30 Dec 2008

Among celebrations

The year is coming to an end and it is about time to review 2008 from the beer point of view. Well, you will have to wait for that because this post is the tradional one dedicated to the beer of the month.

In December all the Christmas specials came out to the field, some very good, others not so. Among the former there are a few worth a special mention: Chýně Světlý Svateční 14° that paired wonderfully with the traditional Christmas carp and potatoe salad. U Medvídku 1466 that showed up quite surprisely, it was already very nice a week before the festivities, but its creator told me that I should drop by after New Year and tate it from the barrel he's been saving. Harrach Vanoční, somewhat similar to that one from the same brewery I had bottled, but a bit darker and with more expressive flavours. Among the industrial beers the ones I liked the most were Opat 17%, with its intriguing spicy notes, despite not having any spices in its recipe, and Janáček 14%, with a very good balance between caramel and hops.

But not everything was Christmas beers. Two Tokajs showed up, one from Kocour and the other one from Pivovarský Dům. These beers might not be to everyone's taste, but I found them terribly interesting.

And it is from among the non seasonal beers that I picked this month's two winners. On the one side, Kocour AIPA. I loved this beer! Very bitter, very dry, but not to the point of being extreme, and with that mild fruit note that balances it very, very well. On the other side, Pardubický Porter at room temperature. I've been drinking a lot of it these days and took bottles with me to meetings we had with friends. It was a big success. I was quite surprised the acceptance it had among people who only drink Pilsner Urquell or Gambrinus at best.

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27 Dec 2008

La Ronda #7: Beery Christmas

For the December edition of "La Ronda" we chose something not very original, but still interesting, I think. The topic was the following:

"What beer, or beers, will you drink with your Christmas dinner or lunch?. And since the Spanish speaking beer bloggers are not from beer countries, they were also asked to talk about the reaction fo the family.

As mentioned in the previous post, this was going to be a very special Christmas for us because it was going to be the first we would be celebrating at our new home.

Everything turned out very well. We had bought the tree a couple of weeks earlier. On Monday 22 we went to buy the fish that would be dinner, a carp, following the tradition of going somewhere where they are sold alive. Tuesday afternoon we decorated the tree and prepared the potatoe salad, and Wednesday morning we finished preparing the table and left everything ready to receive my in-laws.

I had left a few bottles of Svijanský Rytíř chilling outside. They were soon opened to drink with open sandwiches and cold cuts. We also had a glass of malinovice (raspberry schnapps), home made, that one of my clients gave me as present (those are clients!!!).

Later, while we were raiding the trays with vanoční cukrovy (Christmas biscuits) that my wife and mother in law had baked, I opened a bottle of Herold Tmavé that had also spent some time outside. It was a very pleasant combination. The cukrovy atenuated the sweeter notes of the beer, leaving only room for the more interesting roasted notes to fully express themselves.
It was time for dinner. First, fish soup that I made with the bones and other parts of the carp. It was tasty and mild, good to open the appetite. Main course, traditional fried carp with potatoe salad in two versions, mine and my father in law's, each very different, each delicious. The choice of beer for dinner was almost last minute. I had picked one already, but on the Thursday before I stopped by at Pivovarský Dvůr Chýně and picked two 1,5l bottles, one of them was of their Vanoční Světlý Speciál 14°. It was those almost signature fruity notes of all the beers from Chýně, one of the best Czech micros, but with a fantastically dry and bitter finish. Needless to say, the beer paired wonderfully with both fish and salads, of which we ate tonnes. We all liked it and not a drop was left after dinner.
After opening the presents (I got a pipe from my wife! how cool is that!), it was time to raid the cukrovy again, after a shot of malinovice to help digest the dinner, of course. For that moment I had chosen a beer that I aroused my curiosity at the last Christmas Beer Festival, Nørrebro Bryghus Julebryg, a season special brewed with malt, wheat and oats malts, together with a secret mix of Christmas spices. I served it at room temperature. It is a very delicate beer. Pours a dark amber, with a good looking compact head. Its bouquet has cinnamon, nuts and perník (gingerbread). And it does taste almost like perník juice, it's got that mellow sweetness with a mildly spiced touch. The finish is short, warm and with a subtle rum note. I loved this beer. It shows that a beer doesn't need to be extreme to be memorable. It's like an elegant lady, but not glamourous, attractive without the need of any sexy clothes.
As in many other countries, here in the Czech Republic, Christmas celebration does not end on December 24, it goes on a day or two more. Christmas lunch would be roasted duck with knedlíky and sauerkraut. While we prepared with with my mother in law, a couple more Svijany went down. To pair with this feast I had chosen the other beer I had brought from Chýně, Tmavý Speciál, also fermented at 14°balling, also with a relatively low 5%ABV. Again, the choice was right. Those fruity notes (I think I could recognise a beer from Chýně with my eyes closed thanks to them) contrasted very well with the home made sauerkraut and complemented the taste of the duck, to wrap everything in an intense roasted coffee finish that reminded me more of a Stout than of a Czech dark Lager. I wolfed down almost half the duck, two servings of sourkraut and about 10 knedlíku. The beer was all drunk, too. If it hadn't been that we decided to go to Prague to see the Christmas markets in Old Town Square, I would have slept until Monday.
When we came back we ate some home made sausages (also present from a client) with some of the left over potatoe salad (we still had a lot of it). With that I drunk Louny Hořký Speciál 13%, which, like the 11% that I had tasted at the Christmas Beer Festival, disappointed me, not because it was bad, but because it didn't fulfill the promise of extra bitterness.
But the celebrations didn't end there. Another part of the family came over on Friday to have roasted turkey with potatoes, and also soup with liver dumplings. I paired the food with Svijanský Baron 15%. The strongest beer from Svijany, that did a pretty good job with the turkey and side dishes. Again, I ate a lot.

More presents were opened after lunch. Several tonnes more of cukrovy were eaten (and we still have a couple more tonnes in the pantry). During the afternoon I opened other beers. Rebel Vanoční Speciál, a 14° gold lager. Nice, it would have been an adecuate pairing for the carp and potatoe salad, but that didn't impress me much. Poutník Speciál 14%, another gold lager of the same balling graduation, but somewhat drier. Janáček Vanoční Speciál, which I had already tasted in my visit to Hradec Králove, of all the Czech Christmas beers of 14°balling this is the one I liked the most. And also the Louny that was left, Hořký Speciál 16%, a little better than its little sisters, more syrupy, with more character, but that also fails to fulfill the promise of extra bitterness.
It was already dark outside (which means anytime after 4.30PM) and I opened a bottle of Schlenkerla Urbock to drink with a cheese and smoked meats platter. I have become a fan of "smoked" beers, and this one was just what I expected. Almost black, with a generous head of a ligth beige colour. The nose reminded me of schwardsvalská šunka a smoked cured raw ham that I like a lot, together with caramel and nuts. It tasted somehow like a tea made of that ham, with those strong wood notes it has, followed by caramel and mild cocoa with nuts. Delicious. It was very surprised when my wife, my nieces and my brother in law all said they liked the beer a lot.
It was a very nice Christmas celebration. We are both very happy with how well everything turned out. Everyone liked the beers I chose, only my wife regretted not being able to drink more of them. There will be a chance next year.

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23 Dec 2008

Christmas Greetings

To all those of you who are one way or another celebrating something during these days. I want to wish you all the best and more. Thank you very much for reading this blog, recommending it, commenting and participating. I hope will keep on doing so next year.

Around here, all the presentas have bene bought and wrapped, the food is already in the fridge or the pantry. Mi wife is right now decorating the tree. This is going to be a very special Christmas for us, it will be the first we celebrate in our new home.

Needless to say, good beer won't be missing. I have an interesting selection that will give me a lot to think about in the coming days. Representatives from eight countries will go down my gullet sooner or later.

There are of course Czech beers and also from Norway, Scotland, one from Germany, one from Belgium and one from Denmark.

Together with these three Czechs. They are mostly to pass the afternoons. There are multiple bottles of each.

And in the last moment four from my country, Argentina, arrived. Thank you very much Claudia!!!

So, in the highly unlikely case that we get snowed in, I won't suffer from thirst (nor hunger).

The best wishes and the best beers for this holidays!

Šťastný a Veselé!

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22 Dec 2008

Ambition. Style. Beers

Last year's Christmas Beer Festival was at one of the halls of Vytavyště Praha. Though it wasn't at all bad, it lacked some atmosphere and the selection of beers could have been better, there wasn't food either. However, its concept was more akin to other Czech beer festivals and the entrance, if I remember well, was free.

I must admit that when I first heard that this year's edition was going to take place at the very posh Hotel Mandarin Oriental - Praha I wasn't too happy at first. Later, when I realised what the idea and the goal the choice of such an unusual venue for a beer event was, I started looking at it with different eyes and begun looking forward to it.

Honza Kočka was the event's organiser and his goal was the same as Evan Rail's with the tastings he's been holding at the same hotel, to show beer as a drink to a new audience. I don't know how successful the festival was in terms of attendance and sales, I still have to receive the figures from Honza, but at least from a stricktly beery point of view, it was espectacular.
The entrance was not that cheap, 150CZK, but included a Czech Beer for free and the possibility of keeping the specially designed glass (which I forgot). One of my biggest fears were the prices. I was afraid that the beers and the food would be terribly expensive. Fortunately, I was very wrong. Though not down at heel, 30CZK for 30cl of any of the Czech beers on tap was more than decent, more so if we consider that all of them were on the strong side. There were also half litre bottles of the three seasonal beers from Louny at a very nice 20CZK a pop.

But perhaps, the biggest acheivement of the festival was the wide and very interesting choice of foreign beers, none of them from macros, all at very good prices; especially considering that many of them can't be found in local shops and can also be pricey at their source. To give you an idea, a half litre bottle of Schenklerka Märzem was 30CZK, Aventinus Weizenbock for 50CZK/0.5l, the very celebrated BrewDog Smokehead Paradox, or their Tokio for 100CZK/0.3l bottle. And it wasn't even necessary to buy a whole bottle of an unknown and likely to be extreme beer. Attendants could order some from the desired beer to be poured into their glasses. This allowed to explore without spending too much money. And if you liked them, you could take the bottles home with you.
Another thing I liked a lot was to be able to order a tasting measure of 0.15l, that also helped to explore and enjoy more types of beer without getting drunk. It was something I did most of the afternoon, specially with the stronger beers.

I arrived at the event around 1.15P. I felt a bit out of place when I walked into the luxury hotel. I'm not very experienced with places of this category. Fortunately, each one of the staff greeted me with a polite smile and kindness, which helped me to relax and feel welcome.

I found the room of the event. Actually a hallway and a ballroom. In the hallway were the Czech beers. After buying some vouchers I looked around at what was on tap. For my free beer I chose something strong Kaltenecker Porter 19°, that, unlike its namesake from Pardubice, is top fermented. Very dark brown it pours, with port, chocolate and prune notes in the nose. It tasted somewhat similar to Pardubický, but was a bit drier and with a fuller body. I liked it. Pity it was not available at room temperature.
Its alcohol contents didn't go unnoticed, so I ordered some of the pivní guláš that was being very elegantly served and looked pretty good. It was only looks. The sauce was tasty but way too thin to my taste, and the meat comitted the most cardinal sin in a guláš, it was hard, like rubber. The portion, at 60CZK was generous and served with very good fresh bread, but I prefer guláš from a corner hospoda any day.
I followed with a glass of Kocour AIPA. Delicious. Brilliant. Pivovar Vandorf is brewing such good ales. Beautifully dry and bitter, but with a subtle touch of fruit to balance. I enjoyed every drop. I paired it with an Indonesian oxtail soup. It was very good, a very strong broth with tender pieces of meat floating in it, very tasty and went very well with the AIPA.
It was time for something more exotic. I went to the table of the Scottish beers. Chose RipTide. A Stout with 8%ABV, not recommendable for novices. Black and cloudy (like some of my thoughts), intense prune nose with mild black coffee and chocolate notes. On the palate is the complete opposite, coffee and chocolate dominate and are balanced by mild prune notes. It leaves a lovely and intense roasted aftertaste. I love it when a beer surprises, when there is a big contrast between aromas and flavours. RipTide is one of them, and it is delicious. I drank it with a slice of Chilli Sacher cake (40CZK). It wasn't a very happy pairing. Instead of complementing the mutual flavours anihilated each other. I took a pause and finished the cake, it was good; I took another pause and finished the beer, it was much better. All that while sitting in one of the very comfortable armchairs in the hallway. A big difference from the wooden benches of most festivals.
I refreshed my palate with a small measure of Primátor Stout. The people of Náchod have done such a good job with this beer. Of course, it can't be compared with RipTide, but it is not afraid of it either. I sticked to BrewDog, now it was the turn of Hardcore IPA. The third IPA I drink from the canine brewery. The first, Punk, though I liked it, didn't rock my world as it promised. The second one, the prototype Chaos Theory was for me a more interesting and better put together product, even if it is till technically unfinished. This one, Hardcore, really lives up to its name. It is strong, and not only in its ABV of 9%. Very intense nose full of tropical fruit, mostly very ripe pinapple, with herbs and grapefruit. It explodes on the palate with the same fruit at the beginning, that then mutate into something deliciously dry and intensely bitter that domintes until the very end and even more, yet those fruits are never lost, they are always there for those who want to find them. Complex. Lovely.
It was the turn of the Danes from Nørrebro Bryghus. The most expensive of the festival. With the powerful North Bridge Extreme (9.5%ABV) at 165CZK for a 0.6l bottle. I ordered a small meausre of La Granja Stout. An Espresso Stout with 7.5%ABV that reminded me very much to the one from Brasserie Trois Dames, it was just as good as the Swiss one. By then I was already chatting with, what was his name? I'm terrible with names, a Czech guy from Brno, regular reader of my blog and big beer fancier, who had come to the capital specially for this event. We compared notes and beer experiences both from that day and from life in general.
It was getting late and I hadn't tasted any of the Germans. I started with Hummel Rauchbier Märzen, which felt more like a Rauchweizen, I wans't a fan. I love Rauchbier, something many people look at with disgust. This one promises to do something all the time, but never gets to it, it was like a stripper that never finishes taking off her clothes and gets boring in the end.
The other German was a better choice. Plank Bier Dunkler Weizenbock, with a respectable 7.8% ABV. Smoky notes, almost like a rauch, together with some bananas and spice in the nose. It tasted somehow out of the ordinary, I felt burnt sugar that dominate the clove and banana notes. I liked it, though I don't know if it is something I would like to drink half litre of.
I still had the other Scottish brewery left Inveralmond Brewery (together with some of the Germans, but they would have to wait). I tasted two, first Black Friar, a pale ale with 7%ABV that never manages to say what it wants to say, I found it rather boring, mild and with the alcohol slightly out of balance. The other was Lia Fail that despite its modest 4.7%ABV was a more pleasant, richer and interesting beer. Neither of them was nearly as ambitious as those from BrewDog, and I admit I should probably have picked them much earlier, by then my senses were a bit tired and perhaps I was not able to appreciate them as well as they deserved.
There was still time for two more Czechs. With my new friend (whose name I still can't remember, was it Tomáš?) we shared a bottle of Louny Svateční Chmelový Ležák. Disappointing beer. Again, I could have been tired, but the promised hoppy bitterness never materialised. It is not bad, neither very good.
The one that didn't disappoint was Kocour Tokaj. Just like its sister beer from Pivovarský Dum that I had tasted a few days before, this one was brewed using young Tokaj wine from Hungary together with acacia honey. Far from being extreme, it is still complex, interesting and tasty. A beer to sit down and discover each of its notes, which, despite my tiredness, I was able to enjoy with joy.
The afternoon session was coming to an end and I still didn't have any of the beers that I wanted to take home with me. Quickly I started to go around the tables picking them, the other two from Louny that also promise to be extra bitter; BrewDog Tokio brewed with jasmins and cranberries; the Christmas special from Nørrebro Bryghus, Julebryg, brewed with barley, wheat and oat malts and a secret Christmas spice mix and Schenklerka Rauchbier Urbock, which I hope is as smoky as the name implies. I wasn't able to pick more because I had no more vouchers left and the girls selling them had already vanished.

I stayed a bit longer after hours chatting with Honza Kočka, Aleš Dočkal (and wife) and Jan Šuran, both from Pivovarský Dům while we tasted a couple more beers. Suddenly, I realised that I had to jet to be able to catch the bus back home. That is why I left my glass behind. I hope I can "recover" it, it was really nice.

There were only two things missing, I think. Water fountains to clean the palate between beers (I didn't feel like paying 60CZK for a Mattoni) and something specially brewed for the festival as was the case last year. But they are minor details.

I am glad I chose Sunday to go. The technical and organisational problems that plagued the Saturday sessions (as very well reported by my friend Brewsta) had been solved and everything was working very well. The people in charge of each table seemed to know something about beers, or at least had managed to learn a couple of lines. The service in general was impecable. I found the event, overall, to be brilliant, at least from the beer side of it, which was what had brought me in the first place. Congratulations to Honza Kočka for his great work. I am already looking forward to next year's.

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19 Dec 2008

Cathing some attention

The other day I received a very interesting email. It was from an advertising agency and they asked me if I would be interesting in embedding in my Spanish site a video of one of their clients. It was for the campaign in Argentina for Stella Artois. They said they would pay me for every hit coming from my motherland. They also tried to sell me the idea by telling how well made the piece is and how much the people visiting my website would enjoy watching it.

I would be lieing like a campaigning polititian, if I said I wasn't at least a little flattered by the offer. After all, whether we like it or not, Stella Artois is (at least for the moment) the flagship product of the biggest brewing group in the world. That, either directly or indirectly, my blog has caught their attention is something that makes me feel pretty good.

Needless to say, I rejected the offer. It is a moral question, I didn't even bother to see how much they would have paid me (though if the email had mentioned a amount in Euro of several digits I would have thought about it a bit longer. Ha!). From the beginning I've been critisising both the beer and the company that makes it very strongly, so I didn't think putting some of their promotional material would have been correct. And I also doubt that my regular visitors would have liked to watch that video as much as the email claims.

I did watch the video, I won't tell you where, though I am sure many of you have seen it already. It is one of those culturally ascetic pieces, typical of many global companies. Well produced, it is, but it is also something that could have been used for pretty much any other kind of product, the brand doesn't show up until the last couple of frames. On the other side, the creators seem to ignore the fact that in Argentina Christmas is celebrated in Summer. I have never understood why so many companies down there use winter iconography in a country where, around then, temperatures can easily get to 40°, senseless. There is one very funny thing at the end, the slogan "Originally Created for Christmas". I was completely unaware that Stella Artois was a Christmas beer. Maybe that is why I don't like it, I've always drunk it out of season.

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16 Dec 2008

If you fancy something different

Prague in the holiday season is something magic. The Christmas markets in Old Town Square is something you can't miss, the atmosphere is unique, and the svařák (mulled wine) is arguably the best in the country. Truth is also that those markets don't change at all throughout the days and if you've seen them once you will have experienced everything they have to offer. So, what can you do the weekend right before Christmas? (other than loosing your sanity at the malls). Fortunately, beer has a solution.

Pivní Vánoční Trhy 2008. The Beer Christmas Markets 2008 are going to be really interesting. They are taking place at the luxury Hotel Mandarin Oriental and have as main goal help our favourite swill to get the place it deserves in the high end gastronomy market.

The entrance is 150CZK and can be reserved here, or you can buy them at Zlý Časy, První Pivní Tramvaj and Tlustá Koala, in the centre. Needless to say, they will be also available at the hotel, though you might risk not finding any. The capacity is limited and on each day there will be to sessions, one from 13 to 17hs, the second from 18 to 22hs. If you buy a ticket for the whole day, it will cost you 250CZK.

Some might critisise the price. But this is not an event for those who want to just get hammered on cheap beer, but something for those who want to taste beers and see how they pair with the food specially prepared by the hotel's chef. Besides, together with your ticket, you will receive a sampling glass and a specially brewed beer in it.
Together with a lineup of Czech craft and regional brewers, there will be some foreign visitors from Belgium, Germany (Aventinus and a surprise from Bamberg), Scotland (BrewDog and their Paradox) and Denmark (with Nørrebro Bryghus). No beer lover should miss it. It is going to be something very interesting and definetively unique in Prage.

And if it is Christmas Beers what we are talking about, then I must recommend those of you in the Golden City go to Pivovar U Medvídku to taste, besides the wonderful Oldgott Barique and X33 their Special Pale Lager fermented at 14.66°balling, that is no more, nor less, than a drier and more bitter version of Oldgott, and at the same price. Delicious!!!!

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Update: Czech Beer list for the event
Žamberk - Kanec Ale, Stout
Kocour: APA, aIPA, Vánoční polotmavý ležák 15°, Tokaj
Kaltenecker: Porter 19°, IPA
Herold: 13°tmavá, 14°polotmavá
Rakovník: 18°tmavá
Pilsner Urquell: Master 13°polotmavá, 18°tmavá
Pivovarský dům
Kout na Šumavě: 18° tmavá
Zvíkov Rarášek
Krušovice: Vánoční speciál
Chýně: 14°světlá
Opat: Vavřín, Koriandr
Berounský: medvěd 18° tmavá
Litovel: Vánoční speciál
Starobrno: Baron Trenck,
Poutník: 14°světlá kvasnicová
Bernard 13° Černé
Primátor: Stout
Konrád: Červený král
Louny: 11°polotmavá Vánoční, 13°polotmavá, 16° světlá

I've already drunk several of them, it is nice to see that I will be able to enjoy them again (the ones I liked, that is), though I guess I will be opting for those that I don't know yet, and for the foreign ones. I just hope the prices won't be too high.

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14 Dec 2008

To warm up

For many, beer means a yellowy drink of low ABV that is drunk at artic temperatures, many others, however, know that that isn't the way beer showld be enoyed, regardless of what the macros would like to make us believe. Yet few are those who would consider drinking beer at room temperature. The question then is: can you enjoy a beer at the same temperature you would drink red wine? It depends on the beer, of course.

The idea for this "experiment" happened almost by accident. One afternoon I fancied having a pint (strange, isn't it?) only to realise that I had nothing cooling in the fridge. I didn't feel like waiting for one to chill in the freezer, so I took a bottle of Bernard Černý that I had in the cellar (actually a little room under the stairs that keeps a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house), thinking that maybe it won't be bad. Even before opening the bottle I thought I could make a selection of dark beers to taste them at room temperature, all of them old friends. The results are the following:

Bernard Černý: The nose was of coffee sweetened with plenty of caramel, sweeter than when it's cold. It still tastes roasted and dry, though a bit silkier, followed by a mild acidity that fortunately is well balanced by a caramel base. I like it better cold, I prefer its roasted notes to the sweet.
Herold Tmavé: This might be my favourite Czech dark beer. At room temperature it's a lot less aromatic and it tastes rather sweeter, in fact, I noticed it quite tuned down, almost like a tmavé from a keg that is not so fresh anymore. No doubt, I prefer it cold.
Pardubický Porter: I've always liked a lot the prune and port notes of this beer, even from the first sip I had long ago. Warmer, it is a very different beer, keeps its identity, but improves considerably. Together with the prunes, I felt also cocoa and black sugar in the nose, which I don't remember having noticed before. There is more cocoa and something akin to gingerbread and a lot less fruit in the taste. The alcohol is just as well integrated as in the cold version. I loved it! It feels warmer, makes you drink it very slowly, an ideal winter drink.
Primátor Double: It is the one that changes the least, though it feels somehow more mature. The only thing that bothered me was its excessive carbonation when pouring the first half of the bottle. There are still licorice, black sugar and some ginger notes. It tastes less sweet. The finish is short and dry, and it's the only moment that I noticed its 10%ABV. The effect it has after drinking is the same as when it's cold, mild drowsiness.
Of the four, I liked the stronger ones a lot more, with the one from Pardubice taking the top honours. I see them as excellent pairings for the Christmas biscuits that my wife is already baking, and the ones that my mother in law will bring (Man! Do I love those!). It will be nice to sit down and gorge with the biscuits and wahing them down with Porter or Double while watching the same pohádky as every year.

Which beers you normally drink cold would you like to taste at room temperature?

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13 Dec 2008

Identity Crisis

Svatý Norbert Vanoční Speciál model 2008 has given a lot to talk about. It was one of the seasonal beers that I was most looking forward to drinking again. Last year's had blown my mind. I described it then as "an explosion of hops that demolishes everything else", yet very well balanced by velvety syrupy notes. The kind of beer many dream about.

Velký Al tasted it before me and his review of the beer was a big surprised, and not at all pleasant. Al describes it like driking alcoholic honey. Then he would confess that he'd had "a couple" of pints before going to Strahov, so it might be that his senses were not very finely tuned. Still, just by looking at the photo he published in his blog made me realise that it was not the same beer. I remember model 2007 a couple shades darker.

I already had planned to make the pilgrimage to the Strahov Monastery, but fortunately, my weekly visit to Zlý Časy spared me the trouoble and saved me quite a few Crowns. Last year, in Strahov, the beer was listed as a 19°balling, at my favourite pub in Nusle, they had it as a 20°er. Honza, the owner, is a bloke who knows a thing or two about beer and I don't think he wrote the figure just like that. I ordered a pint as dessert after my lunch, which included Želiv 14° and Opat Vanoční 17° (tough life I have, I know).
From the first sip it was clear to me that there was no chance I was drinking something remotedly similar to the beer that had amazed me last year. This one is more syrupy and the alcohol had a stronger presence, though not agressive. In short, I felt it was a version on steroids of their Jantár, the amber lager that Pivovar Strahov brews regularly. Not bad at all, but not as good as I would have liked, either.

The above mentioned Honza told me that he had spoken with Martin Matuška, Sv. Norbert's brew master, and that he insisted that the beer was the same as last year's. I also had a short chat with Mr. Matuška a year ago, then he told me that he didn't think many people would like such a bitter beer, but that it had come out just as he wanted. It might be that he was right then and that the owner of the brewery asked him to tone down the bitterness to make this beer more acceptable to the average taste.

And now I start thinking (beer glass in hand). I totally disagee with what many say, that beers must always be the same (I think that one of the macros' biggest achievements has been to make most people believe just that), I like it when a beer changes from batch to batch, as long as it keeps its identity and character. That is not the case with Svatý Norbert Vanoční Speciál. However, being this a beer that is brewed only once a year, can it be that either the brewery or the brew master fancy making something different every year? If so, is that the right way to go?

Whatever it is, go and see for yourselves now. It's very pricey, but worth it. If you miss it, you will have to wait for a year and who knows what kind of beer you will find then.

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12 Dec 2008

Christmas Flavours

After coming back from Bělec we went to have a bite at a forgettable place and returned to Pivoňka to prepare the Christmas beer tasting, which was going to take place in the nice and very well conditioned cellar that the owner of the building lets Filip use for events like this. It is a very coze place, specially considering the nasty weather outside.
The samples were going to be five, two of them I knew: Opat 17° Sváteční speciál and Krakonoš 14° Vanoční Speciál. The rest would be something new for me: Holba Vanoční Šerák 13.51%, Janáček Vánoční speciál and Weltenburger Kloster Winter Traum, a German guest.

The attendants started to arrive. To warm up we started with Kocour Pale Ale, which I liked more than the last time I had drunk it. Very dry, but with a mild fruity undertone to balance it. Light bodied and very drinkable.One curiousity about this beer, the label lists rye as the first ingredient after water.
The first to come out was Janáček Vánoční speciál. When I saw the Balling graduation on the label, 14, I got a bit wary. Janáček brews the sometimes very good Comenius con with exactly the same graduation. It's not that I dislike Comenius, but it is a beer brewed all year round and not specially for this season. Other breweries do that, just sticking a label with a Christmas motif on one of their regularly brewed beers, and I was afraid Janáček was one of them. I couldn't have been wronger. Instead of the Comenius golden colour, this Vánoční speciál pours amber. Nose with malt and light caramel, with some clove and mild citrus notes. Caramel welcomes the drink, though more on the syrup side, everything changes in the finish, bitter, dry with some spice. Surprising and very tasty.
Then came Holba Vanoční Šerák 13.51%. I was not expecting much at all. So far, I hand't drunk anything from Pivovar Hanušovice that I liked. I had another surprised. As the previous one, this one is also amber. The nose here was a fine balance between caramel and citrus. On the palate it starts syrupy to finish with intense bitterness that reminded me a little of a Czech made IPA. Far from being wonderful, there was something a bit out of tune in it, but still drinkable. I was able to taste it again a couple of days later at Pivovarský Klub and had the impression of drinking something else. No bitternes, no flavour, it seemed like something overcooked. It also made me loose some face when I recommended it to Velký Al, who, well, was very unimpressed. Strange. I think I will try to find it again, maybe the people of Holba made a mistake and sent something decent to Hrádec.
From the third sample on, things went dowhill. Krakonoš 14° Vanoční Speciál is an old friend, also brewed for Easter. Though it's never managed to amaze me, I've always liked it, I've always seen it as a solid and reliable beer. I would really love to know what happened to the giant this time. How little I liked this beer! It felt as if they had put it out too soon, and reminded me of that 14 day CAR that I had tasted a few hours before. It both smelled and tasted rough, like something not properly cooked that was opressing all the rest and made this a not very pleasant drink. A pity.
What followed was the most confusing bit of the evening. Opat 17° Sváteční speciál. I had tasted this beer last year and had really liked it, so much so that I was looking forward a lot to drinking it again this year. All my expectations fell to the floor when I saw that what was pouring down in the glass wasn't the amber liquid I knew, but something of pale gold. My suspicion proved true when I took the first sip, this was another beer, literally. There was no way that what I had in the glass was something brewed at 17°balling. Someone must have put the wrong label on the bottle. I didn't even finished it. I got a bit sad, Opat is a brewery that I really support. That sadness wouldn't go away until a couple of days later when I drunk this beer again at Zlý Časy and found that beer I had liked so much a year ago. Just as Evan Rail says in his excellent review, this is a beer with very special aromas and flavours.
Perhaps the one I was the most curious about was Weltenburger Kloster Winter Traum, from Germany. Actually, I almost picked a bottle to take home. Good that I decided to wait until after the tasting instead. It can only be described as boring, something brewed without any enthusiasm. Of special, it has very little. Any average pale 13° Czech beer has more Christmas credentials than this one.
It was already after 10PM and we still had the long way back home. It was time to say good bye to Filip and the rest of the crownd, among whom was Josef, from Minipivovar U Hušků. We had a really good time in Hrádec Králove, a town I recommend everyone to visit (regardless of their lack of Christimas spirit) and where I will sure go back. Thanks again Filip for inviting us. All the fortune in the world for you and your enterprise.

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11 Dec 2008

Bad weather vs. Good beer

The weather was still misserable, hadn't changed a bit since the day before. We stayed in our room watching TV until it was time to check out. We had slept well and breakfast had been plentiful. We didn't have any reason to rush, we had agreed with Filip to meet at 2.30.

In the end, we didn't have any other choice than going to the centre. Fortunately, it had stopped raining when we found a place to park, so we went the part of the town that we had missed the day before. We strolled by the place where the city's fortifications had been, now a wide boulevard lined with trees that at some point goes around the surely more colourful in Spring Žižkový Sady.

Hunger started nagging my wife. It was already 12. The day before I had seen a restaurant with the Svijany sign outside, and another one with Ferdinand's, both almost next to Velké Nám. We chose the former, that was the nicer looking from the outside. It was closed. It was already well past 12 (its opening hour) and the doors were still locked. Went to the other one instead, and arrived just in time. The place was almost packed. All the tables by the windows were taken by a group of 10y.o. boys and two adults. The booths by the wall were also taken. There were only some chairs free at a long table in the middle of the room where some old people were sitting. We asked them if we could take two of the free places and, I think, they nodded. As soon as we had sat more old people came in, and more and then some more until all the empty chairs were taken and a couple were even left standing. They were Germans or Austrians and had picked this place, U Ferdinanda d'Este, to have their lunch.

To make things worse, there was only one waitress doing her best to serve everyone. I almost had to tackle her to get a menu. She apologised saying that she thought we were with the group (man, do I look that old? Maybe I should shave). After both children and ancients had left (the latter being a lot noisier), the place became really quiet. The food was simply forgettable, but the Ferdinand 12 tasted really good. We stayed longer than we wanted, it had started raining again.We met Filip at the agreed time and took the car to Běleč nad Orlicí to visit Minipivovar U Hušků. We were expected there by the owner and brew master Josef Voltr. Josef is a very nice and friendly bloke who has a lot of passion for what he does. He had to take over the whole operation when the previous brewer left last Spring. He showed us every nook of his brewery, starting with the ancient machine he uses for grinding the malt.
From there we went to the mashing room. There was nothing cooking that day, so we could have a detailed look at each of the kettles. But what Josef was really eager to show us was the screen of the brewing software. A friend who works in the brewing industry wrote it for him. The program monitors temperatures and mashing and boiling times as well as the working of the kettles. That allows the brewer to take care of other duties, or simply go home and laze around at home (that is next to the brewery). If his attendance is needed, the software will page him. The program is also prepared to monitor the fermentation (in open fermenters), only a few cables need to be connected for that to start working.
After looking at the fermenters (unfortunately empty), we went to the lagering cellar. There are three 2000l tanks there. Josef had already oredered two more to a friend to increase capacity and brew other types of beer.

Having finished the short, but really interesting, tour, we proceeded to the tasting. The only beer that is brewed at the moment at U Hušků is CAR, a světlý ležák. In summer also a honey beer, and sometimes a wheat beer, is brewed. The one we were drinking that day had been lagering since september (limited capacity and high demand only allow 25 days of lagering during summer, the place is very popular with local cyclist) and was simply spectacular. Unfiltered, had a full silky body, its flavours were predominantly sweet green apples, together with a hint of mind, the finish was orange and herbas, the nose very flowery and citrusy. A lovely beer of which we had a few. The most interesting thing, however, was when Josef gave me to taste escencially the same beer, but which had been lagering only for 14 days. It wasn't at all bad, almost identical to the eye (in the picture below, the younger one is on the right), but its youth could be tasted. What was well finished and smooth in the older one, here was almost raw and rougher, it was almost like eating a sweet green appel that has not fully ripened.
We spoke a lot about beer.  Josef, with not little pride, told me that every single part of the brewery, from the kettles to the contraption he uses for bottling is of almost home manufacture, either by him or friends. The funniest was, perhaps, the old fridge with two holes on the side to fit taps to dispense the beer at the right temperature. I asked him about the Gambrinus that is also tapped a the pub, he said it represents only 20% of the sales, they only have it for those fools that refuse to drink anything else.
My wife started complaining about the cold (it was freezing in the brewery) and it was getting dark. We still had the Christmas beer tasting. We bought a 2.5l bottle to take home and went back to Hrádec, me with a huge smile after having made a new friend.

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Minipivovar U Hušků
Běleč nad Orlicí 2

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10 Dec 2008

Christmas? What Christmas?

I'm not a big Christmas person, but I have to admit that I do love the atmosphere that is generated in Prague when Christmas decorations start to show up in the streets (excluding the ones at malls that are put already in October, I hate those) and the markets. So one of the things that we were looking forward to seeing the most in Hrádec Králove were the decorations that would surely adorn Velké Náměstí, the town's main square, while enjoying something tasty at the Christmas market that we had no doubt would be there.
The impression we got was was of having arrived in the middle of January. Not a single light, only a tree by the Church Svatého Duha (of the Holy Spirit), that looked like something someone had forgotten to take away, and that was it. Of a market, not a hint. The weather didn't help either, rather windy, cold and threatening rain, very unpleasant. We walked around the streets, squares and alleys (very pretty all of them) for some time and started to think of looking for shelter, we both really fancied drinking something warm.
We had accommodated away from the centre, at the hotel U Svatého Jana. We had chosen it because we had gone there by car and wanted to park without problems or extra charges. The hotel, a very nicely renovated building, had a good bus conection and was considerably cheaper than something similar in the centre. We arrived there around midday so we decided to have lunch at the hotel's restaurant. Nothing to write home about, really. The soup, fine, what I oredered (jelíto, jitrnice, sekana with cabbage and potatoes), not bad; can't say the same about my wife's order (spagetti bolgnesa). The beer, not very well tapped Pilsner Urquell, actually I think they gave me Gambrinus (I didn't complain, just left a much smaller tip). From there we went to the centre.

Since we didn't feel like exploring anymore, we went to a place we had noticed earlier, a coffee shop that looked very nice from the outside and even nicer inside. I couldn't be bothered with making pictures, I was feeling a bit too relaxed, in fact, I can't even remember the name of the place (some guide I am, uh?). We liked it a lot, we ended up staying there for a couple of hours drinking warm things.

From there we went to meet Filip Helán, owner of Pivoňka, whose invitation to a Christmas beer tasting was the excuse for the trip. Filip had just arrived from Germany with a van full of beers of all kinds. While he worked we looked around the shelves and picked a few things to take back home and put under the tree. All that time people came in, looked around, asked a few questions and without exception, bought something. Filip is a real beerevangelist, he has managed to convice several friends to try something new and the result has been, in all cases, that the person never wanted to go back to what they were drinking before. I was happy to see the shop doing so well and that his initiative is generating more interest in lesser known Czech beers.
When he closed for the day we went together for dinner to U České koruny, a very nice restaurant located in a vaulted cellar (didn't make pictures either, but at least I found their webpage). We were lucky to find a table. The beer choice wasn't very special, Pilsner Urquell and Master 18°, which became my choice. Very well tapped, fresh, it paired really well with the grilled sirloin of pork with onions and mushrooms in red wine and roasted potatoes I ordered, which was delicious. My wife oredered svíčkova na smetaně, and ate five of the six houskové knedlýku, not leaving me a single drop of sauce for me to try, she said it was very good, I will have to believe her.

During dinner we chatted with Filip. He told us he had opened the shop in June, after having got tired of the stress and rat race of his management position at a financial services company. Now he says he is really happy to be working for himself, doing something he really enjoys. If only more people followed his example.

The evening finished rather early, we were all very tired and Saturday promised to be a very long and busy day.

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