4 May 2012

My beer evolution

I've been a beer drinker since I can remember. It's not hyperbole, is true. When I was little my parents would let me take sips from their beers (tradition that I continue with my own daughter) or mix some of it in my Coke or Pepsi. Our doctor, very sensibly, had assured them that there was nothing wrong with that.

Of course that for someone of my generation in Argentina, beer meant Quilmes. In fact, it was Cevecerías y Malterías Quilmes the company that managed to get Argentinians to drink beer with a brilliant marketing campaign that they started at the beginning of the 80's, which produced one of the best slogans for any beer, ever “El Sabor del Encuentro” (sorry, there's no English translation that does it justice). But that aside, the truth is that I liked Quilmes Cristal, a lot. I still remember fondly the Quilmes I drank with my mates at a takeaway pizzeria or the 1l bottles we passed around sitting on the pavement after an afternoon of playing basketball (quite a refined bunch, we were). I also liked Palermo and Imperial. However, even when I was chugging down gallons of Quilmes Cristal, I wouldn't drink just anything with “beer” on the label, I never liked, for example Brahma Chopp or Biekert Gold (actually, I've always thought the former was shit). On the other hand, I already had a soft spot for dark beers, with the Bocks from Quilmes and, curiously, Brahma among my favourite (and I still remember the ad of the latter, it was excellent, I wish I could find it).

At the beginning of the 90's some shops in the centre and some petrol stations in Buenos Aires started to sell imported beers, mostly cans, from Germany, Holland and the US, among other countries. It didn't take me long to become and avid consumer of these. I was always in search of a new one, but I remember that I had the Germans and Carlsberg among my favourite.

As any middle class Argentine worth his salt back then, I took advantage of the cheap USD (which would eventually ruin our economy) to see the world. I carried with me the habit I had developed with the above mentioned imported beers, and in every country I visited I'd try to drink as many different brands as possible. Of the many that went down my throat, the ones that I remember the most are Monteith's in New Zealand (1996), Toohey's Old and Castlemaine XXXX Bitter, in Australia (1999) and Jever and Salvator in Germany (1999-2000) and I could add Guinness to this list, but back in Buenos Aires, where “oirish Pubs” had it on tap. I loved spending Sunday afternoons at the Kilkenny in Retiro, having a couple of pints (0.4l?) while reading a book and listening to music. I was almost the only patron at that hour and the staff was very nice with me. It was there where I started to enjoy the little great pleasure of drinking alone in a quiet pub (something that I still love to this day).

However, none of those beers was a significant in this story as Isenbeck. It started being brewed under license in Argentina in the middle of the decade and introduced itself with a campaign that leaned heavily on the German Purity Law and its three ingredients. It might have been the marketing, it might have been its arguably better quality, or a combination of both, but already from the very beginning I thought it was far better than Quilmes (in fact, by the end of that decade, I didn't like Quilmes anymore, though I would still drink it if there wasn't any other alternative, or if I was visiting someone). Today I might laugh at the idea that a distorted and misquoted legislative relic from the 16th century can be in any way a guaranty of quality, but the truth is that Isenbeck was the first beer that, at least in a shallow way, made me think about what I was drinking.

These were also the times when I thought that ABV % was in direct proportion to quality, that wheat beer was repulsive and other things along those lines.

My first contact with Czech beer was in 1998, on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, where I was served canned Pilsner Urquell. I loved it! Later that year, during a Christmas holiday in Vienna with friends, I was also introduced to Budvar and Gambrinus, which I found superior to the local lagers. But Urquell was for me the best and I was lucky to find it in Buenos Aires. There was an oirish pub a couple of blocks from my place that sold it in 0.5l bottles at 5USD, with a 2x1 deal between 3 and 6PM. I went there every afternoon, before the evening lessons I gave at Berlitz (something I still enjoy doing to this day, Berlitzless and, generally, Urquellless and regardless of what time the class might be).

By the time I came to Prague as a tourist, in the last days of 2001, Pilsner Urquell was the best beer in the world, hands down. I will never forget the impression I got at the first pub I visited in this city the evening I arrived. Sklep, in Seifertová. I opened the menu and noticed that half litre of Pilsner Urquell was 20CZK (about 0,6USD at the time), while a 0.3l glass of Coke was 23CZK. I was in heaven! (something I felt more strongly about once I saw the Czech girls in the streets, but that's another story).

I moved to the Czech Republic in may 2002, convinced that all the Czech beers were great and that nobody made beer better than the Czechs. It didn't take me too long to find that the former wasn't quite true and I would later realise that the idea that there is a “best beer in the world” is bollocks. Anyway, I drank several litres a day with Gambrinus and Staropramen making the bulk of that considerable consumption.

2005 was my year of epiphany. I discovered Svijany, it blew my mind, and started working with a client whose offices were right next to Pivní Galerie, and a few months later I came across Pivovarský Klub. It was then that I started to pay serious attention to what I had in my glass, I wanted to find the sometimes subtle differences that each beer had. Although I knew very little about processes (I had barely managed to understand the difference between “Ale” and “Lager”), let along styles (Indian Pale Ale? Imperial Stout? What the fuck is that?), I was already able to enjoy and get excited by the different nuances and textures that I discovered in each new beer I tasted.

I still didn't know much about things when I started the Spanish version of the blog in 2007. In fact, at the beginning beer was just another topic together with food, restaurants and some information for tourists. With time, beer gained more and more importance and when I launched the English version in January 2008 this was 100% a beer blog.

The very nature of the platform, which fosters the exchange of information and links, together with the people I started to meet, encouraged me to research more on the whys and hows of those differences, which in turn, made me want to keep on exploring and discovering. The blog, to some extent, was a log of this journey I still find thrilling.

These were the days of the beginning of the multitap boom, when I had to taste absolutely everything that was new, because it'll sure be great, and of course, take appropriate tasting notes of each of those beers. Back then I believed that the macromultinationals were evil entities who made mediocre to bad beers so they could fill the filthy pockets of their greedy shareholders and I found it hard to understand why people still drank Staropramen or Gambrinus, where they idiots or what? Thanks heavens for the “craft brewers”, their noble nature, their innovation, their passion and love for us, the consumers of true beer. Whatever.

And today?

I don't say anymore that the only thing that matters is what's in the glass. It still isthe most important, by far, but I've realised that there are factors that will affect the way we perceive it, while there others that should be taken more into account when evaluating a beer.

I still like trying new beers, but not so indiscriminately. I give priority to brewers with a good CV or references, or those that can show some recommendations. And, unless is work-related, I hardly ever write tasting notes anymore.

I stopped doubting the intellectual capacity of the consumers of certain brands because I realised that, much to the chagrin of some people, people drink what they drink because they are used to it and because they like it, at least enough to make them open their wallets. In fact, under certain circumstances, even I am able to enjoy a pint or two of Gambáč or other similar beers.

I have also realised that micro, craft or whateveryouwanttocall them breweries are nothing but commercial enterprises whose goal is to generate profits for their owners, who want us to give them our money in exchange for their products. Products, which by the way, can go from the sublime to the subshit. The motivations, passion and love of beer these people may or may not have don't mean fuck all if they are not able to offer me beers I will want to drink, because from the consumer's point of view, all those words aren't much more meaningful than the slogans, campaigns and bikini clad bimbos that advertising agencies design for the macros.

In other words, as long as I like the beer I'm drinking, I don't care too much about who makes it, be it reclusive monks, a company with Russian capital incorporated in Cyprus, a village brewpub or a multinational. I'm not saying it's irrelevant, it isn't, but I don't think it is THAT important, after all, the places where I buy most of my beer are also small companies.

It's obvious that during all these years my tastes have changed and broadened (I love wheat beers) and maybe even refined, mostly because I'm a more cynical and selective consumer, a result of being better informed. But once all that is left aside, I've realised that I'm not that different than a couple of decades ago, I'm still a bloke who, above all things, enjoys drinking beer for the very sake of drinking beer.

Fuck I'm thirsty!

Na Zdraví!

Choose your preferred Prague hotels and get free transport.

4 comments:

  1. Do you still offer tours of Czech breweries? I tried to send you an email, but I am not sure if it went through.

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  2. I know a person who has gone with the same experience as you. At first it was little sips from wine, then beer, then as gradual evolution of the amounts of beer taken, that person finally became a liquor lover. It's not a bad thing as long as it's only moderate drinking for certain occasions. I'd love to know more great beers that you know of.

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  3. Was the Isenbeck actually brewed without added yeast? If so, how was the consistency?

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    1. Actually, it was spontaneously fermented, but not sour. I wonder how they managed that.

      Of course it was brewed with added yeasts! And, as far as I can remember, it was just your average mass produced Latin American lager, only without adjuncts.

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