28 Jul 2011

At least they are trying

Many people have told me that in the past, the beers from Krušovice were considered among the best in the Czech Rep., comparable even with what Pilsner Urquell brewed at the time.

Things started to change in the 1990's, and not for the better. Like most of the breweries in the country (that had not been given back to the owners of the pre-Comunist years) Krušovice was privatised and from then on its production increased tremendously, trebling its volume in only three years. By the middle of the decade, and after a few comings and goings, the German company Binding Brauerei, itself part of the Radeberger Gruppe, itself property of the multinational Dr. Oetker (people who I'm sure care about beer as much as Budvar care about frozen pizza), became the majority shareholder. This all resulted in, well, when I moved here in 2002 the once admired brand was now considered among the worst, a bit like Staropramen today. And that's not it, it is said that the Germans would mix some of their Radeberger Pils with Krušovice in order to increase volume, great...

In 2007, the Dutch giant Heineken became the new owner of the brewery and decided that Krušovice would be the flagship brand of their Czech portfolio, so they were left with no other choice but to start repairing the brand's image.

The most significant step in this process has been the relaunching of Krušovice Světlý (výčepní) and Krušovice Imperial (ležák) as "Pořadná 10° y 12°" (proper 10º y 12º - Balling). This is not only about a rebranding, but also about an interesting rhetoric touch. If we are speaking about the products of the macros (including Heineken), and not few regionals like Bernard or Primátor, what people usually call desítka (10) or dvanáctka (12) are actually výčepní o ležák, which are legal categories defined by respective ranges of Balling graduation, 8-10.99 for the former, 11-12.99 for the latter. This is important because many of those beers are brewed with a lower graduation than many people believe or in some cases, like for example Gambrinus, the High Gravity Brewing system is used. So, what Heineken is telling us with this is that they make these beers the proper way (regardless that they never mention how much time they are given to ferment and lager).

That's all very nice, yeah, but the most important thing is the beer, and if I like it (or not) I really don't give much of a toss about what the label and the rest of their marketing say.

I had already tasted the 10º when it was launched and I didn't like it that much. The 12º was launched this year and as soon as I came across a bottle I bought it to taste it in the comfort of my home (in the picture, together with what would soon be a pivní sýr).
I could say about it exactly the same I said about the 10º over a year ago, "this is a pretty good looking beer. Unfortunately, that is the best it's got to offer. It's not that it's bad, it's just tasteless and lacking any character whatsoever."

But I like being fair, to really be able to appreciate a desítka and dvanáctka you have to drink it draught. The bottled version can give you an idea, but it is from a well tapped půl litr that beers like this express themselves best. With that goal I went to what I believe is the best place in Prague to drink Krušovice, Krušovická Pivnice Šalanda, in Nardoní.

The 10º improves, it's got a nice malty base and a mild, but pleasant bitterness. If they had it in my village I would happily drink it. The 12º starts well enough, the first sip surprised me, well built and quite "Urquell", very tasty indeed, but halfway down the glass it runs out of steam, it's as if all the taste and character were packed in the head. Disappointing.

But back to the marketing thing. After both beers had been relaunched, Heineken took the streets to carry out the Krušovice Referendum, aiming to confirm the beers' new slogan "Chutná jako tenkrát" (It tastes like back then). The campaign consisted of a small tank lorry going around different towns offering both beers on tap and asking the people if they were as good as they used to be.

The result can't surprise anyone, 97% of those "polled" said that yes, the beers are like 15-20 years ago. Regardless of the fact that many of the blokes that appear in the TV ad don't look old enough to have been beer drinkers two decades ago (although...) or that it isn't known how many of the rest where actually regular consumers of Krušovice back in the good days, how many people can are really able to remember what a beer they drank so long ago tasted like?

But well, the important thing here is that we have a multinational that is trying to do at least something well, or better than before. Time will tell whether this drive will be successful or not. And honestly, I hope they will. Not because I have any kind of sympathies for Heineken, but because, if this works out it might result in other big brewers giving more emphasis to quality, which in the end is good for everyone.

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26 Jul 2011

A quick beer trip

As soon as I knew I would have most of last Thursday free I decided to make a trip I'd been owing myself for some time. The weather that day turned out to be on the wrong side of crap, but it didn't matter, I was planning to do something like I had done in Únětice. My goal this time was Pivovar Antoš, in Slaný.

Since this brewpub had opened in February, I had heard nothing but good comments, about the place, its food and, above all, its beers. I was very glad that I was finally going to be able to make the pilgrimage there.

It's very easy to get to Slaný. There are regular buses that leave from Dejvická (the stop is in front of Hotel Diplomat) and the trip takes a bit more than half an hour. I took the bus leaving at 10, which left me at the town's bus station. According to the map I had consulted, I had to go around the church I was able to see from were I was standing and then walk about 200m to the brewery. Since the place didn't open until 11 I went for a short walk around Slaný's centre. It turned out to be prettier than I had expected. It's true that some of the buildings look a bit run down, but in that day's weather, that added a bit of charm.

I got to the restaurant right when it was opening its doors. It is very nice inside. It's located on a corner, in a building that was originally built in the 13th century, but its current looks date from the 18th, if I remember well. It's divided into several rooms on three levels. What used to be the courtyard now has a glass ceiling below which are the mash tun and kettle. The effect is quite impressive, with the natural light shining on the copper plating of the kit.
I found a table by a window in the taproom. They were brewing that day and the air was full of that lovely mashing smell. A waitress with a pleasantly genuine smile asked me what I wanted to drink and gave me the menu. I picked a desítka to quench my thirst and the day's special to take care of the hunger. The drštková wasn't too shabby and it felt great given the weather, the pork řízek with creamed potatoes (real ones, not the instant crap) were really good.

But it wasn't the food what had brought me there, it was the house's beers and they didn't disappoint. The desítka was fantastic. It's incredible what a skilled Brewmaster is able to do with something as simple was a 10º Balling pale lager. It smelled like walking in a field of ripe wheat while holding a bunch of wild flowers and it tasted like perfection that has been cold fermented and sufficiently lagered. To me, one of the best in its category, no doubt, up there with Kout's or Chýně's.
I could have stayed there the rest of the day drinking půl litr after půl litr of that beauty and the trip would have been more than worth it, but I fancied tasting the rest. The světlý ležák (11.8º, so not a proper dvanáctká) was like desítka's big sister. Very nice it was, too, but I didn't like it as much as the previous one, perhaps it just tasted a bit too similar.
Now, if the desítka was perfection in a half litre glass, the polotmavá 13º belongs to an alternative reality, to a parallel universe. Each one of its molecules seem to have been designed to cause the most exquisite beer pleasure. It reminded me a lot to a Dunkles from Bamberg I had to review recently, but better. Nothing bombastic, nothing “-er” or “-est”, it doesn't need any of that, after all, it's my favourite beer.
I also drank Černé Poupě a really black 12º lager. Very nice, coffee with some milk chocolate and a mild touch of licorice and flowers. I prefer my black beers to be more “roasty”, but I still enjoyed this one.
Drinking and eating weren't the only things I did at Pivovar Antoš. I also had a chat with Mr. Pavlík, one of the owners. A pretty nice bloke and one of those people who is convinced that in order to prosper you must, first and foremost, want to do things well. He told me he doesn't have any brewing background, but, like many of us, he had always dreamt about having his own brewery. However, that wasn't the original plan when he and his partner bought the building. It was only after they learnt that the family that once owned the place were also owners of brewing rights, something that wasn't very easy to get back then.
The man in charge of brewing the delights I enjoyed while talking to Mr. Pavlík is David Máša, someone with a lot of experience, who used to be a brewer at Krušovice, and the assistant brewer happens to be his son.
Mr. Pavlík showed me the rest of the brewery, part of which is located in the building's original cellars and gave me a couple of samples of that polotmavé straight from one of the lagering tanks. There wasn't that much difference really, all the beers are tapped straight from the tanks, Kellerbier-like.
I would have loved to stay there for the rest of the day, but my bus back to Prague was leaving at 1PM. Before leaving I was asked which beer I had liked best. I arrived home with two 1,5l bottles of that gorgeous polotmavé.

Really, if you are in Prague get the bus to Slaný. A visit to Pivovar Antoš is well worth the trip, you won't regret it and you'll sure thank me for the tip later.

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Pivovar Antoš
GPS: 50°13'47.938"N, 14°5'19.052"E
Vinařického 14/10 - Slaný
info@pivovarantos.cz - +420 608 274 011
Mon-Thu: 11-23, Fri-Sat: 11-24, Sun: 11-22

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18 Jul 2011

In Prague this Saturday?

If the answer is yes, and if you fancy drinking some different beerwise, then you might want to consider attending the first edition of the Festival of Special Beers Beerketa.
The event takes place at the Marketa Stadium in Prague 6 (Bus 179, 184, 191 to Nad Marketou, or a five min. walk from the tram stop Vypich, trams 22, 25, GPS: 50°5'2.264"N, 14°20'50.753"E). Doors open at 11 and the admission fee is 150CZK. The first 1000 attendants will get a labeled glass with which they can sample beers from:

- Matuška
- Klášterní pivovar Strahov
- Kocour
- Chýně
- Richter
- Vimperk
- Purkmistr
- Chyše
- BrewDog
- Weihenstephan among others.

Besides getting merry (not pissed, getting pissed isn't good for you;), you'll have the chance to meet and talk with brewers, know a bit more about beer styles, taking part in a couple of competitions, have a chat with the people behind Pivo, Bier & Ale and maybe even see me, great honour, at least for myself every morning.

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15 Jul 2011

462 words say more than one image

The news that Pivovary Staropramen had yet another year with a drop in production (by 7%, if I remember well), together with the news that Pivovar Svijany has finished with the construction works to expand their capacity in order to meet the increasing demand for their beers, made me remember about this photo:
It is said that an image can say more than a thousand words. That's not always true, and less so if you don't happen to have enough background information, as it is the case with the picture above. At first sight, we have signs that announce the two brands I spoke about before, which many will rightly assume that also show the way to a pub, bar, restaurant, etc.

After having read the paragraph that precedes the picture, some of you might take it as a symbol of what's happening, a regional brewer that is growing partly thanks to taking sales away from a multinationally owned macro brewer. But that's not were the story ends, to me the photo says a lot more.

In 1998 Svijany brewed less than 30,000hl. The facilities were in urgent need of investments to keep on working, but the owners at the time, Pivovary Praha (later Staropramen), had decided that such investments were not worth it for such a small brand and therefore, it would be better to shut the factory down, which from their point of view, was kind of sensible.

When learning this, the Head Brewer (whose name I can't remember and can't be arsed with googling) decided he would save the company were he had worked for so long and, together with some associates, made an offer to Staropramen. At first, the people in Smíchov refused to sell and this good man was left with no other choice than to appeal directly to Bass&Co., then owners of Pivovary Praha, who did accept the offer. Or at least that's how the story goes.

Whether that is the way things happened or not, today the production of Staropramen keeps on falling, while Svijany last year brewed more than 400.000hl, a figure that is set to increase this year, again.

As I was wandering around the city researching for my book I saw at least half a dozen places that today sell both brands. I don't know how well each of them is doing at each of the places, but it is clear that each pint of Svijany someone buys there is a pint that Staropramen won't be selling.

I don't believe that anyone working for Svijany today has any sort of animosity towards Staropramen, but I wouldn't be surprised if each keg they sell at those places that sell both brands has for them a value that goes beyond the monetary.

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13 Jul 2011

The right answer to an old question

As I was writing my comeback article for the Spanish magazine Bar&Beer I realised something I had known for a long time, the true and honest answer to the question I've been asked countless times "What is your favourite beer?"

My favourite beer it's of no specific brand, colour, style or even country, neither it answers to any arbitrary label like "industrial", "real", "traditional" or "craft". My favourite beer doesn't need to shout to be heard. My favourite beer can be an excuse to have a pleasant time with friends and loved ones and can make it even more pleasant, but at the same time it can be a pleasant time all by itself. You don't need to understand or know much about my favourite beer to enjoy it, though many of those who know and understand a lot about beer don't seem to be able to appreciate it. My favourite beer can be the first and the last of the day and doesn't need any special moment or situation to drink it, it just goes well with every moment or situation.

My favourite beer is a bit like the Great Goddess of the ancients, who was known by many names and came in all shapes, sizes and colours, which at the end of the day were nothing but different manifestations of the same principle.

That's my favourite beer, what's yours?

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11 Jul 2011

Bollocks and beer pairing

There are brewers, big and small, who are trying to show the world that beer shouldn't be seen only as a refreshment, but that it could also be a great match for all kinds of food, and they deserve praise for that. Unfortunately, there are times when those efforts are almost pathetic.

That's the case with this article that quotes Beer Expert Javier Soriano, Teacher at Gambrinus School of Hospitality (which belongs to Heineken Spain) and co-author of that Beer Tasting Method.

There Soriano tells us that beer can play an important role in high end gastronomy and that it can also take the place of wine at restaurants. Something I fully agree with. He then adds that "In Europe, a lot of beer is served at room temperature, something that isn't possible in our country, where pale beer is predominant and is served very cold. We have adapted it, making it lighter to make it more drinkable and refreshing, something necessary because of the weather".

Well. Where can I begin?

Everyone is free to enjoy their beer the way they see fit, be it straight from a bottle or can or from a specially designed crystal glass, alone or with a slice of lemon, ice-cold or piss-warm. It's a matter of taste. However, the idea of a pairing is to combine the aromas and flavours of a drink with the aromas and flavours of food, hoping to have a new sensory experience. Of course that there aren't rules or formulas and that what works for me might not work for someone else, but you can't speak seriously about beer and food pairing when the beer you are pimping is served at a temperature so low that you won't be able to properly appreciate those aromas and flavours (which, in the case of Cruzcampo, might be a blessing).

That weather thing is also a big, steamy pile of old bullshit. Last April at a bar in the outskirts of Ávila, at over 1400m above sea level and on a far from torrid day, I was served Cruzcampo bajo cero at a temperature that honoured its name, and I'm very sure that if I went tomorrow for lunch to a restaurant in Sevilla and ordered a bottle of red wine, it will not be served ice-cold in glasses that've been in the freezer.

(And since we are on this topic. Considering that those beers that are expected to be drunk ice-cold tend to be kind of crap, I wonder if they became so crap because people have always drunk them very cold, or people started drinking them so cold because they've always been so crap).

Professor Soriano and the company that employs him should either be more honest with themselves or stop taking us for idiots. Cruzcampo and other similar beers of the world are refreshments, they've been sold and bought as such for a long time already, and, qualities and personal tastes aside, I don't see anything wrong with that. To me, there's no better refreshment in the world than a beer or, to be more precise, a 10-11º Plato pale lager served at 6-8ºC, which is refreshing enough in any kind of weather.

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8 Jul 2011

Family daytrip

For a change, it seemed that the weather forecast was going to get it right, Wednesday (a national holiday here) promised to be too nice a day to stay home. My wife proposed going for a day trip. The idea was to find a place that wasn't more than an hour away by car, where we could go with our daughter and where we hadn't been yet. El casitllo Kokořín was the place that checked all the boxes.

Once you leave Mělnik and start following the brown signs that show the way to the caslte, the road becomes really beautiful. It gets into forests that are almost jungles, which try to hide rock formations that seem to have come out of a Slavonic legend, all dotted with a couple of villages with pretty houses.

As expected for a day like this, the castle's car park was almost full when we arrived. After leaving the car, we still had an uphill walk a couple of km long to get to the castle, good exercise.
The castle itself is in the middle of the woods, on top of the hill we were climbing and its tower appears almost by the time you had lost any hope of finding it. It's not too big, but very nice. We walked around a bit, enjoyed the impressive view from one of the towers and got on the way back downhill. My daughter had done all the way up walking, so I had to carry her when we went down. That, together with the heat and the hour made me a bit hungry and very, very thirsty. I swear to you, I would have gladly knocked down a pint of Staropramen.

Right behind the car park there was patio restaurant that looked pretty nice. We went straight there and found a seat inside, it was too warm to be in the sun.
I don't know the name of the place, I've forgotten it. I thought I could find it on the Internet, but I wasn't able (not that I searched very hard). Whatever its name is, it surprised me with the beer offer. Besides the Urquell that promised the umbrellas they had Podkováň, a brewery that only a month ago, reopened after three years, and at 21CZK a half litre of 11º! And it was soooo lovely (and not only the first one).
The day's menu only listed food that was a tad too heavy for the weather, so we ordered only soups. Wise choice. The soups were great, but the service was awful. It wasn't the fault of any of the four servers, mind you. They were friendly and trying to do their best. I'm no restaurant wizard, but you don't need to have much experience in the field to know that whoever is in charge of that place has no clue about managing staff. All of the four servers were taking care of all the tables at once. The result was confusion. Three times we were asked if we had ordered, once one of them wanted to give us something we hadn't ordered, we had to wait more than 15 minutes for our soups (which were ready and only had to be put in a bowl), when I ordered my second beer I was brought Pilsner Urquell, after almost 10 minutes, instead of Podkováň (fortunately, they didn't charge me the Urquell's 33CZK ). If we had ordered any of the main courses, we would probably still be waiting there. It's a real shame because the place, the food and the beers were nice.

Done with the soups, we decided to go to the neighbouring Kokořínský Důl. We had passed it with the car before and there were a couple of pubs that looked really fine.
We parked in front of the oldest looking one. Just like at the pub before, there were Pilsner Urquell umbrellas on the terrace, plus a Krušovice sign. What we found, instead, was another beer surprise, again Podkováň! And at the same price. In fact, the name of the pub was Podkováňská Pivnice U Grobiána. And the inside was just as old-fashionedly good looking as the outside.

Service here was a bit better and with the missus we ordered smažák (fried cheese, hermelín this time). They were great! Zdeňek Pohlreich can bitch all he wants about smažák, to me, it's simple, day-trip, beer food at its best.
While my wife was ordering, my daughter very cunningly led me by the hand to the inside of the pub and, almost as if she didn't want it, walked slowly to the fridge with the ice-cream. You tell me, what other alternative I had but to come back out holding a chocolate ice-cream.
After the second pint I realised how nice it could be to live, or at least have a weekend house, in Kokořínský Důl. It's a little bit of pisshead's heaven. Of the three pubs, not one sold any of the big brands, one sold Podkováň, another Bernard and the third, Svijany. If that wasn't enough, U Grobiána at weekends opens at 9! I could almost imagine myself on a Saturday or Sunday morning going there with my džbán while breakfast cooks slowly.
After having eaten and drunk very well, we went for a short walk around. We left a lot unseen in this area, so we have a great excuse to come back. I'm sure it will be worth it.

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4 Jul 2011

A bit of pub democracy

I don't smoke. I don't like to smell like a well aged ashtray after stopping at a pub for a couple of beers. I don't understand what is it that people see in cigarettes, they taste like shit. I'm convinced that most smokers are nothing but filthy pigs who aren't able to walk a couple of metres to throw the butts into a dustbin, and I don't even want to talk about those idiots who throw the butts out of their car windows.

That said, I am against a smoking ban at restaurants, etc. On the one hand, because tobacco, in any shape (except for the chewing, which I don't understand), is a legal product that can be purchased by anyone older than 18 without restrictions, and on the other, because I have the impression that many of the activists calling for such ban are nothing but selfish twats* who can't respect the rights of others. You go to a restaurant etc. because you want, and the same way you choose a place based on the kind of food, prices, atmosphere, convenience, etc. you can choose it based on its policy towards smoking. And that's why I think the current law is very sensible, it makes owners indicate at the door whether smoking is or isn't allowed at their shops.

That said, I am really happy to see that, at least in Prague, there are more and more places where smoking isn't allowed. On the one hand, because I believe that non-smokers have the right to go to places where they will feel comfortable, and on the other, because in all cases, it was the owners who decided. And I specially like those owners who made the decision after consulting with the most important factor in any commercial equation, the client.

Something like that is what Hanz, the owner of Zlý Časy, has decided to do. During the summer holidays, Nusle's beer temple will be non-smoking (actually, smoking will still be allowed in the garden, but those on the know go downstairs). At the moment, this is a pilot test during which clients can let know how they like the change. Whether this change will be permanent or not will depend solely what people have to say about it. Personally, I hope that it's the smokers who will prevail. So, drink up and speak up.

Regardless of what the final decision turns out to be, here you have a list of smoke free places:

- Pivovar U Medvídku (only at the brewpub)
- Baráčnická Rychta
- Dobrá Trafika, at leat the branch in Korunní
- Pivovarský Dům and Pivovarský Klub
- Kulový Blesk
- Klášterní Šenk
- Pivovar Bašta

These are the ones I can remember at the moment. If anyone knows of any other, let me know.

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* Smokers can also be selfish twats, like that bird, the only smoker in a group of six, who got really angry at her mates when she realised that she couldn't light up at Kulový Blesk. Until she was told to shut the fuck up, she didn't stop complaining and insisting they all went somewhere else.

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1 Jul 2011

Selected Readings: June

Another month and more beer interesting things to read that I want to share with you.

Pete Brown talks about the the importance of bloggers in the beer trade, something I'm not so sure I agree with if I look at the big picture, but I must admit Pete brings some solid arguments.

Lorenzo Brusattin, from the Spanish site Marketing y Consumo, offers a very good analysis of the beer market in Spain, which after changing a few names, could be easily applied to almost every country.

2d2spuma asks several questions, while lamenting that the organisers of a Crafts Fair had accepted the sponsorship of a macro brewer, who, as expected, had as a condition that only their beers could be sold at the event (something I can fully understand). But it's the second and third part of the thing what interests me the most, they remind us that a micro brewer is a company and a "craft brewer" is a business person. Something that is quite obvious, but that, at the same time, seems not the be able to get through the thick skulls of not few people, who prefer to believe that craft brewers are artists of some sorts.

Ron Pattison shares with us two fantastic pieces of beer poetry, one about lager and the other one about beer gardens in Franconia, where, of course, lager is drunk. A must read for everyone, but specially for those obtuse minded people who still believe that lager=fizzy shit (and to some extent, also for those who believe complex, extreme or innovative beers are the only beers worth talking about).

From Canada, Alan McLeod reminds us of something few of us have ever thought about, the positive impact the brewing industry has in the economy, all of it, from micro to macro (though, due to volume, it's the latter who do the heavier lifting). If you think about it for a bit you'll realise that there are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend, directly or indirectly, on beer, from farmers to lorry drivers, among many others.

Unfortunately, not everything is peachy in the beer world, as, once again, Alan makes clear. The American craft brewer Rogue has been accused of having less than stellar labour policies. If those accusations turn out to be true, I wonder how will they end up affecting the sales of the brewery and if all this will make other breweries in a similar situation to review their practices.

Stephen Beaumont wrote an open letter to Steve Body, a professional wine and beer reviewer who doesn't seem to understand beer all that well (and in fact, doesn't seem to enjoy drinking very much). I don't believe the consumer needs to understand a drink in order to enjoy it, but if you are writing professionally about that drink, understanding it should be essential.

Going to the past, Martyn Cornell shares with us a fascinating history of imperial proportions. It turns out that using "Imperial" to call a stronger than usual beer is nothing new, yet I still consider "Imperial Pilsner" to be utter bollocks.

Martyn also tells us about the five worst beers he had in his life, each with its story, and they are quite fun. I don't like making lists, but if I made one of the worst beers I've ever had, Santa Margarida Trigo will sure be on it. "Bakers yeast dissolved in dishwater", as I described it then.

Getting more technical, Mark Dredge has been posting a series called When Beer Goes Bad, which explains very clearly and with simple language those things that can fuck up a beer (or, in some cases, can add some complexity).

The "bollocks of the month" award goes to this article published in Estilo Hoy. You can't expect much depth from a fashion and trends magazine, but the quality of the writing is very, very poor. Besides repeating the usual nonsense, the author, who didn't have the nerve to sign, didn't even pay attention to what he or she was writing. We are first told that "Among the ALES we can choose beers with (...) honey, wheat, corn, flavoured, etc." and in the next paragraph we are reminded that "the Cervezas Artesanales are brewed according to the German Purity Law, which says that beers must be brewed with three ingredients, water, barley and hops".

And last, but not least, Stephen Beaumont posted a review (and a very favourable one at that) of my book, listen to him, he knows what he's talking about.

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