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.

Na Zdraví!

Choose a Hotel in Prague in the city centre.

6 comments:

  1. "They don't have time for drinking, when there's so much out there to taste."

    Spot on mate, and how I wish I was in the Czech Republic this weekend for Slunce ve Skle (minus the beer schnapps of course)!

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    1. What bee schnapps? I don't remember any....

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  2. Well put, as usual. It's important to admit (as I think you do) that most of us beery types are fetishists to some degree. We like to taste and know about new things. It's those who ONLY want the new and can't be bothered to develop real favorites, and get to know beloved beers even better, who I find weird. Some of them are nice enough people who have been doing it for years. We all have our hobbies, I guess. I might trust their palates, but I sure as hell don't want to go out with them.

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    1. Of course, we all have our degree of fetishism (our blogs wouldn't exist without it), but I believe that people like you or I try not to let that get in the way of enjoying beer and more important, enjoying those times when the beer (however it happens to be called) is just another part of the moment.

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  3. Pivnizub: Great essay, Max! I totally agree with You. Many of these "beer-hunters" never realized, that beer-drinking is fun and that beer is a "social drink". If only the rarest and the "most exclusive" beers are interesting, then something went wrong...
    P.S. Unetice is great!

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  4. Completely agree. For too many: new means good. In my own experience to date, that has rarely been the case.

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