní Třebaň
kempostrov@gmail.com – +420 777 150 241

Pivovar Všeradice
N 49°52.39472', E 14°6.65623'
restaurace@zamecky-dvur.cz – +607 724 091
Sun-Thu: 10-22, Fri-Sat: 10-24

23 Aug 2014

Weekend musings

It wasn't that long ago when I was still excited when knowing a new microbrewery would open or had opened and I would really look forward to drinking their stuff. But then the whole thing exploded with a couple of new breweries every week or so, and everyone and their aunt wanted to have a go at what by all accounts was fairly solid business.

Inevitably, and regardless of whether many of those everyone and their aunts got into the business to get rich quick, launder money, or were idealists with little real brewing or business skills, the overall quality “micro” beers ended up suffering to the point that buying something from a new brewery, without references, went from being a celebration of diversity to a gamble with rather poor odds.

Radniční Pivovar Jihlava was one of the breweries that opened my eyes to that reality. I remember having some of their beers not long after they opened and by the most part they ranged from the mediocre to downright crap, and I ended up avoiding them—there's plenty of good beer out there to spend my money on something I would probably not like, no matter how interesting it might look on paper. Until this morning at the Farmers' Market in Dejvice.

Both of the beers that the stand of Království Piva had on tap where from Jihlava. Needless to say, I wasn't all that excited. But always say that any beer is better than no beer and I took my place at the back of the short queue. I ended up choosing the IPA—the other one was a 12º—because nobody in front of me wanted one, which meant that I wouldn't need to wait.

What a surprisingly nice pint it turned out to be! I liked it a lot. But then I thought that my impression may have been due to quite low expectations and that being the first beer of the day, after a pretty greasy breakfast followed by some shopping, so I decided to get another one (I'm never shot of excuses for another pint). It was equally good. Could this brewery have improved so much?

It's not the first time something like that happened to me, but certainly the most remarkable one, and it made me think about new breweries in general and how they should be dealt with when it comes to reviewing them. Should they get a period of grace? And if so, for how long? On the other hand, it's not that those breweries charge a “learning curve” price when they start. Besides, wouldn't giving them some time to learn their trade be unfair to those who do things well from the very first day? And then there are also those breweries that start brilliant, only to fall into mediocrity, or worse, not much longer. So I guess we should let time decide after all, for better or worse. I don't know, I've got no answers, I'm just thinking out loud. Perhaps it should be taken on a case by case basis.

But this raises the question of reviews of new(ish) breweries as a whole, and whether they are of any use at the end of the day. I've recently visited two brewpubs in Prague and was pretty satisfied, not thrilled, mind you, but I didn't feel that my time or money had been wasted. Not much later, in Facebook and Twitter, Pivníci talked about their visits to those same brewpubs and I wouldn't say they were all too happy with what they got. Was I lucky or were they unlucky? Should choosing a new beer or brewery require the same level of research as holiday at an exotic destination? Is any of this important?

Too many questions, and not enough beer. At least I can find a solution to one of those problems right now.

Na Zdraví!

21 Aug 2014

Just a beery moment

It's early afternoon, or late lunchtime, if you want, at U Slovanské Lípy (I still miss the old, beer minimalist boozer, but Vodouch and co. have done a great job with the place—I love coming here, and I wish I could come more often than I do). I've just finished my food (it was very good) and I look at the tapster for the first time—I didn't see him when I walked in—he looks familiar.

It takes me only a couple of minutes sips to remember. It's the bloke that worked at Pivovar U Medvídků, also as tapster, six years ago, or so. We became kind of friends. We shared tastes in music, and whenever I dropped by there and he was on duty, if the place was quiet, we would sit down and chat about this and that. There were a few times that I ended up quite pissed after those visits—Laďa, the Brew Master, would give me beer, while Laďa, the tapster, gave me shots of slivovice home-made by someone from his family in the East of the country.

He vanished at some point, and I never knew what happened to him, and never felt like asking, to be honest. But it is him there behind the bar, and he's looking at me now. Not staring, mind you, but I know he is because he's got the same expression I must have had only a few minutes sips ago “I know this guy!”.

I've made up my mind that I will go to greet him on my way out (I'm not the sort of person who likes bothering people when they are working), when I see him coming my way, carrying two glasses of beer. He leaves them on a table near mine, turns around and stops right by my table.

We point at each other, with a crooked smile, and almost at unison we say each other's name.

The crooked smiles become wide and we embrace, briefly, like two old friends who, because of the dictates of life, have not seen each other for quite a long time.

Just one of those beery moments.

Na Zdraví!