30 Mar 2012

No, really..

Could you please stop associating "craft beer" with "revolution"?

Let's forget for a second that I believe "craft" doesn't mean a lot more than "premium". Whether I like it or not, the truth is that there are many people for whom "craft beer" is something more or less concrete, but whatever that is, is not a "revolution".

A revolution is something that results in a radical change to the status quo, even when a revolution fails, things are never the same.

The last phenomenon in the brewing industry that I believe could be called a revolution took place in the last decades of the 19th century with the development of efficient systems of artificial refrigeration, which resulted in lagers taking over the world. The change was relatively quick and, in some places, brutal, it basically wiped out styles with a lot of history and tradition behind them.

Craft beer hasn't done anything like this, anywhere. Not even in the US, where not few "craft breweries" are already into their third or fourth decade. Today, the 1800 or more Craft breweries in that country have around 5% market share (and this includes that millions of hl that Sam Adams produces every year). In some regions, like the Northwest, the figure is higher, but it's still a small piece of the pie. The fact is that the best selling beers of today are more or less the same as those 20 or 30 years ago, something that you can see in every country in the world.

Some will wield the industry figures of the last few years as an argument for the revolution. It's clear, sales and production volumes of the major industrial brewers are going down (or at best stagnated), while those of small, independent producers are growing significantly, sometimes in two percentage figures. So?

These two things aren't as correlated as many seem to believe. People aren't drinking less but better, they are simply drinking less. The reasons for that have already been discussed, and they are very much besides the point. The growth of craft beers is due to different factors, they've become more widely available, they've been getting more and more attention from the media and, to a lesser extent, but still quite important, they have made important inroads in places where beer was always, at best, a second class product. If they are taking market share away from someone, it's from wine.

Others will point at the products some macros have launched in recent years (those which some moron has dubbed "faux craft") as proof of a revolution (or even worse, as proof that the macros "are afraid"). You can call the macros a number of things, but stupid is not one of them. They have people working for them whose job is to follow the market, and they have realised that there is a growing demand for beers that move away from the usual lines. Therefore, these products are nothing but a response to this trend, and actually, I think they respond more to macro-brewed imported beers than to craft brews, that's why Fénix, for example, is a wheat beer and not an IPA. In other words, what SAB-Miller, AB-InBev or Heineken are doing is not too different to what most craft breweries always do, to follow the steps and copy someone who's been successful in a given segment.

The acquisition of breweries like Goose Island or Kunstmann by giants like AB-InBev or CCU isn't proof of a revolution, either. It's basically the same as what I say above, only that these companies have decided that it'd be better to take over a well established brand than to build a new one from scratch.

It's not my intention to underrate the success small and independent breweries are having in many countries. It's something remarkable and more than welcome, but it's not a revolution. It's actually part of something deeper that is happening in our societies and, just like it has done throughout the ages, beer is mirroring it.

There are more and more people who want an alternative to globalised uniformity, rediscovering the "traditional", "local", "regional", "authentic", etc and are looking for products with which they can identify and have a more personal relationship. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will forget about Big Mac or Heineken, but they will now complement them with free-range chicken and a bottle of craft beer.

Of course, if believing you are part of a revolution makes you feel better with yourself, it's your thing and I have nothing against it, I just wanted to say you are wrong.

Na Zdraví!

26 Mar 2012

A bit of history

A couple of months ago I came across a very interesting video from the Ecuadorian TV. The quality is on the wrong side of crappy and the two geezers that talk there look like the kind of people that must be boring even after having a couple of pints under their belts, but if you understand Spanish, it's worth paying attention to what they say.

According to Mr. Mosquera, the first brewery in America (the continent, of course) operated in Quito in the Convent of St. Francis, which started to be built in 1550, or so Wikipedia says.

As founder of the monastery and brewery, Mosquera mentions one Jodoco Ricke, a Franciscan monk of Flemish origin. Searching this person on the internet I found a brief biography (in SP) that says that he had been good friends with the emperor Charles V (who is considered "the father" of beer in Spain) and that he had arrived in Ecuador a few years before the construction of the monastery had started. It also says that he began growing barley shortly after his arrival. So, it's not only probable that the beers he made were of European style almost from the get go, and not chicha, but also that brewing precedes the monastery.

Other than the colours (white, blond and black) not much is mentioned about what the beers were like, on the other hand, Ricke's and some of his mates' nationality should be enough to give us a good idea. This wasn't for me the most revealing thing about this video, though.

According to the "official" narrative, it beer was brought to Latin America by Central European immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. That is not true, at least a century before, in Buenos Aires there were people who brewed Porter. Now it's clear that not even them were the first brewers in the continent. What I'd like to know now is how extended monastic (or other kind of) brewing was in the colonial times.

It's well known that it was monks who started growing grapes in America, but in order to make wine from a new vineyard you have to wait several years. You don't need to wait so long to make beer, all you need is a rich enough harvest of barley, wheat or other grain and you can already start a brewery. Considering that all the monastic orders I can think of used to make beer, it's not preposterous to believe that those same orders would start brewing as soon as they had settled in the new continent (though it's also possible that they made mead or some other alcoholic drinks).

I would love to have the time and resources to do more research about this!

Na Zdraví!

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19 Mar 2012

Grumpy Monday

You've heard (and read) me saying this countless times (I've even mentioned it in articles that've been published in magazines!), this thing with the microbreweries in the Czech Republic is amazing. Only five years ago there were around 50, today there are 120 and counting. Last year alone more than 20 new ones opened!

Of course, not everything is rosy. This boom has brought some growing pains. For some time I've been reading about an incipient shortage of qualified workforce, and the other day someone who seemed to know what he was saying told me that some of the micros that have opened recently are actually enterprises to swindle money from the European Union Structural Funds. Beer, or the business of selling beer, is of little, if any, importance to this people, they've already earned what they wanted to earn just with the project, what happens next is not their problem.

The reality is that I've drunk some serious crap lately. I don't mean boring lagers, beers about which you might say "it could have a bit less/more of this or that". No, I mean Crap. At last year's Slunce v Skle there were at least two beers that I ended up trowing away, unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the perpetrators anymore (I stopped taking notes at festivals, I suggest you do the same). But if you want names, here are a few: 11º from U Stočesu, the brewpub of Rokycany, abominable, made even worse by the fact that it was the last beer that session. Melantrich, which I described as "Nasty and proud of it". However, nothing compares to the disaster that was U Orloje, in Žatec, there's no excuse for a brewpub serving a beer that is off! Who is the dimwit who runs that place?

Fortunately, we have Slaný's Pivovar Antoš,  Únětický Pivovar, Kout, Kocour, Matuška or Třebonice, just to name a few of those that are making some very good stuff (though Matuška could give us a break with the prices).

And it's also worth mentioning that Kocour, Matuška, Třebonice and several others have managed to introduce exotic species to the Lagerland's landscape. Warm fermented beers are multiplying and are becoming more popular on both sides of the counter. However...

...Most seem to be following the same two or three recipes. What is not Pale Ale is India Pale Ale. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but American hops aren't the only kind that can be used for this kind of beers, even if you are aiming at a high IBU (look at some of the entries in Ron Pattinson's Let's Brew series, if you don't believe me). And what about brewing something else? I'd love to see more Stouts, Porters or the odd Brown Ale, Barley Wine or Saison. And it's not necessary to go too far. Hardly anyone makes dark wheat beers, just a couple of Weizenbock (very good ones, by the way) and that's it (and let's not talk about rye).

Fuck it! It's not even necessary to leave Lagerland! There seems to be no one who would like to have a go at some old (non světlý ležák) recipes from a century ago. And don't come with "but they were brewed the same way as today". No, they weren't. Oh yeah, but extract flavoured abominations, nobody is afraid of that, are they? (Can anyone please remind me the name of the git that added food colouring to a beer flavoured with red wine extract?). Fuck all of them, really!

I woke up in a bad mood today. Instead of bitching so much I should be grateful to be living in this beer paradise, where I can say that Pilsner Urquell is an average pale lager while I complain about its ubiquity. See? I already feel better!

Na Zdraví!

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16 Mar 2012

A cautionary tale

The news is old, but still worth talking about it.

One winter afternoon, as I was on my way to a meeting with a few pints of Kout at U Slovanské Lípy, as I was walking across Havlíčkovo Nám. I noticed that Svět Piva, formerly known as U Radnice, had closed.

I wasn't surprised or sad. It was to be expected and it was deserved. Total lack of respect for beer, useless staff and an owner that, well, let's say he isn't the most sensible person around were the cause. After the local beer enthusiasts had enough of his attitude and his pub, this man tried to save the shop through the now famous (or infamous) discount sites. It turned out to be an even bigger disaster, one that caught the attention of the media and because a cautionary tale for the operators of these webpages, and probably accelerated the inevitable demise of the pub.

Fortunately, it didn't manage to stain the reputation of the čtvrtá pípa and multi tap pub phenomenon, but it should be a case study for all those that had decided to take this path. It's not about how many taps you have, but the condition of the beers that come out of them and the way they are stored and served as well as staff that at least pretends to give a semblance of a fuck about those beers and the blame won't be the critics' or the brewers'.

This comes because the other day the owner of Kaaba told me about a new place with six taps and a quite a few bottled beers. I passed by and I got the impression that it was very small, there aren't event ables! I still haven't visited it and I might end up surprised, but in a way it reminded me of what happened when Svět Piva added so many taps in a place that was smaller than Zlý Časy.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Last year, Svět Piva's owner set up a microbrewery in Buštěhrad a town near Prague. I had one of their beers last November, not bad, but nothing that will make me jump on a bus. Either way, let's hope this good man has learnt from his experience.

12 Mar 2012

Silly question, but I need to ask it

If I remember my history well, those Beers that during the 18th and 19th century were sent to India were more hopped and attenuated (?) than their contemporary Ales and Beers so they could survive the four in the hull of a ship that went around Africa.

An unexpected, but welcome, outcome of this was that due to the heat and the general conditions of the voyage the beers matured much faster than they would have in the breweries' cellars (to get an idea of how, read the experiment Martyn did a while back).

Taking this into consideration, could it be that American hop bombs taste "better"* on this side of the pond than at home? Has anyone had the chance to taste one of those beers "fresh" and after it had crossed the Atlantic?

Na Zdraví!

PS: Perhaps the question is silly, I've got no idea about the conditions the bottles travel from their producers to the warehouses of their distributors in Europe, they might do it in refrigerated containers. As for the duration of the trip, of course it's not four months anymore, but I guess that from "door to door" (that is to the retailers) it lasts quite a few weeks.

(*) needless to say, this is all relative, I mean more balanced, rounded.

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9 Mar 2012

A bit off topic

You all know about it, you've read it a million times in the last couple of years, I'm won't say anything new here. Although I doubt very, very much that social networks are the threat to governments and the status quo that the media would like us to believe, the reality is that, as long as you have an internet connection, modern technology allow us to share ideas, opinions, curious things and bollocks, lots of bollocks, with the whole world and instantly. If we are on holidays we can make a photo of something that's caught our attention, upload it to our Facebook, Twitter or whatever account so all our friends/followers/whatevers can see it and react to it. Same if we are at a party, concert, on our way back from work or having pint at a pub or a beer festival. Click! Tipititap! “Upload/Share”, that's all you need.

As everything else that exists, has existed and will exist this paradigm isn't good or bad, it simply is. I won't slam it, one the one hand, because it would be like complaining that it's cold in winter or hot in summer (or about the new layout of the FB interface) and on the other, because I'd be an hypocrite.

My Facebook page has allowed me to connect with readers and share with them stuff I find beerily interesting in a way that is faster and more comfortable than the blog, with more or less the same result. At the same time, I do have a Twitter account, for nothing, really. I haven't found any use to it and I don't see much sense to the platform to begin with, it might be because my internet experience is fixed, from my desktop PC and not mobile. (so, don't bother following me because I'll lead you nowhere)

There have been times when, while being at a pub or walking down the street, I would have liked to do some Click! Tipititap! “Upload” to share something beerily interesting, curious or out of the ordinary, or simply to tell everyone what a good time I'm having. It's a feeling that last a fleeting instant, then I realize that perhaps is better that way, that I can live that moment to its fullest, selfishly, without worrying or even thinking about what others might say about it, unless they are with me there and then, which would make them part of that moment that for some reason I find interesting, curious or out of the ordinary. To share it with the rest of the world, there will always be time, later, nobody will care whether I do it at that very instant or several hours or days later.

Could it be that I'm missing something? I see on Facebook mobile uploads and status updates of people who say what a great time they are having or how delicious it is what they are drinking or eating here or there right when they are having such a good time and drinking or eating such good stuff, always followed, also almost immediately, by the reactions of “friends”. I guess that, due to the platform's nature, things are even more intense in Twitter. It's clear that they like this, that it's for them fun, that it gives them some sort of pleasure. But I wonder if it is not them who are missing something. Or could it be that the enjoy the act of sharing the moment more than the moment itself?

After having seriously considered the purchase of a smartphone that would allow me to be connected while I'm not sitting here, I came to the conclusion that the usefulness this machinery and service might might have every now and then wasn't enough to justify the extra expense on hardware and fees. Of course, I could also use it for things that are less practical or urgent, but since I work mostly at home, I already spend quite a long time with my face stuck to a computer. Besides, I have also decided that I want to keep on enjoying those beery (and other-y) moments to their fullest and when they are over to have time to meditate whether they are worth to share with people who couldn't or didn't want to be there and then. I know that having a smartphone with WiFi wouldn't require that I change that habit, but I know myself and I know that it'd be really hard to resist the temptation.

Na Zdraví!

PS: This isn't a criticism to anyone, nor it intends to be. Each is free to do with their free time whatever they want however they want to do it. Now, if you are in the company of someone, be polite and turn that effing mobile phone off. The person who is with you is there and then more important than anyone who might be calling or texting you and than all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers put together.

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5 Mar 2012

Selected Readings: February

Just as I, sort of, promised on Friday, here's the roundup of the stuff that caught my attention last month.

From Beervana, Jeff, in his post of his very interesting Belgian series speaks about a very interesting Dupont does, which proves that the difference is always in the tiny details.

Not leaving Jeff, in this post he deals with the topic of styles and categorisations and how hard it is sometimes to make sense of it all, which was an answer to a question Alan made in his blog. Everything while I was writing about the same topic and Joe came out with a birlliant answer, which almost manages to put an end to the debate.

And speaking about an endless debate. Birraire deals with the meaning, usefulness and relevance of the concept of "Cerveza Artenanal" (Craft Beer). While you think about an answer to that, here's Reluctant Scooper with his Craft Beer manifesto. Brilliant stuff.

Changing the topic, but just a bit, my post on the role of brewers in the education of the consumer prompted Alan to ask a couple of questions, which were followed by some interesting comments.

Leaving endless debates aside (at least for the time being) and also the blogosphere, there were two articles that caught my attention. The first one speaks about the possible role beer had as a catalyst for the beginning of agriculture, which, as everyone knows, is the cornerstone of civilization, I like that idea that deep down we are all pissheads. The second one tries to sell us the joys of maltless brewing thanks to an enzyme additive for raw barley. There they quote the honcho of a micro brewery somewhere in Gringoland who claims to have finished brewing the first test batch of a maltless beer. I've got two questions about this: Doesn't brewing without malts limit the possibilities producers have when it comes to colour, texture and character? If this is such a wonderful, environmentally friendly and cost cutting thing, how is it that AB-InBev aren't using it yet?

Bollocks of the month goes to Golden Bee, another beer with gold flakes, but one that takes the noble art of marketing bollocks to a new level of idiocy.

Na Zdraví!

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2 Mar 2012

A few quick reviews

WOW! I don't remember when was the last time I posted a beer review here! (I do, it's all a matter of checking the blog archive, but it sounds nicer this way). Since I'm sure not few of you are missing them, I thought it would be a good idea to put together the short reviews I posted on my Facebook page in the last couple of months in a way that it would put them in a..... Who am I kidding. I'm lazy and busy, can't be arsed with anything else today. Here they are thanks to the magic of ctrl+c and ctrl+v.

Beer Here Farlig Wine: Imprisoned in a barn full of hops there's a luscious, dark, strong willed beauty screaming to be set free. One of those beers that walks on a very thin tightrope with half a pint too many under its belt... The screams aren't loud enough. With a few IBU's less this could be an awesome beer...

St. Georgen Dopplebock Dunkel. A perfect beer for a day like this. It's a bit like re-reading a good novel, it won't surprise you, but it doesn't let you down... (this was posted in early January, so the weather was rubbish).

Beer Here Nordic Rye Ale: Earthy with a little spice, piney, barely balanced with a tiny bit of roughness. A nice Sunday afternoon sipper at 8%ABV.

I'm not a fan of Pale (Bocks or) Dopplebocks, but this (hefetrüb) from Greif Brauerei is pairing wonderfully with spicy Asturian home made chorizo

Beer Here Smokestack Porter: Lovely stuff that confirms what I said a few days ago...
I must admit that I bought this one because of the label. It turned out to be a triumph of Brewing over Graphic Design. Incredibly fruity, almost like a dollop of summer. More voluptuous than Sofia Loren cca. 1965, but with that dry, spicy Belgian edge that keeps things flowing smoothly like a good traffic cop in a busy intersection.
Stille Nacht. This must be the way a cocktail of Metaxa and Oloroso Sherry must taste like, I guess... It should have a drinkability warning, with 12%ABV it goes down daaangerously easy...
Tlustý Netopír from Pivovar Antoš (Slaný) a Rye IPA that is as good as the label is ugly... Great, interesting, fantastically balanced, almost too drinkable for a 17º...
Old Slug Porter. Starts out with a lovely, tasty bang but then it kind of gets bored of your company....

Beer Here Hoptilicus, after the almost hoppy mess of Farlig Wine, I wasn't expecting much. Turned out to be great, a beer in stereo, on one channel rich, juicy hops, on the other, solid, warm malts. The only disappointment was not having another bottle at hand.

Great stuff, isn't it?

Na Zdraví!

PS: Selected readings will come out on Monday.

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