25 Apr 2014

Good news, after all


I wasn't very much looking forward to April this year. Back in February I leant that my main beer supplier, Nápoje Charvát would be closing at the beginning of the month – some personal issues of the owner. When March was coming to an end and there was no news about someone who would carry one with the business, as was Mr. Charvát's wish, I started to worry. Loosing that bottle shop would be a real pain the ass to me as there's not a single one retailer in Prague that can match this nápojka in terms of brand diversity, price and convenience – we park nearby when we come to town by car, which gives me the possibility of buying beer by the case. And then came the sad news about Kaaba.

Although it's true that now in Prague there are plenty of nice spots to have a good early pint, to me, Kaaba wasn't so much about the beer as it was about the people I met there, and that would be very hard, if not impossible to replace.

But things have turned out well, after all.

Nápoje Charvat has found new owners, people who took it over because they want it to remain unchanged, or at least with as little change as possible. The don't have much in stock yet – I was told it would take them another couple of weeks – but they've promised the same range of beers. I wish them success.

It was a bit different with Kaaba. There was no chance to keep the place open. However, a week or so after it closed for good, the geezer who was working there wrote to all those who had left their e-mail addresses with some good news: he had found a place for us. He managed to talk the owner of Café Galeria, a spot around the block, opposite U Vodoucha, to let him open at 9 on weekdays.

The other day, when I walked in, there were a couple of Kaaba's morning regulars sitting at the bar; people I had not seen since the end of last month. We greeted each other with honest joy, and the same happened when another one came in a bit later, and with everyone else. It was, an is, a hard to describe feeling, it's a sense of community.

Granted, this place may not be as nice as Kaaba, and, to my taste, the beer isn't as good either – Pilsner Urquell instead of Polička – but I don't care, because at the end of the day, those things aren't that important, what really matters is the people.

Happy endings, don't you just love 'em?

Na Zdraví!

18 Apr 2014

On the Piss in Bavaria - Part 3


Do not attempt to read this post without having read Part 1 and Part 2, or you will not understand a fucking thing.

Nature called way too early the following morning. The bloody cunt couldn't have waited another hour, could she? After attending the call (and opening the windows, I hope the cleaning lady was provided with a gas mask), I tried to go back to sleep, without success. I wouldn't say I had a hangover proper, I felt rather as if my stomach was still trying to figure out what to do with the previous night's dinner.

It was still too early to go down for breakfast, not that I was hungry, actually. I turned on the telly to help me pass the time, but without expecting much, and can't say I was disappointed.

I don't think German TV is a lot of fun even when you understand the language, so you can imagine what it is like when you don't. But I found CNN, and it made me wish I didn't understand English. Their coverage of the missing Malaysian plane was incredibly pathetic; it can be summarised as: “We haven't got a shred of a fucking clue about what happened to that plane, but we'll still spew any sort of bullshit about it to fill space”, but with a nasal accent. I'm not joking! It was even during the sports news, where they spent like two minutes showing the Tweets (the PR teams of ) some F1 drivers defecated before the Malaysian GP. There's no better example of everything that is bad about the 24 hour news cycle, something I wish I was eradicated already.

So I went outside to get some fresh air (really, I pity the soul of the poor woman who had to walk into that room). They morning was still a bit chilly, but it promised a wonderful spring day.

Gradually, the rest woke up and we had breakfast – very unremarkable, to be honest – and we left to Munich shortly afterwards. On the way we picked Kristof, the Schlossbrauerei director, who would be our guide in the beer Mecca. Cool bloke.

As we drove into the centre of Munich, there was one thing that caught my attention. The bicycles, there were thousands, everywhere, and most weren't tied to anything.

We parked at around ten right in the centre of town, basically next to the Hofgarten. The day was gorgeous now, and a bit warm, I was happy to be wearing shorts. We wandered around for a couple of minutes, until we realised we had more important things to do (really, who comes to Munich for sightseeing with so much lovely beer to be drunk?). After a very short debate, it was decided that we would start the boozing day at the Schneider Weisses Brauhaus.
Despite the relatively early hour, the place was full. There was no question about sitting outside, and we were lucky to find a place inside, which I think was better: it's a gorgeous beer hall, and the atmosphere was great. There were some tourists, but most of the patrons seemed to be local, and not few of them were wearing lederhosen.

I wanted to send my guts a clear message of what sort of day they should be ready for, and I thought something like Schneider-Weisse TAP 5 wouldn't leave any room for misinterpretation. If you've never done it, please, do yourselves a favour and drink Hopfenweisse as your first beer in the morning, you will thank me, that's all I think I need to tell you about it.
Food was ordered, the ubiquitous obatzda and the almost mandatory weisswurst – apparently, a breakfast speciality, and a very good one, too. My glass was empty by the time the tureen with the five pairs of sausages arrived, and, with the message already sent, I figured it'd be better to tune things down a bit, with Aventinus – I will never, ever get tired of that beer.
Our next stop was going to be Hofbräuhaus. I must admit that I wasn't too thrilled about it, as the place has a bit of a reputation of being a tourist trap. But the rest wanted to go there, and I wasn't going to be the twat that ruins it for everyone. So, there I went with a smile on my face, as anyone who'd had 1l of strong beer before noon is wont to be.
Tourist trap or not, I'd lie if I said I didn't enjoy myself at Hofbräuhaus. To say that this beer hall is massive is an understatement. I'd never seen something like that – Kristof told us that they tap 17,000hl a year! It was well more than packed when we walked in, with many people walking among the tables hoping to find a place to sit. It's true that there was a much larger proportion of tourists than at Schneider (I even spotted a herd following an umbrella), but there were a lot of locals as well, guaranteeing, and an impressive atmosphere – it was like being in the middle of a philharmonic orchestra where the instruments are the sounds of people having fun.
We eventually found a place to sit in the courtyard, also full, also with a great vibe. It took a bit long to get any service and once we ordered, it took almost as long to get our beers, which are sold only in Maß. It made me realise that I was unfair when I criticised the Czech Beer Festival for switching to Tupláky a couple of yours back. I can't begin to imagine how much longer it would've taken us to get something to drink even beers had come in half litre, instead of 1l measures.
I ordered Dunkles, which can be best described as a paper pusher at the headquarters of a large bank or the public administration. But I couldn't have cared less, really. I could've been drinking Staropramen and I don't think I would've had any less of a good time. And the best was about to arrive.
But you'll have to wait to read about that. It's almost half past beer and I'm thirsty.

Na Zdraví!

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!