31 Oct 2011

Bamberger Rindfleisch

When Cuketka.cz published this recipe for beef with wheat beer, the most read Czech food blogger reminded me about an idea that had been going around my mind for quite some time, to try to make something like Beef Bourguignon, but with beer instead of wine.

Unlike the above linked recipe, I hadn't thought of using wheat beer, but a dark smoked one (hence the name, because I am that creative, yeah) and I must say it was better than lovely.

This is an easy recipe, great for a weekend. It doesn't need too much time to prepare and once you put the thing in the oven you can leave it alone until it's almost ready.

It's better for it to use a cheap cut of beef, it will roast for a couple of hours, so it should be really tender and, also, the fattier the meat, the tastier the sauce will be.

One of the ingredients is celeriac, which is a common root vegetable here, but I don't know how easy it can be to get in other countries. If you can't find it or can't be arsed with looking for it, you can use another root vegetable or more carrot.

So, take your notepad and a pen, here it goes.
Bamberger Rindfleisch (serves several)

1kg beef, cut in pieces like for a stew or a guláš
50g of bacon, diced
1 medium sized onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2-3 smallish carrots, diced
100g (approx.) celeriac, diced
1/2l dark smoked beer
1/3 cup tomato puree
Soy sauce (only a few drops), salt, pepper
Sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves
Cooking oil
A bottle of a not too strong, not too intense beer to sip while preparing everything.

In a roasting pan that can be covered or a pot that can go into the oven heat some oil. Lightly coat the beef with the flour and toss it in the hot oil. Don't put it all at once, do it a few pieces at a time. When they get brown on all sides take them out and keep them apart.

Once done with the beef, put the veggies, bacon and herbs, add a dash of the beer to scrape what is left on the bottom of the pan/pot and mix. Let it cook until the onion starts getting a bit of colour and put back the beef. Mix some more and add the beer, soy sauce and tomato. Let it boil for about a minute, cover it and put it into an oven preheated at 170ºC. Roast it for two, two and a half hours, or until the meat is really tender. And that's it.
We ate it with a pumpkin puree that I finished with nutmeg and sour cream. It was some really über-awesome grub, I swear.

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28 Oct 2011

Magnetic Beer

That's the name of the new category I've made up. Yes, I know, it's probably silly, redundant and pointless, but let me explain anyway.

Picture this scenario. You go to one of those pubs that has a more or less extensive beer list. Among the day's offer you find some old favourites, something you have long wanted to drink again and a couple of new things. Eventually, you order one of those new beers, but, being a proper beer-hyperactive, even before getting your pint you are already thinking about which beer you'll order next (if you haven't decided already that this will be your last of the session). However, without even having drunk half the glass, you are already looking forward to getting a new one. The beer won't let you go. The others are still there, you know it, you haven't forgotten them, but there's no way you can leave this one you are drinking. You end up drinking several more pints than planned and only a major dose of willpower helps you leave the pub before it's too late.

That is what happened to me the other day at Zlý Časy with Black Dog, a new Stout from Chýně. It was my third, and maybe last, pint of the afternoon, it already looked quite interesting from the list of ingredients: roasted barley, roasted rye malts, Hellertau from NZ (?). Dark as a gorilla's bumhole, topped by a latté coloured, very compact head, 13º Balling and 5% ABV, light bodied but far from thin, complex, but not overwhelming or tiring, with everything you can expect from a dry Stout, but with a unique character. I wasn't able to get away from it, I was stuck, I ended up having four pints of it and, if it hadn't been for the hour, I would have gladly had four more. This is not the fist time that something like this happened to me, before it was with Hoppy Cat, an excellent Porter from Kocour, in collaboration wtih The Hoppy Brewing co. and with Březňák from Vyškov, a světlý ležák that has something magnetic in it.

Has something like this ever happened to any of you?

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24 Oct 2011

Open letter

To the Chief Editors of the Spanish speaking, non specialised media

Dear sirs,

I am an enemy of censorship of any kind, I strongly believe that everyone should have the right say anything that crosses their mind regardless of how moronic, nonsensical or wrong it might be and as long as they are willing to bear the consequences should the said thing turns out to be slanderous or offensive. However, after reading this piece of rubbish (SP) published last Sunday in the Murcia edition of La Verdad, I am left with no choice but to plead from the bottom of my heart and with a tear rolling down my cheek that you refrain from publishing any more articles that deal, at least superficially or tangentially, with technical aspects of beer or brewing. Not only because they disrespect the noble trade of beer making, but also because they disrespect all of your readers, regardless of how little or much interest or knowledge they have in or about the topic.

The above linked article is just another example of the poor quality of what your media publish about beer. In this particular case, it is evident that the author, whose name is unknown, knows as much about the topic as I know about Kabuki theatre, and that all his or her research was limited at most to the first two or three results offered by an internet search engine, because there is no other way to explain that he or she opens his or her opus with the following paragraph (translated from the Spanish original)
"1: Ingredients: Malted Barley: Pale Ale malt and Cristal Malt, they are used in the mashing to extract sugars that will later be converted to alcohol. Water: It is essential for brewing, since up to 90% of the beer is water. It is treated by osmosis to take out or add the salts and minerals needed to make a good beer. Hops: They provide the characteristic citrus aromas and flavours. It is a wild, climbing plant that gives beer its aroma and bitterness. It also protects and preserves it, preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms. Yeasts: They provide the fruity esters that are added to the wort during the fermentation process. They transform the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Because of this ingredient there are two kinds of beer, the Pale Ales, from top fermentation and the Lager, from bottom or reduced fermentation."
This shows a lack of professionalism that almost borders the criminal. On the other hand, and to be fair, it is not hard to understand you, Editors in Chief, that you publish the bollocks you publish in your media when there are professionals in the industry, be it from macro brewers or from micro brewers, who seem to enjoy spreading disinformation, the quality of which is not much better than what you publish.

Sincerely yours,

Pivní Filosof

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21 Oct 2011

Names and categories, their importance or lack thereof

The other day I wento to Zlý Časy for a couple of pints. As usual, I opened the session with a good ležák (Tambor 11º, which was more than lovely) to quench my thirst and see what else the other 23 taps had to offer.

While chatting with a couple of the patrons I decided that Žamberk's Sametový Ale would be my next beer (not before seriously considering ordering another pint of Tambor or perhaps one of Mahr's Kellerbier).

Handsome beer it was, it looked very nice in its nonic. A finger-thick, creamy, slightly tanned head, the beer itself, a polotmavý amber colour. Pity I didn't have my camera. But when I got my nose close to the glass, it's "Aleness" wasn't so clear anymore, I got the distinctive clove notes of a weizen, while the flavour reminded me of a dampfbier. The "Sametový" thing was spot on, though. It had a nice, velvety texture ("samet" in Czech means velvet). Far from an Ale, in my books, but far from boring at the same time. I was satisfied.

It was followed by Pauliner, from Třebonice. More than its name, what caught my attention was its description as a "čokoladový weizen". I thought it would have chocolate (extract), but when I read the list of ingredients (what a great idea the beer cards of Aliance P.I.V. are!) I saw that it was actually brewed with chocolate wheat malts. The bloke I was sharing the table with had ordered and wasn't very thrilled, but I still wanted to give it a chance, I trust David, the creator of this beer.

Pauliner is one of the darkest wheat beers I've seen in my life. It's really black and it looks great. Things start going downhill with the nose, there's almost nothing, just a whiff of green apples that doesn't fit it. The promised, or expected, complexity of the malts was noticeable by its absence, there was some roastiness, yes, but far from enough of it and, despite being a 12º with only 4,3 ABV, it felt very thin. I was left thinking that maybe the yeasts that were used weren't the most appropriate, but overall, I was left disappointed.

Beer names and categories tend to generate expectations, and such was the case of both these beers. Pauliner failed because it had none of the things I was expecting, even though I had discarded the presence of any cocoa based product. But I believe I wouldn't have been satisfied even if I had drunk it blind.

Sametový Ale had it a bit easier. "Ale" is a wide category, and I'm excluding all those top fermented beers that are wrongly categorised as Ale. And it still failed to meet the expectations and I still liked it, and when I like what I have in the glass, they can call it or categorise it "Honza" for all I care, it's not my problem after all, and I believe most people don't care, either.

However, there are people (and their number is increasing, and I'm not including here those who would argue whether a beer is an Old Ale or a Barley Wine) who do care, whose judgments will be affected by a beer's failing to meet the expectations generated by its name/category, and not without reason. And that is something brewers should pay attention to when baptising and labeling their creations.

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14 Oct 2011

Knock-off pivo

It's well known that it's not too difficult to find imitations of famous and horribly over-priced brands of clothes and accessories (by the way, I don't know who's the biggest fool, someone who buys a 2000EU handbag or someone who buys a knock-off of said handbag because they want to pretend they can afford such thing). I've also read about knock-off wines, you know, plonk that is given a label of a well known (and perhaps horribly overpriced) chateau this or that (there was a great Benny Hill gag with that), but this is the first time I've heard about knock-off beer.

According to the news, customs and police last week arrested a gang that was doing just that.

Česká Televize gives a bit more detail on their news broadcast. It seems this gang was sourcing the beer from a small local brewery and selling it under well known brands.

The authorities haven't released the names of either the brewer or the brands that were affected. They have said, though, that one of the members of the gang had some sort of relationship with the small brewery, while others were linked to distributors.

I find it hard to believe that the unnamed small brewer from Central Bohemia was doing this on purpose, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be what bigger brewers believe, in fact, they claim in ČT's report that it's rather common practice, that smaller breweries sell their stuff under better known brands, even the people of Staropramen complain about that!

Now, before you ask why the fuck a small brewer would sell their beers as Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Gambrinus, etc., when people's preferences are slowly shifting towards smaller breweries, let me say that it's not fair to the brewers, regardless of whatever crap they happen to brew, and to the consumers, who drink whatever they drink because they like it.

That said, why the fuck will a small brewer sell their beers as Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, Gambrinus, etc. when people's preferences are a slowly shifting towards smaller breweries? Really, think about it for a second. People are more and more looking for alternative brands or rediscovering regional ones. I know quite a few brewers and believe me, they are proud of their product and they would never think of doing something so foolish.

I'm not saying that this things don't happen, it's obvious that they do, but I see it more as the work of pub owners, who buy a cheaper brand X and sell it as a more expensive brand Z (or a 10º for a 12º), knowing that most people will not notice the difference. I'm sure most times they do it to rip people off, but there are others who might do it because they want to get something through the thick skulls of their štamgasty, either way, the brewers can't be held responsible for that.

Perhaps, next time you got to a Staropramen or Gambáč pub you may want to have a look at the kegs, though, you'll yourself a favour if you go somewhere that offers beers that have been properly brewed at a smaller brewery, just to be sure.

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12 Oct 2011

Prague's best according to experts

IN, a lifestyle magazine that comes out with the Wednesday Edition of Hospodářské Noviny, one of the most important newspapers in the Czech Rep., has published a list with the 10 best places to have a beer in Prague.

This ranking was put together with the help of a jury of 15 personalities. Each one of them was asked to send their own Top 10, which should consider the condition and quality of the beers, regardless of brands, price or business model, as well as other reasons why they like them, with the food being left out of the equation.

Based on those lists, Tomáš Wehle, the author of the article, ordered the ranking assigning points to each hospoda with the following system: 6 points for each first place, 5 for each second, 4 for each third, 3 for each fourth, 2 for each fifth, and 1 for each sixth to tenth places.

I don't usually give much relevance to most Top X lists, but this one is a bit different because I was one of the members of the jury. I can't even begin to explain you what an honour it is for me to have collaborated with this ranking to see my name among those of people of the caliber of Jan Šurán (one of the most respected and influential Brew Masters in the country), Ladislav Jákl (the controversial Secretary of the President of the Czech Republic and a renown beer connoisseur), Evan Rail, Martin Kuciel (author of Cuketka.cz, the most read Czech food blog) or Pavel Mauer (author and publisher of the most influential restaurant guide here).

But enogh chest beating already. This is what the ranking looks like:

1-   Zlý Časy 51 p
2-   Zubatý Pes 33 p
3-   První Pivní Tramway 29p
4-5 Pivovar U Bulovky 21p
4-5 Lokál Dlouhá 21p
6-   Pivovarský Klub 19p
7-   U Jelínků 18p
8-9 U Hrocha 13p
8-9 Lokál U Bílé kuželky 13p
10- U Pinkasů 12p

Personal preferences aside, I don't think anyone can be surprised by Zlý Časy's first place. I was a bit surprised, though, by the position of Zubatý Pes, not because it's undeserved, Mike is doing a great job with that pub, but because it opened only a couple of months ago in a less than ideal location. Another interesting point is that only one Pilsner Urquell pub has made it to the top five, while there are four among the bottom five, an indication, perhaps of what the current trend is, a trend that I hope will keep on growing.

And what do you think? What other hospody would you include on this list?

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10 Oct 2011

A British surprise

I roam the streets of Prague a lot and, as you all know, I like stopping here and there for a quick pint and that's why I have a very good mental map of the location of the toilets where I can offload those beers without having to pay for the privilege.

Marks & Spencer's branch in Vaclavák is one of those places. The loos are on the top floor, by the coffee shop, in the food and beverage dept. One day, about two months ago, I went there in quite a hurry and, as usual, I didn't bother to look too much around.

Once the call of nature had been answered, just when I was coming out of the toilets, something made me look down to my left. I don't know what it was, perhaps something I had seen on the way in, but not quite noticed. There they were, almost hidden on the bottom shelf, in a dark corner of the wine section, bottles of beer! And not the usual imported, or pseudo-imported, rubbish you find at most supermarkets, but stuff from M&S's own line of beers. I couldn't believe it! Two and a half years ago I had complained that at this oh-so British store you couldn't find any of the very good beers that are brewed in the Isles, and I wasn't the only one, Velký Al had the same complaint and he even started an e-mail campaign to try to change things.

I seriously doubt anyone in M&S paid any attention to our nagging, but I didn't care. At last I was going to be able to drink some of those beers I had heard about. That day I bought a bottle of London Porter brewed by Meantime, who claim to have followed a recipe from 1750 (the presence of wheat malt makes me doubt the historical accuracy). There were others, an Irish Stout brewed by Carlow Brewing co., an Italian Lager brewed by God knows who and a Czech Lager brewed by Regent, but I only had room for one.

A month or so later I went back and found Staffordshire IPA, brewed by Marston's and a Cornish IPA, from St. Austell.

I found a few more later at the branch by the Budějovická metro station. Besides the Stout, there was a Scottish Ale, from Cairgorn, brewed with thistle and ginger.

All in all, the beers are quite good, though at least in two cases, also a bit inconsistent. I liked the Irish Stout a lot the fist time I had it, not so much the second time; while I didn't think too much of the Staffordshire IPA the first time, but was very, very, pleased by it the second time. My favourite so far has been the Cornish IPA, though.

The only real problem with this are the prices. Not because they are high, but because they are unpredictable. When I first bought the London Porter it cost me 70CZK, when I went the second time, the price was well over 100CZK, then I saw it again at 70 or so CZK and the other day they had it at 140CZK (always for 0.5l bottles). The same could be said of the rest. I don't know the reason behind this (I've spoken with someone from the company and they weren't able to give me an answer, either), but it'd be great if they could make up their minds. For example, if I had bought the Porter at 110CZK I don't think I would have been unhappy, but I don't think, either, I would have wanted to buy it again, not when I can get St. Peter's Old Style Porter or Fuller's London Porter, which I believe are better, for a lower price, but if they kept it at 70CZK, I'd gladly buy it more often.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Marks & Spencer have much interest in keep on selling this product line here. The beers can't be found anymore at the Budějovická's branch and in Vaclavák they are way too hidden for people to notice them easily, it's almost as if they were ashamed of carrying them. I hope I'm wrong with this and that, consistent prices or not, I will be able to keep on buying these beers in the future. Despite how much, and how well (both in quantity and quality) the offer of imported beers has grown, English beers are still underrepresented here (and not so much for lack of interest from this side, but more because of the lack of flexibility of some brewers there), so it's positive have another channel to get them.

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5 Oct 2011

Selected Readings: August - September

I've been given a break from this project I'm working on, so I wanted to use it to catch up with this section, which this time spans two months, lucky you!

For reasons I'm not aware of and can't be arsed with finding out, at some point in history someone decided that one day in August was going to be "IPA Day". I like drinking a good IPA as much as the next beer geek and I don't need any special date for that, but if this "holiday" motivates authors like Martyn Cornell to publish some good stuff on the topic, then I'm all for it. And a pretty good post it is, one that tries for the upteenth time tries to kill some of the myths of this style's history.

A few days later, and related to it, another great beer historian, Ron Pattison, speaks about the style, but from another perspective, bringing to the table what he calls "IPA inflation", or how some of those "this or that IPA" that seem to be such a hit among brewers are actually other styles. Where I disagree with Ron is in the closing statement, that IPA is going to eventually fade away just like Mild once did. It's true that the style is hugely popular among "craft beer" drinkers, but those people are only a niche market, a nice that is growing, so there are still a lot of people who still haven't drunk their first IPA.

From Colombia, Manza shares his remarkable experience with a can of Carslberg Special Brew that had been aged for 13 years!. I won't add anything else, go and Google translate it.

Tandleman, on the other hand, tells us that there's nothing wrong with drinking alone, something that, I believe, most of us agree with, but it never hurts to explain it once more to all those people who don't seem to get it. And yes, sitting at a hospoda early in the afternoon, when there is just a few people, with a good beer and a good read as sole company is one of those life's great little pleasures.

I don't know about you, but what I usually prefer to drink at a hosopoda, be it alone or with friends is what some EBU-ABV craftophiles might call "boring beer", but that could actually better be described the way Boak & Bailey brilliantly do it.

I have harshly, and deservedly, critisised the way the Spanish speaking press deals with the topic of "beer". Sometimes, it is really irritating, not so much for the disrespect they show to our favourite beverage, but for the complete lack of professionalism of the people who publish that crap. But I like being fair and the Spanish daily El País published one of the best articles I've read about beer in Spanish. It resists the temptation of plugs, it doesn't get trapped into technicalities, it "just" speaks about a new phenomenon in the market avoiding demagoguery and chauvinism. On the other hand, I still believe that "revolution" is too big a word for craft beer.

Now in September. Not much to speak of here, really, but I didn't have enough time to pay too much attention.

Once again, Martyn Cornell, posts a very well researched post about Ales that used to be brewed with the purpose of being barrel aged for decades, a tradition that has been lost and, unfortunately, doesn't seem anyone is going to revive anytime soon.

Back the the Spanish "Craft Beer" phenomenon. The folks at Lúpulo a Mansalva offer a slightly different view of it. It's interesting sometimes to see things from the other side of the counter, and LaM is an on-line beer retailer that wants to give priority to local products, which, according to what they tell us in their blog, isn't always that easy, not so much because of quality issues, but because of some not very sensible policies of some brewers.

The prize for the bollocks of these two months goes to Expats.cz, or actually, to some Suchi Rudra, who was allowed to publish an article that could have hardly been any sillier, lazier, more chauvinist and populist and less well researched. I have read better stuff in traveler's blogs. As a lover of Czech beer, I was quite ashamed and fortunately, my mate Velký Al spared me the bother of writing a response to it.

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3 Oct 2011

The Globalised Terroir

Joe, the Thirsty Pilgrim, is again talking about this terroir and beer thing, something I'm not a fan of, really.

At first I saw in it just another nonsensical parallel forcibly drawn between beer and wine, but after reading a bit more about it, I realised that the thing goes further than that. However, and although some of their arguments are quite solid, I get the impression that the "terroirists" (the similarity with "terrorist" is entirely casual) are not taking into account some of the fundamental aspects of the very nature of beer, and they are nothing new, they've always been there.

It is true that wine and beer have many things in common, but at the same time, they are enormously different (and no, I'm not talking about the bollocks of wine = pretentious+snobbish, beer=the everyman's drink. Beer can be as pretentious and snobbish as wine, and wine can be as much the everyman's drink as beer, if the people that sell and talk about it so want).

To begin with, beer doesn't suffer the geographical and seasonal limitations of wine, its fermentables can be grown almost anywhere, can also be stored for relatively long and transported great distances. Beer is also very flexible, if there isn't enough barley, another grain can be used, no hops? no problem.

Another big difference is that beer isn't the result of a mostly natural process, it has always been an "industrial" product resulting from human ingenuity. Thanks to this, and the flexibility I mention above, beer, in many ways, has been a sort of mirror of the evolution of our civilisation, and if Patrick McGovern is right, and people did start practicing agriculture so they could have a reliable source of grain to make beer, our favourite beverage might have even triggered it.

What I want to say with all this is that those "traditional" styles that the terroirists use as example of their arguments weren't only the product of the available raw materials and indigenous yeast strains of a given place and age, but also a product of their times.

During most of history, brewers, just like every other average person, didn't leave the small worlds they lived very often, and knew very little about what happened beyond them. They also learnt their trade from Master Brewers who lived in those very same small worlds. It is tempting to assume that there wasn't much room for innovation, let alone experimentation, specially in a commercial activity like brewing. And yet, some of those very same brewers had no problem with adopting new ingredients or processes introduced from abroad, if they considered them convenient. A great example of this is the introduction of hops in England.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but our world is very, very different now. It's a world where an American company can outsource their call centre to India, a Graphic Designer can take jobs from a Spanish agency without leaving his or her home in suburban Buenos Aires, an English chef can open a restaurant in Prague where he serves perhaps the best Asian food in the country and someone from Norway, Australia or Chile can be reading this post, which is a response to another one written by a gringo living in Costa Rica, during their commute, while sipping a beer at a pub or  while enjoying their Italian holiday. And just like they have done throughout history, beer and brewing are reflecting this new reality.

Today anyone can learn the trade by trial and error in their garage or cellar using recipes downloaded from the internet and setting up a brewery isn't a lot more difficult than setting up any other sort of company. Once done with the beaurocracy, the technology can be bought in the Czech Republic, the malts can be sourced from Germany, the hops from New Zealand, a strain of Belgian yeasts can be ordered and, eventually, a collaboration with an English brewer can be arranged.

So, that Saison from Denmark, that IPA from Belgium, that Trippel from the US or the Czech Stout that I'm drinking now aren't "...beer without a home, an orphan, a delicious flavor without roots, trapped in a glass...", as Don Feinberg says in one of the excerpts from his essay reproduced in Joe's blog. Just like the first hopped beers in England, these are also a product of their time. Yes, their history is still very young, and it's yet to be seen how long it'll last, but the same could have been said about the Pilsner Lager 150 years ago. As for home, they do have one, you can call it "The Global Terroir", if you wish.

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