30 Nov 2011

In praise of the bores

These days I've read more than one blog post quoting some people denouncing the "uniformity" of the German beer landscape, which reminded me that until not long ago I was saying more or less the same about the Czech one.

Tandlemann spoke about Schönram, a rural Bavarian brewery owned by a yank, that specialises in Pale Ales, Porters, etc. A few days before, Stan Hieronymus presented TAP X, Schneider's new beer. Both cases are shown as proof of a slow change in the "boring" German beer market.

Something similar, though in a bigger scale, is happening here. Pivovar Kocour, Matuška and others are becoming more and more specialised in "exotic" styles and, generally speaking, with very good results both in quality and sales. The relative success of these beers have motivated others to have a go at making "something different" and the other day it was announced that the recently privatised and rescued from a certain death Pivovar Výškov is coming out with their own IPA (that looks pretty good).

All this vitality is more than welcome. Interestingly, though, it has helped me to learn to appreciate once again those beers that I was starting to find boring. Last weekend I was having a few pints at the gorgeous Výčep of Únětický Pivovar. I started with the Desítka, switched to Dvanáctka and finished off with a couple of portions of Polotmavá 13º, their Christmas special. All of them great, very different not only from each other, but also from other beers in their respective categories. All of them simple classics. The same could be said about the Dunkles, Keller, Märzen, etc. from Franconia that I've drunk either in situ or here bottled. Kraus's Hell Lager, for example, was symphony of subtlety and personality.

My point is that anyone can make something "distinctive" with an imported hop variety or with ingredients or processes that aren't the usual. Even the most obtuse consumer will notice they are drinking something different. Achieving something similar using the same old, boring ingredients to brew the same old, boring three or four styles is a lot more difficult, and not only because it requires the drinker to pay more attention (something that unfortunately, few do).

I'm not saying the "innovators" should focus more on the "classics", I'm sure they know very well what they are doing with their business. Nor am I saying that one group of beer is better than the other, Chýně's Stout is one of the best beers I've drunk this year and I am a fan of diversity, there can never be enough of it, and that's why I'll keep on encouraging those who want to bring more colour to the market.

However, I believe that those who prefer to stay with the "usual stuff" and manage to elevate a světlý ležák, a tmavé or polotmavé or even a desítka to new levels deserve every bit as much praise.

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24 Nov 2011

It's time to grow up

"Unlike industrial beers, the so called "craft beers" tend to be yeast soups of incredibly irregular quality. That could be because they are brewed by amateurs who use equipment that is a bit more than improvised. These self proclaimed "Brew Masters", be it due to their poor knowledge of the trade or their limited business vision, often sell clearly flawed beers and expect the consumer not only to pay a high price for them, but also to accept and even admire them because they are "craft" or "artisan".
Can you imagine what would happen if someone published something like this? The author would be greeted by a barrage of heavy caliber insults fired by platoons of lovers of good beer. And it would be well deserved! That thing above is not only false, but also massively stupid.

Not a lot more false and stupid, though, than the first paragraph of this article published in a Chilean beer site (SP):
"The main difference between industrial and craft beer is found in the proportions, in the treatment of the raw materials and in the brewing process. Regarding the raw materials, their proportion is lower in industrial beers, which also use non natural preservatives."
It's not the first time (and I'm afraid, nor the last) that I read something along those lines and I wonder when they will cut it out with that bollocks.

Yes, it's true that there are, not few, "industrial" beers brewed with chemical additives, etc., nobody is denying that, but it's also true that there are, not few, "craft" beers and brewers that could very well fit in that silly description at the beginning. And yet, nobody in their right mind would ever think of making such generalization. Why then is it's OK to do it with the "industrial" beers?

If micro brewers, specially those in "emerging markets", expect to be respected and taken seriously, they should start by acting like adults and leave behind all that childish nonsense. There are a multitude of arguments that can be used to establish a rhetorical difference between "craft" and "industrial" beers, which not only are much closer to reality, but also will address more effectively the mature, and if you want, sophisticated, audience I'm sure many would like to reach. (Of course, those arguments would be as solid as a morning fart the moment someone gets a dodgy beer, but that's something that many brewers know well enough already).

It would also help, too, that those "craft brewers" who haven't done it yet would finally come to terms with the fact that their brewery is a COMPANY, a BUSINESS and not and art project or a political manifesto; that their beers are COMMERCIAL and that brewing is a noble TRADE people people have been practicing for a long, long time with the main purpose of MAKING MONEY. Wanting to make money, or to even get rich, is not a sin, and what we really care about is to be able to drink a consistently well made beer.

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23 Nov 2011

The magic of Lípy

Does any of you have a favourite pub in your town that for whatever reasons, that don't have to do with money, you don't go as often as you'd like?

That is exactly what happens to me with U Slovanské Lípy. I love this pub, so much that for the IN Magazine's survey I put it on the second spot of my Top 10. The reason why I don't go that often is perhaps the opening hours. At 4PM I'm usually on my second or third pint somewhere else and don't feel very much like moving.

Those who follow this blog for a longer time might remember that early last year Lípy closed, something that caused much sadness. Fortunately, it was only for a few weeks, a bunch of new people took over the place and has it running to this day. I don't know if it was their own choice or lack of resources, but whatever it is, I'm glad they've kept the small town dive decoration pretty much intact, only a few Rock'n'Roll touches here and there to give it an even better vibe.

After heavens know how long, the other day I was roaming around the neighbourhood and thought it would be a good idea to stop by at U Slovanské Lípy for a quick pint of Kout 10º. The bloke at the bar recognised me from this blog (something I'll never get used to) and we started to talk. It turned out to be Michal, the person in charge of the place now. I asked him how business is going and he told me that it's going pretty well (one thing I like about Czechs is that if things don't go well, they'll usually tell you they are going like crap). He also told me they've started running a hostel in the building above the pub, which is going fairly well, too.

I stayed a bit longer than I had planned, talking to Michal about beer and pubs and having a very good time. After I left I promised myself I would try to go more often, in only, to be able to have a chat with Michal. I won't go on now to tell you how passionate he and his team might be (you know what I think of that), what is to me more important is that it is evident they are committed to do things well, which, I believe is a basic ingredient for success.

But that aside, if you are in Prague, drop by U Slovanské Lípy, not only you'll be able to enjoy the outstanding beers of Kout na Šumavě, probably at their best in Prague, but you'll be able to do it at a truly unique place.

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U Slovanské lípy
50°5'14.693"N, 14°27'12.343"E
Tachovské náměstí 288 - Praha 3-Žižkov
Mon-Sat: 16-23

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21 Nov 2011

A quick question

I've got a couple of topics going around my head, but I'm too lazy to sit down and write about them, so I thought I would ask a hypothetical just for the sake of it.

If you had a brewery with a capacity of 3-5hl a batch, what sort of beer would you have as your "workhorse"* and which would be your "flagship" and why?

That's it.

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*meaning here the beer that would sell the most by volume

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18 Nov 2011

Selected Readings: October

A bit late, I know, but still better than last month.

Actually, I wouldn't say there was a lot (I was still quite bus) and much of the discourse was dominated by Oxford Companion to Beer, which generated a few heated debates.

Martyn Cornell, after finding a few history mistakes in some bits he'd read, asked, a bit too vehemently perhaps, if the book wasn't a dreadful disaster (no wonder after all the work he's done trying to bring some light to the myths about the history of English brewing). Of course, the book's Chief Editor, Garret Oliver, wasn't too thrilled and said his bit in an interview he gave to Alan, which itself generated a few interesting comments.

To me, however, the best review of this book was Barm's, who dissected it bit by bit and gave his opinion in a long, fair and fun to read post.

Now, if any of you is interested about the opinion of someone who hasn't read the book yet, I think The Oxford Companion to Beer has been a victim of its own ambitions and of the huge reputations of the publisher and of Garret Oliver. Maybe Barm is right when he says it might have been rushed a bit to make it in time for the Christmas shopping.

Still in the field of History. Evan Rail calls scholars to study a bit more the history of the beers of Central and Eastern Europe, of which little is known, and suggests a few books to get started. If the number of visitors my post on the historical relationship between Pilsner Urquell and Pale Ale can serve as an indicator, there are quite a lot of people out there who are interested in the topic, and I can't begin to imagine how much they'd like to know about Mum, a old, and gone, German style that according to Page 123 of this 1838 book was "made principally with wheaten malt, with a portion of oat and bean malt, tops of fir and birch and various herbs".

But enough with history. Let's come to the present.

Velký Al has heard enough about oxymoronic beers. It all started with the Black IPA and now there are people speaking of Black Pils and Black Kölsch. What's next, a Pale Schwartz?

Czech speakers should read this "parallel" interview where one of the authors of Pivni Recenze and the Head Brewer of Gambrinus the PR guy of Prazdroj both answer the same questions. Priceless.

Bollocks of the month goes to that rubbish from Murcia, of course, but you've read about it already.

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14 Nov 2011

Off with the legend

"In 1838 the Burghers of Pilsen gathered in the town square and poured 36 barrels of beer into the drains [...] This uncharacteristic revolt was prompted by the various poor quality, unsavoury brews being offered up as beer."
Thus is the tale about the pivotal event that prompted the good burghers and brewing rights holders of the city to set up the brewery that would eventually become Pilsner Urquell.

It's a story I'm sure many of you have read more or less adorned in countless websites, blogs, magazine and book articles and even books. It's a story that I don't believe for a second. And not (just) because I took the above quote from The Book of Legends, in Pilsner Urquell's global website, neither because it's a little bit too convenient for the brand's discourse. There are other reasons.

First of all, there's no precise date of the event, while we do know when the first batch of PU was tapped (5 October, or 11 November, or 25 February of 1842, depending on whom you ask), but of the revolt, not even a month, which is strange for something of such apparent importance. And believe me, I looked for it, I spent much of last weekend researching, trying to find a reliable reference (my social life is awesome, as you can see).

After realising that web pages were a bit of a waste of time, I went to Google Books (what a wonderful tool) and found a couple of very interesting things.

The London general gazetteer, by Richard Brooks, published in 1838, on p. 581 mentions that "Pilsen [...] is particularly rich in sheep, and noted for excellent cheese". No mention of beer or breweries. In the same book, on p. 607 we are told that in Rakovník "very good beer is brewed" and on p. 403, that Jorkau, a town near Žatec (I wasn't able to find the Czech name of Jorkau) is "celebrated for its breweries".

Mc'Culloch̓s universal gazetteer, published in 1855, in the entry for Pilsen (p. 604), the author mentions the schools, the woolen, leather and iron industries and also the large fair that was held once a year, which was attended by traders from all over Bohemia. Nothing about the brewery, or brewing industry at all.

And in a book called A dictionary, geographical, statistical, and historical: of the various countries, places, and principal natural objects in the world, Volumes 1-2, published in 1866, we can read on page 391 that in Bohemia "Some wine is made, but the quality is very inferior; and beer is the national beverage". Yet there's no mention of Pilsen (or Prague for that matter) as a brewing centre of particular importance.

In fact, I found very few references of beer and brewing in Bohemia in these and other contemporary books I consulted. In one of them, I can't remember which one now, the author speaks at length about the beauty of Prague and its architecture, and about its cultural life, but doesn't mention a single brewery. However, beer and breweries are mentioned in the entries of other cities and countries. For example, A Gazetteer of the world (1856) says that in Belgium "the number of breweries amount to 2800 and a large portion of their produce is exported". The breweries and beers of cities in Saxony, Bavaria and even France and Holland, among many others, are mentioned as well in this and the other books. That might be because at the time those books were written, brewing in Bohemia was done mostly by small breweries and not the large ones that would become the norm by the end of the 19th century.

The only reference to the "Pilsen's beer revolt" was was an indirect one and I found it in a Czech book called "Pivovarnictví", by Ladislav Chládek. On page 40 the author mentions that the "Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni" (Burghers* brewery in Pilsen) was established in 1839, adding that it was because the beer in the city was bad, but I don't quite believe that, either.

Now, I'm not saying that the beer in Pilsen was good, I don't know, but with brewing had been practiced in the city since it was founded in 1295, so one would expect that the brew masters knew what they were doing, but even if it had been on the wrong side of crap, I believe the Burghers' motivations were other...

On the same page in Pivovarnictví, just above the reference mentioned in the previous paragraph, there are a couple of interesting things that might start shedding some light on all this. We are told there that bottom fermented lagers had already been brewed in Bohemia in the 15th Century (something Evan Rail already talked about a while ago, and that, if proven correct, would challenge the latest findings of cold fermenting yeasts tracing their origin to Patagonia). However, they seemed to have been rather exceptional. Bottom, or cold, fermented brewing didn't catch on in Bohemia until 1840. Yes, that's 2 years before the first pint "Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni" was tapped. According to this book it was brewmaster Votěch Wanka (please, keep the silly jokes to yourselves) who brewing lagers in U Primasů, a brewery in Koňský Trh (Wenceslas Sq., today) and only a year later, already 10% of all the breweries in the realm had switched to bottom fermenting, and their number was growing. Though, according to this lagering was already being done in Prague as early as 1830's, though with top fermented beers).

This was not fortuitous. When Anton Dreher took over the family business in 1833, he switched to brewing lagers (or 1836), which turned out to be a pretty good idea. Dreher's brewery near Vienna expanded rapidly and would later become the centre of a company that owned breweries all over the Austrian Empire.

During those years, Mr. Dreher and his mate Gabriel Sedlmayr II, owner of Spaten, in Munich, went to Great Britain where they were very impressed with what they saw, and tasted, in Burton and by the English method of malting. And in fact, according to something Ron Pattison told me once in an e-mail, Dreher was so impressed that he tried, unsuccessfully, to brew pale in Austria.

So my theory is that the Burghers in Pilsen actually wanted to make something like Pale Ale. It all fits in quite well. The Pilsen malts were made using the English method, but brewing a PA the English way had proved to be a risk (or maybe they even tried it, and didn't work out). Lager brewing was expanding rapidly in Bohemia. And there's the beer itself, the Pale Lager. There are no analysis of colour of Pale Ales in the 1830's, but in Ron's, and in other places, I found several mentions of these beers being brewed from "the palest malts", so it's possible to believe that their colour was that of Pilsner Urquell. Moreover, unlike most other styles of lager of the time, and still now, the Pilsner was also much hoppier, just like Pale Ales. Too many coincidences.

It could have been that the beers in Pilsen were not that good or, at least, were not as good as lagers, as I especulated once, either way, it's clear to me that "Měšťanský Pivovar v Plzni" was established purely because its owners saw the way the wind was blowing and they were no fools, how bad or good the beers were had little, if anything, to do with it. Another thing to also bear in mind is that, unlike what I used to believe, the Pale Lager wouldn't take the world by storm right away, it was more like a slow change in the seasons, even in Bohemia, but that's another story.

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* I believe "Burgher" is a more appropriate translation than Citizen to the Czech word "Měšťan"

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9 Nov 2011

A quick German question

Is there anyone who can explain me what "Vollbier" and "Landbier" are supposed to indicate? Are they legal categories like Märzen, Bock or Weizen (that many people seem wrongly consider them "styles") or are they something more arbitrary? And since I'm asking, is "Rauchbier" also a legal category when it comes to German beer?

Well, more than one question, actually. Thanks in advance for your answers.

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7 Nov 2011

In the memory of the departed

Last Wednesday Sdružení Přátel Piva, announced their awards for this year at a party held at Pivovar Jihlava that once again I could attend, ach jo!

I'm not going to discuss who won what, you can see it for yourselves in the link above. My only comment is that I believe it's about time wheat beers get their own category, there are plenty of them already on the market (some, very good) and it makes no sense that they have to compete with Pale Ales, etc. But that's not what brought me to write this post.

The awards were given on Nov. 2, the day after dušičky (All Saints), a day when (not only) Czechs remember those loved ones who have passed away by leaving flowers and lightning candles at their graves or memorials. Because of this, SPP thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the breweries that have disappeared since 1990.

It's a rather long list (that only mention industrial breweries) and a bit sad, too. But it was the last entry what caught my attention, Zlatopramen, the fourth brewery that Heineken shuts down in the last couple of years. And all this at the same time that they are doing a very good job with their seasonal series (they already announced a new special beer for St. Martin's day) y with some of the all year round products, too. (Březňák is still very good, and SPP gave Krušovice 10° the first place in its category).

Unlike the three breweries that had been closed before, Hostan, Kutná Hora y Louny, Zlatopramen isn't a little known regional brand, but a pretty successful one nationwide, which in fact, brought life to the "jedenáctka" category.

The question here isn't why Heineken has closed this brewery (the answer is easy, the accountants didn't consider it profitable enough and/or decided it would be more efficient to shift the brand's production to Brno, and that's it, fuck tradition), but whether this and the other three above mentioned, and even perhaps Braník, could have survived if they had been left to their own fates.

To start getting the answer we have to go back to the list published by SPP. We'll see there that the bulk of the breweries is made from those that closed before 2000 (18 out of 27), while seven of the nine that have closed since belonged at the time to groups, two multinationals and a Czech one. This means that almost all of the breweries that made it to the 21st century are still going around today (and in some cases, doing very well, despite a drop in overall consumption). If we add the fact that many of those brands are still being produced, we could start thinking that yes, Zlatopramen, etc. could have managed to stay in business, more or less successfully to this day.

But things aren't that simple. Going through the archives of Pivovary.info, where you can find in more or less detail the history of the breweries from the list, you'll see that in most cases, the culprits were not the macros or the multinationals, but the breweries' own management and owners. And let's not forget that, save a few notable exceptions, in 1990 the Czech brewing industry was in a pretty sorry shape, as a result of four decades of lack of investments and overall neglect by the Communist regime (those who know Czech, check out this video, it'll explain a few things).

The answer then, is not easy.

But all this is nothing but speculation, we should perhaps ask another question, why don't Heineken, etc. sell those breweries to someone who would like to operate them? (and this is neither new, nor exclusive of the Dutch, remember the history between Staropramen and Svijany) Looking, for example, at the conditions the Dutch giant imposed the city of Znojmo when they sold them the facilities of the Hostan brewery, one is tempted to believe that they are afraid of competition, but I think that it's much more than that, and I wish someone could tell me what it is.

Anyway, even though I was never a fan of Zlatopramen, it's sad to see a brewery closing down, more so when it happens this way. I hope it will be the last one, at least for a while.

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