29 Jun 2012

Bad choice of outfit

Yeah, I know, I can't complain. It was pretty chilly early in the morning, but I still went out wearing only t-shirt, shorts and sandals, applying my policy of "I'd rather feel cold a few minutes in the morning than bake for the rest of the day". And the weather looked promising, it looked it'd get nice. But the forecast was wrong, go figure. The temperature hasn't changed much and now, on top of it, it's started pouring.

Fuck me sideways!

A PUB! What better shelter than a hospoda. And it's one of those that I know well, but where they don't know me. That's good, I'm in no mood to speak to anyone today.

"Černé pivo, prosím."

And it's one of the beer minimalist bunch. That's good, I'm no mood to navigate a beer list of  Zlýčasean proportions today.

Oh! Yeah!

Yeah, I know, it's purely psychological, but the first sip of this black beauty not only makes me feel warmer, but also drier. From the second sip on, it's almost like being in a small village in the mountains visiting someone's babíčka. You know the ones I'm talking about, kerchief, apron, tired, but smiling eyes, the works. The kind that can almost pull the best Plňené Knedlíky the world has ever seen out of her sleeve. The kind that always seems to have a bábovka or some koláčky ready to treat eventual visitors. The kind that will feel disappointed at themselves if you refuse that one more slice of bábovka or that one more koláček.

It isn't nice to make such a lovely old lady sad. "Ještě jedno!", it is, then.

Hard to believe, but the second pint it's even better than the first. Just as good as that extra slice of cake or that last knedlík in the bowl that you refused at first, but only because you are polite.

The rain has stopped. Time to get back on the road.

Sod it!

I'm saying here to have one more pint and then, another one after that. Perhaps this sweet old lady will start telling stories of when she was young and a bit of a tart. The excuse is only an SMS away and I reckon I can come up with a good one.

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25 Jun 2012

Monday Morning Musings

Jeff Alworth posted the other day on Beervana perhaps the most sensible thing I've read about beer styles. Read it, I've got nothing to add, other than he explains better than anyone the reason why I tend to find new styles rather ridiculous (specially when they aren't that new or when they are limited to only one beer).

The post generated two equally interesting responses, one in Canada, the other in the UK.

Alan starts pretty much where Jeff left things and takes them even further, arguing that "Style" is a twisted method of categorisation, full of incomparables (I particularly liked the analogy with the cars), and reaches a conclusion that is very hard to disagree with.

But taking in from the question at the end, the cause of style-itis. I think we've got to this situation due to the false Cartesian logic "Stylus, ergo cervisia". It is the style that should fit the beer and not the other way around (unless we are speaking about a competition, but competitions are something that shouldn't be relevant on this side of the counter). In other words, a beer has to be judged for what it is and not for what it should be.

On this side of the pond, Boak&Bailey in the two big elements that make a style according to Jeff, tradition and method, because, whatever the labs might say, it's the small details of each that make the real difference.

In their post, they make reference to a fantastic dissection Des de Moor makes of the Pilsner Urquell fairy tale. You all know about it, it's the one that goes that the beer has been the same for 170 years. To support this myth, Plzeňský Prazdoj's PR robots mention lab analysis that have carried out since 1897, which prove that the beer has not changed.

Yeah right!

This has little to do with the way times have been shortened since that legendary visit by Michael Jackson to Pilsner Urquell, or with how similar the current times are to those that were the standard back in the 19th century(*), or with any other quantifiable factor. It's something deeper than that. After the brand Pilsner Urquell became more important than the beer, Pilsner Urquell lost its soul, and there lies the problem.

It is that intangible, hard, if not impossible, to describe factor that takes a beer to a level no marketing, advertising, PR department or agency can ever take it. Those people don't need to understand or even consider, that factor to do their jobs efficiently and so, when the "product" becomes subordinate to an "image" a "brand", to polls and graphs something in it volatilises, something that no lab can detect. (Could this mean that a beer is soulless if it's made to fit into a style and make judges. happy?).

¿But what makes some beers have soul and others not? I'm not sure, but perhaps the explanation can be found in the conclusion I reached after reading "Brew Like a Monk", the magic balance of science and spirit that I like to call Alchemy.(**)

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(*) Contrary to "popular belief" (one I used to hold), longer lagering will not automatically result in a better beer. There is a point where the beer will no longer improve (but won't get worse, either).
(**) Though "beer with soul" doesn't automatically equal "Great Beer".

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18 Jun 2012

Beer at the Castle

There weren't places to sit, the food was rather poor, you couldn't wash your hands after going to the loo, there were fountains to rinse the glasses, but not to rinse your palate between samples (something that was badly needed by the end), some of the promised "pivovary" were missing and not everyone at the taps was a "pro". What else is there to critisise? Nothing, really, "Festival minipivovarů na Pražském hradě" turned out to be what it promised it would be and the kind of event that Czech beer had long deserved.
The setting could have hardly been better for a day like last Friday. Right at the feet of Queen Ann's Summer Palace, with the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral hovering above the tents.

I arrived around 2:30 and there were already plenty of people. As expected, I found many friends and known faces, who sometimes made it hard to keep a conversation going. Every time I turned round to rinse my glass or to get another beer I ran into someone and a new chat started. To be honest, this is one of the things I love the most about beer festivals.
Each visitor got a tasting glass and a catalog to write notes, both very good (though the catalog could have been alphabetically ordered), with which they could go round the Czech microbrewing landscape in 75ml samples. There was a nice "generational mix" that started with names like Pivovarský Dům, U Medvídku or U Fleku, all the way to some of the ones that have appeared in the last year or two, together with some from the second or third generation (Koníček Vojkovice, Zvíkov, Lipan, Qásek Ostrava, etc.) and a sample of what the future might hold with Zhůřák y Nomád, who in some way (and with very good beers) are following the path opened by the likes of Kocour, Matuška and Třebonice (who unfortunately weren't present).
PF with Koníček Vojkovice

PF with Ivan Chramosíl BM at U Fleku

PF with Laďa Veselý BM at U Medvídku
I had decided before hand that I'd take advantage of the structure of this event (the 300CZK admission fee, besides the glass and the catalog, gave you the right to taste all the beers you wanted) to explore those new microbreweries/brewpubs that have been lately growing like mushrooms and that, other than by name, were unknown to me. How can I put it mildly? I was far from impressed, very far. Svatopecký Pivovar, Valašský Pivovar v Kozlovicích, Rohovský Minipivovar U Komárků and Ratiškovický Pivovar, among others, presented beers that were at best lacking in character. They confirmed what the local beer community is saying ever more loudly, that the Czech micro brewing boom is suffering growing pains. But there's no reason to start crying, new breweries like Slaný, Vimperk, Břevnov and U 3 Růží (both recently opened in Prague), besides Únětický came with some great stuff. The difference is that at these breweries, brewing is in charge of people with many years of experience who know very well what they are doing in a way that goes beyond the technical aspects. But well, perhaps this and other similar events can help and motivate those who aren't up to standards to get their shit together and improve their game.
Anyway, and regardless of the shortcomings mentioned at the start, I really liked this festival, I really liked the idea and the way it was realised, I really liked the place and the touch of elegance it gave to the national beverage of the Czech Republic, which many times doesn't get the respect it deserves. Let's hope this was just the first edition of many to come.
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Disclaimer: I went as a journalist, so I didn't pay the 300CZK admission fee.

15 Jun 2012

An experience of years

The recent experience that Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson shared in their respective blogs reminded me that for already quite some time I had the tale of a... I was going to say "similar experience", but that'd have been a huge overstatement... let's leave it at "slightly related".

Last Autumn my good friend Fernando, owner of the best pub in Ávila, paid us a visit and brought me a bottle of Westmalle Trippel he had in his cellar. The best by date was 25/10/08 and the bottling date was exactly two years before. The trip had shaken the bottle quite a bit, so I put it in a corner of my "cellar" and pretty much forgot all about it.
One day I found it again and I thought it'd be a good idea to taste it side by side with a fresh one. I couldn't find a 75cl bottle at the time, so I had to make do with a 33cl one, with a best by date 12/12/13, which implies that it was 5 years younger than the other one. I was quite excited, the closest experience I had to this one was with that 2 year old X33
I opened both bottles at the same time. Just by pouring it was clear that the beer had change a lot, it was a bit darker, clearer and didn't that much of a head. The rest had also changed, it was a lot fruitier, with more caramel and honey and flatter, too. Those typical notes from the yeast had left only a memory behind. "More like Autumn" was the phrase that came to my mind while I drank it. I was quite surprised, although I didn't know what to expect, I hadn't imagined that five years would bring such drastic change.
My wife preferred the "old one". I liked better the "young one" and its almost casual complexity. Now that I think of it, it was a bit like life itself. Men usually prefer young, bubbly women, while the ladies would rather go for more mature and warmer men.

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8 Jun 2012

And shame

The issue of naming and shaming has been discussed again recently both in the Spanish and English beer blogs. I had spoken about it more than two years ago, and made my opinion very clear. Since that opinion has not changed a single bit, I didn't think it'd be worth it to deal with this topic again, until I came across this this excellent article in The Guardian.

There, Jay Rayner, the paper's restaurant critic, speaks about the fascination people have with bad reviews, the more brutal, the better. Rayner doesn't give only his view, but also interviews a psychologist, other critics and even a person who was the object of one of his most visceral reviews and the person who wrote a very negative review of one of his books.

By the end, the author admits that it's easier for him to write a negative review because bad experiences are funnier and the vocabulary of the awful is wider. And his right to a certain extent. I don't publish many reviews here anymore, but when I did it more often, I had a lot more fun finding new ways to trash a crap beer. There's bit of a feeling of revenge in it, a payback for the time (and money) that the beer made us waste and that we'll never get back (nobody buys a beer o goes to a pub with the hope they will not like it).

But there are people who've chosen to refrain from that pleasure and the more I think about it, the less I understand them. The reasons they give are several, that they don't want to hurt someone who is just beginning, that they'd rather focus on the positive and what have you. Boak & Bailey, for example, quote someone who believes that being ignored is punishment enough. Weak arguments, all of them.

With so many beers out there, how can anyone know if one of them has not been mentioned because it isn't good or because it hasn't been tasted yet? Focusing on the nice and positive, is nice and positive, but I believe that telling people what to stay away from can be every bit as useful as telling them what to look for. If that is something we normally do in our off-line lives, why can't we do it in the blogs? Or you don't tell your friends when you are in a pub or a festival, and you've had a crap beer?

The thing about hurting the business, or the feelings of those who are just beginning (or worse, hurting the "craft beer revolution", what the fuck!) is an even weaker argument. I understand that many times a recipe needs a few adjustments here and there, I've got no problem with that. Sometimes ingredients don't work out as the brewer expected, an example of that is Jubiler Amber IPA, which didn't turn out just like the brewer wanted, but they still put it out and (though it could have been better) it was far from bad. Another thing, though, it's putting out a product that is clearly flawed.

But well, regardless of that, anyone who produces something should come to terms with the fact that once that thing has been bought, they've already lost control over it, that it is at the mercy of the consumers and that among them there will be people who will not like it or who will think the product is shit. It's inevitable. Before publishing my book I was a bit afraid of that. Fortunately, thus far all comments have been positive (after all, the book IS great), but this doesn't mean that half a second after I have clicked "Publish", someone will not write saying that "Prague: A Pissheads Pub Guide" "is so crap that the paper it's printed on should not even be recycled for fear the crappiness will be passed on to something else". It wouldn't make me happy, but I'm convinced the book is good, so I wouldn't let that ruin my day.

One of the restaurant critics interviewed by Rayner says something really valuable when asked about the impact of a negative review "I do not take credit for any extra bookings that follow a good review nor do I take responsibility. I am only writing for the readers." And there is the key. Bloggers shouldn't be anyone's PR, and much less of people with whom we have no personal relationship (or aren't paying us). If a brewer can't be bothered with proper quality control or knowingly sells a flawed beer, why should we have any sort of consideration for them? Or is it that we have to work less to earn the money we spend on certain beers than the money we spend on others?

Needless to say, a bad review must be, before all things, fair and also well argued, so it will be clear that it is an honest and sincere opinion and not because of some personal issues, and I also like to give my readers the credit they deserve, so I believe they are very well able to tell the difference between "I don't like it" and "it's crap". But well, everyone is free to include/leave out anything they want in their blogs, it's not my problem. Just think that when you choose not to mention the bad, the only ones you are doing a favour to are those don't do things well.

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4 Jun 2012

Selected Readings: May

Bugger me! It's June already? Are you joking? I must be having a lot of fun. Well, it's time for the roundup of some of the articles that caught my attention last month:

As you all know, The World Beer Cup was held last month. I'm not going to discuss the results, as they are to me as relevant as those of the Mexican Football League, but I will recommend you read this post by one of the winners. It explains very candidly some of the backstage details of this renown competition. If we add to this how easy it is to manipulate the competitions (and this is not a rumor, and not the only way it happens here), then, choosing a beer because of the medals it might have won is, at least, a bit naive.

Velký Al deals with my favourite kind of beer, the Session Beer, but from another angle. Usually, the parameter used to define a session beer is the ABV %. Al, however, proposes to add the IBU. You may or may not agree with the figures, but it is a pretty reasonable train of thought.

Zak Avery, using a great music analogy (even though I like House music as much as I like doing the washing up), asks how important consistency is. Very, I'd say.

There some words in the beer vocabulary that tend to generate some controversy, "craft" is, perhaps the best known. Boak & Bailey would like to go beyond semantic debates and speak about a series of words that they quite like, for one reason or another. Interesting stuff.

And since we are speaking about controversies. Another one that is discussed every now and again is the ethics of bloggers. Alan wasn't very amused by the idea of an English micro to have bloggers write why they deserve to get a free sample of one of their new experimental beers, and neither was I. The problem is that often the difference between blogger and fanboy is rather thin. Something that is used by some brewers, who believe we are quite easy to manipulate (and perhaps they are right). I've received free samples (and I've even asked for them, something I've promised myself will never do again) and I believe I've been fair with all of them and I've always tried to mentioned how it was that those beers got to my hands. Fortunately, It's never happened to me that I got a bad beer and sometimes I'm not quite sure what I would do in a case like that. Anyway, I agree with many that being transparent is the key.

To those of you who know Czech, I recommend two articles. One of them asks what a connoisseur is (there are many people here who believe they are one just because they are able to pick Pilsner Urquell from a bunch of other beers) and the other one puts forward that this thing with the PET bottles (a controversial issue here) is just another evolutionary step, reminding the reader that at some point, glass bottles weren't all that well received.

The history of beer is full of myth and surprises. It's great that we have people like Martyn Cornell, who work very hard to discredit the myths while, every now and again, coming up with some surprise, like the history of Skol, Brazil's best selling beer.

Actually, Skol could be a good beer to use in this el experimento que propone Gizmondo. Interesting, but frankly, too much hassle. I prefer to use crap beer to get rid of slugs or, perhaps, to follow Cracked's pairing recommendations.

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1 Jun 2012

A simple solution

As in many other countries, Spain is experiencing a micro-brewing boom. The number of small producers has grown incredibly in the last few years. The phenomenon has caught the attention of the media and there are many people who believe that "craft beer" is trendy.

Unfortunately, as it usually happens in situations like this, many people have decided to get on the wagon, some because they see in it the possibility to fulfill a dream, while others only want to take advantage of this trend to hopefully make some quick money, without bothering too much about the long term. All this has resulted in a bubble.

Last Wednesday Txema denounced an on-line shop for selling a certain brand of beer at outrageous inflated prices. Regardless of how those beers got to these people (they didn't buy them directly from the brewery), the truth is that if someone makes an impulse buy on the internet and ends up paying a lot more than necessary, they have it well deserved. You don't need to be in the know to be able to compare prices and find comments and reviews on a product. This is similar to what it happens in Prague, where some bars put signs on the pavement announcing that they sell Pilsner Urquell at 60CZK, or more. The people who go there do it because they feel it is a fair price and if they couldn't be arsed with walking a few more metres or gathering some information before their trip, the blame is only theirs.

All this was triggered by a post in Lupuloadicto a few days before that generated a storm of comments, many of them complaining about the prices of the domestic alternative beers. In response to them, a brewer, Vacceum, explained in some detail the reason behind the price they at which they sell their beers to bars.

Vacceum adds that he recommends their clients a price of 2EU for the public, though, regardless of that, some prefer to sell them at 3EU. At least one of the commenters trashed restaurant owners for having the nerve of wanting to earn more than the brewers.

This is bollocks for two reasons. Firstly because pub owners have all the right in the world to charge as much as they see fit for their services. And secondly, because this person fails to take into account that much of the difference between the price a beer is bought from the brewer and the price it is sold to the client goes to cover a series of costs that I won't bother to mention, but that are more, and higher, that most people seem to think and, on top of all that, to be able to earn a living from a job that is far from easy (and a 50% margin before tax, etc. might look like a lot, but once converted to actual money, isn't that much).

That said, and after following this debate with attention, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps those beers aren't that expensive to begin with. The price of a 0.33l bottle at a beer bar is, I reckon, around 3-4EU, while the average price of a glass (0.25l) of mass produced domestic beer is, if I remember correctly, around 1.5-2EU. I don't think I need to tell you that producing one litre of macro beer costs a lot less than producing one litre of micro beer (even taking into account all costs, overhead, etc.) and if we compare two beers like, for example, Mahou Clásica and Agulons Pura Ale, the difference in quality is huge! The price, then, isn't that insane or abusive. The question is why it is so expensive for Agullons or Vacceum to brew one litre of beer and what should or could be done to sort this out, but that is up to the brewers to figure out and not us, the consumers.

I'm not trying to deny that there are, in Spain, here, in Germany and in any other country, beers (and pubs) that are way too expensive or that are far from good value for money. But the solution to that problem is very simple, don't buy them. Of course, sometimes that is easier said than done, I believe all of us, at some point or another, have paid good money for something that turned out to be disappointing, but that is one way to learn. Fortunately, those of us who write blogs have the chance to warn the rest of the population about this (something that, unfortunately, many choose not to do). In other words, the most effective way to complain is voting with your wallet.

But you know what's the funniest thing about all this? I'm sure that many of the people who complain about the high prices of alternative beers are the same who went running, full of excitement and joy to pick their packs of Westvleteren XII for which the paid the reasonable price of 50EU. I don't know about you, but I believe that whoever had no problem paying that much money for 2l of beer and a couple of glasses has waived their right to complain about the price of any beer, micro or macro, domestic or imported.

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