30 Dec 2012

Some loose (and recicled) thoughts for the end of the year


If you are a homebrewer who's planning to go commercial in 2013, before you brew your first batch, leave the homebrewer at home. Making beer won't be your hobby anymore, it'll be your job.

When I see brewers saying that they make the beers they would like to drink I ask myself, shouldn't they make the beers I would like to drink?

If expermimental refers to a product that is still being developed, shouldn't experimental beers be cheaper than finished ones?

Brewers need to have more trust in their products. Instead of inviting us to taste their beers, they should invite us to drink them.

Someone who prefers to spend 10€ on a bottle of a beer they don't know instead of spending the same money on three bottles of a beer they already know and like, has a very serious problem.

You should always doubt the judgment of someone who praises (and reviews) a beer they drank in a shot size as part of a session that included another ten.

It'd be nice to see more beer reviews that give less importance to tasting notes and more to sensations.

Someone who uses the BJCP style guidelines as a parameter to evaluate a beer, shows they understand little about the BJCP, styles and beer.

Only a BJCP certified judge at a competition can evaluate a beer as if they were a BJCP certified judge at a competition. The rest should do it according to the only three realistic categories of beer "I like it", "I don't like it" and "I don't quite like it, but don't quite mind drinking it".

In the real world, it is the style that should fit the beer and not the beer fit the style.

Every day I find it harder to understand the fascination with hop bombs. Most tend to be as complex, subtle and interesting as one of my morning farts, but even louder.

If you've any more beer clichés to add, you know what to do.

Happy new year!

Na Zdraví!

22 Dec 2012

And it's gone

For all practical purposes, 2012 is finished and therefore, it is time to put together the almost mandatory balance.

This has been the most successful year of my still infant career as a beer writer. I've collaborated with The Beer Connoisseur, my reviews continued to be published in Pivo, Bier & Ale. The other day, after more than a year, I sent an article to the Spanish mag. Bar&Beer and at the beginning of the year, The Prague Post asked me to write a regular beer blog for them, which I really enjoyed doing. As if that wasn't enough, I was also offered to take part in a pretty important project that will see the light some time next year; it was a true honour to have been even considered for it and I want to thank all those who helped me put together my assignment. All of this has been (or will eventually be) paid, it's really gratifying to be able to make some money out of a hobby.

I wasn't able to travel abroad (in fact, I had to refuse a couple of invitations, life sucks sometimes), but that was more than made up by the great time I had and the great people I met in Kostelec and by having been able to make beer happen at Kocour. And what a beer it turned out to be, Gypsy Porter! It has been such a success that Pivovar Kocour have decided to add it to their regular line up.

As for last year's best. Here it goes.

Pub of the year (that is not called Zlý Časy)

Bar na Palmě (see review). It's got a very special charm and the people who run it are very committed to doing things they way they should be done.

Pivovarská Restaurace (Únětice). When it opened after the renovations, it was even nice than before. The food is very good and for us, it's a great place to spend some family time.

Zájezdní Hostinec (Kostelec). Because it's really, really great.

Honorary mentions for Nota Bene and Pivo a Párek, they are not pubs proper, but both in their own way are brilliant and have more in common than it would appear at first sight.

Minimalist pubs

Kaaba, in Lucemburská. Not a pub, a café, but this is my blog and I love going there for a pint, it's inspiring.

U Černého Vola, because it proves better than any other perhaps that it's not the beer what makes a pub great.

Breweries

Once again, Únětické Pivovar, for reasons that I've already made clear.

Břevnovksý Klášterní Pivovar, because all of their beers are very good, and the brewery itself couldn't be at a better place.


Pivovar Nomád. It could be said it is the first of its kind in these lands and it is very possible that they've opened a new era in Czech micro brewing (and because their beers are also fantastic, which is the most important thing).

Domestic beers. 

Benediktín světlý ležák. It's brewed basically like any other beer of its kind, but the hops come from a 70 year old hopyard and the difference is incredible.

Karel, from Nomád. You don't need to bring hops from anywhere to make a pretty kick-ass IPA.

But the best of all, and fuck the conflict of interest here, is Gypsy Porter. It's just brilliant.

Imported beers

Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, what can I say? It tastes as if someone had bottled this beauty by Mozart and Fuller's Past Masters, two beers that are wonderful in more ways than one.

Blogs

English: Boak&Bailey, mainly because their mapping of the history of the English beer scene from the postwar onwards. Called to the Bar, because, besides being a top bloke, Adrian writes in a way I wish I could someday manage.

Czech: Pivníci, I really like their style, they are almost like the Czech version of B&B, in their early years.

Spanish: 2d2dspuma is still the most incisive and fun to read, even though they speak from the other side of the counter, but I was pleasantly surprised by El Jardín del Lúpulo, because not only it is the least onanist of the lot, but it is one of the few that don't mind naming and shaming when it's deserved.

As for plans and wishes for 2013. Nothing yet, really. There are a couple of things that look promising, but I won't say anything until they are more certain. What I do hope for next year is to be able to start work on the second edition of my book.

So that's basically it. There still might be another post before the end of the calendar. In the meantime, have a great time however it is that you decide to spend these holidays.

Na Zdraví!

17 Dec 2012

In Praise of Science


The other day, when I finished writing the phrase "...anyone with a basic knowledge in brewing science..", I had to stop for a second. Suddenly I started to wonder why I had used the word science and was reminded of what I had written elsewhere, when discussing bits of brewing history, about the adoption of a more scientific approach to beer making. I also recalled much of what I read in "Brew Like a Monk", but mostly about this excellent interview Kristen England gave to Fuggled. To Al's first question, how did you get into brewing as a career? Kristen answers, "...It’s another form of science which got me hooked…science begets science...".

Before getting to write this, I asked my followers in Facebook what they thought about it, and after a pretty interesting discussion, and let my mind mind chew on it a bit, I reached the conclusion that beer making isn't an art, is an industry and there's nothing really artistic in it.

Before spewing your wrath, take a deep breath and let me explain myself (and after that, if you still feel like it, you are free to curse and swear all you want).

A work of art doesn't need to have any purpose, functional or practical, it's only a form of creative expression. It isn't limited by laws or norms, either. A beer, on the other hand, is created and brewed with a sole real purpose, to be consumed, imbibed. Unlike art, a beer must please, otherwise it fails. its success, therefore, it's determined mostly by external factors.

It's a lot harder to determine if art is successful or not. At a modern art exhibition I was once there was a piece that consisted on half a ping-pong table, on which there was a couple of blue dreadlocks (belonging to the author, I was told), all under a plastc dome. Without knowing anything about the author and what drove him into creating that, I could hardly judge his work beyond the purely aesthetic, but art doesn't necessarily have to be pretty. The author could tell me "you philistine! Can't you see this represents my struggle to become a better snooker player", or something like that, and he would be right, I don't understand it and the failure would be more on my side than his. But if I drink a beer and I don't like it, its author can explain me all he wants, but nothing will change, the beer will have failed.

This is because, basically, any form of expression can be considered art if its author so believes. If I pulled the following words out of my ass: "Morning on the tram / Fat lady sneezes / Wind blows on stilettos / Sculpted nails in coloured claws / A fart scares them", nobody could tell me this isn't a poem, if I so believed. A crappy poem perhaps, but a poem nonetheless; and if I believe it is a great poem (and it fucking is!) there's nobody who would be able to convince me otherwise and, just for having been spawned, this poem would not have failed.

Beer, on the other hand, is something that is quite clearly defined. I can't ferment a blend of corn flakes, lettuce and mint and call it "avant garde beer", because regardless of the resulting quality, it's not going to be beer! But even if I stay within the practices and ingredients that do define beer, I will still be limited. I could add the word "conundrum" anywhere in my poem, and it'd still be a poem, but there are some ingredients and processes I can't use to make beer, not because of any reinheitsgebotist nonsense, but because chemistry won't allow it.

But there are still many people who insist that there is art in beer making because, after all, it's a creative activity. I believe this to be rather overrated, aside from the creation of new recipes, beer making is mostly about replicating those recipes, following a series of specific processes. But even if we didn't argue about it, the fact is that creativity doesn't automatically mean art.

One of the FB commentators the other day said he was "fed up with the false dychotomy between science and creativity". According to him, a good scientist also needs to be creative, and I couldn't agree more! Science needs a good deal of creative thinking when it comes to solving problems. Just like an artist, a scientist can also draw inspiration from their surroundings because they see things differently than the average folk. The legend of Newton and the apple is a good example of that.

But back to the recipe, the only thing that is 100% creative in craft of beer making. If we think about it, a recipe is nothing but a formula. You choose the right components and the right mechanisms to reach a more or less clear result (or just to experiment). Since we aren't talking about a medicine or the design for a satellite; the scientist has a broader playing field, but they will always be limited by the laws of nature.

The problem, I reckon, has to do with image. "Science" and "scientist" make us think about laboratories and boring, lab coat wearing people who have spent much of their lives studying books almost incomprehensible for most of us. But reality is not like that! During the presentation of Gypsy Porter, Gazza was discussing why he had chosen Carafa Spezial no. 1 over no. 3, or something like that, and that is also science! At more intuitive, or maybe, empirical level; anyone who knows how to cook will know what I'm talking about. You don't need to have studied to know how long and at what temperature you need to put a 2kg chicken in the oven to get a nice dinner.

Another false dichotomy is that between science and romance. Brewers often tell us about their dreams, vision and passion for beer, and other stories. But aren't there people who got into science not because they were after fame and fortune, but because they wanted to follow the steps of someone they admired, try to find the answers to some big questions or even make this a better world to live? (Oh, yeah. And Indiana Jones, he's no musician or sculptor, he's a motherfucking archaeologist!)

In short, a great beer isn't a work of art. It's the result of dedication, skill, patience, experience, knowledge, will to improve, and the respect and pride in one's labour, and of science. It's about time that those brewers who want to make us believe they are artists, start trying to convince us they are scientists, that they realise they don't work in an atelier, but a factory that makes the same product the macros make, beer.

But, and as I say above, art is defined by the artist, and if believing they are artists is what motivates those brewers to get out of bed in the morning to sterilise bottles, fix pumps and pay the bills, who am I to complain? Just bear in mind that nowadays, not much more than a bit of charisma and a pretty smile are enough for any talentless twat to be celebrated as an artist. A scientist, on the other hand, still needs to show something concrete, and few things are more concrete than a well made beer.

Na Zdraví!

14 Dec 2012

Friday Morning Musings


I'm don't want to get too deep into the shitstorm unleashed by the statement of the US Brewers Association, only that I subscribe to pretty much everything Alan says here.

Anyway, though the debate is of little concern to me, a beer drinker living in the Czech Republic, it could be said that it is part of a wider issue. We often hear calls (often by interested parties, it should be said) to support local/small/independent breweries because their being local/small/independent makes them almost automatically better than those that are global/big/corporate and I'm frankly tired of that nonsense.

There are a number of reasons why I like (and believe is important) to support small businesses, whatever they produce. They are pretty obvious, so I'm not going to specify, but all of them, without exception are subordinated to the value they can give me in exchange for my money.

When it comes to beer, "value" to me means the balance between price-quality-availability. If a brewery is not able to deliver that value, I won't care about its size, onwership structure or address, or even how nice their owners are, I will take my business somewhere else, if that somewhere else happens to lead me to a multinational company, well, so be it. I won't go without beer if I fancy one. Don't forget, either, we are not speaking about long term investments, bonds issued by countries deep in debt or any other shit like that. We are speaking about something you buy, not because you really need it, but because you want to get intoxicated, for fuck's sakes! (Besides, macro brewers aren't that evil, after all)

But let's be honest, do you know all the people behind your favourite beers? Have you spoken to them? Have you shared a pint with them? So how can you be certain about their ethics, they long term strategies, their business practices? How can you be certain that if these people were in a position similar to [insert name of your most reviled macro brewer] they wouldn't act the same way or even worse? Moreover, how local can they claim to be when most of their ingredients are imported? And aren't pubs that sell macro brands also small, independent, local businesses?

And please, do yourself a favour, do not bring any idiotic anti-capitalist rants here, not when you have your fridge/cupboards/cellar full of stuff made by a some small, independent companies from who knows where.

Na Zdraví!

10 Dec 2012

Why I go back


I walk in, I greet, I seat. I get my fix, I drink. I listen to the music, to the talk. I walk into the talk. I talk, and I drink and I laugh, loud. And I drink, and I talk.

Štamgast M says and gives something to the owner. Something I don't catch because I'm drinking my drink and talking my talk.

The music changes. Štamgast M looks at me with a half smile. Do I know the tune? Of course I do! Don't Fucking Cry For Me Argentina! How could I not!

I laugh. That tear that wanted to roll down thinks it better. It'd look silly.

Štamgast F now takes the piss. Again. He knows well how much piss he can take. He knows well how much piss he'll get back.

And I drink. And I listen. And I talk. And I laugh. And, by the way, I'm Štamgast P. And I'm Max. Ahoj.

And fuck the world! One more it is! Reality calls. Reality can wait a bit longer. It always has.

It was the beer that first brought me here. It's not the beer that keeps me coming back.

Na Zdraví!

9 Dec 2012

Evolucionary explanation


I will try to shed light on a semantic conflict that has arisen from the other day's topic.

There are people who claim that "evolution" is the same as "chage", period. A comment in the Spanish version, for example, said that "to evolve is to change, but not necessarily for the better, it can also be for the worse".


I believe that, at least in this context, this interpretation is wrong. The filtrophobe discourse implies that only unfiltered and unpasteurised beers will "evolve" because they are "alive" and that beers that have been filtered and pasteurised can not evolve because they are "dead".

However, the quality of "dead" beers is also affected by (among other things) time. A Pilsner Urquell, a Guinness, a Paulaner, a Corona, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale consumed in Prague, Madrid, London, Moscow or Toronto will not be the same beer that left the factory God knows how long ago. It will have changed, but filtrophobes are likely to deny that this change has been an evolution.

According to this premise, and assuming the filtrophobe discourse is consistent, the only possible interpretation for "evolution", at least in this context, is "improvement".

Of course, "improvement" can also be a very subjective thing, as shown by the "Westmalle Trippel experience" and the resulting divergent evaluations of me and my wife. In other words, what is "better" for someone, might not be so for someone else, and there is no lab analysis that can ever reconcile both views.

The best way to sort this out, in my opinion, would be to ask the brewer. If they are a proper professional, they would be able to tell us with a lot of certainty what is the moment when their product is at its best and, since they are most likely the person that knows the beer better than anyone, their opinion will be the one to carry the most weight and should be the one used as a foundation to bring some objectivity to the debate.

Maybe I'm generalising, but I'd say that if we did a poll among producers of moderate to low ABV %, most of them would tell us that the best moment to drink those beers is as fresh as possible.

As for the other beers, those that could be said will improve with time, just as I said the other day, they will also reach a peak in their development and after that, their quality will begin to wane. You can see a great example in this interview Evan Rail did a few years ago with Jean-Pierre Van der Roy.

Na Zdraví!

7 Dec 2012

This week in the Prague Post

With a bit of reluctance, I attended a PR event organised by Heineken CZ and I ended up pleasantly surprised.

You can read it here.

Na Zdraví!

5 Dec 2012

Evolutionary bollocks


The other day, after a great post by 2D2dspuma about the need to speak publicly about the bad stuff, Alex Padró came up, once again, with the usual bollocks that unfiltered beer will evolve because it's alive. Later, and in response to my comment on the matter one Guillem Laporta said the following:
Unfiltered beers will CERTAINLY EVOLVE (just like wines) and anyone with a notion about life forms will know that. The beer we are talking about is alive because it has yeast that keeps on working, and the caps and corks will allow the redox process that obviously make them evolve. The best by date means that after a date the evolution of this beer will be such that it will not be like the beer you wanted to drink when you bought it... Well, it seems rather obvious to go on, but someone should say which lapidary phrases aren't correct."
(Before continuing, I should make a couple of things clear. First, the most commonly accepted meaning of "evolution" is "improvement". Second, it is my understanding that, biologically speaking, it is species that evolve and not individuals, though it's true this might be a question of semantics).

Guillem suggests that I don't know much about life forms, but at the same time, he seems to forget one of the basic biological principles, the life cycle. Everything has it, even beers.

Many ancient cultures symbolised the cycle of life with the phases of the moon and (if we forget for a moment the principle of Nature's constant regeneration also symbolised by our satellite) we could also say that beers have a crescent, full and waning phases. How long they will last, it will depend on the beer. It some cases it can be years or decades, but every beer, regardless of how it was made, will eventually start to wane.

The thing here is that we aren't speaking about beers that have been specially made to have a long life, but about "unfiltered beers" in general (it should be also noted that at no point any sort of further conditioning is mentioned in this discussion), which in most cases are beers of moderate ABV and (I'm almost sure) relatively high levels of attenuation.

What are the "evolutionary" possibilities of these beers? Quite small, I'd say (and here I'm not taking into consideration the conditions in which these beers are transported, handled and stored before reaching the consumers, let alone what they do with them). Czech lagers (and actually, all lagers) reach their best condition the moment the secondary fermentation, or lagering, has finished. Past this point, the quality of the beer will start to decline more or less rapidly, depending on several factors. That's the reason why the breweries that commercialise the filtered and unfiltered versions of their beers will always assign the later a much shorter shelf life (we are speaking about days vs. months) and will never sell them through third party distributors, and often only in kegs.

This is, once gain, due to the nature of life forms, in this case, the yeast. As every living organism, saccharomyces cerevisiae, in all its shapes and colours, needs to feed in order to survive. When the food runs out, or it's not enough to support all the population, our microscopic friends start to die and anyone with a basic knowledge in brewing science will know what the consequences of this eventually are.

In other words, it's very possible that by the time an unfiltered beer with moderate ABV reaches our glasses, the zenith of its development (or evolution, if you want) has been already left behind. And if we now do consider the conditions in which these beers are transported, handled and stored, which are often far from the ideal, we shouldn't be surprised then to find ourselves with a beer that is much closer to their New Moon than their Full Moon.

But well, science, logic or facts have never been much of a hurdle for those determined to spread the delusions, lies and bollocks that best fit their interests.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I think Guillem is also wrong about the thing that wines also evolve, two examples should be enough as proof, Don Simón in Tetra-Pack and Beaujolais.

PS2: Unfiltered beers are very much alive, indeed. Now, that potato I found the other day in a dark corner, soft and with 10cm long roots might have been bursting with life, but I doubt it would have been very useful for a bramborák...

30 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post


Just sharing a couple of thoughts I was left with after a friendly chat over a beer or two with one of the owners of Nota Bene.

You can read it all here.

Na Zdraví!

26 Nov 2012

Macro culture


In the other day's post, Jeff, from Beervana suggested that I should run with the idea that "much of the marketing of the macro brands has a more realistic relationship with beer culture than that of the micro brands." Since I've got nothing better to do, here's me running:

Macro beer marketing has been critisised for being superficial, silly, flat, that it sells brands and not beer, etc. It is also said that it avoids speaking about beer because they sell shit and don't want people to start to think too much about it. False logic. The big brewing companies sell a mass market product and their marketing needs to speak to the widest possible range of consumers. The discourse, therefore, will not be often centered around ingredients, processes and sensory characteristics simply because it would be very much a waste of resources since most people don't give a fuck about where their beer comes from or how it is made.

Should they give a fuck? Yes, they should! They should give many, many fucks. But if they don't give much more than an insignificant number of fucks about the provenance and composition of what they eat every day, how can we expect them to give any fucks whatsoever about something that they essentially see as mildly alcoholic refreshments? Which is, basically, what the macro brands sell them.

But there's more, there's the how they are sold, and here we get to the beer culture thing. Have a look at these four ads.


These three have been going fishing together for six years. One confesses that he hates fish, another one, after taking a swig from the bottle, says that he loves fishing.




One of the ads from a great series of Kozel.

Forget about the brands and what you think about the beers themselves, they are not that relevant, and pay attention to the thread that runs through all four ads. Friendship, fun, relax.

We often say that beer is a democratic beverage, a social lubricant and leveller, that it tastes better when it's drunk among friends than when drinking it is an end by itself. We have all that in those ads. In Kozel's, for instance, we see a carpenter going for a pint after the day's work, he shares the table with two younger friends (we know they are his friends because one of them tosses a coaster on the table when he sees the carpenter walking in) and he's on first name basis with the tapster (something hardly happens right away with Czechs).

In each case, we see the beer as part of the moment. Of course, the message is that drinking a given brand will make the moment better, but the important thing is never the beer, but the moment, the when, where and with whom factors (the three mates in the Gambrinus ad, don't go fishing to drink the beer, they go fishing because they want to spend some time together, away from the usual shit they may have to put up with every day). And that is why I said the other day that the much of the marketing of the macro brands understands beer, and by extension, beer culture, better than the micro brands. They show a relationship with beer that is more natural, more organic, more realistic, specially in the Kozel and Krušovice ads, where the beers are consumed at pubs, than the one presented by tastings, pairings, special editions, fancy bottles and what have you.

Mind you, I don't thing there is anything wrong about this, quite the opposite. I think it's great that there are alternatives, a counter-culture if you want, and that they are introduced in a proper fashion to the ever growing number of people who do care about how their beers are made and want to know more. Thanks to their size, flexibility and a "more human" image, micro breweries are in the best position to talk to these people, but they should try to do it without loosing the fun side of beer and, in particular, avoiding rhetorical bollocks and presenting their brand as a lifestyle accessory.

Remember that Pravá chuť přátelství will always beat Beer for Punks.

Na Zdraví!

PS: To be fair, macro brands should also avoid giving their product a coat of sophistication, it looks silly.

23 Nov 2012

Friday Morning Musings


I'm quite skint these days, which has resulted in a considerable reduction of my visits to pubs, not to mention Pivotéky, which in turn has resulted in my taking a more Buddhist approach to beer.

For example, I've been following what Pivnici have published about the beers they've drunk and the places they've been to and I don't suffer. I know my current financial situation would not allow for almost any of that and I have accepted that fact. I enjoy those beers that I can afford and those sparse times that I do stop for a pint at a pub, or that someone buys me one, perhaps even more, in some way, than usual.

It feels good! I might be getting close to Pivní Nirvana.

Na Zdraví!

21 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I tell you why I was so happy to find and buy 2l PET bottles of Březňák 10°.

You can read it all here.

19 Nov 2012

A new model


This short, but very much to the point entry at Reluctant Scooper reminded me of something that has been going around my head ever since the first and second rants about beer tastings, which back then even made me doubt if there was such thing as "Beer Culture".

Now I'm convinced that beer culture does exist, and that it is basically what described last year. But beer culture is not something self sufficient, it is part of a wider thing. It is also true that beer being a consumer's good, its culture, i.e. the relationship the consumers have with it, is to some extent shaped by marketing, i.e. the way beer producers would like the consumer to see, relate to, and consume their product. But beer marketing itself it's also often shaped by the local customs, habits and culture (now that I think about it, much of the marketing of the macro brands have a more realistic relationship with beer culture than that of the micro brands, but that is another thing).

But back to the topic of tastings. I insist that they add little, if anything, to beer culture. In the best case, they are excellent and very legitimate marketing tools, in the worst case, they are excellent and very clever tools to part fools from their money. Either way, their contribution to beer culture is a bit more than zero. The main reason for that is the way they are mostly put together, or rather, the measures in which the samples are served.

10 or 15 cl might be enough to determine whether there is a flaw in a beer or how well it technically fits into a given category, but it's not enough to appreciate it and really get to know it.

There are beers that at first appear dull, bland, flavourless, but after a couple of sips they start to open up and turn out to be tasty, moreish and even complex. There are beers that at first impress, surprise, amaze, but after a couple of sips they become cloying, noisy and even boring. 10 or 15 cl are not enough to really be able to appreciate those details (not to mention the changes that take place as the beer warms up, etc.).

So if the intention of a tasting is not just to present a series of products in order to motivate a purchase later (or to get rid of a few old bottles), but to help the consumer appreciate different beers, what is needed is a new model for tastings. A model that is more in tune with the natural environment of beer. A model that will encourage drinking one beer instead of tasting several over a given period of time. What I propose is the following:
  • A maximum of 4 samples, all served in their usual measures of consumption.
  • The host will present each sample without giving more information than the labels give
  • At first, the attendants will have a sip of the beer and will reach their own conclusions about it. If they want to take notes, they are welcome to it. 
  • Once everyone has had their first or second sip, the host will ask what they think about the beer, what flavours and aromas it reminded them of. Here the host should make very clear that there are no wrong answers, the perception of flavours and aromas is very personal and depend on a number of factors (if someone has never tasted licorice or papaya, they will hardly find those things in a beer).
  • It's only after all this that more information will be given about the beer; where it comes from, how makes it, how, what with, etc. (the history of a given style should be avoided as it is, by and large, superfluous information). Ideally, the host would be someone also able to explain what each of the ingredients contribute to each of the samples. 
  • The tasting shouldn't be a lecture. It should be more like a chat among friends. Everyone should feel free and comfortable to give their opinion, to talk about similar beers they may have had, ask questions, or add any information they may have.
  • At the end, and maybe after offering to repeat one of the samples, the host will ask the attendants what beer they liked bes and why and will encourage them to stay and drink on, as an encore.
Yeah, yeah, it's very possible that more than one of the attendants (and maybe even the host) ends up a bit merry, that the volume of the voices goes up a couple of decibels. So what? That is also an important part of the experience of drinking beer, or isn't it?

Na Zdraví!

17 Nov 2012

Extinction? Yeah, right.


The other day I came across an article (in SP) about a very interesting beer project called Cluster Cervecero. Basically, two brewers, Alex Padró, from Llúpols i Llevats, and Gabriel Fort, of the namesake brand, are working in the same building, each with their kit. They are joined by Steve Huxley, the head of Steve's Beer Academy, and also a brewer himself. Besides making each their own beers and give courses, these three people work in common projects. All very interesting and nice, until I read this:
"Good beer almost went extinct in the middle of last century. The years of thirst.
What? I'd never heard about that one! Fortunately, Huxley is here to shed some light (well, sort of):
"The 13 years of Prohibition in the US had, in the end, worldwide repercussions. After it finished in 1933, the big companies took over the market with beers of low quality, completely unfaithful to the original recipe, and that practice extended, unfortunately, to the other side of the Atlantic. 'In Scotland, for 10 years, there wasn't a single decent beer. Likewise in Wales. Ireland resisted, but worse, rather than better". Extinction, in the end, was avoided because in 1963 the law that banned home brewing in the United Kingdom was repealed"
Well, where to start? By Huxley's omission of Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovaquia? No. Let's stay with the prohibition.

In 1934, a year after the Volstead act was repealed, 756 breweries were operating in the US, while there were 1092 in 1918, a year before the law. But watch out, Stan Hieronymus told me in an email, the number of breweries had been shrinking significantly. For example, in 1901 there were 1771. This was the result, mostly, of consolidations, that, just like the use of adjuncts, was a trend that had started the previous century (in 1876, the number of breweries was 3293).

Anheuser-Busch started using maize and then rice in their beers not to cut down costs, but to give the beers the right profile, the profile the market demanded, a profile that they were not able to get with the sort of malt that was grown there. In his e-mail, Stan refers me to a book called "Ambitious Brew", by Maureen Ogle, that "ties the rise of "white bread" beer to all other "white bread" tastes that became prominent in the United States".

And the phenomenon of consolidation and lighter beer wasn't exclusive to the US. You can see it in many other countries. For example the origin of Pilsner Urquell (who in 1932 took over Gambrinus) was, in some way, the result of a consolidation, as was Braník's. Both cases were about people joining forces in order to compete with a new breed of beer that would otherwise have ruined their businesses. And it's no surprise! If my recent experience gave me, in some way, a window to the past, then it's clear why lighter beers were, and still are, so successful.

Industrialization, together with the adoption of more scientific methods for brewing, resulted in more efficiency, improvements in the technical quality of the products, higher production volumes, cost reduction and, therefore, lower prices. Beer was finally able to show its true nature, that of an essentially industrial product.

This would in the end mean that attending the needs of niches wasn't profitable anymore, it was necessary to cater to the broadest possible market, and this market, once again, wanted beers that were lighter, easier to drink and cheaper. It happened in the US, it happened in Bohemia, in Germany, in Belgium. I would happen in Canada, when, according to Brew North, sales departments started to decide on what would be brewed, in response to what the clients demanded; and in the UK it would be the result of, among other things, a demographic process.

So, it wasn't Prohibition the culprit of the alleged drop in quality of beer, which, it could be said, is quite a relative thing (if what this article says is true, then the production of beers like Bud Light is overall much more careful than that of not few craft beers). It wasn't the fault of capitalism, either (you should see what the Communists did to he local brewing industry), it was just the result of companies doing what is most natural for them, seeking profit by satisfying the needs of the market, a market that still today wants their beer to be light (or bland, if you want), refreshing and cheap.

What is more surprising, however, is how awfully wrong Huxley, a Briton, is on what he says about the UK.

I wrote to Boak&Bailey (I strongly recommend you read the series they are writing on the British beer landscape in the second half of last century), Martyn Cornell y a Ron Pattinson (both of the same age as Huxley) to confirm my suspicions. They all agreed that home brewing in the UK was never banned. What happened in 1963 is that from then on, home brewers wouldn't need a license in order to practice their hobby.

Legislative details aside, the truth is that home brewers never had any impact whatsoever in the British beer Renaissance (for lack of a better term). According to Ron, people made beer at home mostly to get pissed cheaper.

CAMRA's, that in only five years after being established had almost 30,000 members (though the number would decrease later) had much more significant impact when it comes to commercial brewing. Actually, I'd dare say that the imported beers that Boak (or was it Baily? I can never remember) told me were showing up at festivals in the mid seventies, and the first edition of Michael Jackson's "World Guide to Beer" in 1977, had a much bigger impact than homebrewers.

(About the thing of not being decent beers in Scotland or Wales, I won't comment. Ron and Martyn would disagree, but the very concept of "decent beer" is a very subjective one, so let's live it there).

All this reminds me of, whether out of conviction or posing, I've seen many other craft brewers, from many different countries, spread about (including Huxley elsewhere). That myth that has absolutely no foundation in any reality, often told with delusions of greatness, that artisan brewers have saved good beer for the world, that they are the champions of the true beer culture, that without them we would be condemned to drink the crap industrial breweries make.

Pffff!

Alternative brewers have not saved anything or anyone. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they aren't artists or activists, they are just business people who, at best, have been able to capitalise on a wider shift in the habits of a certain part of the population. The consumers don't owe them anything.

Yes, it's true that they have brought to the market a much welcome dose of variety and colour, but that results from a business model (whether premeditated or not) that (maybe not all that sensibly in the long term) aims to satisfy the needs of a niche within a niche in the market. If there wasn't anyone interested in, often overrated, beers with an imbalance tilting to the hops, nobody would be making any hop bombs, at least not commercially.

So the passion, vision, spirit, ideals that they claim to have, the sacrifice and efforts that they very likely have made are not even close to being enough to earn our respect, recognition, admiration, not to mention our money. That is only earned by those who are able to make beer of consistent quality, or rather, those whose goal is the continuous improvement of their beers, for which they will take all the necessary measures; those who have left the homebrewer behind and have decided to become professional brewers; those who respect our intelligence, who see the consumer as someone who knows what they want and wants to be informed and not filled with bollocks.

If that is the ultimate goal of Cluster Cervecero, I wish them nothing but the greatest success (lucky are those who don't know what they are doing) and I hope not only that they'll be able to bring more people to their initiative, but also that they will inspire others. In the meantime, less bollocks and more brewing, please.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Steve Huxley was a contributor to the Oxford Beer Companion, I wonder what he wrote about there.

13 Nov 2012

A short holiday


My faimily and I took went on a more than deserved  four day holiday last week. We went to Liberec, my wife had booked us a stay at Hotel Babylon, mostly so our daughter could enjoy some of the attractions that this huge complex has (I must confess that I had a kick-ass time at the water park, too!).

Before leaving I asked Facebook and Twitter to recommend place with good beer in Liberec. A couple of tips arrived, the places looked quite fine, but in the end I decided to give them a miss. I'm almost sure I would have had a very good time at those pubs, but at the same time, they didn't look like the kind of place where my wife and daughter would enjoy themselves very much, and this was a family holiday so I wanted to dedicate all my time to them. Pivní Filosof would have to stay home, watching porn or nature documentaries, or whatever it is that this bloke does when he's not getting pissed.

And you know what? Beer-wise, I loved it!

I simply drunk whatever it was being served at the restaurants we went and I enjoyed every single one of those beers. I even the Staropramen tapped in a plastic cup I had at the playground in Babylon (BTW, ain't that great? To drink at a kid's playground?). I was watching my daughter have almost more fun than a human can handle and the beer was not obstacle to enjoying that moment, it was actually part of it. The only time when I was able to "escape" the macrobrands was at the Svijany pub we stopped for a drink after coming down from Ještěd (in Liberec you'll actually find Svijany almost at every corner). It was a lovely spot, we would have liked to stay longer, but the little one was already very tired, she had walked much of the 4km way uphill, and downhill, too.

It was really a very refreshing experience, just like in the old and simpler times, to drink "just beer" without giving much of a fuck about what I had in the glass. It's an experience that I recommend to all beer geeks who refuse to drink anything brewed by the macros. Go with your loved ones somewhere where you can only drink whatever it is that the rest of the world drinks. If you aren't able to enjoy it, it means there is something wrong with you.

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7 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I present you three newish pubs that offer a bit for everyone.

You can read it all here

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2 Nov 2012

Friday Morning Musings


Just like with every new experience, the visit to Ferdinand's floor maltings has given me some rich food for thought, in this case about the nature of the so called "Craft Beer".

The floor malts from Benešov are an undeniably craft product. Tradition, dedication and attention to detail rule. Everything that happens during the process is allowed to happen for a reason, and the ultimate goal is quality. Quality that is backed by a lab analysis of each and every batch; figures and values that are very hard to argue with.

For better or worse, it's not that easy with beer. Yeah, a lab analysis might be able to determine that A is technically better than B, but since it is a consumer product we are talking about, the subjective quality will always prevail, and it doesn't often agree with the technical one.

In a certain way, this has an effect on the concept of "craft" and the endless debate around it. To me, "Craft Beer" is another label, not too different from "Premium", but at the same time, it'd be foolish to deny that to many people "Craft Beer" means something more or less clearly defined (or sensible).

What's interesting about this whole thing is that the debate doesn't go much further than the brewhouse, focusing mostly on things like volumes, ownership, adjuncts, automatisation or filtering/pasteurisation. But it should go beyond that, beer, after all, is the result of a series of processes that start in the maltings and end in the glass, with the brewer as an overseer. So, can a beer be considered "craft" if it's brewed with industrially produced malts that may or may not be good quality and that are often bought already ground? Can a brewery be considered "craft" if they don't care too much about what happens to the product once it leaves the facilities (including selling them to supermarket chains)? (and with all the attention to detail, aren't American Light Lagers in a way more crafter than many a "Craft Beer"?)

This doesn't want to be criticism to anyone. A brewery is, first and foremost, a business and as such, it must survive and make money, which can often mean making compromises and facing realities. On top of this, sometimes, good quality ingredients aren't easy to get and, let's be honest, there's many a very good beer that is made with mediocre ingredients and, at the end of the day, what you have in the glass is what really matters.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Needless to say, a brewer that knowingly puts out a flawed beer has automatically waived their right to call themselves "Craft", their philosophy and respect for the consumer are even worse than AB-InBev's.

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31 Oct 2012

This week in the Prague Post

Bohemian Floor Malts are considered as some of the best in the world. I went to Benešov to see how they are made and to talk to the people that make them.

You can read about it here.

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26 Oct 2012

A window to the past?


About two months ago, I was having a few pints with my friend Artur, a.k.a. the Polish Photobomber. We were talking about beer and life in general and when it was time to go, we decided to close the session with a Rauchweizenbock* that I hadn't drunk for quite awhile.

After we got our pints I realised that, besides being a bit paler than I remembered it, the beer was also a bit sour, and yet, excellent! This contamination (it can be described that way, it hadn't been planned by the brewer) had added a new layer to an already very interesting and quite complex brew.

It would all have remained another interesting sensory experience, if it hadn't been for Adrian's tale about his encounter with a stale Mild, which made him wonder if that wasn't something similar to what stale porters tasted like in the 1800s.

Could it be that this duff rauchweizenbock had also shown me some sort of historical postcard?

In many occasions, and from several sources, I have heard and read that in the B.L (before lager) age, wheat beers where very common in these lands (more so perhaps than barley beers?). Jan Šuráň has also told me more than once that, until modern malting methods had been adopted (mid 19th century?), malts were dried with direct heat, which would result in smoked beers (it wasn't until a recent visit to U Fleku's museum, that includes the old maltings, that I understood how this worked). On top of this, we should consider that, at least until the processes proposed by František Ondřej Poupě had become a staple, brewing was done in conditions that we might today describe as precarious (or "craft", according to others...), thermometers and densimeters were not used, the science behind fermentation was still unknown and hygiene standards were, likely, not something that was taken very much into account, which would indicate that beers with a sour profile weren't something out of the ordinary.

If I'm right and this rauchweizenbock did take my palate on a bit of a time trip, it's no wonder then that cold fermented beers were so successful, and would end up driving to extinction those beers that had been brewed for many centuries. Lagers were cheaper to make, more stable, lighter to the palate, with cleaner flavours and a much higher drinkability as a result (and you don't need to go to the past, I can drink more of a good unfiltered světlý ležák than I can of a good Hefe-Weizen). In a nutshell, people liked them more.

And this is not the only retrospective relevation that came out of this beer. But you'll have to wait a few more days for that.

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*This isn't one of those new pseudo-styles without any sense like Imperial Pilsner, it is an accurate technical description of the beer.

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22 Oct 2012

Gypsy Porter+Friends+Zlý Časy = Perfect Evening


Last Saturday, at Zlý Časy's upstairs bar, we did a rather informal, official presentation of Gypsy Porter, the beer that Gazza Prescott, from Steel CityPivovar Kocour and yours truly brewed in Varnsdorf.
There's not a lot more I can say about this Baltic Porter that I haven't said before. Bollocks! There is! Gazza did a great job with the malt grist (Pilsen, Munich, Carafa Spezial No. 1 y Carared). It prevented the beer from being cloying, even though it coats your palate thanks to a relatively lower attenuation (to give you an idea, Pardubický Porter, that also declares 19º degree Balling, has 8% ABV, Gypsy has 7,2, with an original Balling graduation of almost 20). The hops balance this symphony of malts beautifully and the whole thing has a quite dangerous drinkability for such high octanes. The only thing that didn't turn out quite as we expected was the aroma. After two months lagering, the Citra hops we added at the end of the boil had left only a small memento of their presence. Aside from that, though (and conflict of interest notwithstanding, hehe!), Gypsy Porter is a perfect beer for this season.
But the most important thing is that people like it, a lot. The first batch has sold out already (some bottles can be found at Pivní Rozmanitost and yesterday, Bar Na Palmě announced on on their Facebook page that they'd tapped a keg) and Hanz told me that Pivovar Kocour will be brewing another batch soon.
The best for me, however, was that Gypsy Porter was the catalyst of a perfect evening at the pub. Friends, wonderful atmosphere; even my wife and my daughter had a great time! Thanks Gazza, Hanz y the people at Pivovar Kocour for making this possible!

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19 Oct 2012

It happened one day


I've just remembered this anecdote I've been told a couple of months ago. It goes somehow like this:

The people of Pivotéka Pivní Rozmanitost went to a craft fair in Ustí nad Labem with their brewing project Pivovar Nomád (I owe these beers a post). At their stand they were selling Žižkovský Svrchňák at 25CZK/0.5l. A man came by and asked about the beer and the person at the stand explained him what it was about, but the man ended up saying that since he didn't know the beer, it must be bad (or something like that), and he went to another stand to buy Gambrinus for 29CZK.

The first reaction of everyone who heard/read this story was (in several languages) "What a twat!", which is actually, unfair. People shouldn't be critisised for their tastes in beer, you and I can legitimately say that Gambáč is crap, so what? We all like at least one thing that other people can legitimately say it's crap. What can be critisised though, to a certain extent, is this bloke's attitude, which didn't show an open mind and a spirit for adventure. However, and much to the chagrin of some, the truth is that consumers with an open mind and spirit for adventure are a minority. Most of the people are conformists, they don't want surprises and will always look for what they know and has been certified by experience, beer is no exception.

This guy has probably grown up drinking Gambrinus, he likes it, he enjoys the beer. Gambrinus is a constant, a certainty, in his life; if everything went pear shaped tomorrow, this geezer knows that his Gambáč will always be there, that it will not let him down, it'll be as good as ever. So, perhaps, this gentleman's reaction was the product of something deeper than the mistrust for something new and unknown. Maybe he was afraid, afraid that he would like Žižkovský Svrchňák more than Gambrinus, afraid that this one could be that epiphanic beer that makes you realise that the stuff you've been drinking all your life wasn't so good after all. And if all of a sudden Gambrinus isn't so good, so reliable, if it's not anymore certainty, a perhaps never was to begin with, what can be the other certainties in his life that are nothing but an emotional mirage?

Maybe I'm overanalising all this, and this bloke, beer tastes aside, was actually a twat after all.

Na Zdraví!

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17 Oct 2012

This Week in the Prague Post

One of my readers had a terrible experience at U Krkouna, a Dalešice pub that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

He left a comment that made me think about pub reviews in general, you can read my musings here

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15 Oct 2012

PROSÍM POZOR!


This Saturday, Oct. 20, from 5PM at Zlý Časy, together with Gazza Prescott, from Steel City Brewing and someone from Pivovar Kocour, I'll be presenting Gypsy Porter, the beer we brewed together two months ago in Varnsdorf.
Gypsy Porter is a Baltic-Porter inspired strong black lager. The recipe was put together by Gazza on the base of the recipe of Sinebrychoff Porter, which Kirsten England, brewer at Pour Decisions, sent me (if you haven't already, read the interview he gave to Fuggled, it's great). It was brewed with a double decoction mash (as it should be) and we used Pilsen, Munich, Carafa Spezial No. 1 and Carared malts, Saaz hops (pellets) and Citra (aroma, cones). The Balling graduation was 19.8 and fermented for about 10 days to 5.4º. It's a gorgeous beer and I can't wait to see how it has evolved since I drank it a few weeks ago at Slunce v Skle.

You are all invited.

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12 Oct 2012

¿Plagiarism?


A brewery that teams up with a renown, Michelin starred cook to develop the first beer of its kind, which can also pair with any sort of food.

No, it's not Inèdit, is Sagra Bohío, which is thus described on its webpage:
"Bob Matlman and Pepe Rodríguez, Head Chef at el Bohío de Illescas - Toledo (Current National Gastronomic Award and Michelin Star), have joined to create the first Spanish craft beer designed to pair with any meal, specially dessert. For that, a triple malt beer, with additional maturing and bottle conditioning, has been brewed. The restult is a an Ale, triple malt, balanced, with chocolate colour and aroma, with caramel, coffeee and apple notes."
It's very possible that this beer is great, I haven't tasted, but, together with the "Gastronomic Beer", this is the kind of marketing laziness that makes me not want to buy a product (if I could). And it's worse in this case, because it's not even original, and on top of it, it's lying.

Beer and food pairing isn't an exact science, but if we follow the most accepted convetions, there isn't a single beer in this world that can pair well with every sort of food, not even with desserts.

Sagra, instead of taking advantage of the almost unlimited space of a web page to tell us in more detail about ingredients, processes and the role the cook played in the development of the beer, chose to use the same empty bollocks as DAMM.

Another lost opportunity by another micro brewery, who still don't seem to understand what their target consumers really want to know about their products.

But not everything is negative. I doubt that Sagra has a marketing budget nearly as thick as DAMM, which will quite certainly save us from listening to Pepe Rodríguez say perhaps the same kid of bollocks his colleague Adrià has uttered.

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10 Oct 2012

This Week in the Prague Post

U Hrocha, the essence of beer minimalism, and what happened to me in my last visit to this pub among pubs are the best examples of why I don't and will never like chains like Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant or Potrefená Husa.

You can read it here

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8 Oct 2012

Selected Readings: September


A bit late, but here you have it, the best, worthiest and most interesting of the stuff I read last month.

We start in Spanish, with a double dose of Mexican wisdom. Amigos de la Vid and In Cervesio Felicitas pull no bollocks in their lists of the worst Mexican craft beers. Their opinions are very well argued and valuable in an alternative beer scene that is just getting started. The best of all, though, is what each of them says about "locality". ICF: "Supporting a Mexican product only because it's Mexican and not because of its good quality is lame and absurd". Amigos: "Stop trying to instill a nationalistic sense to Mexican craft beer. We all know that most of the ingredients used are imported". Brilliant.

From Portland, Beervana explains the difference between mass and elitist reviews. I couldn't agree more. Though I acknowledge that rating sites offer some useful information, at least when a quick reference is needed, I get a lot more value from the words of individuals whose tastes I know, regardless of whether they are similar to mine or not, as long as their reviews are well written, I will be able to reach my own conclusions.

Alan speaks about beer in politics and points to the differences between the beer brewed by the cooks at the White House and the beer habits of Angela Merkel, who's always given me the impression that she can drink most world leaders under the table.

For those who know Czech, these thoughts on blind tastings are a must read. These kind of sensory exercise might be useful when it comes to compare similar beers, minimising  prejudice, but their results should not be taken a science because, as the author points out, there are many factors that can affect them, even if you don't know the name of what you are drinking.

Beer snobs give a lot to rant about, and rightfully so. Last month I came across two articles on the topic, the first one is short and very well written and the author makes a very strong point. The second one, on the other hand is long and boring and at times seems to have been written by the kind of "Alelitists" the first article rants against. And by the way, could we all cut it out with all this "war against (certain sort of) beer" kind of shit? Thanks!

The bollocks of the month is courtesy of the scientific community, who warn us that people drink faster from curved glasses. Fortunately, a few days later, this bloke showed up to explain, also in a scientific way, the gross shortcomings in the method employed in this superfluous study and saved me from writing a couple of expletives.

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5 Oct 2012

This week in the Prague Post


I celebrate the 170th birthday of Pilsner Urquell, the most significant beer in the world today.

You can read it here.

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1 Oct 2012

A Good Example


I've never drunk the beers from the Argentine micro Finn, I've got no clue as to what they are like, but they've already earned my respect. The other day, on their Facebook page, they posted a picture to announce that they had to pour 120 bottles down the drain because they were not happy with the quality of the product.

This is the kind of professionalism, respect for the trade and, more importantly, the consumer, that many of us are demanding to all micros (and not so micro). Yes, Finn aren't the only ones to do something like this, I've heard of many others. Unfortunately, though, there are still many who prefer to do things differently and have no problem with taking a flawed beer to a festival or bringing you a contaminated one at their own brewpubs or, as I've been told by people who know, giving a year and a half shelf life to products that are almost undrinkable after only six months. Nobody likes to see a whole day of work (and money invested) going down the drain, but it's something that happens, even to true masters, specially when when we are speaking about small batches with equipment and processes that aren't all that refined or after increasing capacities, but in the long run, it is something that ends up paying really well.

I wish that Finn, or anyone, wouldn't have to take a similar measure, but I would also like to know when others do it, I want to know about more brewers who give priority to respecting the consumer rather than short term profits in order to show all those charlatans, thieves and fake artisans how things should be done.

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28 Sep 2012

You learn something new every day


The other day I attended the official opening ceremony of Břevnovský Pivovar at the namesake monastery. A nice do, I must say, with the Prior blessing the brewery, and the beers, of course, and a few friends who made the afternoon even more enjoyable, there are few pleasures in this life that are bigger than a friendly chat paired with excellent beers, and the beers from Břevnov are top-notch.

Their světlý ležák, in my opinion, already ranks among the best you can drink in this country. It's completely different from any other I've drunk before. There's the classic, wonderful, sexy malty body of a proper Czech pale lager (bless decoction for that), but this one is almost bursting with notes of mint and something that reminds me of chewing a sage leaf, in between those two there's some fruit that my friend Evan Rail described as that bit of a peach that is by the stone, thought it could also be described a not fully ripe apricot. It gives the beer a truly unique character and I'd been always intrigued as to what it was. With its creator, Jan Šuráň, present, this was the best chance to find out.

"It's the hops", he said with some excitement even before I was able to finish the question. They are Saaz, or Žatecký Poloraný Červenák, as they are called here, but they come from a hopyard near Louny that is 70 years old. He explained what the difference between those hops and all the rest is with some technical details that I understood, but I've since forgotten.

It was the first time I've heard about the age of the hopyard having any effect on the characteristics of our favourite aromatic herb, I found it fascinating and it made me realise how much there is out there about beer that I still don't have much of a clue about, and I just love that!

Anyway, before I leave, let me share with you some words the Prior said in his blessing, not an actual quote, but it went something like this:
"Beer is a good thing. It brings people together and always in good will."
Wise words from a man who seems to love his tipple.
Photo: Evan Rail
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24 Sep 2012

WOW!


To be honest, I wasn't going to write anything about last Saturday's Slunce v Skle. Not because there was anything wrong with it, quite the opposite, just like every year, it was great, it's still the best festival in this country. The thing is that I didn't believe I would have anything new to add to what I said two years ago: great atmosphere, lots of friends and familiar faces, the weather started out rather dodgy, but then got really nice...

The biggest difference, perhaps, was the quality of the beers. Unlike the previous two editions, I didn't come across anything that was bad. But then again, I didn't drink that much, or actually, I didn't drink from as many breweries as previous years. It could also be that what I wrote on Friday played a bit of a role and, instead of chasing after every new brewery (there were several) I mostly played safe and went for stuff I knew or had very good references of. I even repeated a couple of beers! And though I didn't manage to drink some beers I would have liked to drink, I didn't regret it at the end of the day because I enjoyed what I did drink. Can you believe that? It could also be that I was drinking mostly half litres (from plastic, I couldn't be arsed this year with glass, didn't want to break one again) or that I spent a lot of time actually talking to people rather than to beer (chatting with Adrian Tierney-Jones, one of the world's best beer writers, was also a big plus on a day that couldn't have possibly been better).

And yet, if it hadn't been for Kocour I wouldn't have bothered to write anything here today.

After I arrived, and procured myself a much needed beer (a sensual 11º from Vimperk), I went to Kocour's stand to say hello to Standa Deus, the head brewer, and ask him how our baby was doing. "Mám ho na čepu" (I have him on tap) he said. WHAT? He had tasted it, loved it and decided to take a 30l keg for a test ride at the festival.

I won't pretend objectivity, I was part of the team that brewed Gipsy Porter, after all, but let me tell you this, I've never been so excited in my life about a beer and it is ABSOLUTELY FUCKING WONDERGORGEOUS! It was still a tad young, but it was already perfect. It was everything I expected it to be and then some: licorice, bitter chocolate, mint, port wine and a drop or two of pure heaven. That's what I texted Gazza.

Needless to say, I let everyone I knew that Gipsy Porter was eager to meet them. Everyone loved it. My friend Ian suggested I cast a vote for it as the best beer of the festival, a few of my friends also voted for it and it ended up winning!

You know what my attitude towards awards and medals is and I won't even try to make you believe this one is a very serious one, I'm also willing to concede that many of the votes Gipsy Porter got were from from people that know me and knew it was my beer, but when its was announced as the festival's best beer I almost bursted in joy and all the congratulations that followed it meant that I almost couldn't fit within myself until I fell asleep at home a few hours later. But more important than the prize, any prize, is that people liked it, and they liked it a lot, the keg had sold out by 4.30 or so.

Suddenly, that small shrub Gazza, Hanz and I planted with Pivovar Kocour on the slope of a hill doesn't look so small anymore, and may even grow into a tree because Kocour wants to brew it again.

I'm so proud of you, Gipsy Porter and I'm looking forward to seeing you again in a couple of weeks, this time in Prague.

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21 Sep 2012

Friday Morning Musings


The other day I came across this very good (and rather old) article in The Economist that speaks about how having more to choose from results on people actually buying less because they can't quite decide. Boak & Bailey went through a situation like this a while ago while in London, where they had the nagging feeling that choosing one beer or one pub might mean that they were missing something better.

Whenever I drop by places like Zlý Časy, more and more often find myself taking the opposite path. I go for the stuff I know and maybe, depending on how long I'll be staying, the company and my mood at the time, pick one or two new beers, but only after at least a couple of pints have been properly taken care of. In fact, I'm becoming increasingly tired and bored of this inflation of new beers and part of me is slowly beginning to wish that the bubble would finally burst.

All of this is happening thanks (or because of) the beer fetishists. These are people who seem to prefer to talk about beer than to actually drink it. Instead of enjoying what they have right now in the glass, they are anguishing about what to order next, and it will have to be something new, something they've never seen before, because a beer they hope they will like will always be better than one they've already liked, and if the beer bar doesn't have anything new (the more obscure the better), well the owner doesn't care about beer culture, doesn't have passion, doesn't know how to run their business and therefore, it's time to move on somewhere else.

Beer fetishists are also the kind of people who don't go to festivals to have a good day out with friends at a glorified beer garden. They go there to see "what's new", to write tasting notes, tweets or "share" beers on Untappd (never have the words "share" and "drink socially" have been more wrongly used). Needless to say, they will never touch a plastic cup and they will insist that all beers be available in 0.15l measures. They don't have time for drinking, when there's so much out there to taste.

In a normal world, people like this would be marginalised. But they are way too loud and some brewers (many of whom are fetishists themselves) have decided to cater almost exclusively to this niche within a niche. And that's how we've ended up with this disproportionate number of extreme or "experimental" beers or those idiotic "new" styles like Black and/or Imperial Pilsner.

Rants aside, I haven't got anything against the fetishist. I was a bit of a fetishist myself and, well, we all have, and need, our kinks, don't we? As for the brewers, they are just doing their business and I don't have to give them my money if I don't want.

The problem here is that some of these breweries have become very successful, or at least very talked about, and then many others are doing what businesses often do, follow a hot trend, while it's hot. But is this a good thing for those of us who prefer to drink "normal" beers and for the industry as a whole?

A couple of months ago, while having lunch with Evan Rail, we were discussing this and he said something very important "focus", or the lack thereof. Like him (and I'm sure, many of you out there) I've had some beers from DeMolen, Mikkeller and, here, Matuška that were pretty disappointing. Not that they were bad (actually, DeMolen Hop&Stout was a disaster), but they felt as if the brewers hadn't quite finished tightening the screws on the new recipe before they started with another one. In other cases, they were as if a very capable Italian cook was told, just before the restaurant closed, that he had to prepare something Thai for tomorrow's lunch. In the Czech Republic, for example, this has resulted in otherwise very capable Lager brewers to start making pretty mediocre Ales.

At the rate all these new beers seem to be coming out, beer lovers (you know, those who prefer drinking to tasting, etc.) are sometimes loosing the chance to develop a relationship with beers that have impressed us. How many of them have been discontinued or pushed aside to make room in cellars or bars for the (perhaps not that good after all) newcomers? An excellent example of that is Vyškov and their IPA's. The first one was very good and a massive hit, the half batch they brewed sold out in just a few days, but instead of making another, full, batch of the same beer they changed the recipe and the resulting product wasn't that good, and neither was their Stout.

Don't get me wrong, I like it when breweries put out new products, but not just for the sake of "having something new". There should be an idea, a long term plan behind it, a concept if you want, and not the "let's see what comes out of this" philosophy that seems to drive many new beers.

But it might not be only us, the consumers, who are affected by this, but also small, start-up breweries, specially those in emerging markets. Could it be that this bubble they are happily inflating is actually slowing their long term growth and an obstacle to improving efficiency as a business?

Last month I had a great chat with the brewer and the owner of Únětický Pivovar. One of the things I like about that brewery is that they make only two kinds of beer, plus a seasonal every few months. They told me that the main reason behind is to have better "capacity management". I'd never heard that mentioned before, and it turns out it is very important, specially if you are brewing lagers, and that is not where it ends. For a new brewer, building a portfolio of 10, if not more, beers in only one year means that they will have to stock different kinds of malt, hops and yeast, or worse, order them as the need arises. The brewery proper will need to start small in order to make many different beers in low volumes. These two things will mean that production costs will be higher, and so will prices. And what's worse is that, ironically, being successful enough to force them to increase capacity can be quite dangerous, specially if this happens rather fast.

It is said that Barabbas was set free by Pontius Pilate not because he had more supporters than Jesus, but because his supporters screamed louder (though the theory proposed by "The Life of Brian" is also a possibility). Perhaps it's about time that those who prefer quality over sheer diversity started screaming a bit louder before it is too late.

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17 Sep 2012

A Few Quick Reviews (IV)


A new installment of the round up of reviews originally published on my FB page for those four or five of you who don't have Facebook.

Slaný TUPL IPA: Could be a tad more aromatic, could have a bit of a longer finish, but SOD THAT! What a chewy, complex, rewarding, beauty this one is!
Cigar City Cucumber Saison: I'd be lying my ass off if I said this is one of my favourite beers, but bugger me! This is one interesting little bastard that masterfully avoids the gimmick. One I'd love to drink again. (thanks Glen!)

Opat Benediktin 15º: As if a Märzen was trying to do some mischief.

13º Český Granát, Žitný Speciál from Regent? Are you kidding? Does this apricot marmalade, ginger, strawberry syrup beauty come from Třeboň? Hats off to them, it's bloody lovely!!!

Přerovský Negr: A big, mean, scary looking muthafuckin nigga that turns out to be a nice fun bloke to be with after all.
Novopacké Kvasničák: Scores for being one of the few, proper kvasnicové, starts well enough, but ends up leaving the aftertaste of a wasted opportunity. I really wanted to like this beer....

Vyškov Heffeweizen: Could have some more spice, but very nice nonetheless.
Matuška Fastball: Could have most certainly used some filtering...
Antares Imperial Stout: Prunes in rum with brown sugar and a dusting of chocolate. Reminded me a lot of Sam Smith's. Very nice night cap, but not quite recommended for those who like the louder side of the IS family.

Antares Barley Wine: With 0.5% ABV less and the same OG it could have been an absolutely fantastic beer. The kind you'd wish would tuck you in bed and give a good night kiss on your forehead. Nice and enjoyable nonetheless, but could be better. (Thanks Pablo Rodríguez, from Cervecería Antares for these two)

And short thought to wrap up: What's the difference between an Imperial Pilsner and a Helles Bock? More hops and less sense?

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10 Sep 2012

Both for the everyman and for the selected few


After he heard a couple of wine posers say that they couldn't take beer seriously until it became "more like wine", Velký Al issued another rant against the "winification" of beer. I agree with him, I also find the "beer is the new wine" bollocks a bit irritating and very stupid. However, there's something that Al doesn't quite take into account when he complains about those who want to gentrify beer, history.

If you've read what Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson have written about beer in the 19th century and beyond, you'll have noticed that beer has not always been only the "everyman's drink". The higher classes used their beers, the most famous of them, perhaps, were the Pale Ales (India or otherwise), to which we could add the Porters/Stouts brewed for the Russian ruling class, among others (even lagers, in the early days, were quite a posh drink in Britain). In the continent, the Reinheitsgebot was amended in the 17th century to allow aristocrats to brew wheat beer in summer and let's not forget that pretty much every castle and palace worth its salt would house a brewery, or that commercial brewing was only a privilege of the bourgeois (every time I read about brewing history in this neck of the woods, I'm left with the impression that everyone drank the same stuff, and I don't think that's quite correct).

What happened with wine is the opposite. It has always been an everyman's drink, specially in the producing countries. Until not long ago, at the neighbourhood restaurants in Argentina people ordered either the house white, or the house red. At home they drank table wine and 5l demijohns would be passed around at a barbecue. In some places, this hasn't changed. When we were in Greece a few years back, at the taverna we ordered "house wine" pretty much in the same way I order a desítka at a traditional pub here. In Prague there are loads of neighbourhood vinárny that I wouldn't describe as dens of sophistication and burčák, as delicious as it can be, is not what I would call a refined beverage. While the people in Moravia don't tend to intellectualise their wines very much, specially those who are home producers.

The beer paradigm started to change with the industrialisation of the second part of the 19th century (though both world wars and, in the North American case, prohibition, also played an important role). Craft brewers might not like hearing it, but beer has always been very much an industrial product. The production of almost all beers follows basically the same steps: mash, sparge, boil, cool, ferment, mature/condtion; the only difference is scale. As with every industrial product, it also applies to beer the rule "the bigger the volume, the lower the relative costs" (and the more efficient the process gets). Making beers only for a niche, therefore, stopped making commercial and economical sense.

Wine doesn't have the advantages of beer, it can only be made once a year and its production is a lot more labour intensive because of the harvest.

The wine revolution in Argentina started when businesses realised that they could earn more money with a certain level of quality than with sheer volume. The harvest is by far the costliest part of winemaking, and picking a ton of grapes will cost the same regardless of the quality of the wine they'll end up producing. Lower production volume makes it easier to manage quality and the resulting product can be sold with a much higher profit margin.

This revolution, at least in Argentina, happened at the right time. After more than half a century of political and economical uncertainty, the 1990's brought a sense of prosperity. The middle class finally had money, or at least credit, in their pockets and they wanted to enjoy it. This was also the time when cable TV stopped being a luxury and became a common feature in many homes. This provided the ideal platform to promote the new wines. People stopped drinking red or white wine, now they were drinking Malbec or Chardonnay. Table wines almost vanished from the advertising landscape and they were replaced by beer, the new casual beverage of the masses.

In addition to the posh image some brands already had, wine marketing used the geographical and seasonal limitation of the product to their advantage, and invested it with a mystique that beer will never be able to acquire: nature, the passing of the seasons, the ancestral traditions, the harvest, terroir. A geographical denomination hardly needs to be explained, it's clear. Everybody knows what a Rioja 2010 is, but how local an Italian craft beer really is when it's brewed with German malts, American hops and Belgian yeasts? It was easy, then, to make people feel sophisticated, refined and, to a certain extent, knowledgeable because they were consuming a product made in a very specific place and time.

While all this was happening, and specially during the last 5-15 years, in some countries the number of micro breweries grew at a breakneck speed. As I've said before, this wasn't something casual, but another symptom of a broader shift in the mentality of a growing number of consumers. Due their structures and sizes, these factories couldn't reach the economies of scale or the efficiency of the larger ones. So it was natural that they adopted and adapted some of the marketing speech of wine in order to convince the public to pay a higher price for "beer". Now aromas, flavours and mouthfeel started to be discussed, as well as authenticity, styles and even vintages, and the lack of a proper terroir was compensated with a globalised localism and the figure of the Brew Master as a marketing tool.

It is true that often the attempts to posh-up beer leave a lot to be desired. Some of them make little sense (including 0.1l samples of session beer in a guided tasting), while others are downright ridiculous ("gastronomic" or "boutique" beer). But all that aside, what some people are doing, or at least trying to do, is to return beer to a place where it used to belong.

Personally, I don't care, nor worry in the least about the profusion of expensive beer or the alleged bubble around them. On the one hand, because I don't have to buy them, and on the other, because I don't think that with the beer discourse will happen the same thing as with the wine discourse, which hardly ever mentions the cheaper end of the market, it treats it like some relative that is the shame of an aristocratic family.

Those who understand beer, who are interested in this beverage beyond the fashion and the boom and who are able to appreciate its infinite diversity, know very well that "cheap" doesn't mean "crap" (perhaps someone should explain that to the person who chose to close the video "I'm a craft beer drinker" with the phrase "Life is too short to drink cheap beer"). And as for the rest, i.e., the normal people, as long as there are companies for whom making large volumes of just a few products per facility is more profitable than the other way round, they will never let us forget that beer is a beverage that is consumed without thinking too much about it while you are having a good time.

There are people out there who drink certain beers because they are trendy, because they make them feel a superior beings or whatever, it's their thing (and in the long run, perhaps a problem for those companies that mainly cater to the whims of that niche). I, along with many others, will keep on drinking beer mostly because we like drinking beer, without feeling that we need to intellectualise it in order to enjoy it.

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