27 Jul 2012

In Praise of macro brewers

Craftophiles and micro brewers, mutually feeding their respective rhetorics, enjoy throwing shit at the macro breweries. They accuse them of being greedy mega corporations, whose only interest is to produce profit for their shareholders, and through the brain detergent that is their marketing they sell their shit beer, full of adjuncts and chemical additives, while defecating on proper beer culture.

Let's be honest, this is is something that most of us, at some point or another, have said, and not without reason. Some of the business practices of the large brewers are not too ethical and should be condemned. But, how ethical is it to, knowingly or not, sell an evidently flawed product? And, aren't micro breweries also commercial enterprises whose purpose is to generate profits for their owners? And isn't that the reason why some of them will sell a beer even though it's contaminated?

The stuff about quality, adjuncts, etc. has been discussed enough. Regarding "beer culture", it's undeniable that it's been the microbreweries that have done the most to enrich it, if not only for the sheer variety they offer. But "Beer Culture" isn't only sipping a barrel aged Imperial Stout from a tulip glass or discussing the virtues of this or that hop variety. Beer Culture is also being at the pub with friends, drinking four or five pints of whatever they happen to serve there (you don't go to have a "Farmouse Ale" or a "Wet Hop IPA" with your mates!), and that is more or less what beer means to most people and it's something you see very often in the adversing of the big brands. Which brings me to marketing.

Just like the marketing for alternative beers, the big brands' want to speak to its target consumer. We might not like it, but the macros sell what people want to drink, and what most people want is their beer to be mildly alcoholic, refreshing, easy to drink and inexpensive (basically, the reasons why pale lager took over the world). Some of you will refuse to believe this, but it's true, and, if you replace some words, the same can be applied to food, music, films, etc. I love complex, challenging and even experimental beers, but if given the choice between the dumbest Holywood blockbuster and an Igmar Bergman film, bring in the Transformers!

Either way, the macros are not only very good when it comes to make that sort of beer, but they are also very efficient at selling, distributing and making it available in every corner of the world.

But let's forget about all this for a moment. Nobody is arguing about the meaning of "Beer Culture". We all know that micro beer marketing can be as full of shit as macro beer marketing (Beer for Punks, anyone?) and that any beer is good if you like it. Let's look at things from a winder, much wider, perspective.

According to Brew Like a Monk, in 2004 Chimay was employing more than 100 people in one of the poorest regions in Belgium. How many people does Westvleteren employ? And if Chimay, that by no means is a macro, gives jobs to so many people, how many does Interbrew, Belgian's largest brewer, employ? If Alvinne or Struise were to close tomorrow, hardly anyone would notice, if the Leuven brewery went bankrupt the whole country would feel it.

The fact is that macros, all over the world, give jobs to a lot of people. In many cases, those people actually like working for those companies. And those companies might not pay that bad. A Brew Master friend of mine was telling me once about his son, also a brewer, who works at Prazdroj. When I asked him why didn't he work at a micro brewery, he told me that they pay him better in Pilsen. It's hard to argue with money.

On top of it, there are also many companies that supply the macros with services or goods, who owe them at least a substantial part of their income and prosperity. And the only reason that many farmers have to grow barley (not to mention hops) is because they know that, either directly or indirectly, their harvests will be bought by big brewers. A good example of this is Žatec. Japanese big breweries have long been one of the most important buyers of Saaz hops, at some point, they were buying 70% of the annual production. Due to different economic crises, the volume of hops exported to Japan dropped considerably five or six years ago, and the micro brewing boom and the regional renaissance have not been able to compensate for the loss yet.

All that barley and hops are used to make millions and millions of hl of beer, which in turn, pay A LOT of money in beer duties alone.

It also worth mentioning the financial support macros give in some countries to restaurant owners. Of course, this is not with unselfish purposes, there is a price for that (and I must confess, it is something that I don't quite like), but if you look at it from the point of view of someone who is setting up a small company, or wants to improve the one they already have (aren't usually pubs, etc. small companies?), things will take on a different shade.

And all this is only the present. If we look back in history, we'll see that it was the brewers that we'd call macros today the first who took a technological and scientific approach to beer making. They understood it was the best way to assure the quality of their products, which would allow them to grow as companies. Without those advances, some of which are taken for granted even by homebrewers, while others have benefited other industries, beer making would still rely very much on good intentions and "Dej Bůh štěstí".

So, we might not like their products, we might despise their brands (Stella Artois, I'm talking to you), but the truth is that, all things considered, it turns out that macro breweries might not be that evil after all.

But well, these are not things that should concern us, the consumers, very much. What's really important is that is being able to drink good beer, regardless of the size of the company that makes it.

Just one more thing before I finish. Dear alternative brewers, instead of critisising the macros and their beers so much, you should be grateful that they make the shit they make and wish them success and prosperity with that rubbish. It is thanks to them that there are so many people willing to pay your premium prices and, believe me, I don't think you'd like it if the macros started making "good beer".

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25 Jul 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I tell you about Břevnovský Pivovar, Prague's newest brewery, so far, and a bit about its beers, of course.

You can read it all here.

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23 Jul 2012

Bless the differences

School Teacher, Tram Driver, Journalist, Mechanic, Chemist, Brewer, PR Consultant, Manager, Writer, Waiter, Librarian, Civil Servant, Restaurant Owner, Trader, Translator, Engineer, Sommelier, Entrepreneur, IT Specialist, Designer, Sales Representative, Publisher, Tax Auditor, Student, Travel Agent, School Director, Builder, Punk Rocker, Carpenter, Pensioner, Pathologist, Window Cleaner.

Those are the professions and trades of some of my friends and other people I often hang out with. Their ages range from twentycouple to past sixty. Their nationalities, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, United States, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, Wales...

The only thing, at all, that I have in common with all these people, and that these people have in common among themselves, is beer. Some earn a living out of making and/or selling it or writing about it. To others, beer is a passion, a hobby, while the rest "only" likes to drink it and to enjoy its infinite variety and nuances regardless of what labels might say.

Some of them I've met thanks to this blog, others, by chance. Some became good friends, while others are not much more than someone with whom I talk if we happen to be at the same pub. Some I see quite often, others, every now and again or whenever they come to Prague.

Whatever the case might be, beer, its world and its culture, tends to be the main topic, even if sometimes only serves as an opener to a conversation that will go through other more or less serious topics. In those moments, with a glass at hand, sitting at a hospoda, our more than obvious differences take third place. Where we come from, what we do, what we believe in or not, our tastes in food, films, music, etc. or even our political ideas or lack thereof aren't important, at most, they can spice the chat. We all like to drink and enjoy our beers and, there and then, that is the thing truly matters.

Before I became a Beer Philosopher I had developed an interest in wine. I had begun to study its world a bit, while I trained myself to be a "foodie" (a word that for some reason I've come to detest). Fortunately, my finances wouldn't allow that and all that intellectual and gastric energy was directed towards beer, without it, and without all the people I've met thanks to it, my life would be a lot poorer.

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20 Jul 2012

Friday Morning Musings

For some time, I've been calling brewers to be more open about their products, to tell us more about the ingredients that make a beer, instead of putting empty words or fantastic tales on the labels, because I believe that would help us make a more informed purchase. No I'm not so sure...
The other day I fancied opening the bottle of Otley 08 my Welsh friend David brought me last May. The beer is superb, complex, intriguing, it doesn't need to scream, or even speak in a loud voice, to surprise you and absorb your attention. At one point, there in the back, I felt the distinctive notes of peated malts. I went to the kitchen to fetch the bottle to see if there was any mention of them. Let's just say that the information about the ingredients is as minimalist as the branding. I complained to myself a little and had another sip. It was then that I realised that I was feeling those malts, or at least I was feeling something that strongly reminded me of them and that it was something that would not change regardless of what the label said or didn't say, and I was happy with that. (I didn't even go the company's website to check it out).

While I was slowly working my way down the glass, I started to wonder if, in some way, it wouldn't be better to have less information. Perhaps it could be more fun. If the label of Otley 08 had said that it had been brewed with peated malt, I would have known what to expect, in fact, I could have even been disappointed! The peated note was a bit like the bass guitar line in a rock song, which was actually one of the things I most liked about this beer.

I haven't made up my mind yet.

What I have made up my mind about is that brewers should perhaps refrain from mentioning styles in future beers, even if they are within the institutionally accepted parameters of a given style. Pivní Recenze's review of Mikkeller-Revelation Cat Cream Ale is a good example of why I'm saying this. According to the reviewer, the beer is fantastic, but has a "problem", it doesn't fit the style, which results in fewer points being awarded. I'm not going to argue Gum's criteria when evaluating beers, it's his thing, and I respect it. However, as I've said before, I believe it is the style that should fit the beer and not the other way around. But I'm digressing, what I wanted to say is that, if styles weren't mentioned people like Gum would be able to enjoy a beer for what it is, without having to worry about what they believe it should be.

But well, after several years of reading historical tables in Ron Pattinson's blog, I've reached the conclusion that styles (or actually, what we today understand as such) have always been not much more than labels. It is only recently that a niche within a niche has been taking them as a determiner. All this makes me thing that what is happening today with IPA is, perhaps, something natural from a historical standpoint (with the addition of the urging need of geeks to caterogise and subcategorise everything).

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18 Jul 2012

This week in the Prague Post

The thing with the tips/rounding in last week's post unleashed a bit of a shitstorm that extended beyond the blog.

This week I clarify a couple of things and, because I didn't have enough of people calling me a wanker, I give my opinion on what I like calling "the institutionalised tip". You can read, comment and insult here.

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13 Jul 2012

Filtered, pasteurised = Craft

There are not few among the craftophiles who believe that craft beer should not be pasteurised or even filtered.

Frankly, I find it hard to understand, in particular, the opposition to filtering, of any kind. To me it is as reasonable as saying that, in order to be considered "craft", a beer has to be of a certain colour, have at least X IBU's and no less than a certain percentage of ABV. It wouldn't make any sense, would it? The only reason someone has been able to give me was that a filtered beer will not evolve and therefore it's not craft.

If by "evolve" we understand "improve" then this person doesn't seem to know very much what they are talking about. Without conditioning, unfiltered beers, once matured, will not evolve, quite the opposite.

In the e-mails about this topic I exchanged with Stan Hieronymus, author of Brew Like a Monk, he explained that dead yeasts in unfiltered beers will rupture and produce some off-flavours. How fast that happens and how much will those flavours be perceived will depend on many factors, like yeast strains and type of beer, but it is something that will eventually happen. As an example, Stan told me about some brewing instructions for a Helles, which suggest that autolysis (the rupture of the cells) can happen after six weeks of lagering and therefore, it is suggested to remove the beer from the yeasts after that period (though, come to think of it, there aren't many craft brewers outside Germany who'd dare to brew a Helles, so forget I've said this).

Personally, if I tabulated which version I like better, if filtered or unfiltered, unfiltered would win by several lengths, but not by unanimity. There are some beers that I prefer in their filtered version, there are also times when the only thing that will do the job is a clean, crisp, filtered beer and, on the other hand, I'm convinced that most of the Czech Pale Ales I've drunk would improve considerably if they were filtered in one way or another.

In other words, it's all about taste, it's about what works better not only for a style, but also for a given beer and a good artisan will take this into account if their goal is to offer the consumer a better experience.

But what about pasteurisation? That one's nasty, it's something the evil multimacronationals do so they can sell their rubbish all over the world, perhaps my few years ago self would say, while GECAN (the association of microbrewers from Catalunya), define "Craft Beer" as a beer that is "unpasteurised, therefore, natural".

What a bucketful of bollocks nonsense!

Firstly, pasteurisation isn't something exclusive to the macros. There are many regional brewers in the Czech Republic and in Germany that pasteurise at least the bottles and some American Craft Breweries also do it. Stan told me about one that does a lab analysis of every batch to decide which will be flash pasteurised.

Secondly, beer, whatever its label, is not a natural product, it has never been. The members of GECAN can argue about that all they want, but they are wrong, unless they can show me where and how malts are grown, and they will still be wrong.

Semantics aside, though, the truth is that technically speaking, pasteurisation (which, by the way, was originally developed for the brewing industry) is as natural (or should I say artificial?) as boiling the wort. Both are based on the same principle, sterilisation through high temperatures, and that is exactly the main purpose of both. The difference is that boiling the wort kills bugs that can contaminate and fuck a beer up later, while pasteurisation also kills microorganisms, but is applied to a product that would otherwise be finished with the intention of extending its shelf life. The problem is that it also eliminates certain flavour compounds generated during fermentation (or biotransformation as Stan calls it) that are actually desirable.

So, unpasteurised beers are better after all!

I must confess that I don't remember having tasted the same beer in both versions, with the exception of tanková, but I don't know how valid the comparison can be because I believe that the dispensing method plays a not insignificant role in the profile of what gets to the glass. However, and regardless of that, I'm convinced that a beer is indeed better when it's not pasteurised.

However, if I look at the usual dwellers of my cellar I will notice that not few of them are pasteurised, and yet, I have some of those beers among my favourite in their respective categories. So, I've got no quarrel with pasteurisation.

"But Max," says someone there in the back, "if you could drink those beers unpasteurised, I'm sure you'd like them better". I've got no doubt about that, but I'm also sure that I would like them a lot more if I could drink them straight from their lagering tanks. But I don't drink hypotheses, theories or wishes, I drink beer and the best version of any beer, with no exception, is the one I can drink in good condition.

The conclusion I reached with all this is that, just like adjuncts, specialty malts, automatisation, hop pellets, lagering, barrel aging, bottle or cask conditioning, extracts, parti gyle, etc., pasteurisation and filtering, in their different shapes, are tools brewers have available in oder to shape their beers according to their wishes and needs, and their use is not contrary to the craftmanship ehtos.

So, dear brewers, true artisans aren't those who refuse to use certain tools for dogmatic reasons, true artisans are those who take all the necessary means to offer the consumer a good product of consistent quality.

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11 Jul 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I go to my archives and recycle a bit of my book, the Pub Etiquette bit.

You can read it here, and if you like what it says, you can buy the book here

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9 Jul 2012

A Few Quick Reviews (III)

Man, I love writing this round up of reviews (or rather, Ctrl+Cing and Ctrl+Ving it). And you seem to love reading it, too. And if you don't, well, I've got bad news, because here it is again.

Matuška Hellcat Imperial IPA. Those elderflower and blueberry flavoured candy notes were sexier than Markéta Bělonohá (Google that name)

Achel Blonde: Finally a Blonde that speaks to me clearly and affectionately while I sip it during a summer rain.
I like it when a beer has a contrast between nose and taste, and Ossian does just that, flowers and tropical fruit on one side, herbs, grain and silk on the other. The nicest bottled Golden Ale I've had so far. Thanks Alan!

Kocour IPA (@Kulový blesk): Libeček is not the kind of herbal note I like in my beer....

M&S Staffordshire IPA: Perhaps, what "normal" IPA's should be like, instead of what they have become like. (make of that what you want)
Schlammersdorfer Landbier: Though a bit gassy, it delivers exactly what you'd expected and then, almost nonchalantly, drops that extra hard-to-put-a-finger-on something that takes it to a whole new level and makes you crave for a whole keg. Thanks Pivnizub!

Kácov Světlý Ležák from a PET bottle, because sometimes, fuck innovation!

Gambrinus Originál 10º (bottle): You can polish a turd. You can hire a personal trainer for said turd. You can dress the turd with nice clothes and teach it to talk well and smile politely, but...
Velkorybnická Žitná Třináctka: You can feel what it wants to be and how much it tries to be it, but it gets somehow confused along the way and looses the plot, which makes it even more disappointing. (the bottle says "světlý", I can tell you it's as světlý as the future)
Bresañ: Someone might say "rustic", "scruffy" says I. But with plenty of potential. Needs a good bath and a good scrub, a shave and a haircut, bit of rest and it could be a pretty good tipple.

La Maricantana: Maybe not as scruffy as its sibling, but this Dubbel-kind-of-thing is a bit too shy for its own good. Needs someone to push it while saying "Show'em what you've got".

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7 Jul 2012

The Session #65: Who's lonenly?

Here I am, once again in The Session. The thing that has made me take part this time is that going to the pub alone, the topic proposed by the host Booze Beats and Bites, besides being quite interesting, still carries a bit of a stigma, a very similar one early drinking does. It seems that for some people getting absolutely hammered with friends in the evening is healthier and/or more civilised than a quiet pint or two alone in the morning. Hard to understand, pointless to argue. I don't care what those people think, I enjoy going alone to a pub or café to have a beer whatever the time of the day might be.

But being alone doesn't mean being lonely. If I go to one of my locals, chances are that I will find someone I know, someone I can chat with, at least the staff. If I go to one of those pubs that I know, but don't know me, or a new pub, I can rely on some good reading material or seek the company of my own thoughts, who can be quite fun, actually. One the other hand, it's not rare for a spontaneous conversation to start with other patrons and/or the staff. And if all that fails, if there's nobody to talk to at my local, if I haven't brought anything to read, if no opportunity for a spontaneous conversation with someone new arises, if my thoughts fail to provide anything intersting to, well, think about, there's always the beer and I'm not one who minds listening to what it has to say.

Alone? Sometimes. Lonely? Hardly ever.

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6 Jul 2012

Selected readings: June

We are already into the second half of the year and... Well I can't think of any other bollocks to open this month's edition of everyone's favourite section.

Martyn Cornell shares with us a fascinating history of Guinness. It's full of gossip and, as it's often the case, it's also juicier and more fun than the myths.

Speaking about myths, Pilsner Urquell likes spreading them left and right and Des de Moor wonders why the makers of one of the most important beers in history aren't a bit more proud of their legacy.

Zak Avery analyses in some depth the way he comsumes beer and the beers he consumes and the result is an interesting graph, which, if adapted to each one's regional beer realities, wouldn't change too much. Some of the comments are also worth reading.

Velký Al deals with the "hand made" falacy, or rather, with how little sense it makes to believe that a "hand made" beer is by nature better and that automatisation is contrary to artisanship.

Alan speaks about prices, but from another angle, one that made me wonder if a fancy pants bottle, box or presentation adds enough value to the experience of drinking the beer to justify a higher price.

In Argentina, Marcos does a very sensible analysis of the local micro brewing situation that leaves a few questions we should all try to answer.

For those who speak Czech, Pivní Recenze sheds some (or actually, quite a lot) of light on the manipulation of competitions and indirectly, why consumers shouldn't give a flying fuck about their results.

That's about it.

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2 Jul 2012

Missing the point

"industrial beers have adjuncts that shouldn't be used"
"'it's rubbish because it's brewed with adjuncts"
"it'd be good if it wasn't for the adjuncts"
"craft beers are good and natural because they don't have adjuncts"
"we are craft brewers, we don't use adjuncts"

Dear brewers (and craftophiles), I'd be very grateful if you, once and for all, cut it out with all that because it's nothing but a big pile of steaming, stinking bullshit (bullshit, that I must admit, I used to believe).

The funniest thing about this is that there is a huge number of great beers, the mention of which can give boners to many a beer geek, that are brewed with "adjuncts". But of course, if, say, DeMolen fancies using maize in their new (yet another) Imperial Stout brewed in (yet another) collaboration with an American craft brewer, they are doing it because of the profile the grain will give to the beer and not because they want to "cut down costs". But when an evil industrial brewer does something similar, it's only because they want to cheap down their beer, sacrificing quality. And yet, DeMolen must still be brewing that beer (at least a tiny bit) cheaper than if it was 100% malt.

Now imagine the craftophile shitstorm that would follow if a beer super-villain said that the reason they use maize or rice is not so much economical, but qualitative. We could accuse them of liars (and perhaps rightly so), but actually, they have history on their sides. It's well known that Anheuser-Busch started to use maize (which would be later replaced by rice) in their Budweiser almost from the beginning because the six row barley that grew in the US wasn't all that suitable for a Czech style lager. The adjuncts were the best solution to get the right profile (the one people wanted to drink). And go figure! Even Germans knew of the virtues of rice for brewing (I've also heard that rice is great for head retention).

So, what's the problem then? Aren't rice and maize actually more natural than malts? Isn't it natural for a company to find ways to reduce costs? And if costs are the issue, what is the difference between a brewer that decides to use some adjuncts and another that switches supplier for malts or ditches one hop variety for another one that is cheaper?

The thing is that crap beers aren't crap because they are brewed with or without this or that kind of ingredients, it's because of the processes. If I had to choose between Alahambra Reserva 1925, with its maize, and a Lidlbräu like Greffenwalder Pils, I'd gladly let the slugs in my garden enjoy the Reinheitsgebot approved swill while I slowly sip the adjunct ladden beauty.

But the best example of this is the review Logia Cervecera made of Quilmes 1890 the other day. I've got no way to prove this, but I'm almost certain that 1890 is Quilmes Cristal without HGB. The 5.4% ABV suggests a 14º Plato gravity, which I've heard is the density at which Cristal is brewed before watering it down. It should be added to this that 1890 is likely to be given more time to ferment and/or mature. The result, according to the review, is a pretty good beer (3 points out of 5). In other words, (probably) the same recipe, with the same adjuncts in the same proportions, but with a less cheap process that results in a significantly better beer.

In sum, the key difference here is that when they make a crap beer, macros know very well what they are doing, which is not something that can be said about not few micros.

So, dear brewers, leave that inferiority complex and the "sloganism" behind, act more like grownups and, if you dare, start talking more about the things that really make a difference.

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