30 May 2008

Not worth it

I'm glad that the Czech market seems to be slowly opening to imported beers. Yes, most of them come by the hand of multinationals and, but for a few exceptions, they are as mediocre as your average Eurolager. But still you can find a gem or two if you look for them. Unfortunately, Erdinger beers are not among them.

This month's event at Pivovarský Klub was the presentation of the Bavarian Brewery Erdinger. The brand is among the top best selling in Germany, which is somewhat remarkable given that the 1.5 million hl they pop out annually are all wheat beers. They are also sponsors of Bayern Munich, the most popular and successful German football team.

My only experience with this brauhaus was their Dunkles Weizen, which I'd drank a few years ago and, as far as I remember, I had liked a lot.

The presentation, hosted by the brewery's local distributor, was very professional and as interestinga it could be. They presented six beers from the product line: Alkoholfrei, Weissbier, Champ, Schneeweisse (winter beer), Dunkles and Pikantus (Weizenbok).

I haven't got much good to say about the beers. The only beer that I found to be in someway interesting and with some character was Pikantus (17°balling, 7,3%ABV). This dark amber had a very fruity nose and its flavour in a way reminded me of Primátor Polomavé 13°, only sweeter.

What the brewery surely wants to do with Schneeweisse is to increase their sales during the winter months, since wheat beers are mostly drunk in summer. The result is the expected for a beer that must have been designed mostly by the marketing department of the comapy.

And if it's marketing what we are talking about, what a better example of a trick from the discipline's bottomless hat than Champ. According to the web page, Erdinger Champ is the ideal lifestyle wheat beer, what they mean by that, is any body's guess. The fact is that it comes in a long neck bottle with a twist cap, and it's meant to be drunk directly from the bottle, I don't think much more can be added after that. I liked it as much as Heineken.

I didn't like Dunkles as much as that first time (maybe my palate has evolved?) and I found no personality whatsoever in Weissbier, in fact, I think that Primátor Weizen is a much better beer.

In a nutshell, all that could be expected from a brewery of this kind. The kind that puts more emphasis on the brand than on the product. But it brought up a question, with pretty evident answer: Why is it that all the best selling beers in every country are so mediocre, if not downright awful?

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26 May 2008

First round

As expected, I went to Český Pivní Festival Praha 2008, shortly after the doors were opened on the first day.

I didn't have too much time, but I still wanted to go. I really wanted to see what I was all about. Friday was not the nicest of days. I arrived a bit after 1PM and the few people that were already there seemed mostly VIP's invited for the opening ceremony. Which was actually a bit of luck because as I was getting to the place where the first "barrel" was tapped, one of the waitresses put a pint in my hand. She saw me with my camera already around my neck, and must have thought that I was a journalist. Which, actually, isn't that far from the truth...hehe!
Sipping that free pint of Budvar, I was able to witness how Prague's mayor, Pavel Bem had a toast with some minor celebrity from the local TV, only to leave as soon as the photographers got busy with something more interesting, like drinking beer. Either he still had some work in the office, or he didn't want his suit to get wet with the rain that never came.

Once all the excitement was over, I went to where I had intended in the first place, the K Brewing tent, the one of the small breweries, six in total (Černá Hora, Janaček, Jihlava, Platan, Rohozec, Svijany). There I found some friends and what was going to be a quick pint before walking around a bit more, turned into a pleasant conversation that was later joined by other friends.

I had a couple more pints than I had planned, and stayed a bit longer than I had also planned. But I can't complain, I had a pretty fine time.

Although I wasn't able to see the facilities in more detail, my impression isn't all that bad. Let me begin with the low points. The price of the food, very high. 160CZK for guláš with plastic looking kndelíky is a bit a too much. I don't know about the quality, I didn't have any food there. You could only order it at one tent, that of Kozel, and I didn't fancy leaving the chat to go all the way there. The alternative was to order an, also expensive, portion of roasted beef, but a couple of my friends didn't recommend it.

39CZK for a pint is not cheap either. But on the other hand, it is a flat price, be it for the ubiquitous Gambrinus 10°, or for rarities such as Jihlavský Grand 18°, or any of the other 28 available at the different tents.

The entrance could also be cheaper, or better still, free. I think that would make more people go and would give the event an even more beergarden-like atmosphere.

The good thing, the service. I didn't experience it first hand, but I could notice eager waiters and waitresses even with a few smiles doing their job at the VIP tent. And I could experience it at the K Brewing tent. Until we were able to buy some tolars to pay for our beers, they let us keep a tab. All of the waiters were friendly and never minded when each of us ordered a different beer of the twelve they were tapping.

And I must say that the organisers surprised me with tolars. I was afraid that it would be possible to buy them only at a couple of stands, but actually, they could be bought from the girls that walked around among the tents selling them. Very good idea.

The best, the beer of course. Being able to, in one session, drink Platan 11°, Černá Hora Kvasar, Rohozec 11°, Janaček Comenius 14°, Sivjany Kvasničak and Jihlavský Grand 18°; all while having a good time with friends, is priceless.

I want to go there again this Friday, arrive a bit later and stay longer. There wasn't too much of an atmosphere yet the other day, but it could already be felt that with a bit more people, things could improve greatly.

Has anyone been there yet? If so, let me know what you think. Meanwhile, I'll leave you with some photos.

The Mayor and his lady friends

The first barrel

Pretty busy at the Pilsner Urquell tent

Not so much at K Brewing's. In fact, most people there
seemed to be real beer lovers.

Two of the Tolar dealers

The best of the afternoon

Update: According to Evan Rail's report, it seems that the most popular tent at the festival is the Small Breweries, read the post, it's full of great news.
I think the relatively high price for the beer played in the small breweries’ favour. Everybody knows the stuff from the big boys and I don’t think there are too many people out there willing to pay 39CZK for Gambáč, Staropramen or Braník when you can get them cheaper at pretty much every corner.
The smaller breweries, however, have the advantage of being, to many, unkown, which I’m sure makes many people more willing to pay that price. All beers will cost the same, so why not having something they never had before? To this, of course, we must add the variety factor.

22 May 2008

Olé!

I've said it many times and I'll never get tired of repeating it. One of the things that I like the most about blogging is the exchange. The possibility of knowing people with similar interests and, sometimes, to actually exchange physical things.

Andrés from Culturilla Cervecera sent me a selection of Spanish beers, of which I knew next to noting. They had a pretty eventful journey and only five of six made to my hands.

It took my time to taste them, one a day. And, just as I did with Alhambra Reserva 1925, I tried to leave preconception behind and ignored the reviews of others, I wanted to sample these beers without other people's expectations. Here is the result.
I started with the two beers from La Zaragozana. The fist one was Ambar Export. There is plenty of information on the labels, they tell us that this double fermented beer was brewed using three kinds of malts. It's got 7%ABV, so I think that the balling is around 17°. A beer to drink carefully.
When pouring we can see a beer of rich amber colour, crowned by a lasting white head. The nose is very mild, a bit too much maybe. I was barely able to feel some caramel and alcohol. In fact, if we set our expectations on that, we would probably be ready for the worst. And we couldn't be any more wrong. Export has a creamy body, very pleasant. The first thing I felt when drinking was mild caramel notes, followed by much stronger herbal bitterness and some spice (cinnamon maybe). The finish is very long with subtle caramel that supports more intense herbal flavours. It leaves a very lasting bitter aftertaste. It has to be drunk slowly.
In fact, by the end of the glass (which I shared with my wife), it had started to overwhelm me a little. I see it as a beer that walks on a tight rope, just a step away from loosing its balance. I think it can be enjoyed better together with some pinxo that can tame those temperamental flavours a little.

A day later, it was followed by Ambar 1900, which fancies itself a British style pale ale. That, together with the name, made me feel surprised when seeing that what goes into the glass is actually light golden, with little head and less carbonation. It reminded me somewhat of some bitter I had in Australia. It is a very mild mannered beer. It is hard to believe it's got 4.8%ABV, though its 12°balling are felt on its unctuous body. Its subtle (not to repeat mild) bouquet is sweetish with vanilla as the dominating element. The flavour plays on the same note, though here accompanied by some citrus notes. The finish is short and, again, mildly bitter. It is a summer beer, maybe a good session beer. My wife, who is not a big fan of very bitter brews, liked it a lot. I didn't so much.
Mezquita is brewed by Alhambra brewery, the same of R1925. It could rightly be said that Mezquita is the big sister, it's got a slightly darker amber colour and a lightly tanned head with a long life. Of the lot, it is the most aromatic beer. I felt caramel and coffee with milk, plus a hint of alcohol, as if warning about its 7.2%ABV. Unlike the Export, the first thing I felt when drinking was bitterness, that of dried herbs, followed by sweeter notes, reminding of roasted fruit. The finish is very pleasant, long, predominantly citrusy with strong black tea notes. It is a more mature and, I would say, domesticated beer than Export. I liked it a lot.
Voll Damm comes in a 250cl bottle, a very common measure in Spain. It also has 7.2%ABV and it's inspired in the Märzen style. For what I know, it is very well regarded in its country. It is of rich golden, almost amber, colour topped by a creamy head. Its nose is dry and herbal with some hints of burnt sugar there in the back. When I drank it, I felt syrup at first, but very well balanced by citrus notes. The finish is dry and not too long. It is a nicely rounded beer, with the alcohol perfectly integrated and very, very drinkable. The reputation is well deserved.
Of Damm brewery I also got A.K. in its beautiful bottle. It must be one of the beers with the best presentation I've seen. It was first brewed to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the brewery, and it's inspired in the Alsacian style, country of origin of the brewery's founder. It is of crystal golden colour, with cava-like bubbles and a very white head. It has a delicate nose that reminded me of sponge cake with orange peel. I found the taste, however, rather boring, it's a bit fruity, and that's it. The label tells us that is a mild beer with character. Doesn't lie on the former, but I think it stretches the truth on the latter. It's got everything it has to have, but it is like a green salad without dressing. Of the five, it's the one I liked the least.

Personal tastes aside, I would say that all are well made beers and, in general, they have a very fine presentation. Two on them, in fact, Voll Damm and Mezquita, I wouldn't mind being able to drink more often.

So if anyone is planning a trip to Spain, you should look for them. I don't know how easy they would be to find, but they are well worth the bother.

Thanks again Andrés for sending them. As soon as I can, I will reciprocate with a selection of české pivo

Na Zdraví!

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16 May 2008

Improvements

The first time I drank a beer from Platan, I don't remember which, I didn't like it, and the same happened the second and third times. Each at a different place, which I no longer remember.

Not long ago, and I also can't remember when or where, I noticed something had changed. It wasn't the same beer, it had improved considerable. What before seemed something made without much care, now had become a well brewed beer.

One day, at the place where I buy my case of Svijany, I realised that they also carry Platan 11%, so I decided to buy a couple of bottles to drink at home. The following day, while I was making dinner, I opened the bottle I had left in the fridge to share it with my wife and take my notes.

When pouring we have a light golden color beer that topped with a generous head and with low carbonation. It doesn't tell much to the eyes, really. The beer actually starts talking the nose. What it says is intense and rather interesting for a beer of its kind, I felt honey and something like cooked cream and cereals, all with a mild citrus and mint background. It goes in with the same honey notes, that actually never get to be too sweet, they have more like a cereal-like texture. I felt hardly any bitterness at the beginning, but little by little and with a lot of work the bitterness gains in intensity and dominate the finish with not very strong citrus notes. It's not a beer that blew my mind, I don't see it as ever becoming a favourite, but it is a good alternative to the hoppier Svijanský Ritýř that I usually drink.
Who was actually fascinated by Platan 11% was my wife. She isn't a big fan of very hoppy beers, and she liked this one a lot. So, it has become part of the usual rotation at home.

Personally, what I liked the most about this unpretentious beer is that it represents that overall improvement of Pivovar Protivín's game.

Na Zdraví!

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13 May 2008

For all tastes

So let's see. It's not far from Prague (about an hour and a half by car), yet far from the umbrella following herds. It's located in a beautiful place, a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Vltava and Otava rivers, surrounded by thick forests and with spectacular views of the cliffs by the rivers. It's ideal for a day trip with children or partner, the place is pretty quiet and romantic. If we add to all this the brewpub located at about 500m from the entrance of Zvíkov Castle, we can say we have an almost perfect trip.


Zvikovksý Hrad is full of history and legend. It's almost a fairy tale castle. There is a tall tower next to the gates, gardens, a fairly well preserved main structure and the rest in elegant ruins.

The castle was established in the 13th century by none other than Otakar II and, until Karlštejn was finished, it served as royal castle and depository of the crown jewels. After that, the it went through many hands until it started to fall into disrepair, so much so that part of the main building fell to the river. During the 19th century, after being "rediscovered", it was partially restored.

For those used to the splendor and opulence of some of the more famous Czech castles and palaces, the interiors of Zvíkov might seem a bit empty and spartan. The furnishing is scarce and, except for some frescoes and the impressive wood carved chapel, there are few works of art that can be seen. All this, though, give the castle a lot of atmosphere. Almost as much as the legends around it, like the one that claims that the crown jewels are still there, buried somewhere. Or what about those mysterious carvings on one of the walls of the black tower, the oldest part of the complex?
Last time I went it was one of those gloriously sunny autumn days. The gardens were carpeted with fallen leaves and invited you to sit down and relax, but also to roam around and look over the battlements to admire the magnificent view.

One of the best things about Zvíkov is that, unlike at every other castle and palace I've visited so far, there is no need to follow a guide. After paying an entrance fee of 50CZK you are given a laminated piece of paper with the history of the castle, and just walk around the rooms as you please while reading the information plaques found in each of them. Also, you can make as many photos as you like of anything you fancy. Brilliant.

And there is also Pivovarký Dvůr Zvíkovský Podhrady. Actually a complex that includes a brewery, restaurant, hotel and bakery.

The restaurant is pretty nice, with very hight ceilings and big windows that make it very luminous. It is dominated, as usually in brewpubs, by two copper kettles; but also by a massive grill above wich there is an equally massive chimney.

The prices of food and beer are a bit higher than at other brewpubs and breweries I've visited out of Prague. The price of a pint last time I went was 31.50CZK, which would be fine in Prague, yet here, in the middle of nowhere CZ it's a bit high. To give you an idea, at the restaurant of the Svijany brewery a pint will go for 17CZK, same price you will pay at Berounský Medvěd. Same can be said about the food. Though, to be fair, the place is a little more stylish than the above mentioned.

Money matters aside, Zvíkovské Pivo is VERY good. They usually offer three, Zlatá labuť 11%, an unfiltered golden lager with sweet green apple and herbal notes and a lovely bitter finish. Zlatá labuť 13% tmavé, which is one of my favourite Czech black beers. It's nose is full of coffee with sugar and the coffee is what dominates the palate followed by a finish full of caramel and herbal notes. Simply gorgeous. And Rarášek, a top fermented, maybe wheat beer, with mild banana, cinnammon and vanilla all supported by subtle ginger (which is said to be part of the recipe). A fantastic summer drink.

You can also buy bottles to take home. They are all very nice, but the price is outrageously high (100CZK for one) considering that they contain the same beers they have on tap. Except for the 26° Královská Zlatá labuť, a very strong lager brewed for almost a year and that comes in an elegant half litre bottle, together with small cordial like glasses, all packed in a good looking wooden case for the price of 1000CZK. I had a bit of it on tap once, and was not very impressed, but maybe is the kind of beer that expresses itself better after some time in a bottle.

Anyway, I really recommend you to go there and see it for yourself. The castle alone is well worth the trip. If we add to that the lovely beers, it's a nobrainer.

6 May 2008

Wonderful month

What a great beer month April was! I tasted several completely new beers for me, some of them very, very good. Also, I found a new favourite place where to drink them in Zlý Časy, a pub I will sure visit very often.

So it was hard to decide which would the beer of this month. The new ones also had to compete with some old friends like X33, in its new batch, Tmavé 14° from U Bulovky and my dear Svijanský Rytíř in its bottled version (if you like hoppy golden lagers, this one is sure to please you).

So, allow me to make a round-up of the new beers. At least the ones that I liked the most. Starting with Vandorf Rauchweizen. I didn't know what to expect from this beer, but I loved that it wasn't trying to be a copy of Schenklerka Rauchweizen. It is a completely different beer, and a very recommendable one at that, though I would have liked the smoked notes a bit more intense.

Pivovarský Dům presented us with, not one, but three novelties (well, two and a half). The desítka, brewed on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the famous brewpub in Ječna. Something like their wonderful Ležák's little sister but with a personality of its own, lovely. The second one was the Original Stout. A very dark top fermented beer with a great body, as it should be. It had a very dry taste dominated by intense roasted cocoa, all supported by almost ethereal coffee and caramel notes. Superb. The second and a half was the much awaited Křižíkova 17°. The name is not capricious, it refers to the address of Pivovarský Klub, and was only tapped at the Temple in Karlín. It had been already two years since it had been last brewed. I was quite excited about it since it was the first beer I drank on that day when I went into the Klub for the first time. A rich golden beer with a compact head. In its aromas I felt tropical fruit, syrup to the point when it starts to become caramel and some cream. A lovely body and mouth-feel dominated by fruit and some vanilla notes. The finish is dry, bitter and long. It stays with you as if wanting to take you for a walk.

By the end of the month I was able to taste Dobřanský Dragoun, from Pivovar Modra Hvězda Dobřany. An amber brewed at 16°balling that would go down a bit too easily.
But of all of them, the one that really blew my mind was Kavové (coffee) Speciál from Harrach. A dark amber fermented at 13°balling. Its nose is dominated by black coffee, very strong and with a lot of sugar. The taste is, I could say, complex; a caleidoscope of fruit, citrus and herbs that never manage to overwhelm the bitter coffee notes, which is what remains in the finish. Simply and wonderfully delicious.

Of course, I can't forget the Italians, specially that wonder of craft brewing that is Chocarrubica. A beer that really fascinated me and that I would love to drink again some day.

But not everything was sunny. Pepřové Pivo from Opat could have been something innovative, maybe brilliant, but it was only halfway there. Pivovar Broumov comitted a sin common many Czech breweries that want to start using non traditional ingredients, timidity. I'm of the idea that if a consumer decides to order or buy a beer with honey, spices, fruit, herbs (as was the case with Černé s Puškvorcen -black with calamus- from Zábřeh), that is what they want to feel in their beer, and not just an aroma or a mild note. As attempts, they are always welcome, but they should be a bit more daring.

Which one then to choose as beer of the month? Well, I should certainly give the award to Chocarrubica. However, as the good adoptive nationalist that I am, I can't give it to an imported beer, so it goes to Harrach's Kavové Speciál.

Na Zdraví!

April was impressive in quality, but in terms of quantity it was a bit modest. I only had 21 different beers. Which brings the total for 2008 to 133.

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3 May 2008

The Session #15: seeing the light

A bit late, but better than never.
Boak and Bailey wanted to know what turned people into beers lovers, what was their moment of epiphany. I know i should have posted yesterday, but, didn't have time, sorry... I hope you don't mind....

It's pretty hard to say exactly when I became a beer lover. I've always liked beer, all my life. I remember my parents giving me a sip of theirs when I was very little, the doctor had told them it was fine.

But beer in Argentina meant pretty much only one thing: Quilmes. They are the ones who made people in Argentina start drinking beer, and that was pretty much all I drunk until the early 90's.

That was when the floodgates opened and all this imported beers started to show up everywhere. Most of them I have forgotten, and some of them make me feel embarrassed when I remember that I thought they were very good, Budweiser and Carlsberg come to mind. Soon they vanished and it was all back to Quilmes and, now Heineken, that had started brewing in Argentina. That was just for a short time, soon appeared Brahma (a Brazilian brand, the other half on InBev), as rubbish as Quilmes and a bit later, Isenbeck.

Isenbeck was probably the first step. They came boasting about the German Purity Law thing, which was something short of a revelation to all of us. Now I might find the purity law as something that makes no sense, but there and then, in a country where the most popular beer (in 1996 Quilmes had 76% market share and was already declining by then) was brewed using who knows what, something that told you what they used, and convinced you that it was the way beer should be made, was an eye opener. Needless to say, the difference in quality could be, and still can be easily felt.

Also during the 90's I travelled quite a bit. Everywhere I went I would try to taste as many different beers as possible. What always amazed me of some of the countries I visited was the variety. You went to a supermarket or bottle shop and you would find tens of different beers, while in Argentina just a handful (microbrewers where something most of us hadn't heard of back then). All of this wasn't done with a critical eye. I would like or not like a beer and that was it.

Six years ago, I moved here to Prague. I'd had some contact with Czech beers before, Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, and I loved them from the first sip. I always found them different than the mass produced stuff I drank everywhere else. At first those were the ones I would mostly drink, simply because they were the ones most widely available. At some point, two things happened, I found a pub that stocked Svijany and I started with a client that was next door to Pivní Galerie. Those two events made me start exploring smaller Czech regional breweries and I soon realised that in many cases their beers were more interesting than the better known ones. Which in turn made me pay closer attention to the brewpub phenomenon.
I'll never forget that first pint of Svijanský Rytíř that I had at the namesake pub. If I really had to say what got me started, I would say that it was that moment, though I think it was more an "evolutionary" process thanks to my natural beer curiosity.

If you want to read more beer epiphanies, don't miss Boak & Bailey's excelent round-up of The Session.