25 Mar 2013

An Obituary

The seed of this blog was sown one afternoon in the Spring of 2005, if I remember correctly, when I impulsively fancied drop by a pub near Letná to have a quick one before giving a lesson. What had brought me to that place was the sign of a brewery I knew absolutely nothing about, but the beer they gave me that afternoon, a světlý ležák with the same name as the pub, was the one that made me start paying attention to what I had in my glass, which was the starting point of this journey through the world of what I believe is the most fascinating beverage.

Those of you who've been following my rants here, or at least, those who have my history of pissheadedness, know what beer and place I'm talking about, and some of you have even visited it.

Unfortunately, Svijanský Rytíř has ceased to exist.

It's no news, really. It's something I'd known for about half a year. One day I was around the neighbourhood and, since hadn't been there for a long time, I thought it'd be nice to drop by at what used to be one of my favourite spots in town and have a pint in honour of the old, simpler, times. There was a little sign on the door that said that place was "temporarily" closed. I've seen many places that were "temporarily" closed and never opened again, but seeing that the furniture and taps were still there made me keep at least a bit of hope alive. I passed by a couple more times since and everything remained the same, the hope, though smaller, refused to die.

Until the other day. Already from the corner of Pivnice Šumavan I was able to see what I had already known. The Svijany sign was gone and a piece of paper stuck on the inner side of the door announced a soon to be opened curry house.

I don't know why it closed, though I suspect it. The last time I was there for lunch with my wife something had changed, and not for the better. It doesn't matter. I will miss Svijanský Rytíř, I've had some very good times there, alone, with friends and also with my wife, our Friday lunch, followed by a quiet walk through Letná became a sort of ritual for us during her pregancy. It was also at Svijanský Rytíř where I had one of the most amazing moments in my blogging "career" when group of Danes, who were having lunch there, broke into applause when they recognised me and for a moment made me feel I was a celebrity.

The loss of a good pub is always a pity. Fortunately, memories tend to remain.

Na Zdraví!

18 Mar 2013

Like is more than enough

Jeff, at Beervana, has been asking, not one, but twice how to define "good beer", which, together with a more than interesting debate I had under the Spanish version of the other day's post, have made me wonder if all these bollocks around beer have not made us loose touch with what's basic and fundamental.

Regardless of what values people may add to it, regardless of the labels and the chauvinism, regardless of the marketing blabber, the truth is that beer is no more, no less than an alcoholic beverage (or "fun juice", as Alan has genially put it). The only real purpose for which a beer is created1 is to be imbibed. The company that manufactures the beer wants, of course, that we find that imbibing pleasant, but not because they are especially fond of us, but because they understand that pleasure increases the probability of a repeat purchase, which is the basis for the sustainability of any business.

Drinking beer isn't an intellectual exercise, there aren't any symbolisms, or messages that have to be understood, neither are there any codes or backgrounds that the consumer needs to be familiar with in order to enjoy2. Drinking beer is a sensory experience and, as such, is 100% subjective and is evaluated with the same criteria since we are born, based on how much we like it (or dislike it).

We may write books, speak at length, dissecting, intelectualising and analysing that sensory experience, and the beer that generated it, but all that can eventually be reduced (and will be subordinated to) "like". All those elaborate and detailed tasting notes and reviews that many seem to love writing are nothing but explanations and rationalisations of that "like".

Of course, the feeling of pleasure can be affected by a multitude of factors, internal or external to the person: level of physical and mental fatigue, what has been consumed before or during the sensory experience, the company, the weather, the time of day, etc.; but also the marketing and the hype around a given beer. But the opinion about that beer will always be essentially "like".

When we say that we like a beer (for whatever reason), we are expressing that drinking it gives us pleasure. If pleasure is something that, relative to oneself, can be defined as "good", then, if I like a beer, that beer is, as far as I'm concerned, good. Therefore, "like" not only is more than enough to determine how good a beer is, but it could actually be said that, at least from the point of view of the consumer, there is no other way to determine it.

Now, what is it that make some people like some beers and dislike others? That's another question.

Na Zdraví!

PD: I don't deal with the "price/quality" thing because it is actually a commercial issue. I can like a beer, A, more than another beer, B, but since buying B demands a sufficiently lower outlay of time and effort as to increase its value in relation with A, to the extent that, being able to choose between both, it will be B the one that I'm more likely to buy again.

1 There are beers that seem to be brewed mostly for dick swinging purposes or in order to attract an otherwise very expensive media attention, but they are exceptions.

2 I might be contradicting myself here. Many times I've said that you need to "understand" a beer in order to properly enjoy it. That's not true, in order to properly enjoy a beer you have to drink it, if you didn't like a beer, it won't matter how much you will have it explained, you will still not like it, at most, you will be able to understand why other people do, but that's it.

11 Mar 2013

Monday Musings

The recent release of the latest Style Guidines by the Brewers Association reminded me of something that had been bouncing around my mind since the beginning of the year, after reading this this surpisingly good article in the Argentinean magazine Brando.

It speaks about a new trend in the local market, the big brewers are betting more on variety with beers to a more or lesser extent drift away from the paradigm of farty pale lager. Unlike other similar pieces, the author refrains from writing just a list with tasting notes lifted from marketing materials and does some decent journalist work. He looked for the opinion of representatives of local micro breweries, who, by the most part, don't see these new beers as a threat, but as an opportunity, since they will show to a wider audience that "beer" is not only the above mentioned paradigm (notice the contrast between that and the "Craft vs Crafty" PR stunt by the BA a while ago*).

The only problem that there seems to be with this beer is that they sometimes do not "respect" the style they claim to be. Clearly referring to Quilmes Stout, which the author points as the one that started the trend, a small brewer complains that "Many people, when speaking about stout, say 'I like it/don't like it because is sweet'. Actually, Stouts are hardly ever sweet, but the industrials have made people understand that they are."

I can understand a bit why this person is bothered by this. He must make one of those nicely roasty and bitter stouts, and if someone drinks it after having tasted and liked Quilmes's, chances are that they will be surprised (either way); while another person who does not like Quilmes Stout because it's sweet, might be reluctant to try the one this good man makes because it has the same word written on the label, or not, it all depends on how good this brewer is at selling his beers.

But regardless of that, I got stuck with the word "respect" a style. Respect it in what sense, in accordance with what? Many will answer this question with the "BJCP/BA style guidelines", which doesn't make much sense for three reasons: 1) it isn't and has never been accepted anywhere as an ISO-like standard of quality, 2) it can't be used as a brewing manual (neither it intends to be), 3) it's not even a guidelike of styles proper, it's a list of categories for competitions that has little if any consideration for history or traditions, and the inclusion of new styles, at least when it comes to the BA, seems to depend to a great extent on how good were certain brewers lobbying to open a new category.

The only real purpose of these style guidelines are competitions. Participants can use them to know in which category they can present their beers (I remember a few years go that, at the World Beer Awards, Primátor English Pale Ale won a medal in the Brown Ale category) and they tell judges what are the evaluation parameters and criteria for a given category.

It is already well known how beers are evaluated at competitions like the World Beer Cup (blind tasting of small samples provided by the brewers themselves, all in very controlled conditions). What is not so well known is how the winners are determined. Each judge's evaluation must naturally be as objective as possible, the criteria is 100% technical and the winning beer will be the one that best fit into the technical parameters of its category, which, at WBC and other competitions, is not decided by a score, but by consensus, all members of the jury agree, regardless of their personal taste, that this or that beer is technically the best of the lot.

That is why, among the loose thoughts, I said this: "Someone who uses the BJCP style guidelines as a parameter to evaluate a beer, shows they understand little about the BJCP, styles and beer." Anyone who uses a list of competition categories when reviewing a beer, is doing it wrong. In real life, a beer must be evaluated on the basis of how much we like it, the price/quality ratio and how it compares to other similar beers we've had. On the other hand, in order to make a correct technical evaluation of a beer, it is necessary first to know the intention of the brewer, which is what determines a well made beer.

Unfortunately, there are way too many people on both sides of the counter who have anointed these lists of competition categories with an almost legal (if not religious) authority and that is why I understand, and share, Ron Pattinson's strong discontent with the specifications for Grätzer (Grodziskie), one of two new styles categories accepted by the BA this year. Ron has been working very hard for many years to bring back to life this very interesting, extinct and almost forgotten Polish style. The BA didn't give too many fucks about any of that, and chose to open a new category that will fit what a few brewers were making. They called it Grätzer, but it has so little to do with history and tradition that they could have easily called it Kaczynski.

Na Zdraví!

* You didn't really thing that the issue of the Craft vs Crafty thing had anything to do with transparency, did you?