30 May 2010

WTF?

The Prague Food Festival is arguably the most important gastronomic event in this neck of the woods. It's organised by the prestigious and influential Mauer's Grand Restaurant Guide and every year gathers the best chefs and the most renown food and drink experts of the country. The aim is to bring high end gastronomy to a larger audience in an open air space (this year it was held in the South Gardens of Prague Castle) away from the, for many, intimidating environment of the luxury restaurants.

On the advertising posters for this year's edition I saw that beer was going to have a more prominent role, beer tastings and food pairings were promised. However, with so many things going on in my life right now (and also because I didn't think I would attend), I completely forgot about it until I saw report on the local TV. Believe me, I wish I had remained ignorant.

Guess which is the official beer of the festival (and one of its main sponsors). STELLA ARTOIS!!!, touted as a "Premium Belgian Lager".

Are they idiots or liars? I don't know which is worse, really. The Stella Artois you can buy here is as Belgian as Branik (and every bit as good). It's brewed under license in Smíchov for fuck's sakes!

Yet, according to them "Top gastronomy and premium quality beer is the name of the game here". They can't be serious. Give me a break!

Perhaps they haven't realised that they are in the Czech Republic, a country with one of the richest brewing traditions in the world, and with a beer scene that has now become very dynamic. I'm sure they could have chosen something from the many superb beers brewed by Czech regional and micro breweries. And if the local diversity in terms of styles is not enough, there are some companies that are importing a very interesting range of quality beers from several countries. It's incredible that they have chosen a brand like Stella Artois as one of the faces of an event that aims to promote quality gastronomy.

It also seems that they are not very aware of what is happening elsewhere. According to what Stephen Beaumont told me on an e-mail, there are more and more high end restaurants in the world that have started to offer proper beer lists to their clients. But well, the organisers of PFF and the great local chefs are more interested in scallops, sushi, seared tuna and the proper kind of rice for a risotto than in showing the world how one of the products that have made this country famous and that brings thousands of visitors every year can pair with what they believe is good food.

All this is no more than an extension of something I've already discussed, how little those who dictate what is good and bad in the local restaurant sector care about beer.

But, who knows. Maybe next year the new partners McDonald's and Lidl's Finest Tetra-Pack Wine Selection will offer their delights to the most demanding palates.

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28 May 2010

Isn't this nice?

My latest article for the Spanish magazine Bar&Beer is about the čtvrtá pípa phenomenon, you know, the rotating taps thing. Part of the material I used while writing it was my personal observations and what I've been told by the people of Alliance P.I.V. or the owner of Jáma and I realised something, which I used to close the article:

What this trend has achieved is what most multinationals have long feared, that more consumers are learning how to choose and compare and are also beginning to realise that there is a fantastic world beyond the expensive and hollow advertising campaigns.

And that is a great thing.

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24 May 2010

Money well earned

Yesterday was a fantastic day, and not only because we finally had a decent spring weather here in Prague (though, to be honest, I have no quarrel with the crap weather, when it rains I don't have to work on the garden), but because I hosted my first formal beer talk for an audience that was willing to listen and pay me for the privilege (hard to believe, but true).

I was hired by a travel agency and the crowd was a group of almost forty Danes. The talk was at the recently opened Jihoměstský Pivovar, the new enterprise of Franta Richter, the onwer of Pivovar U Bulovky.

Considering that this was the first time I was doing something like this, I wasn't too nervous. My only fear was that the half the group was composed by members of the Danish version of CAMRA (can't remember the name, sorry), while the other half were just average consumers. The challenge was to find a good balance and make the talk interesting for the hardcore enthusiasts, while not being too cryptic for the rest.

My decade of experience in language teaching came very handy. I used many of the same tricks that I employ in some of my lessons to make things fun, interesting and participative. I started talking about Czech beer in general, how it's brewed, the ingredients, and then I went on to talk a bit about the history of beer in these lands. There were several questions and it was nice to be able to clearly explain to the laypeople things like the Plato degree, decoction mashing and attenuation. All while being witty, spontaneous and giving an overall impression that I knew what I was talking about (I did know what I was talking about, before anyone says anything). They all ended up very satisfied, even the geeks, and I ended up with the feeling of having earned my money deservedly.
Perhaps, part of the success was thanks to the fact that I gave the talk after a three course lunch, and everything turns out better after people have some proper food and a few good beers under their belts (and that includes me).

And the lunch was very good! Beef broth with noodles and veggies that tasted really home made; then a guláš that was pure awesomeness on a plate (my only gripe were the knedlíky, they were also great, but two was by no means enough to suck that lovely sauce). The desert were livanecký (small fried pancakes) with a batter fried slice of apple, lovely, too. The beers were lovely, too. 

This event also gave me an excuse to finally pay a visit to this brewpub (perhaps the biggest in Prague) that opened almost two months ago after a delay of one year. The place is huge. The beer hall downstairs has room for at least 100 people and another hundred can comfortably seat on the gallery upstairs. There is also a small private room with a further 50 seats, if not more, which was the place we used for the talk after lunch.
At the moment, this is not a brewpub proper. The beers that are sold are brewed by Richter, but elsewhere, Vrchlabi, I think. The house brews won't be ready for another two months. I was able to have a short chat with Mr. Richter and he told me that they will start brewing now, after finishing with all the technical adjustments of the gear. He also told me a few interesting bits. Once the brewery starts working at full steam, Jihoměstský Pivovar will have 11 beers on tap and maybe another one dispensed by gravity the Kölsch way.
The brewery has two sets of kettles. One with a, I reckon, 10hl capacity and a much smaller one (¿1hl? I should learn to ask these questions) for test batches of unconventional beers. The idea is to see how they work out, and then how people like them, and if they do they will be brewed in the bigger kettles. But the best of all is that three taps will be reserved for three different wheat beers, including Dunkles Weizen and Weizenbock, perhaps my two favourite styles at the moment and something that nobody in the Czech Republic is brewing on a permanent basis.
In short, a great day, very satisfying in more than one way.

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Jihoměstský Pivovar
Podjavorinské 1602/11
Praga 11
+420 222 352 242
info@jihomestskypivovar.cz

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21 May 2010

The best decision

Yesterday was 8 years since I moved to the Czech Republic, by far the best decision I've made in my life. I fancied "celebrating" the anniversary with a special beer. I went to my stash and, while I was looking at what the cellar had to offer, one bottle called me louder than the rest. It's Alive! from Mikkeller. I thought the name couldn't have been more appropriate, it reminded me of the debauchery of my first few months in Prague, which I sometimes find hard to believe I survived with my health pretty much intact.
And it wasn't just the name what was appropriate, but also the beer itself. Like those beginnings in Prague, I didn't know what to expect from it, I was a bit wary of not being able to cope with it, but in the end it all turned out to be pretty interesting, a enjoyable experience that was surprisingly easy to imbibe (8% ABV, nose of flowers and spice in good balance; flavours, dry, herbs, grass, flowers, mild fruity caramel in the back), but also not without it's unpleasant bits (a mild metallic note in the finish). Just like eight years ago.

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20 May 2010

Unexpected news

Smoked beers are an acquired taste. I think I could divide most people I know into two groups, those that love them and those that hate them, with few in between.

But it seems that they are slowly becoming more popular among Czech consumers. The bottles of some rauch imported from Bamberg are a common feature in a few spots in Prague, and sometimes they even show up on tap. Also, in the last couple of years, several local micros have had a go at different kinds of smoked beers, usually with good results.

It's no surprise then that one of the regionals noticed this trend and wanted to tap it. And so it is that we can announce the first industrially brewed smoked beer of the Czech Republic, and no, it doesn't come from the brewery I'm sure many of you are thinking. It comes from Český Krumlov, and it's brewed by Pivovar Eggenberg (I think I heard sometime ago that they were about to close).

I've never been a fan of the beers from Eggenberg. Only their tmavý ležák I could say that I liked. But still, when I read the news in Svět Piva I contacted the brewery to ask them if their new product was available in Prague, and if not, if there was a chance I could get a sample (not expecting an answer to that last question).

I was greatly surprised when a few days later I got an email from the local representative of the brewery saying that he had some samples for me. What I got was five 0.33l bottles of Švihák and some other samples from the rest of their portfolio. See what you can get if you ask for things nicely?

Since I had so many bottles of the same beer, I decided I would taste it at different temperatures: after a whole day in the fridge, as many people like to drink their beer at home; after an hour or so in the fridge, as I like to drink dark lagers and at "room temperature", just for the sake of it. I got the best results with the second experiment and that is where my notes come from.
Nakouření Švihák (the translation would be Smoked Dude, in the dandy sense not the duuuuuuddde! one) pours a very dark amber, clean and topped by a nice, long lasting spongy head. An elegant beer, just like a dandy. Unlike the promises on the back label, there's not much that reaches the nose, just some sweet coffee and a hint of smoked bacon, and that, probably only because I knew what I was looking for. Fortunately, it does pack more taste. Strong coffee, mildly sweetened, black sugar. Mild smoked notes show up in the middle and don't linger for too long. The black sugar turns into licorice in the finish leaving a nice aftertaste that is a mix of bitter, dry and roast. Not bad, better than I expected, considering who made it.

However, as a fan of smoked beers, I would have liked it to have more bacon. But I must be realistic, I can't expect something like Schlenkerla Märzen from a Czech industrial brewer. Pivovar Eggenberg's goal isn't to please a growing, yet still too small, niche, but to offer the average consumer something new without being too radical.

Anyway, personal prefernces aside, I think all good beer lovers in the Czech Rep. should celebrate Nakouření Švihák and wish the beer success. Not only for the sake of the brewery, but because if it does become successful there will sure be others that will brew something similar, just like it's happened with wheat beers. Unlike those, however, smoked beers would not need any investments in technologies or adapting processes since they are still lagers, but with a slightly different recipe.

So, who's next in the smoke house? Bernard? Standa, if you are reading this, talk to your head brewer and start working on a rauch version of your černý speciál, right now, I can't imagine a beer that would make me happier.

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14 May 2010

Taking care of the product

Much has been talked, here and in other blogs about "Bad Beers". Not bad in the "I don't like it" sense, but bad as in "badly brewed". There are micros that knowingly put flawed beers on the market, which, besides being very disrespectful towards the consumer, shows a lack of foresight that borders idiocy. In order to earn a bit of money in the short term, they risk getting ruined in the long term. Few are those who will drink again a new beer they found disgusting, while a lot are those who will tell to anyone who will listen to avoid drinking that crap, no matter if it is "craft", "industrial", "regional" or "imported".

However, and to be fair, many times happens that beers that left their breweries in perfect conditions still get to our glasses in bad shape due to several factors, bad conditions in transport or storage, not enough rotation or bad maintenance of the dispensing lines, etc. In those cases the brewer can say "it's not my fault, once the bottle/barrel leaves the brewery I loose all control over it" and nobody can argue that.

Well, yes, we can.

If we think a bit, that "loosing control of the product" thing, though true is also quite relative. How many micros bother to visit the places that sell their beers to see in which conditions they reach the final consumer? How many micros talk to potential buyers and explain them the care their beers require? How many micros will refuse to sell their beers to those who don't want,or can't, provide such care?

Before anyone says anything, I know very well that setting up a brewery and making it work is no joke and that every heller will be welcome, regardless of where it comes from. But things should also be seen in the above mentioned long term.

The truth is that most people don't know anything about beer, and they care even less, and that, unfortunately, also applies to many who sell the drink. To this we should add that consumers can act in a strange fashion. If someone gets a dodgy bottle or glass of a beer they already know, they'll blame luck, but if they get a dodgy bottle or glass of a beer they don't know, specially if it's a "craft beer" with all it's fuss and usually higher price, they'll blame the producer. Few will be the barkeeps or shop attendants who will know how, or want, to explain things. They are more likely to say "but when I had it at the brewery it was great" or "but when I tapped the keg or cask a week ago it was lovely" and other similar stuff.

Not being aware of situations like this and not taking reasonable steps to prevent them from happening is not knowing how to take good care of a product and brand.

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12 May 2010

Alternative 2010

No, this is not a political party.

The Czech Beer Festival is about to begin and, on the same day, Zlý Časy will also kick start their own alternative, or in the words of Hanz himself, parasite, mini-festival.

Actually, more than a festival this is kind of beer parade. Just like last year, only the products of micro-breweries from all over the Czech Rep. will be on offer. They expect to reach 50 breweries represented by at least one of their beers, among the ones already confirmed will be the new brewpubs from Kladno, Most, Pácov, as well as the already well known Kocour, Matuška and Kácov. All will be on 27 taps (there will be three installed in the patio) and will be available in 0.5 and 0.3l measures.

So if you are in Prague between the 14th and 31st of May and have already been to the big festival (or not), drop by Nusle to enjoy of a much quieter event.

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Zlý Časy Festival
14-31/5
Čestmírova 5
+420 723 339 995
Praha 4

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10 May 2010

Was it worth the trip?

It's amazing how many brewpubs have opened in the last few months and how many are going to open before the year is over. It's getting quite hard to keep up with the news. (BTW, the other day I was told where one of Prague's mystery brewpubs is going to open and it looks great).

A couple of weeks ago I was finally able to make a visit to one of these new brewpubs, U Kozlíku, in nearby Kladno, which opened at the end of last year.

I had a pretty long break that day. I finished with my first client near the station of the train to Kladno and the schedule couldn't have been more convenient. It wasn't 10:30 yet and I had already reached my destination. Or so I thought. I turned out I had got off one station before. It didn't matter, the day was nice, it was still early so once I got my bearings I started the walk to the centre of town, passing by some of the finest examples of the height of Communist Architecture (read this as sarcastic as you can imagine).

The brewpub is not far from the pedestrian street T.G. Masaryk. From the outside it looks like one of those places I would never set foot in. Huge logos of Gambrinus announcing a sports bar, no thanks. Fortunately, I'd been warned about that and I walked through the door without hesitating.
The room is pretty big and it was packed. It was a bit after 11, peak hour for lunch, and many of the workers from around were stuffing their faces. At the back I could see the kettles cased in the mandatory copper. Nobody was working on them that day, a pity, I was hoping to flash my "credentials" and have a chat with the brewer.

I found an empty table at the worst possible place, near the kitchen's door. The waitress came quickly and took my order for a beer. She left before I could ask her for the menu. She brought it later looking a bit angry. She was mad at herself actually, later she turned out to be pretty friendly. 
I ordered the house desítka. I was thirsty and besides, it's always good to start with the lightest beer. Nice, a bit malty, herbal with a yeastiness that was very close to become a nuisance, but in the end gave a nice twist to a simple but satisfying brew, and at 17CZK a pint, it's great value.
I can't say the same about the food. Alright, I shouldn't have expected much for 49CZK, but I would have gladly paid more for something better. There wasn't anything wrong (nor right) with either the pork or the knedlíky, I've had worse. The problem was with the sauce, an U.H.O. (universalný hnědá omáčka - universal brown sauce) like those that give Czech cuisine a bad name. When made properly this gravy-like sauce can be very good, but the one I had to endure in Kladno tasted like something that had started its life in a Vitana packet.

The other patrons not only didn't seem to mind, but actually seemed to enjoy it. Of course, it can be because most of them were chain smokers with the taste buds almost obliterated by cheap cigarettes. Which would also explain why on the tables you could see more glasses of the more expensive Gambáč than the house beer. Now that I think of it, it's not that bad. I doubt this micro has enough capacity to satisfy the demand, the kettles were big enough for two, max. three, hl.

As I finished my beer I thought what I could order next. I wouldn't have minded another desítka, but I also wanted to taste something else. The waitress decided for me and she brought another glass of the one I was still drinking. That's the kind of service I like.

I couldn't take the stink coming out of the kitchen anymore and I could feel how it was beginning to stick to my clothes. I spotted a free table elsewhere in the room,placed an order for a tmavý (černý, I was corrected), grabbed my stuff and went there.
While I waited for that dark (sorry, black) beer I meditated whether the desíkta alone was worth the trip (the food having been discarded). It is very cheap, yes, but it's not better than the desítky from Kout or Kácov, and I can easily find those in Prague. Now, the černý. WOW! That is a black lager as I like them and few people make. Intense cocoa, strong espresso with a pinch of sugar and mild prune/raisin notes in the finish. Delicious, superb. The price, 19CZK. I almost felt like moving to Kladno.

I was finishing that glass, thinking whether another one would be a good idea. I still had plenty of time, but also another class to give... Life is beautiful when you don't have to worry about important decisions like this. The service knew what I wanted better than me! A second pint materialised in front did away with my doubts. And in fact, I enjoyed this one more than the first.
I swear I was tempted to stay, but before those devils could read my mind I asked for the bill. Something funny happened when I was paying. The waitress had forgotten to charge me for the food. When I told her she was very grateful and for a moment I thought she would kiss me (though, that would have been because I'm gorgeous and charming).

I made it to the nearby Kladno-Město station just in time to take the train back to Prague, and arrived with enough time to get rid of the stink that had clung to my clothes.

On the train I considered whether the trip had been worth it. Well, yeah, given the circumstances, I couldn't complain. It's true that the food was on the wrong side of crap and the place, even that early, was way too smoky for my taste, but I had enjoyed those beers plenty and the service was really good. I don't think I will go again, though. I'd rather wait for those beers to show up in Prague, unless I have another no-show that gives me enough time and I'm near the train station, though I guess that if that happens it will be better to have a bite somewhere else before.

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Starokladenský pivovar U Kozlíků
Třída ČSA 3230, Kladno
starokladno@starokladno.cz
GPS: 50°8‘49.266"N, 14°6‘11.76"E

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9 May 2010

Two in one

I like finding good combinations of beer and food, but, as I've said before, I usually don't bother with that, specially when I go for lunch to a pub. There I just take a seat, order a pint of a beer I fancy and then order whatever catches my attention from the lunch specials, being that most of what catches my attention is pub grub I can be pretty assured that the food will go fine with whatever beer I will be drinking.

That was basically what I did the other day at Pivovar Bašta, one of the best places to have lunch in Prague. I don't usually order soup anymore, but that day they had one of my favourites, kulajda (a typical Czech sour soup, with dill, mushrooms, eggs, etc.), and I couldn't resist. For main course I chose a beef stew with spinach and potato knedlíky. The beer was the house polotmavé, simply because I like it more than their světlý (BTW, with the recent expansion it seems this brewpub has finally solved the consistency problem they had due to lack of capacity).

The place was packed and the taps were a bit temperamental that day, so I got the soup (which was lovely) before the beer. When I had the first sip I was a bit surprised, I thought they had changed the recipe. Never before I had felt the Saaz so up front in this beer, whatever it was, I had no complaints, it was pairing beautifully with the kulajda.

The main course arrived a couple of minutes after I had cleaned my bowl, it was also very good. After a couple of morsels I drank a bit of my polotmavé and noticed something pretty curious, the beer had changed, the hops were almost gone, having been replaced by nice malty caramel notes. Remarkable. It was like having two beers in the same glass. I had never experienced something like that, what about you?

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7 May 2010

Relativity

Yesterday I had a great day with Todd, an American friend who was on a visit to Prague. We shared many beers (a couple too many, perhaps), while we discussed his impressions about Czech beer, what is happening on the other side of the pond and beer culture in general.

Todd was also very generous and he brought me three very varied samples of craft brews from his land. Among them, and as a sort of joke, he brought Collaboration No. 1 de Boulevard Brewing Co., a beer sold as "Imperial Pilsner"

Besides making me laugh a bit (the nonsense of that name never ceases to amuse me), it reminded me of something I noticed after having written my critique of this "style".

While I was drinking Primátor Rytířský 21%, one of the local examples of Císařský Světlý Ležák (since I am in the Czech Rep. it can't be called Pilsner) I read the back label, which has information written in three languages, Czech, German and Slovak. Here the beer is sold as Světlý Speciál, in Germany as Helles Bock and in Slovakia (and I know some of you are going to love this) as Světlý Porter, Pale Porter, for those who still haven't got it. Yes, that's right, Pale Porter.

And there's still people who believe styles are something immutable, uniform and easily guidelined.

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3 May 2010

Long overdue

I've owed this review to Kulový Blesk for a long time, but I wanted to have a go at their food first, something that for many reasons I was only able to do the other day.

Kulový Blesk is located on Sokolská, one of the most awful streets in Prague and a great example of the shortsightedness of the Communist regime (laying a motorway across the centre of a major city, the only one in the world that has to stop to let the tram pass, brilliant idea). It's incredibly noisy there, walking along is horrible (and I can't even imagine what it must be like to live over it) and so pedestrian traffic is almost non-existent. If it wasn't for the Pivní Info server I don't think I would have found it. And what a pity it would have been.

At street level there is a rather pleasant looking, and surprisingly not too noisy, patio (without service), the hospoda proper is in a deep cellar and it's divided in several small rooms. All of them are non-smoking and are decorated with worn out, hand painted looking furniture and posters and screen-shots of Czech Film classics, which give the place more a café-restaurant feel rather than a pub.

It is also one of the many hospody that has decided to cut ties with the big brands adopting instead the rotating beer model, in this case on 9 taps with rather inconsistent choice in terms of variety. The breweries that have a more or less permanent presence include Primátor, Kocour, Matuška and lately it seems also Kout (which the other day was tapped better than at Lípy), all in very good condition.

Based on what I had the other day, and references I've seen here and there, the food might not be memorable, but it's still pretty good (the spanělský ptáček I had there, together with its sauce, was lovely, unlike the rice). 

But the best of Kulový Blesk, and what gave me a great impression from my very first visit, is the service. Just like at Pivovarský Klub at its best, the staff is well informed about the beers they are selling. The times I've been there in the early afternoon, when the place is really quiet (I really love going for a pint at that hour) whoever was manning (or womanning) the taps asked me how liked my beer, and not in the robotic fashion of chain restaurants, neither like someone sucking up to get a bigger tip, but with genuine interest that more than once resulted in a short chat about the rest of the beer list or other beers they had in their cellar. And they are not only well informed, but are also able to recommend and seem to enjoy doing so. When I went there for lunch the place was very busy, but still the servers were glad to take the necessary time to explain the beer list to those who were expecting to find Pilsner Urquell, and also suggest something based on the client's tastes, resulting, every time, in satisfied, and pleasantly surprised, patrons.

Definitely a very recommendable place that deserves more recognition. If you are in Prague, don't miss it.

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Kulový Blesk
Sokolská 13, Praga 2
+420 721 420 859

PD: Sorry for the lack of photos. I think I've lost them, will add some as soon as I make new ones...

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