30 Apr 2012

Sad news from Žižkov

U Slovanské Lípy, at least in its current form, will cease to exist as of this Saturday 5/5.

I've known about this for a few weeks already. I had seen it mentioned in Pivni.info, but before saying anything here I thought I would ask Michal. He confirmed the news, but also asked me to keep it quiet at  least until they had sorted things out with the new people who'd run the place, which, I've been announced, has already been done.

The reason is, basically, tiredness. Michal told me that it hadn't been an easy decision, but the fact was that they were not up to it anymore and that he chose to keep doing the hostel upstairs, which also gives him plenty of work, but in more civilised hours.

I can't blame him. I know very well how hard it is to make a pub or restaurant work, the sacrifice and the constant worries that a tiny mistake can  royally fuck everything up. So I wish him, his team and his family, all the best for the future and also to make public my utmost respect for him.

You see, Michal could have made it easy, shut down and wait for another tenant. U Slovanské Lípy could have easily turned into a Pizzeria as pretentious as it is mediocre, a Činské Bistro with a suspicious business model or a Herna Bar and nobody would have thought any less of him. However, he took advantage of being the son of the owner and before shutting the blinds, he wanted to make sure that the place would be taken over by someone interested in having good beer and once he found a solid candidate, he did his best to talk them into keeping Kout na Šumavě on this address. It seems he has managed both.

On Friday Michal told me in an e-mail that the people who'll be taking over Lípy are the same ones who are running U Vodoucha and Černokostelecký Pivovar, who assured him that at least two beers from Kout would be on permanent rotation, together with a few more from Czech regionals and micros (provided, of course, that people will still want Kout). He also told me that the cork lining on the walls will disappear.

I'm glad to know that the place will be in capable hands. I trust the commitment these people have towards good quality beer served in good condition, but it's still sad news, and not only because U Slovanské Lípy is, or was, one of my favourite pubs, but because as of this Saturday, the Prague beer scene will be poorer.

Everybody knows how much I like this multi-tap pub trend. I'm really happy that it has become a viable model that has spread to places as diverse as Nota Bene and Na Palmě. However, and even though I'm sure that Prague still has room for plenty more, I think the city is in need of beer minimalist places that have only one regional or micro brand.

But well, my philosophy has always been that if I can do anything concrete to change reality, I have to accept as it is and do my best to adapt to it, so all I can do now is to hope that the new version of U Slovanské Lípy will be the kind of place I will want to go.

Anyway, if you are in Prague this week, go to U Slovanské Lípy to have a farewell Kout or five and enjoy that magic for the last time.

Na Zdraví!

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27 Apr 2012

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

The other day, Cracked.com published a great article about Grammar mistakes that aren't actually so. In the Closing thoughts there was this bit:
"(There is) a war between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist grammarians (...) I'll briefly describe both sides, probably unfairly:

Prescriptivists document the rules of grammar, and sometimes, when no one's looking, make them up entirely. They also feel the need to enforce the rules of grammar, and in particular advocate that these rules and definitions shouldn't change. They argue this for a variety of reasons, but those usually boil down to "Otherwise, civilization will evaporate into an orgy of orgy-themed game shows and fad diets that consist entirely of eating each other's flesh."

Descriptivists also document the rules of grammar, but don't particularly care when they're violated, because fuck rules, man. And if the rules ever do change, descriptivists simply shrug and write down the new ones. They point out that civilization has never collapsed during any of the previous changes to English grammar, and indeed has even managed to excel -- giving us advances like polio vaccines, color television and sexting."
Now, replace "Grammar" with "Beer Styles". Interesting, right?

The author adds that the Descriptivists are routing Prescriptivists in this war, because after all, the English grammar is a living organism in constant change. Just like beer styles.

I've been a language teacher for 12 years and my approach has always been to have the grammar serve the language and not the other way around. In other words, the speaker should always give priority to getting their message across, regardless of how proper their use of the grammar might be (unfortunately, there are many people who'd rather keep quiet than to use the "wrong" verb tense).

My approach to beer is somewhat similar. To me, the style should fit the beer, instead of the other way around, while at the same time I don't give much of a fuck about, as long as I like the beer.

Anyway, time for a pint.

Na Zdraví!

20 Apr 2012

A couple of things I've heard

Zlý Časy is getting bigger and will have 12 x 2 more taps. Hanz told me the other day that he was finishing the details to take over the dive upstairs (you know, the one with Staropramen, where some people ended up thinking they were going to the cult pub). The entrance will change, the space will be enlarged by knocking down a wall or two and a set of 12 taps will be installed. The other 12 taps will go to what is today the patio, which will be refurbished so it can also be used in winter. The new 24 taps will work like Pivovarsky Klub's, both sets will have the same 12 beers.

This means that work in the upcoming Pivovar Trilobit in Kobylisy (Hanz's other project) have been put on hold at least until the works in Nusle are finished.

Hanz was telling me all this, in great detail and with a lot of enthusiasm, while I was sipping the new Jubiler Mild Stout, from Pivovar Výškov. This beer, with its taxonomically confused name, reminded me of a couple of English Stouts I've had. It's far from my favourite Czech brewed specimen of this style, but I can picture myself drinking five or six pints of it without breaking too much of a sweat (come to think of it, I can drink five or six pints of any regular Stout without breaking too much of a sweat, but I guess you know what I mean).

Anyway, Mild Stout isn't the only news from Vyškov. It seems that Jubiler 1680 (one of my favourite strong lagers) will be discontinued, sadly. However, the Jubiler brand will live on as the name of the line of special brews that got started with IPA late last year, which already has two more beers in the pipeline, a Weizen and an Altbier.

Looking forward to them.

Na Zdraví!

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13 Apr 2012

A Must Read

"... brewers learned they could charge more for strong beer, considerably more than additional ingredients and labor would cost"
I wonder if that isn't one of the reasons behind the extreme and other similar beers.

Actually, the quote above is incomplete, it starts with "As far back as the sixteenth century..." and was taken from Brew Like a Monk, a wonderful book by Stan Hieronymus, and it's only one of the many passages I could quote here.

Brew Like a Monk is a study of Trappist and Abbey beers and those they inspired in Belgium and the US. Is a book for audience with a more than basic knowledge of the brewing process, there is a lot of technical stuff (for example, there is a section that discusses the effect of the fermenter's geometry) and those who aren't familiar with it, at least in theory, will end up getting lost. Now, those of you who fulfill that "requirement" should not miss it!

The bulk of the contents are the stories behind some of the most famous beers from this family, on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a fascinating read. You end up understanding each of the beers in a more intimate and personal way. Though here I must admit that I wasn't so absorbed by the American part, but only because almost all of the beers mentioned there are unknown to me sensory-wise and I wasn't able to establish the same link I established with the Belgian ones. That aside, before reading this book I recommend you take note of the beers whose stories are told, get as many of them as possible and drink them as their stories appear on the pages. I did it with Orval and it was a wonderful experience.

There's no doubt that it is brewers, both home and small scale commercial ones, the ones who will get the most out of Brew Like a Monk (or BLAM, as Boak and Bailey have dubbed it). There are plenty of recipes and tips, followed by more recipes and tips that show that it's not always necessary to use a dozen different malts and half a ton of hops to make complex and interesting beers.

On a personal level, what I liked the most about Brew Like a Monk is that it made me think about and helped me understand quite a few things, while confirming a few others I've been saying for some time. How tenuous the concept of "Craft Beer" is, that saying that a beer/brewery isn't commercial is quite silly, the comprimises and trade-offs that success and growth almost inevitably bring, etc.

But above all, it confirms that passion isn't enough to make good beer consistently. It's also necessary to know the science of the process, the why and how happen the things that happen, and yet, at the same time, having the deepest knowledge of the science is not enough to make a truly Great Beer. You also need the right amount of art and spirit. You can call that passion, you can call that any way you want. I prefer to call it Alchemy.

Na Zdraví!

6 Apr 2012

Another way to see the "revolution"

Last week I discussed why I think "revolution" is too big a word for "craft beer". Some people didn't agree and Jeff, of Beervana fame, left a comment saying why he believes that, at least in the US, there is a revolution going. Although he supported this with solid arguments and data, I'm still not convinced, but, as someone said elsewhere, it's all a matter of semantics, really.

The following day, while I was reading this excellent article about the correlation between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam, for some reason I remembered what I had read in Brew North, a history of brewing in Canada, and I thought that there might be another way to look at this phenomenon.

As we all know, the fall of the Western Roman Empire wasn't something that happened from one day to the other. It was a long process that started in the fourth century, if not before, and was the result of many factors. I won't pretend expertise on the subject, but according to what I read, it seems that the biggest factor was that the empire had become too big for its own good.

The Roman "business model" was based on growth and expansion. Once the zenith was reached, problems started. The military structure became basically too costly, but it couldn't be dismantled because of politics and because someone had to defend the borders. This became more and more difficult as the tribes that lived in the periphery became more aggressive. All this came together with political instability, hubris, lack of vision and, of course, the almost constant internal struggles that undermined the empire from the inside.

Doesn't that look somewhat similar to what is happening to the macros? Brew North tells the story of the fall of the Canadian brewing giants once continuous growth stopped being a viable model. The difference here is that these companies ended up being swallowed by even bigger ones.

Today, the three or four giants that dominate the world seek to expand in the emerging markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which still offer some growth potential, while they don't seem to know what to do to keep their model going in the mature markets of Europe and North America. Most of their new products are quite embarrassing, if not downright pathetic and whenever one of them is successful with a new product, the rest follow suit with stuff that aims at the same target consumer.

Meanwhile, smaller companies whose scales and structures makes them more flexible and dynamic keep on growing in the periphery of the macros and they are also getting deeper into the territories that the big ones are not interested or able to defend.

The macros don't seem to see them as a serious threat (and I don't think they are, at least not for the moment), they consider them more like a nuisance. They are trying to absorb some of their energy and to defend their most exposed flanks with lukewarm products or with acquisitions that only open the gates even wider, just like it happened to the Roman Empire when they started to include barbarians among their troops or to negotiate with the most powerful tribes.

But there's yet another parallel to make.

As the Vandals and Visigoths conquered more of the Roman territory they started to adopt some of the habits and customs of the empire, partly because it made them feel "more civilised", but also because they understood that it was the best way to manage and expand their newly conquered realms.

Aren't we seeing something similar? There are two or three "Craft Breweries" that have announced they will (or are planning to) open factories in other locations, the most ambitious of them is perhaps Stone with their brewery in Germany. On the other hand, Sam Adams has announced Boston Lager will be brewed under license in Britain, where BrewDog keep on expanding their chain of pubs, which is not too different to what Pivovary Lobkowicz, Únětické Pivovar and other regionals are doing in the Czech Republic.

The question is what is going to happen. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was followed by a period of chaos that eventually left on one side the Feudal system and on the other the Muslim Caliphates, with the Pope pretending he was Caesar. However, it could also be that the most appropriate analogy for this decadent empire isn't the Roman, but one from among the many that throughout history ended up being replaced by some other ascending power without things changing too much in the end.

Either way, I still believe that the rise of the "alternative" beers is to a great extent a result of something broader, but that aside, what we might be witnessing isn't so much a revolution as it is the beginning of the fall of an empire.

Na Zdravi!

2 Apr 2012

Selected Readings: March

Another month gone, and another month that left some interesting stuff to read and think.

We open the roundup with Boak&Bailey urging everyone to give yeasts the respect they deserve. There are brewers today that proudly announce what sort of hops they've used and (considerably fewer) others that every now and again tell us about the malts, but hardly anyone says anything about yeasts. Could it be that their names many times resemble post codes?

This English couple completely changes the subject with this sort of open letter to the owners of a restaurant who put a lot of care into every detail until they come to the beer selection, that is. Change a few names and cultural references and they could easily be speaking about Prague, where most restaurant critics still don't give much of a toss about beer and the high priests of the local gastronomy want to sell us pseudo-Belgian crap as something "gourmet", which brings me to Alan's nagging. Most of the celebrity chefs and other similar famous gastronomic faces seem to speak about beer only when some brewer or distributor pays them and not because they are really interested in the beverage. Examples abound.

But let's go back to beer. Ron Pattinson proves how ridiculous the idea many have of styles as something immutable with the presentation of the "same" beer brewed according to recipes from the 1830's and the 1940's.

Meanwhile, Velký Al, tells us about his experiment of drinking the same beer in six different glasses, interesting conclusions that leave the door open to debate.

And speaking about interesting, what better than this music and beer pairing at Birraire, well written and fun to read.

Stephen Beaumont learnt something from the super villains of the beer world, AB-InBev, the real reason why drinking from the bottle isn't good. It's not the first time I've seen a macro doing something to enrich beer culture, unfortunately, there are still people who dismiss that as "marketing bollocks". Of course, craft brewers would never think employing the dark arts of marketing, they are all like the Harry Potters of the industry....

The bollocks of the month goes to SAB-Miller, who whines that Heineken and Modelo will not let them into the Mexican market. Something they would never, ever, ever even consider doing elsewhere. Maybe they could join forces with with the people that are already fighting for this.

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