11 Apr 2014

Introducing the "Permon Standard"

I must confess that I wasn't very impressed with first warm fermented beers from Pivovar Permon, they weren't very good. But they've improved quite a bit since then. They are not going to knock anyone's socks off, they do their job quite well and at a more than reasonable price to boot, when compared to other similar beers made in the Czech Republic. This makes them ideal to use them as a benchmark, and that's how I've come up with the "Permon Standard", a bar to measure the české ejly in terms of price/quality.

To give you an example, Benediktin IPA, from Břevnovský Pivovar or Podlesní IPA, from Pivovar Podlesí, could be said to be AP (Above Permon): they are pretty much in the same price range, but I like them better. On the other hand, Rebel IPA from Havličkův Brod is BP (Below Permon), the pint I had the other day was at around the same price but didn't taste very good. The IPA and BIPA from Two Tales are also BP, but because of the price - I find them every bit as good as the ones from Sokolov, but they are much more expensive. I could go on with others, but I think you get the picture.

So there you have it, nothing better than a good benchmark to evaluate things fairly.

Na Zdraví!

7 Apr 2014

On the Piss in Bavaria - Part 2

You should read the first part before this one. I'm not joking.

With jolly bellies, we left Schneider-Weisse and headed headed to Essing, enjoying the gorgeous Bavarian countryside as we cruised along.
Essing is a pretty, small village, most of which can't be more than a couple hundred metres across, as it's crammed between a creek and a (limestone perhaps?) cliff.

The day was on full spring when we parked in front of the Brauereigasthof Schneider and we went straight to the deck in the back of the building. An idyllic setting, really. I picked the Bock of the house, which was a bit too thin flavoured for my taste, but I didn't care, I was like a pig in shit.
While we were sipping our beers and chatting, Líbor went to get something from the car and when he came back, he said he had bumped into the owner and brew master of Schneider Brauerei, who had agreed to show us around his brewery.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the one with had left about an hour before. A coincidence of names, which isn't so surprising, given how common the surname is. It's also a much smaller brewery than the other one – between 2,000 and 3000 hl/year. The brewery has been in the for six generations (if I remember correctly), with a seventh pretty much guaranteed as the son of the current owner is training to take over the business. The 5hl copper brewhouse is beautiful and looks like it's been around for a couple of generations, too. The rest was pretty standard, open fermenters, lagering tanks and a space to bottle condition their Weissbier.
After the visit, we went back to the deck to catch up with our drinking. Dunkles for me this time, it was a beauty. I would really like to know what those who say German beer is boring are drinking; it might be that they haven't been to Germany, or their palate is wasted after tasting DIPA's, BA Imperial Stouts and what have you. I swear, if someone had told me we were staying in Essing and that Dunkles was the only beer I'd drink for the rest of the weekend, I wouldn't have complained much.
But we were on a mission, those two barrels weren't going to deliver themselves to Au. We also wanted to visitar one more brewery before getting to our destination. While I squeezed a second Dunkles – what a lovely beer, really – we decided that the one in Riedenburg would be our next stopover.

It took us longer to find the brewery than getting to the town. Actually, I found it right away, but those three Czech čuráci wouldn't listen to a pajero from Argentina and we drove aimlessly around Riedenburg. Still refusing to listen to me, we stopped to ask directions to an old geezer who said he didn't anything about a brewery – more likely, though, he was so pissed he didn't remember.

We did make it to brewery in the end, but I don't know why we bothered. The beer garden looked like it was open for the season yet. We walked towards what appeared to be a taproom in the main building. It was actually a gift shop (I could swear I saw an IPA, but who wants to drink IPA with so much lovely dunkles and helles?), which was also closed (everybody pisses off at noon on Fridays in this part of the world – maybe we should learn a couple of things from the Germans). The only one there was a bloke in an office, attentively watching a computer screen – likely some of that weird fetish porn Germans like so much – who told us there brewery had a tap in the centre of town and gave us directions there.

It was Zum Poste, an unremarkable gasthof located near the main square. We took a table outside. I ordered a Helles, which I'm sure would have been much better without the tinfoil note that dominated the first half of the pint.
It was getting late and there's little holding us back in Riedenburg. It was time for the final leg of the trip. We arrived in Au by dusk and parked by the Schlossbrauerei – gorgeous building, indeed.
I made the mistake of volunteering to take one of the barrels down to the impressive Schloss Bräukeller – located in what used to be the floor maltings. I regretted every second, though it reminded me why I don't go to the gym – it would hurt. Nothing that some beer wouldn't be able to take care of.
Helles Naturtrüb. What a glorious beer! Imagine you are listening to your favourite music while napping in a hammock under ancient, leafy trees, but only better. The first one went down very quickly, and the two that followed didn't spend too much in the glass. I went through the other of house's beers – Hollerdauer Weisses, Auer Dunkles, Hollerdauer Dunkles and Baronator – all very good, but it was the Naturtrüb I kept coming back to.
We also had food, lots of food. We shared two starters, a beef salad that, unlike other beef salads I've seen that have a few pieces of meat over a lot of veggies, had a few pieces of veggies over a lot of meat, delicious stuff; and Obatzda, a great beer snack served with pretzels. For main course I had Rahmschwammerl mit Semmelknödel und gebratenen Kräutersaitling, which was every bit as big as it sounds; the sort of thing that could give a militant vegan a stroke just by looking at it. Saying it was delicious wouldn't do it justice. I'm sure German has a word to describe that; lemme see, völligverdammtwunderschönen, that sounds about right. It was a völligverdammtwunderschönen meal through and through. I had some difficulty finishing that mastodontian piece of animal with the works, but finish it I did, and I felt my gut would explode if I made any sudden moves. No problem, schnapps came to the rescue – a couple of times – together with some more of that Naturtrüb.
It was a great evening, and the perfect coda for a great day. One of those magic beer moments where beer is just another part of the whole, as it should always be, as far as I'm concerned.

We made our way to the hotel somewhere around 11, feeling that life was beautiful, and, certainly, a lot less drunk than we would have been without so much food. And yet, we knew that the following day would be a lot more intense, but you'll have to wait to know about that one.

Na Zdraví!

Disclaimer: When we asked for the bill, we were told that dinner was on the house. Thanks a lot.

4 Apr 2014

The Session #86: Beer Journalism

This month's edition of The Session has Beer Hobo asking:
What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?
I'll answer the first two questions:

The first one: I don't know why beer writers should limit themselves to one brand, in this case, "Craft Beer", and why are we expected to play any role in its growth or culture, we aren't supposed to be PR.

The second one: too much fanboyism, not enough criticism (though that is getting better), and even less storytelling; but to each writer is free to write what they feel like, I don't have to read it, if I don't like it.

As for the stories that are not getting told: Failures. I would like to read about failed breweries and the people behind them. We need more of that, we need more of the ugly side of the brewing industry, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the shattered dreams. It's not a morbid interest, it's just that I feel that the current discourse presents things in an all too shiny light, when we all know that it is a hard business that will sure get harder in the coming years. And I also believe that everybody can learn from other people's failures.

I am as guilty of this as anyone else, and I've been thinking of a project along those lines. So, if you were owner of a failed brewery and would like to speak about your experience, or you know someone who would, drop me a line.

That's all I've got to say.

Na Zdraví!

2 Apr 2014

On the Piss in Bavaria - Part 1

The story of how I joined Líbor, the owner of Kulový Blesk and importer of Schneider-Weisse and Au-Hallertau, and Štěpán and Mírek, director and business rep. of Únětický Pivovar respectively, starts last year in September.

My wife had taken the weekend off, leaving me with our daughter. What is a responsible parent supposed to do to entertain a very energetic 4 y.o. child? Well, go to a bloody brewery, of course! So we took the bus to Únětice, my daughter jumping with joy.

There were visitors that day at Únětický Pivovar: the owner, the director and the brewers of Schlossbrauerei Au-Hallertau, who had come with a barrel of their Weissbier.

The pub was pretty full when we arrived and we were invited to seat at the table with the Bavarians, who turned out to be really cool people, and with Líbor, who, it should be said, is a top bloke. We had a great afternoon, the “Auers” invited me to visit their brewery and I told Líbor I would him in Spring in one of his regular trips there. That trip was last Friday, and it turned out to be better than I had expected. Únětický and Au have developed a very friendly relationship and the Czech were going this time to Germany with their own beer, Masopustní Speciál, in barrels they had borrowed from the Germans.

We left Únětice two pints past ten to pick up Líbor and get on our way to Germany. Our first stop would be Schneider-Weisse, where Líbor was to take care of some business matters, while the rest of us were shown around the brewery.
Schneider-Weisse is one of my favourite brewers. Not only they make excellent classics, but recently they've been trying new stuff, and quite successfully, without veering too far off their comfort zone. I was looking forward to seeing the guts of the place where those beers come from.
We started at the brewhouse, which is about 20 years old and can make 320hl batches (currently, Schneider is making 250,000 hl/year, and they have capacity for twice as much). It's one of those shiny, stainless steel things that, as expected for a brewery of this size, is highly automated (another proof that the tale of “hand crafted” as an added value is nothing but a load of bollocks). We were then taken to the barrel room, where another batch of their barrel aged beer was maturing. From where we went to see the fermenters. They were impressive, open stainless-steel steel vats, one of which was frothing with one day old fermenting wort. The most interesting part to me, however, was knowing happens afterwards. Once primary fermentation finishes after one week, if I remember correctly, I wasn't taking notes, the young beer is mixed with freshly pitched wort, then either bottled of filled in kegs and taken to a nearby distribution centre for bottle/keg conditioning, which consists of one week at 20ºC and up to three weeks at 10ºC. Basically, it takes longer to get an Aventinus ready than Staropramen Ležák.
We were invited lunch at the brewery's pretty beer garden. Nobody goes to Germany to start a diet, and we were no exception. I had a platter with sausages, steak, cabbage and potatoes that was excellent, and better still washed down with Unser Original.
After licking our plates and sucking the last drops out of our glasses, it was time to get on our way to our next stop, the other Schneider brewery, in Essing. But you'll have to see what happened there, and during the rest of the day.

Na Zdraví!

25 Mar 2014

Sad News

I heard about last week, but I foolishly hoped it wasn't true, that it was all a joke of some sorts. It wasn't. Kaaba-Lucemburská is closing down this Friday. And I'm quite sad about it.

The feeling is a completely different to when Svijanský Rytíř closed. Kaaba has been a regular stop for me for at least the last three years or so. Actually, it was more than that. My relationship with this little café in a side street in Vinohrady went far beyond the good beer I could drink there. Going to Kaaba for a couple of late morning pints on Tuesdays and most Thursdays became a ritual, something I needed to do. Kaaba was a place where I could detach myself from my daily life without losing touch with reality. It was a place where nobody knew, or cared, that I write about beer; for them I was this bloke from Argentina who's been living in the Czech Republic for over a decade and every now and again was able to tell a good joke or a funny anecdote.

Nobody can be blamed for this. It's something that just happened. The owner got one of those you'd-be-an-utter-idiot-if-you-refused job offers, doing the sort of stuff he most loves and having a café didn't make any more sense to him. All the štamgasty understand that and wish him the best, but there's still a sense of loss. We've talked about where we could meet for those morning chats, and we've decided to leave our phone numbers and e-mail addresses to somehow try to stay in touch. Some of the regulars are even entertaining the idea of setting up a non for profit, or a club and open a similar place nearby, but we all know that it'll not be the same. It just won't have the same magic.

If you have a favourite pub, bar, café or watering hole of any sort. Go there, go as often as possible and enjoy it as much as you can, and, if you don't do it already, chat with the regulars and the staff. You never know how much longer that place will be there, and, once it's gone, you will miss it.

For those who are around town this week and know Kaaba, you have until Friday to drop by for a last pint.

Na Zdraví!

19 Mar 2014

Back to the roots brewpub reviews: Pivovarský Dům

Before I begin, I must tell you that I'm really excited about this project. Not only I got some great feedback, but it has also given me an excuse to go back to some places I visited in ages, places that I used to like a lot, but you know, life. (On a side note, maybe we should all do that more often, go back to places or beers we once loved, but that now are almost part of our past) It has also given me a pretext to finally make it to the, for the time being, though not for much longer, newest brewpub in Prague, Pivovar Liboc, though I still haven't decided how excited I am about it.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the order in which I would post the reviews. Chronological – from the oldest to the newest brewpubs, or the other way around; geographical or maybe pitching one of the older brewpubs against one of the newer ones. But I've opted for something far more logical and straightforward, based on whenever I had enough time and happened to be near and/or could be arsed with going to a given brewpub.

So, without further ado, let's get to reviewing the shit out of some brewpubs.

Pivovarský Dům

I think the last time I was in Pivovarský Dům was more than three years ago while researching for the The Pisshead's Pub Guide. It's a great example of what I was speaking about at the beginning. I loved this place and its beers, it was one of my regular watering holes back when the fingers of one hand was enough to count the brewpubs of Prague. I don't remember ever having a bad experience here, I simply stopped coming. So it was good to be back.

Nothing has changed in the main room, which is a welcome sight, as I've always liked its style. I took a table right next to the brewing kit and realised I was surrounded by Russian tourists. They weren't part of an umbrella following herd, they were couples or small groups of thirty-somethings, or so I reckon, by the most part who didn't know each other. This isn't a complaint or even criticism. I've got nothing against Russian tourists, especially when they are as well behaved as those were, and for the pub, their money is every bit as good as mine. But, and though nobody can be blamed for that, it does take away some of the atmosphere.

The most remarkable thing I noticed was the sampling trays on every table – you know, that thing with the tiny glasses with all the beers Pivovarský Dům makes. It was as of these people were there following instructions; otherwise they wouldn't be taken seriously back home. Something I'm pretty sure they've read on a popular guide book. But I don't want to make any of fun of them, after all, we beer geeks/enthusiast aren't too different, are we? Whenever we go to any of those beer Meccas we feel an almost obligation to visit a list of places because we've been told that we mustn't miss them - “what you were in Brussels and didn't go to Moeder Lambic? What sort of monster are you?”.

But enough social commentary, let's get to the beers.

The Štěpán – Světlý Ležák was like a sensory trip to the past, it reminded me why I used to believe this was the best pale lager in the world. Simply amazing in its simplicity, and in a way, surprising. It tasted like finding beer money in the pocket of an old jacket. It more than made up for the lacklustre atmosphere and if I'd had time, I would've stayed for an unmoderate number of pints.

I wish I could say the same thing about Štěpán – Tmavý Ležák. There wasn't anything objectively wrong with it, it just was not my thing. Felt like having tea and pastries with your aunt, when you could be eating a roast somewhere else. But that Pale Lager, uuuuuuuhhhh! I need more of that in my life.

Pivovarský Dům
50°4'31.287"N, 14°25'25.766"E
Lípová 511/15 – Prague 2
pivodum@iol.cz - +420 296 216 666
Mon-Sun: 11-23:30
Trams: 4, 6, 10, 16, 22 – Štěpánská

16 Mar 2014

A View from the Notch

Chris Lohring is the owner and Brew Master of Notch, a Boston based brewing company specialised in Session beers. I met him and his wife almost two years ago when the came to Prague and we spent a glorious afternoon at Únětické Pivovar drinking several litres of Desítka.

He mentioned not long ago that he had decided to leave the Brewers Association and I was curious about why, and also wanted to ask him a few more questions, and he has some quite interesting things to say.

How long was Notch a member of the BA?
Two years I believe, I opted out in 2013. With my previous brewery Tremont, I had been a member as well, both pre and post-merger (Association of Brewers and Brewers Association of America).

How did the BA change during those years?
The real changes came after the merger, at least that from my point of view.  Very small brewers were now in the same organization as some very large brewers. We saw how that played out with the craft beer “definition” change. Over the years I saw the BA focusing more on issues concerning their largest members, and that resulted in decisions that benefited them the most.

What was the thing that made you say "fuck it", the last straw?
The definition changes. If there really is a benefit in defining the beers we make, let's be honest with the intent. There was this driving need for million barrel brewers to be perceived as small for marketing reasons, and ultimately that was not a reasonable decision.

Also, the desire to remove the older regional brewers from the craft definition through an ingredient specification was misguided. (This has since been corrected.) The use of corn, or rice, was deemed “non-traditional” and not craft. That really got under my skin, to the point I brewed a pale lager made with heritage corn from a local farm just to show it can have a positive, flavorful impact on a beer.

As “innovative” craft brewers we are heralded for using any ingredient under the sun but corn and rice are excluded from that definition? The myths built around adjuncts are long and mostly inaccurate. I don't have space for a corn rant here, but I wrote about it on the Notch website.

I assume it wasn't the only one, what were the other factors that eventually made to quit the BA?
Mostly that I'm a small brewer who watches every penny and the yearly dues I paid could be best spent elsewhere. It really just came down to that – was I getting value for my money, and I decided that I wasn't. It's not a “statement” or a message but a financial decision. I thought buying coasters for my draft accounts would be a better use of that cash.

And the style guidelines, I'm not a style freak, but they do help inform consumers. One Czech style (!) and a session beer “style” with an ABV range of 4.0 to 5.1%. A lower limit on session beer! I wrote the BA regarding the Session Beer definition and was ignored. In what mature beer producing country would 5.1% be considered session beer, or have a lower limit of 4.0%?

The BA is looked to for guidance and information from the press, consumers, and industry, and they are communicating that a session beer is 5.1% ABV? That is the equivalent ABV as a shot of bourbon or a 5oz glass of 12% ABV wine. Is that what we want to be communicating?

(No need to give names) Do you know of any other breweries that have recently left the BA or are seriously considering doing so?
I'm sure they are out there, but I haven't spoken to anyone about it. I tend to keep my head down and focus on my business, and other than being on the board of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, I'm not out speaking to many brewers outside my area. I haven't even told anyone I left until now. Again, it's not really a message I'm making, just a decision based on value and a disagreement of the BA's direction.

The other day the BA announced a change in the definition of craft beer, according to which it is now kosher to brew with adjuncts like corn. What are your feelings about it?
I think their reputation was taking a hit, so maybe they are listening? But it really looks like they have a shifting agenda based on what provides the best outcome for their board and larger members. I may be wrong on all of this, but the ever changing definition tells me otherwise. There is still some jockeying for position, as a publicly traded brewery is craft, yet a brewery of modest size that has 25% investment from AB is not. That makes little sense to me.

Andres Araya from 5 Rabbit gave an interview to Good Beer Hunting where, among other things, he speaks about the challenges of contract brewing. As a "brewery-less" brewer yourself, can you relate to what he says?
Every contract brewing arrangement is unique, so I don't think you can look at it monolithically like he does. And I mean that from both perspective of the host brewery (who owns the physical plant) and the tenant brewer (who uses another's facility).

I owned a production brewery and began brewing professionally 20 years ago, so maybe I come at it from a different view. My host breweries have been chosen because they give me absolute flexibility in ingredients and process, while allowing me to be hands on if I chose to be. For the most part I can use any yeast I want, any malt, and any hop. I'm old school and don't care for peppers, chocolate nibs, or fruit in my beer, but those options are available to me if I want. Corn too! Are there beers I cannot make? Yes, I'd love to put a Berliner Weisse in cans and sell them in 12 packs for $15, but I'm not bringing lactobacillus into a brewery anytime soon.

Also, my contract partners allow me to produce at scale. If I started a brewery on day one to launch Notch, it would not have been possible to offer my beer at a competitive price. This business is all about margin and scale. To put beer in 12 packs priced to the consumer at $15 and realize a gross margin that keeps the business afloat, you need SCALE. And that is exactly the package the session beer consumer wants - 12 pack cans. Yes, I could have grown into that volume with my own brewery, but finding investors to float a cash flow until break even for a session beer brewery in 2009 would have been futile. And I don't have a trust fund.

So for me, and this is certainly not for everyone, contract brewing was the only real viable path to introduce a session beer brand. And since I've been a brewer and had owned my own brewery for almost a decade, I'm not rushing to build a facility to “live the dream”. My goal is to make the absolute best beer I can and offer it at the best price possible, and my own brewery does not fit that goal right now. I will build another brewery eventually, but I will most likely always rely on contract partners for scale and competitive pricing.

I've seen recently quite a bit of criticism directed at breweries like Notch. Some of it appears to be fair - failure to disclose the place where the beer is actually made - but not all. How do you feel about it? Would you compare it with the negative campaign that in the 90s AB ran against Sam Adams?
I think some of the criticism directed to contract brewers is warranted, and some contract brewers only need to look at the mirror as to why. Many contract brewers hide or are not forthcoming with the place of production. If your office is in X and you brew in Y, telling your consumer it comes from X (or leading them in that direction) will ultimately come back to bite you. In the 90's we called these companies post office box breweries, and this practice ultimately hurt everyone because the brands were not being truthful. The consumer felt lied to, and all small brewers were tarnished, especially when AB came out swinging against Boston Beer. I hate to see current day contract brewers (and me in particular!) get dragged into this mess again.

The "gypsy" thing is contract brewing with a sexy new name, but honestly, I really don't know what gypsy brewing means. Just don't call me one.

I have one tenet at Notch that I follow (and my employees must follow) - tell the truth, always. I brew in 3 different breweries and have been without a true home base since day one. I live in Massachusetts, and for the first year I brewed all the beer in Maine (by me, with my own hands, in a brewery I worked in previously), and I called myself a Maine brewer because that was the truth. Fours years later, a small bit comes from Maine, most of my beers come from Massachusetts, but I have significant production in Connecticut too. When a consumer asks, where are you from? I list the locations, and sometimes they haven't trailed off and lost interest by the time I finish. It would be easier to say "in city X" where my post office box is located, but I refuse to do that. I respect the consumer and beer too much for a slight marketing advantage.

Thanks Chris, and hope to see you again soon for another session.

Na Zdraví!