28 Sep 2012

You learn something new every day


The other day I attended the official opening ceremony of Břevnovský Pivovar at the namesake monastery. A nice do, I must say, with the Prior blessing the brewery, and the beers, of course, and a few friends who made the afternoon even more enjoyable, there are few pleasures in this life that are bigger than a friendly chat paired with excellent beers, and the beers from Břevnov are top-notch.

Their světlý ležák, in my opinion, already ranks among the best you can drink in this country. It's completely different from any other I've drunk before. There's the classic, wonderful, sexy malty body of a proper Czech pale lager (bless decoction for that), but this one is almost bursting with notes of mint and something that reminds me of chewing a sage leaf, in between those two there's some fruit that my friend Evan Rail described as that bit of a peach that is by the stone, thought it could also be described a not fully ripe apricot. It gives the beer a truly unique character and I'd been always intrigued as to what it was. With its creator, Jan Šuráň, present, this was the best chance to find out.

"It's the hops", he said with some excitement even before I was able to finish the question. They are Saaz, or Žatecký Poloraný Červenák, as they are called here, but they come from a hopyard near Louny that is 70 years old. He explained what the difference between those hops and all the rest is with some technical details that I understood, but I've since forgotten.

It was the first time I've heard about the age of the hopyard having any effect on the characteristics of our favourite aromatic herb, I found it fascinating and it made me realise how much there is out there about beer that I still don't have much of a clue about, and I just love that!

Anyway, before I leave, let me share with you some words the Prior said in his blessing, not an actual quote, but it went something like this:
"Beer is a good thing. It brings people together and always in good will."
Wise words from a man who seems to love his tipple.
Photo: Evan Rail
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24 Sep 2012

WOW!


To be honest, I wasn't going to write anything about last Saturday's Slunce v Skle. Not because there was anything wrong with it, quite the opposite, just like every year, it was great, it's still the best festival in this country. The thing is that I didn't believe I would have anything new to add to what I said two years ago: great atmosphere, lots of friends and familiar faces, the weather started out rather dodgy, but then got really nice...

The biggest difference, perhaps, was the quality of the beers. Unlike the previous two editions, I didn't come across anything that was bad. But then again, I didn't drink that much, or actually, I didn't drink from as many breweries as previous years. It could also be that what I wrote on Friday played a bit of a role and, instead of chasing after every new brewery (there were several) I mostly played safe and went for stuff I knew or had very good references of. I even repeated a couple of beers! And though I didn't manage to drink some beers I would have liked to drink, I didn't regret it at the end of the day because I enjoyed what I did drink. Can you believe that? It could also be that I was drinking mostly half litres (from plastic, I couldn't be arsed this year with glass, didn't want to break one again) or that I spent a lot of time actually talking to people rather than to beer (chatting with Adrian Tierney-Jones, one of the world's best beer writers, was also a big plus on a day that couldn't have possibly been better).

And yet, if it hadn't been for Kocour I wouldn't have bothered to write anything here today.

After I arrived, and procured myself a much needed beer (a sensual 11º from Vimperk), I went to Kocour's stand to say hello to Standa Deus, the head brewer, and ask him how our baby was doing. "Mám ho na čepu" (I have him on tap) he said. WHAT? He had tasted it, loved it and decided to take a 30l keg for a test ride at the festival.

I won't pretend objectivity, I was part of the team that brewed Gipsy Porter, after all, but let me tell you this, I've never been so excited in my life about a beer and it is ABSOLUTELY FUCKING WONDERGORGEOUS! It was still a tad young, but it was already perfect. It was everything I expected it to be and then some: licorice, bitter chocolate, mint, port wine and a drop or two of pure heaven. That's what I texted Gazza.

Needless to say, I let everyone I knew that Gipsy Porter was eager to meet them. Everyone loved it. My friend Ian suggested I cast a vote for it as the best beer of the festival, a few of my friends also voted for it and it ended up winning!

You know what my attitude towards awards and medals is and I won't even try to make you believe this one is a very serious one, I'm also willing to concede that many of the votes Gipsy Porter got were from from people that know me and knew it was my beer, but when its was announced as the festival's best beer I almost bursted in joy and all the congratulations that followed it meant that I almost couldn't fit within myself until I fell asleep at home a few hours later. But more important than the prize, any prize, is that people liked it, and they liked it a lot, the keg had sold out by 4.30 or so.

Suddenly, that small shrub Gazza, Hanz and I planted with Pivovar Kocour on the slope of a hill doesn't look so small anymore, and may even grow into a tree because Kocour wants to brew it again.

I'm so proud of you, Gipsy Porter and I'm looking forward to seeing you again in a couple of weeks, this time in Prague.

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21 Sep 2012

Friday Morning Musings


The other day I came across this very good (and rather old) article in The Economist that speaks about how having more to choose from results on people actually buying less because they can't quite decide. Boak & Bailey went through a situation like this a while ago while in London, where they had the nagging feeling that choosing one beer or one pub might mean that they were missing something better.

Whenever I drop by places like Zlý Časy, more and more often find myself taking the opposite path. I go for the stuff I know and maybe, depending on how long I'll be staying, the company and my mood at the time, pick one or two new beers, but only after at least a couple of pints have been properly taken care of. In fact, I'm becoming increasingly tired and bored of this inflation of new beers and part of me is slowly beginning to wish that the bubble would finally burst.

All of this is happening thanks (or because of) the beer fetishists. These are people who seem to prefer to talk about beer than to actually drink it. Instead of enjoying what they have right now in the glass, they are anguishing about what to order next, and it will have to be something new, something they've never seen before, because a beer they hope they will like will always be better than one they've already liked, and if the beer bar doesn't have anything new (the more obscure the better), well the owner doesn't care about beer culture, doesn't have passion, doesn't know how to run their business and therefore, it's time to move on somewhere else.

Beer fetishists are also the kind of people who don't go to festivals to have a good day out with friends at a glorified beer garden. They go there to see "what's new", to write tasting notes, tweets or "share" beers on Untappd (never have the words "share" and "drink socially" have been more wrongly used). Needless to say, they will never touch a plastic cup and they will insist that all beers be available in 0.15l measures. They don't have time for drinking, when there's so much out there to taste.

In a normal world, people like this would be marginalised. But they are way too loud and some brewers (many of whom are fetishists themselves) have decided to cater almost exclusively to this niche within a niche. And that's how we've ended up with this disproportionate number of extreme or "experimental" beers or those idiotic "new" styles like Black and/or Imperial Pilsner.

Rants aside, I haven't got anything against the fetishist. I was a bit of a fetishist myself and, well, we all have, and need, our kinks, don't we? As for the brewers, they are just doing their business and I don't have to give them my money if I don't want.

The problem here is that some of these breweries have become very successful, or at least very talked about, and then many others are doing what businesses often do, follow a hot trend, while it's hot. But is this a good thing for those of us who prefer to drink "normal" beers and for the industry as a whole?

A couple of months ago, while having lunch with Evan Rail, we were discussing this and he said something very important "focus", or the lack thereof. Like him (and I'm sure, many of you out there) I've had some beers from DeMolen, Mikkeller and, here, Matuška that were pretty disappointing. Not that they were bad (actually, DeMolen Hop&Stout was a disaster), but they felt as if the brewers hadn't quite finished tightening the screws on the new recipe before they started with another one. In other cases, they were as if a very capable Italian cook was told, just before the restaurant closed, that he had to prepare something Thai for tomorrow's lunch. In the Czech Republic, for example, this has resulted in otherwise very capable Lager brewers to start making pretty mediocre Ales.

At the rate all these new beers seem to be coming out, beer lovers (you know, those who prefer drinking to tasting, etc.) are sometimes loosing the chance to develop a relationship with beers that have impressed us. How many of them have been discontinued or pushed aside to make room in cellars or bars for the (perhaps not that good after all) newcomers? An excellent example of that is Vyškov and their IPA's. The first one was very good and a massive hit, the half batch they brewed sold out in just a few days, but instead of making another, full, batch of the same beer they changed the recipe and the resulting product wasn't that good, and neither was their Stout.

Don't get me wrong, I like it when breweries put out new products, but not just for the sake of "having something new". There should be an idea, a long term plan behind it, a concept if you want, and not the "let's see what comes out of this" philosophy that seems to drive many new beers.

But it might not be only us, the consumers, who are affected by this, but also small, start-up breweries, specially those in emerging markets. Could it be that this bubble they are happily inflating is actually slowing their long term growth and an obstacle to improving efficiency as a business?

Last month I had a great chat with the brewer and the owner of Únětický Pivovar. One of the things I like about that brewery is that they make only two kinds of beer, plus a seasonal every few months. They told me that the main reason behind is to have better "capacity management". I'd never heard that mentioned before, and it turns out it is very important, specially if you are brewing lagers, and that is not where it ends. For a new brewer, building a portfolio of 10, if not more, beers in only one year means that they will have to stock different kinds of malt, hops and yeast, or worse, order them as the need arises. The brewery proper will need to start small in order to make many different beers in low volumes. These two things will mean that production costs will be higher, and so will prices. And what's worse is that, ironically, being successful enough to force them to increase capacity can be quite dangerous, specially if this happens rather fast.

It is said that Barabbas was set free by Pontius Pilate not because he had more supporters than Jesus, but because his supporters screamed louder (though the theory proposed by "The Life of Brian" is also a possibility). Perhaps it's about time that those who prefer quality over sheer diversity started screaming a bit louder before it is too late.

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17 Sep 2012

A Few Quick Reviews (IV)


A new installment of the round up of reviews originally published on my FB page for those four or five of you who don't have Facebook.

Slaný TUPL IPA: Could be a tad more aromatic, could have a bit of a longer finish, but SOD THAT! What a chewy, complex, rewarding, beauty this one is!
Cigar City Cucumber Saison: I'd be lying my ass off if I said this is one of my favourite beers, but bugger me! This is one interesting little bastard that masterfully avoids the gimmick. One I'd love to drink again. (thanks Glen!)

Opat Benediktin 15º: As if a Märzen was trying to do some mischief.

13º Český Granát, Žitný Speciál from Regent? Are you kidding? Does this apricot marmalade, ginger, strawberry syrup beauty come from Třeboň? Hats off to them, it's bloody lovely!!!

Přerovský Negr: A big, mean, scary looking muthafuckin nigga that turns out to be a nice fun bloke to be with after all.
Novopacké Kvasničák: Scores for being one of the few, proper kvasnicové, starts well enough, but ends up leaving the aftertaste of a wasted opportunity. I really wanted to like this beer....

Vyškov Heffeweizen: Could have some more spice, but very nice nonetheless.
Matuška Fastball: Could have most certainly used some filtering...
Antares Imperial Stout: Prunes in rum with brown sugar and a dusting of chocolate. Reminded me a lot of Sam Smith's. Very nice night cap, but not quite recommended for those who like the louder side of the IS family.

Antares Barley Wine: With 0.5% ABV less and the same OG it could have been an absolutely fantastic beer. The kind you'd wish would tuck you in bed and give a good night kiss on your forehead. Nice and enjoyable nonetheless, but could be better. (Thanks Pablo Rodríguez, from Cervecería Antares for these two)

And short thought to wrap up: What's the difference between an Imperial Pilsner and a Helles Bock? More hops and less sense?

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10 Sep 2012

Both for the everyman and for the selected few


After he heard a couple of wine posers say that they couldn't take beer seriously until it became "more like wine", Velký Al issued another rant against the "winification" of beer. I agree with him, I also find the "beer is the new wine" bollocks a bit irritating and very stupid. However, there's something that Al doesn't quite take into account when he complains about those who want to gentrify beer, history.

If you've read what Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson have written about beer in the 19th century and beyond, you'll have noticed that beer has not always been only the "everyman's drink". The higher classes used their beers, the most famous of them, perhaps, were the Pale Ales (India or otherwise), to which we could add the Porters/Stouts brewed for the Russian ruling class, among others (even lagers, in the early days, were quite a posh drink in Britain). In the continent, the Reinheitsgebot was amended in the 17th century to allow aristocrats to brew wheat beer in summer and let's not forget that pretty much every castle and palace worth its salt would house a brewery, or that commercial brewing was only a privilege of the bourgeois (every time I read about brewing history in this neck of the woods, I'm left with the impression that everyone drank the same stuff, and I don't think that's quite correct).

What happened with wine is the opposite. It has always been an everyman's drink, specially in the producing countries. Until not long ago, at the neighbourhood restaurants in Argentina people ordered either the house white, or the house red. At home they drank table wine and 5l demijohns would be passed around at a barbecue. In some places, this hasn't changed. When we were in Greece a few years back, at the taverna we ordered "house wine" pretty much in the same way I order a desítka at a traditional pub here. In Prague there are loads of neighbourhood vinárny that I wouldn't describe as dens of sophistication and burčák, as delicious as it can be, is not what I would call a refined beverage. While the people in Moravia don't tend to intellectualise their wines very much, specially those who are home producers.

The beer paradigm started to change with the industrialisation of the second part of the 19th century (though both world wars and, in the North American case, prohibition, also played an important role). Craft brewers might not like hearing it, but beer has always been very much an industrial product. The production of almost all beers follows basically the same steps: mash, sparge, boil, cool, ferment, mature/condtion; the only difference is scale. As with every industrial product, it also applies to beer the rule "the bigger the volume, the lower the relative costs" (and the more efficient the process gets). Making beers only for a niche, therefore, stopped making commercial and economical sense.

Wine doesn't have the advantages of beer, it can only be made once a year and its production is a lot more labour intensive because of the harvest.

The wine revolution in Argentina started when businesses realised that they could earn more money with a certain level of quality than with sheer volume. The harvest is by far the costliest part of winemaking, and picking a ton of grapes will cost the same regardless of the quality of the wine they'll end up producing. Lower production volume makes it easier to manage quality and the resulting product can be sold with a much higher profit margin.

This revolution, at least in Argentina, happened at the right time. After more than half a century of political and economical uncertainty, the 1990's brought a sense of prosperity. The middle class finally had money, or at least credit, in their pockets and they wanted to enjoy it. This was also the time when cable TV stopped being a luxury and became a common feature in many homes. This provided the ideal platform to promote the new wines. People stopped drinking red or white wine, now they were drinking Malbec or Chardonnay. Table wines almost vanished from the advertising landscape and they were replaced by beer, the new casual beverage of the masses.

In addition to the posh image some brands already had, wine marketing used the geographical and seasonal limitation of the product to their advantage, and invested it with a mystique that beer will never be able to acquire: nature, the passing of the seasons, the ancestral traditions, the harvest, terroir. A geographical denomination hardly needs to be explained, it's clear. Everybody knows what a Rioja 2010 is, but how local an Italian craft beer really is when it's brewed with German malts, American hops and Belgian yeasts? It was easy, then, to make people feel sophisticated, refined and, to a certain extent, knowledgeable because they were consuming a product made in a very specific place and time.

While all this was happening, and specially during the last 5-15 years, in some countries the number of micro breweries grew at a breakneck speed. As I've said before, this wasn't something casual, but another symptom of a broader shift in the mentality of a growing number of consumers. Due their structures and sizes, these factories couldn't reach the economies of scale or the efficiency of the larger ones. So it was natural that they adopted and adapted some of the marketing speech of wine in order to convince the public to pay a higher price for "beer". Now aromas, flavours and mouthfeel started to be discussed, as well as authenticity, styles and even vintages, and the lack of a proper terroir was compensated with a globalised localism and the figure of the Brew Master as a marketing tool.

It is true that often the attempts to posh-up beer leave a lot to be desired. Some of them make little sense (including 0.1l samples of session beer in a guided tasting), while others are downright ridiculous ("gastronomic" or "boutique" beer). But all that aside, what some people are doing, or at least trying to do, is to return beer to a place where it used to belong.

Personally, I don't care, nor worry in the least about the profusion of expensive beer or the alleged bubble around them. On the one hand, because I don't have to buy them, and on the other, because I don't think that with the beer discourse will happen the same thing as with the wine discourse, which hardly ever mentions the cheaper end of the market, it treats it like some relative that is the shame of an aristocratic family.

Those who understand beer, who are interested in this beverage beyond the fashion and the boom and who are able to appreciate its infinite diversity, know very well that "cheap" doesn't mean "crap" (perhaps someone should explain that to the person who chose to close the video "I'm a craft beer drinker" with the phrase "Life is too short to drink cheap beer"). And as for the rest, i.e., the normal people, as long as there are companies for whom making large volumes of just a few products per facility is more profitable than the other way round, they will never let us forget that beer is a beverage that is consumed without thinking too much about it while you are having a good time.

There are people out there who drink certain beers because they are trendy, because they make them feel a superior beings or whatever, it's their thing (and in the long run, perhaps a problem for those companies that mainly cater to the whims of that niche). I, along with many others, will keep on drinking beer mostly because we like drinking beer, without feeling that we need to intellectualise it in order to enjoy it.

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7 Sep 2012

Selected Readings: August


You all have a calendar at hand, so none of the opening bollocks this time. Straight to the point.

Martyn Cornell carries on with his lifetime mission of smashing the myths of beer history. This time is, once again, the turn of IPA. Mandatory reading, specially for those Wikipedia copypasters.

And speaking about mythical histories. Evan Rail sheds some light over the origins of Pilsner Urquell. Like many legends and myths, the one behind the birth of the most famous Czech beer traces is loosely based on facts. It turns out that, contrary to what I had speculated, the protest of the burghers did take place, but not quite for the reasons we have been made believe.

Back to the present where Garret Oliver speaks with lot of authority about the crimes against beer committed in the hospitality industry. I'd like to add another one, committed by most restaurants in this country, "not giving a shit".

The issue of negative reviews has been profusely discussed, everyone has their valid opinion about it, and it should be respected. However, the reality is that, whether those on the other side of the counter like it or not, there are a lot of people out there who would not shy of publishing a harsh review and Boak & Bailey offer advice on how to deal with them in a proper way. Nobody likes being told that they are doing something wrong, but if you are expecting money for your product or services, you must accept the rules of the game, and these include bad reviews (both fair and unfair).

And since it's reviews what we are talking about, a film blog explains why they believe ratings don't work and propose an alternative method. It's a double score system that rates both the quality and the rewatchability of a film. It could be easily applied to beer, quality and drinkability, to which I'd add availability. A beer you can drink whenever you fancy, it's always better than one you can only drink whenever the brewery/distributor does.

A bit of humour, too, courtesy of Pete Brown, who in his Twitter asked how many beer bloggers it takes to change lightbulb and then published a compilation of the best answers.

To wrap this thing up, the bollocks of the month. I was going to write a whole post about it, but then I decided it wasn't worth it. Without further ado, it's an honour for me to introduce VG Nostrum, the "Gastronomic Beer". (and I thought "Gourmet" was the silliest possible appellative).
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5 Sep 2012

This week in the Prague Post

I introduce you the První Pivní Extraliga, one of the few beer competitions you should really care about.

You can read it here.

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3 Sep 2012

Tasted conclusions


Over the weekend I thought a bit more about tastings and their contribution to beer culture (I still haven't made up my mind whether "beer culture" is a real thing or not, but for the sake of the argument, let's say it is) and I've reached some conclusions.

More than once I've seen the word "learn" mentioned, that at these events people "learn". Learn what? Learn to drink? Don't we learn that when we are 2? Learn to enjoy beer? Are they expecting me to believe that until I was told about the proper serving temperature and glass for a Barley Wine I wasn't enjoying my beer, or I didn't know how? Are they morons or have they got their heads so high up their own arses that the fumes have made them idiots? (and this goes to my couple of years ago self). Learn how to appreciate beer? This is not modern art, it's beer! All you need to do in order to appreciate beer is to pay attention to what you are drinking, that's pretty much the secret.

What these events offer is information and advice given by experienced people who know what they are talking about (or at least that's how it should be). But drinking beer isn't a creative activity where you need to follow certain procedures in order to reach the desired results, it's consumption. If I fancy putting that proverbial Barley Wine in the freezer for half an hour and then drink it straight from the bottle, the beer will not change, it's a finished product, the experience will, and if the experience satisfies me, then I haven't done anything wrong.

This doesn't mean that the stuff about temperatures and, to a certain extent, glasses is nonsense. By no means. It makes a lot of sense, but at the end of the day, all is subordinated to personal taste. I remember when I told the head brewer at Pardubický Pivovar that I liked drinking their Porter at "room temperature". He couldn't quite understand it, perhaps he thought I was a little mad. He said that the beer was better when colder. Who was right? Both of us. This bloke knows that beer better than anyone in the world, but nobody knows my tastes better than I, and experience has dictated that, at least for me, Pardubický Porter is better at "room temperature".

But regardless of how valuable and practical all this information and advice can be, they are just knowledge and having knowledge isn't the same as having culture. I might have studied religions for many years, I might have read and analised sacred books and I might even be able to explain the meaning of their liturgies and symbols (I wish), but since I'm an atheist, I don't have religious culture; unlike a person who is a believer, who actively takes part in the rituals and the festivals even though (or maybe because, but that's something else) they know little, if anything about their history and symbolism. It's similar with beer, you can be someone who has read a lot, who has tasted and rated thousands of beers from all over the world, who attends, and even organises and hosts, tastings and courses, but who drinks only certain kinds of beer and almost exclusively at home or together with other similar people. Perhaps you believe you have "culture", but if you don't take part in the rituals of beer, you don't have it. Culture, by definition is something public and participative, and there's the key.

These events rarely (if ever) take into account a most important factor, that beer (its enjoyment and eventual culture) is not only about what you've got in the glass, but also about the moment, the situation, the place and the company in which the beer is consumed.

I've already told you about the best commercial beer I've drunk in my life. On Crete, an Euromacrolager served the Greek way, ice cold in a mug fresh out of the freezer. Those who know will say, and not without reason, that beer shouldn't be consumed like that. Those who know didn't walk 16km in the Samaria gorge with 30ºC in the shade. That beer at that moment and place was delicious and I'd gladly drink it again in a similar moment and place. Closer to home: as brilliant as the house IPA is at Pivovar Strahov is, it's no match for Kozel at U Černého Vola.

The thing is that drinking beer isn't a science, there are no absolutes or even rules. The other day I read someone saying that beers should only be drunk from glasses, he explained very well why and he was right. Now go to Franconia and have a Kellerbier drawn in an earthenware mug and you'll see how those arguments loose much of their strength (I've recently discovered the pleasure of drinking lager at home from an earthenware mug and I swear to you, I like it better than from glass, and look at this picture and tell me it's not a beauty). In fact, I must confess that under certain circumstances I've got no problem with drinking from a plastic cup or even straight from the bottle or can (sorry Martyn), if only because it's more comfortable or because I can't be arsed with looking after a glass that I might end up breaking or loosing. If I was drinking from a glass in situations like these, I wouldn't be enjoying the moment so much and therefore, neither the beer.

It's not the intention of this long rant to say that tastings, etc. are something negative. I might see them as something forced, or even alien to beer and its culture, but I must admit that when well done, they can be interesting and even fun. They are also excellent marketing and, more importantly, there's nothing wrong in offering information and presenting alternatives to the consumers.

But regardless of what each of us might think of these events and their contribution to beer culture; regardless of whether beer culture actually exists, there's an almost universal truth that I believe we will all agree on: drinking always beats tasting.

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