29 Apr 2013

Monday Musings

Interesting. Almost at the same time, two blogs, a Yank and a Czech, responded to a the reaction of the other side of the counter to the same "problem".

Jeff, in Beervana, has been carrying out comparative blind tastings of mass produced pale lagers. In one of them, the samples of Stella Artois and Beck's turned out to be lightstruck. One Jack (whom I mistakenly thought to have some relation to ABIB) left a comment saying that it was not fair to include in a tasting a bottle that had been abused.

Meanwhile, in this neck of the woods, Pivníci published the results of their survey on PET bottles1. At the end of the post, they tell that they had received outraged e-mails from owners or brewers complaining about their beers having been evaluated from PET bottles, instead of on tap at this or that pub.

Both Jeff's and Pivníci's response could be summarised as "if you know the container can be a problem, why the fuck do you sell your beer like that?" And I couldn't agree more. To me, a beer is not fully made until it gets into my glass, or until I pay for the bottle at a shop2. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the company that makes this beer to see that it gets to the consumer in the best possible condition. Unfortunately, either for lack of will or resources, many are the producers who do not take care of the quality of their beers once they leave their factories, leaving it all in the hands of the interest, will and capacity of third parties.

This reminds me of something I read a while ago in Alan's blog (or was it Stan's?) about one of the earliest definitions of "craft beer/brewery". I've forgotten the details (and I can't be arsed with looking for the post, perhaps the author will kindly provide a link?), but it basically established that craft was a brewery that, among other things, refrained from distributing their beers in order to avoid compromising their quality. And it's pretty much on the spot. Even with the greatest will and resources, each time a brewer leaves their product in the hands of third parties, the only thing they can do is to hope that this person will give it the adequate care, which often does not happen.

But let's not be fundamentalists. A brewery is first and foremost a business, and like every other business, its reason to be is to generate profit for its owners, something that is very difficult to accomplish without taking risks and compromising some ideals3. It's hard to be against that, after all, without those entrepreneurs who take those risks and compromise those ideals, it wouldn't be possible to enjoy the diversity many of us are fortunate to enjoy today.

On the other hand, it is also true that some of those entrepreneurs are also the same ones who say they represent true and proper Beer Culture, telling us that what drives them is passion and love for beer and not money. All while they gladly ship their beers across countries, continents, seas and oceans, often without filtering and pasteurising because that would mean compromising on quality and the concept of artisanship.

Of course, hardly anyone today can be surprised to learn that a good part of the marketing discourse of the people who want our money is made of the highest grade bollocks. Though, there seems to be not few fools on this side of the counter more than willing to believe all that nonsense and spread it on.

Speaking about nonsense from this side of the counter. The other day, Simon Johnson shared a gem, a video called “Sh!t Beer Geeks Say”. It's brilliant! Don't miss it! Especially since I believe most of us, more than once, have uttered similar sort of idiocies.

This takes me to a pretty good piece I read last week, 15 Things Craft Beer Fans Think (But Nobody Says). Nothing new, really, and many of them are specific to the American beer ecosystem, but there are others that could be perfectly applied in any country (at most, with the change of a few details), and that have even been dealt with in this blog, e.g. here and here.

These, and other things I've read in the last few months have made me wonder if we aren't witnessing a growing trend towards a healthy and reasonable cynicism, the sort that "Craft Beer", like any other brand, deserves. And it might be that this trend is slowly spilling to the other side of the counter.

In its Twitter profile, the Argentine micro brewery Nuevo Origen says, "We make good beers, we don't care for the craft beer tag". It's marketing, no doubt, but marketing with balls. The Craft label is often used to justify ineptitude, precariousness and lack of professionalism. But with "Good Beer" there's nowhere to hide, and it shows a brewer4 with a lot of confidence in his product.

And ain't that just what we all really want, "Good Beer"? "Craft", "Artisan", "Gourmet", "Boutique", etc. are just empty labels that, at most, speak more of the producer than the product. "Good" is the only label that we should want to buy and support.

Yes, micro-macro, local-imported, independent-corporate are things to be taken into account to some extent. But, as far as I'm concerned, they are not even close as important as "Good". Only the brewers who are able to deliver "Good" (or at the very least "Well Made", because "Good" can be pretty subjective) can begin to tell me about all the rest, otherwise, they'd better keep quiet.

Na Zdraví!

1 I often buy beers in plastic bottles. To me, the problem isn't so much the material of the container (which is far from the best), but the way in which the bottles are handled and stored at shops. The same could be said about green bottles. In fact, it has happened to me more than once to buy at a supermarket a duff beer, even in a brown bottle.
2 Actually, the glass thing could also apply to bottles bought at shops, but let's cut the brewers some slack.
3 Does not refer to moral, ethic ideals or beliefs, but to the concept of a perfect model.
4 I've exchanged a few e-mails with Marcelo Braga, who seems to be a fine bloke. I don't know his beers, but would love to.

22 Apr 2013

On reviews

As you might have noticed, beer reviews aren't a usual feature of this blog anymore. The few that I post serve mostly to illustrate a point or another. The main reason is that I got bored of writing tasting notes and later fleshing them out for a post. I got tired of having some kind of self imposed obligation to dissect every sip of every new beer in search of things that show up over and over again; not only because I find that to be a waste of time and energy, but also because I realised that it can become an obstacle to properly enjoy a beer. Now, when I drink a new beer, I prefer to let it speak than to force the words out of it, and if there is a sensory element that stands out, I trust my memory to be able to keep it safe in case I need some day.

There is also another problem with beer reviews. On the one hand, we have the use of some very detailed descriptors in tasting notes, what can marigold, treacle or rose water mean to someone who's never seen any of that? On the other hand, and even more importantly, is the fact that there aren't standards. What is excellent, interesting, extraordinary for me, may very well be mediocre, boring or everyday for others; and there's no arguing it. If someone declares that there is no better beer than, say, Braník, or Mikkeller 1000IBU, they won't be wrong, every person has different experience and tastes and all opinions are qualified. This isn't like, I don't know, Iranian cinema, which someone like me could qualify as 120 minutes of utter boredom; to which a film scholar could respond saying that I'm not getting the message, that I should see the full opus of the director and other things along those lines, and they will be right! This person would have studied the subject matter in detail and watching film is mostly an intellectual experience, after all. Drinking beer, however, is a sensory experience, it's purely subjective and it's impossible to get it wrong. It's not necessary to know, understand or have any prior information about a beer you are drinking in order to be able to determine if you like it or not.

It is different with pubs, etc., and that is why I like reviewing them more. There are a series of almost universal standards that can serve as the basis for an evaluation. I believe that those things that make a pub good, not great or wonderful, just good, can be recognised by almost everyone.

Boak and Bailey mentioned some of them the other day. The only one I don't quite agree with is point 4. Smiles, I believe, are overrated, or rather, have been devalued almost to the level of a requirement like functional and clean toilets or not being ripped off with the bill. That's wrong. Nobody should be under the obligation of smiling if, for whatever reason, they don't feel like it. To me, a fake and forced smile is much worse than an honest grunt. I believe that politeness, professionalism and efficiency are more than enough to make any patron feel their business is appreciated. All the rest, if genuine and sincere, is a bonus; it's like finding that truly great beer among a bunch of good ones.

But I digress, it's reviews what I wanted to talk about.

For better or worse, nowadays technology allows us to publish reviews in real time. We walk into a place or have the first sip of a beer, and sharing our opinion with world is only a tipi-tipi-tap away. Honestly, this is not something I like too much.

Personally, before sitting down to write a pub review, I prefer to ruminate, to let it bounce around my mind for a couple of days to give it a bit of perspective; can it be that that alleged fault is something premeditated, aimed at an audience I'm not part of? The same could apply to beer, once the first impression has passed, how does the beer compare to other similar ones? would I buy it again? how good is in terms of value for money? All that often needs time to be considered and, in my opinion, it improves the review, it becomes more useful for the reader.

However, that instant, immediate review, penned right when the experience is taking place, could be considered, especially in relation with beer, as more honest, as it's more visceral, guided by the feelings and the senses rather than the intellect.


Na Zdraví!

19 Apr 2013

This week in the Prague Post

I review one of Prague's newest breweries, Pivovar Marina Holešovice , together with my colleague Fiona Gaze.

You can read it all here.

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15 Apr 2013

The Falacy of Expensive

Though I still believe that the issue with prices is not much more than a fictitious controversy, mainly because nobody is under any obligation to buy a beer they consider too expensive, there are some attitudes by brewers and sellers that bother me. For example, this:
This quote is very similar to the one that closes the "I'm a Craft Beer Drinker" video (that seems to feature more sellers than drinkers), "Life is too short to drink cheap beer". Both are perversions of originals where the word "Cheap"has replaced "Bad". This way, the authors of "I'm a Craft Beer Drinker" (seller?) and the poster above (signed by a brewery) are openly implying that cheap beer is bad and, therefore, only expensive beer is good.

I've got no problem if brewers (and sellers) try to convince me that the price of their products (or services) is fair, that it's related to the quality, even if they justify it with abstract added values, but this is disrespecting the intelligence of the consumer. Instead of at least trying to explain me the reasons why their beers cost what they cost, they employ dishonest rhetoric tricks.

Anyone with a modicum of a well traveled palate will know very well that there are not few beers of moderate to low price that are excellent, or that at least have an excellent price/quality ratio, just as they will know that there are not few beers with high to insane price that are quite poor, or at least have a quite poor quality/price ratio; and this is something also producers and sellers know very well (or at least they should).

On the other hand, of the above mentioned rhetoric atrocities, the one that bothers me the most is the video's because it suggest (intentionally or not) that a beer can not be "craft" it it's not expensive.

It's funny, we often see so called "craft brewers" talking about innovation, envelop pushing, creativity, thinking outside the box, breaking barriers, taking beer to another plane of existence and whatnot. All very nice, yeah, but this bollocks hardly ever, if at all, mentions prices and value and yet, it is almost always received with open arms by an audience that seems to have lust part of their capacity for critical thought.

The other day, my friend Chris Lohring, owner of Notch Brewing, said in this interview"Nothing makes one more creative than to impose a limitation". The man is right! Though Chris was referring to his brewery's specialization, session beers, those limits he speaks about could easily be prices. It's very easy to pose as a creative innovator when you know that there is a market niche that will run to buy almost whatever silliness you can come up, regardless of price. It's a lot more difficult to find a way to make solid, interesting beers that can be sold at lower prices.

There is people who have managed that. This beer, for  example, that is proud to be cheap, or Dougall's in Spain, that has been receiving so much praise for being cheaper (and apparently better) than most. There are many, many more that have this philosophy, but unfortunately, they don't get the attention they deserve.

As always, the cause is on this side of the counter. That loud minority of novelty chasers, who are willing to travel hundreds of kilometres with the promise of being able to taste this or that beer in order to fulfill a detailed intoxication plan, who prefer to spend 10€, or more, on one bottle of a beer they don't know if they'll like instead of spending the same amount on several bottles of beers they already know. As long as the discourse is dominated by them, the gimmick peddlers will multiply, taking space away from those who really honour the noble trade of beer making.

Na Zdraví!

PD: If you are a brewer thinking of posting a detail of your cost to explain your prices, don't bother. The information might be interesting, but it lacks importance. What interests me as a consumer is to get value for my money. If you can't make your beers cheaper, then make them better, if you can't make them better, then fuck off, the market doesn't need you.

8 Apr 2013

Monday Musings

This Twit by El Jardín del Lúpulo got me thinking about a couple of things that have been discussed more than once in blogs and forums, but which are always worth getting back to.
(I love beer. I always drink Cruzcampo Glacial at -2ºC. It's the best. #TwitLikeYouHadBrainParalysis)

Before carrying on, I'd like to make clear that I believe that that hashtag is nothing but a joke. Unfortunately, though, there are not few craftophiles who actually believe that those who drink Cruzcampo Glacial, or another similar beer, are morons.

This attitude (that I must confessed to having shared in the past) is something that is bothering more and more in the beer world. By themselves, beer tastes don't make anyone more sophisticated, ethic, let alone more intelligent. In fact, if we are speaking about morons, it's not a moron that who drinks something they like and tell it to the world, but that who believes that a person who drinks something they like and tells it to the world is a moron.

Much to the chagrin of the craftophiles and the marketing discourse of some brewers, people drink what they drink because they like it, because they consider that a given beer (Cruzcampo Glacial, Braník, Quilmes Cristal, Corona, Foster's, Bud Light or however it is that it's called in your neck of the woods) meets their expectations or satisfies a need sufficiently so that the consumer is willing to pay for it.

The fact that you, I or my neighbour agree that that beer is Shit, does not mean that the person who drinks it is any way wrong because they drink it and tell the world they love it. In fact, that person, their friend or their neighbour could very easily say that one of those beers that are able to induce a boner to the "Expert Drinkers" (I wish I was making that up) are Shit.

But of course, one of the members of those Expert Drinkers will belittle that opinion because it comes from someone who doesn't really drink beer and therefore, wouldn't know how to appreciate that boner inducing brew, or is not able to enjoy it because they don't understand it.

And I wonder: could it be that the Expert Drinkers do not understand the Cruzcampos Glaciales of this world?

Perhaps it exists, though I doubt it, but I would love to see an independent survey on the demographics of the consumers of alternative beers. I'm convinced that the bulk of that market is made by people who buy alternative beers more or less often, but not exlusively. Meaning that perhaps when they get back from work on a Tuesday, they open a DIPA and drink it at the right temperature from the proper gralls, while on Friday or Saturday, when they with friends or watch sports at home, they open a macrolager and drink it straight from the bottle or ice cold without feeling any internal conflicts about it, because after all, it's just beer.

And while I write all the bollocks above, I'm reminded of something that's been going around my head ever since I had that duff Rauchweizenbock. If what determines "good beer" is taste, then there is no such thing as "bar beer". There are well made beers, and there are badly made beers, but that's something technical, I'm talking about the quality perceived by the consumer. As long as there are people willing to pay for a beer because they like it, that beer, to those people, at that moment, won't be "bad". You, I and my neighbour might believe it is, but will be just our opinion.

This, and several other topics, are what the book I'm writing with Alan is about. It's over 30,000 words long already, and we haven't finished the first draft yet. But well, I guess that won't be a surprise to anyone.

Na Zdraví!