31 Jul 2010

Some victory

Last Thursday the European Highest Court issued their final verdict: AB-InBev can not register "Budweiser" as a European trademark for their beer, rejecting the giant's appeal against the ruling of the European General Court.

This, of course, means an important victory for Budějovický Budvar because, besides putting an end to more than a decade of judicial comings and goings, it reinforces their position in the many legal disputes both companies still have.

However, the people who are most satisfied with this are those from the Ministry of Agriculture. With this ruling they will be able to fetch a higher price once they turn the brewery into a joint stock company, the brand is its most valuable asset.

As I've already said, this will be a de facto privatisation. I've been thinking about it and this is how I imagine it: Once Budvar becomes joint stock co. the government will look for a strategic partner, just as they've announced. That partner will most likely be either an investment fund of foreign capitals or a brewing multinational (my favourite is still Carlsberg, but AB-InBev should not be discarded). Eventually, the government will decide that it is sensible to leave the running of the company to the "more experienced" people of their partner and, from then on, well, you can imagine what will happen.

Come to think of it, this victory gives more reason to worry than to celebrate.

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29 Jul 2010

Hmmmm?

Yesterday the portal Pivní Info reproduced an interesting article that tells how a Brazilian journalist tried to interview perhaps the most hated person in the beer community, Carlos Brito, capo di tutti capi of AB-InBev, to ask him about Budvar.

Unfortunately, the Darth Vader (Sauron, Lex Luthor or any other silly, nerdy, pop-culture reference) of the beer industry refused to answer any questions saying, through his secretary, that he felt the obligation to answer only to the American media, but not to questions from other countries.

Our hero did not let that discourage him and decided he would get his answers from people close to Brito, so, besides the man's secretary, he contacted other top managers from the multinational, all of them from Brazil and all part of Brito's inner circle.

Among the several questions he asked, there is one that stands out for the silliness of the answer, if Brito had ever tried Czech beer: "Yes, we've all tasted it", answered one manager, "but it might be too strong to have mass commercial success". Adding that in the world, people are "more used to lighter beers" and "that Budvar is more for special occasions, rather than for every day drinking". "More a Stella Artois than a Beck's". Whatever...

But back to the main topic. One of the key questions asked by the journalist was if AB-InBev was planning to buy Budvar. Nobody gave a concrete answer. One of the managers said that before even thinking of an operation like that, several other factors would have to be evaluated, financial ones, specially. For example, whether buying Budvar wouldn't be more expensive than keeping on covering the legal fees from their trademark conflicts.

Those answers won't surprise anyone. You can read more or less the same words in countless interviews to top bosses of big companies from all over the world, regardless of their business. However, there is something that caught my attention. Two of the interviewees mentioned 2010 as the year when the privatisation of Budvar can start to be seriously discussed.

A couple of weeks ago a new center-right government coalition took office. They have a very reformist agenda. Their goal is to fix the public accounts reducing expenses and trying to generate some cash, among other things.

The other day the newspapers spoke about the announcement of the new Minister of Agriculture: Within a year Budvar will become a joint-stock company. He also made clear that this didn't mean a privatisation, but that it would give the company the possibility of finding a good strategic partner. In other words, it will be privatised, but just not right away.

Oh! I almost forget. The article reproduced by Pivní Info was originally published by Lidové Noviny in 2008. Coincidence? Could it be that I was right in what I said here about the plans of Staropramen's new owners, or perhaps in what I said here about one of the possible reasons why AB-InBev had decided to leave this country, even though in the end, Heineken.CZ didn't set up shop in Smíchov?

It makes you think.

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PD: I've just read that today the European Court will make public their final verdict on the trademark conflict between AB-InBev and Budvar. I can be another factor to take into account.

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26 Jul 2010

Another surprise from Barcelona

It is very nice to see brewers (or anyone, actually) that will take a bad review for what it is, one of the realities of life, and will not be offended when someone publicly says that they didn't like their beer, or even that it was bad. One of those brewers is the Spanish Companyia Cervecera del Montseny, who are also very confident about their products.

Last year they sent me samples of three of their beers. One of them, +Lupulus, I liked a lot, another one, +Negra, I didn't like so much and the remaining one, +Malta, I didn't like at all. After publishing my review, we exchanged a couple of emails, and that was the last I thought I would hear from them. However, a bit over a month ago Julià, from the brewery, wrote me again saying that they wanted to send me a sample of their most special product +malta Cuvée, which arrived in the company of two bottles of +Lupulus (I still like it a lot) and +Malta (I still don't like it, even with the wheat out of its grist. But since Julià told me they are very happy with it, the problem is more mine than theirs).

To be honest, my expectations were rather low. The base beer is, as you can well imagine, +Malta, which not only I don't like, but I didn't see it had the chops to be barrel aged. On the other hand, I was very curious. The beer ages one year in French oak barrels and then is blended with some fresh +Malta before bottling. Unlike all the other barrel aged beers I've had, this one is not strong, it only has 5.1%ABV.

What a surprise it was!
Just like its younger, unwooded version, +Malta Cuvée pours and orange shade of amber, but cleaner than the base beer. The nose is full of sour oranges with a mild fruity-flowery base to compensate. It's medium bodied and the flavours follow the same line as the aromas. It's very well balanced and tasty and it is nice to see that the hops, which is what bothers me the most in +Malta, are much more attenuated. It still lacks a malty character, but it works in its favour here.

I really enjoyed it a lot. I would lie if I said it's complex, it isn't, it's "just" very flavourful. On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice a certain resemblance with Russian River Supplication and that Chardonnay I had later that day thanks to those lovely sour orange notes.

I wrote Julià to ask what kind of barrels did they use. She confirmed that they were French oak and that in this case, they had been used once to age red wine from Penedes. That was it! Julià also told me that there is a new batch aging in eight barrels (the one this bottle came from was four barrels), four of them have also been used once for wine. It would be interesting if they sort the bottles according to which barrel they come from.

In short words, +Malta Cuvée is a very good beer. Very different from all the other BA's I've had so far, though I don't think it should be compared to any of them. Once again, this is not a 10%ABV Imperial Stout or similar, nor something that has aged in the company of cherries or been deliberately infected with brettanomyces, this is just a 5.1% ABV Pale Ale. I also see it as a good option to show wine geeks what can be done with beer.

Thanks a lot Julià for this lovely beer and congratulations for a job very well done.

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25 Jul 2010

A nibble for thought

Arturo Bertona is a third generation wine maker from Argentina, who since 2002 runs his own, and already well renown winery. At the end of a short, but quite interesting interview for the Argentinean daily La Nación (in SP) he says:
"90% of the quality of a wine is defined by how the grape leaves the vineyard
This brough up the following question: Is there anything that can define the quality of a beer in such a way?

What do you think?

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22 Jul 2010

Things are getting ugly (but so much fun to watch)

Imagine the following, you are the biggest company on the market. Yours isn't a minor product, but one that is very important, very consumed and you have a lot of competitors. Still, you are the undisputed leader with at least 45% market share, while your nearest competitor has only around 15%.

2009 wasn't a good year for your sector. Global consumption fell by 5%, with your sales more or less reflecting that figure, as do the sales of both your two main competitors. This wouldn't be such an issue if it wasn't that some of your (much) smaller competitors had a wonderful year; in some cases, with growth that defies logic. As if that wasn't enough, for a long time already a small group of consumers have been critisising some of your practices and the quality of your products. They are still a niche, but their opinion is slowly dripping towards the mainstream.

No worries, you would say. Your leadership is out of any harm and on top of that, you have a very well tuned marketing and PR machinery that will sure find a way to revert the situation without doing anything foolish or rushed. Am I right?

If your answer's been "yes", then congratulations, you are smarter than some in the management of Plzeňský Prazdroj.

It all started las March when Prazdroj pressed criminal charges against Pivovar Kout na Šumavě for unfair competition and unlawful use of the Pilsner Urquell brand. This was followed by the penalties the company levied on some pubs that had decided to change their beer supplier. To be fair, technically speaking, Prazdroj might be right in both cases (even though I give them the benefit of the doubt in the second one), but still, their attitude is hard to understand coming from a company of their size and position. The only thing they achieve with it is earning the image of a greedy corporative bully afraid of the competition.

But this is nothing compared to the fallout of the "Tetrahopgate".

Mladá Fronta Dnes is arguably the most important newspaper in this country. They carry out and publish regular product tests that are believed to be independent and fair. A few months ago it was the turn of beer (*). The results of that test were published under the sensationalist headline "Pivovary vylepšují pěnu nepovolenou látkou, ukázal test" (Breweries improve head with an unauthorised substance...). You can't imagine the mess this caused.

MF Dnes tested 30 beers from bottlers of all sizes. In six of them they found a product called "tetrahops".

What is tetrahops?

The only description I found on the internet (or actually, the first good one I came across) comes from a company caled Hops Union, a hops supplier for American micro-breweries. According to them, it is a derivate of the aromatic herb.

The "malefactors" were Zlatopramen (Heineken), Staropramen, Janáček (K-Brewery) and Svijany.

While Heineken chose no to comment on the matter and Staropramen issued something written by a PR robot, K-Brewery categorically denied that any of their seven breweries is currently using this kind of product. But it was the people of Svijany the ones who reacted more vehemently.

They didn't deny that the tested beers (desítka and máz) contain Tetrahops, but explained that they only use it for "cold hopping", adding that the product is a hop extract like the ones in use in Czech beer for many years. They also accused the test of being biased.

I don't know if it can be called biased, but it sure can be called sensationalist. Regardless of their nature (or unnature, I'll get back to that), tetrahops is not an "unauthorised" product, as the headline says. Here in the Czech Rep. we don't have any Reinheitsgebot (fortunately). The only case in which their use is banned is for those beers that want to get the PGD České Pivo, which is something optional and entirely up to each brewery.

On the other hand, Svijany insist that Tetrahops isn't a chemical additive, saying that this product has the same Customs code as hops in all its forms. Actually, it isn't a natural extract. In fact, it's the same stuff used by Corona and its various ripoffs in clear bottles to avoid the beer from being affected by the light. The problem here is that, as someone told me, tetrahops has still not been given an EXXX code, which identifies additives used in food products in the EU (e.g. E300). However, I find it hard to believe that someone with the experience and skills of Svijany's brew master is not aware he is using a chemical additive, regardless of how or what they use it for.

Plzeňský Prazdroj decided they would profit from this controversy and launched one of the most rushed and ham-fisted campaigns I've ever seen. Titled "české pivo bez chemie“  (Czech beer without chemicals), it came out just two weeks after the test was published and lasted as long as a fart in basket. Less than a week later, Český svaz pivovarů a sladoven (Czech Brewers and Maltsters Association) urged Prazdroj to pull the campaign out, otherwise they would be expelled from the association, arguing that it was harming the image of Czech beer as a whole, since it gave the idea that the only beers brewed here without the use of chemicals are those from the Czech branch of SAB-Miller. According to the association, the campaign is in breach of article 7 of the Association's statue, which says that its memebers must refrain from carrying out any activities that can be harmful to the association and Czech brewing industry in general.

This opinion was shared with most breweries, led by Stanislav Bernard. One of the managers of another brewer, who chose to remain anonymus said, according to iHned.cz, that Prazdroj has refused to adopt the České Pivo label and now the are accusing all the rest of making bad quality beers, and that all this is because they don't know what else to do to stop their sales from falling.

Prazdroj played the naive card, pulled the campaign out, apologised half-heatedly and prevented being expelled. But things didn't end there. In protest, already seven breweries have left the association, Chodovar, Žatec and five from the K-Brewery. What the consequences of this will be, if there will be others that will follow those seven, it's hard to say, but it's something I'm dying to see. I'll keep you informed.

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(*)I'd been wanting to write about this topic for some time, but work, family and sudden attacks of cantbearseditis prevented me from doing so until now thanks to the news of those breweries that left the association

19 Jul 2010

Some things I head and saw in Humpolec

Just as I promised the other day, here is some of the information I gathered during my visit to Pivovar Bernard.

It was the first brewery to be privatised after the fall of the Communist regime. Two of its current owners, Standa Bernard and Josef Vábra (who is also the head brewer) bought it at an auction. As most regional breweries back then, the facilities were in very, very bad shape and quite a lot of money was needed to put the brewery back on track. In 2001, Bernard and Vábra sold half of their shares to Duvel Moortgat. This resulted in a sad irony. A few years earlier Mr Bernard himself had successfully lobbied for a new beer tax law that would benefit the smaller producers, which is in force to this day. Once the Belgians bought half of the company, Pivovar Bernard stopped being eligible for those tax advantages. Anyway, you would never guess anyone but Mr Bernard is running things when visiting the brewery, nowhere in sight there is a sign of the Belgians.

Bernard keeps their own maltings. They aren't in Humpolec, but in a town not far away. Only pale malts are produced there, specialty malts are procured from Czech and German (Bamberg) suppliers.

All Bernard beers are bottom fermented. I saw some sacks of wheat malt (it's used for Jantár) and I asked if they were considering brewing a Weizen. No way, they don't have the technology and the product isn't interesting enough for them to invest in it. I also asked about a Rauch (even though, none of the stuff from Bamberg was rauchmaltz), but I didn't get any concrete answer.
Each batch is 200hl, and all beers are decoction mashed. All of the beers are at least thrice hopped (Vábra didn't want to give me any more details about it) and only Saaz hops (in pellets) are used.
The beers ferment at 7ºC, the whole building housing the fermenting facilities is refrigerated at that temperature, which made the shooting quite uncomfortable given that it was pretty warm outside. Three kinds of fermenters are used, open, tanks and CK (I didn't ask what ferments in which). Their CK's are pretty small compared to what other breweries have. The brew master explained why so many breweries have adopted them, they save a lot of space and reduce energy costs, though he also admitted that some breweries use them to speed up the fermentation process.
The beers are lagered between 25 and 60 days, depending on gravity, at 0ºC (that was the actual temperature in the lagering cellar. Brr!). They are all unpasteurised, but go through a pretty intensive micro-filtration process.

Bernard is about to launch a new product. A nealko flavoured with sour cherries. Bugger!

Anyway, the visit to Bernard was really interesting, though not as interesting as being able to chat a bit with the people behind those great beers.

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16 Jul 2010

A star is born (take 2)

Just as I told you the other day, my TV experience is not limited only to my incredibly popular appearance in an Argentine TV show (together with a short cameo on CNN). A couple of weeks ago I was part of the shooting of a new TV show that will air this Autumn on Prima, a local TV station.

It was a completely different kind of thing that the previous one. With the Argies, I went around Prague followed only by a camera and the host of the show, but with the Czech project I had to get up at 5:30 in order to meet the person that was going to take me to the place of the shooting. There we were met by the rest of the team, which included a cameraman, director, one bloke taking care of the sound, another for the lights, two more from production and the host. It was all very professional, perhaps a bit too much for my taste.

This show will also be a travel show, but with beer as the central topic. Each episode will go to a town that has a brewery and will visit both while interviewing the people responsible for the beer. This episode was shot in Humpolec and the brewery was, of course, Pivovar Bernard.

My bit took place after the visit to the brewery. I had to do some acting (I was awesome, watch out Brad and George) and, at a restaurant, sit with the host and do a tasting of some of the Bernard brews.

To be honest, I wasn't too happy with my performance. I had something else in mind, but the script said that I had to taste all four beers and say something about them. It all ended up too long and monotonous, and to make things worse, by then I was already pretty tired and really wanting to go back home. But still, I must say that at no time I felt nervous in front of the camera. The script only said what we had to do, but the conversation itself, in Czech, was improvised and we did it all in one take, plus a few additional shots for close ups. How about THAT!
The main reason why I accepted to do this (ad honorem, by the way) was that I would have the chance to visit Pivovar Bernard and maybe even have a few words with its owner Stanislav Bernard, who turned out to be a top bloke.

I had met him a couple of times already, but always at events and we had only exchanged a few words. This time I was able to ask him a few questions and we also chatted about beer, football and some EU bollocks.

He said he was quite excited about the success some regional brewers are having and that he is sure this trend is here to stay. According to him, and I agree, once people have got used to drinking something tastier and better, they don't want to go back to the old stuff.

He also spoke about his fear that at some point the EU will start regulating how beer is made and will thus forbid the use of decoction mashing because of how much energy it uses. At first sight this might sound over the top, but if what I've heard about the EU and Lambics is true then Mr. Bernard might have reasons to worry.
The visit to the brewery was very long and the shooting became tedious at times. Fortunately, by the end of it we were given some světlý ležák tapped straight from the lagering tanks. Even though the beer had a temperature of perhaps 1ºC the flavour it packed was impressive! It was so full life that I almost felt it vibrating inside my mouth. What a beauty!
During the visit I also spoke with Josef Vábra, one of the owners and the brew master. He said some very interesting stuff, but this is getting too long already, so you will have to wait until Monday.

After that part of the shooting was over Bernard bought us lunch at a local restaurant, Papa's Garden, where I had a wonderful garlic soup and an awful pikeperch, all washed down by very well tapped Humpolec beers. During lunch we chatted a bit more with this famous brewer and the host of the show, who also turned out to be a pretty fun bloke.

A very interesting, though pretty exhausting, experience. One I'm not sure I'll repeat (I don't know if the people behind the show will want me back and frankly, I still don't know if eventually I will accept another invitation). It's still not clear either if they will use the material they shot with me, but that's not important, really, just the fact that they wanted me to take part in this is very flattering and quite an honour.

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9 Jul 2010

Appropriately Sour

The other day, at the end of my review of Espresso Oak Aged Yeti, I told you that my friend Todd had brought me another two beers, which, like the one from Great Divide, were waiting for their respective appropriate moments. And one of them had it.

After the debacle that was Argentina's elimination from the World Cup, the situation and the mood called for a sour beer, and there was Russian River Supplication.

I approached it with some wariness. I still haven't fully developed the taste for these beer family and Todd had told me that this one was really, really sour. On the other hand, and just like Yeti, Supplication looked quite interesting on paper. According to the brewer, it is a Sour Ale aged 12-15 months in oak barrels formerly used for Pinot Noir wines in company of sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacilus and pediococcus (if you want to know what these bugs are, look them up).
What a nice surprise Supplication was! Perhaps it was the bad taste I was left with after the game, or it might be that my palate has already got used to these beers, but I didn't find it so sour as other sour brews I've had. It is very well balanced. The nose, besides some tropical fruit, has a strong presence of sour oranges (they reminded me to those that grew in the street my grandmother lived). The sourness is very well integrated to a mix of fruit and darker berries along with, once again, those same sour oranges. A very, very pleasant beer, with a much higher drinkability than I'd expected, so much that I wouldn't have minded drinking another bottle had I had one, 7%ABV notwithstanding.

Later in the evening, with our roasted chicken dinner, we drank a bottle of Trapiche Collección Roble - Chardonnay 2008, a lovely wine that the Vietnamese in Dejvická had at a hilarious price. Curiously, I found in that wine those same sour orange notes of Supplication (something confirmed by my dad, who had a couple of sips of the beer and a couple of glasses of the wine). Interesting.
On a side note, but keeping with the sour beer topic, the day after I found in my cellar one bottle of that Strawberry Weizen I had brewed in honour of the birth of my daugther (yeah, it's been a year already, hard to believe). That was an even greater surprise! Not only the beer was still drinkable, but, after aging for one year it had considerably improved. The flavours were rounder and smoother, it wasn't so red and it was more alive than when fresh, it even had a head! Curious and very pleasant.

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7 Jul 2010

Where do they get it from?

"Ales are usually stronger and darker than lagers."

With some variations, this is a statement I've seen mentioned countless times. Where do they get that information from? Is it something those authors repeat like parrots, without thinking, or is it based on personal experiences (buying a bottle of lager and a bottle of Ale at a shop)?

This nonsense is so widespread that I've even read it in a press release from an Argentine microbrewer. And it's not only limited to the Spanish speaking press, as shown by this quote taken from an article in the website of an American network:
"But an easy rule of thumb is that lagers are like white wine (lighter, crisper), and ales are like red wine (bigger, richer, more powerful)
Very nice, but not close to reaching the heights of this pearl of wisdom by Colombian celebrity chef Harry Sasón:
"... lagers, a kind of pale beer with moderate flavour, very common in the US"
Once again I have ask, how do they get to this nonsense?

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5 Jul 2010

Simply German

About a month an a half ago I had lunch with my good German friend, and fellow beer enthusiast, Stefan. Unfortunately, the speed of modern life did not allow us to spend together as much time as we would have wanted, but we still had the chance to exchange a few beers.

Stefan brought me six samples from microbreweries from the Black Forest region. With the exception of one, all of them promised to be simple beers, you know, those that deserve more praise, without any gimmicks or imperial pretensions, and all with an ABV of around 5%.
I kicked the session off with Königsegger Edelpils. It pours a very, very pale yellow, something very unusual around here, but that I've already seen in other German equivalents of světlý ležák. Not much, if anything, to say about the aromas (though the glass might not have been the most appropriate to evaluate them) and with a taste as mild as its looks, where I felt notes that reminded me to grass, some resin and maybe a bit of fruit. After an afternoon of (what at least for me is) hard work in the garden this beer is a rewarding refreshment, but at the same time, it made me understand better why Stefan prefers the Czech "Pils" to the German ones.
This was followed by two darker brews, Schwarzes Wälde and Günter-Bräu Edles Lagerbier. My friend told me I had to drink them together since they were supposed to be the same style. Following his advice I opened Schwarzes Wälde first, which poured brown-ocher and with a lot of bubbles. The nose was pretty simple, caramel and fruit. In the flavours I found home made sponge cake, some ripe fruit and a dry finish between the herbal and the piney. A very nice beer. Simple, tasty and pleasant. It calls for another one that unfortunately wasn't available.
Unfortunately, Günter didn't arrive in the best of shapes. It pours a bit paler than the previous one, and like that, it's very fizzy. The nose is a somewhat maltier, but there was something in the taste that didn't quite fit. The best description I can think of is artificial honey flavouring in some cheap candy. The first sip surprised with its intensity, by the second and third it had got boring and from then on I started to get the impression that this beer might be in bad conditions, oxidised perhaps, though I might be wrong. Whatever it was, I didn't like it one bit.

Later it it was time for two more Pils, one Schussenrieder Fasnet Sud, "unfiltriert", and the other, la Ruppaner Schimmele, Naturtrübes. Before going on and unafraid of looking like an idiot, isn't natürtrub the same as unfiltriert? Thanks for the answer, just be nice. Now, to the beers.
Schussenrieder reminded me a lot to more than one světlý nefiltrované from Czech micros, which isn't bad at all. Nice malty base with notes of fresh white bread and a mild bitterness to wrap things up. A pity it only came in a small bottle, I wouldn't have minded drinking a couple more.
Ruppaner, on the other hand, felt like an unfiltered version of the first beer of this session, perhaps a bit more citrusy. I didn't like it so much, in fact, I would say I'd rather drink Königsegger.
To cap this long session I left the only beer that was different from the rest, Ketterer Fläschle Schützen Bock Naturtrüb, with 7.5%ABV. According to Stefan, this beer was fermented with yeasts commonly used for stouts. I have to confess that I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary in it. It pours dark amber, the nose is mostly toffee with some flowers. It's got a nice, velvety mouth feel with a mix of caramel, licorice and sweet coffee. What the unusual yeasts brought to this beer, I can't say, and actually, it doesn't matter, I liked this beer plenty. Nice to drink in an early autumn afternoon when the sun goes down.

Thanks Stefan for these beers. Hope you liked the ones you got from me.

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2 Jul 2010

How to tame a blue sheep

The other day I bought a piece of sheep's blue cheese. Very good, but very strong and intense, nice for a sauce, for sure, but I wanted to eat it alone. What beer could match this little beast?

During the presentation of BrewDog en Zlý Časy (BTW, 5AM Saint and HardCore IPA on tap are wonderful!) someone, I can't remember who, gave me a bottle of Döllnitzer Ritterguts Gose. Brewed with the impure ingredients of coriander and salt and, if I remember well, also infected with lactobacillus, it's not an easy beer to drink, at least not for me, so I thought it would get along just fine with a cheese that is not so easy to eat.
Not bad, not bad at all. Although the cheese proved to be a bit too much for the Gose (that only has 4.2%ABV), the beer was still able to tame the wilder bits, while the cheese took care of the beer's rougher side leaving it tasting almost like a refreshment made with brine (tasted better than it sounds, believe me). I would have preferred a stronger presence from the beer, but this experience confirmed the theory I exposed long ago in Boak&Bailey's blog, a sour beer can be a great pairing for blue cheese.

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