30 Jan 2012

A must read

I've said it many times and I will say it many more, the best that beer has given me is the possibility of meeting a lot of great people. People from all walks of life and quite a few countries, people whom most likely I would have never met if it hadn't been for our common interest in beer.

Some of them went on to become friends in the pre-facebook sense of the word. One of those people is Evan Rail, author of The Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic and many articles about travel, food and beer published in places like The New York Times.

Evan has just published a new work, Why Beer Matters, a 20 page essay that should be mandatory reading for anyone with at least a passing interest in beer.
The essay is only available for Kindle and I greatly thank Evan for having sent me a pdf version. Let me tell you this, I don't quite like reading such long texts sitting in front of my PC, but this one got me sticked to my chair as a good thriller.

The question on the cover not only is clearly answered, but in order to reach that answer the essay deals with several other interesting topics. Evan might not be a wine expert, but he does know about fermented grape juice a lot more than most beer writers and lovers, thanks to that he's able to explain why beer hasn't got "terroir" (much better than me, I should say), why is better value than wine or why the beer world is more democratic than the wine's. It also makes clear why beer is "just beer", but at the same time much more than "just beer" (as shown by the heated debates over the Oxford Companion to Beer or the "cask vs. keg" thing).

The almost casual mention of the relationship between the so-called "craft beer" and the internet made me think once again about something I've been saying for quite some time, that beer, more than any other product, has been a sort of mirror of the evolution of our civilisation and society. The micro brewing boom that is taking place in many countries isn't something casual or disconnected, it's closely linked both to the rediscovery by an increasing number of people of the "local", the "fresh", the "ours" or even the "traditional" and to how easy it is today to exchange ideas and information almost without any kind of borders (much to the chagrin of the likes of Alan Brewer). I wish Evan had talked a bit more about that, because it is also one of the reasons why beer matters.

And why beer matters to me? Just as I said at the opening of this rant, because of the people. You see, this could have easily been a blog about several other subjects, travel, restaurants, wine or even the adventures of an Argentine living the Czech Rep. Regardless of how good or not they could have been I'm sure they wouldn't have given me the chance of meeting so many people. Today I can ring one of the most respected Brew Masters in the country so I could do a favour to someone I know who's about to publish and important book, or simply drop by for a chat with another one. Then there's my embryonic journalist career. After just a handful of years of beer blogging I've published articles in magazines from three countries and you'll soon be able to read my stuff in another place. Would I have achieved this writing about food and wine? I doubt it greatly. This is nothing but proof that Evan is right when he talks about how inclusive and democratic beer and its world are.

Whatever the reason why beer matters to you, read this work, think about what it says and meditate again about why beer does matter.

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27 Jan 2012

Heresy!

I love cellar pubs, the deeper they are, the better. There's something almost clandestine in going to a cellar for a beer. You have the pleasant sensation of escaping or hiding from something or someone, of sheltering yourself in the solace of alike souls. In a cellar the time and the seasons loose much of their meaning. It doesn't matter what time of the day or the year it is, the cellar has this static continuity that is impervious to calendar or clock (and not long ago, it was also impervious to mobile phone signals). You don't go to a cellar to have a quick pint on the go, walking several metres down into the bowels of Mother Earth implies a commitment to yourself.

And if we are speaking about a place we've never been before, uncertainty should be added to all of the above. A cellar hasn't got a front or windows, there's nothing that can gives us at least an idea of what awaits us. Just a door, an impassive piece of wood that won't reveal what's hiding behind it challenging us to overcome our fears and discover it ourselves.

U Kacíře - The Heretic*, is one of those pubs. It's not too deep, only a dozen or so steps below Manésova. If you take the challenge of the door you find an inviting place, well lit and with warm colours. To the right there's the non-smoking room, to the left, the smoking room, both are separated by the bar, which has a sort of U shape cut in the middle by the wall that separates the non-smokers. Nice.
Foto (c) U Kacíře
But I need more, much more than all this to make me happy. Kout na Šumavě 10º nefiltrovaná is one of those things that can make me happy. I think this heretic and I can become good friends.

As usual when I go for a pint alone, and specially if it's at a new place, I take a seat at the bar. It helps me get an idea of how well the staff treats the beers and there's always the chance to start a conversation with them or with any other patron that happens to be perched there.

The bloke at the bar is pretty busy and won't say much, but this Kout is wonderfully done. It's not only that what shows the respect this man has for his beers (within the possibilities, all the 30l kegs are below the bar). Mi Kout must be the first he's tapping today, the pub opens at four and it's only quarter past or so. He pours about half a pint that goes straight into the drain. The ritual will be repeated with some of the other beers as more people come. Trubáč, the beer that is left in the pipes from the day before, something that should never make it to the patron's glass, but quite often does. Not at U Kacíře it seems. Good.

There are other nine beers besides this monument to the national beverage I'm enjoying now. Kout 12º (filtered), three from Žatec and the rest, an assortment from K Brewery. Nowadays, this mix won't rise many eyebrows, it's almost par for the course, I would say. But this Kout 10º (already in its second pint) tastes so sinfully delicious, and Žatec Tmavé isn't too shabby, either, straightforward, subtle, some chocolate and a pinch of roast and as well served as the other.

A familiar face walks in. A woman who used to work at Zlý Časy and is now using all she learnt at Nusle's beer temple here in Vinohrady. I stay a půl litr longer than I had planned. I'm starting to feel almost like at home, as happy as a pig in a pub. We talk about this and that and I'm glad to hear the place is doing quite well considering it opened only two months ago. The good job these people are doing should be enough to guarantee success, I hope I'm right.

If you happen to be in the neighbourhood (and also if you don't, this pub is right next to the Jiřího z Poděbrad Metro station) drop by at U Kacíře and see it for yourselves.

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Pivní Šenk U Kacíře
50°4'40.829"N, 14°26'52.627"E
Manésova 87 - Prague-Vinohrady

+420 252 545 454
Mon-Fri: 16-?? Sat-Sun 17-??

*Yeah, I know, the title of this post is kind of crappy, I couldn't come out with anything better. On the other hand, only a few years ago a pub with 10 taps, all with different beers, would have been almost a heresy, an apostasy to the pivní status quo. Fortunately, those days are gone.

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25 Jan 2012

A bit of marketing

Marketing is something that I find incredibly interesting. It's a lot more democratic than most seem to think. There are extremely well funded and deeply researched campaigns that still manage to result in massive flops and others that turn out to be an enormous success despite of the opposite. As in everything, luck can play a role, but the key to success is in how well companies manage to understand the target consumer and the market in general.

Large companies need specialized consultants and/or departments to carry out market surveys and plan campaigns because their very size has detached them from the common people and also because they are forced to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Small companies, in principle, have the advantage of having a more direct contact with the consumer, which allows them to have a better picture of them. However, at the end of the day, it will all depend on how well both large and small are able to interpret and use the information they get from whatever channel.

Another reason why I like paying attention to marketing (everything a company does to sell their product/brand is marketing) is because it can offer you a good picture of what's going through the mind of a company and how they see their consumers.

For example, Plzeňský Pradroj seems to see twentysomethings as a bunch of superficial idiots and that's why they offered them XCLNT, an idiotic and superficial product (I wonder what happened to it).

To certain extent, 24K Gold Faust is very similar to XCLNT, superficial, presented as something new and innovative and with little respect for the consumer.

It's a beer with gold (which isn't anything new under the sun, by the way) in a limited edition of 60 0.7l bottles (with a very ugly label). There's nothing special about the beer itself, either, it's a světlý ležák, period. The only thing that sets it apart from other beers in its category is that there are gold flakes floating in it. Cool, init?

Getting the attention of the mainstream media is a very effective marketing tool. If that was the intention of the people behind Faust Gold (and I really don't know, but that's the impression I get from all this), then, at first sight, the beer served its purpose, I've seen the news reproduced in the Latin American media. However, if you pay a bit of attention (and provided such has been the intention) you'll see that the success is not such, I haven't seen any mention about where this beer was brewed (other than Ostrava).

Pivovar Vyškov is the complete opposite of these two. At the end of last year they put out Jubiler IPA, which not only was excellent, but also very successful, the (half) batch sold out in just a few days and they've recently announced a new version in a full batch. But that's not the only thing that proves this company does pay attention to the conversation and know very well whom they are talking with.

A few years ago the topic was unpasteurised beers. "Nepasterované" became an almost totemic word in the Czech beer world. It was followed by "Nefiltrované", which would carry the same power. Later on, the conversation shifted towards the balling graduations, which actually is the most visible face of something that is very much discussed in the local beer community, High Gravity Brewing.

Vyškov responded to this in a very simple way, adding the phrase "NEŘEDĚNO VODOU" to their labels. They aren't the only ones who do this one way or another, but they are only ones who seem to have caught the attention of the mainstream media with this discourse.

Marketing is truly fascinating, both when it's used cleverly and when it's used foolishly.

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23 Jan 2012

Some Monday thoughts

Thirsty Pilgrim was asking the other day if "tickers" aren't to beer what Robert Parker is to wine, which is somehow related to the shit beer raters do, according to Stephen Beaumont. This reminded me to what I was asking myself a few days ago, if extreme, etc. beers aren't in a way a result of these times of short attention spans.

But what I read in some of the comments that followed Mr. B's blog, together with all the rest, brought another question, whether those beers aren't also a product of, and for, certain festivals where beer is only served in very small portions. In this context, "regular" beers have a big disadvantage, they usually need more than 0.1 or 0.15l to fully tell their tale. The "winners", then are those beers that are able to generate an instant impact, right in the first sip (to this we have to add that there are not few people who after drinking some DIPA or BA Imperial Stout go for a Pils or a Weizen, but that's another story).

"Consistency" is another word that's been going around my head recently. There are people who seem to confuse "consistency" with "always the same", which is a mistake. Stant's Beer Rule #4 makes it very clear, but not as clear, perhaps as what Fuller's head brewer said, as quoted by Jeff Alworth in Alan's blog: "it’s exactly the same as walking into a bar and noticing your friend at the bar has had a haircut. He’s still your friend, he just looks a little bit different today.". Brilliant.

So, variations between batches will happen, are inevitable and, at the same time, welcome. However, I believe that the ideal of every brewer should be to at least try to make batches that will be always be the same, despite knowing and accepting the fact that such thing isn't possible. This should prevent that the above mentioned friend will show up at the bar not only with a new haircut, but also with a full on plastic surgery.

On the other hand, there are some brewers that bring up that "variations" thing to justify huge differences between batches, which to me is proof of their ineptitude, but that's also another story.

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20 Jan 2012

Locals, old, current, older

Velký Al is hosting a series of guest blogs titled "My Local", where authors from both sides of the pond talk, basically, about their favourite pubs.

In its contribution Ron Pattinson, among other things, describes a local as a place where "It doesn't matter how long since your last visit, you pick up straight away where you left off, even if it's been a year.". Words that could very well describe what happened to me during my last visit to Pivovarský Klub.

There was a time when PK was mi local. I'd go there almost every week, I knew several of the štamgasty and had a very friendly relationship with some of the staff and even a couple of the owners. This lasted until I discovered Zlý Časy, which became my local almost from the first visit. It wasn't because the beer temple in Karlín had done anything wrong, but because the one in Nusle had that neighbouhood dive thing that I didn't know I was missing so much.

I still believe the Klub is one of the best pubs in Prague and every now and again I drop by. In this particular visit, Klára was "womanning" the taps downstairs. To me, Klára is something like the 21st century version of Maryška, the main character in the film Postřižiny (the man who saw this film and did not fall in love with Maryška should start questioning his sexuality, the man who has not seen this film, should correct that), she's pretty, friendly and understands beer (she's even brewed a couple of batches herself). I sat at the bar and started to talk with her, soon we were joined by her friend, who was also sitting at the bar, and later by another bloke, also sitting at the bar. I felt as if my previous visit hadn't been months, but just a few days before. Ron is right, in some way, Pivovarský Klub is still my local.

Some days later, at Zlý Časy, I was having a beer with an Argentine on holidays in Prague. We were talking about thisandthat and then I saw familiar face coming in, a good friend from Asturias, who was also on holidays in Prague, with her Czech miláček. She had agreed to meet there with a couple from Barcelona, also on holidays in Prague, and also good friends of mine.

What followed was a magic afternoon. All sitting around a small table, laughing, talking at the same time, having a wonderful, beer-fueled time.

And this is also one of the things that define a local. You can make new "friends" in any good pub, even during your first visit. A local, besides that, gives you also the possibility of chance encounters with old friends, something terribly enjoyable just because they are casual and spontaneous.

And back to the "past local" thing. I was very glad to learn that U Pětníka, my first local in Prague, is now tapping Únětická 12º, one of my 2011 beers of the year. The place is, looks and feels the same as when I "left" it all these years ago. I remember some of the faces from the days I went very often. It was a very nice feeling to once again have a reason to visit this quintessential neighbourhood pub.

Some advice before signing off. If you don't have a "local", find one and read the "My Local" series in Fuggled to understand why you should.

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18 Jan 2012

An anecdote with a moral

Catfish Sumeček is one my favourite products from Pivovar Kocour. It's one of those almost perfect beers, sessionable, but also a good sipper to pair with a book and good music, interesting, but thirst quenching, brilliant. The other day I fancied buying some to drink at home at the weekend. While I was doing my shopping at Pivkupectví I talked with the people that were there. I picked a bottle, paid, put it in my rucksack and then in the fridge as soon as I got home a couple of hours later.

Its moment came with Sunday's dinner. I opened the bottle and felt a strange smell coming out of it. Nothing that I could identify as an infection or contamination, just something that didn't belong there. When I poured I noticed that the beer was a bit darker and browner than I remembered and that the foreign aroma was more intense. There was something wrong, very wrong with that beer. So wrong that it wasn't Catfish Sumeček, it was V3 Rauchbier. I didn't realise that because my sharp senses identified that aroma (smoked, DUH!), but because I happened to take a look at the label, for the first time since I had bought it almost a week before. Hmm...

But that's not the bad thing. I wasn't able to enjoy this beer. Not because there was anything wrong with it, V3 is a good rauch and it might have even paired better with the lasagna than the other would would have, but it wasn't the beer I wanted and I had looked forward to.

Later, this made me thing about the way expectations affect the impression we get from a beer (or any product or service). It's true that in this case my expectations were very specific (a given beer that I knew), but I think you understand what I mean. We read blogs, some also consult sites like RateBeer or Beer Advocate, full of reviews and tasting notes. Some of those reviews can shower a beer in praise, which can result in very high expectations. To this, we have to add some of the not very concrete information on some labels, like styles, for example, which not few consumers associate with a exaggeratedly limited range of characteristics. So I wonder how much all this helps and how much it harms our relationship and experience with beers and if sometimes those beers we have the least references about aren't the ones we end up enjoying the most.

And the moral? Pay bloody attention when you are shopping.

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13 Jan 2012

No surprise here

Yesterday, the daily Hospodářské noviny anounced on its front page that "Američané koupili známky Budweiser Bier" (the Yanks have bought the Budweiser Bier brand). It didn't surprise me the least bit, actually, I knew that something like this was going to happen sooner or later. But before explaining you why, let me give you a few more details about the news.

What Anheuser-Busch bought was a company called Budějovický měšťanský pivovar. They haven't even bought a brewery proper, just a bunch of papers and some symbolic real estate. Before the sale the owners of the brewery had split the company in two, one of them is now called Pivovar Samson a.s., it kept almost everything, the facilities, technology, staff, you name it, while the other one was left only with the "Budweiser Bier" registered trademark and some land.

The main reason why I wasn't surprised at all by the news is something I read a couple of years ago. I don't remember exactly when, I think it was at the time when there were rumours that Heineken might buy Staropramen, but I do remember that the owners of Budějovický měšťanský pivovar wanted to sell the company for a ridiculous price, 1.5 billion CZK, I think. A brewery that back then was producing less than 150,000hl a year couldn't have been worth that much. It was obvious for me back then that what they actually wanted to sell was the brand and that they wanted to sell it to AB-InBev, who else (besides Budvar) would want to buy it?

It's difficult to say now what all this could mean for Budvar and its future, but I don't think there are any reasons to panic, though there might be a few to be a bit worried (just a bit, not much, at least not now).

It's true that it could be said that Budějovický měšťanský pivovar has a more legitimate claim to be the "Original Budweiser", the brewery was established almost a century before Budvar, but things are a bit more complicated than that. The fact that this company now happens to be owned by AB-InBev doesn't necessarily mean that Budvar's position is in danger, at least that's the way I see it.

For instance, in Germany AB-InBev can't use the Budweiser brand because it had been registered first by Budvar and this is a fact that won't change regardless of who is the owner of the other brewery that can use the brand here in CZ.

What could happen, though, is that AB-InBev, through Budějovický měšťanský pivovar, starts brewing Budweiser in the Czech Republic using, perhaps, the capacity of Pivovar Samson. Not to sell it here, of course, but to export it. But even if they did that, or something similar, I can't see how another beer called "Budweiser" could be sold in those markets where Budvar has already won the fight against AB-InBev, and it's not clear to me, either, how this could affect the other trademark disputes both companies still have in several courts.

However, there is another factor to consider. The Ministry of Agriculture wants to privatise Budvar, that's no secret. For that, according to what the Minister has said, they want to find an out of court solution to the remaining cases with AB-InBev this year. Once they have taken care of that (if they can do it) the plan is to turn the National Company into a Joint Stock Company (if that is the correct translation of "a.s."), with the Czech state as the sole (or main) shareholder. Later on, the state could offer part of the shares of the company to the best bidder or even in the stock market, and here is where Budějovický měšťanský pivovar could come in, and believe me, they will have quite a few monies for that.

But all this is speculation, in the meantime, enjoy your Budvar, it's not in any imminent danger.

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9 Jan 2012

Selected Readings: December

I was going to post this right before the end of the year, but I couldn't be arsed, I was going to post this last week, but I had a lot of work. Better late than never.

Zak Avery and Boak and Bailey deal with the issue of beer snobbery, approaching it in a different way, both worth reading (better in the order they are linked).

Adrian Tierney-Jones presents us with a beautiful bit of beer poetry, the kind I wish I could be able to write (and he also posted a very flattering review of my book)

Mark, in Pencil & Spoon, shares a curious bit of "history" about the the genesis of Porter and its colour. Can you imagine the Twitter/Facebook shitstorm this would cause if it was published today?

Still in the realm of history, but proper, more fact-based history, Evan Rail publishes a few corrections to "The Oxford Companion to Beer". I had a few beers with him recently and he told me he was preparing something more comprehensive about the history of Pilsner Urquell that will prove that some of my speculations weren't correct. Sometimes it's great to be proven wrong.

Bollocks of the month goes to this article published in the website of an Argentine news channel. Actually it is a translation of an article in English I'm quite sure I have read. The bollocks, actually, is in the awful level of the translation, which translates "fermentation" as "destilación", "sour" as "amarga" and "India Pale Ale" as "Cerveza Clara de India". The blame is not so much on the translator, who was probably some intern working for free, but on the person who green lighted this piece of shit, which actually proves this Open Letter has a point.

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2 Jan 2012

A sign of the times?

Weizenbock is one of my favourite kinds of beer, specially in this season. It's just perfect to drink in a grey and cold afternoon. A good Weizenbock is like sitting in an armchair next to the fireplace after coming in from a winter walk in the forest.

Der Weisse Bock from Leidmann Private Landbrauerei, besides being a great model of what I say above, it's a great example of what I said a few days ago in this post: no, not that "Trappist/Abbey is not a style" thing, that couldn't be any clearer, but this "..if you really want to understand a beer, you must drink it. And I mean drink it, not "taste", sharing a 0.33l bottle with four friends, but to sit down and drink a full portion of that beer".

If someone had asked me what I thought of Der Weisse Bock when I was still drinking the first part of the glass, I would have said it was boring. There was nothing wrong with it, everything was where it should be, but it seemed like one of those beers made after the brewer was told "Helmut, we MUST have a Weizenbok this year!" and the brewer said "Bugger! OK, what the fuck...". However, already halfway down the glass the beer had opened up, as it if was feeling more comfortable in my company and started to show its true self, and what a beauty it was! I ended up smacking my lips with every sip, enjoying every single drop, and regretted not having another bottle.

Then I remembered other experienced in which the opposite happened, a beer seemed nice at first, but by the end it had become boring or had even completely fallen apart, Staropramen Nefiltrované is a good example of that, it starts OK, but before finishing it your are asking yourself "What the fuck did they want to do with this?".

I often read blogs where the authors attend festivals or go to one of those pubs with massive beer lists and tell us how they liked the many different beers they had in 0.1l or 0.15l samples. I've done that as well, it's natural, you are there and you want to taste as much as possible. But now I'm wondering how many of those beers described as "wonderful", "superb", etc. would have received the same praise if we had drunk a full portion of them, and how many of those "boring", "forgettable" ones would have ended up being "wonderful", "superb", etc.

"Tasting" is very useful to get a very good idea of what a beer is like and great to determine if there is nothing wrong with it, but not always is enough to know whether we have liked a beer or not.

On the other hand, can this habit (trend, craze?) of tasting as many beers as possible in the shortest possible time while minimising the risk of ending up more plastered than a young football player after getting his first big paycheck be one of the reasons of the apparent success of the hop bombs and extreme beers in general?

High IBU are loud, bombastic, like action films full of explosions and special effects. Malt driven beers, however, are more like thrillers where you must pay attention to the details. I'm not saying here that ones are better than the others, I can enjoy a good CGI packed blockbuster as much as a brainy whodunit, each in a different way and in a different moment.

Or could it also be that, in some way, hop bombs and extreme beers in general are a reflection of these times of instant gratification, when it's not expected (or wanted) that people will have much of an attention span?

What do I know, I'd better go get a pint.

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