31 Mar 2010

Welcome changes

For 16 years now Jáma has been a favourite among Prague's English speaking expat community. However, for several reasons, this pub has never been in my regular rotation. Not that there was anything wrong with it, I ended up satisfied the few times I visited it, but I still didn't feel like going back, not my cup of tea. Regardless of that, when its owner, Max Munson, sent me an email inviting me to a press conference I didn't hesitate to answer I'd be there.

And no, It wasn't (just) because of the promise of free food and drink. Jáma had recently decided to put an end to a decade long business relationship with Plzeňský Prazdroj. Their new beer supplier was going to be from now on K-Brewery Group.

I had heard something about it, but at the time I thought Jáma would only stock Lobkowicz Premium (a beer I still don't like, and understand even less) and perhaps a couple more. Well, I was wrong. Besides changing suppliers, Max had decided to adopt the "čtvrtá pípa" model, or rotating beers. He had 12 taps installed, 9 reserved for the beers from KBG (6 fixed, the rest rotating), one with what is left of Pilsner Urquell and the other two for "guest" beers, at the moment from Kocour and Matuška, with others to show up in the future.
Of course the press conference hadn't been called just to announce the new beer list, but to introduce some of the people in charge of K Brewery, and that was what made me go.

Because of work (the one that pays the bills, that is) I couldn't get there on time. When I arrived the conference was well on its way, so I took the seat that had been reserved for me and got to eat and drink while listening and taking some notes. I heard a couple of interesting things. KBG is preparing a "dark companion" for Lobkowicz Premium, which they will start selling once they figure out which of their seven breweries will make it (Černá Hora seems most likely). They've also hired a couple of specialist to negotiate with the bags of shit that the supermarket chains are to secure a wider distribution for their portfolio.
Of course I wasn't just there to eat and drink for free, I'm a journalist! I had questions that needed to be answered! I asked first about maltings. They said that a couple of their breweries have maltings, but that they aren't enough to supply all of them and so they are planning to either buy some malting facilities or set up their own in the Haná valley. My second question was actually meant more to give the impression that I know about beer. KBG's slogan is "Navrát k Tradíci" (Back to Tradicion) and I asked if they were thinking of going back to the pre-1842 traditions of top fermented beers. Great was my surprise when Jiří Faměra, the Technical Director, said they were actually considering it, and that now that they've taken over Černá Hora, which has the facilities to make this kind of beers, it's something they will start thinking more seriously about.
When the conference was over I had the chance to have a chat with Mr. Faměra (who graduated from SPŠPT) and his girlfriend, a beer microbiologist, both really friendly and a lot of fun to be with. We talked, of course, about beer. I asked him if they were planning to promote Velen, the wheat beer Černá Hora had put on the market last year, before they were fully taken over by KBG. He said they were, which made me really glad, I had it the other day on tap and found it very, very good.
When we were already quite relaxed and chatting away like old mates, I decided it was time to get serious and ask the question I'd been long wanting to ask. Many in the local beer community believe that KBG is no more than a proxy of Heineken, or another multinational, something I never believed myself. I asked Faměra what he thought made people believe that. He said that at the beginning they made the mistake of being secretive, which at a time when Heineken was on a shopping spree, generated all these rumors. They are trying to change that now. The truth is that several of the company's honchos are former people of Prazdroj, Faměra included, who after leaving the giant got together with other moneyed people to set up KBG.

After the conference, the chat and having shaken hands and seen the faces of some of the people in charge of KBG, I must say I was left with a good impression. I don't think they are saints, but I do believe they are committed to good beer and I have no doubt they aren't under the orders of any multinational. Which, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that if tomorrow one of those multinationals came with a good enough offer they would refuse to sell.

Since I didn't have the chance to speak to Jáma's owner and know his view on these things I arranged an interview with him a few days later. I still had several questions to make.

The fist was about the results of the change so far. Very positive, Max is very satisfied with the support from KBG, he likes the beers a lot and they are selling really well. He told me he had compared figures from the last two weeks before the change with those from the first two weeks after it, and noticed that they are selling considerably more beer than before. He also noticed that most people will not just stay with one beer for the whole evening, but will go through several from the list.

Another thing that concerned me was the rotation and condition of the beers. Nothing to worry about here, fortunately. Kegs are kept and tapped from a room with a constant temperature of 11ºC. And regarding the rotation, they started with 15l kegs for all the beers, but for a couple of them they are now ordering 50l ones. I must add that all the beers I had were in very good shape, as far as I can tell, though a bit too cold for my taste.

My next question was about the staff. How well informed are they about the beers they are selling? Before, with Urquell and Gambáč nobody was going to ask anything. Now, on the other hand, with all these "exotic" names, thinks could be different. Two of the waiters already knew quite a bit about beer and the rest know the basic stuff, which should be enough to answer most of the questions the average patrons are likely to ask, and they are eager to learn more. Before start selling their beers, KBG took the whole staff of Jáma on a visit to Pivovar Platan, where Lobkowicz Premium is brewed. For many, it was the first time they had been to a brewery and the experience generated a lot of enthusiasm for the new beers.
During the press conference Max mentioned that he was planning to put more emphasis on beer and food pairings (he's got quite a rich experience with wines) and add a pairing suggestion to every meal on the menu. When I asked him about it, he said that it was still in a very early planning stage and that he actually saw it as something difficult to realise, given the rotating beers thing. However, they had decided to start offering a "Chef Specials" menu with just a few items that will change periodically and it is here where they will start suggesting beer pairings based on the list of each day.

We closed the conversation talking about the branch Jáma is soon to open near the National Theatre, which will of course also offer regional beers from six taps, one of them rotative.

But this has become too long, there were a couple more questions, but I'll deal with them in a future post. For the moment, all I can say is that what I saw was very positive. Change not only is possible, but can also be lucrative.

Oh! And for those of you who are wondering whether Jáma will now become part of my regular rotation. I still don't know, really. I will see once the summer patio opens in a few days. There aren't many options in the centre where one cne can have a nice beer al fresco.

Jáma-The Hollow
V jámě 1671/7
110 00 Praga 1
+420 224 222 383

5 comments:

  1. Mr. Faměra was a head of Beer tasting courses held on VÚPS some years ago as well. http://www.pivovarska-skola.cz/senzorika.htm.

    What I find rather strange in Jáma is their 10% surcharge to bill for a groups of 5 or more. Could anybody explain it to me?

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  2. Hmmm... never heard about that, and if it's true, as far as I know it's something illegal and clients should refuse to pay for it...

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  3. Hello Hrabos and Beer Philospher,

    I am Max from Jama. I have just read your comments and wanted to explain the 10 percent service charge. Currently Jama requests an extra 10 percent service fee for groups of 5 or more. That service fee is then divided between the bar and wait staff. If any customer is unhappy with the service (or the percentage) they are not in any way required to pay it.

    I would like to keep this system if possible. For the staff that run around doing their best to serve a big group, for example, it is very demotivating for them to receive a 5kc tip. As we all know, floor and bar staff work for tips, and this is a way to help them out. There are dozens of places in Prague that have similar systems in place.

    That said, because of the feeling that the occaisional guest has when he sees the 10 percent charge (and when he does not comprehend that the money for the staff, not the restaurant) I am seriously considering eliminating the charge. The idea is for everyone to have a great experience: the guest and the service staff alike. If the charge is prohibiting this, then I will have to eliminate the charge.
    Thank you both for your comment!
    Take care, Max

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  4. Thanks a lot for explaining that!

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