20 Apr 2011

What a great feeling!

I got the other day the copies of my book that I had ordered.
I wrote every word of this book, I took all the pictures, I designed it myself. In other words, I know this bugger inside out and upside down almost by heart, but still, having it in my hands on paper is a wonderful feeling. I was also very glad to see that the printed version looks better than I had expected, even though it's in black and white.

Buy it and see for yourselves.

Na Zdraví!

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18 Apr 2011

Equality! Justice!

This is a question that had been going around my mind for some time and about which I would have probably forgotten, had it not been for two separate pieces that appeared recently in the Czech press (what would my life be without the news aggregator of Pivní.Info).

The first one, originally published in Rozhlas.cz, talks about a proposal by two senators to modify the beer tax system. Their idea is to base it on the ABV % instead of the wort's density. Quite sensible, but I'd like to know the details before giving an opinion. Anyway, what I wanted to talk about isn't that, but what one of the senators and Stanislav Bernard are quoted saying by the end of the piece, wine tax, or actually, the lack thereof.

The second piece goes straight to the point. It appeared originally in lidovky.cz and it's signed by Ladislav Jakl, local beer personality, rocker and in his free time, Secretary of the President of the Czech Republic (yes, the same one that loves fancy pens). There Jakl calls for a special tax to be levied on wine, just as it is on beer. (for those who read Czech, I recommend the whole editorial, it's very interesting).

And the question that I mention above is right there. Why isn't wine taxed the same way as beer is?

Let's see. Beer and wine are both non-distilled alcoholic drinks.

Both are basically agricultural products. Someone could argue that wine has a more direct relationship with agriculture, but beer makes up for that by being supplied from two different crops.

Both are strongly tied to local cultures.

Both are produced by big corporations and by small companies.

Directly or indirectly, both give jobs to God knows how many people, and generate tourism.

It is said that a moderate intake of both has more or less plausible health benefits, while their abuse has well documented risks.

And yet, only beer has an excise duty tax.

Mind you, nobody here is calling for a repeal, or a reduction, of the beer tax (though nobody would be against it, either), and neither is this any wine vs beer nonsense. This is about making things fairer.

The Czech government, just like every other, needs more cash and there are people who would like to raise the beer tax further. Before doing that (and modifying the current system) they should levy a similar tax (based on a similar system) on wine.

It doesn't matter which drink you like better, if you are someone who believes in fairness, repeat after me:


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15 Apr 2011

Some beery observations

Researching for my book meant going around town visiting a lot of places. Besides finding that most of them have good service, the experience left me with a couple of things that gave me food for thought.

1) I was surprised by how many times I was asked how I liked the beer I was drinking. Save for one excepction, it always happened at places that had recently changed suppliers or added an alternative beer to their offer. Often my answer (that I was liking it) made the server glad and in some cases, it even generated a conversation about beer. Something that I don't remember ever happening before.

2) I really like unfiltered beers (as long as they are fresh) and it's even better to see that more industrial breweries are now offering some of their products in both versions. However, I've started to "rediscover" the joy of drinking filtered světle výčepní or ležáky. Sometimes their clean texture, drinkability and crispness is what does the job. And since I'm on topic, I'd like to congratulate those few hospody that offer the same beer in both versions. They prove better than anyone that all that stuff that unfiltered beers are better or "more craft" than filtered ones is utter bollocks. There are even beers that I prefer unfiltered!

3) I'm a fan of the multi tap, "ctvrtá pípa" pubs (as long as they know how to take care of the beers). I think it's great to have the possibility to choose a beer based on how I feel at a given moment, to radically change the sensory experience from one glass to another and to be surprised by something new almost every time. However, there are days that I feel like drinking without thinking and so I like going to pubs where I can simply order "pivo", or at most a Balling graduation or a colour, without any further questions and knowing exactly what I'll be getting, just as it has always been here. And it is also wonderful that in our beer culture, which is slowly getting richer, both models can coexist without many people thinking that one is better than the other. Which, like the filtered/unfiltered think, it is also bollocks.

It's great to live here!

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13 Apr 2011

Czech Beer Festival 2011 - News

Once again, I was fortunate to get invited to the press conference of the Český Pivní Festival (Czech Beer Festival) that was held yesterday at the Sheraton Hotel Prague.

There's not much to comment about the conference, only that the food that was served afterwards was really good and that, because of the weather, we had to eat it at the hotel's Lobby bar (which has the atmosphere of a bus stop), but there is plenty of news about the event itself.

The bad news first: The price of the tolar has been raised to 44CZK (from 40CZK of the previous two editions). For those who have just arrived, the tolar is a proper coin and it's the only thing that can be used to buy drinks, food and souvenirs. I like the system, won't comment on the price.

The dates: 12-28 May. Place: PVA Letňany (a couple of hundred metres from the namesake metro station). I still don't like the venue, but I guess that there aren't better options for an event of this scale.

Tuplák: For the first time, beer will be sold in 1l mugs (o tupláky, as they are known here). If I understood well, the classic half litre glasses will still be available, but only at the taps. According to the organisers, this is to speed up service. I don't quite get how, but either way, I'm not too happy with this. I don't like drinking in 1l measures, and I don't see the reason why I should queue to get a beer in a measure that is traditional here.

One more tent: There will be another giant tent this year, run by the Švejk restaurant chain. The "geek tent" is back, and just like last year, it will focus on specialties from Czech and foreign micros and there will also be a couple of themed evenings. Sunday 15/5 will be dedicated to American beers, 22/5 to English brews. Prices here will be higher, of course.

More beers: 120 in total will flow from the God knows how many taps, they said. Of the macros, only Urquell and only at the Švejk tent.

Hours: Opening hours have been extended, every day from 12-24 (last year, things started at 15 during the week). This is responding to the requests from tourist agencies, from whom they are expecting at least 10,000 reservations.

Reservations: Groups and individuals can book places, but this will cost them, 12 tolars and 50CZK per spot.

On Tour: This year, the festival will be presented in Frankfurt, Berlin, each with a tent for about 1000 people, and in Moscow in a scale similar to Prague's. They are also negotiating the possibility of organising it in other destinations. (these people aren't fools).

I hope the weather will be better than last year. I still have two tolars left and I got five more yesterday (the perks of being a journalist). If anyone happens to be around, we might catch up.

Na Zdraví!

Oh! And one more thing. If you are planning to come to Prague for the festival and don't know what to do during the rest of your stay, there is a pretty fine book you can buy titled "Prague: A Pisshead's Guide", and it's available both in print and in pdf. Strongly recommended, and not only because I've written it.

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11 Apr 2011

A cultural question

About a month and a half ago I had the chance, and the honour, to meet Tim Webb. It was luck, really. I had agreed with a friend to have lunch at Zlý Časy and there I ran into Evan Rail, who was waiting for other people to have lunch with at the same place.

Who is Tim Webb? Perhaps some of you are asking. He is the author of, among other books, The Good Beer Guide - Belgium. In other words, a guy who knows the Belgian beer landscape and industry like few others.

After the meal I had a chat with him. There were two things that I wanted to have confirmed about the Belgian beers and who better than Tim to look for an answer.

They are somehow related, one was something that I had long suspected: many, if not most, Belgian small brewers survive thanks to exports and/or beer tourism - which is basically the same; the other thing was something I had once heard: 80% of the beer sold in Belgium is of the Jupiler and Stella kind. Both were confirmed.

Many times I have read and heard that Belgium (and the Belgians) are the paramount of beer culture and yet, the average Belgian drinker isn't too different to the average drinker from Czech, Spain, Slovakia, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Denmark and pretty much every other country, in the sense that they all drink essentially the same thing, brands of mass produced (usually) pale lager.

This made me muse a bit on the very concept of "Beer Culture". What or who defines the beer culture of a given country? Is it the average consumer or that one with more "sophisticated", open-minded or whatever tastes, who is actually part of a minority?

To me, it's the former, the average consumer, and the beer culture of each country is defined mostly by the way in which the beverage is consumed. The tastes or the "counterculture" of that minority might penetrate the mainstream to some extent or another, but they become more than a fringe (and that is why I don't quite get all this "craft beer revolution" thing, but that's another topic).

So, if a beer culture is defined not so much by what is drunk, but by how (and where) it is drunk, this can be changing as well.

In many countries, beer consumption has been in decline for several years. Some try to associate this to the growth of alternative (or if you want, "craft") breweries. I believe that these two things are hardly related. People aren't drinking less but better, they are drinking less, period.

For example, here in the Czech Republic for the first time in history sales of bottled beer have surpassed the sales of draught beer. This is due to several factors, some are economic, others are demographic (I believe it is the latter that carry the more weight, at least in the long term), but whatever they are, the reality is that habits are changing. Does this mean that Czech beer culture (and other countries') is changing, too? To find an answer to that I'm afraid we will have to wait a few years. In the meantime, I'll go to the fridge for a bottle of Svijany, I would love to go to a hospoda for pivo, but there isn't any where I live.

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4 Apr 2011

Out at last!

Perhaps, those of you who don't follow my Facebook Page have been wondering about my long silence here. The answer is simple, I was working really hard finishing My Book, "Prague: A Pisshead's Pub Guide", which I was finally able to do yesterday (Sunday).
I must say I'm really pleased with the result, 117 pages of pub crawls, recommendations for cafés that serve good beer, early boozers, places to go for those who don't mind traveling a bit, articles about local beer culture and plenty of "beer porn", as my friend and top beer writer Stephen Beaumont calls it, all with a very personal touch. In a nutshell, a must have book for anyone who is planning a trip to Prague and wants to have good beer at good places. And if you aren't planning to come to Prague, you'll still have fun reading this, I promise you that.

So, go, buy it, it's already available. And it doesn't matter if you aren't a beer geek, you'll like it just the same.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Now that I've got this taken care of, I hope to slowly resume the usual activity of this blog.

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