30 Aug 2010

Great Surprise from Argentina

Gerardo Fiorotto, owner of Green Belly, is a very respected and, by some, admired, micro brewer from Argentina. I've been in touch with him since pretty much the very beginnings of my blog (back when I wrote only in Spanish) and I've always had the impression that he's someone who knows very well what he does and takes his new trade in a very serious and professional way without having lost his passion.

A couple of months ago he contacted me again after quite some time. He told me his daughter (a brewer herself, too) was on her way to Prague and wanted some tips about places where she could taste some real Czech beer. I sent him a short list and Gerardo wrote back saying that his daughter would not come empty handed, she would be carrying a very special brew.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to meet her, but the beer still got to my hands. Gerardo's daughter left it at my second home Zlý Časy. I went there a few days later and, after saying hello to the known faces, the waiter told me, while he was pouring me a ležák, that someone had left a bottle for me.

There it was, unlabeled. Gerardo later told me that it was a Barley Wine with 30ºPlato and 11%ABV that he had "cooked" in January 2009 and had been maturing until June this year. Very promising on paper, though I must say I was a bit worried, you never know in what conditions a beer will be after such a long trip.
It pours an amber of a lighter shade that I for some reason expected, but pretty good looking, anyway. It's high ABV is felt a tad too much at the start of the aromas, but fortunately, it dissipates quickly leaving behind a nice and well balanced mix of raisins, wood and caramel. The mouthfeel is lovely, silky, Liqueur-like that coats and caresses the palate. The base is of very ripe fruit with a touch of nuts that connects very well with the intense brown sugar and herbal notes. The finish is very herbal-like dry with a dash of something that reminded me of Kahlúa.

Spectacular! Impressive beer! I haven't drunk many Barley Wines (something I hope I'll be able to fix soon), but among those few, Don Toto (such is its commercial name, something I found out later) ranks comfortably on top.

The micro brewing phenomenon in Argentina is pretty similar to the Spanish one. The biggest differences are that in my home country the the thing has been going for a bit longer and in the quantity of registered brewers, which according to this article, is about 200. The similarities start to be seen in what has long been discussed about Spanish micros, the quality of the product and the level of professionalism of the brewers.

A few months ago I exchanged some e-mails with three people from Argentine brewing community, an enthusiast and blogger and two brewery owners, one of them of a pretty well known brand there. All three of them, independently, (and I don't think they even know each other) agreed on very important thing: there is a lot enthusiasm, but also way too much improvisation. Many of the people that start brewing commercially aren't really ready for it, which results in many products of poor quality. This, in the end, puts everyone else at risk. Many consumers, after having paid a premium price for something that shouldn't have been on the market in the first place, say they will never drink "craft beer" again.

Fortunately, just like in Spain with Agullons, there are people in Argentina who know full well that, in order to make a quality product, passion and enthusiasm, no matter how much, aren't enough, professionalism is also every bit as necessary, if not more. How nice it would be if more people realised that, even that resulted in fewer breweries.

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27 Aug 2010

How Innovative!

It seems like Damm didn't have enough with Inèdit and Saaz. They needed in their portfolio another innovative, ground-breaking, revolutionary, one of its kind, 33cl of pure awesomeness in a bottle beer. Behold! Here is Weiss Damm. A Heffe Weizen....

WOW!

In the official description of the product we can see bollocks like: "...brewed according to the original German recipe of the 16th century Bavarian master brewers", which by now should not surprise anyone, really. It is the rest of their marketing that bothers me the most, though.

Weiss Damm is nothing new in the Spanish market. Imported wheat beers have been relatively easy to find for quite some time already.

Well, they are imported. Weiss Damm is Spanish!

OK, but there are several micros that have been brewing wheat beers for longer than you.

Micros, micros. Who drinks those beers? Nobody!

Well, I wouldn't say that. Anyway, what about Cesar Augusta from La Zaragozana?

Hombre! That is not the same. Our beer is brewed according to a recipe from the 16th century and...

Cut it out! Because this beer is as Spanish as Paulaner!

This isn't something Damm has said in the open, but it's well known that this Weiss is brewed in Germany. I couldn't find by whom or if it is "custom made" or something that's been just relabeled, but those things are rather irrelevant, really. The fact is that Weiss Damm isn't even a Spanish product.

Hmmm.... Can it be that what makes this beer so innovative? The first Spanish beer brewed out of Spain?

Ha! Not even here they are innovating! Do you remember Belenos, that "Asturian" beer that was actually brewed in Belgium?. And I could also mention Moritz with a very visible "Barcelona" on the label, even though it's brewed in Zaragoza.

All this, actually, it's not very different to what the macro brands like Heineken, Budweiser, Guinness, etc. have done for a long time; they are brewed locally, but are positioned as something from abroad. The difference is that Moritz, Belenos and Damm appeal to nationalist or regionalist feelings, while the macros appeal to that "imported is better" bollocks many people have in their heads.

And they are not doing half bad. There are still many people here who believe Stella Artois is a Belgian beer and not long ago I saw in some Spanish newspaper the results of a survey that found that the favourite beers there were an American and a Dutch, referring to Budweiser and Heineken, without mentioning that both are brewed locally.

What I'm afraid of is that soon this might not be limited to the multinationals. Stone Brewing Co. have recently announced their plans to set up shop on this side of the Atlantic.

The reasons given by the brewer are more than logic. Their products are gaining popularity in Europe and brewing here makes a lot of financial, commercial and, why not, environmental sense. The question here is what will come out of their European brewery? It think it's safe to assume they will keep the brand, but will they also brew beers like Ruination, Arrogant Bastard, etc.? If so, won't those beers then loose much of their soul, just like it's happened to all those that are brewed under the same brands in different countries?

All this brings up the following question: What defines the origin of a beer? The place where it is brewed or the nationality of the brand? To me the answer is very simple, but it seems that for most people it is always the brand above the drink.

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23 Aug 2010

Good Choice

Breaking a little with the habit, my friend Ramón decided that this time he and his wife would visit Prague in summer. Keeping with the habit, we arranged to meet for lunch. Breaking a bit with the habit, this time I didn't go alone, but with my family, wife, daughter and my parents, who were on a visit. We met at Klašterní Šenk, perhaps my favourite restaurant in Prague. We had some really fantastic food (those ribs, man, they were awesome!) and a great time in all.

Keeping with the habit, during lunch Ramón gave me the beers I had "ordered". When before coming he asked what I was interested in from his native Catalunya, I thought I would play safe, and ordered something from Agullons and Guineu. These two micros have great reputations and I had already tasted samples from both. With these new samples I wanted to prove if the Montserrat from Guineu had not been a one-off, and if I had been right in giving Agullon's Runa Brown Ale the benefit of the doubt by considering that the beer had not traveled well from Spain.

What I got from Guineu was Coaner. I must confess that when I read the word "lager" on the back label, my expectations went down a couple of steps, and there they stayed even after reading that ingredients include smoked malts. Partly that was prejudice (I can't avoid it, it always happens to me with lagers brewed out of CZ and Germany) and partly, it was because of the bad memories left by Glops.
Neither my prejudice, nor the bad memories turned out to be right. Coaner pours a brown shade of amber, without too much of a head. The nose doesn't promise much, really, brown sugar, coffee and fruit, but each of them is doing their own thing and they don't seem to be interested in working together. Fortunately, the palate does not have to suffer the same ordeal, here everything is very well balanced and integrated, the raisins, the cocoa and the flowers, all getting gradually drier towards the finish. With 4.6%ABV, if it was at least slightly filtered or well tapped, it could be really lovely session brew. I liked it a lot.

From Agullons, what I got was Pura Pale. While Coaner's label shares a lot of information, it even recommends serving temperature, Pura Pale only tells us it's ABV (5%). Now, I do agree with those who say most people couldn't give less of a toss about what's in their beer, but still, this is the kind of information I value when looking for a new beer to buy.
Anyway, since I already had the bottle in my possession, the only way I could find out what the beer was about was opening it. It looks just the same as a good Světlý Ležák. The nose is subtle, with touches of tropical fruit, herbs and flowers. It goes in with a very good balance and medium body with notes of fruit, mild syrup that support drier flavours, which swing between the herbs and citrus. All this could be a lot more pleasant if the carbonation wasn't so high. But I still liked it a lot, what made me like it even more is that it comes in a proper measure for a beer of this kind, 0.5l. I know Spaniards like their cold ones in small glasses, but it would still be nice to see more micros bottling some of their product in this size, to me, the most appropriate for ligth or medium strength beers.

So, I ended up very satisfied with this selection. Lately, a lot of new micros have opened in Catalunya and the quality of many, if not most, seems to leave a lot to be desired. I wish more would follow the example set by the likes of Guineu and Agullons because, as I see it, this is the path that should be taken.

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19 Aug 2010

News Flash

I was going to publish a review of Spanish beers, but that would have been two reviews in the same week, so I decided to leave it for later. So we'll have to make do with a compilation of news, some of them not so new.

Brewpubing

I've given up all pretense of keeping up with the openings of new brewpubs. How many have there been so far this year, 10? It's amazing. I have tasted the beers of several, though,  and there's a bit of everything, from the ones from Mutějovice, which I found on the wrong side of average, to Černý Orel from Kroměříž, a Baltic Porter-like dark beer, that was really, really good.

The ones I can (barely) keep up with are the brewpubs from Prague.

Finally Jihoměstský Pivovar is living up to its name. Since sometime last month the beers you can drink there are brewed on site and at least the three or four varieties I've tasted make going "do Háje" really worth it.

Closer to the centre, in Nusle, U Banstehu, besides being now 100% non smoking (great!) have already started working with their new and very modern equipment that, I reckon, doubles their capacity. The old pots have made their way to the centre of Prague, to U Dvou Koček, which is already brewing, or should I say "again"? If the claim that this pub has been open since the 17th century is true, then it is very likely that, just like many other šenky in town, they were brewing their own beer until perhaps the late 19th century. I was there like two months ago, when they had just started tapping the first batches. Nothing to write home about, really, perhaps they needed some adjustments in the recipes. However, other people that've been there since have told me they liked those beers a lot, and at 32CZK a pint in the centre, there's not much we can complain about.

"Ejls" and other top fermented goodies

I was in Varnsdorf two weeks ago, visiting Pivovar Kocour to gather material for my next article for Bar&Beer. What I found there was, well, almost a construction site. Besides the some day to be opened restaurant, they were finishing with the installation of some new equipment that will double their current capacity. The star is the set of mashing tun and kettle, literally a museum piece. It looks beautiful, it's over half a century old and it's made of copper. The kettles you see at most Czech brewpubs are actually stainless steel encased in copper, this one is the real deal. One of the owners told me that the plan is to use that additional capacity for the specials and top fermented beers. They want to be able to brew V3, Weizenbock and some of the Ales on a permanent basis and not just whenever the lagers so allow.

Another micro that is brewing some really good top fermented stuff is Pivovar Matuška. To their heavenly Weizen this father and son team have added the wonderful Raptor IPA, the very good California (not to be confused with Bravur's California Pale Ale, that one was nasty) and their newest one, Sahara. A fantastic beer brewed with rice, malted and unmalted barley, Saaz and Cascade hops and packing a lot of flavour despite having only 7ºPlato 2,9%ABV!. A great summer drink, really.

Another great summer drink is Nuselské Bilé (2010 ed.). Just like last year, Zlý Časy commissioned a seasonal brew. Once again, the recipe was Wit inspired, but this time they added a new ingredient, elderflower (they used actual flowers, hand picked in the countryside). The resulting beer is very aromatic, very refreshing and with a lot of drinkability thanks in part to its 11ªplato and 3.8%ABV.

Inspired by Zlý Časy, První Pivní Tranwaj, also decided they would have their own beer, Tranwaj 11%, an Ale based on a recipe by Honza Šuran that includes oats, American hops and Scottish yeasts. Very nice, interesting and well balanced even with a couple of rough edges.

And since we are talking about Yanks. Chirs Baerwaldt, an American home brewer who's been living here for quite some time has started to brew commercially under the name of Pivovar Zhůřák. His beers have already been seen at several hospody in Prague. I've only tasted Total Eclipse Black Ale , which get both thumbs up.

The Vikings have landed!

The other day I sent an e-mail to Mike, owner of Odd Dog, to see how he was doing. Very well, he had just come back from a trip to Norway and Denmark from which he came loaded with news, delicious news: Nøgne-Ø, Mikkeller, Nørrebro and Amager in an impressive range. The beers are available for purchase either on Odd Dog's e-shop or at Pivoteka Zlý Časy.

So many good news!

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PS: It's nice to see some brewers using imported hop varieties. I just hope this will not en just in the American ones that they will start using British, German, etc. varieties as well.

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16 Aug 2010

To wood or not to wood...

As I've mentioned before, I really like this trend of aging or maturing beers in barrels. And what I like the most about it is what some brewers are doing, commercialising the "same" beer with and without the wood. That way, the consumer can what this additional process adds to the beer, decide which of them they like the most and if the additional price is worth it.

So far, I'd had tasted only one beer in both versions, with the barrel aged one being a massive success. One year in French oak, previously used for maturing wine, had turned a beer I didn't like at all into one I loved.

Now, thanks to my great friend Gunnar, I was going to have the opportunity to see what effect the barrel treatment had had on a beer I had loved, Nøgne-Ø Imperial Stout. Would this beer have improved after three months in Scotch Whisky barrels (as unsurprisingly promises the brewer)?
The Highland Edition of this Imperial Stout pours as black as the original one. As expected, the aromas are quite different, pretty mild, with roasted coffee, raisins and some whisky there in the back. It's got the same full body as the original, but the flavours are more "wintery". There is a very nicely balanced mix of coffee and sweet chocolate with a touch of dried fruit wrapped up by a shy touch of whisky in the finish. At times, it reminded me of a Port.

It's great as a dessert beer, a night cap or as reward after a stroll in a cold afternoon. Now, given the choice (and the price here isn't an issue), it's the original the one I'd pick. I liked Highland, but I did miss the rougher, wilder side of the unwooded version. Those three months in a barrel tamed this beer too much for my taste.

So, for the moment, I have a tie at one between wooded and unwooded versions of the same beer. What about you?

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9 Aug 2010

Important Reminder

I hope the summer break has not made you forget: On 15-16 October is the International Gathering of Beer Bloggers here in Prague.

Since the date is getting closer I need to have know who is going to attend, and if you are bringing company, as soon as possible.

This is very important because of Friday's activities. The people of SPP have proposed a very interesting trip (see the link above), but whether we make it or not, and how much it will cost, will greatly depend on how many people will be attending.

So, please, send me an mail to confirm your presence before the end of the month (those who have already sent one, please, do it again, just in case). The more, the merrier.

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6 Aug 2010

The Session #42: A Special Place, A Special Beer

Finally I manage to take part in The Session. This month the invitation comes from Ramblings of a Beer Runner who proposes the following topic:
"...write about a special place in your life, and a beer or brewery that connects you to that place. It can be the beer from your childhood home, a place you once lived, your current hometown, a memorable vacation you once took, or a place you've always wanted to go to but never had the chance..."
I think we all have our good share of special beers and/or special places, and I'm no exception. However, having at the same time A very special beer in A very special place can be a bit more difficult.

I write about Czech beer for the Spanish magazine Bar&Beer. My third article was about local brewing schools. During my research I visited SPŠPT (that in Czech stands for Industrial Middle School for Food Technology), where, among other careers, kids can learn Brewing. There I was received by the school's director, his predecessor and the head teacher of the course, with whom I had a very interesting chat.

They told me about the school, which was founded in 1868 and that "Brewing" (it's got another official name, but I can't remember it now) is the only career of all of the ones they teach that is thriving (in most of the rest, they struggle to get enough pupils each year to open a class). That is in part thanks to the close relationships Czechs still have with their national drink, but also, because many of the pupils are children or even grandchildren of Brew Masters that graduated there. In fact, most Brew Masters, Brewers and not few brewery owners in the Czech Rep. learnt their trade there.

Of course, a visit to a brewery (because there is a fully functional brewery, with professional equipment, in the premises) wouldn't be complete without a tasting of what they produce.

To make it short, here I was in a classroom of a Secondary School, with some of the authorities of this school, drinking beers that had been brewed by 15 to 19 year old kids, all while we chatted about beer culture, history, industry, present and future and the beers we were drinking, of course, which, by the way, were really good! I can't think of a place or a beer more special that those.

In most countries this would be, if not highly illegal, at the very least terribly controversial. In the Czech Republic, it is tradition.

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2 Aug 2010

And here it is!

Those who follow this blog or have met me in person already know very well that Zlý Časy is my favourite pub, bar none. And it seems I'm not the only one, the place is packed almost every evening.

Its success is not only thanks to the 24 taps, all rotating, all with beers from regional and micros both domestic and imported, but also to the condition they are kept, their variety (the other day there were 5 wheat beers, 4 smoked, 2 ales, one German keller, etc.) and to the fact that the place has never lost the atmosphere of a neighbourhood hospoda. Every time I go I meet someone or start a chat with someone new, sometimes they are people who, overwhelmed by the choice seek the advice of those who sit at the bar.

None of this would be possible without the energy and the healthy bit of madness of Hanz, the owner. Hanz is someone knowledgeable and passionate about beer and also hard working, ambitious, open-minded and above all, a top bloke whom I consider a friend.
Not satisfied with having the place to go for a pint in Prague, he decided he would open the shop to go to buy bottled beer in Prague (and maybe even in the whole country). Motivated by the success he had with those American, etc. beers he imported earlier this year, he began to look for a good place to set up a "pivoteka". The plan was simple, to have the biggest assortment of beers from as many countries as possible. For that, he needed an appropriate premises, preferably, near the pub so he could use the cold storage he rents fromt a neighbouring butcher's. He was lucky, late last Spring a small shop right next door became available.
Some of Pivoteka Zlý Časy is still a work in progress, the decoration isn't finished yet, it needs a proper sign on the street, etc. But the most important thing, the beers, is already there. For the moment, there are 300 varieties to choose from that include names like De Molen, Dupont, Schlenkerla, Mikkeller, Anchor and the domestic Kocour, Tambor and Matuška among many, many more. Prices are a bit lower than at the pub for those beers that are available at both places. Visitors who won't know what to choose don't have reason to worry, the girl that works there who, besides being really friendly, has tasted many of the beers she sells and will be more than happy to help you make up your mind. Plans for the future also include an e-shop, delivery service and credit cards.
It seems amazing that not even a year and a half ago I was ranting at the lack of quality imported beers. Now, thanks to Hanz and his vision, I have nothing to complain anymore.

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Pivotéka Zlý Časy
Čestmírova 5, Praga 4 - Nusle
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