29 Jan 2010

Surprise from Barcelona

Fortunately, Glops Fumada wasn't the only thing that my friend Ramón brought me on his last visit.

When he wrote asking if there was any beer in particular I was interested in, I could have asked him for another sample from Guineu, their Montserrat was lovely and I have good reason to believe it isn't an exception among their product line. I could have also asked him to bring over a bottle from Ales Agullons, so I could see what their beer is like when it's in good shape. However, and against my better judgement, I decided for something from the brewery everyone in Barcelona seemed to be talking about at the time, Zulogaarden. Ramón obliged and during a long, animated and liquid lunch he gave me two samples from this new micro, Norai and Sang de Gossa.

When I saw Norai's presentation I started to have serious doubts about my choice. The label seems hand drawn, cut with scissors by someone who was either laughing really hard or riding a horse and then stuck on an engraved bottle of Alahambra Reserva 1925. To be fair, Ramón mentioned something about that bottle not being for sale when he still insisted on buying it. Anyway, it was the one I decided to open first.
What a surprise! Zulogaarden Norai defines itself as a Porter of Icouldn'tfindhowmuch %ABV (not much, for sure). It pours an expected very dark brown topped by a spongy and firm, lightly tanned head. The nose is lovely, strong sweet coffee and bitter chocolate in stereo surround, very tempting. Light bodied, with a mild sour fruit touch that gives depth to the strong presence of chocolate. A beer with excellent balance and incredible personality. I loved it and I would put it on the same level as Guineu Monthserrat.

With my doubts already gone, a few days later, I opened the bottle of Sang de Gossa, which was in fact the beer everyone was talking about when I wrote with Ramón. Of course, it was also the one I was most curious about.
Sang de Gossa calls itself a "Brutal IPA" and "Beer for the Brave". I chose to ignore that bollocks. Having tasted quite a few really brutal beers for the pretty brave (my own cretions included and not precisely because of their high quality) I thought it very unlikely that this beer would live up to its chest beating. Fortunately, what I poured in the glass was good, really good. It pours something right on the border of pale (as in pale lager) and amber, the nose is rich with tropical fruit and sweet oranges. Full and firm bodied with the hops threatening to explode and obliterate everything on their path, though it turns out their are on a leash firmly held by a base of malts and summer fruit. When adding to the mix the fortunately little sediment in the bottle, the beer gets an almost Belgian character that I really fancied. I really, really liked this beer a lot. It's pretty far from being "Brutal", but pretty close from being perfect.

The brewery has recently announced a new batch of Sang de Gossa with a tuned up recipe. I hope the changes aren't too radical and that the brewer has not fallen into the temptation of making a hop bomb, it would be a shame. Anyway, congratulations Zulogaarden for these two fantastic beers. Wish you nothing but success with them.

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25 Jan 2010

Darker greys

Some time ago I commented that what Heineken was doing in the Czech Republic was neither black, nor white, but rather of several shades of grey. Well, it seems those shades are getting a bit darker.

Pivovar Kutná Hora wasn't the only brewery that Heineken closed last year. They also sealed the fate of Pivovar Znojmo, which stopped brewing last summer.

After closing down the shop, the Dutch group offered to sell the brewery to the city of Znojmo for CZK 26 million (about a million EU). The city's government is, of course, very interested in buying it, not so much for the brewery itself, but because within its property is located the Rotunda sv. Kateřiny, a small Romanesque church dating from the 11th century, as well as the access to the Znojmo Castle, both sites of great historical and touristic importance.

So far so good. However, there is a condition that Heineken has put to sell the brewery which illustrates very well the attitude that companies like this have towards the concept of "Free Market". If the city of Znojmo decides to buy the brewery, for ten years they, or any other third party, won't be allowed to brew beer in the facilities, and if they decide to open, or allow the functioning of any sort of gastronomic venue, only beers from Heineken CZ will be sold for the same period.

Once the city sorts out the access to the historical sites, these conditions will result in them being stuck with a basically useless building, and will probably have no other option but to sell it, likely to a real state developer or something like that.

What a sick mentality! I understand that the accountants that run the company decided to close down a brewery that had actually been on life support for some time, but that they won't let anyone else make use of the facilities? That a future owner will have to accept such conditions that will leave them with very little choice but give the brewery a final death blow? And that they won't even allow other beers but theirs to be sold there? Are they so afraid of the competition?

This things really make me sick.

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23 Jan 2010

I just love winter

The colder the better. OK, it's true that the amount of snow that fell the last two weekends was way more than necessary, and that clearing it from the driveway, walkway and part of the terrace, several times, was a pain in the ass. The reward, however, was priceless.
I love winter, a few minutes outside and a světlý ležák gets to the right temperature.

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22 Jan 2010

Something tasty for the weekend

This is the result of another culinary experiment that turned out to be great, tasty, rich and very caloric, what isn't there to love?: Baltic Porter Ragout

Ingredients: (Bailey, you are going to love this)

500g of shoulder of pork (though mutton, lamb or even boar could be good)
1/2l Baltic Porter (If you don't have anything in that style, plain Porter or Dopplebock should do fine)
100g of smoked streaky bacon, chopped.
1 mid sized onion, coarsely chopped.
3 garlic cloves, chopped.
200g (approx.) of tomato puree (I used what was left from the sauce I had made for a pizza the day before)
Soy sauce, paprika, salt, pepper and cumin. Oil or lard.

Cut the meat in the smallest pieces you can be arsed to and put them in a large bowl. Add some soy sauce, salt and the spices, mix and then add half the beer (the other half pour in a glass and drink while you cook, it's a very important step). Put that aside while you chop and fry the other stuff in a large pan. When the onions start to turn brown, add the meat and the marinade, bring to a boil and add the tomato puree. Bring the heat down almost to a minimum, cover the pan and let thing stew for at least an hour.

We served it very simple, with polenta, but rice, potatoes, beans or pasta should do fine, too. A few days later I had the leftovers, I just added a bit of water and ate it with rye bread. It was still lovely.

We paired with with Schlenkerla Urbock. The original plan was to drink Pardubický Porter, but I spotted the Rauch there in the cellar. It was a really nice match.

Hope you'll like it as much as we did.

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21 Jan 2010

Don't bother

In his previous visit, my friend Ramón had brought me three samples from the Spanish micro Llúpols i Llevats, a.k.a. Glops. One of them, d'Hivern, an ale flavoured with honey and herbs, I quite liked. The other two, both lagers, well, let's just say they weren't good.

That time Ramón didn't want to bring me Glops Fumada (smoked) because he had very wrongly assumed that I didn't like that kind of beers. In his most recent visit he made sure to get that sorted out.

Since the very first sip I took from a Schlenkerla Märzen I fell in love with smoked beers. Even when the smoked malts don't represent a big part of the grist, they are able to give the beer an extra twist. I was very curious about Fumada.

My expectations, though, weren't very high, they were actually lying on the sofa, channel surfing and getting very bored. Just like those Torrada and Negra, Glops fumada is a lager that has also gone through a secondary fermentation of only 21 days.

Now, I'm pretty sure that three weeks is considerable more than what your average Spanish "rubia" spends lagering. But come on! Glops call themselves a "Craft Brewery" and so should aim higher. Even Pilsner Urquell, a mass produced beer if there's ever been any, is cold conditioned for 35 days. If you are going to brew a lager, at least do it well, otherwise don't bother!

Look at me, just look at me! All this rant without even having opened the bottle (and I swear that was exactly what went through my head before opening the bottle). The beer could still be great and laugh at my face,  showing me the finger while I moan in pleasure.

No such luck.
Glops Fumada is an awful beer. There are so many wrong things with it. Too much yeast to the eye, nose and palate. Some micro brewers should really start thinking about filtering ("but the real craft beer is unfiltered!". I wish I was making that bollocks up, believe me), or at least reconsider their bottling methods. The nose has a mild and pretty unpleasant mineral note, very subtle, but still there. It goes in way too fizzy, it's monotonous, yeasty and with a sour finish the gets nastier as the glass goes down. The smokiness? Only a hint, really (to some extent that was welcome, I don't think the combination with the abundant saccharomyces would have ended up too happily)

To be fair, smoked beers are very much an acquired taste and so a pretty tricky thing for a micro in Spain. It must be really hard to get it right from the business point of view. Go all Schlenkerla on it, and risk scaring the hell out most people, ending up in someone saying that the beer tastes like salami. Be too conservative and risk disappointing those who do like smoked beers, who actually are the most likely to buy them in he first place, but a brewery will stil want to bring as many people in as possible. But all this is irrelevant if we are speaking about this beer.

So, if you ever come across some bottles of Glops at a shop or a pub, better stick with the ales.

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18 Jan 2010

Enriching conversations

OK. I'm sure that for many of you this won't be anything new, but still I want to say it. Having a chat with someone who makes a living out of making beer, specially with true Brew Masters, is a fantastic experience, one I think I would still enjoy even without being the beer obsessed that I am.

During this decade that I've been teaching languages to adults  I've got to know pretty well many people from all walks of life. Few are those who enjoy what they do and feel so passionate about it as brewers.

Last week I visited some of the local brewpubs to research for my new piece for Bar&Beer and I "interviewed" the lads in charge of making the beers. As always, I came out learning a couple of new things.

At Chýně, Brew Master Tomáš Mikulica told me that he always lets top and bottom fermenting yeasts do their job in open fermenters in the same room without fear they will fight each other. Only once he's had a problem, and it was after letting ferment several batches of wheat beer, and still nothing serious happened. I'd always thought such thing could not be done. Go figure.

That same afternoon I went to U Medvídku. I go there once a month or so to talk to Ladislav Veselý, the house's Brew Master, who is a really nice guy. While were discussing the new 16% Plato Honey beer that, if my suggestion is taken into account, will be presented in March, a fairly attractive lady approached us. She turned out to be another beer writer, who like me was visiting Prague's brewpubs to research for an article in a Dutch beer magazine. She asked Veselý some technical questions and me some Prague questions and we talked about beer a bit more. Once again, our favourite drink doing a good job at bringing people together. Gotta love that!

Anyway, these anecdotes serve to illustrate something I've always experienced among the Czech brewers I have met. They are very enthusiastic people, who enjoy answering questions and listening to opinions of people who have some understanding about what they do, and who really appreciate when someone tells them they like the fruit of their labours. And this is no PR bollocks, it's just genuine love for their jobs.

I always say that the only important thing is what you have in the glass, but there are some things that can make you enjoy a good beer even more.

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11 Jan 2010

A question of semantics?

In today's blog post Alan once again rants against the use of the word "pairing" when speaking about beer and food combinations.

I understand and, to a certain extent, I agree with his point of view. Those who know about beer, or who are experienced and curious drinkers don't really need to be instructed on which beer should be drank with this or that food. We are very well able to do that by ourselves by means of trial and error. And many times we don't even bother with that, really. At home we drink světlý ležák with most dinners, regardless of what they are made of, because that is what I always have at hand. Still there are times when I cook something thinking about a specific beer, or pick a beer that will best match what I have prepared.

Anyway, the reality is that we are a small minority. Most people do not associate "beer" with a drink, but rather with a brand or a funny ad. So, I see it as a positive thing that the mainstream media is more and more talking about combinations of food and beer. That they use the word "pairing" for that is something irrelevant really, because thanks to it there will be more people that will start considering beer as a good (if not better) alternative to wines and therefore, as a drink.

At the same time, it's true that many times the pairings are put in a context of exclusivity and luxury, mentioning dishes that few of us has ever eaten and probably will ever eat, which is something that bothers many.

Personally, I would like to see more beer and food "pairings" with traditional meals, or with simple stuff, of the kind that people usually prepare at home. I think it's great that there are people trying to get beer into places where it's been long ignored, but emphasis should also be put on good beer as an every day thing for everyone to enjoy.

To wrap this up, and to add fuel to Alan's Canadian fire, I will leave you with this article (actually, the Google translation of it) published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. There, the author, Hugo Sabogal (apparently, a renown wine, etc. writer), all wide-eyed, gives us the news that an Australian brewpub has created some beers with specific food pairings in mind.

What a great idea! Beers that can match foods! How come nobody has thought of that before!

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8 Jan 2010

Heavyweights

My old man had his 65th birthday a few days before he and my mum came to visit us for Christmas. When I sent him the greetings I promised we would have toast with something appropriate. The beer I had in mind was Mikeller Black, a 17.5%ABV that its creator had sent me a couple of months before. And so it was that I uncorked it after a pre-Christmas dinner . We had it in brandy glasses, perhaps not the best container, but the beer did look great in them.
Mikeller Black (such is the meaning of the ideogram on the label) pours really black, the kind that sucks the light. I can't speak much of its aromas, the shape of the glass concentrated too much of the alcohol in its narrow mouth, but I could notice what I think were wood, smoke and Port. To the palate, though, it's a magnificent beer. Full bodied wine mouthfeel. The flavours surprise by how relatively moderate they are and the best way I can find to describe them is Tawny Port mixed with espresso where someone melted some bitter chocolate, all with a pinch of spice for good measure. The finish is unexpectedly short, but very intense and makes the beer very easy to drink. This doesn't mean that you will feel like taking big gulps of it. No, Mikkeller Black makes it very clear that it is a seriously strong beer and that it is greatly enjoyed in small sips, just like the conversation it generates.

During that conversation, my mum, a very civilised teatotaler asked me what I would pair this beer with. After answering with a couple of obvious things I ran to the kitchen to pick one of the little bags with candied ginger we had bought. A few days before I had some of it while drinking BrewDog Bashah with fantastic results. As they were with Black. The sweetness of the candy complemented really well with the beer's, bringing up the spicy bits in both. A match made by the gods themselves.

After that Danish beauty I was really looking forward to tasting another strong beer I had gathering dust in my cellar, Nøgne-Ø Dark Horizon (2nd edition), another Imperial Stout, in this case with 16%ABV and brewed with ingredients from different corners of the planet. My great friend Gunnar had sent it as a present for my daughter's birth and since I receiving it I had been waiting for the right moment to pop it open.
That moment came in the evening of Christmas day, a few hours after that heavenly lunch. On this occasion my old man declined the offer. Fortunately, I was joined by Dani, my sister's boyfriend (well, paperless husband, actually), who isn't the kind of man who would refuse the offer of good booze.

The tasting notes of Dark Horizon are basically mental, jotted down a couple of hours after having finished the beer. Just when I opened we received the visit of a great friend of us and her daughter and my attention was naturally diverted elsewhere. What I can tell is that Dark Horizon wasn't as engrossing as Black, perhaps because we had enjoyed the latter during a relaxed after dinner conversation with other three people, while this one I drank during a very lively evening together with 7 or 8 others.

The almost obsessive taster part of me has become would have sure loved to drink this beer in a quieter environment in order to be able to say with certainty if the mouth feel was really not as succulent as I had expected, and if the impression of drinking Cream Sherry with a healthy dose of coffee is accurate. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, and it was a perfect pairing for the wonderful Christmas biscuits my wife had baked (ten kinds of them, one better than the other).

And now that I think of it, the fact that a beer as strong as Dark Horizon had refused to claim more of my attention than strictly necessary says a lot about how good and drinkable it was.

I still have plenty of notes from other beers I drank before parting ways with 2009, I'll be publishing them if I have time and don't find anything better to write about.

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4 Jan 2010

Historic detail

While reading a book full of pretty interesting bits of Argentine History (pity it isn't them what schools teach, we would have learned our history a lot better if so) I came across some rather curious beer trivia.

The economy in the Rio de la Plata region got started with a lot of hard work and smuggling (yeah, that's right, even from the very beginnings in Argentina, abiding to the law is the exception) and one of the most "popular" products at that time, after slaves, was beer. The book's author also quotes the writings of an Englishman, who lived in that neck of the woods during the first quarter of the 19th century, saying that public officers were bribed with bottles of beer.

The book, unfortunately, doesn't give any details about the beers. I wonder where they were from (England, I would bet), and what sort of beers they were, Porter, Pale Ale? The mentioning of bottles really caught my attention because I find it hard to believe that the beers where crossing the Atlantic in glass containers, when barrels are a lot more practical and less fragile. If I'm right, that implies that back then there were already some bottling facilities. Did they brew as well?

The official history says that the first brewery that opened in Argentina was Bieckert (nowadays reduced to a label), which was established in 1880 by an Alsatian immigrant of the same name. But was it really the first? I don't think so.

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1 Jan 2010

PF 2010

We had a veeeery quiet New Year's party yesterday. At home, sitting watching the telly (there was some really good live music on ČT2) drinking some beers, eating very little (I had prepared a really wicked guláš for dinner, but we went to visit a very good friend of us who stuffed us with some really wicked roasted goose, so we weren't hungry. Doesn't matter, the guláš will be today's lunch).

We had put Nela to sleep at around seven, but she woke up in a very good mood some time after 11. She wanted to celebrate with us and see the fireworks. She loved them, you should have seen her face.

We welcome the new year with a bottle of Mikkeller Draft Bear, an (Ron is going to love this) "Imperial Pilsner" with 8% ABV. It tasted a bit like Jihlavský Grand with American hops (Amarillo and Cascade).

In a way, this first beer of the decade pretty much sums up what I hope 2010 will be: nice, interesting, with a few bits to make it more fun, satisfying, but not very surprising at the same time.

Šťastný nový rok pro všechny!

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