29 Dec 2009

Who is this guy?

I don't know who Alan Brewer is. Never heard of him, never read his opus. I assume he's someone who knows about beer, otherwise the Spanish magazine Bar&Beer wouldn't publish him. And most likely, he knows more than me, that's the least I expect from someone who's been writing on the subject for as long as he claims.

I don't know who Alan Brewer is. I've looked him up on the Internet, but wasn't able to find anyone beer related with that name. I sent emails to two of the most important bloggers from the other side of the Atlantic (Mr Brewer lives in Brooklyn) y they weren't able to give me any solid information. One of them said that he suspected the name was an pseudonym, A. Brewer (geddit?), and the other one said that the name rang a bell, perhaps someone who wrote some time in the past for a magazine.

I don't know who Alan Brewer is, but he has insulted me. Not only me, had that been the case, I wouldn't give a toss. He's someone I don't know and doesn't know me (and likely doesn't even read me). But in his article published in the latest issue of Bar&Beer, titled "Illiterate Bloggers", Alan Brewer insults all those who write about beer on the Internet.

There Alan Brewer voices his disappointment with the magazine for having hired me, saying that they have allowed the fox into the hen-house and closes saying that if the hiring standards of the magazine have fallen so low, he could recommend a homeless man he knows, who is an expert in strong canned beers of less than a dollar. In the middle he rants that the only decent thing about beer on the Internet is BeerAdvocate, that blogs are badly written and full of mistakes, that beer bloggers don't read, etc. (Nobody is going to deny that much of what's written about beer on the Internet leaves a lot to be desired, but the same can be said about what's written on the printed media. Anyway, that's something that has been already discussed by Alan, me and others).

He also tells us about his romantic beginnings as a beer writer. Of how he was one of the people that created self publishing, writing fanzines on second hand computers, which after photocopying, they would distribute in the local brewpubs. It seems to me that Brewer's biggest issue with bloggers is that we have it too easy. Everything is a click or two away, material, contacts to breweries and other people in the beer community from around the world, and what we publish becomes instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection, no matter where they are, and they can also easily contact us and leave comments that in most cases enrich everyone's knowledge.

How do we dare! Don't we understand that beer writing is is the prerogative of just a few chosen ones, who write for printed media of limited reach? The rest had better shut up and accept what these wise men say.

The whole bunch of us, people who dedicate part of our free time to share beer ideas and experiences, in several languages and from different countries, in most cases without any commercial commitments whatsoever, are doing beer nothing but harm.

And all those micro and regional brewers and distributors who contact us, let us know of news, send us samples or invite us to events. How cold they have been so easily fooled by these upstarts? Specially when they can hire the services of marketing, PR and advertising agencies.

What planet does this bloke live? No one can be so pigheaded, so out of touch with reality! He even says blogging is a phenomenon that has already expired. If so, someone should go and tell "real" beer writers like Pete Brown, Stan Hieronymus and Stephen Beaumont that they are wasting their times with their blogs, that with them they are lowering themselves to the level of the uneducated, bourgeois beer rabble.

Perhaps Alan Brewer is a better writer than all of them put together, but until I can find in a Prague newsagent something he has written I will never find out. In the meantime, I'm happy that from the comfort of my home I can have access to what countless other illiterate bloggers write about beer.

I still don't know who Alan Brewer is, but I'm beginning to think that he's a.... Well, I'd rather leave it there.

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27 Dec 2009

St Peter's 12 Apostles (III)

After going having gone through the oddballs and the modern classics that I had received from St. Peter's Brewery, all I had left were samples of the styles that, in the eyes of many, define English brewing: Mild, (Best) Bitter, (Old Style) Porter and (Cream) Stout (I had already tasted the IPA), plus the Winter Ale, which, since seasonal Ales have been brewed for ever, we can also say it's a "traditional" style of some sorts. 

I started with Mild. Not being English, the first time I heard the name of this style I though it was because those Ales were, well, mild (in flavour, ABV, etc.), when actually, it's because thus were called ales that were sold very young, almost without any maturing (if I remember my history well).
I was really looking forward to tasting a representative of the style. Ron Pattison once loosely compared it with tmavé výčepní, an unfortunately underrated Czech style I like quite a lot. I was curious to see how similar they were.

St Peter's Mild's 3.7% ABV is almost the same as tmavé výčepní's, it pours a very similar colour as well. The similarities start to fade from then on. The nose has sweet coffee and molasses. It's unexpectedly full bodied, with an almost oily mouthfeel that coats the palate and fills it with plenty of roast followed by chocolate and licorice. A mild sour touch wraps up a surprisingly tasty ale. I enjoyed every sip, I loved it.
A day later I opened Best Bitter, also with 3.7% ABV. I had already tasted an ale of this style, a bit stronger, but with very similar characteristics to this one from St. Peter's. It pours an orangey amber, a shade or two paler than that one. The nose is mild, with fruit on a dry, almost herbal, base. Light bodied, with autumn fruit and a dry finish with some flowers. Not as flavourful as the Mild, but still, a wonderful session ale. It's a pity that there aren't more micros that want to brew these kinds of ales.

That evening, after dinner, I opened Old Style Porter (5.1% ABV). I had liked a lot the few bottom fermented Porters that I'd had and I was looking forward to seeing what differences that "Old Style" thing was bringing, considering that Poter, as pretty much every other style, had gone through countless changes throughout history.
It pours brown, so my notes say. The bouquet has an attractive mix of caramel, flowers and raisins, mild, but with a lot of personality. It is thinner than I expected, but still brilliant. Nothing much at first, really, quite shy caramel that quickly turns dry with a hint of sourness. When disappointment starts to creep in, the beer shows all it's got, which is plenty, chocolate, coffee, over ripened fruit, leaving a very pleasant feeling and making me wish I had a couple more in the cellar the instant I finish the bottle.
It was time for Cream Stout, with an already respectable 6.5% ABV. Unsurprisingly dark, with some ocher highlights. The nose is ruled by very roasted coffee, with some fruity sourness, it doesn't say much, really. But its taste. WOW! Very bitter chocolate, coffee, cooked fruit, nuts and a subtle smoked touch, everything wrapped in a creamy body that makes every sip almost a gift from heaven. Simply fantastic.

All I had left now was Winter Ale, which couldn't have arrived at a more proper time; it had already started snowing and it was very cold outside.
Funny thing. I liked this Ale and was disappointed by it for the very same reason. I found it too similar to Cream Stout. I was expecting something else, I don't know, perhaps a beefier version of Mild. Don't ask me why. It's a pity I didn't taste it together with the Stout, or at least one right after the other. The biggest difference I noticed was that Winter Ale was a tad sweeter, but I can't be sure. It wasn't what I was expecting, but I can't complain too much, either, I still enjoyed it quite a lot.

The balance is incredibly positive. The only two that were a bit out of tune were Honey Porter and G-Free, at least for me. The rest was great. Perhaps, what I liked the most about them is that they are all simple, but very tasty beers. Innovation and experimentation are all fine and dandy, but sticking so well to what's classic deserves every bit as much praise. Thanks once again to Claire and all the folks there at St. Peter's Brewery for sending me these samples and making my life a bit better.

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26 Dec 2009

Burp!

This have been very special holidays for me. The first as a dad, and the first in who knows how long that I've spent with my parents and my sister (and her BF), who came from Spain to be with us.

For Christmas Eve dinner we had the traditional fried carp with potato salad (that I had prepared a couple of days before) and then we went on to open the presents while stuffing our faces with the wonderful Christmas biscuits my wife had baked (a total of 10 different kinds).

The picture above shows a bit of the aftermath of the Christmas lunch, roasted duck with braised red cabbage and sauerkraut and bread knedlíky. Everything washed down with the outstanding Matuška Tmavé, it's mild roast and hint of sourness held their ground perfectly against the cabbages, while the rich dark chocolate and coffee danced a beautiful choreography with the bird and its juices. One of the best lunches I've had in my life.

I hope all of you've had at least half the great time we are still having and that 2010 will be 2011 times better than 2009.

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21 Dec 2009

I wasn't going to do this, but

I didn't feel like writing a wrap up of this year, but after reading Knut's (who chose me as one of the bloggers of the year!) and The Beer Nut, I liked the format, which actually was thought up by Mark Dredge, so I changed my mind and decided to give it a go. Here you have it (with some adjustments):

Best Czech beer, draught: U Medvídku 1466, specially when Laďa, its creator, taps me a couple straight from the lagering barrel. Honourable mentions: anything from Kout na Šumavě, Tambor 11° and Matuška Weizen.

Best Czech beer, bottled: Bakalář Polotmavý Výčepní, ever since I discovered it I can't have enough of it. Honourable mentions: Svijanský Rytíř and Primátor Weizenbier.

Best Imported beer, draught: Well, we aren't exactly spoilt for choice here, but still, Schlenkerla Märzen.

Best Imported beer, bottled: This was by far the most difficult choice, as this year I've tasted so many wonderful beers. After a lot of consideration the one that came on top was Haadnbryggeriet Norwegian Wood. Honourable mentions: Guineu Montserrat and St Peter's Mild (review to be published soon).

Hospoda of the year: This won't be a surprise to anyone following this blog, Zlý Časy, for everything they've already done and for what they are planning to do as well.

Best beer blog: Among all the blogs I follow through feeds, etc. that I greatly enjoy to two that come top because of their contents are Martyn Cornell's and Ron Pattison's, which should be mandatory reading to anyone remotely interested in beer.

Open Category, personal: Becoming a father. On a more beer related side, being hired by Bar&Beer.

Next year I would like to go: On holidays, anywhere, I really need it...

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18 Dec 2009

St Peter's 12 Apostles (II)

Following my route through the samples the people of St Peter's Brewery sent me, it was time to start getting into the more or less classic stuff.

The three I had in line were Golden Ale, Suffolk Gold y Ruby Red.

Golden Ale is a pretty new style that, according to Martyn Cornell, came out as a kind of response to the rise of lager by the English Real Ale brewers. I had only tried one Golden Ale thus far, Oppigårds Bryggeri's, from Sweden, which I had found pretty pleasant.
St Peter's Golden Ale is similar to its Swedish counterpart in many aspects. It reminded me to a good světlý ležák in looks, aroma, mouth feel and, to a lesser extent, maltiness. Its most distinctive note is given by the hops, that provide a marked, but controlled bitterness that gets stronger in the finish, long and bitter. With 4,7%ABV and very low carbonation, it's extremely easy to drink. Very pleasant, it leaves you wanting another one (and a few more to follow).
Suffolk Gold isn't another Golden Ale as I first thought, and as the name suggested. It's actually a Bitter Ale brewed with locally sourced ingredients (St Peter's Brewery is in the County of Suffolk). It's marginally stronger than Golden Ale, with 4.9%ABV and a shade darker. It's also maltier and fruitier, with a tad of a fuller body. The hops, Suffolk Gold, also have a strong presence, but provide a more moderate bitterness that blends more seamlessly in the maltiness. Another very good beer, very easy and pleasant to drink that also leaves you wishing you had another bottle at hand.
Closing this session I opened Ruby Red, which pours an expected reddish. It's got a nose full of fruit, spiced with a subtle touch of caramel and some burnt herbs. It also packs quite some flavour despite only having 4.3%ABV. There's a nice mix of burnt sugar, fruit and herbs with a mildly spicy touch. While I was tasting it my mind filled with images of barbecues and garden parties (summer nostalgia perhaps, even though I love winter). The thing is Ruby Red is just the perfect beer to wash down some grilled meats.

Come to think of it, each of these three ales are great pairings for stuff cooked on a charcoal or coal fired grill, and while I'm typing this I realise that they are the kind of beers I was thinking of when I asked this question.

Thus far, I'm very satisfied with St Peter's and his apostles. I'm already looking forward to the third installment, where I will get deep down into some real classics.

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16 Dec 2009

Out of Nowhere

Yesterday I got an e-mail that surprised me for two reasons: That someone bothered to send me an e-mail announcing an event, instead of waiting for me to find about it on the web, and the very nature of the event and its organisers.

They call themselves "Pivní archív restaurace U Balbínů", something like Archive Beer Restaurant (coming from "Archivní Víno", wines meant for long aging). I had no references about them, but whoever they are, what they seem to be doing looks really interesting.

This weekend (Dec. 19/20, from 10 to 5) they are organising a presentation of really special beers: Sam Adams Utopias, Bass King's Ale 1902, together with some Belgian Stuff and Vintage Beers of limited editions, among others.

The event will take place in Jungmanová 22, Prague 1 and the entrance is free (or at least the e-mail doesn't mention an admission price).

Because of family reasons I won't be able to attend, but I've already arranged an interview/visit once the holidays are over. I'm really looking forward to knowing what this enterprise is about.

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14 Dec 2009

St Peter's 12 Apostles

OK, it isn't biblically accurate, but it does the job for a silly pun.

The good people of St Peter's Brewery, through Claire, were really cool and sent me a box with 12 samples from their product line, a very varied selection indeed.
Since posting the tasting notes of 12 beers might be quite boring for you to read, and would sure be a lot of work for me to write, I have split them in three installments that will be published in the coming days.

Before getting down to it, I want to take a few lines to praise the presentation of these beers. Those oval shaped bottles are just lovely, so apparently simple, with so much identity. Better writers than me have already emphasised the importance of a good packaging for beers, specially of the "craft" sort, and they are right. Of course, nobody is going to buy something they don't like, no matter how prettily it's wrapped, but you have to know it first, and a nice bottle or label can make a big difference when it comes to a first purchase of a given beer, and as you are very aware, what is crap for you or me, might be wonderful for someone else.

But let's go now to the really important stuff.

I decided to get started with Fruit Beer - Grapefruit, Honey Porter, G-Free and Organic Ale, partly because they were the oddballs, and partly because I didn't thin I would some of them.

First one to be opened was the Grapefruit Beer. I'd only tasted one beer flavoured with this citrus, it was Belgian and called Pink Dog, or something like that. One of the people I was tasting it with said "It smells like toilet cleaner". It didn't taste much better. I was hoping such would not be the case with this one in front of me, but those hopes were not that high. Wasn't I surprised... 
It pours limpid gold, like a good ležák, no radioactive looking tinctures in there, good sign. The nose is malty, with some resin, the grapefruit is really will integrated, it actually doesn't feel like a cheap extract, but reminds of C hops. Medium bodied, firm, malty, with a mild, but assertive grapefruit that comes very well together with the hops and doesn't turn the beer into an alco-pop. I must say that I liked it, I found it to be a great summer drink and thirst-quencher, and really good to wash down some light meal.

Second in line was Honey Porter. For some reason, the characteristics I associate with Porter didn't mix well with those that I associate with honey. I wasn't expecting to like this 4.5% ABV beer.
The colour is as expected, dark. The honey predominates way too much in the bouquet, so much so that closing my eyes I almost felt I had a glass of mead in front of me. I love Medovino, you know I do, but I wanted to drink a beer. I wasn't convinced by how it all came together. I was able to finish it, yes, but without much joy. I'm sure there are people that will like it, not me, though.

Gluten free beers are in a different category. I believe that they should be evaluated more or less in the same way as non-alcoholic beers, or BFSD, as I call them now. They are not something most people would drink by choice and so, they should not be compared with "ordinary" beers. They should be evaluated thinking about whether we would gladly drink them or we would opt for another alternative should the situation arise.

Fortunately, I had already tasted a gluten free beer, a German one, so I had something, rather tenous, to compare St Peter's G-Free with.
It pours limpid very pale gold, little head on top. There's citrus and spliff in the nose. With 4.2% ABV it's got a very thin body that hasn't got enough chops to support the hops, which are way too dry and end up out of tune with the rest. If I had to choose between this and the German, I would go for the latter as it's closer to the beers I'm used to.

To finish the session I chose Organic Ale. To a certain extent, it's a category on itself, but it also serves as a bridge between the other beers above and the rest, which lean towards the more "classic" or, if you want, "traditional" side of English brewing.

Much has been written about organic beers. The latest to publish a not very positive rant about them (at least from the blogs I follow) was The Beer Nut. So far, I'd had only one experience with organic beers, the Swedish Ekolmen Ekologiska Ale, which I had liked a lot, not because it was organic, but because it was very good. I was looking forward to seeing how Suffolk's would compare to that one.
Very rich gold it pours. The nose reminded me a bit to a světlý ležák, but with a bit more tropical fruit. It didn't say much at first, but little by little this beer sheds its shyness and becomes more confident. Nice silky mouthfeel, with a light malt base that provides a good balance to the tasty mix of citrus and tropical fruit that provides character. The finish has a bitterness that walks on a tightrope, but fortunately never looses its balance.

I liked it, perhaps not as much as the Swedish one, but with its 4,5% it's a very nice session beer. The best of all is that there is basically no difference in price with the rest of the product line. Great to keep a good conscience and a healthy wallet.

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11 Dec 2009

Progress Report

Since a few (very few) of you have been great enough to send me a few virtual moneys to help me finance my book, I thought it would be appropriate to write the first progress report, so you can see that your money is at work and that I'm not spending all of my free time doing things like looking after my daughter.

I've already started wandering the streets of Prague gathering material for the book and I've come across many new places that look quite promising. I've already visited a few and have a couple of (I hope interesting) stories to share with you.

In a small, lost street in Letná there is this small, pleasant café/bar/restaurant that stocks Pilsner Urquell, Kozel and Kácov Kvasnicové (though I think is nefiltrované). I went there the other day to have a beer, I don't think I need to tell you which (if any of you thought of PU and Kozel, go away, read another blog).

When the waiter, a relaxed and rather affable bloke, brought my kvasnicové (I insist is nefiltrované, but I'm not 100% sure, either way, it was really nice) I asked him how well it was selling. "It's our best selling beer", he answered with a mild smile and a hint of pride in his voice. That made me really glad and renewed a little my faith in humanity.

It also made my ask myself why there are still idiots that  offer pseudo-imported crap at luxury prices, when there are so many outstanding Czech beers that, not only people will like more, but are also cheaper. (They are idiots, that's why. Good answer).

A few days earlier, after having a pint of Kout in Vršovice at a very rough looking hospoda where I didn't feel unwelcome (it really looks rough, it's in a cellar and you have to ring a bell to be let in) I noticed, on the other side of the street, a small bistro with sings of Klášter and Ježek outside.

I walked there to take note of the address and see what the place looked like, thinking of a future visit. While I was standing in front of the door I heard a voice, surely asking for way. I stepped aside to let its owner go in. He turned out to be a geezer that looked as old as I hope I will at least get to live. When walking through the door he turned round and told me to follow him because "tady mají dobré pivo" (they have good beer here). Since I still had some time and "tady mají dobré pivo" is the best excuse in the world I know to walk into a new place, I did as asked. 

He invited me to his table. We shook hands, introduced each other by first name and he started ranting about the takeaway pizza shop next door. From then on I was hardly able to understand what he talked about. I don't know if it was because he was a bit pissed or because he was missing half his teeth, but his slur made it basically impossible to follow what he was saying. Fortunately, I am a master in the fine, yet under-appreciated art of keeping polite conversation with drunkards, so I was able to nod, shake my head, make approving or disapproving sounds and even make comments like "fakt?", "tý vole!" and "ježižemarie!" at right times. When my new friend made a question I asked him to repeat it hoping to catch enough words to help me get an idea of what he wanted to know. The chat was so pleasant that this gentleman even paid for my beer (Ježek 11°, pretty good).

In short, this research work is bearing fruit and is presenting me with interesting personal experiences. What else can you ask?

Many thanks once again to those generous souls that have contributed to this cause (those who want to follow in their steps can do it by clicking on the "Donate" button below my mugshot)

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8 Dec 2009

Brave

From the first sip Pivovar Chotěboř made a great impression on me. Their Světlý Ležák is a perfect example of the style that made Czech beer famous around the world: solid malt base with a most subtle touch of caramel and the distinctive presence of Saaz hops, and the unfiltered version ranks among the best new stuff that has come out this year.

During the SPP Awards Party I had a brief chat with Mr. Záruba, head brewer at Chotěboř. He told me that his brewery, which opened earlier this year, it's not a brewpub, but a "micro-industrial" (as I like to call them) that combines the latest brewing technology with Czech lager tradition (triple decoction, open fermenters and enough lagering time). Currently their capacity is 10,000 hl/year, which can be expanded to 25,000 hl in the current facilities.
I took home two bottles from the party (světlý výčepní y tmavý ležák) and a branded glass to drink them from.
One evening, while I was getting in the mood to prepare dinner, I opened Originál, thus is the name of their světlý výčepní. Nice golden colour, nice white head, nice absence of bubbles. Thin bodied, but not watery, enough malt to give it substance and the right touch of Saaz to help it do a good job at thirst quenching. With 4.1%ABV, it's an ideal session beer, made to drink půl litr after půl litr without fearing the consequences much. No more, no less. It's a pity that there aren't more micros in the world that brew something like this.
Quite excited, a couple of hours later I couldn't resist the temptation of opening Černý Premium, only to end up somewhat disappointed. It pours a dark enough amber to be considered tmavé/černé, the right head. The nose is full of cola, with barely a hint of fruit and caramel. The taste follows the same lines, the cola ends up boring and made me yearn for the roast, coffee, cocoa or chocolate present in my favourite Czech dark beers. Basically, it is an uninspired beer that left me with the impression of something done with the heart put elsewhere. A pity.

Anyway, the balance is more than positive and I'm already looking forward to tasting their Karamelový Speciál, which should be available already.

I'm really glad about the opening of micro-industrial breweries like this and Pivovar Tambor, which also made its debut this year. Those romantics who leave their day jobs to set up a micro brewery and try to make a living out of what they really love often receive a lot of praise and admiration, and fairly so. But the same should be given to people like those from Chotěboř. Yeah, they are in for the business, they set up a shop to make money out of it, but still, the investment and risk must have been huge, more so in a market as saturated as the Czech.

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6 Dec 2009

Tasty December News

Those who are in Prague during December, either permanently or on a visit, will have plenty of new, special beers to choose from.

Last week Zlý Časy tapped the first barrel and sold the first bottles of their own Christmas Special, a Weizenbock which, just like their previous seasonal specials, was brewed in Chýně (who I'm sure are already pulling pints of their own holiday brew) by Petr Buriánek. I've already tasted it and it's really good.

This week Pivovar U Medvídku will present to the world their 18° Balling dark lager, a very limited edition that will only be available on tap at the brewery.

Not far from there, Pivovarský Dům should already have on tap their Imperial Stout, which has been maturing since February or March.

And though I don't have any concrete information, I'm pretty sure that Pivovar U Bulovky, Pivovar Strahov and U Bansethů will have their respective ad-hoc beers ready to drink in these days.

If all that wasn't enough, Honza Kočka once more is organising a Chirstmas Beer Festival. It will take place on Saturday 12/12 at U Prince Miroslava. Tickets are 80CZK a piece and the event will be divided in two sessions, one from 1 to 5PM, the other one, from 6 to 10PM. You will not only be able to enjoy special beers from Czech micros (the list can be seen here), but there will also be a selection of Bavarian Bocks and Belgian beers. Nice present material all of them, I'm sure.

Yummy, Yummy.

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5 Dec 2009

Hypocrisy?

I was going to leave this post only for the Spanish speaking beer community, but since it wasn't very well received I thought I would share it with my English speaking readers as well, hoping some of you will have the same reaction

Andrés, from the Spanish beer blog Culturilla Cervecera wrote about his visit to Fortiverd SL (Sp), makers of the Bleder beers. There he tells us about the brewery and the chat he had with its owner, Salvador.

There was something in there that left a sour taste in my mouth. When Andrés asks Salvador why he's taking the risk brewing an Imperial Stout instead of a (should we call it Republican?) Stout Salvador says:
"I haven't set up this company for the business, but to brew the beers I like. I'll be fine with earning enough to make a living out of it"
However, a few lines later, we can read that the brewery has a lot of work thanks to making beers for some other brands, and that is about to increase the capacity.

It might be that I take words too seriously sometimes, but I couldn't help but seeing some hypocrisy in Salvador's statement. When I commented on that some people defended the brewer and at the same time, proved that I was right.

I've already made clear my position on brewing on order, I've got nothing against it, quite the opposite, I think it's a great alternative for both brewers and restaurant owners, etc. Nor I have anything against those who want to brew only "unusual beers".

But if you tell me you are not interested in the business and at the same time brew on order, you are taking the piss. Or isn't he aware that those "risky" beers he so much likes are subsidised by those someone is paying him to brew?

The, perhaps wrong, impression I was left was that Salvador believes he's on a higher level than other brewers because he "takes risks". Something that was reinforced later by what Adrés says about the Bleder beers: "they aren't the typical craft brews we are used to, which are brewed in order to reach the most possible people".

Don't know about you, but to me a "brave" brewer doesn't automatically deserve more merit or credit than another who is successful with brewing "only" good beers that aim at a wider market, provided they make their beers with respect for the consumer.

Both are different and perfectly legitimate ways to do business, each with its risks and advantages, neither, all by itself, more noble than the other.

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4 Dec 2009

BFSD

The other day my Spanish friend Delirium published a very interesting post (Sp) on the different processes used to make non-alcoholic beers.

Besides enlightening me on something I didn't know too well, the post made me realise how little we speak about this kind of beers. No surprise, really. After all, we are all pissheads who love to drink and talk about the "realy stuff". And also, there quite a few out there who refuse to consider these products as beers.

I think they are, but since I don't like having arguments over semantics I've decided to make up a name for them: Beer Flavoured Soft Drinks, BFSD's for friends.

Much of the animosity many people have towards BFSD's comes from comparing them with "real" beers, which is, in my opinion, a mistake. Nobody will compare Budvar with, say, Westvleteren (well, some people do, but they don't understand the first thing about beer), they are two different things, with a different purpose. The only thing they have in common as a product is that they are called "beer", and the same applies to non-alcoholic beers. 

The right way to evaluate BFSD's is from the perspective of someone who can't drink alcohol, for whatever reason, and is really glad to have a decent substitute of their favourite drink. Then you start appreciating them differently.

I don't drive, nor I have any health problems that won't allow me to drink alcohol, but I've still have drunk quite a few BFSD's from Germany and the Czech Rep, some of them I liked. (In fact, I should confess that I would more gladly drink many of those than much of the cheap alcoholic swill sold as beer in many supermarkets around the world). And even though they aren't something I would drink voluntarily, they were quite fine drinks. 

The thing is that, in both these countries, many brewers have noticed to business potential of this kind of product, which, in turn, has generated a lot of competition, and that competition isn't only among the BFSD's themselves! In most Czech pubs you will have only two or three beers to choose from, likely from the same brewer/group and that's it. If you can't drink beer, though, the options become a lot more. That's why there are brewers that put and extra bit of effort, they count on their average consumer to be someone who is used to, and expects, certain characteristics and if the substitute beer won't satisfy them, they will end up buying Pepsi, or something like that.

I think we should give a bit more credit to the BFSD's when they are brewed with quality ingredients and processes and, above all, respect for the consumer.

Na Zdraví!

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2 Dec 2009

It's cold!

I really don't understand why so many people are so negative about autumn/winter. I love it! I like the rain (unless it's pissing down and I'm walking home from the bus) and I love cold weather. It's great, come on! At weekends, you can stay at home, watching the rain out the window, knowing that there won't be any work on the garden for a few months. Or you can go for a walk and find a nice, cozy, warm place to sit down and have something tasty while you unwind. Also, winter food kicks some serious summer food ass!

And nothing represents winter better than a bowl of hot, rich, home made soup. We love eating soup at weekends. They are relatively easy and cheap to make, you can improvise with what you have in the fridge or pantry, recipes are usually pretty flexible and you can make as much of it as you want and enjoy it the next day or two. It's true that they can take some time to get ready, specially if you have to prepare some stock from scratch, but since the weather outside is crap, what else is there to do?

One of my favourite soups is Zelňačka or cabbage soup. It's great, tasty and will warm you up and with some slices of good bread, it can be pretty hearty meal.

Zelná Polevka (serves some people):

1.5l of stock, beef, chicken or from whatever bone you have taking space in the freezer.
1 tbs of lard.
1 small onion, finely chopped. 
2 garlic cloves, crushed or finely chopped. 
1 spicy sausage, thinly sliced. I use čabajka, but chorizo could do the job just fine.
3-4 largish potatoes cubed, one of them very finely shredded. 
250g (at least) of sauerkraut (better if it's got some juice).
Salt, pepper, cumin, a few leaves of sage and loads of marjoram. 

Fry the onion and garlic with the sage for a bit then add the sausage and mix. The fat in the sausage will start melting and it will release its spices, once everything is a fiery red add the stock and the the cubed potatoes. When they are starting to get ready, add the shredded potato, it will thicken the soup. Now with the cabbage. It depends on you when you add it. If you want it a bit crunchier, then at the end. I prefer to let it simmer in the soup for a longer time so it all gets more sour.

Once it's ready, serve with a generous dollop of sour cream and enjoy winter. It tastes better after a revitalising walk in the cold.

And the beer in this recipe? What, do you I also have to tell you what to drink while you are cooking? Open the fridge and see what's in there. (Oh! Another advantage of winter, cooling the beers outside)

Na Zdraví a Dobrou Chuť!

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1 Dec 2009

Should we be worried?

A bit more than a month ago AB-InBev made official the sale of Staropramen, together with a bunch of other Eastern European breweries. As I mentioned here, the buyer is CVC Partners, a Private Equity Group of Belgian origins. According to what's been reported, the transaction won't be effective until next January and the new brewing group will be named StarBev.

No surprise, nothing new, not much to talk about. However, reading past the headlines I came across two bits of information that all by themselves don't say much, but when brought together and spiced with a pinch of paranoia might give some reasons to worry.

First bit: The purchase contract has a provision that stipulates that should CVC ever decide to sell any of these breweries AB-InBev retains the right of first offer. Nothing to worry about here. After all, these breweries haven't been sold because they were a bad business, but because the brewing giant was badly needing cash to cover some debts. It's logic then that they will want to reserve the possibility of getting them back if the circumstances so allow.

Second bit: Sooner or later the Czech government is going to privatise Budvar. We can bitch all we want, the Facebook group "Keep Budvar Czech" can have hundreds of thousands of members (not even close), but nothing is going to stop the inevitable, so we'd better come to terms with it and hope for the best outcome.

In one of the reports on the sale of Staropramen, one of the honchos of CVC was quoted saying that his company was very interested in the privatisation of Budvar.

You see where this is going, right?

Perhaps the main reason why Budvar hasn't been sold yet is the legal conflict with AB about the trademark, which spans several countries. Until that is sorted out one way or another few are those who would want to pay the price asked for the brewery. But what if there is a buyer who is willing to take the risk?

If I'm not wrong, it was in 1993 that Budvar was almost sold to Anhauser-Busch, draft contracts were ready and all that. The only thing that stopped that from happening was that it was leaked to the media, outrage followed. Legally speaking, CVC has no connection with AB-InBev, so they would be a politically correct buyer.

So, let's say that CVC does buy Budvar and merges it with StarBev. After a few years they decide to sell the whole package, they are an investment fund, that's what they do, after all. The first in the line to buy it will be none other than AB-InBev. Let me remind you that one of the promises that Carlos Brito made to the shareholders of AB was that it would make the brand Budweiser (the usurper, of course) a household name in Europe. A promise that is pretty hard to fulfill considering the latest ruling of the EU Courts. All that would stop being a problem if both brands are owned by the same person.

I'm not suggesting that this an elaborated scheme by AB-InBev to finally get their filthy hands on Budvar (well, not that much). There must be safer and cheaper ways to do that. But it still gives a lot to think about.

Anyway, let's get off the speculation wagon and have a look at something more concrete. Zbyněk Kovář, Staropramen's GM said about the future of his company: "For the consumers [...] the change in ownership won't change a thing." I just hope he was being diplomatic, otherwise we are looking at a lost opportunity.

Na Zdraví!

PS: For those of you who were expecting to see the back of Stella Artois from January, don't celebrate yet. It will continue to be brewed under license in Smíchov (yeah, that's right you beer morons, Stella is not Belgian is as Czech as Braník, and about that good.)

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