30 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post

Just sharing a couple of thoughts I was left with after a friendly chat over a beer or two with one of the owners of Nota Bene.

You can read it all here.

Na Zdraví!

26 Nov 2012

Macro culture

In the other day's post, Jeff, from Beervana suggested that I should run with the idea that "much of the marketing of the macro brands has a more realistic relationship with beer culture than that of the micro brands." Since I've got nothing better to do, here's me running:

Macro beer marketing has been critisised for being superficial, silly, flat, that it sells brands and not beer, etc. It is also said that it avoids speaking about beer because they sell shit and don't want people to start to think too much about it. False logic. The big brewing companies sell a mass market product and their marketing needs to speak to the widest possible range of consumers. The discourse, therefore, will not be often centered around ingredients, processes and sensory characteristics simply because it would be very much a waste of resources since most people don't give a fuck about where their beer comes from or how it is made.

Should they give a fuck? Yes, they should! They should give many, many fucks. But if they don't give much more than an insignificant number of fucks about the provenance and composition of what they eat every day, how can we expect them to give any fucks whatsoever about something that they essentially see as mildly alcoholic refreshments? Which is, basically, what the macro brands sell them.

But there's more, there's the how they are sold, and here we get to the beer culture thing. Have a look at these four ads.

These three have been going fishing together for six years. One confesses that he hates fish, another one, after taking a swig from the bottle, says that he loves fishing.

One of the ads from a great series of Kozel.

Forget about the brands and what you think about the beers themselves, they are not that relevant, and pay attention to the thread that runs through all four ads. Friendship, fun, relax.

We often say that beer is a democratic beverage, a social lubricant and leveller, that it tastes better when it's drunk among friends than when drinking it is an end by itself. We have all that in those ads. In Kozel's, for instance, we see a carpenter going for a pint after the day's work, he shares the table with two younger friends (we know they are his friends because one of them tosses a coaster on the table when he sees the carpenter walking in) and he's on first name basis with the tapster (something hardly happens right away with Czechs).

In each case, we see the beer as part of the moment. Of course, the message is that drinking a given brand will make the moment better, but the important thing is never the beer, but the moment, the when, where and with whom factors (the three mates in the Gambrinus ad, don't go fishing to drink the beer, they go fishing because they want to spend some time together, away from the usual shit they may have to put up with every day). And that is why I said the other day that the much of the marketing of the macro brands understands beer, and by extension, beer culture, better than the micro brands. They show a relationship with beer that is more natural, more organic, more realistic, specially in the Kozel and Krušovice ads, where the beers are consumed at pubs, than the one presented by tastings, pairings, special editions, fancy bottles and what have you.

Mind you, I don't thing there is anything wrong about this, quite the opposite. I think it's great that there are alternatives, a counter-culture if you want, and that they are introduced in a proper fashion to the ever growing number of people who do care about how their beers are made and want to know more. Thanks to their size, flexibility and a "more human" image, micro breweries are in the best position to talk to these people, but they should try to do it without loosing the fun side of beer and, in particular, avoiding rhetorical bollocks and presenting their brand as a lifestyle accessory.

Remember that Pravá chuť přátelství will always beat Beer for Punks.

Na Zdraví!

PS: To be fair, macro brands should also avoid giving their product a coat of sophistication, it looks silly.

23 Nov 2012

Friday Morning Musings

I'm quite skint these days, which has resulted in a considerable reduction of my visits to pubs, not to mention Pivotéky, which in turn has resulted in my taking a more Buddhist approach to beer.

For example, I've been following what Pivnici have published about the beers they've drunk and the places they've been to and I don't suffer. I know my current financial situation would not allow for almost any of that and I have accepted that fact. I enjoy those beers that I can afford and those sparse times that I do stop for a pint at a pub, or that someone buys me one, perhaps even more, in some way, than usual.

It feels good! I might be getting close to Pivní Nirvana.

Na Zdraví!

21 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I tell you why I was so happy to find and buy 2l PET bottles of Březňák 10°.

You can read it all here.

19 Nov 2012

A new model

This short, but very much to the point entry at Reluctant Scooper reminded me of something that has been going around my head ever since the first and second rants about beer tastings, which back then even made me doubt if there was such thing as "Beer Culture".

Now I'm convinced that beer culture does exist, and that it is basically what described last year. But beer culture is not something self sufficient, it is part of a wider thing. It is also true that beer being a consumer's good, its culture, i.e. the relationship the consumers have with it, is to some extent shaped by marketing, i.e. the way beer producers would like the consumer to see, relate to, and consume their product. But beer marketing itself it's also often shaped by the local customs, habits and culture (now that I think about it, much of the marketing of the macro brands have a more realistic relationship with beer culture than that of the micro brands, but that is another thing).

But back to the topic of tastings. I insist that they add little, if anything, to beer culture. In the best case, they are excellent and very legitimate marketing tools, in the worst case, they are excellent and very clever tools to part fools from their money. Either way, their contribution to beer culture is a bit more than zero. The main reason for that is the way they are mostly put together, or rather, the measures in which the samples are served.

10 or 15 cl might be enough to determine whether there is a flaw in a beer or how well it technically fits into a given category, but it's not enough to appreciate it and really get to know it.

There are beers that at first appear dull, bland, flavourless, but after a couple of sips they start to open up and turn out to be tasty, moreish and even complex. There are beers that at first impress, surprise, amaze, but after a couple of sips they become cloying, noisy and even boring. 10 or 15 cl are not enough to really be able to appreciate those details (not to mention the changes that take place as the beer warms up, etc.).

So if the intention of a tasting is not just to present a series of products in order to motivate a purchase later (or to get rid of a few old bottles), but to help the consumer appreciate different beers, what is needed is a new model for tastings. A model that is more in tune with the natural environment of beer. A model that will encourage drinking one beer instead of tasting several over a given period of time. What I propose is the following:
  • A maximum of 4 samples, all served in their usual measures of consumption.
  • The host will present each sample without giving more information than the labels give
  • At first, the attendants will have a sip of the beer and will reach their own conclusions about it. If they want to take notes, they are welcome to it. 
  • Once everyone has had their first or second sip, the host will ask what they think about the beer, what flavours and aromas it reminded them of. Here the host should make very clear that there are no wrong answers, the perception of flavours and aromas is very personal and depend on a number of factors (if someone has never tasted licorice or papaya, they will hardly find those things in a beer).
  • It's only after all this that more information will be given about the beer; where it comes from, how makes it, how, what with, etc. (the history of a given style should be avoided as it is, by and large, superfluous information). Ideally, the host would be someone also able to explain what each of the ingredients contribute to each of the samples. 
  • The tasting shouldn't be a lecture. It should be more like a chat among friends. Everyone should feel free and comfortable to give their opinion, to talk about similar beers they may have had, ask questions, or add any information they may have.
  • At the end, and maybe after offering to repeat one of the samples, the host will ask the attendants what beer they liked bes and why and will encourage them to stay and drink on, as an encore.
Yeah, yeah, it's very possible that more than one of the attendants (and maybe even the host) ends up a bit merry, that the volume of the voices goes up a couple of decibels. So what? That is also an important part of the experience of drinking beer, or isn't it?

Na Zdraví!

17 Nov 2012

Extinction? Yeah, right.

The other day I came across an article (in SP) about a very interesting beer project called Cluster Cervecero. Basically, two brewers, Alex Padró, from Llúpols i Llevats, and Gabriel Fort, of the namesake brand, are working in the same building, each with their kit. They are joined by Steve Huxley, the head of Steve's Beer Academy, and also a brewer himself. Besides making each their own beers and give courses, these three people work in common projects. All very interesting and nice, until I read this:
"Good beer almost went extinct in the middle of last century. The years of thirst.
What? I'd never heard about that one! Fortunately, Huxley is here to shed some light (well, sort of):
"The 13 years of Prohibition in the US had, in the end, worldwide repercussions. After it finished in 1933, the big companies took over the market with beers of low quality, completely unfaithful to the original recipe, and that practice extended, unfortunately, to the other side of the Atlantic. 'In Scotland, for 10 years, there wasn't a single decent beer. Likewise in Wales. Ireland resisted, but worse, rather than better". Extinction, in the end, was avoided because in 1963 the law that banned home brewing in the United Kingdom was repealed"
Well, where to start? By Huxley's omission of Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovaquia? No. Let's stay with the prohibition.

In 1934, a year after the Volstead act was repealed, 756 breweries were operating in the US, while there were 1092 in 1918, a year before the law. But watch out, Stan Hieronymus told me in an email, the number of breweries had been shrinking significantly. For example, in 1901 there were 1771. This was the result, mostly, of consolidations, that, just like the use of adjuncts, was a trend that had started the previous century (in 1876, the number of breweries was 3293).

Anheuser-Busch started using maize and then rice in their beers not to cut down costs, but to give the beers the right profile, the profile the market demanded, a profile that they were not able to get with the sort of malt that was grown there. In his e-mail, Stan refers me to a book called "Ambitious Brew", by Maureen Ogle, that "ties the rise of "white bread" beer to all other "white bread" tastes that became prominent in the United States".

And the phenomenon of consolidation and lighter beer wasn't exclusive to the US. You can see it in many other countries. For example the origin of Pilsner Urquell (who in 1932 took over Gambrinus) was, in some way, the result of a consolidation, as was Braník's. Both cases were about people joining forces in order to compete with a new breed of beer that would otherwise have ruined their businesses. And it's no surprise! If my recent experience gave me, in some way, a window to the past, then it's clear why lighter beers were, and still are, so successful.

Industrialization, together with the adoption of more scientific methods for brewing, resulted in more efficiency, improvements in the technical quality of the products, higher production volumes, cost reduction and, therefore, lower prices. Beer was finally able to show its true nature, that of an essentially industrial product.

This would in the end mean that attending the needs of niches wasn't profitable anymore, it was necessary to cater to the broadest possible market, and this market, once again, wanted beers that were lighter, easier to drink and cheaper. It happened in the US, it happened in Bohemia, in Germany, in Belgium. I would happen in Canada, when, according to Brew North, sales departments started to decide on what would be brewed, in response to what the clients demanded; and in the UK it would be the result of, among other things, a demographic process.

So, it wasn't Prohibition the culprit of the alleged drop in quality of beer, which, it could be said, is quite a relative thing (if what this article says is true, then the production of beers like Bud Light is overall much more careful than that of not few craft beers). It wasn't the fault of capitalism, either (you should see what the Communists did to he local brewing industry), it was just the result of companies doing what is most natural for them, seeking profit by satisfying the needs of the market, a market that still today wants their beer to be light (or bland, if you want), refreshing and cheap.

What is more surprising, however, is how awfully wrong Huxley, a Briton, is on what he says about the UK.

I wrote to Boak&Bailey (I strongly recommend you read the series they are writing on the British beer landscape in the second half of last century), Martyn Cornell y a Ron Pattinson (both of the same age as Huxley) to confirm my suspicions. They all agreed that home brewing in the UK was never banned. What happened in 1963 is that from then on, home brewers wouldn't need a license in order to practice their hobby.

Legislative details aside, the truth is that home brewers never had any impact whatsoever in the British beer Renaissance (for lack of a better term). According to Ron, people made beer at home mostly to get pissed cheaper.

CAMRA's, that in only five years after being established had almost 30,000 members (though the number would decrease later) had much more significant impact when it comes to commercial brewing. Actually, I'd dare say that the imported beers that Boak (or was it Baily? I can never remember) told me were showing up at festivals in the mid seventies, and the first edition of Michael Jackson's "World Guide to Beer" in 1977, had a much bigger impact than homebrewers.

(About the thing of not being decent beers in Scotland or Wales, I won't comment. Ron and Martyn would disagree, but the very concept of "decent beer" is a very subjective one, so let's live it there).

All this reminds me of, whether out of conviction or posing, I've seen many other craft brewers, from many different countries, spread about (including Huxley elsewhere). That myth that has absolutely no foundation in any reality, often told with delusions of greatness, that artisan brewers have saved good beer for the world, that they are the champions of the true beer culture, that without them we would be condemned to drink the crap industrial breweries make.


Alternative brewers have not saved anything or anyone. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they aren't artists or activists, they are just business people who, at best, have been able to capitalise on a wider shift in the habits of a certain part of the population. The consumers don't owe them anything.

Yes, it's true that they have brought to the market a much welcome dose of variety and colour, but that results from a business model (whether premeditated or not) that (maybe not all that sensibly in the long term) aims to satisfy the needs of a niche within a niche in the market. If there wasn't anyone interested in, often overrated, beers with an imbalance tilting to the hops, nobody would be making any hop bombs, at least not commercially.

So the passion, vision, spirit, ideals that they claim to have, the sacrifice and efforts that they very likely have made are not even close to being enough to earn our respect, recognition, admiration, not to mention our money. That is only earned by those who are able to make beer of consistent quality, or rather, those whose goal is the continuous improvement of their beers, for which they will take all the necessary measures; those who have left the homebrewer behind and have decided to become professional brewers; those who respect our intelligence, who see the consumer as someone who knows what they want and wants to be informed and not filled with bollocks.

If that is the ultimate goal of Cluster Cervecero, I wish them nothing but the greatest success (lucky are those who don't know what they are doing) and I hope not only that they'll be able to bring more people to their initiative, but also that they will inspire others. In the meantime, less bollocks and more brewing, please.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Steve Huxley was a contributor to the Oxford Beer Companion, I wonder what he wrote about there.

13 Nov 2012

A short holiday

My faimily and I took went on a more than deserved  four day holiday last week. We went to Liberec, my wife had booked us a stay at Hotel Babylon, mostly so our daughter could enjoy some of the attractions that this huge complex has (I must confess that I had a kick-ass time at the water park, too!).

Before leaving I asked Facebook and Twitter to recommend place with good beer in Liberec. A couple of tips arrived, the places looked quite fine, but in the end I decided to give them a miss. I'm almost sure I would have had a very good time at those pubs, but at the same time, they didn't look like the kind of place where my wife and daughter would enjoy themselves very much, and this was a family holiday so I wanted to dedicate all my time to them. Pivní Filosof would have to stay home, watching porn or nature documentaries, or whatever it is that this bloke does when he's not getting pissed.

And you know what? Beer-wise, I loved it!

I simply drunk whatever it was being served at the restaurants we went and I enjoyed every single one of those beers. I even the Staropramen tapped in a plastic cup I had at the playground in Babylon (BTW, ain't that great? To drink at a kid's playground?). I was watching my daughter have almost more fun than a human can handle and the beer was not obstacle to enjoying that moment, it was actually part of it. The only time when I was able to "escape" the macrobrands was at the Svijany pub we stopped for a drink after coming down from Ještěd (in Liberec you'll actually find Svijany almost at every corner). It was a lovely spot, we would have liked to stay longer, but the little one was already very tired, she had walked much of the 4km way uphill, and downhill, too.

It was really a very refreshing experience, just like in the old and simpler times, to drink "just beer" without giving much of a fuck about what I had in the glass. It's an experience that I recommend to all beer geeks who refuse to drink anything brewed by the macros. Go with your loved ones somewhere where you can only drink whatever it is that the rest of the world drinks. If you aren't able to enjoy it, it means there is something wrong with you.

Na Zdraví!

7 Nov 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I present you three newish pubs that offer a bit for everyone.

You can read it all here

Na Zdraví!

2 Nov 2012

Friday Morning Musings

Just like with every new experience, the visit to Ferdinand's floor maltings has given me some rich food for thought, in this case about the nature of the so called "Craft Beer".

The floor malts from Benešov are an undeniably craft product. Tradition, dedication and attention to detail rule. Everything that happens during the process is allowed to happen for a reason, and the ultimate goal is quality. Quality that is backed by a lab analysis of each and every batch; figures and values that are very hard to argue with.

For better or worse, it's not that easy with beer. Yeah, a lab analysis might be able to determine that A is technically better than B, but since it is a consumer product we are talking about, the subjective quality will always prevail, and it doesn't often agree with the technical one.

In a certain way, this has an effect on the concept of "craft" and the endless debate around it. To me, "Craft Beer" is another label, not too different from "Premium", but at the same time, it'd be foolish to deny that to many people "Craft Beer" means something more or less clearly defined (or sensible).

What's interesting about this whole thing is that the debate doesn't go much further than the brewhouse, focusing mostly on things like volumes, ownership, adjuncts, automatisation or filtering/pasteurisation. But it should go beyond that, beer, after all, is the result of a series of processes that start in the maltings and end in the glass, with the brewer as an overseer. So, can a beer be considered "craft" if it's brewed with industrially produced malts that may or may not be good quality and that are often bought already ground? Can a brewery be considered "craft" if they don't care too much about what happens to the product once it leaves the facilities (including selling them to supermarket chains)? (and with all the attention to detail, aren't American Light Lagers in a way more crafter than many a "Craft Beer"?)

This doesn't want to be criticism to anyone. A brewery is, first and foremost, a business and as such, it must survive and make money, which can often mean making compromises and facing realities. On top of this, sometimes, good quality ingredients aren't easy to get and, let's be honest, there's many a very good beer that is made with mediocre ingredients and, at the end of the day, what you have in the glass is what really matters.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Needless to say, a brewer that knowingly puts out a flawed beer has automatically waived their right to call themselves "Craft", their philosophy and respect for the consumer are even worse than AB-InBev's.

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