30 Mar 2009

Curious

It is already old news, but not less good because of that. A European Union court has rejected AB-InBev appeal to use Budweiser as a registered trademark in the EU, backing the clain of Czech Budějovický Budvar.

But the thing that caught my attention the most in the news report was something that was mentioned in the Spanish press, where, quoting the court's ruling, it says that AB-InBev will not be able to use the Budweiser brand for the following products: Beers, ales, porters and alcoholic and non-alcoholic malt drinks.

It is well known that in the past in England there was a clear diffentiation between beer, ale and porter, but I was conviced that such thing didn't exist anymore and that now everything is called "beer".

Might I be wrong, or is that only a sample of the anal retentive vocabulary employed by many lawyers?

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28 Mar 2009

The moment of truth

The moment I feared the most finally arrived, that one I did not want to face, tasting my own beer for the first time.

My first attempt at homebrewing did not end up well. The opinion of those experienced brewers that I spoke to or left comments here was that I had killed the yeasts with a thermal shock. I had forgotten to take them out of the fridge and I simply tossed them into the tepid wort.

But I didn't let that discourage me and two weeks later I had another go. The recipe changed a little, 500g of smoked malt (generously donated by Velký Al), 400g of Munich, 240g of caramel and 160g of wheat malt for a 5l mashing. Unlike the previous time, now I went for a single rest infusion, 75 minutes at 65°C, simply because I looked like a lot less work than the one I had done before. I did the boiling a bit longer, 75 minutes, too. The only thing I didn't change was the hopping, 30g with the same schedule as the previous time. The resulting wort had an OG of 1036 and marked 9° (Balling, I presume) in the sacharometer.

Having learnt from my mistake, this time I did take out the yeast early and I added a bit of sugar to whet their appetite. So I was very excited when I saw that a thick foam had formed only a couple of hours after I had put the wort to ferment.

A few days later I did the bottling. It was a lot of work! The hose I bought for siphoning didn't work, so I had to do it with sauce scoop. Fortunately, there were only 3.5l to bottle.

After nine days mi wife asked me if I was finally going to taste the beer. I put a bottle in the fridge and a couple of hours later I gathered the courage to open it. I was quite nervous. The fear started to fade after hearing a loud and healthy POP! when the swing top opened. The aroma that came out of the bottle didn't show any aparent contamination. Good signs.
And the real moment of truth arrived. I poured very carefully because of the sediment (which I will deal with later). Brownish amber, a bit paler than I thought it would be, generous and compact head. The bouquet had a rich fruity background with a lot of Saaz up front, nicely balanced. It tasted very, very good! Really. The happiness I felt when I took the first sip. Firm bodied, again the fruit with some very mild smoked notes now (I thought they would be more intense), pretty hoppy and with a very long, dry and bitter finish. Despite of the intense bitterness, my wife liked it a lot as well. I was surprised at how well balanced it turned out, though I admit that my objectivity could be a bit clouded, just like a parent with a child.
However, as I expected, the beer was far from perfect. The biggest problem was the insane amount of sediment in the bottles. I tried to filter the young beer with a tea strain, but I think I will need something much finer than that, or perhaps, find another way of decanting the sediments before bottling. Any ideas? Partly, I think this was because a mistake I made when pouring the wort into the fermenter. Most of the rest of the hops ended up in the container.

Whatever they are, I am sure these problems will be easy to solve, and the happiness that I have thanks to my beer being a lot better than just drinkable can't be taken away. So, if I can get the ingredients, next weekend I will brew again.
In the meantime, please welcome to this world Porteňa* - Pretty Hoppy Poltomavý Eil. I leave you with the two alternatives for a label that were picked by my wife. Which one you like better?
Na Zdraví!

(*) People from Buenos Aires are called Porteños and in Spanish beer is feminine, thus the name of my beer

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25 Mar 2009

Marketing bollocks or a beer culture oportunity?

Some weeks ago I found this news item (sorry, in Spanish, though you can use Google Translate to get an idea) in the electronic edition of a Colombian newspaper. It speaks about training courses for restaurants with beer as the sole topic. According to the article, attendants will learn about beer tasting and food pairings, cooking and cocktails with beer, how to sell beer, and topics such as beers of the world and brewing processes.

I found it interesting so I thought I would share it with the Facebook that seeks to promote beer culture in Colombia.

The response I got what not what I had expected. Not only there wasn't any enthusiasm for the news, but one of the forum members even said that this specializations were something useless and a waste of time.

Such reaction is greatly because one of the organisers is Bavaria, the, by far, biggest brewer in Colombia (in fact, one of the biggest in the world), now propery of SAB-Miller.

The apprehension is understandable. I've never drunk any of the beers of Bavaria, but if the products of the other Latin American leading breweries are anything to go by, I'm pretty sure that those beers are, at best, bad (at least in average).

But is it justified? I will claim that Bavaria is organising these courses with only altruism in mind. It is a marketing and PR strategy. So what?

Provided they are done professionally, aren't these courses something possitive? Could it be that they help open the minds of restaurant owners, managers, etc, which in turn could help some of them to start exploring the fascinating world of our favourite drink? Or not?

Or is it that only craft brewers or consumer groups are the only qualified enough or who have the right to offer something like this to the public?

What do you think?

23 Mar 2009

Honoured

When I started blogging about two years ago, I never thought that there would be people that would take me seriously. Yet, there are.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from Honza Kočka inviting me to a tasting of rare beers. The tasting was more than just a bunch of mates getting together to drink new beers, it was part of Honza's new project, putting together a web portar inspired in RateBeer and Beer Advocate, but in Czech. The goal of this, and other future tastings, was to compile a beer data base that would work as a reference point for the future users of the portal.

Being called to share a table with above mentioned Honza Kočka, plus Honza Šuran and Evan Rail, three of the people that know the most about beer in the Czech Republic, together with two more beer enthusiast, made me feel really honoured. And more so because my judgement would be used for something else than a discussion about the merits of this or that beer. For this first session we would be tasting twelve samples of Baltic Porter, and two additionals.
I must add that the tasting presented me with a bit of a philosphical conflict. I would have to rate the beers with points. For reasons I made clear very early on you haven't seen, and will never see, points or any other sort of ratings for the beers I review in this blog. That said, it will be quite silly not to aknowledge the popularity this has with much of the public, and also that it can be useful if we speak about a beer with dozens, if not hundreds, of reviews (note to beginners and no only to them: never decide whether you will taste a new beer or not based on the ratings that beer has on the internet, taste it and make up your own minds, it is the best way to learn). On the other hand, giving ratings here made some sense, since this was going to be a comparative tasting of beers that are supposed to be of the same style.

We whetted our apetites with a true rarity, Cantillon 50°N 4°E. Never befor I had tasted something from the most legendary Lambic brewer, and I must say that this one in particular was very impressive. Aged two years in 15 year old cognac barrels, the contrast between aroma and taste was incredible. Vanilla, wood, some fruit is what the nose feels, amazing dryness and plenty of Geueze like sourness, is what we drink. Once our tasting buds were duly polished with this delight, we went on to the real tasting.
I'm not going to speak at length about the history of Baltic Porter, if you want to know more, look for it, the interweb has tonnes of information on the matter. In short words, Baltic Porters are usually bottom fermented dark beers that were inspired by the once very popular English style of the same name. Besides the fermentation method, the other big difference is that, historically, English Porters had a relatively low ABV for today's standards, while the Baltic kind tend to be much stronger. The weakest one we had was of a respectable 6.8%ABV, with average was closer to 9%.

I'm neither going to bore you witless with detailed tasting notes of each sample. Just a short descripcion to go with the pictures.

Polish. Out of balance. Starts ok, finishes a bit out of control. Not bad for a homebrew, but...
Lithuanian. Almost like a Czech polotmavé. Too much sugar that didn't go well with the dry notes. Not good.
Polish. Very dark. Raisins and prunes and chocolate. Cocoa, chocolate and coffee. Very nice.
Polish. Parfume and other artificial stuff. Not nice.
Ukraine. Nasty in every sense. Artificial. Undrinkable.
Polish. Strawberry jam, wood, raisins. Dried fruit, caramel, wood, chewy. Very good.
Polish. Stewed veggies. Artificial. Unpleasant.
Polish. Sugar, metal. Dry, burnt caramel.
Polish. Dried fruit. Artificial. Sugar.
Polish. Little aroma. Bitter chocolate, almonds. Dry finish with some alcohol. Nice.
Polish. Black. Plastic. More alcohol than taste.
Polish. Smoke, wood, soya sauce. Chocolate, some sourness, fruit. Interesting.

We finished off the tasting with the excellent Stone Smoked Porter, but I'll be speaking about it at more length soon.

Several times already I've made clear my position regarding styles, but, as I've mentioned before, it is very interesting to compare beers that are at least inspired by the same style and see there similitudes and differences, and it is something that I also recommend all beer lovers do from time to time. Still, for me, the most important thing is what's in the glass, and if I like a beer I don't give much relevance to how true to style or not it is.

Na Zdraví!

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18 Mar 2009

What beer for a really special occasion?

I still find it hard to believe, but in about three months I am going to be a dad for the first time. It is going to be a girl and it is going to be the most important thing that will happen in my life, bar none. Of everything I've lived so far, I don't think there is anything that can compare.

Of course, such event must be celebrated properly, and being the beer geek that I am, I want to do it with a special brew. For that, i will need your help.

I've recently started homebrewing and I would like to brew something special for my daughter's birth. I'm not interested in copying the recipe of a well known style, I wanto something original, inspired by a baby girl that will be born almost in summer. Got any ideas? You can leave your recipes either in the comments section or at this email address. The author of the chosen recipe (that will be chosen also from those sent by the readers of the Spanish version) will get a bottle, provided the beer is at least drinkable....

... Which brings me to my contingency plan. I'm still not all that confident about my brewing habilities, so the other question I have for you is: What beer should I have in my cellar in case the homebrewed one doesn't turn out well? It can be any beer, from anywhere in the world, I will try to get it. Suggestions can also be made with a comment or by email.

In both cases, please leave a contact to arrange posting, etc.
Thank you all.

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16 Mar 2009

From the motherland

I'm not one of those Argentine expats that feel nostalgia for the old country. I don't shed tears whenever I listen to a tango, and there is nothing in this world that would make me drink Quilmes Cristal. It's not that I'm ashamed of my nationality, I actually don't believe a nationality is anything to be proud or ashamed of, it's not an acheivement. I don't reject it either, no matter how well assimilated I can be to my Czech life, I am and will always be Argentinean.

I didn't leave because of financial, social or political reasons, I left Argentina because I simply hated living in Buenos Aires. I wouldn't have had any problem with moving somewhere else within the country (Mendoza comes to mind), but it was Prague that gave me the opportunity first and I don't regret having taken it in the very least.

One of the things I do regret is missing out on the craft beer revolution that slowly seems to be sweeping the whole country. Before I left the term "Craft Beer" had just begun to be heard out of the stricktly specialist circles. Back then I was not the beer geek I am now, so I didn't pay too much attention to it. It wasn't until 2003, during my first and so far only visit to Buenos Aires, that I finally tasted the local craft beers. Back then I was already pretty pampered by the Czech beers, and I even found the locally celebrated Warsteiner rather tasteless. But that dark beer that I had at a pizza place in San Telmo, whose name I can't remember, wasn't at all bad. And that was it. Today, all I can do is to follow the developements of the industry thanks to Logia Cervecera's excellent blog.

You can imagine then my excitement when my friend Claudia brought me four samples. I didn't know what to expect in terms of quality. Claudia confessed she didn't know anything about beer and in Argentina, as in everywhere else, you can find a bit of everything, from the very good to the utter crap. Between 2003 and now I had only tasted two samples from Green Belly, one of which was contaminated, the other, an APA, I liked a lot.
I started with the two samples of Rako that, like Claudia, is from Tucumán, a province in the Northwest of the country. The first I opened was Pilsen Rubia Ale (?). You already know the (little) importance I give to styles. but if any of you wants to shout that if the beer is an Ale it can't be a Pilsen, I will agree. It is exactly what I said (though in a low voice). Then I started wondering: what if the beer was brewed using a Pilsen recipe, together with a (triple?) decoction mashing, and then some Ale yeasts are tossed in. This could have been an interesting discussion topic had the beer I had in my glass (the only truly important thing) been the least interesting, but it wasn't.
Pours a pale gold, a bit cloudy with very finy bubbles going up from the centre of the glass. Reminded me a bit of Duvel. The nose is mostly grainy, with a bit of fruit, pears perhaps. Very thin body for a beer with 5,5%ABV. Sweetish flavour, more similar to a wheat beer than a Pils. The finish is short and slightly sour. The bitterness is hardly there, like someone who just showed up at the office but can't be arsed with doing anything productive. Weak beer.

Having finished with the Rubia, I opened Brown Negra (what is it with so many Argentine brewers and their poor use of English when Spanish words could do the job just fine?). Also with 5.5%ABV, dark amber with a few ocre highlights. Little head, nicely tanned. Mild nose, sweet coffee and a bit of apples in caramel. Caramel commands the palate, with some notes of chocolate and oldness (it wasn't very fresh). The finish is of a mild sourness that gains in strength as the glass goes down. It leaves a not very pleasant sugary aftertaste.
Neither one, nor the other won me over. I don't think they were that well made, but also pretty boring. I can understand the latter. Argentine craft brewers are forced to adjust their beers to the tastes of the market, which aren't the most sophisticated. That also happens here, in the Czech Republic. U Medvíku's brewmaster told me once how he had to tone down the hops in OldGott because some patrons were complaining; and I'm sure the changes in the latest edition of Sv. Norbert's Christmas Special were due to the same reasons. Those of us who have more adventurous palates complain and suffer, but we are a minority and a brewery is a business.

El Bolsón is a town in Northen Patagonia, and its surrounding region is to Argentine beer what Žatec is to Czech Beer, that is, where the finest hops come from. It is also one of the first names I remember asociated with the term "Craft Beer". In fact, according to their website, the brewery has been working since 1984. If all that wasn't enough, the two samples I have looked very interesting Negra Ahumada a rauchbier with 6.2%ABV and Negra Especial XXX de Invierno a winter beer with an impressive 8.1%ABV. Neither of the beers are for the average consumer, I would say.
Unfortunately, I can't judge either of them. They were off. Cider and dust were predominantly felt in the nose and the sourness instead of giving a more interesting twist to the beers (it does happen sometimes) made them very close to undrinkable. The sell by date was November 2008. I wasn't expecting to find something similar to Ratcliff Ale, but with only three months past the sell by date they were way too off. That's another problem that haunts many craft breweries in Argentina. Once the beers leave their facilities they loose all control over them, and often they end up at places where they are not given the proper care.
These stumbles will not discourage me. I still want to keep on tasting craft beers from Argentina. Who knows, perhpas, in the near future, a few of them might show up in Prague. Let's hope they will be better than these four.

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13 Mar 2009

More good news

It seems that Pivovarský Dvůr Chýně is not the only craft brewer that wants to have a permanent presence in Prague. There are, at least, two more places that have adopted a craft brewery on a permanent basis, though, unlike Hotel Victor, they do it to supplement their already existing offer of very well known faces. The other day, I visited both.

I used to work in Anděl, Smíchov, but for reasons I can't specify I never went to U Buldoka. I must have walked past the door hundreds of times, yet there was nothing that made me walk in.

What better excuse to fix that than the beers from Zvíkov.

I arrived when lunch time was finishing. The room was almost packed and I was lucky to find an empty table. I'd already eaten, so I only ordered a beer. They were tapping Zvíkov's 13° tmavé (they rotate, Velký Al had been there a few days before and he had Zlatá Labuť 11°).

The beer arrived fast and I started to soak up the atmosphere. I must say that from the beginning I felt very comfortable. Despite all the football parafernalia and the LCD TV showing football, the place is warm and doesn't feel like a typical sports bar. The service was very quick, atentive and friendly. There were, I think, four waiters who seemed to know by name every second person that walked in. The clientele that day was young, late 20's, early 30's, modern but not trendy and almost everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves plenty.
The Zvíkov was well tapped and its chocolate and caramel notes, with hints of nuts and fruit, made me feel even more at ease. I ended up ordering another one.
I really liked U Buldoka. I think it's a great place to get together with friends for a few beers. And if Zvíkov is not your thing, they also tap Pilsner Urquell tanková, also for 32CZK a pint.

It seems that the whole line of Zvíkov beers have a more or less permanent status at U Radnice, though for 40CZK a pint, not as nice a price.

I had the rest of the afternoon free so I took tram 14 to Nám. Republiky to go to Tlustá Koala, a pub tucked in a narrow street right behind the Czech National Bank, and another one of those places that I must have walked past hundreds of times without ever going in.

It couldn't look any more Enligsh. Lots of hard wood, lots of beer sings and other pub stuff and many beers on tap. Staropramen Světlý, Ležák, Granát, Černý, Stella Artois, Foster's... Foster's!?!? WTF? What is that doing here? And who in their right mind would drink that rubbish in Prague? And more importantly, what am I doing here. Ah! Kocour. Good.
I have to confess that it's been almost half a year that I've known that Pivovar Koucour Vandorf had secured a tap in Tlustá Koala. The first time I was there, to have a stout, it was a fiasco. Not only the beer was served in a chalice of Leffe, but it was also sour. I knew it was not a problem of the beer, I'd had it a a couple of days before somewhere else and it tasted great. The problem was the care, or lack thereof, that the place gave to the beers. With Velký Al we told a lady that seemed to be the owner or manager about it and she wasn't too worried. In fact, I think she said they'd already had some complaints from other patrons. I felt like asking why the F they still offered it then, but I chose silence.

A few months later I decided to give this pub another chance. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Kocour. Some changes had been made. This time the beer was served in an ad-hoc glass, a lot more appropriate for the IPA they were tapping that day, which, fortunately, tasted very, very good. (I thought of asking the barman a bit more about the beer, but I don't think he would have known much, and I didn't want to antagonise him).

Unlike U Buldoka, Tlustá Koala was almost empty. Only a couple of tables swere taken. That gave the massive back room a rather desolate feel. The few patrons were nursing their Stellas or Staropramens almost in silence.
Like at U Buldoka, the service is attentive, friendly and fast. A bit too fast, in fact. Beers would materialise at the speed of thought the other day when I met Velký Al there (his review of the place is a must read).

Though it is a nice pub. I don't see myself becoming a regular at Tlustá Koala. It is just to "expaty" for my taste. Nothing wrong with it, just not my pint of beer. Anyway, it is indeed a good alternative in the centre if I fancy a quick good beer (which here would mean only Kocour).
And now that I am at it, I'd like to give the people of Kocour a piece of advice: bring half litre glasses, not only 0.3l and ask for your beer to be listed on the blackboards, with price and maybe also ABV or Balling. A 0.3l glass costs 29CZK (25CZK before 3PM), this would be around 45CZK a pint, cheaper than Stella and Foster's and not much more than Staropramen Granát. If that doesn't increase sales, I don't know what will.

Na Zdraví!

U Buldoka
Preslova 353/1
Prague 5
+420 257 329 154

Tlustá Koala
Senovážná 8
Prague 1
+420 222 245 401

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12 Mar 2009

Changes, and all for the better

Four favourites of Prague's beer scene have very welcome news.

Pivovar Bašta has extended its opening hours. From Monday to Friday they are open from 11 and they offer a very solid lunch menu to go with that. At weekends they still open at 3PM.

Pivovar U Bulovky no is open also on Sundays. No lunch menu here, but their regular one is already very solid and quite inexpensive.

U Sadu has caught the rotating tap "trend" and now, besides Gambrinus, Pilsner Urquell, Master 13°, Master 18°, Primátor Weizenbier and Svijanský Maz, they offer beers from regional breweries that will change every week. So far they seem to be only tapping the more standard stuff from each brewery. Let's hope they prove popular with the patrons and that soon more interesting stuff will show up.

From March 21st, Pivovarský Klub will be 100% non smoking. Until now, smoking was allowed in the cellar. Not anymore. Around a year and a half ago the same policy was applied at Pivovarský Dům, without business suffering because of it. I don't think business will suffer here either. I know of several smokers that already prefer to sit upstairs, even if they can't light up there.

I am not an advocate of smoking ban at pubs, restaurants, etc., but I am happy to see owners taking the iniciative themselves. What I do believe, though, is that authorities should support and motivate restaurant owners that decide to make their places smoke free.

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10 Mar 2009

Delight

The Scottish brewer BrewDog has in its still short history acheived an important reputation. Partly thanks to their very intelligent marketing, which unlike many other breweries, is supported by quality products.

My first experience with their beers was with Punk IPA, which I liked, but didn't blow my mind as the label so seemed to promise. In short words, good beer, should shut up a bit.

Not counting the prototypes, because they were that, prototypes, the other BrewDog beers I had afterwards were good, very good, culminating in the brilliant Paradox Smokehead.

I was already thinking that after Paradox, BrewDog would not be able to top themselves. Then I opened a bottle of BrewDog Tokio.

I had bought it at the Vanoční Pivní Festival last December. It was the last of the beers I had brought home from the event. I wasn't actually thinking of drinking it the day I did. It was Monday evening, my wife was out. I was drinking Schneider Weisse (fine, but I like Primátor Weizenbier better) and čabajka, while, via Facebook, I tortured my Argentine fellow beer lovers, who, due to the time difference, were still at work.

In a clear gesture of solidarity, I decided to pop open the bottle of Tokio to share it, virtually, with them. What a great decision!
This Imperial Stout brewed with cranberries and jasmin is darker than the future. It absorbs light. Not much of a head to speak of, expected in a beer with 12%ABV. The nose reminded me a bit of x33, perhaps a bit drier. Very little to do with other Stouts, imperial or commoner, that I'd had so far. The first sip fills your mouth and slaps it around with love. It is incredibly complex. Once more I found some resemblance to X33 (more like a distante relative's this time) on one side, and on the other, intense dry and roasted notes that I would identify more with the style. Somehow, this two very different personalities find a link and become one as we drink. The finish is dry, with wood and prehaps some tobacco. The wood (Tokio is matured with oak chips) gains in strength (both in taste and aroma) as the glass is, very, very slowly, emptied, but it never manages to gain control. Its high ABV is always there, but does not interfere, it's more like an independent observer. What a superb beer! I'm so glad I have another bottle in the cellar.

Na Zdraví!

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5 Mar 2009

The dark side of paradise

Ah! It is so nice to live in Prague! Whenever I fancy a beer all I have to do is find a good hospoda and I know I will find a good quality pint, tapped as it should be, and at the right temperature. If that wasn't enough, it will also be dirt cheap, about 30CZK in average, if not less.
It's paradise! Or not?

Being able to drink beers of a very high quality standard at such low prices is a blessing, no doubt, and it's something most foreign visitors deservedly rave about, but it has its dark side.

Everyone expects beer to be cheap. This has put serious obstacles to the industry. High costs prevent microbreweries from bottling their beers, and also put them, and the industrial breweries,  in a stituation where that makes it difficult to risks and come out with limited editions, bottled conditioned beers or beers to be aged. The low price of the very good domestic beers is also an obstacle for importers, at least for those who would like to bring beers other than the macroindustrial ones that are commonly found.
Sometimes I get envious when reading other European beer blogs and see the incredible variety of quality imported beers or domestic craft ones that writers can enjoy in their very own living rooms or kitchens. Other times I start thinking whether, in a way, those living in countries with not very strong beer cultures have it better than me. If you don't believe me, look at the examples of Argentina and Spain.

At a bar and specialised shop in Barcelona you will be able to find beers such as Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Morton's, Cooper's (together with some Czechs that have recently made their way there). When was the last time you saw any of these beers in Prague? That's right, never. And don't get me started with that beer that aims to get into the high end restaurant market, or this Christmas Special that comes in a very fancy box, both from an industrial brewer. When was the last time you saw something like that on the Czech market? That's right, never.
In the major cities of Argentina you can find bottled craft beer not only at a multitude of pubs, bars, restaurants and gourmet shops, but also at supermarket chains like Wal-Mart and Carrefour. In Argentina beer has always been a cheap drink, too. A 1l bottle of the (sadly) by far best selling local beer, Quilmes Cristal costs $3.17 (a bit less than 1USD) at a supermarket, while at the same outlet, a 330cl bottle of Antares, perhaps the most successful domestic craft brewer, will go for $6! That is, about eight times more by volume! And these beers also have to compete with the likes of Chimay, MaredSous, Jever Pils, etc.

Why can't we see something like that in Prague? Who is to blame?
A big, big part of the blame falls on the consumers. Everybody assumes that beer has to be cheap. You should see the looks I sometimes get when I tell people that I've spent 100CZK on a bottle of beer. It doesn't matter how much I explain how special the beer is. They just don't get it. The worst of it is that many of them will have no problem in blowing 150, 200 or more CZK on an, at best, Italian Merlot or Beaujolais Nouveau once est arrivé.

Businesses are not far behind, either. How can it be that the most british Marks & Spencer and Debenhams do not carry any of the very fine ales brewed in the UK. But Sout African, Australian and Spanish wines and Scottish mineral water are all fine.

Problem is that the peole running those business also react like average consumers when it comes to beer, though they shold no better. Evan Rail told in one of the lost posts in his blog about an incident at a shop specialised in top of the range wines, whiskies and other spirits. When he asked the owner why he didn't carry imported vintage beers, his answer was that nobody would buy such an expensive brew. It didn't matter that Evan showed him a bottle of, I think, Fuller's Vintage Ale 2005, with its numbered label, like many expensive wines have. The owner's answer kept on being something like "it's only beer".
It might seem incredible to some of you that in the country with the by far highest per capita consumption of beer in the world; where the drink is a source of national pride and a very important part of Czech popular culture and national identity someone can say dismissively "it's only beer". But it does happen. Then, who can blame the brewers when in this vicious circle environment they would barely bother to offer anything very much out of the usual.
However, it could be that the situation is slowly changing. There are several examples that make me have some hope:

Pivovarský Klub has always done a healthy business with their imported beer lists. It is true that their prices are a tad too high and that the list fails to inlcude many names that are almost taken for granted in several other countries, while including many more that most of us would not regret never to see again. But before them, I don't think there was any other place where you could drink some Svijany and then follow it with an Orval.
Zlý Časy's owner was telling me the other day how excited he is with how well some of the imported beers he now offers are selling. And I'm not speaking about cheap stuff, but Aventinus, Brew Dog y Nørrebro Bryghus (of this one, the one that has sold best was the most expensive, North Bridge Extreme, 10 bottles in one week, each at 195CZK, funny). The Belgian beers that he's been offering draught have also been pretty successful despite costing 59CZK for a 0.3l glass. So much so, that he has decided to bring them more often.
Filip Helán has been complementing his Pivoňka business importing German beers never before seen on this side of the border, and he is not doing too bad. The other day he told me that he has become Schlenkerla's official agent in the Czech Republic, and those famous Rauchbiers will soon start to be tapped in Prague.

On the British side, not everything is lost. Prague's oddball Cider Club, according to what Velký Al told me, has been selling the Wychwood beers quite well. And the British expat favourite, Robertson's, has recently begun to offer something more than a couple of cans by expanding their offer with some bottled ales. I must confess I don't know any of them (something that I hope to change soon), and I'm aware that many of you out there will say that they are not the best that is brewed on the Isles, but it is certainly better than nothing.

I should also mention the Belgian Beer CLub in Vinohrady (which I still have to visit), or the choice of Belgian beers offered at the Cheesy specialised shops.

But perhaps the most interesting example is that of the supermarket chain Billa, who at least at one of their outlets now offers Belgian beers. Yeah, nothing very exotic there, but this is a supermarket chain we are talking about.

I don't think we are about to witness a revolution in the local beer market, but these examples do show that there is a growing interest in something other than ležáky. Perhaps someday someone, be it brewer or entrepreneur, will finally wake up and realise that there is good business to be made by offering something new and different, even in the almost reactionary Czech market. For the time being, we will have to make do with what we can get, which is not all that bad.
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4 Mar 2009

Failed attempt

Last weekend I was finally able to try to brew my first beer. The result, unfortunately, was not good. The positivething is that I know what I did wrong, or at least so I believe.

But I still wanted to share with you the experience that, though not successful, was still interesting and quite some fun.

I had read quite a bit, consulted with friends from several countries who gave me many useful tips. I had planned everything carefully and had all the ingredients ready, which had been donated by friends (thanks Honza and Laďa). The equipment was a bit improvised, but since I was only going to brew 5l, I didn't think necessary to buy anything too big.
I like cooking very much, but I'm not the kind of person that follows recipes. Most of what I cook are my own recipes, many of them improvised pretty much on the spot. The few times I do go to a recipe book I do it mostly to get an idea of cooking times and methods, adapting the ingredients to what I have at hand or I find during the shopping. I had the same approach for the beer.

The recipe I came out with was 50% Munich malt, 30% Caramel and 20% wheat and 30g of Saaz hops pelets. I started around noon. I put the grain, about 1,2kg, in a vegetable strainer that could also be used for steaming, and put that in a pot with 3,5l of warm water. I had another 3l warming up in a similar pot.

As recommended by U Medvídku's brewmaster, I went for a three step mashing. Resting for 15mins at 50°C, then 20 minutes at 60° and finally another 20 minutes at 70°. Controlling the temperature was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I picked one of the bar stools, sat in front of the cooker and had some beer while I kept a an eye on the thermometre. My wife, who was a bit afraid the process will stink the whole house, was actually surprised by how well the infusion smelled.
With the mashing finished I took the colander out of and put it on top of the spagetti pot I was going to use for the boiling. I slowly added the water that had been warming on the side, I wanted it to take as much of the sugars as possible, and I repeated the procedure with the very dark "tea" that I had in my "mashing tun".
Once the boiling started I begun with the hopping: 25% at the beginning, 40% at 30 minutes and the rest by the end.
Now it was the most delicate part of the whole thing. The cooling. The day was quite chilly. I had filled a tab with cold water and left it on the balcony during the boiling. I had been told that I shouldn't worry about contamination because the micro-organisms that cause that are not active in cold weather. I took the pot to the balcony and, carefully, dipped it into the water. The temperature went down much faster than I had expected, which made me happy.

I had to improvise when it came to take the density. The evening before I realised that my saccharometer was way too long. While I was thinking what measures to take I remembered that the 2l ornamental glass from Franziskaner I have in my office (I knew someday it was going to do something else than gather dust). I sterilised it with boiling water and worked very well. I looked that the beer wouldn't be very strong, I only measured 8.5% in the scale, but I didn't mind really.
Somewhere around here is when I think I made the mistake. The day before I had been given the yeasts (ale ones) in glass jar with water, which I put in the fridge once I got back home. I had been told that I had to take what I would need out and let them reach room temperature, and I forgot to do that. Neither did I take the hops that were floating about in the wort. Was that also a mistake?

So now I have a plastic box with a very aromatic brown liquid that has not given any sing of life. The yeasts are all in the bottom, I tried adding some more, without any results. It is not easy to accept the fact that I will have to throw the whole lot down the toilet, but I don't think I have any other alternative, or do I?

I will have another go. I will ask the right questions to the right people to see what I that I have to do differently. Needless to say, I'll be more than happy to get your bits of wisdom. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the mistakes were more than one.

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2 Mar 2009

A bit boring

To be honest, it's getting a bit hard to write my traditional "Beer of the Month" entry, which more than an award is a sort of recap of the most interesting Czech beers I tasted during the month.

It can be that I've become more demanding, or just that there isn't much more left for me to discover out there (which I seriously doubt). Whatever it is, each month the stuff that catches my attention seem to be fewer and fewer, and sometimes one tends to ignore the good ol' ones, regardless of how good they are. It can also be that I've become a bit saturated with all this lager, regardless of how good they are (something which I'll deal with soon).

So February pased by without much news. One of the few beers that stood out was Kocour's Samurai IPA (why it is called like that, I don't know, and forgot to ask). Strawish colour, with an interesting mix of pinapple and marihuana in the nose and tropical fruit and spice in the mouth, finishing bitter dry, almost citrusy. The big disappointment was Richter's Weissbier Polotmavé. I like their regular Weiss, so when I saw there was a polotmavé version I ordered it, expecting very ripe bananas, come cinnamon, etc, etc. They all failed to report in the glass. It wasn't bad, it just lacked the complexity I would have liked. A lost opportunity. On the other hand, the Tmavá 14° was very fine, indeed, with that strong contrast between caramel and roastness that I like so much in that beer.

It was also nice to taste again OldGott Barrique in good form, more so when it was tapped straight from the lagering barrel by its father.

But the winner was an ale. Pivovarský Dům's AIPA. It had reared its lovely head at the food paring event, and a few days later was tapped at the Klub. I liked it a lot there and then, but I liked it even more when I drank it in Ječná, from a hand pump. It was the same beer, but with a fuller, creamier body and an even more balanced flavour, partly thanks to the slightly higher temperature it was tapped. It's almost incredible how a beer can change so much just by modifying the way it's served. What a wonderful drink beer is! Oh! And the Stout, tapped in the same manner, wasn't too shabby either!.

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