25 Jan 2009

Opening palates

Many are those who still think that beer isn't good to accompany food, at least not soemthing that isnt' casual or quick, not to mention beer as ingredient. However, and I believe I won't be saying anything new to many of the readers of this blog, reality shows otherwise. Beer can pair with foods just as well, if not better, than the best wines, and can also be, if chosen correctly, an excellent ingredient for the most delicate recipes.

That is what "Pivo v poháru i na talíři" (beer in the glass and the plate) wanted to show last Thursday. The event was organised together by Pivovarský Klub and the local chapter of Slow Food. Each of the six courses (soup, warm appetizer, two main courses and two deserts) were made with beer as an ingredient and accopanied by carefully selected beers. The pairings weren't put together by any professional sommelier, but by Aleš Dočkal (one of the partners of PK) using common sense and the advice of friends.

The cellar of the Klub was packed when the event started. While we sipped a glass of Černá Hora Black Hill, a beer aperitif with honey and herbs, we were told a brief history of the Slow Food movement, which isn't just a superficial antinomy to Fast Food, but that also has as philosphy to promote more careful cooking using locally sourced ingredients.
After the aperitif, pivní polevka (beer soup) was served. I'd heard about it before, but had never eaten it. It's made with stock, wheat beer, cinammon and sugar, among other things, and I found it quite interesting and tasty, though I must say that it isn't something that everyone will like. The chosen beer was Erdinger Weissbier. Choosing a wheat beer was sensible, though it could have been something better than Erdinger. It is to wheat beers what Gambrinus is to pivo. I would have liked something with more taste and colour, I think Primátor Weizen would have done a much better job.
The warm appetizer was a classic of Pivovarský Klub, klobásy v černem pivě (sausages in black beer), as always, they were very tasty. The chosen beer was Dačický Světlý Ležák, Pivovar Kutná Hora, a brewery with an uncertain future now operated by Heineken CZ. I was wary of it at first. Dačický isn't a bad beer, but it's not among my favourites either, I've always found it slightly out of balance. With the sausages, however, it was something else. This pairing showed very well how the relationship between food and beer can improve both. The bittersweet/slight spiciness of the dish managed to cover those notes that I don't like from the beer, leaving a pleasant bitterness that balanced it.
The first main course was a rabbit roll filled with bacon and smoked ham in a beer sauce with bread and carrot knedlíky. I love rabbit and this one was pretty good, tender and a little juicy. The sauce, despite having been cooked with Pardubický Porter was rather mild, maybe lacking a bit of flavour, to my taste. A bit more of it wouldn't have hurt either, I didn't have any left for the knedlíky (that weren't at all bad). The pairing, in this case, was my idea. Aleš had told me a couple of days before that he wanted to serve a polotmavé and I suggested Ferdinand Sedm Kuli, a 13% amber with a bit of herbs that give it a nice twist. I liked the result, and one of my table companions congratulated me on the choice.
The second main was venison stew with croquettes, another Klub's classic that I also like a lot. It was very, very nice, the meat was deliciously tender and the sauce very tasty, more when the cranberries start melting in it. The pairing wasnt bad, but could have been better. Jihlavksý Grand, one of the finest Czech strong lagers. It wasn't that beer and food didn't match, but that, as Evan Rail pointed to me, nor the beer added anything to the food, neither the food to the beer. Perhaps a stout or, why not, the very same Pardubický Porter that was used for the sauce would have done something more interesting.
And it was time for the desserts. The first, pancakes with beer marmelade. The pairing was the least happy of the evening. Šamp is a beer from Pivovarský Dům that uses champagne yeasts and it's brewed in Strakonice. I've never liked it very much, and to make it worse, the pancakes covered the most interesting bits of the beer leaving it only like just another lager to the palate.
The grand finale was reserved for Pivní řez (beer cake), basically, a medovník with a beer marmelade filling. Very nice, very sweet and tough to pair, some would say. Not so much. The chosen beer was an American IPA brewed by Pivovarský Dům, with a lot of C hops and some Saaz. Fantastically citrusy, with enough fruit to balance it. Wonderful pairing.
The event had one serious problem: between courses Aleš Dočkal would explain the recipes and the pairings. While he spoke the service grinded to a halt, and it wasn't until he was finished that the beers and food would start arriving to the tables (very slowly, there were only two waitresses for more than 70 people). That made the interval between course and course, and worse, between beer and beer, very long and dry. But I don't think that is something that would be hard to correct if there is another session.

The balance is very positive. This never wanted to be something for highly sophisticated foodies, it's aim was to open the eyes of the average consumer. I would be interesting if both Slow Food and Pivovarský Klub could organise something similar but aimed at more beer laypeople. In the meantime, I am already looking forward to the next event of this kind that will deal with cheese and beer pairings.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I have the recipes of each of the courses (minus sweets), if anyone is interested, contact me and I will send them.

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21 Jan 2009

More leftovers

While going through the pending tasting notes I have I found those from Glops. Ramón and his wife brought them from Spain, and they gave them to me during the pleasant lunch we had at Svijansý Rytíř.

They were three samples, Glops Torrada, Glops Negra y Glops D'hivern. They are brewed by Llúpols i Llevats a microbrewery from Barcelona.

It was the second batch of Spanish beers I was going to taste. The first one was from industrial breweries, and some of the samples really impressed me. With Glops I had more curiosity than expectations. Llúpols i Llevats is a relatively new company, established in 2005, working in a market where local craft beers still seem to be very much a novelty.

I started by Torrada and it wasn't a happy beginning. The label says it's a lager with 4,5%ABV, fermented 7 days and lagered for 21. According to the webpage it is a dunkles, though its colour looked a bit too pale. Both the bouquet and the taste were overwhelmed by something that I wasn't able to identify at first, though it was very familiar, it took me a bit to figure it out, but I still wasn't 100% sure, so I went to the kitchen and cut myself a slice of rye bread. It was that, and it wasn't at all pleasant, it opresses the rest of the elements and makes the beer very hard to drink. It reminded me a bit of the rawness of that CAR that had been lagering only for 14 days, but here much stronger. It can be that those 21 days were not enough, or it can also been some sort of contamination that I can't identify. Whatever it is, I didn't like it a single bit.
Negra came in second. Also a lager, also with 4,5%ABV and with the same time for fermenting and lagering. Rather than black (Negra) it pours dark amber, topped by a generous head that goes away a bit too quickly. On the nose I noticed roasted apples and some chocolate in a nice balance. So far, pretty good. There was some cocoa at the begninning together with some citrus notes and with a mostly coffee finish. It would have been a pretty fine beer if it hand't been for the incredibly excessive carbonation that gave it a mouthfeel akin to a cola drink. At times the taste of CO2 overwhelmed the rest. I let the glass stay for about 10 minutes, hoping the fizziness would go away, no such luck. What a pity.
I wasn't expecting much when it was time for the third one, d'Hivern. It is a seasonal beer, brewed with barley malt, honey and spices and hops, listed in that order. I could be exagerating if I said that I was expecting the worst, but I certainly wasn't looking forward to opening and drinking this beer. In this case, it is an Ale, a bit stronger, with 6,8%ABV, as it should be for a winter beer. "Now we are talking!", such, or something like that, were my words when taking the first sip. I liked it, and it almost made me forget the previous two. Rich gold, very foggy. Yeasts, honey and fruit on the nose, almost like a home made panettone. The predominating fruity notes are well balanced by the honey, finishing with very tasty ginger and clove. I really enjoyed it a lot, drinking very slowly. Very good beer.
However, the impression I was left with wasn't all that good. It is likely that I had bad luck and that the bottles didn't reach me in very good conditions, if that is the case, I would like to taste Torrda and Negra again, othwerwise, I think their creators will have to adjust quite a few screws because if the don't, I don't think they will be able to succeed in a market like the Spanish.

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16 Jan 2009

Seasonal leftovers

As I mentioned in previous post, I have loads of pending tasting notes, some are a couple of months old, actually. Considering that Christmas is still rather fresh in our memories (and around our waislines) I will start the winter clearing with one of the Christmas specials I had during the last Holidays.

I had already tasted one of the beers from Nøgne Ø. It was their Imperial Stout, which was part of the selection my friend and fellow beer blogger Knut Albert brought me on his visit to Prague last summer. I liked the beer a lot, so much so that I almost choose it as one of the beers of 2008. I was really looking forward to tasting their God Jul, brought to me by Gunnar, another Norwegian beer enthusiast with whom we had a fantastic lunch at Chýně together with his brother.

I waited until the weekend between Christmas and New Year to open it. I wanted to drink it and taste it when it was quiet. I really like the minimalist design of Nøgne Ø's labels, and also all the information they offer on them (in Norwegian, but you can find it in English on the website, though I must also thank Gunnar for bothering to print an English translation of the label). They recommend us to drink the beer at 12°, so I put it outside for a few minutes to chill while I read the rest of the info. It is brewed with Lager, Munich, caramel, black and chocolate malt; Chinook, Columbus and Centennial hops; English ale yeast and the local Grimstad water. What caught my attention the most, though is the advice of, after buying it, letting the beer stay for 2 to 3 days to allow the sediments to settle.
Having waited already a few minutes, it was time to open this Nordic delight. It pours a very dark amber, almost black, topped by a generous beige head. In the bouquet I felt coffee, spices, wood and some tobacco. It's got a very generous body, it starts with chocolate that slowly becomes dry and rather spicy (clove, cayenne pepper?), it is intense, but not overwhelming. Its 8.5%ABV shows its presence in the form of booze, like a hot drin spiked with a dash of good quality Rum. An archetipical winter beer, a very slow drinker that I kept on enjoying several minutes after finishing the glass. Thanks again Gunnar for this lovely beer.

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For Gourmands

Next Thursday, 22/1 at 7PM, at Pivovarský Klub, a very interesting event will take place. It's aim is to prove that beer can be a great pairing with food, just as good or even better than wine.

Evan Rail has been doing something liek that with Hotel Mandarin Oriental. Thematic tastings paired with food prepared by the reknown restaurant of the luxury Malá Strana hotel. The really steep price of 1200CZK per head, however, has surely left out many people who would have otherwise loved to attend.

Based on the same idea, the beer temple in Karlín, together with the Slow Food groups, has organised this event, called "Pivo v poháru i na talíři" (beer in the glass and on the plate). A five course dinner (soup, warm appetizer, two main courses, dessert), each made with beer as ingredient, and each paired with a carefully selected beer. If you like the food, you will also be able to take the recipes home.

It isn't exactly cheap, 500CZK per person (333CZK for Klub card holders), but it isn't just a dinner, it's more like a seminar.

Reservations can be made by e-mail at pivoklub@iol.cz, or by phone at +420 222 315 777. Pivovarský Klub's address is Křižíkova 17°, Praha 8 - Karlín.

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12 Jan 2009

Both faces and the future

Whether is a passing trend or not, time will tell, but as things are today, there is not doubt that the Brewpub as a business model in the Czech lands is very successful. Only since the publishing of Evan Rail's book "The Good Beer Guide - Prague and The Czech Republic" in mid 2007, nearly 20 new brewpubs must have opened in the whole country.

The reasons for this success are several. They reclaim the old tradition of a brewery in each town. Many of them are located nearby or right next to tourist attractions such as castles, while others are by cycling paths, and cycling is a very popular pastime among Czechs of all ages. Many others are also attached to hotels of relatively good quality. It is also said that some of them are supported by state or municipal funds as they are considered an important tourist attraction. The great majority offer beer at similar or even lower prices than those of the mass produced brands. About the quality, it can vary, but most of the most interesting lagers and top fermented wheat beers I've drunk recently came from brewpubs. With all this, failing is almost impossible.

But the coin has two faces. At times, some brewpubs seem to become victims of their own success. The quality problems that Pivovar Bašta had last summer are not an exception. Going to U Medvídku during the Christmas holidays, either Catholic or Ortodox, to have a pint of Oldgott is almost like flushing your money down the toilet. The problem is capacity, or lack thereof. Josef Voltr, owner and brewmaster of Minipivovar U Hušku told me that summer demand will allow his lovely CAR to lager only for 25 days, while the one we were drinking during my visit last December had been lagering for already three months.

If I'm not wrong, all brewpubs make lagers, some complement them with some top fermented varieties, usually wheat, but what sells the most by far and without exception are ležáky. This kind of beers needs at least a month to be ready. Unfortunately, many brewpubs don't have any other choice but to tap them before their time, with the quality, thus suffering. Increasing capacity is not easy. Setting up a proper restaurant and brewery requires an investment of several million Czech Crowns that can take years to recover. After that, nobody could blame the owner that is reluctant to take another important financial risk. Besides, there aren't few the brewpubs where the main problem is not so much financial, but of space. They simply don't have where to increase their capacity.

That's why bottled Czech craft beer is so rarely seen (there are other issues here as well). Whereas in many other countries craft beers can be bought at specialty shops, delis or even supermarkets, here we usually have only two alternatives, either go to the beer's source or wait until someone like Pivovarský Klub or Zlý Časy brings them over.

Call me an optimist, but things seem to be wanting to change. There are three examples that fill me with hope. The first is that of Martin Matuška, brewmaster of Pivovar Strahov, who has set up a microbrewery at his holiday home. The word on the street is that he plans to start brewing commercially there. The second and somewhat more advanced is that of Pivovar Kozlíček Horní Dubenky. Owner and brewmaster Milan Kozlíček started as a home brewer. Its first commercial incursion consited in brewing 200l a week, half for a pub near Jihlava, the other half for whoever is fast enough to buy it, while reinvesting all the revenues back on the brewery. His beers, at least the ones that I've tasted, are all excellent, and I've heard that Mr. Kozlíček was seriously considering giving up his day job and start brewing commercially full time. So far, the beers have been only available in kegs, but, who knows, maybe some of the reinvestment can go to a bottling system? The third example, and by far the most professional, is that of Kocour Vandorf, perhaps the most innovative Czech micro brewery. Its owner, Honza Kočka, has secured deals with several pubs near Vandorf (in the North of CZ) and his great beers are already on permanent rotation at one place in Prague, with maybe, and I hope, more to come. All of them, together with other similar cases, if successful, should not have so much trouble with expanding their capacity. It might be that in them lies the future of Czech Craft beers. Time will tell.

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8 Jan 2009

Rara Avis

The great majority (not to say almost all) of hospody in Prague and the rest of the country only stock two or three beers maximum from the same brewer or brewing group. Restaurace U Kláštera is something out of the ordinary.

The first time I went there was more by accident that decision. I had taken the tram to Břevnoský Klášter with the intention of having lunch at Klášterní Šenk, but that day it happened to be reserved for some sort of social event, so it was closed to the public. Being already quite hungry and without much else to choose from around, I headed towards the other restaurant I had seen opposite the tram stop, U Kláštera. When I got closer I noticed a sign of Klášter above the door, made me glad, I was going to be drinking the same beer after all. There was also a sign of Pilsner Urquell, but that is something I had already seen at other places that stock beers of lesser known brands.

Big was my surprise when besides Klášter (Ležák and Tmavé) and Urquell this pub also tapped Budvar, Kelt, Hoegaarden and Primátor 16%. I was happy to see that last one, I had never seen it on tap in Prague before. But all this was over two years ago.

Back to the present. U Kláštera has never been a place I go very often, it is far from everything for me to go for lunch, though I've been there occassionally to have a quick Primátor 16% before a lesson I have nearby (before you judge me, believe me, with this bloke I teach, I sometimes need that kind of help).

One day, not long ago, I decided to go for lunch. I had a terrible craving for pečené koleno but I didn't want to eat something of Jurassic proportions. I remembered that this hospoda offered it at the nice price of 130CZK, so I thought I would not be too big. And though the food I'd had so far had been very far from memorable, this was a tempting offer.
When I arrived the room was almost empty. I was glad. In more than one occassion I went there only to find the place invaded by a lot of very old people, many of whom smoking as if they wanted to prove that cigarrettes aren't that bad for your health.

I took a table by the wall, the benches are far more comfortable than the chairs. The place has a rather rustic aspect of the kind I sometimes like. It actually looks more like a pub at a small village than one in a residential Prague neighbourhood. The waitress, a lady well in her fifties, very efficient and sometimes even friendly, came quickly. I oredered a pint of Klášter Ležák (26CZK, good price) and the food that had brought me there in the first place.
While I waited I noticed that on one of the walls there was a sign of Svijany, and that the Primátor one had vanished. Bad news, the 16% from Náchod was no longer stocked, it had been replaced by Svijanký Kníže a 13°Balling that I like a lot, but that can be found at several other places in Prague. Pity, I was going to go have to go home without dessert.

The pork knee arrived. Bigger than I expected it was. Didn't matter. I left the bone clean. I would have liked it a lot more if the skin had been more roasted, but the meat was pretty tender, tough a touch on the dry side, and for 130CZK it was very good value for money.
I don't know if I would recommend someone to go all the way there just to visit U Kláštera now that they don't tap Primátor anymore, more so when pretty much at the other side of the street there is a place with much better food that also taps Klášter for about the same price. Now, if you are around, I think this is perhaps a more pleasant place to go for a quick pint than Klášterní Šenk.

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Restaurace U Kláštera
Bělohorská 183/169
169 00 Praha-Břevnov
+420 220 510 239

5 Jan 2009

Starting the year

Our new year's celebration was very quiet. Our neighbours invited us to the party they had organised. We spent the evening sitting, chatting, eating many things and drinking beer (Zlatopramen, far from a favourite, but still very drinkable), sext and mi contribution, home made malinovice. We didn't stay up too late, less than two hours after toasting and watching the fireworks we went back home. So it wasn't until the first day of this still brand new 2009 that I was able to sit and open somehting special to greet the year that had just begun.

And being that this will sure be a very special year for me, I thought of a very special beer, and what more special than Brewdog Paradox Smokehead. I had received, through Evan Rail from the good people of BrewDog and was really looking forward to drinking it. It isn't necessary to consider all the good comments and reviews that this beer had gathered, it is enough toknow that it is an Imperial Stout matured for, I believe, 18 months in single malt whisky oak barrels. There are several "editions" of Paradox, this one is matured in Islay Whisky Whisky barrels. In short, with such a CV it is the kind of beer that any enthusiast would love to taste.
It was getting dark when I went to my "cellar" to pick the bottle, I cleaned a glass, prepared the cammera and sat at the bar with my notepad by my side while getting ready to drink something that was sure going to be different. As the bottle says, I served this beer at room temperature. I pours very dark, but not thick, against the light some rubi gleams can be seen. The relatively little head disipates pretty fast, thanks to the wopping 10%ABV. The bouquet is dominated by something that reminded me of burnt wood, backed up by notes of chocolate, tobacco and some vanilla. The taste is very complex, I was able to find chocolate, strong coffe, smoked Bamberg like notes, wood, everything playing in perfect harmony waiting for that mildly spicy finish with remembrances of whisky. Both in the aromas and the flavours is the alcohol as some kind of guardian, thoough to be more correct, I should say booze because the high ABV is integrated to perfection, it did not bother me at all at any moment.

BrewDog Paradox Smokehead might not be a beer to everyone's taste, but it did amaze me. I don't remember how long it took me to drink it, but I enjoyed every drop while watching the snow fall outside. A fantastic beer.

Na Zdraví!

PS: If you are in Prague and would like to sample this beer you will be able to find it, together with Tokio RipTide and Hardcore IPA (all from BrewDog) and others that were present at the recent Christmas Beer Festival at Pivovarský Klub. It will cost you dearly, 153CZK and more for a bottle, but it is not something you will drink every day.

PS2: I've got a lot of delayed tasting notes, I'll be posting them in the following weeks, I hope not to bore you.

Update to PD1: If the prices of PK are a bit too inconveniento for your current finances, then you should head to Zlý Časy where you can buy those same beers much cheaper, 60CZK for HardCore IPA and RipTide and 120CZK for Tokio and Paradox. Also available are few others that were presented at the Christmas Beer Festival. Go. Buy. Now.

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1 Jan 2009

So Long, 2008!

2008 was a very difficult year for me. A year I would not like to repeat. But I am not going to bore you with my personal dramas because I don't think that is why you are here. You are here to read about beer.

Beerwise, 2008 was a fantastic year. Loads of new beers, several new micros, some of which, like Kocour Vandorf came out with very exciting products. During the year I was also able to find new places that became favourites, like Zlý Časy and U Slovanské Lipy.

The blog, both in is Spanish and English versions, gave me so many satisfactions. The Spanish version has already received well over 80000 hits and the English version got more than 30000 hits in its first year, with the number of visitors growing each month. La Ronda has allowed us, the Spanish speaking beer bloggers, to do something more than gazing our navels and speaking about the beers we are tasting (which is not bad, mind you) by doing something more community oriented that I think helps spread the culture of good beer. In both versions, the comments, more than a thousand of them, were, without exceptions, possitive, even those that expressed their disagreement with some of my opinions. Many of the comments were really flattering and motivated me to keep on writing even in times when I didn't feel like doing much. Thank you very much to all of you that took the time to write a few words.

And thank you very much, as well, to the two companies that are kind of sponsoring this blog. I am not gooing to get rich with the advertising revenues, but it is still nice to know that there are people out there that believe this blog to be important enough to spend some money on.

But the best, by far, that happened thanks to the blog was the possibility of meeting new people. And I met many last year, people from the beer world, fellow bloggers and readers from several countries. As Velký Al from Fuggled (whom I also met this year and became my friend) well says, all those people have been generous, interesting and made me have very good times. Some brought me beers that I would never have been able to taste otherwise and that enriched my experience and, I believe, the contents of this blog. Some made me feel almost like a celebrity when they approached me to ask if I was Pivní Filosof, that is how I met Ian and Iain and that English gentleman that greeted me at U Medvídku the other day. But the prize in this "category" will have to go to a group of Danes that I ran into with my wife at Svijanský Rytíř. One of them, a man with silver hair, came to our table and asked me, very shyly, if I was Pivní Filosof. When I said yes his joy was as big as the round of applause the group gave me. They had pictures taken with me and they thanked me for my work on this blog (they also left some drinks paid at the bar). It was an incredible experience that made my day and the rest of the weekend. Meeting each and every one of you was something very special that I hope will go on this year.

But going back to the beer. It is time choose the beers of th year that just ended. During 2008 I drank 384 different beers (44 of them in Decemeber), most of them Czech, but many imported ones, too. So I decided to divide the awards in two categories.

Picking the imported beer of the year was really hard. The variety of styles and countries those beers came from was very big. I tasted beers imported from 11 different countries that ranged from Macro lagers in the style of Molson's from Canada to micros like Brasserie Trois Dames from Switzerland. Some of them horrible, some wonderful. After a lot of pondering I chose two. The first one is Chocarrubica, from Italy, a beer that we still talk about with my wife. Amanzingly delicious and even more interesting. The second Mezquita, from Spain, there were other beers that I liked better, but Mezquita proves that when there is will and talent good industrial beers can be made even in countries with little beer tradition or culture.

The Czech Beer of the year was something easier to choose. I drank a lot of fantastic beers lasst year. Primátor Stout could have been a fair winner, not only because it's a beer that breaks the Czech mould a bit, but also because in itself it is a good Stout. I could have also chosen the brilliantly conceptual V3 Pivovar Kocour, a smoked beer lagered in Tokaj barrels, and brewed together by Czech, Polish and Hungarian brewers. I could go on and on with the examples, but there was one that to me was a tad above all the rest. More convservative, less ambicious in its concept, but simply delicious. The Award for The Czech Beer of 2008 goes to the Subtle Beauty of Kout na Šumavě Kvasnicová 12°, it fascinated me. Fortunately, it is now occassionally available at U Slovanské Lipy. Actually, I think any of the beers from Kout could have been a fair winner, and I am so happy that we can now enjoy them in Prague any time we feel like it.
I don't know what this brand new 2009 has in store for us (in my case, with my first child on the way, I know it won't be easy), I only hope that we can all have as good a time as possible, that we can go on drinking good beers and that there is more to choose from.

My best wishes to all of you

Na Zdraví!!!

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