29 Oct 2010

Lazy

According to my imaginary schedule, today I was supposed to write the reviews of 4 English Ales, but I can't be arsed. I didn't sleep well and I'm just too tired for that. Instead, I want to share with you some photos I've taken recently. Some of them will make it to My Book (which is coming along really well). I hope you like them.

U Slovanské Lípy
Jihoměstský Pivovar
U Černého Vola
U Černého Vola
U Dvou Koček
Kaaba
Krušovická Pivnice
U Medvídku
Pivovar U Bansethů
Zlý Časy
U Hrocha

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25 Oct 2010

Top fermenting in Lagerland

As a beer lover I feel really fortunate to be living in the Czech Republic, where without having to walk or pay too much I can drink some of the finest lagers in the world, in all their colours and strengths.

I drink bottom fermented beers every day, literally. I haven't got tired of them and never will. However, I also appreciate variety and that's why I'm glad to see that more and more breweries are venturing into the world of top fermented beers and also, that there are distributors who are having some success importing this kind of beers.

And it seems that there are plenty of people out there who think like me, because this Saturday, Oct. 30, Pivovar Kocour is organising in Varnsdorff the Ale Festivale 2010, dedicated exclusively to top fermented beers (yeah, I know that not all of them are ales, but the name of the festival is kind of cool as it is).
There will be several Czech micros as well as distributors taking part of the event. The offer will include some new and pretty interesting looking stuff like the Stout and the Bitter Ale from Zvíkov and the Grodziskie from Pivovarský Dům, plus a couple of surprises from the organisers.

I really wish I could go, but I won't be able to due to family matters. I envy those fortunate souls that will be there. Have one on me.

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21 Oct 2010

Bloody styles

I like discussing styles. It's a very rich topic and it usually generates heated debate. Pete Brown the other day started the latest discussion when he published the first and, a day later, the last of the two posts he said he will ever write on the subject. He was followed by other bloggers like Mark Dredge, Velký Al, Stan Hieronymus and a few more that I haven't read yet. All, together with some of the people who commented in their posts, present more than interesting arguments.

As for me. Well, I consider myself a style anarchist, but at the same time, I think knowing your styles well is important for two kinds of people:
  • beginner brewers because it can help them know what to do with the ingredients and what the resulting beer should be like (something like a cookery book for those who are just starting)
  • judges and organisers of competitions, because style guidelines will help evaluations to be more objective and based on more concrete parameters. (of course, to me, competitions and their result are absolutely irrelevant, but that's another thing)
As for us, the consumers. Each person can have their own point of view. Personally, I care very, very little about styles. My purchases are based on more concrete factors like colour and ABV %. Of course, if indicated, the style on the label will help me know that Beer A, a Barley Wine, will be different than Beer B, a Doppelbock, even though both are strong dark beers. But that is based on personal experience, in the same way that I will know that a Cabernet Sauvignon won't be the same as a Pinot Noir.

And since I've mentioned wines...

In his second post, Pete Brown mentions "wine styles" with the purpose of illustrating his point about beer styles. This is something I've seen many times, drawing a parallel between types of wine and beer in order to prove in a straightforward way that our favourite drink also offers a wide range of possibilities.

And yet, the more I think about this comparison, the more flawed I find it. The main problem is that a varietal is not the same as a "style". Let me explain:

Let's say I have a few vines of Malbec in my backyard and that last year I made wine with their grapes. What I have now in my cellar is a Malbec 2009. Quite likely a very shitty Malbec 2009, but nobody, absolutely nobody can argue that this is not a wine made from Malbec grapes picked in 2009. And if I had also made wine from those grapes this year, I would be about to have a Malbec 2010, and so on until I get tired of it.

Now, imagine I have a few sacks of malt (say Pilsen, Munich and Chocolate) a bag with Saaz or Hellertau hops and a flask with a certain kind of lager yeast. Can anyone tell me what sort of beer I will have as a result? No, I still don't know it myself; and I won't until I have put together or chosen a recipe. And even then, I could say that my beer is a Dunkles and someone else, after an analysis, will say it's a Märzen, just like it happened to Gerardo Fiorotto with his wonderful Don Toto Barley Wine, which for a judge was actually an Old Ale.

Wine has it a lot easier, really. Anyone can understand that a Tempranillo 2007 will be different than a Shiraz 2009, they won't even need to drink them. Now, what is the difference between a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale?

If we want to draw a good parallel between beer and wine (something quite difficult to begin with), then we should not do it by saying that something like Chardonnay is a style. If we keep on doing this we might fall in the same trap as this dude:
I'm one of those that believes that beer offers a wider range of possibilities to match with food than wine. But at the same time, I find the discussion about whether one is better than the other rather tiring and with very little sense, and the table you can see above is perhaps the worst argument in favour of any one of both drinks.

But back to beer styles. I know about them a lot more now than I did a couple of years ago, yet I don't think I enjoy my beer more now than I did back then.

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18 Oct 2010

Oh God

If there's anyone out there who still doubts that Gambrinus is going through a crisis, I think the new product of the best selling brand in the country will make things clear.

After, what in my opinion was, the pilot test of the unfiltered version of světlý, Gambrinus has now presented something almost revolutionary and very innovative, XCLNT. A new product specifically created for young people (I didn't know youngsters spoke all in capital letters and without vowels).

And what kind of young person is the target consumer of XCLNT? Fortunately, we have the answer right in the first paragraph of the press release announcing the launch:
They are 20 y.o. They live for each moment and friends mean everything to them. A bit dreamers, a bit rebels. They don't want to settle. They are independent and crazy. At parties, they are able to let loose and have fun until the morning. Clubs and bars are their second home. They like being the centre of attention, they wear designer shoes and fashion clothes and at the parties you can recognise them by the fluorescent bottles
I've got no idea how much Prazdroj is paying their marketing research agency, but after reading this I can't help but believe they are paying them way too much. Not only they've put in one paragraph all the clichés you can imagine about people in their twenties, but the new product they have for them is just something they can already buy, but in a new bottle, a fluorescent one. Behold.

Let me put this in other words. The most distinctive characteristic of Gambrinus XCLNT is that it comes in a 0.33l bottle with a fluorescent label on the neck. That's it. BRLLNT, isn't it?

Is this the best that the biggest brewer in the country can do to slow down the loss of sales? Do they really believe this product will work when they are taking their target consumers for a bunch of superficial morons?

Wait! I've got absolutely no doubt that there will be many clubs that will sell it. Prazdroj's sales teams have the resources and the muscle to convince many owners. And I can even imagine hostesses in mini-skirts opening bottles. But what will happen once out of the disco? I don't think this example of marketing laziness will be very effective when it comes to reinforce loyalty to the Gambrinus brand.

Fine, I'm already far from my 20's and I can't remember when was the last time I was at a disco. But I still remember how things were back in those days and, if you don't consider the changes in music and fashions, I don't believe they've  changed much. Dancing, jumping, moving and, with some luck, other more interesting activities will make you thirsty. At the bar there will be plenty to choose from: cocktails, pre-mixed drinks, juices, alcopops, energy drinks, water and beer. If you fancy a beer, you'll get what they give you, drink it and don't think about it anymore. What you want is to refresh yourself and, in that context, any beer will do. The fluorescent label will be a novelty, yes, and maybe even fun for some time, but all that will last as long as a fart in the wind. Your evening won't be any more or less memorable because of XCLNT, or any other beer. The next day o on Monday, you won't go around telling your mates how cool that bottle was. Nobody is going to pick one disco over another because they have this "new" beer. Nobody is going to run to the shop to unsuccessfully look for it only to settle with a boring bottle of Excelent.

I might be wrong. Perhaps next week I will run into a kid in his twenties who won't stop talking about how awesome this fluorescent bottle was. But for the time being, more than XCLNT, this product seems to me quite STPD.

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15 Oct 2010

Just a little detail is missing

After having written about it, I really wanted to taste Svatovaclavské Doppelbock. The other day, while I was in the centre killing some time, I started to think where I could find it and I suddenly remembered Krušovická Pivnice.

I hadn't been there for ages. Actually, I never liked the place too much, but I really wanted to see what that beer was like and I couldn't think of any other alternative. Besides, I was also considering whether this pub should be included in one of the crawls in my book. So, after a quick stop at U Medvídku to say hello to my friend Laďa Veselý, there I went, thinking that even if I didn't like the place, a quick beer wouldn't do me any harm.

I ended up staying for more than one.

Already before walking through the door I noticed some changes. Gone were the writings on the windows and the beer list had slightly changed. Krušovice Imperial tanková and Mušketýr Nefiltrovaný, as well as the expected Dopplebock. And the prices! 25CZK for half a litre of the first two! I doubt you can find something cheaper around there. Once inside, the whole place felt different, really. The decoration was pretty much the same as I remembered it, but I didn't feel like being in a tourist trap anymore, and also the service was great. It was almost like being in an alternative universe, one which I didn't quite want to leave.

And the beers? What about the beers? Oh, yes. That was the weak point, and a pretty important one at that. Imperial was too "green", Mušketýr too watery and murky at the same time and Doppelbock could have been great with bit of a lower attenuation and better integrated alcohol, but still, I was in a way glad to be proven wrong. This season special had absolutely nothing to do with that Dopple-Dopple Bock, it turned out to be something brewed expressly for the occasion.

The conclusion. It might be that the beers were a bit weak, but I still left the place feeling really good, so much that the pub already has a spot reserved in my book. If you are around, give it a go and let me know what you think.

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Národní třída 7 - Prague 1
+420 224 237 212
Mon-Sun 11-24

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11 Oct 2010

Good Vintage

Last summer I had the pleasure to meet Edgar, a friend from Barcelona, who was here on a visit with his girlfriend and one of his mates. We had agreed I would pick them up at their hotel to take them to Nusle for some lunch. Needless to say, we had a great time.

Besides been a big beer enthusiast, Edgar is a sommelier at a very well regarded restaurant in Barcelona. But he's not your usual sommelier, he is in charge of the restaurant's beer list. During the meal (and the several beers we had for dessert) we spoke a lot about his job. Edgar told me the beer list is quite successful and that there are more and more people who are beginning to realise what many of us have known for some time, beers usually offer better value for money than wines.

While he was telling me about all that, I couldn't help but think how many restaurants in the whole of the Czech Rep. offer something similar. Only one, that I know of. It might be hard to believe, but at the same time, hardly surprising when you consider that the domestic food gurus will choose something like Stella Artois as the headline beer of their annual event. But well, let's leave that for another time, today I want to talk about something far more pleasant.

Edgar didn't come empty handed. He brought me three different beers: Guineu Coaner, which was every bit as good as the first time I drunk it, though a bit gassier; one from Ales Agullos that is still waiting for its moment and Fuller's Vintage Ale 2009.

If you'd asked people here, most would tell you that the weather we had in September was on the wrong side of rubbish, grey, wet and too cold for the season. To me, on the other hand, it was great. The perfect weather to start drinking certain kinds of beer. Those that are more filling, warmer, with less hops and more malt, more comforting than refreshing. On paper, Fuller's Vintage Ale looked like a perfect example of all that.
And it is spectacular. Simply excellent. I enjoyed every sip, every drop. One of the things I liked the most about it is that the reaction was more "Hmmmmmm!" than "WOW!". Everything in it is comforting and relaxing. Its nose that reminded me of cherries soaked in rum, backed by some caramel notes; its silky body that massages your mouth; its complex flavours that start syrupy and when they are just about to become sickly, turn burnt sugar-like dry with a touch of spice, only to become more like those cherries in rum of the nose, everything sprinkled with touches of dried or baked fruit. It left me with a very pleasant and warm feeling, partly because of the 8.5%ABV. Yes, it does demand a lot of your attention, but it knows how to reward it. A very elegantly bottled treat. I had only one problem with it, though, that was my only bottle.

Thanks, Edgar. Thanks very much for this beauty.

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8 Oct 2010

Progress report

It's been more than half a year since I published a Progress Report about my book. The reason is that, well, there hasn't been much progress since then.

Yeah, I did write many entries and found several new places, but one day I hit a wall. Partly it was because of being too busy or tired, but mostly it was because it came to a point that I didn't know how to continue anymore. Writing one review after another of hospody, etc. from all the corners of Prague had become tedious and, what was still worse, I was afraid that it would also be tedious to read. And I didn't want that.

I had to find an alternative, perhaps I could include some more articles about local beer culture. But that was not enough. I really didn't know what to do. But one night, after going to bed and unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep, I had a revelation. The book would change, and rather radically.

And that is how what was going to be a list of places ordered geographically, became a "Pub Crawl" guide. Now the pubs are going to be grouped by articles that will include at least four or five of them, together with directions, comments about the city and some anecdotes. There will also be lists, but more conceptual, "early boozers", "cafés with good beer", etc.

I sent the first draft of the first crawl to a couple of friends who happen to be top beer writers. The feedback I got from them was very positive and constructive. They gave suggestions, pointed to what could be improved, but the best was that they liked the idea and the style. You can't imagine how thrilled I was by that.

The only inconvenient, though, is that this new format means that I will have to start again almost from scratch. I know my original plan was to have the book ready to publish by the end of this year. This will not happen, obviously. But I'm not discouraged, I believe I will have a better, more original book that will also be more fun to read, and that, to me, is far more important.

To those generous souls who have sent donations, in the following days I will e-mail a polished version of that first crawl. I also want to know your opinions and get your feedback. (If any of you out there want to help finance this project and have a copy of the book once it's ready, just click on the "Donate" button right below my pic).

In the meantime, I'm still wandering around the streets of Prague, always looking for new places that could be included in the book. One day, while walking in Vršovice, I noticed a Bernard sign in a side street. Since I feel I still don't have enough places that offer those fine beers from Humpolec, I went to see what it was about. Finské Centrum, or something like that, it was called, and it was a sauna club. Interesting idea, I thought. It could be nice to have a good, crisp Bernard Světlý Ležák after having stewed in a sauna. The place was closed, so I went to the notice board next to the door to see what the opening times were. What I found was this photo:
Finské Centrum, or whatever its name is, won't be included in the book. No way. If I wanted to, it would mean I would have to visit it, and I don't think I want to do that. I get goosebumps just from thinking about it.

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6 Oct 2010

Proper grub

Anyone who says that Czech pub grub is bad is an idiot. There, I said it. Czech pub grub is great. It's the most amazing thing since the invention of beer. The problem, of course, is that there are many places that don't make it right, either because they don't know or, more often, they don't care. But that is something that happens everywhere in the world, but go to the right place and you'll be able to eat very well and for a very good price.

At home we like to cook some of that stuff, it's not too complicated and the ingredients are usually cheap and easy to find. The only inconvenient is that it can take quite a long time to prepare and/or cook it, that's why we usually do it at weekends, specially on those days when the weather invites to you stay at home.

And since I love all of you, here you have the recipe for one of my all time favourites:

Bramborové Knedlíky Plňené s Uzením Masem
(Potato knedlíky stuffed with smoked meat)
Ingredients: (for about 10 pieces)
6-8 medium sized potatoes
enough wholemeal flour
a bit less semolina (krupice in Czech)
2-3 eggs
salt, pepper, nutmeg
somoked pork, you'll have to boil it and chop it (if you boil it with some root veggies, herbs and spices you'll have some nice stock for a soup or sauce)

Boil the potatoes in their skins, once they are ready peel (I hate peeling hot potatoes) and shred or mash them. Let them cool and then mix with the rest of the ingredients, knead until you have a uniform dough and let it rest for about half an hour.

Make disks the size of the palm of your hand (smaller if you are a basketball player, bigger if you are a fairy-tale princess), place the smoked meat in the centre and wrap it forming a ball (the ideal size is something between golf and tennis). Cook the dumplings for 20 minutes in boiling water and that's it.

Serve with sauerkraut or stewed cabbage and chopped onion stir fried in lard. Wash down with a good Polotmavé or Dunkles.

Eat and take a nap.

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PS: For those of you who read me in the Southern Hemisphere and don't fancy eating something so rich when its getting warm, let me remind you then of this summer treat

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4 Oct 2010

The Tap Race: Madness

In my last entry about the Tap Race I asked how long Zlý Časy's leadership would last. Actually, it was something I wrote because I thought it would look nice. I never expected that there would be people willing to keep on expanding the offer of draught beer.

Well, as it turns out, there were, the Tap Race has a new leader with 30 taps!

Prague Beer Museum opened a couple of weeks ago right in the centre of the city, in Dlouhá. I had known about this place already before its opening. Se Padilla, one of its owners, had contacted me to ask a few questions.

I met him last summer and he told me about the project. I liked it, I thought it was a pretty good idea, but what I liked the most was Se's attitude.

He is someone with a lot of experience in the trade. He has owned and managed several bars, both here and in the US. When he decided he wanted to set up a new place in the spot where Tom-Tom Club used to be, he realised things would not be easy. He told me that most of the cocktail bars he knows are struggling and that these were not good times to open something like that. Then he saw the success that Jáma is having with their new beer suppliers, or Zlý Časy with the 24 taps, and that's how he decided to change plans and do something completely new for him and, because he is not the most prudent kind of person, he set it up with 30 taps.

Just like Max Munson, Jáma's owner, before this project Se didn't know anything, nor cared too much about beer (and now he is an enthusiast). What he did know, though, was that if he did things right he could have some really good business in his hands. And since he wanted to do things right, he looked for advice. He contacted the people of Aliance PIV to see what they had to say and here is where I saw another positive side of this story.

Although I had heard comments that questioned the sense of this project (the main one, starting from day one with 30 taps at a place that isn't too big to begin with) the members of the Alliance decided they would help instead of critisise. A couple of its representatives visited Prague Beer Museum a few days after its opening and told Se what were the things he should correct. Now I've heard they've invited the pub to be part of the organisation. Good for them!

I missed the opening party, which I've heard wasn't too shabby, and decided to wait a couple of weeks before visiting the place. Actually, I didn't go as a client. I had agreed to meet Se to see how things were going and what had been so far the response to the beer list I had helped him put together.

Things were going quite well, fortunately. There were still a few things to sort out, but overall it was all working pretty fine. There hadn't been many problems with the rotation or the condition of the beers, which was one of my concerns from the moment I heard about this pub. Still, Se is well aware that it could be an issue once the weather gets warm again and, following the advice of Aliance PIV, he has set as priority no. 1 to install a refrigeration system for the cellar. During the talk I tasted several of the 30 beers available and only one of them wasn't in good condition, it was the one from the barrel that had been tapped the longest.

I also asked him which beers had been the most successful. He told me Matuška and Kocour were doing really well despite of their higher price; also the two or three flavoured beers were having a good rotation, neither I, nor Se likes them, but they are quite popular among the female patrons; and the strong beers were a big hit, too, a surprise for everyone there. It was me who told Se he should replace some of the flavoured abherrations with strong beers. I had thought that once people had a couple of pints of something they know, they'll be in the mood to try something different and these kind of beers would be among the first the would choose. It's nice to see I was right.

We spoke about a few more things. I recommended some beers for the next list, gave him a couple of contacts and commented on a couple of things I believe should be improved. With everything, including this last point, Se was very receptive. I left the place in a pretty good mood and not (only) because of the beers I had. It felt good to be able to help someone who, as I say above, has a lot of experience in this field, but it is still well aware that Prague Beer Museum is something very different to what he's done so far. And he knows that if he wants his new enterprise to be successful, he needs help and support.

So, go there, have a look. The place is really nice. If you do visit it, tell me what you thought about it. I promise I will pass forward your comments and criticism, I'm sure they will be welcome.

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Prague Beer Museum
Dlouhá 46 - Praga 1

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1 Oct 2010

On a couple of good ideas and a lot of pain

Several times I have already critisised Heineken because of their policy of closing down breweries and also for their very own interpretation of the concept of free market. But it is good to be fair, so credit should be given when it is deserved.

I really like what they are doing with the seasonal beers. They started a few years ago with Starobrno's Zelené Pivo (which, by the way, seems to be turning greener and worse with every year) sold at Easter. Last year they got serious with it when they presented Dožinkové Pivo, a pretty decent wheat beer brewed in Austria by Krušovice's brew master and sold at the end of Augusto, and a Christmas special. This year all of them have been joined by Svatojanské Speciál and Svatovacklávské Dopplebock, both brewed at Velké Březno, like the Christmas one. The former is a 13º Polotmavé brewed for Midsummer day and the latter and, at the moment, newest, was presented earlier this week for St. Wenceslas day and it's a lager of 21º Plato that has matured for 100 days and that, although I still haven't tasted, I have strong reasons to believe is that really good Březňák Dopple-dopple bock that used to be brewed for the German market.

Another one that has got on the seasonal thing is K Brewery.

According to what Zdeněk Radil, the company's CEO, said at a recent interview for E15, KBG has already finished tuning up all their seven breweries and now wants to focus on using the available capacity they have. He also added that he sees the segment of speciály (beers with at least 13º Plato) as very dynamic and with a lot of potential for growth.

And fitting into that category, and just like Heineken, KBG has decided this year to brew their own beer in honour of the Czech Patron. Their Svatováclavské, though, is a 13º Wheat beer (it reminded me a bit to Schneider Weisse, but I wasn't paying too much attention yesterday when I drank it, so don't take my word for it). Besides being quite good, this pšenka confirms what I had been told at the press conference earlier this year about the company's interest in top fermented brews.

Together with other seasonal specials that are in the pipeline, KBG's Svatovaclávské is part of a new project of the company called Cesta pivních znalců, which is obviously influenced by the "čtvrtá pipa" phenomenon that  has so much benefited tem. As the press release says, around 200 pubs from all over the country will offer their clients, besides their regular beers, the possibility of tasting a different beer every two weeks.

Clever people, in both companies.

The ones who have not been acting very cleverly recently are the folks at Prazdroj.

Beer production in the Czech Rep. is in decline. It is estimated that this year the fall could be of up to 12%. However, at the same time Bernard, Svijany and K Brewery are having record years with respective growths that could reach 20%! So basically, it is the big boys who are suffering the most, and among them, nobody seems to be hurting more than Plzeňský Prazdroj, who this year are having one PR blunder after another.

First it was the accusations against Kout na Šumavě, then the fines against restaurant owners who had decided to switch suppliers. To be fair, though, it could be said that Prazdroj is technically right in both cases, but they are still damaging the image of the company. To this we should add the incredibly clumsy campaign in response to the "tetrahopgate", which not only backfired but also has has had some pretty interesting repercussions. Because of it several brewers have left the Czech Brewers and Maltsers Association and some have also accused the organisation of having become a tool of the multinationals, among other things.

And if all that wasn't enough, now the giant from Pilsen has returned to the courts, this time against K Brewery, with a case that is flimsier than the one against Kout.

The other day Mike left a comment linking to a piece published in a local newspaper. According to the plaintiff, "Prima", a brand brewed by KBG at Pivovar Uherský Brod, and its image are way too similar to "Primus" one of Prazdroj's cheap brads that has been getting some significant advertising lately.

The article implies that Prazdroj has declared K Brewery as their enemy no. 1. Not only it seems the company property of SAB-Miller can't get over the fact that some of the management of KBG are their former staff, but also that they are also fuming because the group of regionals is slowly, but successfully, pushing Gambrinus out of many pubs.

So far Prazdroj has been unsuccessful, both a Municipal and an Appeals court have rejected their case, ruling that neither the names, nor the labels are similar enough to confuse the consumer (to which I should add that both beers are sold in different looking bottles). The giant has not given up, though, and have appealed to a higher court that will deal with the case in the following weeks.

I understand that for the suits and accountants who run the Czech SAB-Miller subsidiary loosing market share is something unacceptable, but even if we said they are right in their complaints, the image they are giving is that of arrogance, desperation and, to a certain extent, of a company that can not accept the realities of a free market economy.

So, this is how on the one hand, we have a couple of companies that are trying to adapt to new trends by offering new and varied products and on the other, a company that is trying to annoy everyone else.

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