30 Aug 2012

Tasted musings


There seems to be something like a beer tasting epidemic going on lately. I don't think there is a day that goes by that I don't read about one somewhere. This has made me wonder whether these tastings add anything to Beer Culture, and the more I think about it, the more I believe they don't.

I'm not speaking here about tastings that are actually the presentation of a brewery; I'm fine with those, they usually give the chance to meet the people behind the beers and that's always interesting. I'm not speaking about beer dinners, either, those are actually culinary games where beer can be easily replaced by any other beverage and the result will be essentially the same, a new sensory experience for the partakers. It's the guided tastings what I'm talking about

I've already spoken about clowns like this one or this one, people who organise and host tastings and courses whose only goal seems to be to part fools from their money taking advantage of a fad while throwing disinformation around. Fortunately, there are serious people, who know a thing or two about beer and organise this kind of events with the best of intentions. Their goal is to enrich Beer Culture, to show beer as a beverage and not just a brand, etc. (and, sometimes, promote their shops, nothing wrong with that). Everything is cool, but then, I see a picture like this one below (source) and my heart sinks a bit.
I've seen several similar photos, people sitting as if they were at a school, taking down notes and listening attentively to what someone holding a glass is saying. It is all so serious! Or at least that is the impression I get.

The biggest issue for me, though, is the way this tastings are usually put together. A bunch of different beers with little, if any, connection among them. The idea of this is to present the infinite variety the beverage offers. But you don't need a course for that, reading labels is enough to figure that out.

In my Facebook page, Alan McLeod recommended to skip this kind of events and use the money to buy new beers every month, trusting your own ability to learn and find your own interest. Wise words! Few things are more gratifying than those we learn by ourselves. And it is drinking beer what we are talking about, not computer programming! Specialised shops and bars often have people who are able to recommend and guide, all you need is to ask.

However, it is true that there are people out there who need to be taken by the hand and shown around, who are not all that comfortable with buying something they don't know much about and maybe, this tastings help them loose that fear. But they could be done differently. Pivní Rozmanitost, for example, sometimes hosts themed tastings of beers that fall into the same category or style. You don't need to pay much attention to realise that a Stout is very different from a Weizen, just a quick look is enough; but finding the differences in four or five beers that on paper are the same, that's another thing.

But even with this and other kinds of tastings, I believe that, generally speaking, this type of event adds nothing to beer culture. Look again at the picture. Beer isn't something made to be sniffed and sipped in 0.1l measures while listening to someone lecturing what we are supposed to be tasting and smelling; beer is made to be drunk and enjoyed. If the people on the other side of the counter wants to improve our beer culture, they should help us enjoy our beers better. Brewers should give us more information and work more with shop and pub owners so their beers will reach the consumer in the best possible condition. If they fail to do that, all the rest is just bollocks.

All this rant has brought up another question, a bigger question: Does "Beer Culture" really exists or is it only a fantasy that we love the believe and spread?

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22 Aug 2012

This week in the Prague Post

Over a few beers at a pub in Prague, Jan Šuran, chairman of Českomoravský svaz minipivovarů told me quite a few things about the association, its members, its work and the plans they have.

You can read it here

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20 Aug 2012

17/08/2012 The Day I got Saison


It's the late afternoon (or podvečer, as Czech genially calls this time of the day) of a rather warm day. I'm sitting on my terrace, enjoying the shade, the breeze and being home alone. I'm listening a mix of Dr. John, Sly & The Family Stone and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. All is being played at a volume I wouldn't get away with if my family was around. Few things are more liberating than playing music really loud, knowing that you will not bother anyone.

A couple days before I bought a bottle of Saison Dupont on a whim. I've never been a fan of Saisons and I couldn't quite understand why so many beer geeks are. It's not that I didn't like them, mind you, I'd just drink something else, if given the choice. I've always felt that this style (or beer family?) was your pedestrian session beer wearing an ill-fitting suit, a builder who has crashed a posh party and hopes nobody will notice him.

But here I am, with my feet on the table, a small board with slices of beer washed, mildly aromatic cheese in front of me and ready to pour that Dupont. I take the first sip and roll it in my mouth, the second sip is to wash down a bit of cheese and there is when it hits me. I don't know if it is the music (there is some sort of connection between the Blues-R&B-Funk mix and the beer), the weather or maybe even the sight of the recently reaped field behind our garden, but I look at the retro label on the bottle and I see things in a different way.

It turns out he isn't a builder who crashed the party, but a geezer from the country someone brought over and gave him that suit. He hasn't forgotten, nor is he ashamed of where he comes from, but he is enjoying all the attention, while he is also also a bit amused at the reverence they show him.

They still aren't my favourite kind of beer, far from it, but I can now say that I like Saisons. I love their smooth, complex rusticity and their somewhat conflicted personality. And I believe that in some way they yearn for those simpler days when people just necked a Saison to quench their thirst instead of sipping it from tulip glasses or whatever (if they could answer you, they'd perhaps tell you they are a bit jealous of Pale Lagers because of that).

Anyway, a Saison is good company in a warm summer, late afternoon; just like an old geezer from the country who's seen a lot and still likes taking the piss out of everything and everyone.

Na Zdraví!

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17 Aug 2012

Epic weekend in Varnsdorf


I have joined the ranks of Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell and Velký Al, among other beer writers/bloggers. I have made a beer happen!

It all started last February when Gazza Prescott, from Steel City Brewing Co. was here on a visity. We met at Zlý Časy and where talking about the impact the crisis had on the financing of independent theatre, or something like that, can't remember that well, when somehow the talk drifted towards beer. Among many of the things we discussed was The Grim North, the result of Steel City's collaboration with the Catalonian micro Marina, which was quite well received when it came out.

I asked Gazza if he would like to do something like that here. It took him a few milliseconds to answer yes. And then I asked Hanz, ZČ's owner, if he would like to take part, too. He answered even quicker. We got to talk about what sort of beer could be made. At first, I thought about one of those crazy Scottish IPA's from the 19th century Ron was talking about in his blog, but Gazza said he'd like to do something more Czech, and he was right. We picked Baltic Porter, there aren't that many strong dark lagers around even though there is quite a tradition with them.

Kirsten England, of Let's Brew Wednesdays fame, was kind enough to send me a Baltic Porter recipe that Gazza tweaked a bit, before it was sent to Pivovar Kocour, where we went to brew it last weekend.
Gazza, Hanz and I arrived in Varnsdorf around 9AM on Saturday. We were received by Pepa, the brewery's head honcho, and Standa and Martin, the brewers. We got to work almost right away. A few adjustments needed to be done with the recipe and the way it'd be brewed, a double decoction mash, of course, it's a Lager, after all.
Once the specialty malts (Carafa special I, Carared and Munich I) were in the mill (the Pilsen malts have their own, massive one) we went to the brewhouse already with a pint in our hands*. Kocour's brewing gear is a work of art. It dates from the 1950's, it originally was used by the Brewing Research Institute when they operated in the Braník brewery. Kocour got it from Černokostelecký Pivovar a couple of years ago. The pots are made of copper, its heated by steam, it's gorgeous to look at, and when you touch it you get a feeling you don't get with stainless steel, a soul perhaps. Anyway, we were all in love with it.
Once the mash started we took care of the other thing we came to do, eat and drink, specially drink. The food was lovely! Venison broth with liver dumplings for breakfast, venison guláš for lunch, roasted, smoked pork knee for dinner and venison paté for a late night snack, all home made, all delicious. Between this and that, we went through pretty much the whole range of Kocour beers. I have little to add about their Ales (unfortunately, their stout wasn't on tap), overall, they are pretty good. What surprised me, though, was their lagers. Both the tmavý and the světlý ležák tasted wonderful. With all the attention their warm fermented beers get, it is easy to forget how capable Pivovar Kocour is when it comes to lagers.
While we ate, or whenever we didn't have to be at the brewhouse, we all talked about beer and brewing. We mentioned the possibility of cask age the X-31 (quite a monster, BTW), Gazza explained us the principles of bottle conditioning (Kocour had a go at it once, but it didn't turn out well) and during this chats and while brewing, we all learnt a lot, specially me.

And since we are sitting and drinking, I should tell you a bit more about the pub at Kocour. It's really worth visiting. It has one of the most beautiful bars in the country. Outside there are farm animals running about. Once they realise their plans to add some accommodation within the facilities, it'll be a great weekend destination for the whole family.
But back to brewing. From the moment the malts were put in the mill, until the wort went into the fermenter, 14 hours went by. The sparging took forever and then we had to wait quite a bit until the bugger started boiling. Gipsy Porter (thus the name) will be a pretty big beer. We aimed at 19º Balling, we got almost 20º. It's black, really black, blacker than a gorilla's asshole and the wort itself tasted gorgeous. We were all very, very excited and can't wait to drink it in a couple of months.
We went to our hotel after midnight, tired, a bit pissed (well, make it very pissed for Hanz, who had joined Pepa at a rock concert), but the kind of satisfied feeling you get after a making something.

We were back at Kocour before 9. Had one of the best breakfasts I've ever had, the home made paté and a pint of SUB-Nahradník in the gentle morning sun. When we said our goodbyes there was a special bond among us, one that was somehow deeper and stronger than before, and you could see in everyone's eyes the look of "Fuck! We must do this again some day!".
To me, this was a great experience. After more than five years of ranting and writing about beer, I've been finally able to change the beer landscape in a tangible way, even if that only means a small shrub on the slope of a hill. I want to give my deepest thanks to Gazza, Hanz and the whole team at Pivovar Kocour for making it possible.

Na Zdraví!

*SUB-Nahradník, a temporary replacement for Sumeček, which had to be put in the bench due to the lack of Amarillo. Not as good as the Catfish, but like a good reserve at Basketball, it can hold the game while the stater gets its rest.

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16 Aug 2012

Unnecessary scandal


The Spanish beer community went up in arms the other day when it was announced that not one, but two beer tastings had been banned by DAMM, the Catalonian macro. One of them had been organised by a bar, the other by a shop specialised in Belgian beers, and both should have taken place as part of an event called Festa Major de Gràcia, of which the brewer is a sponsor.

The shitstorm that this unleashed towards DAMM shouldn't surprise anyone; however, what the company did was to demand the fulfillment of a sponsorship contract (which shouldn't surprise anyone, either). This contract had been signed with the organisers, who got some money and in exchange for it they agreed to give DAMM exclusive rights to sell beer during the event. Some might not like it, but exclusivity rights in exchange for sponsorship is nothing new and, in general terms (and some Olympic abuses notwithstanding), I don't see anything wrong with it, in fact, I believe is a good thing, both sides benefit from the agreement.

The beer wrath, then, should be addressed a bit more towards the organisers of Festa de Gràcia, not so much because they took DAMM's money and accepted their conditions (after all, this isn't a beer or even a food festival), but for having accepted or even suggested that this tastings take place. They knew the contract, the signed it voluntarily, nobody put a gun on their heads, so now they can't play the victims or claim that their hands were tied. At the same time, DAMM (or anyone, for that matter) can't be blasted for exercising their legal rights.

That said, DAMM are a bunch of twats, or at least there are some people in the company who are. All this is one bored journalist away from becoming the kind of irrelevant scandal the internet loves, a giant apparently abusing their position to crush small entrepreneurs.

This reminds me of the PR blunders Plzeňský Prazdroj was having not long ago. Two examples, the penalties they levied against a couple of pub owners who had decided to unilaterally terminate their contracts with the brewer, or the criminal charges they pressed against Kout na Šumavě a couple of years ago. In both cases, the law was on Prazdroj's side, but they still ended up looking like massive cunts in front of the public opinion (besides giving Kout some free publicity). It is exactly the same with DAMM, they fail to realise that the risks are higher than the potential benefits. Nobody goes to a popular celebration like the Festes to taste "artisan", Belgian or whatever beers, they go to have fun in the best way they know and can afford. Moreover, the brewer knows better than anyone that microbrews, by no means, are competition for the macros, and much less so in Spain.

This is nothing but a sign of the times. Prazdroj and DAMM aren't the only ones who have done something this stupid (or worse). This is the kind of attitude that suggests a bit of panic when facing the stagnation, if not downright fall, in sales, by the cracks in their model of continuous expansion that has worked so well in the past decades (if Pivovary.info's figures for 2008 are correct, between that year and the end of last, Prazdroj's output fell by more than 3 million hl!). On the other hand, this attitudes are a result of having lost touch with reality. These companies make their decisions solely based on market research, forecast, statistics and economic indicators. They might know very well what the masses want to drink, but they've got no fucking clue about what people think anymore.

Na Zdraví!

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15 Aug 2012

This week in the Prague Post


A short pub crawl in Hradčaný-Malá Strana got me thinking about a couple of beer related things.

You can read about them here

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13 Aug 2012

The "Where" factor


Price not being an issue, I'm sure that if I gave you to choose between the beers from Velkopopovický Kozel and those from Pivovar Strahov (a.k.a., Svatý Norbert), most (if not all) of you would choose Strahov without even thinking about it. They are really, really good after all.

However, it happens often with beer that it's not so much about what you drink, but where you drink it. So, going back to Kozel and Sv. Norbert, if I throw the "where" factor into the equation, the choice isn't that easy anymore, or it is. Let me tell you.

The other day I had plan for the afternoon: have a couple of quick pints at U Černého Vola, where I hadn't been since its continuity was in peril, from there go to Pivovar Strahov to have their summer Weizen and their outstanding IPA, to finish the crawl at a new place that has opened near Hradčanská, before taking the bus back home. I failed, I didn't have time to make it to the last spot, and it was all U Černého Vola's fault.

I went in and greeted the výčepní. I hear a sort of growl behind my back asking "Pivo?". It was the waiter. I said yes and found a seat at table with a Russian couple. The beer came fast and well tapped.

It was my first beer of the day, a delicious Kozel 12º. It almost vanished down my throat. I didn't need to order the second one.

The place started to fill. At one point I closed my eyes for a few seconds to listen the soundrack: people talking, a laughter and the "thump!" putting půl litry on the tables. Heavenly music.

I was about to finish my second pint not feeling very much like leaving anymore. I see the waiter hammering the tables with pints full of Kozel. When he finished the round he was still holding one pint and I told myself "if he offers it to me, I'm staying". The bloke must have read my mind, or not, without any questions he hammered my corner of the table with that glass and I stayed. (And they say you get crap service at pubs).

A bit later two old timers arrived, whose beers also arrived without anyone calling them. I started to chat and laugh with those two geezers whom everyone would love to have as grandfathers. I stayed a pint longer, leaving required enormous willpower.

I arrived at Strahov. I took a seat inside. It was too warm to sit in the courtyard, which was full anyway. A waitress brought my Weizen, quickly and with a smile, another waitress brought my IPA, quickly and with a smile. Both beers were fantastic, gorgeous, sexy, among the best you can drink in Prague. But something was missing. I closed my eyes to listen to the soundtrack: The radio, Europa 2 and its music that sounds as if someone had put a cat in an old washing machine while it was working.

If finished both of those superb beers and went home, wishing I could go back to Vola to drink more Kozel.

Na Zdraví!

10 Aug 2012

Friday Morning Musings


Some of you will find it hard to believe, but I'm not the kind of person that goes around preaching the gospel of good beer to anyone who doesn't want to hear (unless I'm shitfaced). If I'm not in the company of people who are interested in beer, I keep my opinions pretty much to myself; I have learnt to drink and let drink. When I'm a guest somewhere I am able to switch off certain parts of my brain and drink what I'm offered, trying to enjoy the moment and the company, with the beer as a spice to make them more interesting. However, it often happens that someone introduces me as the guy "who knows beer", which is almost invariably followed by the question "What's your favourite beer?" or other similar conversation triggers.

In this situations, it never ceases to amaze me how many people are there who want to speak about beer, how excited they get when they can share their experiences with new brands and/or places. Names like Svijany, Bernard or Černá Hora, and more recently, Únětice are uttered almost with awe. This is proof that there are more and more people who have lost the fear and mistrust of alternative brands, which is itself the first step to loosing the fear of different colours, aromas, flavours, ingredients and stories. What's interesting, though, is that people are still speaking about brands, they are still drinking "the same stuff", style-wise. It wasn't until I read this post in Jeff's blog that I started to think about the implications of this and why it might be good for the market and the consumers.

In his post, Jeff explains why he believes the US is an IPA nation, or something like that. I won't discuss it (and if you want to do it, go to the linked page), I'm going to trace a parallel with what is happening here. Warm fermented beers have are rapidly growing in popularity (a good thing, no doubt), but the truth is that the Czech Republic is and will always be Lagerland. The renaissance of the regional brewers rode on jedenáctky and dvanáctky, and pale lagers of one kind or another are still, by far, the biggest source of income for the more than 130 microbreweries that are working today; in fact, I think you can count with your fingers the breweries that don't make a světlý ležák.

The biggest advantage these beers have is that they don't need to be explained. Even the most obtuse drinker knows what Světlá 12º, means, they won't be afraid of it, it is something they are familiar with, they won't need to "be ready", there's no transition necessary. There's also no risk that this drinker can get scared by flavours that are very different to what they are used to. And the best of all is that they will be able to compare that Světlá 12º with the ones they drink, or used to drink, as equals and probably the new beer will fare better. What you should take into account is that saying that the Trippel-Imperial-Barrel-Aged-Sour-Belgian-Black-IPA of the day is better than Krušovice is stupid, they might both be labeled as "beer", but they are way too different to make a fair comparison. On the other hand, saying that Kácov 10º is better than Gambrinus 10º...

This, needless to say, is a risk for the Czech macros, and they know it. They are well aware that the number of people who say that Gambrinus, Staropramen, etc. are watery, headache inducing, or simply crap is growing. No surprise then that all of a sudden they started selling some of their brands unpasteurised or unfiltered or to assign them specific Plato graduations. I wonder if it isn't a bit too late already. Time will tell.

I don't like chauvinisms and I am well aware of the shortcomings of the current beer scene here and how interesting the beer scenes of other countries are, but let me tell you that as someone who can be legitimately considered a beer geek, but who's actually a beerophile, I wouldn't change the Czech Republic for any country in the world right now.

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8 Aug 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I speak about my local, Zlý Časy, a legend that it's not ready to rest on its laurels, as the new taproom upstairs shows.

You can read it here.

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6 Aug 2012

Selected readings: July


People are on holidays and I have quite a lot of work (fortunately). This means a short round up this time, but a juicy one nonetheless.

Let's start with something to read at the beach, a fascinating story of Brettanomyces, by Martyn Cornell. I've had a couple of 100% Brett beers, I liked them, much to my surprise, my wife liked them, too. I understand why some people have become fans of this kind of beers, and I understand why other people might think they taste like a cocktail of cat's piss and curdled milk. If given the choice, I'd go for something like Orval, where these microorganisms play a memorable supporting role, rather than the lead.

Meanwhile, Pivní Recenze muses over the meaning of "Premium Beer", reaching the surprising conclusion that it means a lot of fuck and a bit of all.

In Argentina, Ceresvis carries on with its analysis of the local beer scene. They agree with many of the things I've been saying for some time and, in fact, one of the paragraphs was in great part what inspired me to write my praise of macrobrewers (which was a hit in Brazil).

Boak and Bailey introduce one of the must useful gadgets ever invented. A device that can automatically end the most heated beer debate, The Craftometer. It is able, among other things, to measure passion in parts per millionth/mg. Amazing! If any of you has a beer fetishist in the family, this will be a great present.

What is a beer fetishist? Adrian Tierney-Jones explains it very well. Basically, someone who enjoys talking about beer, wishing beer, worship some beers more than actually drinking beer. We all know someone like that.

Beer fetishism, by the way, reminds me of the silliest question I've seen in a long time, posted on a RateBeer forum, "Is there a bias in beer ratings against big corporate macrobreweries?". I actually believe there is a bias against almost any beer that isn't hard to find/rare/extreme/expensive, etc. For some time I've been thinking that perhaps, the owners of sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate should find a way to factor price and availability in the ratings, where lower price/wider availability would favour the score. But well, it's not my problem, after all, I care about beer ratings as much as I care about the results of archery in the Olympics.

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3 Aug 2012

Tough choice


It's mid-afternoon, you've finished whatever it is that you had to do today, you are tired and would like to go home, but you happen to be nearby your local so you decide to drop by for a quick pint or two.

They become four. Good stuff. You feel a bit better now, but you've decided you've had your fill and settle the bill. When you are paying, the waiter asks you jokingly. "Are you leaving already?". You smile and answer half-heartedly, promising that perhaps you'll drop by tomorrow.

Just when you have finished putting the change in your pocket and picking up your stuff, another waiter looks at you with a mischievous smile and tells you, "look. It's raining!"

It's not cats and dogs, not yet at least, but you can see open umbrellas and people rushing to find some shelter. You curse the rain, and the waiter, they've forced you into making a hard decision, getting a bit wet, or getting a bit pissed? Bastards!

It's all up to you.

Na Zdraví!

PS: No prize for guessing what my decision was

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