26 Feb 2010

A crazy idea

One of the advantages of having a long commute is that I have time to think. It is then that I put together much of what I write here, and sometimes I come up with ideas that can go from the brilliant to the utterly stupid. Which of these extremes is the following idea closer to, that's something you can judge by yourself:

I want to organise a gathering of beer bloggers in Prague, in Autumn. I've already had the pleasure to meet some of you and would love to do it again, and there are many more with whom I haven't had yet the opportunity to share a pivo or two, and would also love to do that. I'm sure there are many that feel the same.

The gathering would be over a weekend, in October. I might even include, apart from a session at Zlý Časy and other worthy pub(s), a visit to a brewery near Prague.

What do you think of it? Anyone up? Leave a comment or send an email and let's see how many we can get together around the same table...

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24 Feb 2010

Imperial my ass!

The first time I cam across the phrase "Imperial Pilsner" was on the label of Mikkeller Draft Bear, the beer I drank to welcome the new year. though I thought the name was quite silly, I figured it was a bit of a joke.

A few days later I saw a Dutch Imperial Pilsner reviewed in a Spanish beer blog. And a couple of weeks after, Stan Hieronymus wrote that Orval's Brew Master had also made an Imperial Pilsner in collaboration with an American Brewery.

I turned out Mikkel wasn't joking, at least not intentionally. An exhaustive Google search (all the way to the second page of the results) showed me several references to "Imperial Pilsner", in fact, according to a blog I can't remember, they seem to be everywhere.

But what is an Imperial Pilsner, I'm sure many of you are asking? A strong Pale Lager with an ABV around 8%.

WOW!!! A strong Pale Lager!!! How innovative! How come nobody had ever thought of it before?!?!

Wait a second! They have! And long ago. Here you have two examples from the Czech Republic: Primátor Rytířský 21% and 9%ABV and Jihlavksý Grand with 18º Plato and 8%ABV, both have been brewed for quite a long time, already. And actually, after re-reading the post on Draft Bear I see that I commented it was similar to Grand, but with different hops.
There's been some debate in the beer community about new styles, with some in favour and some against. Myself, I agree with Thisty Pilgrim when he says: "All brewers ought to have the freedom to play around with various hops and yeasts without it suddenly being nailed down and pigeonholed into some imaginary style."

Anyway, something like Black India Pale Ale might make no semantic sense, but at least it is something new. Imperial Pilsner, on the other hand, isn't.

But this leaves me with two questions: Will the BJCP include Imperial Pilsner in their list of styles? And, who will be the first idiot to say that a beer so labeled isn't "true to style"?

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22 Feb 2010

A question of perception

The other day Mark, in his blog Pencil&Spoon, wrote a very interesting post on beer and wine, which actually carries on an old discussion originated on that "Beer is the new wine" thing.

First of all, I want to make clear that to me "Beer is the new wine" is just a load of bollocks. It implies that beer is a lesser drink, when it's not, if anything, it's more versatile and varied than wine. That said, I understand where it comes from and why. Consumers must be addressed with words that are familiar and can be associated with things they already know and are comfortable with, which in a way, is the point Mark wants to make.

But this is not what I wanted to discuss with you, but the origins of the difference that exists between wine and beer in the minds of the average consumers.

The enigmatic Cooking Lager says in his comment that it all comes from wine being an imported drink and therefore, historically only affordable for the elites. This is partly true if it's countries like England we are talking about, but misses the bigger picture. Wine is considered a more sophisticated drink even in those countries and regions were it is produced, and even though, through the ages, it has also been an everyman's drink.

The reason, as I see it, is that most people see wine as a drink, while beer is seen as a brand or generic product. If you don't believe me, go and ask someone about their favourite wine and you'll likely hear something like Australian Chardonnay or Chianti. Then ask that same person about their favourite beer, and you'll likely hear Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, etc.

That's because wine is associated with very nice things like harvest, terroir, D.O.C, etc, some of which carry a lot of mysticism. 

Yes, it's true that to a certain extent, they've been hijacked by marketing people, but they are still facts. If a wine was made with grapes grown in the Bordeaux region picked in 2006, then it's going to be a Bordeaux 2006, regardless of its quality. Beer, unfortunately, doesn't have anything remotely similar in the mind of the average consumer. Phrases like "carefully chosen ingredients" don't mean much, and they are actually also used to sell even cat food.

Much of the blame is the macros', but to be fair, the brewing process doesn't make it very easy, either.

A couple of weeks ago someone involved in the wine industry in Argentina told me how surprised she was when she read how complex the brewing process is. At its most basic, making wine is a very straightforward affair. Grapes are picked, left to ferment, their juice is extracted and then left to mature for some and that's it, you've got wine. All this can be illustrated with beautiful images of vineyards in sun drenched slopes, labourers picking the grapes by hand, an oak barrel in a dark cellar and a glass of wine. You don't even need words! Try to do something similar with brewing (and you must start with malting), good luck with that!

All this, together with the media, have resulted in people being able (or at the very least, believing they are able) to understand wine on a level that is far superior to how they understand beer.

And yet, is all this necessary? Does beer really need people to understand why an English Pale Ale is different than a Belgian Pale ale, as long as they are aware that there are differences?

A long time before starting to rant in this blog I was already a pretty beer curious person. I loved to drink new beers, or actually, new beer brands. Often I would come across something very different from the average. Back then I didn't ponder on why that beer was so different, the only thing that was important to me was whether I liked it or not.

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19 Feb 2010

Gringo come home!

American "Craft Beers" enjoy a massive reputation and many of them have served as templates for many a micro brewer from around the world.

Naturally, like any beer enthusiast worth his salt, I really wanted to drink at least some of them, but I had pretty much come to terms with the idea that there was nobody here willing to import them. I tried to see if there was anything I could do on my own, but my finances thought otherwise. Fortunately, I found a kindred spirit in Hanz, the owner of Zlý Časy, who'd been doing quite well with specialties from Germany and beyond and wanted to expand the offer with stuff that nobody had ever offered in Prague, at least not on a regular basis. So we started working together. I helped him find suppliers and choose which beers to bring, solely based on their reputation and what I wanted to drink myself.

Two weeks ago he got his ass to Amsterdam to pick those beers that we had chosen together with the help of a couple more štamgasty of the beer temple in Nusle. When he came back he gave me a few samples as a token of gratitude, and also so I could review them here.

It was so nice to finally have the chance to drink some of those beers that I had heard so much about! And what better way to start this beer walkabout than with perhaps the most iconic of the lot, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale pours a nice rich amber, topped with a very long lasting head. The nose has notes of citrus and pine on a bed of almost summery fruit. To the palate is a wonder of balance between the hops and the malts, all wrapped in a most silky body. I won't go as far as to say that at this stage in my life it was an epiphanic bee, but it could easily be for someone who's just wetting their feet in the craft beer oceans. To me, though, it can be a wonderful "every day" beer, the kind you are able to drink while doing something else without claiming too much of my attention, while at the same time gratifying if sipped slowly on a weekend afternoon.

Pumping up the ABV volume, this beer adventure took me to the two samples from Flying Dog, Snake Dog and Double Dog.
I opened the lighter first, the IPA with 7.1%ABV, Snake Dog, another outstanding beer. Intense bouquet of "juicy" tropical fruit in a bowl with mild syrup, finishing in orange peel. So far, Haandbryggeriet's Dobbel Dose had been my favourite IPA ever. I wish I could compare these two side by side, but it's very likely that in Snake Dog, we have a new winner. Wonderful beer! The hops threaten to go out of control, wrecking havoc, but they are fortunately kept on a tight leash by the almost muscular malts, which bring them closer, and closer until both mix and then slowly fade to give way to some mild, yet persistent, grapefruit notes. Delicious!
That evening, after dinner, I turned the volume all the way up to 11.5 with Double Dog and its not to be taken lightly 85 IBU. Another beauty. A heavy dry hopping that carries the rhythm almost like a madman and doesn't let down for the whole sip, and way after you've finished it, too. This is not a beer for beginners. Unctuous mouth feel, syrupy, with tonnes of grapefruit peel. I would describe it as a three layered beer, very cytrusy hops, very fruity malts and burnt wood. There are moments when it challenges you "session" it, but it will not allow you, it demands you drink it slowly and enjoy every drop. Fantastic.
The following day I opened Hercules Double IPA from Great Divide Brewing Co.. For me, the least known of all, but strongly recommended by Hanz. And man, was he right! Dark amber, with a nose that reminds of vanilla, tropical fruit and caramel. One of the remarkable things about it is that despite also having 85IBU, but "only" 9.1%, compared to the 11.5% of Double Dog, Hercules is a less bitter beer. Here the choreography is dictated by the malts, with notes of nuts in caramel. The bitterness is there and loud, but in the background, doing what the malts do in other IPA's I've had, bringing balance, and it doesn't take centre stage until the finish. Very, very tasty beer.

I ended my exploration with the most legendary brewery of all, Anchor Brewing Co., and their Barley Wine, Old Foghorn.
Had I drunk a Barley Wine before? I doubted it, though X-33 has some of the stuff I've seen mentioned when describing some beers of this style, even though it's a lager. And there really are some loose similarities between both these beers. Old Foghorn pours a very dark amber and its nose reminds of flowers, home made marmalade and sponge cake. The taste has a lot of dried fruit, mildly sprinkled with molasses. The bitterness, though not very intense, is persistent and brings apart each of the individual flavours and aromas without letting the beer loose its balance. The 9.4% ABV is very well integrated, you can feel it, it prickles the tip of the tongue and gives a bit of a warming feeling. At times it reminded me a bit of the Greek brandy Metaxa, which I like a lot. Delicious beer to cap an evening while listening to some good and relaxing music, R&B from Dr John, perhaps.

I liked them, I really liked them all. I loved how different they are and how interesting they are as drinks. I'm really happy someone has finally decided to import them.

And just in case any of you is wondering. No, I don't make any money out of these beers, neither from their sale, nor from advertising. I do have an interest in them selling well, but it's not financial, the reasons are others. A: They are really good beers and they improve our beer culture. B: I want Hanz to keep on importing them (he's planning an American Beer festival for Autumn), so I can go and buy these and others any time fancy one. C: Hanz is a friend and I want him to do well with this initiative.

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15 Feb 2010

No liniency

The other day the girls from 2D2dspuma wrote a long and very good rant about what they expect from craft beers (they own a shop in Barcelona, the centre of the craft beer movement in Spain). In a nutshell, the beers should be good and interesting (what is that makes a beer interesting is perhaps topic for another discussion, but even if it's in Spanish, read the post).

In the comments, one of the authors of Hipos Urinatum says he mostly agrees with what's written above and adds that in his reviews he prefers to be lenient towards micro-brewers, something I'd already seen mentioned more than once. The reason, setting up a brewery is really difficult and bad reviews from popular bloggers can harm their business.

I'm well aware of the the difficulties and risks of starting up a brewery, of how hard it is to find people that will buy your products, and I've got no doubt of the growing importance that blogs are having and that is why I really like supporting these brewers.

But what if they make bad beer?

And I don't mean something I don't like or find boring, but something badly brewed. Do we really have to go easy on those beers and their brewers? Why?

Many of them don't work with professional equipment, aren't qualified to brew commercially and have little, if any, idea of quality control (and no, "my cousin and my mates like it a lot" is not quality control) or simply don't have enough talent. However, they still expect us to pay premium price for their sub-par beers.

I'm convinced that these people aren't cynics that just got on a fad to make a quick buck (and if any of them are, well, they are morons to begin with). At least most of them surely are people with a lot of enthusiasm and passion for beer, but the reality is that today more than ever we should get good value for our money and unfortunately, their beers aren't worth it. If any negative review of mine or other bloggers is bad for their business, I'm really sorry, but first and foremost I'm a consumer and think like one.

Being lenient towards them is being unfair with those that have invested and still invest enough time and money on equipment, learning, quality control, etc.

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14 Feb 2010

A fest for the brave

Once again, Honza Kočka is organising an event that aims to enrich our beer culture. This time, time invitation is for Festival Desítek.

Those who follow this blog are well aware that here "desítka" means a beer of around 4%ABV, or 10% in the Plato scale. In this case, though, the 10 means the ABV.
There will be samples from Belgium, Denmark, Holland and, of course, domestic (there might be some American ones, as well).

The festival takes place at U Prince Miroslava next Saturday, Feb. 20th, from 1 to 8PM. Tickets are 100CZK.

An interesting beery thing to do in this bitterly cold weather.

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12 Feb 2010

Some Swedes

Some of the reactions this blog generate are pretty interesting. One day I got an e-mail from a Swede called Leif saying that those beers that Gnoff had brought me where nor the best, neither the most interesting that Sweden has to offer, and that he would correct that in his upcoming visit.

So we agreed to meet one afternoon. I went to pick him up at his hotel and we went for some beers to Ferdinanda in Malá Strana (nice place, by the way, and Ferdinand Tmvavý Ležák is in really good shape). Leif turned out to be a chap of around 60, very nice and with a lot of beer knowledge. I had a great time with him.
He brought a grand total of 11 samples. The first one I opened was Slotts Lager from Slottskälans Bryggery. Unfortunately, I can't find its tasting notes, so the review won't be all that accurate. For what I can remember, it was an OK pale lager, nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly worth mentioning, either. Just the kind of beer that you can drink without paying too much attention to, and with is 5%ABV it's not hard to drink several (price notwithstanding). The good news is that when I went to the cellar to retrieve the empty bottle before starting to write this, I found another bottle from Slottskälans, a Red Ale, unopened. Nice surprise, you'll read about it.
Later I opened Oppigårds Starkporter. I'd already tasted something from this brewery, their Golden Ale, which I found pretty good. I found this strong porter better (if you allow me to compare two completely different beers). Really dark, with a nice tan head. The nose is sweet coffee, cocoa and raisins. Fuller bodied than other porters I've had. The falvours are not very intense, but they still have enough complexity to make this beer a nice sipper, bitter chocolate, raisins and coffee that come and go and never get you tired. Lovely beer for a winter afternoon.

The other two were both from the same brewery Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri. Gnoff had brought me their Organic Ale, which I thought was great. I was really looking forward to their Bitter and Lager.
Bedarö Bitter (4.5%) pours a rather expected amber, with a bouquet the reminds of flowers and spice. There is a strong presence of clove in the taste, I'm not so sure it belongs there, but I didn't mind it too much, I liked what it did with this ale, gave it a nice twist. Behind the spice flowers and some fruit can be felt. Nice beer.
My suspicion that the clove wasn't something deliberate was reinforced when I sat with the Landsort Lager (5.3%). Pale gold, with aromas similar to the previous one, though with herbs replacing the flowers. Thin bodied, but quite refreshing. However, that clove that worked so well on the Bitter, feels completely out of place here. In the end, it's quite disappointing.

Lief also brought two samples from Nils Oscar, Rökporter and India Ale.

It's not often that I get to have a second round with beers people bring me or send me, so I was really glad to have the opportunity to drink these two again. Rökporter was as delicious as that first time, fantastically balanced, interesting and tasty.

The first time I drank India Ale I found it rather boring. Leif took issue with that and told me I should drink it with food. So I did, with a home made pizza with a couple of kinds of cheese, ham and a little spicy tomato sauce. Nice match, really. All by itself, I still found India Ale uninteresting, but there are beers that are best enjoyed while eating something, and this is one of them.

There's more, all from the same brewer, but I'll leave if for another day.

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8 Feb 2010

A trend?

Or is it too soon to speak about that?

Last year beer sales fell everywhere, I think. The Czech Republic is no exception, where sales dropped by 5% overall (with 10% on exports). No surprise here.

However, if we take a second to look at the numbers in more detail we will notice a couple of very interesting things.

Plzeňský Prazdoj, the largest brewer in the country, reported a decrease of 4.4%. Budvar, of 2%. Staropramen haven't released the figures yet, but I don't think they'll be much better, and neither I think Heineken CZ's will be, even though I haven't seem them yet.

On the other hand, during the same period, K Brewery Trade reported that the sales of their six regional breweries grew by 7%, reaching a volume of 850k hl. Černá Hora, KBT's newest member, also had a successful 2009, with sales going up by 5%.

But the most impressive results are, no doubt, those from Svijany and Rohozec. They grew by almost 17.5% and 16% respectively. Svijany's output last year was 385k hl and their goal is to reach 400k this year.

Although I haven't been able to find any figures (not that I looked too much for them), another segment that has grown was the micro breweries', who now represent 3% of the total beer production in the Czech Rep. It might not look like big deal, but let me remind you that most micros here are brewpubs that don't bottle and hardly distribute their beers. It's true that there were some closings last year, but the same number, if not more (if anyone has actual figures, please share them) have opened, including the "micro-industrials"  Tambor and Chotěboř, who I've heard are really happy with their first results.

At first, these figures surprised me a bit. But then I realised that that they only reflect something I've been seeing for quite some time, at least here in Prague. Regional beers, or some of them, have become easier to find than ever before; they can be seen at supermarket chains and not few shops. Wandering around the city researching for my book I have come across quite a few places that offer exclusively regional beers, some of them are new, others have switched suppliers. Either way, they seem to be doing quite well, as shown by Celeste and their experience with Kout na Šumavě. There are also those who added a regional or micro to their offer, also with some success. And of course, I can't leave out the čtvrtá pípa phenomenon that keeps on growing, hospody that offer "rotating beers" must be about 50 in the whole country. The owner of Zlý Časy, who has taken this to the extreme, told me the other day that sales of draught beer have doubled in the last year.

Someone must be feeling the pain, and I'm pretty sure it's the big boys. My empiric observations (I've always wanted to say this) show that most of those who get a taste of these "alternative" beers never go back and also spread the word. This in a way follows what Stephen Beaumont was saying the other day about "Boire Moins, Boire Mieux" (drink less, drink better). Perhaps not so much from the style point of view (though the number of "special" beers - those with a Plato higher than 13% - have doubled in the last three or four years), but it's certainly true from the quality point of view.

Too soon to be speaking about a trend? No way!

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4 Feb 2010

Making the best of an invitation

Though I talk about places that I visit while wandering around the city, restaurant reviewing is nor my area of expertise, neither the main topic of this blog. That's why I was quite surprised by the mail received from Restaurace Paprika a few days before Christmas.

Paprika is a small Hungarian restaurant located in a back street of Holešovice. Its owner Holešovice wanted to invite me to taste the home made sausages his brother, the chef, makes. I love sausages, they are one of the best beer snacks in the world, and I have a greasy spot for Hungarian-like sausages. Of course I accepted the invitation. In my religion refusing without a very good reason an invitation to good food is a capital sin punished by an eternity of drinking piss-warm Corona from glasses of Kout na Šumavě.

So a couple of weeks ago I agreed with Lászlo to pay him a visit on a quiet afternoon. I didn't go empty handed, I took a few beers with me to try some pairings and share with my host.
Paprika is a pretty small restaurant, but very welcoming, a real neighbourhood place. The decoration and the furnishings are basic and unpretentious, I quite liked it. I was welcomed by László. He's a very nice and friendly bloke, from Hungary, but has been living in Prague for many years. He told me the restaurant had opened in March and that fortunately, things were beginning to go very well. Still, he said they would like to move to a nicer location, with more pedestrian traffic. He also explained their philosophy of using only fresh ingredients, as authentic as possible, what they can't get here, they bring from their home-town. The aim is to cook really home made typical Hungarian food.

To get things started he brought me three pieces of bread topped with different lard based spreads, kacsazsír, with duck lard; tepertőkrém, with pork drippings and kolbászzsír tarjadarabokkal with sausage drippings with bits of roasted pork neck. All three absolutely delicious. The perfect beer snack. I paired the first two with Svijanský Rytíř, the bitterness of this světlý ležák cut through the fattiness and brought up the flavours of the spreads. I tried the other with Primátor 13%, not bad, but I liked the match with Svijany better.
The "main course" (or so I thought at the moment) came next, the promised home made sausage. László told me that they mince the season the meat themselves and then stuff it in tripes brought from Hungary. It was wonderful! Perhaps the best sausage I've ever had in a restaurant. Incredibly meaty, with the right amount of spice that gained intensity as the sausage lost length. I wasn't a big fan of the tripe, very thin and soft, I prefer them snappier, but László told me that it is the kind used for this type of sausage. I paired it both with Primátor 13% and with Herold Tmavé. The latter worked better. Its roasted notes complemented the spice very well. The sausage also came with a plate of mixed pickles, I loved the cabbage, which also went well with the Herold.

After that I was brought another round of spreads on (now bigger) pieces of bread and we chatted a bit more about Hungarian food and culinary traditions and, specially, about Goulash and how they prepare it. I got a couple of good tips to improve my already wicked gulášek. After I was done with the spreads (man, they are lovely!) I went to the loo, when I came back I had a surprise waiting for me on the table. A generous portion of the dish we had been discussing.
The real name is vörösboros marhalábszárpörkölt. It came with something that looked like cus-cus called tarhonya. Though a bit too salty for my taste, it was still very, very good. Wonderfully rich and tasty, with very tender mean that was neither stringy nor dry. Fantastic. Here, Primátor 13% did a very good job. Its caramel notes made a nice base for the tasty flavours of this goulash.

I ended up stuffed and with a very jolly belly, also very satisfied with my pairing experiments. I promised László I would visit his restaurant with my family once the weather got a bit nicer. The offer of draught beer is nothing to write home about, Pilsner Urquell and Kozel (I'm trying to see if László wants to change suppliers), but they have the pretty good Maisel Weisse, from Germany at 37CZK a bottle. Of course, there's also a nice selection of Hungarian wines.

I strongly recommend Restaurace Paprika. Not only they serve good home-made food, but the owners are honest, hard-working people who are everything they can to offer the best possible quality to their clients, and that deserves support.

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2 Feb 2010

A pisshead anecdote

To a certain extent, Czech beer lovers aren't spoil for choice when it comes to style variety, but if it's good quality lagers what we are talking about, and session beers in particular, we really can't complain. Moreover, unlike what happens in most other countries, the "real beers" are often cheaper than those of the bigger brands. That's why it's sometimes hard to believe that there are still so many people that prefer to drink Gambrinus or Staropramen. It's easy to be tempted to think that they are all morons.

And I must confess that at some point that was exactly what I used to believe. Until around two years ago:

One Wednesday I met my friend Mark for lunch, we went to Kralovství. Right before we met we had both received the news that our appointments for the rest of the day had been canceled. Lunch then was extended both in time and Černá Hora beers. Since we were having such a good time, Mark suggested we have a shot to cap the meeting. The waitress told us they had home made slivovice...

Three shots and a couple of bees later, we left that pleasant Žižkov's restaurant slightly bouncing against each other. On the way to the street Seifertová, Mark said he had a call of nature to attend. I remembered we were very near, U Pižďucha, a hospůdka that back then sold Staropramen, Svijany and Regent. There we headed.

It was a dive. Small, full of smoke and pissheads. Those who weren't drunk, were working hard to correct that. We fitted in perfectly.

We ordered Svijany and Regent and started to talk to the people at the table. All were drinking Staropramen. Just like a dodgy televangelist I started preaching. I accused them of being idiots. Told them that what they were drinking wasn't Czech beer anymore, but Brazilian, and wielding my půl litr of Máz like a sacred relic I appealed to their national pride and wallets. When we left many had seen the light and the mugs with the logo from Smíchov weren't so many anymore.

A couple of beers later, and bumping even harder against each other, we said good-bye to our new friends. Mark got into a taxi, I took a tram. There I was spotted by one of the drunkards we had spent such a good time with. With a marked slur, he said I was right, that Staropramen was rubbish, but that he had been drinking it for 30 years now and that it was now part of his life.

For obvious reasons, that truth didn't sink in at the time. Some time later, during the presentation of Chodovar at Pivovarský Klub, the brewery's owner told how today's big brands took advantage of the situation to to expand in such a brutal way. They had a huge advantage, the were able to guarantee consistent quality. Many of the regional breweries weren't in a position to do that. During the previous four decades hardly any investment had been made on their equipment and technologies. So people got used to drinking the brands that to this day enjoy an enormous popularity without realising the gradual drop in their quality.

Today, regional and micro breweries are slowly gaining more market share, but they don't have it easy. I have stopped thinking that those who drink Gambáč or Starouš are idiots. Humans are creatures of habit and as long as beer is seen as a generic product, those will be very hard to change.

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