30 Dec 2013

Last of the year

Look at that! This blog is 6 years old already. No! No! Wait! Don't go anywhere, please! This isn't one of those self congratulatory anniversary posts, a most onanistic aspect in an activity that, as a former (?) blogger from Asturias once genially put it, is already mostly onanism. No, it's none of that, it's worse. It's navel gazing at a level of tying to telekinetically remove the lint.

Most of you will have noticed that I haven't been posting all that much lately. In fact, this has been by far the least productive year in this blog. This is due to several reasons, first among them is that 2013 has been kind of crappy for me personally; there've been some good things, for sure, but the overall balance is negative. Not having enough time or money to go to places has also limited my output. All this, and other things explain why most of my post this year are rants. Rants are a good way to blow off steam and channel frustrations that aren't necessarily related to beers. However, after writing perhaps the ultimate rant with Alan, I'm kind of getting bored of that, too.

It's time to rethink my relationship with blogging. I've decided I will review beers again, but not as I used to do, or everyone else does. I want to review beers without using tastings notes – I'm almost tempted to call it a “redefinition of the beer review”, but that's quite silly, perhaps, though on the other hand, the reviews will likely be pretty silly, so there you have it. I'm still working around this and want to find the right beers to start.

I also want to write more stories. I feel there aren't enough stories written about beer and its people, even less if we look at Czech beer. I know many people whose stories deserve to be told and whose views deserve to be shared and discussed, and I'm sure there is a very large audience out there who will appreciate them. But I don't want to do it for free.

This isn't arrogance on my part, nor am I suggesting I'm going to set up a paywall here (that'd be stupid). It's about being fair with myself. You see, rants are easy, they are essentially opinions, and opinions is something you can pull out of your ass any day and without much work; at most, you'll need a few links to back them up. A story – a good story, that is – requires time, a more thorough fact checking than a rant and some research, too. Chances are that you will need to interview someone, and I don't like telephone or e-mail interviews, if they can be avoided. I much prefer to be with that person in the same room, talking to them, with hardly any questions prepared before hand, mostly listening to what they have to see, perhaps over a couple of beers, because stories tend to come out a lot better when you are having a couple of beers with someone. That sort of thing often implies travelling, which takes more time and also money. And that is, basically, the first reason why I don't want to write those stories for free, the other, the main one, is that I believe I can write pretty good stories and I'd like that work to be rewarded accordingly. I will have to figure out a way to make this happen. I'm open to suggestions.

Another thing I want to do is to start working on a second edition of the Pisshead's Pub Guide. A friend has been trying to get some financing for it, but there's nothing concrete yet and there may never be. Either way, I still want to write it and I want it to be better than the first, with a companion application for smart phones and tablets. We will see what happens with that.

That's basically it. Just don't expect a whole lot from me in 2014.

Na Zdraví! And Happy New Year!

21 Dec 2013

Thinking great

The other day, an article by The Guardian, Limited-edition beer: fool's gold? caused a bit of a stir. Alan commented on it, and so did others through several channels – some agreeing with the author, others not.*

You all know already what my position is. I like living in a world were producers of something as unessential as beer can charge any price they see fit for the things they produce; it's up to me, the consumer, to decide whether I will buy it or not, because at the end of the day, it's not about price, it's about value, and value is every bit as subjective as taste. If someone feels like paying through the nose for a limited-edition or hard-to-get beer, even if they can buy another of comparable quality, perhaps available all year round, sold for a fraction of the price, it's their choice as consumers and I've got nothing against it.

It does bother me a bit, however, to see the gimmicks some producers use to inflate prices without giving proportional value in return: fancy packaging for otherwise bog standard stuff, collaborations that actually don't bring anything new to the table, fake historical recreations, the use of exotic and very expensive ingredients that, when factored into the volume of beer produced with it you end up with a few micrograms per pint, and pre-manufactured scarcity – you know what I'm talking about, those limited-edition beers, one-offs and other hard to come by stuff, which to me it's the worse of all. Save for a few notable exceptions, there's nothing in this day an age, other marketing and opportunism, that is, that can really justify that scarcity and the inflated prices it often commands. But once again, all I can do is shrug, some people may find value in that, it's their money. I can ignore those beers or, if they do catch my attention, and are new to me, I simply apply this principle to get a fairly good idea before hand whether purchasing them will be money well spent or not.

What is fascinating to see, though, is how many apparently knowledgeable people not only fall for those tricks, but also celebrate them! (we've all been there at one point or another, I believe). The internet have convinced us that those beers are great, that they are some of the best in the world, creating in some people an almost herd-like desire to have them, to chase them, almost as if their reputation as beer savants depending on their being able to pen a tasting note of them.

Some of the comments, or rather complaints, after this year's edition of the Barcelona Beer Festival give a good example of this. Before the event the organisers posted the list of the beers they had lined up, some of which fell in the seen-as-great-rarely-ever-seen (at least in Spain) category. This prompted some people to draw detailed intoxication plans and then head to the festival. When some of those plans could not be fulfilled (apparently some of the beers weren't even tapped) the people that made them were a bit upset, some going as far as to say that it had been the promise of those beers their main reason to go the festival.

Yes, that's right. These people didn't travel to another city, spent money on accommodation, food and whatnot mainly because they wanted to spend a good day or two, drinking good beer in good company. No, it was because they were chasing a handful of beers they needed really badly to taste. What would have happened if one, or more of those beers had shown up by the end of the day, when they likely were physically and sensory tired, and perhaps a bit pissed as well? Of course, they would have run to the taps to buy a glass. Would they have been able to appreciate them in all their greatness? I doubt it. For them, being able to tell everyone and their neighbours that they have achieved that goal in their drinking careers would have been enough, I believe.

This reminds of something that happened quite a few years ago in Argentina at the launch of one of the latter Harry Potter books, can't remember which. A lot of hype had been generated by the publishers and the media, and a couple of specialised bookshops in Buenos Aires took advantage of it, very clever of them, announcing they would open their doors at midnight of the day the book was to be officially launched around the world – the Spanish version wouldn't be ready until some time later, only the original English version would be sold. As expected, not few people queued for hours outside the shop, waiting for that significant moment in literary history. One of the first people to get a copy of the book was interviewed by a newspaper. He said, full of joy, I'm sure, that he actually didn't know English, but still wanted to have that book before anyone else. The author of the report mentioned then the book, from the container of a story, had turned into a object in itself.

These beers I'm talking about have also become objects to some people. For them, drinking something flavourful, interesting, intoxicating isn't the real pleasure. The real pleasure is putting photos of those beers, together with a tasting note, in a virtual trophy room like Twitter, Untappd, Facebook, a rating site or a blog. Naturally, the people on the other side of the counter know about that and often manipulate it to their advantage, something that shouldn't surprise anyone, really.

Now, I'm not suggesting that those beers, or at least some of them, aren't great in their own right, they are, or can be legitimately considered as such. The thing is that they are expected to be great. So when they are great, all they've done was to meet an expectation, and if meeting an expectation is the least any product or service you pay for should do, doesn't it make those beers adequate?

Forget it, I'm getting too semantic here.

But there's little point in arguing which of those beers are great, or if they are worthy of all the hype surrounding them, or if they are better ones that are easier, and cheaper, to get. After all, greatness, like value, is in the palate of the beholder. Either way, I'm not all that interested in them. As far as I'm concerned, there's not beer special enough to make me dig a deep hole in my wallet, to make me go to much out of my way or to become an end in itself. And it really doesn't matter how great they happen to be, because they will lack the sort of greatness I have come to prefer, the greatness of the ordinary.

There's greatness in a well made, good, tasty beer that you can drink just because you fancy a well made, good, tasty beer.

I'm not speaking about any specific kind, style or category of beer. They can be strong or or sessionable, intense or mild flavoured, pale or dark, hoppy or malty, classic or modern, local or imported, why not? Whatever. I'm speaking about beers you often have in a cupboard, cellar or fridge and that can be popped open without that needing, or being, a special occasion that requires the right state of mind or health; beers that won't get offended if you pour it in any clean glass you have at hand and that will not expect, let alone demand, too much of your attention; beers that you can drink whenever you feel like drinking something with this or that characteristic while doing any of the normal things you do in your life, and that have nothing to do with beer. And if you don't happen one of them in your cupboard, cellar or fridge, you know that getting hold of it should not imply a substantial investment in effort, time or money.

Those beers are great, and their greatness, to me, is greater than the greatness of those other great beers. They are not objects, but beer, a mildly (or, in some cases, not so mildly) intoxicating beverage that doesn't demand a photo taken or a paean written.

Some people will disagree, I'm sure. They will argue that those great, but hard-to-get beers deserve all the attention that we should give them, and yet some, that they deserve that right moment in order to be fully appreciated, which is in fact what makes them so special.

But is that so?

It's pointless to argue about tastes, but let's try to see things in different way. If the pub or shop nearest to your home or work tomorrow started carrying those beers on regular basis, or if you moved next door to the brewery, or if they had a more 'normal' availability, and why not, price, how would your relationship with them change? Would you drink them, say, on Thursday evening while putting together a béchamel and listening to Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra or Freak Power, like I did with Schlenkerla Urbock? Or would you drop by that proverbial pub after work to knock down a glass or two on your way home?

Think about it for a second before you read on. Don't cheat. Be honest with yourself.

If your answer is yes, then perhaps what makes that beer so special isn't so much being extraordinarily good, but that it is extraordinarily rare, and that rareness is very likely fabricated. It's nothing but an artifice used by businesses to increase their profit margins and/or their cache among certain consumers.

On the other hand, 'great', 'awesome', 'wonderful', 'special', 'masterpiece' and other similar adjectives and descriptors have been so overused that they've been stripped of much of their original meaning, and not only when it comes to beer.

But why am I giving any fucks about this? I've got plenty of at the very least pretty good, solid beers within my reach to pick from, and I bet you have, too. And that should be more than enough for anyone. Is there any better, greater beer than a good one you can drink right now?

Na Zdraví a Veselé Vánoce!

19 Dec 2013

Midweek musings

You might not remember it, but last year there was a rather unnecessary brouhaha in Spain when Damm, one of the country's biggest brewers, decided not to allow a couple of promotional events – sorry, craft beer tastings – to be held during the Festa Major de Gràcia. Back then, as expected, the craftophile tribe took sides with the victims, the businesses who, taking advantage of the Festa's popularity, had organised those tastings to enrich their coffers – sorry, the local beer culture – and accused the Catalonian macro of a number of things, when all they were guilty of, actually, was demanding that the organisers of the Festa abide to what had been agreed in the contract both parties had signed.

Fast forward to the end of 2013 and we find that very same kind of people who in a review, and the comments that followed it, harshly criticised the organisers of the I Feria de Cerveza de Navidad de Pozuelo for allowing the sale of Heineken at the bar where the event took place. And they had they even nerve of promoting it somehow! Can you believe that? Vade retro! Anathema to those blasphemous heretics! How dare they!

The thing went more or less like this: unlike most people, even the blog's authors, believed at first, the organiser and the owner of the premises where the festival took place are two different persons, with the former renting the space from the latter. According to the organiser's own words, they had agreed with the owner that he would sell only cañas, not pints, of the Dutch brand, and that he would not offer it together with food, either, which the owner failed to deliver (it'd the interesting to hear the owner's side of things, but there's no reason to doubt the organiser). This is in fact reather irrelevant, as nobody among the complainers where aware of this detail. What bothered them was the very fact that, at an event dedicated to one brand, the beer of another was being offered, which some went as far as to say it was a disrespect.

Disrespect? Gimme a break! To whom?

To the attendants? Nobody was forced to drink Heineken if they didn't want it. Those who went to Pozuelos to drink craft beer could drink all the craft beer their finances allowed, and, had they wanted to, could have even shown the finger to the Heineken's tap to feel cool with themselves. If anyone felt offended because they had to share a room with people who were drinking a beer they don't like, well, that person has some more serious issues to sort out.

To the producers that were there showing their wares? To be honest, if I had invested time, effort and money to be at the festival, I wouldn't have been very happy to see people walking in front of my stand holding a glass of Heineken. But let's be honest, does the content of that proverbial glass make any difference at the end of the day if the person holding it leaves without buying my beer?

That aside, though, the producers had here the chance not only to compete among themselves, but also to compete, basically on equal terms, with one of the best known brands in the world, which a favourite among Spanish drinkers, and show their stuff is better. There wasn't anyone from Heineken there, only the waiters touting one of the products that pay their wages, while the producers had the massive advantage of being there, with their products, so they could tell people what they do, how they do it and why. It'd be up to the consumer to decide, then.

And that is where the problem lies. The thing that bothered those people wasn't actually so much the fact that the place where the festival was held also sold a macro lager, as much as that there were people who bought it. Every pint of Heineken + tapa that someone bought and enjoyed was a blow to the craftoevangelist discourse; that already tiring bollocks that insists that people keep on drinking oligopolistic industrial crap only because they aren't given the chance to drink handcrafted masterpieces, if they did, it would only take a sip of one of those living, evolving wonders of the fine art of beermaking to make them never want to drink again any of those filtered, pasteurised adjunct and chemical laden concoctions the monolithic multinational corporations dare to pass for beer. And yet, there you had, people who, even with the alternative right under their noses, went for the usual. The could be accused of a lack of spirit of adventure, though at the same time, hardly anyone can be blamed for choosing the certainty of the good over the promise of the better.

Actually, the availability of macro beer wasn't the biggest problem of an event that, in retrospective was almost doomed to fail. A couple of the producers that were there presenting their beers commented complaining of more serious cock ups on the side of the organiser. It's obvious that the bloke wasn't up to the task and thought it might be unfair to accuse him of deliberate wrongdoing, his lack of experience in the organisation of events is not excuse for his mistakes.

On a side note, the author of the blog speaks about a couple of badly made beers he drank at the event. It's curious, it seems that those beers don't offend the sensibilities of the craftophile crowd as much as the presence of Heineken.

Anyway, maybe what the Spanish micro-beer scene needs right now is a few more fiascos like this.

Concerning festivals, it could help those who would like to organise an event of this sort to realise that it is no walk in the park, and that if they aren't able, skilled or resourceful enough to do it well, perhaps they shouldn't even try doing it.

To the producers, it could help them revise their strategies and seriously ask themselves if all the investment in time, effort and money really pays off or whether those resources couldn't be better spent some other way.

Bloggers also should take this as an opportunity for some much needed self-reflection over their role in all this. Beer is a hobby that we have taken a bit too seriously and we can often become victims of our own enthusiasm, which results in our being exploited by business interests who expect that we will provide them with free advertising and activism solely for the fact that they wear a certain label on the lapels. More cynicism is needed, we must realise once and for all that our interests aren't the same as those of the brewers, pub owners, retailers, distributors or event organisers – they want to make money, we have to spend it.

Na Zdraví!

16 Dec 2013

Monday Morning Musings

I've come across a quite fun article in Spanish penned by one Patricio Tapia, a wine writer from Chile. Like, unfortunately, many of his colleagues, Tapia seems to know as much about the world beer as I do about the early childhood of Immanuel Kant, and to care even less. To be fair, though, it is also possible that the ignorance he flaunts in the article is nothing but a pose, a satire to the stereotype to better drive his message. Either way, it's evident that this bloke is not familiar wit some of the people I know, nor he reads much of what I read, otherwise, he wouldn't be saying thinks like ”To write the most perfect and enthusiastic 'tasting notes' of a beer, for words are enough 'It is really cold!'. However, if we ignore the temperature bit, four or five words could be more than enough for a good tasting note of anything, so I believe this paragraph would be a better example of what I want to say.
”Does anyone care about how to properly serve beer? Has anyone, ever, complained because a friend opened a bottle the wrong way? Has anyone complained because the glasses weren't the right ones? Has anyone, ever, stood up to complain because the intense flavour of a roast couldn't be paired with the lightness of the beer at hand?
But back to what Tapia actually wants to tell us: that he would like if wine was consumed as naturally as beer is, without all that formality. This reminded me of something I read a few years ago in an interview with someone somehow related with a Spanish DOC, Rioja, if I remember correctly, who, lamenting shrinking sales, wanted, as an alternative to revert the trend, to find a way to make wine a more “casual” beverage, like beer.

That's the way things are now. Some people are starting to wonder whether wine hasn't become too sophisticated for its own good (something specialised writers have greatly contributed to), and others insist to wrap beer in a the mantle of sophistication that's been plagarised from wine. It could be said that this is nothing but a reaction to the dumbing down of beer, though I see it more like a marketing gimmick to justify often inflated prices and questionable added values that exploits the insecurities of many consumers, who don't want to be seen as someone who enjoys drinking “just beer”. How much further can this go?

I really that with beer will have the same problem as wine. On the one hand, because, and regardless of the discourse of certain business interests, there are many among us who know very well that expensive in no guarantee for better, and on the other, because beer as a lifestyle accessory is a fad that sooner or later will go away. When that happens, it will be the companies that gambled on that model the ones with a problem in their hands, the rest of us will keep on drinking what we want, good beer at fair price will never be in short supply.

Na Zdraví!

6 Dec 2013

Remember Alan and Max's book?

“Shite weather!” He grunted as he walked in, passing a hand through his wet hair as if he expected to dry it that way.

He greeted the tapster and found an empty table near the bar. No need to order the beer. It had materialised with a “thump!” by the time he had taken off his coat and scarf. As he watched the half litre mug in front of him, he decided that no more shits would be given today about the weather, or anything else for that matter. As far as he was concerned, the whole world could go fuck itself in any way it saw fit, and to make a point of it, he downed almost one third of the glass in one long swig and put it down with an even louder “thump!”.

The first sip of the first beer of the day. That unadulterated pleasure devoid of the prevalent bollocks. That is what beer is truly about. That is the essence of beer. A blog post was beginning to write itself into his mind when he noticed a familiar face walking in cursing the weather. Just as he had.

“Hey, Alan!” said Max with a half-smile. “How're you doing?”

“Better now. What are you drinking?” Alan shook the rain from his coat.

“Beer. What else?”

Alan smiled.

As if waiting for that cue, the tapster thumped a pint right in front of Alan as he sat. Glasses were raised and for the moment no further words were said. It was now Alan's time to enter into his own communion with the first sip of the first beer of the day. He immediately softened, exhaling his worries.

“As nice an ale as ever I've had!” he declared with the utmost satisfaction sucking the wet from his moustache.

Max was startled. “Say what?! This is not ale! This has ‘lager’ written all over it! It couldn't be any lagerer even if it tried!” Max spoke with a slight hint of irritation and then proceeded to squeeze the last drops of his mug before taking the fresh, full one that had just been brought and showed to Alan so he could see how many times lager was written in the beer.

“How can this be a lager! Did you miss your mouth?”

The argument warmed. Words like “notes”, “hints of”, “mouthfeel” were used. Then thrown back and forth as if they were snowballs.  Soon the sanity, intelligence and knowledge of both were liberally put into question.

The tapster watched them in complete disbelief. Morons, he thought. Two seemingly normal fellows bursting into such a heated argument about something of such little importance. For him, and surely everyone else in his pub, it was just beer. What could be so complicated about that, he wondered.

The two then stopped, each steeping in their own juices.

“Oh! For fuck's sakes! Who cares?” said Alan sneaking a smile.

“Morons. That's what we are.” Max couldn't hold his laughter any longer. The tapster smiled and nodded as he wiped the bar.

“It's incredible how stuck in this bollocks we have all got,” Max continued looking around the room. "Look at the people here. Do you think they care? I mean, I'm sure there are some of them who wouldn't be able to recognise a hop bine even if it was growing out of their assholes! And do you think they aren't enjoying their beer? The fuck the do! And perhaps more than us, because they are not wasting any time or energy pondering over the stuff they have no control over. They are enjoying the beer for the beer's sakes and this beer it's not the centre of their universes in this pub, it's just another part of the whole lot. And I understand them. Let me tell you this,” and with a an almost conspiratorial tone, he said: “I wouldn't walk across the street for a glass of this beer, but I would walk across town to have it in this pub.”

Alan - thinking it wouldn't be wise to interrupt a Max in full rant mode - just listened, learned some new bad words and sipped his beer trying to catch up with his drinking. Once the Argentine paused to answer the call of his mug, the Canadian decided to add some fuel to the rant. He was after all still thirsty and had no intention of cutting the discussion short.

“I've noticed a pub around the corner with some pretty interesting beers.”

“Oh, yeah," Max sneered. "That place. Have you been there? It's got the atmosphere of a dentist waiting room. I won't argue about the beers there, they are lovely, much better than this.” The second mug was gone, deftly replaced by a third one. “But you know, though the truth is always in the glass, beer is a lot more than that.”
The above excerpt is the first few hundred words of the book Alan and I have been writing together since January. It's almost finished, we need to cross the last few i's an and dot the last few t's. Its working title, which may or may not be the definite, “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer – A Rant in 9 Acts”.

2013 has not been an easy year for either of us. It was hard sometimes to find the time, the energy and the right mood to sit down and write, picking up the tale where the other had left it, but it's been fun, a lot of fun, and a bit addictive in some way; we had originally planned 30,000 or so words, but it grew to almost 50,000. It was fairly easy to get carried away once we started writing; the narrative structure we gave it – a surrealist journey in the time-space continuum to wherever and whenever it was that the beer decided to take us – allowed us to get a bit silly at times – we are talking about beer, after all.

What we set to achieve with the book will be very clear to anyone who reads it, in fact, I think it's quite clear from the excerpt – to challenge the prevailing beer discourse. On a more personal level, and I believe I'm speaking for Alan, too, we wanted to challenge ourselves as writers. Putting together a book of this kind requires a more solid intellectual consistency than writing a bunch of topically related blog posts that can be separated by months, if not years, as sooner or later you come across something that makes you review your opinions, more so when you are writing with someone whose experience with beer, and life in general, is vastly different from yours.

This last bit to me was the best thing about writing this book. I've been following Alan's blog for six years already, we had exchanged a few, friendly e-mails before and not much more than that, so I can't claim that we knew each other very well. The idea to write the book together was his (I was thinking of something else), but I loved it from the get go, and after almost a whole year working with him I couldn't be happier with the result. Not only the book is like one of those very rare collaboration brews that go beyond the marketing gimmick and produce something really new, which likely neither of the partners could've done by themselves, but I believe that have also gained a good friend in the process.

Bugger, I'm getting too sentimental here! Back touting the book.

Once it's ready, the book will be published in Kindle and a few more other channels, too. It will have a wiki companion so people can know where to go and insult us (making friends wasn't one our goals), as well some other internety things that will allow us to interact with readers in some way or another – one of our plans is to write other stuff together.

So, stay tuned.

Na Zdraví!

PS: We agreed with Alan to post the excerpt an our comments on it at the same time today, here's his post, which he has cleverly used as his contribution to this month's Session.

2 Dec 2013

After the latest wave of attempts to define the undefinable

(...in which I took part, again, mea culpa)

Dear brewers, retailers, distributors, owners of drinking establishments, marketers, brand managers, CEO's, PR consultants, and anyone else directly or indirectly involved in the sale of beer, I've got a request for you, please:
As for us, we should stop playing their game. The only thing a beer needs to be is GOOD. All the rest* is different shades of bollocks, and bollocks never go further than the glass.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Credit should be given where credit is due, this was inspired by a post on the matter by Brazilian blog Bebendobem.

* This assumes, of course, that the company that makes the beer isn't a basket of cunts.

29 Nov 2013

And Nøgne-Ø isn't Craft anymore

The news that Norwegian macro brewer Hansa bought a majority stake in Nøgne-Ø has naturally created a lot of buzz in the beerosphere (beerosphere, why not?), very similar to what happened a few years go with Goose Island, among others.

What I found fascinating, though hardly surprising, was the reaction of not few people. Judging by some of the comments, it seems they feel betrayed because some sort of imaginary promise has been broken. Some people have gone as far as to accuse the owners of Nøgne-Ø of “selling out”; like teenagers or hipsters lamenting that the obscure indie band they love so much has decided to allow Nike to use one of their songs in a commercial, only that it's worse. You can philosophically accuse an artist of “selling out”, as art is not supposed to be about money, but a brewery? A brewery starts as a business, it was about money from the beginning!

People like differentiating between shareholders and the owners of microbreweries, saying that for the former money comes first, while for the latter what comes first is beer. I believe they are wrong, money comes first in both cases. Yes, the owners of a microbrewery will have a closer relationship with the product their company makes and sells than the CEO of SAB-Miller or an accountant in Diageo, but at the end of the day, it's always about the money; the differences are in the strategies, policies, expectations and scales. If the most important thing was the love of beer, as many seem to believe, then they would remain home brewers or at most semi-commercial nano brewers selling basically directly to the end consumer as a source of extra income or to further finance their hobby.

That's not the case of Nøgne-Ø and countless others. It was profit that drove them to sell their beers through the state owned bottle shop monopoly in Norway; it was profit that drove them to sign international distribution deals to make their beers available in who knows how many countries already. They willingly compromised on quality in order to make more money. Between the brewery and the end consumer there can be three degrees of separation; there's no way on earth that the owners, or anyone in the company, can be certain about the conditions in which their product will be at the end the chain. They can only hope for the best, hope that the distributors, retailers and pub owners will take proper care of their beers, but even enthusiasts with the best intentions can fuck up royally sometimes; passion doesn't make up for a lack skills and knowledge.

To be fair, though, I can understand that some people, especially those who make a point of supporting independent companies, feel this as a loss; I don't think I would be too happy myself if Heineken or Staropramen bought Únětický Pivovar. I would likely take my money elsewhere, as there are plenty of really good independent breweries to choose from, but I wouldn't hold it against the owners, in fact, provided they kept the quality, I'd still buy the beer every now and again.

But let's look at this from a different angle. Let's say that you learn that this was the plan of Nøgne-Ø's owners all along: to set up a brewery, make it successful and build a strong brand relatively quickly, only to sell it to someone bigger after a few years (this is purely hypothetical, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's not an accusation), would your opinion on the beers change in any way? Would that make them suddenly worse? It shouldn't. Would you feel you'd been lied to? There, that'll teach you to blindly trust the words of anyone who wants your money.

Little update (forgot to add this): Congratulations to the owners of Nøgne-Ø, really. Good for them. And I wish them success with their new partners.

Na Zdraví!

PS: The timing of this news couldn't have been more appropriate, just when some people on the other side of the counter are, again, trying to define “Craft Beer” as something tangible for the consumer: beer that can only be made by an independent brewery. I wonder what BrewDog has to say on the matter.

27 Nov 2013

And here we go again...

.. I've got nothing better to do today so...

If it hadn't been for Cooking Lager's comment in Ed's blog I would have missed this. BrewDog has had another go at proposing the basis of a legal definition to the “Craft Beer” fairy tale. It's shorter than the previous one, and Blue-Moon-less, but it still packs quite a lot of nonsense.

Right at the beginning they say that:
”There is also strong precedent for legally defining Craft Beer. Legal definitions are everywhere and are designed to protect a product’s reputation from poor imitations. ‘Bourbon’, ‘Whisky’ and ‘Champagne’ are 3 examples where they have protected premium drinks from cheaper imitations and helped both the consumer and the category in the process. Cheddar Cheese anyone?”
This is almost like trying to make a Chinese contortionist out of logic, really. “Bourbon” (never miss a chance to harangue the American masses), “Whisky” and “Champagne” are protected indications that speak about the product they regulate and protect, where it is made and how, not about who makes it. Diageo, the world's largest booze making corporation have in their portfolio Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Rum, Cognac, Champagne and Bordeaux wines, and Tequila, and they could have České Pivo and maybe even Kölsch, if they wanted. In other words, when you buy one of those products, you know what you are buying, there's a guaranteed provenance and certain quality standards that the product must meet. But what do you buy when you buy “Craft Beer”? Looking at BrewDog's portfolio, it can be anything from the barely alcoholic Nanny State to monstrosities like Tactical Nuclear Penguin, all made in different ways with ingredients from all over the world. That's because the definition of Craft Beer, as proposed by BrewDog and pretty much everyone else who has tried, speaks about the producer and very little about the product itself, which, as far as protected indications go, it's the most important thing.

But let's got to the definition itself, which has been updated.

They've done away with the volume limit. European Craft Breweries don't have to be “small” any more. Very sensible, indeed. A new point was added that says that A European Craft Brewery is committed - ”If the brewer has an estate, at least 90% of the beer they sell must be craft beer.” I don't know what to make of it, I find it oddly specific, though.

The other three points in the definition have remained unchanged. #3 – Being independent, I take it for what it is, the sine qua non condition for eligibility for membership in BrewDog's private club (shrugs notgivingafuckingly).

I'm almost in full agreement with #2 – Honesty; I just don't see very much the point with: c) All their beer is brewed at craft breweries. If the recipe was designed by a craft brewery, the ingredients are also theirs, and they supervise all the production process and quality control, does it really matter who the owner of the factory happens to be, as long as everything is mentioned on the label?

It's #1 that bothers me, though. The say that a European Craft Brewery is “authentic”, that they brew all their beers at original gravity (obviously referring to High Gravity Brewing – HGB) and don't use any adjuncts that lessen flavour and reduce costs. Firstly, it is largely unnecessary, if #2 is complied with, then it'll be up to consumers to decide whether they want to drink a beer made with corn syrup or not. And secondly, and more important, it insults the intelligence of anyone with a modicum of knowledge about beer. To be honest, in principle, I agree with the HGB thing, it's clear that it's used only to either reduce costs or to increase capacity without investing too much in infrastructure. However, I've lately been wondering whether HGB hasn't become guilty by association, very much like some adjuncts. Could it be that you can still make great beer with HGB, if you know what you are doing? I'm not really sure; on the other hand, can James and Martin swear that no Craft Brewer uses other processes and techniques that can compromise the quality of the product only to reduce costs?

But the steaming, stinking pile of oxshit is in the adjuncts bit, really. How can you possibly determine the intention behind the use of an adjunct just by seeing it mentioned on the label? And, if the intention can not be determined, shouldn't we judge based on the end result? Westvleteren uses refined sugar for their beers, according to this definition then, they, and the rest of the Trappist breweries, many, if not most, Belgian brewers and anyone else who makes beers the Belgian way, can't be craft breweries, or at least those beers can't be considered Craft. People like James and Martin will obviously argue that the adjunct in question is used actually to give those beers the "right profile", or something along those lines. Fair enough, but they are still brewing cheaper and, if they used 100% malt, the beer would have more flavour, wouldn't it? (But then again, consistency has never been one of the characteristics of the craftophile discourse, really).

But what is that flavour thing craftophiles like to speak so much about, anyway? Can anyone draw an objective limit between flavour -ful and -less? No, because it's all subjective and relative to one's experience. Someone who mostly drinks big ass DIPAs or Imperial Motherfucking Stouts will likely find a good desítka or a Kölsch to be very dull and boring, whereas I know of people, lifelong drinkers the likes of Cruzcampo, who have flipped with their first sip of Gambrinus or Budvar Světlý, are the in any way wrong to consider those beers tasty and interesting?

The roots of all this lie in the moronic elitism – or elitist moronism – prevalent in much of the craftophile discourse, where “good beer” is an objective entity defined by what the crafterati approve of, based on their collective personal tastes; anything else is dull, boring, bland, mainstream, industrial and therefore, bad.

But none of this irritates me as much as BrewDog's cheap demagoguery, which, to make it worse, is seasoned with a pinch of hypocrisy.

In the paragraph that I quote above, James and Martin tell us that legal definitions have protected “premium drinks from cheaper imitations”, which, according to them, can help the consumer. This is curious, because James himself left a comment in my previous post on this matter saying:
”The definition is not, can never be, and was not intended to be a guarantee of quality. The fact that you criticize my proposed definition in that it does not guarantee quality shows a real lack of understanding of the beer industry in general and what I was setting out to achieve with the definition.”
So, if in James own words, this definition basically disregards quality, how can it possibly help us in any significant way, when quality is the most important thing for the consumer?

But wait, because it gets worse, they almost go full Fidel Castro when they say that a legal definition is important because it will “guide consumers and ensure they are protected from being exploited by monolithic mega corporations masquerading as craft brewers” Give me a fucking break! Do they really believe this bollocks? Of course they don't! Which makes it really worse. But then you see comments like this: ”Beer that is brewed without managerial, historical or profit related constraints. Allowing brewers to have artistic control of their beer. Thats craft beer!” And you realise the audience they are speaking to.

It's very clear to anyone with half a brain what this definition wants to ensure, that our money goes into the right pockets; the best interest of the consumer is and has never been among the priorities. I doubt it'll go very far, though. It's so silly that they would need to pay a shite load on lobbyist to have anyone who matters in these matters take it seriously, or so I hope.

Na Zdraví!

PS: If you haven't already, read Pete Brown's long post about craft beer. From a marketing perspective, it makes loads of solid points. It's a bit a bit of a shame that he almost blows it all at the end by saying: ”So long as bigger brewers remember that craft is about brewing before marketing, about flavour before packaging, about integrity and honesty before segmentation and exploitation”. Though, if he's right with that, then there is many a craft brewer who don't make much of craft beer, just sayin'.

25 Nov 2013

Monday comments

I came across two really fantastic beers the other day, Mate's from Pivovar U Bizona and Lví Srdce from Třebonice; the former a 12º polotmavý ležák, the latter a 11º pale ale, regular beers through and through, but with a twist. Mate's was brewed with yerba mate and Lví Srdce with juniper.

What set them apart from many other beers brewed with unconventional ingredients was that they still tasted like beer. If nobody told you, and you were not paying too much attention, chances are you wouldn't notice those ingredients. If you did pay attention, chances are you would only be able to notice an uncommon flavour that you would know belongs to the beer. That's exactly what happened to me with Mate's, which I had on tap at the Farmers Market in Dejvice. I bought it because it was a 12º polotmavé, just that; I loved it, and only when I was halfway down my second pint I learned about what it was made with.

I want to have more beers like this, really.

I would also like to see more beers like Old Burton Extra, from Fuller's Past Masters series. In a time when much of the attention still goes to brewers swinging their dicks while screaming, it's very refreshing to drink a boozy beauty that tastes reassuringly old fashioned - the beer equivalent to sitting in one of those big, brown leather armchairs after a long walk.

But enough with this onanism. Beer Man is one of the most interesting beer related projects I've seen in a long time. According to the lead of this interview with Ikary Perera, it is ”An antropoligical project that studies the role of beer as a cultural and socialising agent in tens of countries".

Beer Man is one of the finalists in a competition by Discovery Channel called Born to Be discovery. There's also a blog, but, frankly, I was expecting more. The idea itself, however, is still very valuable, and refreshing! While we waste our time and energy arguing derivative nonsense like “craft”, “industrial”, “styles” and whatnot, Perere reminds us that for most people beer is “just beer”, but at the same time, a lot more – something that we sometimes forget a little.

Let's hope the project does become a documentary series or, at the very least, something good to read.

Beer as “just beer”, what a beautiful thought.

Na Zdraví!

6 Nov 2013

Pečené koleno 2.0

A few years ago I posted a recipe for pork's knee that is still getting visits and comments from grateful readers. Since then, I've discovered the pleasure of slow cooking or, more precisely, slow roasting; you know, putting some meat in the oven a basically forget about it for the next few hours. I know I'm not saying anything new, but, for those of you who haven't tried it, it's a wonderful way of making food. So, instead of marinating, boiling and then roasting, what I did this time was only roasting, for about 8 hours. The word "heavenly" doesn't do justice to the result.

Anyway, this is what I did. With a mortar and pestle I crushed coarse sea salt, allspice, black and sichuan pepper, caraway seeds, thyme and a pinch of Hungarian paprika. I rubbed the 1.5 kg piece of pig with some of that mix, put it in a roasting pan. I showered it with about 0.3l of Pardubický Porter (I believe any full flavoured, dark, malt forward beer can work just fine), then I tossed in the rest of the spice mix together with a small onion cut in half, a couple of garlic cloves and some bay leaves. I covered the pan and put it in the oven to roast at 60°C for about 6 1/2 hours, basting it every now and again, then I turned the oven up to 150°C for another hour or so, and half an hour before serving I took the lid off, turned the oven almost all the way up to get the skin nice and crispy.

As I say above, heavenly doesn't do it any justice.
Everyone should try this out.

Na Zdraví a Dobrou Chuť!

30 Oct 2013

Welcome ambition

“Passion”, “following a dream” are words you often hear associated with new brewing enterprises, but you hardly ever hear “ambition” mentioned. I wonder why. It might be because many an alternative brewer would like us to believe that they aren't “commercial”, that they don't make beer for money, but for flavour or other bollocks along those lines; as if wanting to get rich working was something to be frowned upon.

To me, however, ambition is, to some extent, much more important than passion. Someone ambitious is more likely to know what they are doing and what they are getting into, to have a plan, and to know what is necessary to do in order to succeed. In the local beer ecosystem, at least as far as Prague and its immediate surroundings is concerned, that would be making beer of good quality, having a good brand and knowing how to sell it, and I believe Zemský Akciový Pivovar meets that criteria quite well.

I first saw Zemské Pivo in one of the 48 taps at Zlý Časy. What caught my attention was the information card mentioning that it was from Prague. A new brewery in the city? Not quite, I was told. it's still a “létající pivovar” (flying brewery – the local denomination for gypsy/contract breweries). I was about to dismiss it as another new brewery I have no references of, but the tapster recommended it and I must say I was quite impressed. The beer was a really, really nice světlý ležák that hit all the right spots, the same can be said about their desítka.

As the weeks passed, I started to hear more about this brewery, and I learned that one of the people behind this enterprise is Max Munson, owner of the Jáma restaurants. I met him the other day to ask him a few questions about this brewery. He told me, among many other things, that the company's director is Pavel Prchál, someone who comes from Pivovary Lobkowicz and has 15 years experience in the business.

Max also explained me that the recipes for the beers was put together by Chotěboř's Brew Master Oldřich Zaruba. One of the reasons they choose Chotěboř was that the company that owns it will provide all the technology for the future brewery (it's already well known that the brewery in Vysočina is actually a sort of showrrom for a company more interested in selling brewing technology than actually beer).

Not long before coming across Zemské Pivo, I had heard that there were plans to open a brewery in the old Pivovar Braník, which InBev had shut down in 2007. If true, that would be great news. Like many other people, I believed that this was related to Zemský Pivovar. It turned out not to be true. When I asked him about it, Max told me that they have nothing to do with that. He said that the brewery, which they expect to have ready next year, will be in Prague, but he was not in a position to tell me exactly where, as there are still some contractual and official issues that need to be sorted out. Based on this image, though, there seems to be some historical link, Zemský Pivovar will be located where a now forgotten brewery used to be.

So far, so good. They have experienced people, the beer is very good, they are building the brand very cleverly, but what really sets them apart from all the other new, and not so new, breweries in Prague and nearby is their scale. Zemský Akciový Pivovar is not going to be a brewpub, not even a distribution based micro like Břevnovský or Matuška, they are going to be, as they themselves say it, a malý průmyslový pivovar (small industrial brewery) with a 20,000hl/year capacity from the get go, which is twice the current capacity of Únětický (n.a. according to Czech law a mini-pivovar is one that makes up to 10,000hl/year). That's ambition!

But can Prague support such a big brewery? Max assured me that yes, it can. They are aware of the hard competition they face with the likes of Kout na Šumavě, Kácov or Únětický, against whom, Max believes, their beers will be most likely compared. But he also believes that there's still a lot of fertile ground. And he might be right; as I discussed here, in a shrinking market, more and more pub owners are looking for ways to revitalise their businesses and having an alternative beer to the big brands has proven to be a success for not few, as Max Munson knows first hand. Right now, besides Jáma v Jámě, Zemské Pivo has a permanent tap at a pub Smíchov called Hospůdka Sokol, where it seems to be enjoying success. Other future plans once the brewery is working include expanding their product line with non traditionally Czech styles, brewed in collaboration with foreign Brew Masters, specialists in those styles. At the moment, they are preparing their Christmas beer, which should be a Polotmavé.

Let's hope their vision is right. As far as I'm concerned, smart, ambitious people are always welcome in the beer market. Here's to them.

Na Zdraví!

28 Oct 2013

Time to relax

It'd be unfair to say the day's been crap. It hasn't. It's been one of those average days that leaves a funny taste, almost like biting on a lemon pip while eating an otherwise forgettable salad.

Fortunately, it's coming to an end. Dinner's been eaten, and enjoyed by the family, and now it's time to slowly disconnect my brain while watching some telly. Or at least that's what I would do if there was anything I'd like to watch.

My wife has chosen one of those formulaic romantic films that I find so boring, but my wife likes watching until she falls asleep. I want to relax, not get bored. Getting bored in front of the telly has the opposite effect, more so when my mood is far from the ideal. So I choose to go upstairs to watch something, read something or listen to something on my PC

Listen to something, that's what I'll do! And I believe doing it in the company of a beer is a really neat idea.

What can I listen? Some early Tom Waits? No, listening to early Tom Waits always makes me want to drink Stout and I don't have any. Dr. John's Duke Elegant? Nick Cave's Murder Ballads? Hooverphonic's Jackie Cane? Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Alone and Acoustic? Debussy, perhaps? No, no, no, no and no.

The decision comes naturally when I seat at the computer and I hear the rain on the skylight window above the desk. Astor Piazzola's Libertango, something that'll go perfect with the evening's weather and everything else.

I pour the beer, put my feet on the desk, press Play and things will know that they soon will be left behind.

It only takes a couple bars me feel, better much better. The beer turned out to be a good choice, too. It's a bit like the music. Masculine, but not macho, smooth and gentlemanly. The sort of beer I imagine someone like Manfred von Richthofen or William Bishop would like to drink after getting off their planes in autumn afternoon.

What beer is it, you want to know? It's not important, really. I'm sure you've got something like it at home. It's just a beer, why make it complicated?

Na Zdraví!

23 Oct 2013

Got anything to do on Nov. 2?

When we did the beer dinner at Céleste more than two years ago, the plan was to repeat the experience in the near future. Life got on the way, unfortunately, and it wasn't possible, until now.

There are a few changes this time. It will not be a weekday dinner, but a Saturday lunch; instead of one beer per course, three of them will be paired with two.

As last time, I was in charge of choosing a bunch of beers, though now it was a bit more challenging as I had to work around a menu that had been already defined. But it was still a lot of fun, especially the part where, together with the chef, we went through each of the courses in order to put together the pairings (once again, the biggest surprise was how well the smoked beer went with the fish!).

Beer (or any beverage) and food pairings are for me a culinary game whose only (loose) rule is that the beverage should not overwhelm the food; other than that, anything goes. Having the first three courses paired with two beers instead of one gave me the chance to play with contrasts; I thought there'd be little point in having two beers in the same style side by side, so I picked two very different beers for each of the courses. The idea is that people will drink both and figure out by the themselves which they like better. It'd nice if they mixed them, after all, it's supposed to be fun.

Anyway, this is the menu you can have this November 2:
Amuse bouche
Soup of white beans Coco de Paimpol with smoked arctic char and carrot puff pastry
(Served with Primátor 13% and Maisel's Weisse)
Sturgeon fillet, Jerusalem artichoke pureé with seasonal mushrooms, Espelette peppers, lemon mousse
(Served with Schlenkerla Märzen and Benediktin IPA)
Roasted saddle of Mangalica pork, warm kale, cauliflower, potato and pork rind salad, creamy horseradish mousse, jus
(Served with Benediktin Imperial Pilsner y Schneider TAP 5)
The cheese, 18 months old mimolette with homemade rhubarb marmelade
(Served with Fuller's London Porter)
Dessert, Crémes brulées with sundried Stevia herb, fresh fruits and biscuits
(Served with Rodenbach Gran Cru)
Price, incl. welcome drink (Bernard Světlý Ležák) tea, coffee and water is 1190CZK per person. Reservations are recommended and can be made on-line on this page or by e-mail to info@celesterestaurant.cz. The lunch starts at 12 and last orders are taken at 2.

Like last time, I'll be hosting the event and will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Hope to see you there.

Na Zdraví!

Céleste Restaurant and Bar
50°4'31.443"N, 14°24'50.651"E
Dancing House, Rašínovo nábřeží 80 - Prague 2
+420 221 984 160 - info@celesterestaurant.cz

18 Oct 2013

Friday Craft Musings

So the boys at BrewDog are making a serious attempt at a corporate takeover of “Craft Beer”, a public domain brand. According to this press release (sorry, companies don't write blogs) they want to put an official, industry definition:
... firstly to protect craft brewers and what we are building; secondly to guide consumers in this new and emerging category in the UK; thirdly to ensure that true craft brewers can charge a fair and sustainable price for their masterpieces; and fourthly to enable craft beers to grow as strongly in the UK as they have in America.
And the definition they propose is the following:
A European Craft Brewery:
1) Is Small. Brews less than 500,000 HL annually. *see point 3 below
2) Is Authentic. a) brews all their beers at original gravity b) does not use rice, corn or any other adjuncts to lessen flavour and reduce costs 
3) Is Honest. a) All ingredients are clearly listed on the label of all of their beers. b) The place where the beer is brewed is clearly listed on all of their beers. c) All their beer is brewed at craft breweries.
4) Is Independent Is not more than 20% owned by a brewing company which operates any brewery which is not a craft brewery.
I'm not going to comment on these points*. Those who follow this blog will know my opinion already, suffice to say that I agree with some, disagree with others. As I see it, BrewDog want to start their own private club and they will get to decide who will be eligible for membership. Fair enough.

The problem I have, however, is that this definition fails to address the most important concern for us, consumers, quality. None of those four points can guarantee me good beer, or at the very least, well made beer, which is in fact what we all want. Some of the worst beers I've had in my life were made by breweries that fit perfectly into this definition of craft and yet, the beers were rubbish, objective rubbish. They were beers that should have never been poured into a glass, beers that should have never left the brewery and even beers that should have never been made to begin with, but, according to BrewDog's proposed definition they would be able to proudly and officially call themselves “Craft”.

If these people really want to make “Craft Beer” something akin to a certification, then it will have to contemplate quality standards, otherwise, official or not, it will still be just a brand. But I'd like to believe their aim is higher than that, so I suggest the following points, or something along those lines, should be added to the definition:
  • The person in charge of production at a craft brewery must be at all times someone with at least, say, 3 years of professional experience. Start up breweries that don't meet this requirement will have to wait three years, without changing their head brewer, before they can apply for the certification. (I believe that if we can discriminate based on size and ownership, we can also discriminate based on professional expertise.)
  • A craft brewery will apply certified quality control processes, which can be audited at any time by an eventual organisation.
  • Unless sold directly to the public, craft beer can only be sold and distributed by certified vendors, who must also comply with standards regarding conditions of transport, storage, dispensing and training of their staff.
But I feel I'm wasting my time, as I doubt they will ever even consider any of the above, not because of the challenge, but because it has never been about quality, but about protecting their own turf, as BrewDog make it very clear right at the beginning: Why do we need a definition? 3 words: Blue Fucking Moon.”.

You know? I've never drunk Blue Moon, but I would really, really love to. It's been so maligned by some business interests and their brainwashed fanboys, that I'm beginning to get the impression that it's one hell of a good beer, otherwise, why are those business interests so afraid of it? Because, that's what it is, fear. They are afraid that the industrial breweries have decided to make beer that can compete in terms of flavour and image, and they hate that because in one sip it brings down much of the discourse they've been building all these years: big beer = bad – small beer = good.

They tell us we must hate Blue Moon, and other similar beers. Not because of their taste or value. No! We must hate it because it's made by an evil megamultinational corporation that, contrary to the “Spirit of Craft Beer” (I wish I was making this shit up), hide their true identity from the public. Apparently, there are people who actually believe this fairy tale and are convinced that if Molson-Coors would openly admit that they are the ones behind Blue Moon everybody will stop drinking it and would run to the embrace of Craft Beer. Well, let me tell it to you this way:


Really, whether we like it or not, most people do not give a scuba diving fuck about who makes their beers, any more than they do about who makes their I-crap, their jeans or their merchandise t-shirts. People buy a beer because they feel it is good enough to pay for it, and not because they want to make a point (well, some actually might buy a beer for reasons that have nothing to do with the beer itself, but they are a tiny minority).

Is that good? Well, I don't think it is. We should all be more responsible and informed. We should be more sceptical with the things people who want our money tell us. We should question them more, all of them, big and small, because small companies can be every bit as cunts as big ones, corporate size is not in inverse proportion to virtue.

So, stop whining and grow up already! If you make good beer and know how to sell it, you've got little to fear.

Na Zdraví!

*Of course I will comment! If the use adjuncts and and HGB in order to save costs is something to contrary to “craft”, shouldn't the same apply to gimmicky ingredients and processes that only increase prices in a bigger proportion than the additional costs? Just saying.

4 Oct 2013

The tale of the dodgy pint and the hidden gem

Going to new places, I love that. I love the excitement of walking through a door for the first time, always hoping to find the next great pub or café; or at least getting to know someone with an interesting story to tell. Unfortunately, I don't have as much disposable time or income as I used to, and whatever I have I prefer to spend on the comfort of certainty rather than the adventure of the unknown. Work, however, sometimes takes me to uncharted territories, or rather, territories that haven't been charted for a long time, an opportunity I always embrace.

Last Wednesday I finished with a class near the park Klamovka, in Prague 5, and had more than 1 hour to kill before I had to go see a new client in Petřiny, great excuse to pay a visit to Zahradní Restaurace Klamovka.

It was one of those gorgeously sunny, early autumn days, but it was a bit too chilly to sit outside in the shade; a pity, as Klamovka has one of the nicest beer gardens in town. I would have to drink inside.

Whenever I go to a new place, I prefer to sit at the bar, or at least somewhere where I will have a good view of it, so I can see what the tapster does with the beers. It wasn't possible here, though. The taproom is tiny and right next to the kitchen. I didn't want to end up smelling like an old Chicken McNugget that's been through a traumatic experience. I went to the main room. It was large, spacious, kind of nondescript, but comfortable (and empty). The only company was the TV's set on a music channel (fortunately, not MTV).

The waitress came as soon as my ass had settled. I ordered a Pilsner Urquell, which was brought very quickly, and it turned out to be one of the most awful pints of Gambrinus I had in a long time. Perhaps I should've complained, but I couldn't be arsed. I soldiered on the beer with stoicism, paid and left.

It was frustrating. It could have been nice to sit there for a couple of lazy pints while I read my book (Ah! Slowly sipping a beer while reading a good book in a quiet pub, one of life's greatest little pleasures), but that abomination in a glass would not allow it. Now I still had plenty of time to kill and nowhere to kill it, and I didn't expect Petřiny to offer any worthwhile place. I used to have a client there, and I remembered that the options were pretty dire, a couple of pizzerias and an uninviting, smoky Gambrinus dive. I considered finding a sunny spot to sit and read in the park, but decided to take the 191 instead, perhaps I could do some little walking about in that neighbourhood.

Of course, this is not where the story ends.

In my years as a wandering pisshead I must have developed a special instinct. You know, the one that, when about to cross a street, makes me look around for something other than approaching cars; the one that sometimes makes turn round a corner when I could keep on walking straight on; the one that the other day made me get off the bus two stops earlier at Koleje Větrník.

The Czech word “Kolej” has several meanings, one of them is “students dorm”, and student dorms often come equipped with watering holes, this one was among those. I crossed the car park, turned right on Na Větrníku and saw a sign directing me to Kavárna do Větru.

I can't say it was love at first sight. The café is located in one of those buildings in the drab, depressing architectural style the Communists so favoured, with ugly bars on the windows. A sign of Únětické Pivo below one of those windows was enough to make me want to see what was inside, though, it always is. An unassumingly cute girl with a friendly smile greeted me at the door and encouraged me to go in. Not that I needed much encouragement.

Inside, do Větru turned out to be very nice. It's one of those cafés of the new breed I mentioned the other day. It's non-smoking and divided basically into two rooms (with a third one on the works) and has a little garden in the back. It's very nicely furnished, with a human touch and not a marketing committee's. Very welcoming, the sort of place where you can catch your breath from the daily rat race.

I followed this girl, sat at the bar and I was soon chatting with her. She told me the place had opened almost a year ago. The beer was OK. I had desítka, filtered, it tasted fresh and was reasonably well done (just one thing, though, valid for everyone who taps beer, rinse the glasses in cold water, it does make a difference). I stayed for two pints, would have loved to stay for more, but duty called. No worries, I'll be going back, that's for sure.

It's funny how things turn out sometimes. Without that dodgy pint in Klamovka, I would have happily stayed in that average pub, the sort of which are a dime a dozen. Without that dodgy pint, I wouldn't have found that hidden gem. I guess I should be grateful for it.

Na Zdraví!

Zahradní Restaurace Klamovka
50°4'17.342"N, 14°22'39.447"E
Klamovka 2051 – Prague 5
provozni@zahradnirestaurace.cz - +420 602 141 014
Mon-Sun: 11-24

Kavárna do Větru
50°5'16.994"N, 14°21'9.787"E
Za Zahradou 5 – Prague 6
+420 777 965 972
Mon-Sat: 15-01, Sun: 15-24

23 Sep 2013

The death of the hospoda or the beginning of a golden age?

So, I was going to write something about alternative beers and capitalism (no joke), but Alan's wondering about the discounts Wal-Mart will have on craft beer got me thinking about something that was on several news outlets last week, Czechs are drinking more beer at home than at pubs.

Contrary to what the linked iDnes article says, this is nothing new, but a trend that started in 2010, when bottled beer outsold draft for the first time (that year, overall production of beer in the Czech Republic had dropped by 7.9%).

Although I still believe the impact of demographic changes, people and companies moving to the peripheries of large towns, which resulted in many being forced to commute by car, has been more significant than given credit for, it'd be silly to deny that the crisis, or in this country largely the perception thereof, has played a major role. But regardless of the reasons, people are indeed spending less at pubs and restaurants, and some may have even shifted a substantial part of their consumption out of them.

The iDnes article also mentions the difference in pricing between kegs (sold to pubs) and bottles (final price at supermarkets), which reminded me of a great piece Pivní Recenze wrote that last year on this issue (I can't find the link, sorry).

When I moved here in 2002 there wasn't that much difference between the price of a bottle of beer at a supermarket and a pint of the same brand at a neighbourhood pub. Now it's completely different, whereas prices at supermarkets have remained almost unchanged, the price of beer at pubs has in some cases almost doubled. As Pivní Recenze explains, this is because pubs today are buying beer, especially bigger brands like Gambrinus, at a higher price per volume what consumers pay at supermarkets, even though production and sales costs of bottled beer are quite higher than keg's. The conclusion is pretty obvious, breweries are subsidising the prices they are forced to give supermarket chains at the expense of pubs.

Could it be then that it is the breweries who are driving pubs out of business?

Well, not quite. About two months ago, the daily E15 reported on the topic of pub closures, and the chairman of the relevant trade association was quoted saying that ”our pubs have very uneven quality, some are very good, on the other hand, there are many that offer low quality and won't be able to survive long”. In other words, crap pubs are more likely to close than good ones.

This, of course, shouldn't surprise anyone. When going on the piss stops being something you can afford doing a couple of times a week, and becomes something almost reserved for special occasions, many people will become more selective and will tend towards those places that will offer better value. No wonder then that the largest Czech brewers are working so hard on their gastro-pub chains. Last July, in Nám. Míru, Vinohradský Parlament opened, which seems to be the first branch of a new chain by Staropramen, and on the opposite side of the square a new chain-looking Gambrinus pub, whose name I've forgotten, opened last week.

But, gastropub chains notwithstanding, if the the largest breweries aren't driving pubs out of business could it be that they are screwing themselves up to the point that they are putting their market dominance at risk?

Yes, it is still true that almost half of the beer drunk in this country comes from Plzeňský Prazdroj, with the other two multinationals, Staropramen and Heineken making another 30% or so. The problem is that this takes the Czech beer market as something more or less uniform, when the reality is that the off-trade and the on-trade have very, very different dynamics.

Their impressive logistic structures give the largest brewers a massive advantage in the off-trade. They can get their beers anywhere in no time, that's why you'll find Braník at the remotest grocery store, but regional breweries can't afford such luxury and that, together with their lower price flexibility, pushes them out of a substantial part of this market.

The on-trade on the other hand, is a lot more competitive. If those wonferful maps that Pivídky have put together are statistically relevant (and I think they are), they indicate that regional brewers, even small ones, are kings of their realms. They compensate their lack of infrastructure with proximity to the clients (and their local character, too).

What is most curious about this, though, is that the renaissance of the Czech regional breweries and the microbrewery boom, which is more evident at the bar than on the shelves, started pretty much at the same time as the industry stopped growing and began shrinking. I don't believe this is a coincidence, these two things must be connected.

In times when people are more selective, offering something different than the rest can bring customers through the door, which is the reason the owners of a couple of at the time new pubs gave me for their choosing smaller brands; they didn't want to have what everybody else around had. This can also help to revitalise existing, struggling establishments. The owner of the pub of my village that has Únětická 10° told me that the rather Hrabalian reason behind her decision: a couple of the old štamgasty had died and she thought having that beer would bring new customers and compensate for the loss. Jáma could tell a very similar story (death free, though), one that goes back more than three years, and I could give even more examples.

To some extent, this desire to be somehow different is something that Stella Artois used very effectively in the mid noughties to get the brand in, for example, pizzerias and not few trendy places of the time. We can see this happening again now with the new breed of cafés, pubs and bars that have been growing like mushrooms all over Prague, albeit with rather better beers. The difference, though, is that the owners seem to be more proactive and selective about the breweries they decide to work with, often choosing beers they themselves have a personal attachment to. I doubt breweries like KocourMatuška, Únětice or Břevnov, among many others, would have been as successful as they are now ten years ago.

To all this we should add the fact that more often than not, regional and not few micro brands are cheaper than the big ones.

Near I.P. Pavlova there's a nicotinous, old school dive called U Demníky. This place has always been a Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus den, but earlier this year I noticed that they started selling Hubertus 10º (Kácov) and Krakonoš 12º, both at a significantly lower price than the other two. Guess what I see most people drinking every time I drop by for a quick pint.

Now, I believe Hubertus is far superior to Gambáč, and I'm sure most of you will agree with me, but at the same time, it's very possible that many of the patrons in this pub don't give a third of a fuck about flavour, and that they are responding solely to the price; and, as it often happens, when all other things are equal or comparable, cheaper makes better.

 However, there are still tonnes of pubs, especially in small towns and villages, with short-sighted and timid owners who refuse change. But how much longer can they last with an ageing and ever less affluent clientèle and little, if anything, to attract new business?

Whatever the fortunes of those places may turn out to be, what we are seeing here is a trend that is already irreversible. One that, if the shelves of Tesco and Kaufland are anything to go by, might be spilling to the off-trade.

Interesting times are ahead and, a lover of good beer who values diversity, I couldn't be happier.

Na Zdraví!

13 Sep 2013

Friday observations

I like it when I see criticism. I see it as something positive and necessary in the beer discourse, I'd even go as far as to say that it's key if we expect to get the respect we deserve as consumers. However, in order to serve that purpose, criticism, even more than praise, must be well argued and informed, and, above all, it must be fair and clear. And that's why I believe that the other day, Jardín del Lúpulo had a bit of a cock-up in their criticism of a beer festival they attended.

On the one hand, they mentioned a few shortcomings, a couple of which turned out to be not such. And on the other, they made what in my opinion is the grave error of putting everyone in the same sack when they said that at the festival they had found:
duff kegs that were not changed when pointed out, beers that were sold even though they needed another month of aging, beers that had not met the expectation of the producers themselves, infected beers, “experimental” beers...
Later, the author also mentions that they had come across some good stuff, but the damage had already been done. If you are going to make such hard criticism after being specific on the event, you are unnecessarily hurting all the breweries that were there and perverting the very debate you want to start. Perhaps the author could have refrained from mentioning any specific event as an example, after all, the post was meant to trigger discussion and not so much as a review.

But regardless of that, there is a complaint, from the author, as well as from several other commenters, which is in fact almost perennial when discussing beer festivals “beers that the producers themselves sell at higher prices than at stores”.

Is there anyone who can give me a reasonable explanation of what the problem is? Because, frankly, I don't see anything reproachable here.

At events of this type, a producer can't take advantage or abuse a condition of exclusivity to set prices that could be considered abusive, as it can happen, for instance at concerts. Here the consumer has plenty to choose from and the prices are another one of the variables.

So, what's the problem? That the producer has set a higher profit margin than what they usually get when selling to retailers?

Assuming for a second that that is a fact; that, even after factoring all the other costs specific to their participation in a festival, producers still earn more for every beer than they earn selling it to a shop or bar, since when is it wrong that a producer wants to earn a bit more, especially since we are speaking about an environment where competition couldn't be any freer?

So, what's the problem? That you went to that event to taste that beer and you found it more expensive than at a shop?

Let's forget for a second that A: if you can find that beer cheaper elsewhere, you are free to buy it there and B: that bottled beer isn't the same as draft beer. If you considered that the chance to drink one or several specific beers was good enough reason to invest the time and money necessary to attend a given festival, then a few coins more in the price shouldn't make any difference (needless to say, we're speaking here about beers that are at least well made. Beers that aren't well made will be expensive, regardless of their price).

So, what's the problem? That producers refuse to understand that festivals are an opportunity to promote their companies?

Let's be serious. We, the consumers, have the right to demand from producers quality and value, but not to dictate how they should manage their companies or determine their strategies. If a producer sees festivals mostly as a good source of turnover, it's their choice, they know why they do it, and if they don't, the risks and eventual problems are purely theirs.

That said, and to be honest, if I were a producer I'd take festivals mostly as a chance to promote my products and brand, as I see it as very reasonable. However, and since I'm not a producer, I can't avoid wondering if these events are any effective as promotional tools.

At first sight, the answer would be yes. The public that attend festivals tends to be of a much wider spectrum that those who go to specialised shops or bars. However, the sad truth is that the attention span of the general public is not particularly long and, therefore, it's quite likely that, unless they can come across the beers soon, many, if not most, won't take long to forget what they drank that Saturday at that festival; and still fewer are those who will run a day later to their favourite pub to urge the owner to start stocking that beer they liked so much at that festival.

So, if a producer wants to get a return for their investment of time, work and money, counting on the memory of the people who bought beers from them isn't enough. For that, a festival would need to be a medium where producers can get in touch with retailers, pub owners or distributors, i.e. those that do the heaviest part of the work of convincing the consumer.

Festivals do become useful for producers if we speak about PR, as well as exchange of information and experiences with their peers (and competitors). Whether that is good enough reason for a producer to set “promotional” prices is another thing.

On the other hand, could it be that these events are very effective when it comes to promoting the brand “Craft Beer” and not so much for individual brands? I'd like to hear about the experiences producers have with all this. I'm just speculating and thinking out loud.

Regardless of all this, and even if festivals happened to be perfect marketing tools, this should not be seen as a limit to the right of producers to set any price they see fit for the fruit of their labour. Nobody is under any obligation to buy a beer they consider too expensive, and anyone who might believe so, should perhaps start reviewing their priorities in life.

Na Zdraví!

11 Sep 2013

A few cultural words

Stan Hieronymus, in his contribution to the latest Session, pondered on the meaning of Beer Culture. I had wondered about that myself about a year ago, when when discussing tastings.

I was going to write a long rant on the matter, but I realised I'd be repeating myself as I've discussed the topic before (more than once, actually), but there are still a couple of things that I think are worth mentioning (assuming there are any sort of things worth mentioning to begin with).

“Drinking socially” while sitting alone in front of a computer, smart phone or tablet, doing all the online routine of photo-social site-rating/review is to beer culture what cybersex is to shagging. I can be fun, I'm sure, but you still finish alone, washing yourself in the bathroom with no one to cuddle.

(On a side note, doing the cyberbeer routine while being with people, or taking tasting notes at a festival or a pub is even worse. That's like watching internet porn when the woman/man of your dreams is waiting for you in your bed, naked.)

Meanwhile, guided tastings are, by the most part, to beer culture what an umbrella following guided tour is to travelling. If you are lucky, your guide might be someone who knows their shit (as opposed to someone who knows shit, which isn't rare) and, if you pay attention and don't get bored, you might get some interesting information. But even then, you won't experience anything, not only because that information will likely not be all that different than what you could find in a good book, but you'll be shown only the surface, without even scratching it. The guide will move you from landmark A, to landmark B and so on, you won't interact or form a relationship with almost anything or anyone. You won't know anything about the real place, for that, you would need to take your own path and meet the people who actually live and work in that place.

It's the same with beer culture. In fact, I'd argue that a bloke who goes to a good pub to meet his friends for a few pints of whatever it is they are tapping there has more beer culture than the usual dwellers of either of the paradigms above. They might have more beer knowledge than our friends in the pub, but, though related, knowledge isn't the same as culture; as having one isn't a prerequisite to having the other.

Some would argue that both cyberbeering and guided tastings are manifestations of beer culture, after all, each involve codes are rituals. To me, thought, they are at best a subculture that, in a way, subverts the nature of beer, as they make the drinking and/or tasting of beer almost as an end in itself, instead of part of, or at most, an excuse for, a greater where and when. Those who don't understand that, don't understand beer.

Na Zdraví!

9 Sep 2013

A day with Heineken/Starobrno

I must confess that when they first called me I wasn't all that sure if I should accept Heineken's invitation to a press trip to Brno last Wednesday, partly because I was afraid I'd have to put up with more marketing and PR empty words than most people should be forced to put up with. But then I said, fuck it, they hadn't done any of that at either of the the other two PR events, why should it be any different this time ? (besides, and let's be honest, I fancied that enjoying some corporate largesse wouldn’t be too bad). I'm glad I accepted the invitation, not only because the marketinisms and PRisms were kept at acceptable and reasonable levels, but also, and mainly, because I had a great day, and a fairly educational one, too.

The day would be really packed, so we had to leave awfully early. I travelled with three other journalists and two people from the agency that handles Heineken's PR, who would be our guides.

We were offered beer and snacks shortly after the car had got on the road. I love living in a country were having a beer at 7 in the morning isn't frowned upon, though, Starobrno Medium from a can isn't the one of the best beers around, that said, any beer is better than no beer, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it, at least a little.

Once in Brno, we only stopped briefly to meet the local journos and some people from the company that would join us in the day's activities, and we headed straight to the first one of them, a visit to Soufflet, the country's biggest maltsters, at their plant in Prostějov.

I'd been to a couple of maltings before, so I wasn't expecting to see anything new. What was really interesting, though, was we were told there, which made me see beer and brewing from a whole different perspective.

We were explained in great detail about the quality control processes. Barley samples are taken right at the gate from every lorry that arrives to the plant, and they are analysed on the spot to determine if the grain meets the company's strict quality standards. Only then they are allowed to offload their cargo. As I had seen in Benešov, the different cultivars of barley are kept separated throughout the whole production process and they are blended only when it's needed to meet the specific parameters of different clients.

The most interesting part of the talk was, perhaps, the relationship in figures between the production of barley and beer. According to the calculations of the company's director, 85 grams of malt are needed to make a pint of 12º beer, and that wasn't the most fascinating bit. Based on that figure, and on how much barley is needed in average to make a kg of malt, and the average yield per hectare of barley, this man estimated that 1 m2 of a field of barley will produce 10 pints of dvanáctka. Think about that next time you decide to walk through a field.

After an OK buffet lunch at the maltings, we got back in the car for the next visit, a Farmers Cooperative that supplies barley to Soufflet.

It's incredible how much we take this raw material for granted, and yet, a lot of attention to detail goes into its production, too, after all, without good quality barley, you can't make good quality malts, and without good quality malts, it's very hard to make good quality beer. Growing barley, then, isn't just about throwing seeds on a field and then harvest the results a few months later. The right moment must be chosen to sow the right cultivar in the right place. Each cultivar has different characteristics that, needless to say, are affected by soil and weather conditions. During the months between sowing and reaping, the health of the crop must be watched carefully and then, the right time for harvest must be chosen in order to get the right quality, but they can't actually do that if, once harvested, the grain isn't properly cleaned, sorted and stored.

What all this tells is you is that beer making is a long chain of processes that starts already in the fields and ends in the glass, where each link will have an effect on the quality.

Another stop awaited us at Březovské vodovody, in Březové nad Svitavou, a rather long, bumpy, and very scenic ride in small roads that cut through hills, forests and picturesque villages, where we would be shown the source of water for almost the whole city of Brno, brewery included.

The tour was pretty interesting from the historical and technical point of view, but didn't have much to add as far as brewing is concerned, as Starobrno still has to treat the water to make it more suitable for the sort of beers they make. Anyway, the location of the well was impressive in its beauty.

We went back to the South Moravian capital to check into the hotel and freshen ourselves a little (by the way, the hotel, Holiday Inn, was really, really cool, the sort of corporate largess I was expecting). We were then taken to the brewery for the highlight of the day, the opening of the brewery's pivnice after renovations.

Rather than a pivnice, the place is a proper pub that serves proper food, and not just snacks. It's been done in the focus group approved, First Republic-chic style that will be familiar to anyone who's visited any of the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurants in the country. Not bad, but a bit too chainpubby for my taste. The beer garden, on the other hand, is gorgeous and was packed.

The opening ceremony was adorned with three or four members of the local ice hockey team, who had their pictures taken tapping beers and all that usual stuff that I guess is common at events of that kind. It's stuff I can frankly do without, but I stopped caring once I had a pint in hand, and cared even less once a second one was procured, which didn't take any time or effort, as the service would no allow anyone to be empty glassed for more than a few seconds. Snacks, very good snacks, were also provided to help us drink even more.

As for the beer, I was given at first the new 12º, that is called dvouchmelněné, or something like this. It's a hoppier version of Starobrno's Světlý Ležák that I found uncannily similar to some batches of Pilsner Urquell, though that might be utter bollocks on my part. I had a go at Krušovice Pšeničné, also on tap, and it was really good, with a fuller flavour than the bottled version I'd had recently. For most of the evening, though, and whenever a fresh půl litr didn't materialise in front of me, I stuck to Nefiltrované, which I found most agreeable (sorry, I just wanted to use that phrase at least once in my life).

But drinking, eating and talking wasn't all we did there, we also saw stuff, cool stuff. First we were shown the, how can I call it?, training pub they have there. Basically, it's a fully functional taproom with a few modifications. They mostly use it to train pub owners and tapsters to give beer the best care, from storing and tapping kegs, to the different ways to dispense the beer, including line maintenance, how to properly wash glasses and even some basic sensory analysis; in my opinion a most important aspect of beer culture, and one that many brewers, big and small don't pay enough attention to.

We went back to the pub to have a couple more pints before the brewery tour. Our guide would be the head brewer (can't remember his name, if anyone knows it, please let me know) a fantastic guy who, like pretty much every brewer I have met, loves his job and loves talking about it. He showed us around the whole place, answered all of our questions, he even took us all the way to the top of the cylindroconical tanks, where we had a wonderful view of the city at night. We all wished we had a tap up there to enjoy the view with a pint. A visit to a brewery wouldn't be a visit to a brewery without a stop at the lagering cellars to have a beer straight from the tank, the same neflitrované that I was drinking at the pub, which tasted remarkably different.

After the tour, we stayed at the pub for some more eating and drinking (or rather, some more eating and a lot more drinking), all formalities had long vanished, we talked and laughed almost like old friends until quite late; one of those wonderful wheres and whens where the beer you are drinking isn't all that important, another element that makes that where and when wonderful, which is the true nature of beer, really. The next morning we were all nursing mild hangovers and experiencing that unique bond that only strangers who've been on the piss the evening before can feel.

It was a great day in many ways, and I want to thank Heineken CZ for inviting me.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Heineken is still far from my favourite company around here, I can understand that their decision to shut down four breweries, but I don't like that they've made sure nobody will use them again, ending, in some cases, centuries of brewing traditions. That said, of all the three multinationals operating in the Czech market (the other two being SAB-Miller and Molson-Coors), and gimmicky products notwithstanding, the Dutch are the ones who seem to care the most about beer.

Disclaimer: All the food and beers we had at the brewery were on the house.