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.

Na Zdraví!

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3 comments:

  1. Sounds pretty good, hopefully next year i will have more money and can join.
    Tokaj sounds interesting, might have to pop down pivni club.

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  2. Interesting kind of festival - sounds like the Beer Exposed thing we had in London.

    Happy Christmas!

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  3. I had a bottle of the BrewDog Rip Tide over the holidays and thought it was lovely - will be writing about it at some point, once I have sorted photos and notes.

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