27 Feb 2012

More Monday Morning Musings

Today's rant is something like the second part of what I posted last Monday. There I told you about how the Facebook person Argentine Beers complained that brewers didn't mention styles on their labels and failed to educate the consumer. A day later, AB posted the following question:
Who should be responsible for educating about the world of beer? Brewers or consumers?
A couple of years ago I would have answered this question with a loud and full of will "Ours!" (standing up and banging my chest, of course). I had taken this Beerevangelism thing a bit too seriously and believed I was in some kind of divine mission. What a fool! I still like spreading the word of (what I consider) Good Beer, mind you, but I do it in a different way, using the "Take, drink this, you'll like it" method, leaving the beer speak for itself and then, if the person is interested, tell them a bit more about it. What I do in my blog is basically thinking out loud and share things I find interesting. If someone can learn anything from that, I'm happy, but that's not my aim.

But back to the topic. We, the consumers, are always responsible for our own education. We should always look for more information and perhaps be a bit more cynical with what those who want our money tell us (and this doesn't apply only to beer). That said, I believe that the responsibility of facilitating that education should be the brewers', not only because of the basic fact that they should be more honest and open with what they do, but also because it could be good for their businesses in the long run.

I'm sure that among the consumers of alternative beers there are a growing number whose interest in what they are drinking goes further than what they have in the glass and I'm convinced that in these times when marketing gimmicks, empty discourse and PR stunts aren't something exclusive of the macros, those consumers would value not having to dive into the deep seas of the Internet or spend small fortunes in books when they want to find more information about what they like. I believe that all of us appreciate it when our intelligence is respected and when are empowered to make better informed choices. Those brewers who understand that could end up having more loyal clients.

But there's a problem. After having read much of what brewers publish on the internet I've got the impression that many of them don't seem to know too much about beer. Yes, they do know how to make beer (which is the most important thing), but take them out of the comfort of the brewhouse and they start uttering bollocks like "all our beers are brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516" (while they make a wheat beer with oats) or introduce their new "Trappist" beer, as it such thing was a style (it isn't) or say that "Ales are like red wine, Lagers are like white wine and Lambic like Cava". They can hardly educate anyone if they don't know what they are talking about. Are we lost?

Well, no. It's only a matter of changing the topic. It's only a matter of talking about something they know, and know well, brewing. I'm sure most brewers would feel a lot more comfortable talking about how they do what they do and why, and yet, few of them do.

I can hear one of them say "But Max, that information is way too technical, nobody will be interested in that!". Unfortunately, he's not entirely wrong. So what? Do people really care about the history/legend of the origin of a style more two or three centuries ago or about an out of context fragment of a legislative relic of the 16th? If the answer is yes then, wouldn't they also like to know how many days/weeks a beer has fermented/matured and in what conditions, or what are its ingredients and where do they come from, or why this variety of hops was picked instead of this other one, or what sort of mashing was used? But well, maybe copying and pasting bollocks from Wikipedia, throwing shit at someone else and acting like narcissist teenagers is a lot less work than actually educate the consumer.

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24 Feb 2012

Modernity with a concept


Nota Bene, a new restaurant near I.P. Pavlova, is a very modern and hip non-smoking place. It's evident that a lot of work has been put on designing the interiors, but the style, which I unilaterally call "Scandinavian", gives it a bit of a human touch. The music they play is of the inoffensive kind, though if you pay a bit of attention you'll be able to listen to gems like Sly & The Family Stone or a lesser known song by James Brown. Even when it is empty you can imagine the young, modern, hip crowd that could fill it in the evenings. You know, the kind where the boys wear their jeans halfway down their asses (really, is there a more stupid fashion that that?) and the girls, well, I never pay too much attention to what the girls wear, I look at other things.

This is the kind of place that only a couple of years ago would have served fajitas, hamburgers, Ceasar Salad, Tzatziki (even in winter, of course) and something Italian or Fusion, which you could have washed down with Stella Artois, Hoegaarden or Leffe, because that would have been modern then. Not anymore, it seems.

Nota Bene doesn't have a menu in the usual sense. According to the owners, all the ingredients are sourced locally from small producers and farmers and the daily offer is based on what they've been able to get. Beer, of course, reflects this approach. Instead of a pseudo-belgian lager brewed in Prague the Brazilian way, and a couple more imported brands, there are six taps that pour stuff from small Czech brewers. Two of them are stuck with the outstanding Únětice 10° and 12° and at the remaining four you can see names like Matuška, Třebonice, Strahov o Kocour, among others. In other words, some of the most modern names in the current Czech brewing scene.
Photo: Nota-Bene
I've been twice to this restaurant, once for lunch and the other for an afternoon snack. In both cases the food, though not memorable, was far from disappointing. The service was almost flawless, very professional, very modern, and the most important thing, the beers, were in tip top shape. But the best of all was that the guy waiting the tables during both visits knew very well what he was serving and was able to recommend and talk about the beers, and he liked them! In my second visit when a keg with a new beer was tapped he took a sample from it, tasted it, approved it and was followed by one of the cooks who repeated the ritual. It was something really nice to watch.

Nota Bene is a modern place that doesn't follow a fad. There's not denying that beer list wouldn't be so interesting without the success of the čtvrtá pípa and the multi-tap pubs, but you can also see that this restaurant has a concept and the beer model was chosen not only because of its popularity, but also because is the one that best fits into this concept.

I won't lie to you, I doubt I will ever become a regular of Nota-Bene. However, I still hope it will be successful, I want it to do great, not only because behind it there seems to be people who really want to do things well, but also because I want its concept, beers included, to catch the attention of people in the restaurant business who will see it as something worth copying or even taken to a new level. I hope Nota-Bene is the beginning of a new trend.

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20 Feb 2012

Some Monday Musings

Among all the (not only someone else's) silliness that you can see on your Facebook wall, every now and again you can find something interesting, something that makes you think longer than it takes to click "Like it" or write a comment. The FB person called Argentine Beers a couple of days ago made a couple of questions that fit into that category. The fist one (double) goes like this:
"Doesn't it bother you that craft microbreweries call their beers pale, red o black without mentioning the true styles? Why don't they educate the consumers?
What really interests me about this rather tricky double question isn't the answers but what it implies, that brewers are somehow required to brew "styles".

A while ago I was complaining that there were brewers whose focus seemed to be satisfying competition judges rather than the consumer. It turns out the problem goes beyond that, there is a loud minority who believe they are international beer judges every time they sip a pint and therefore, need all beers to fit within their specific mental pigeonholes. This made me remember a comment I read a long time ago in response to a review in, I think, Logia Cervecera, where someone said that the beer in question wasn't a Scottish Ale, but an IPA that didn't come out well, or something like that, even though the label of said beer didn't mention either of the styles! In other words, this person was slamming a brewer for doing wrong something that he never had the intention of doing. Amazing.

But it doesn't end there. The first question says "the true styles". What are true styles? What does Argentine Beers mean with this? The BJCP and their narrow (and sometimes not quite correct) interpretation of some styles and the exaggerated subdivision of others?

There was a time when I thought that the style guidelines were stupid. I was wrong. Its main purpose is to serve as a reference for beer judges and brewers who want to take part in the competitions judged by those judges. In other words, if I was a brewer and I made a beer with Xº Plato, that colour, this many IBU and these or those characteristics, I would know that I'd be able to present it in a given category, say, Belgian-Style Tripel, even if the label said that the style is "Imperial Wit" or "Temistocles Bumhole". So, it's not the document that is stupid, but the idea that some have that it is something like a Talmudic law.

But going to the second question. Does mentioning a style on a label help to educate the consumer?

When I say that I'm a style anarchist I mean that I evaluate a beer based on what I drink and not on what I read. An example of this is Výškov's new IPA, that despite (to me) not being very IPA, is very good and I hope they'll keep on making it like this.

That aside, the truth is that seeing a style on a label does help me have an idea of what the beer could be like. But this, as I've said many times, is a result of my experience as a drinker, experience that has also shown me that some styles can have a wide range of characteristics and that some brewers can interpret them differently.

So, mentioning a style on a label can serve as a guide for the experienced drinker and as a reference point to the novice one. And what about those brewers whose beers don't fit into any style? Duh! They won't put anything. But, what about those whose beers are "inspired" by some style o those whose interpretation of a style differs from the "institutionally" accepted? If they mentioned a style they'd be risking the ire of the BJCPist or even being accused of ripping-off the consumer (I wish I was making that up). For these brewers, then, is better to leave things at "pale", "red" or "black" and let the drinker reach their own conclusions (which it's a lot more fun, actually).

But this has got too long already, there'll be a second part soon.

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17 Feb 2012

Craft Marketing

Like, I believe, many of my fellow bloggers I get a substantial number of press releases from (not only) brewers and other people related to the brewing industry. Most of them are summarily ignored as I find them as interesting and useful as reading the latest gossip of the football.

Occasionally, some of these electronic leaflets do catch my attention, and not in a good way. An example of this is the new San Miguel beer exclusive for the British Market, really, can there be anything sadder beer-wise than a Corona rip-off? Another example is the e-mail I got last Monday that goes like this:
"Dear sirs: We are sending you information about the new craft beer we have launched in case you see fit to include it in your webpages. If you need more information, we are at your disposal."
The attached information was actually two image bank photos from, I guess, the 1920's with the product crudely inserted with Photoshop, one of them had the slogan “Cerveza Artesanal Senador Volstead - La cerveza nacida en la Ley Seca” (Craft Beer S.V. - The beer born in the Prohibition). Nothing original, really, it's something I've seen used for countless products.

I wrote them to ask for some information, of the kind that, as a savvy consumer, I would like to get. For answer I got a .pdf that mentions the where and by whom the beer is brewed (something of no little importance, actually) and very little else. The rest is just a bunch of superficial data (Belgian style Blond Ale craft beer), with at least one mistake, that falls in clichés like "craft beer is a 100% natural product" (yeah, as natural as a pizza quattro formaggi).

I can't judge the beer, I haven't tasted it, it might even be the best "Artesanal" ever brewed in Spain. But what's important here is not so much the quality of the beer but the image its branding gave me, that of a product that, conceptually, isn't too different from some of the latest launches from the macros, something born in a marketing department/agency rather than on the desk of a Brew Master.

Whatever it might have meant or not, the reality is that "Craft Beer" is a buzzword that has been already usurped by people more interested in selling a brand, an image, an attitude, a lifestyle than a beverage. To this we should add that there seems to be not few consumers for whom "Craft Beer" means amateurish+irregular quality+premium price.

I don't know, perhaps it's about time to leave that label behind and start a new age, the age of "post-craft" beers, free of inferiority or superiority complexes, of rock star attitudes/ambitions and meaningless labels, an age of professional brewers who respect the intelligence of the consumer and are proud of making "just beer".

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PS: Why a "Blond Belgian Style Ale" brewed in Spain is named after a character from American history, is a question that I leave to you. Whatever the answer is, something isn't quite right when you are more interested in explaining the name of the beer rather than the beer itself.

 PD2: I'd like to make clear that Idea Hotel, the people behind this product, have answered to my e-mails and questions in good nature and that what's written above is by no means a criticism to their persons.

13 Feb 2012

Visitors

I had a great time last Friday with Gazza and his mate Dave Dean. We started at Zlý Časy (when we were about to leave they tapped the new IPA from Vyškov, pretty good, but I liked the 1.0 better), from there we went to Zubatý Pes (you can see that the new owners are trying to do things the right way, but the place was lacking atmosphere, though it was still quite early when we arrived) to finish the evening at U Vodoucha (we went there walking, nothing like -20ºC to burn the alcohol in the blood).

We talked about a ton of beery things and I took the chance to ask Gazza to confirm me something I was suspecting, if the problem with keg beers in the UK isn't so much with the beers themselves but with the with the pubs that don't know how to deal with them properly. Gazza is a fan of cask ales, but he loves good beer above all things, and he said that yes, that pubs often treat good keg beers the same way they do with macrolagers and that is why they tend to be too cold and too fizzy. Interesting, I don't remember seeing this mentioned in any of the debates on the matter.

But anyway, between pints we came up with an idea that has a good chance of seeing the light in a few months.

Top blokes Gazza and his mate.

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10 Feb 2012

Is Joe right?

Martyn Cornell left history aside for a bit to give his two pennies on this "craft beer" thing, a debate that seems will never get exhausted. As expected, the post has generated a sizable number of comments but there was one that caught my attention well above the rest. There, Joe, a.k.a. Thirsty Pilgrim, says:
"I hear beery types say a lot that they don’t care who makes the beer, they only care about the quality of what’s in the glass. Bullshit, I say. We all have values and they affect how much we enjoy something. (...) I can enjoy a beer more if I know where it came from, if I know its story, if I know who made it, and yes — even if it came from a small place instead of a big one. Naturally, it helps if it doesn't taste like piss."
I confess to being one of those beery types that says that bullshit. I don't say it as pose, but as a belief. However, believing is not the same as knowing and when presented with a reasonable argument I don't have a problem with my beliefs being challenged, and Joe's is a reasonable argument.

On more than one occasion I've seen "beery types" say the don't like lager/pils. Nothing wrong with that, but when asked, they will tell you that they've never been to Central Europe, the birthplace of these beers. They know lager/pils from, at best, quality beers from Germany and the Czech Republic that make it to their shores or something that is locally produced. But most of the times, that is not quite enough to understand a beer.

Not long ago I said that in order to understand a beer, ideally, you should drink it as close to its source as possible, immersed in the beer's own culture. It's something like the difference between seeing a lion in a zoo and seeing it frolicking in the African Savannah. The former can be fun and interesting, but it can't compare to the experience of seeing that animal in its natural environment, and for lager/pils the natural environment is the hospoda or the bierstübe, all the rest is not much more than a beer zoo.

This goes beyond the issue of freshness or the better care these beers will sure have in those places, it goes even beyond the places' authentic atmosphere. It's about the culture in which the beers were born and evolved, and the culture is part of the beer's story, as are the where, how, why and by whom they are brewed.

In other words, knowing the story of a beer (the true story, not a marketing fantasy) will help you understand the beer and understanding a beer can help you enjoy it better. In conclusion, Joe is quite right.

And now that I think of it, this is another reason why brewers should be more open and honest about their beers. What we have in the glass is still the only thing that really matters, but there are many factors that can affect our relationship with it.

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8 Feb 2012

Beer Philosophy in the Prague Post

Here's my latest post for The Prague Post. This time about the first anniversary of Pivo, Bier & Ale celebrated at Pivovar Strahov. Go, read it, you'll love it. Feel free to leave a comment here or there...

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6 Feb 2012

Sod labels

It's likely that here, in a village near Prague, CZ, I'm not getting the significance of all this very British "cask vs. keg" thing, so I hope my insular friends and readers will forgive me if what I'm about to say turns out to be utter bollocks. I find this so heated debate quite amusing, really, mostly because the solution to it is very simple.

Get people from each side of the fence and give them, respectively, a pint of top of the range, dog's bollocks cask ale and a pint of top of the range, dog's bollocks keg beer. Anyone who refuses to drink it solely based on the way it was dispensed is a moron and we all know there is no point in arguing with morons. The rest will sure find common ground and will agree that both beers are good and that is only thing that really matters.

After all, cask, keg, craft, industrial, innovative, traditional do not guarantee good beer any more than a pretty label, funny ad, witty slogan do. We all know that, I assume, and yet it seems we are fascinated by this "emptyties".

If you don't believe me, look at what happened the other day in Zak Avery's blog. Zak wanted to speak about what makes a beer great using as example one Ampleforth Abbey Double, which seems to be damn fine "regardless of" what the label says. In the comments someone started asking about the "Abbeyness" of the brewery. A legitimate question, mind you, but one that felt a bit out of place in this context and one that shows our obsession with emptyties.

Meanwhile, not few brewers are still banging their chests with their craft beer credentials (I wish I had made that up), shouting to the four winds that their beers are "hand crafted", that they are "natural" (really, beer is as natural as a cup of latte macchiato), brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, that they don't do it for money but for passion and because they want to change the world one pint at a time, all while they proudly show us their new labels, plan their latest marketing gimmick and, of course, throw shit at the evil "industrials", knowing full well that we will all play their game.

Isn't it about time we demanded they talked about what really makes their beers so good? (if they are so).

I don't give a flying fuck about what the inspiration for a recipe was, or about the origin of the name, I want to know what ingredients were used and where they came from. I don't want to read of the umpteenth time the history of a style copied from Wikipedia, I want to know processes and how much time the beer was given and the quality controls it went through. I want to know why that beer turned out to be good.

Yes, there are some brewers who talk about all this, at least to some extent, but I get the impression that either they are not enough or we are not paying them enough attention, we should correct that.

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3 Feb 2012

Selected readings: January

Bugger me! This month flew by. Enough with the bollocks already, here's what I liked best in January.

Pivní Ozbor puts together a very good inventory of what happened in 2011. Among other things, it makes very clear what I've been thinking for quite some time, quantity isn't the same as quality. Last year about two dozen micro breweries opened and the stuff some of them make leaves a lot to be desired, Žatec and that světlý ležák I had from Rokycany, one of the worst beers of 2011 for me, are clear example of that. Fortunately, people like Slaný and Únětice compensate for the shortcomings of some.

From England, Zak makes a very good question, how much of the drinking experience is actually an intellectual exercise. Hard to answer, really. I think it all depends on each person and situation, but it is true that there are many people who don't put much thought on what they consume.

Another who made me think was Alan with this deep and wonderful musing. Read it, think about it, and then read it again, perhaps while sipping a beer that's been properly aged.

Though I do enjoy reading some, beer reviews don't leave me with much. Most of them are the experiences of people I don't know with beers I haven't drunk. But sometimes they can surprise me by how well the author understands the reviewed beer and the way he or she explains it, just like Craig did.

One of my wishes for this year was that Spanish written beer blogs stopped gazing at their navels for a bit and started talking about stuff beyond their personal experiences or the news. That's why I warmly welcome the new section of Lúpuloadicto called "Reflexiones de un Hophead", which he opened asking who is responsible for the sudden profusion of "extravagant" beers in the Spanish market. I hope this is just the first of many other likewise interesting topics.

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1 Feb 2012

A new channel for beer philosophy

Sin Evan Rail left, The Prague Post had kind of neglected the topic of beer, so I was really thrilled when they offered me to take care of that and start a beer blog in their website.

Needless to say, this doesn't mean that I will stop writing here, no way, I'll only post some exclusive content there, which, of course, I will link here (dodgy writing, I know, blame it on the mild hangover I had from yesterday's bash, and by the way, Strahov IPA and Weizenbock are bloody awesome!).

Anyway, the first post is up already, you can read it here. Feel free to leave a comment if you can so be arsed.

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