31 May 2013

Interview in Pilsen

Last Wednesday I was assigned by the magazine Beer Connoisseur to go to Pilsner Urquell to interview Václav Berka and I had a great time.

Berka, of course, is pretty well known personality here, almost a celebrity, in fact. He's the most visible face of the most iconic Czech beer brand and he's a pretty cool bloke! He showed me around the brewer, starting with the maltings, which aren't open to visitors, and he let me peek into the decoction kettles, something that visitors don't get to do, either. All while he answered to all my questions. Thanks to it I was able to learn a few things I didn't know.
  • The bottling line has a capacity of 1m bottles/day, and it's used not only for Pilsner Urquell, but also for Gambrinus and Kozel, which is brought by tank lorries.
  • In 1913, Pilsner Urquell was brewing 1 million hl, today production is bit less than 2 million.
  • There's a curious story about the establishment of Gambrinus. Urquell was already quite successful in the late 1860s and group of investors from the local German community wanted to compete making a beer as similar as possible. For that, they wanted to have the same water source as PU, so they decided to build their brewery next door. To prevent any objections from Urquell, in their building permit application they said the intended to build a distillery.
  • In 1913 there were four large breweries operating in Pilsen. Besides Urquell and Gambrinus, there were Prior and Světovar, that opened that year. Gambrinus would buy (and shut down) those two, and in 1932 they would merge with Urquell.
  • The maltings produce 85,000t a year. Most of that is used by PU, the rest goes to Kozel and Gambrinus. Radegast, the other brewery of the group, has its own maltings.
  • Pilsner Urquell was first filtered at the end of the 19th century in response to the competition. The owners were adamantly against filtering, but they had no choice but to vow to the trend in the market and started to filter some of the production to satisfy the demand. This is interesting because it is the exact opposite to what happens today and Berka was wondering when will the tide turn once more.
  • The cellar complex is 9km long and and it's always pretty chilly in there.
The best thing of the whole day, by far, was to share a few beers with Berka in the cellars, right next to the wooden barrels. We talked for over an hour, not only about Pilsner Urquell, but also about pubs, beer in general, beer culture and shared a few stories, too; it was almost like starting a casual chat with a stranger at an old school pub.

Of all the chat, what made me think the most was the importance Berka gives to the way the beer gets to the patrons at a hospoda, how much he knows about the subject and how much he wants to improve all that. He wants to implement a system to reward and motivate those who see that the beer reaches the glass in the best possible conditions.

Some of you will say that all that is marketing and PR, and you will be right to some extent. However, we must not forget the old Czech saying "Sládek pivo vaří, hospodský ho dělá" (beer is brewed by the brewer, but made by the pub owner). There's so much truth in that! As I said a few weeks ago, to me, a beer is not fully made until it gets into my glass. That is where all the bollocks end. All the stories, the words, the marketing, the passion, the debate about filtering/pasteurising or not will mean fuck all if I get a beer in bad shape. There should be more small brewers who pay more attention to this part of the process, which is perhaps the most critical of all.

My opinion of Pilsner Urquell has not changed since last October. It's still not my favourite and I don't like the company that makes all that much. But there is no doubt about the attention they give to some details, something that deserves praise and should be an example to many of those who consider themselves craft brewers.

That aside, though, having the chance to meet and share a few beers with someone like Václav Berka was a great experience, one of the most interesting I've had as a beer writer/blogger.

Na Zdraví!

24 May 2013

This week in the Prague Post

Gambrimus nepasterované. A new ad for Staropramen. Heineken CZ promoting Krušovice Pšeničné, plus some PR shenanigans on their part and the fallout of the mycotoxin affair. All in one package.

You can read it here.

And I leave you with a thought:

"Better crap beer in great company than great beer in crap company".

Na Zdraví!

22 May 2013

11 years

I had forgotten about it. Last year, the year before and the one before that I had chosen some special beers to celebrate my anniversary in the Czech Republic. I hadn't thought about it this year until I was sitting last Monday afternoon drinking a Postrižinská 11°.

It was that 11 degree beer that made me realise that I've been living here for 11 years. How appropriate!

¡Fuck me, time flies! As I've already mentioned, moving here has been the decision of my life. This country is far from perfect (and which is?), but despite all the shortcomings, I still like it as a place to live, work and struggle. As a beer lover, on the other hand, I can't imagine a better place than Prague right now, the scene in the last few years has changed incredibly (and not only in Prague). I can still buy a great beer like the above mentioned 11º, at 12CZK a bottle, I can still have Pilsner Urquell tanková in any neighbourhood and now, on top of that, there are 14 brewpubs, two distribution based microbreweries (plus the one at the university), a ever stronger presence of regional and micro beers from the whole country, thanks in great part to the ever growing number of multi-tap pubs, which coexist in the utmost peace with the classic minimalist pubs, supermarkets with wider beer diversity, 6 pivotek and, as if all that wasn't enough, I live near Únětický Pivovar.

Nothing more to add. I'll go get a beer to celebrate on.

Na Zdraví!

20 May 2013

Hmmm... what was it that I wanted to talk about?

I had the draft of a post somewhere in my brains, one that was freely inspired on an article I read recently that made me think about pubs and why we buy them, I guess I will have to look for it, it may have drowned a little last Saturday at Černokostelecký Pivovar.

Fuck me! What a great time I had!

Really, Vysmolení es an almost ideal beer event. Gorgeous place, excellent beers. Four specially brewed for the occasion: a desítka that perhaps had a bit too much Munich malts (brewed in Varnsdorf), but that it was still great as the first beer of the day; a dvanáctka of the kind that laughs in the face of those that say that Pale Lagers are boring (brewed in Kounice, which is slowly becoming one of my favourite micros) and two smoked beers (brewed in Přerov), both with almost the same recipe, the only difference being the kind of smoked malt used. Then there were two beers dispensed from pitched barrels, one the Bavarian way (a surprisingly brilliant 14º from Nová Paka), and Únětická 12º with the help of an old air compressor, both with remarkable character.

Six beers, no more. I think it's great! It's a bit like going against the flow, beer events today often promise hundreds of different brews, but less can be better. In just a couple of hours you'd have gone through everything and from then on, you can focus on what is really important, drinking and having a good time with friends well into the evening. We need more events of this kind.
I also wanted to thank Milan and Vodouch for letting me spend the night at the brewery. You can't imagine how fantastic it is to be able to drink the whole day, until well into the wee hours, knowing that there will be a bed waiting for me right upstairs from the bar. And how nice it is to wake up (well, not THAT nice) in the morning and to have for breakfast garlic soup and a 19º Porter lagered in unlined barrels these people brought from Spain.

A weekend can hardly get better than this.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I've been told that the four custom-brewed beers will be showing up at U Vodoucha and U Slovanské Lípy here in Prague. Highly recommended.

15 May 2013

Are you around this weekend?

Fancy doing something really cool? My friends at Černokostelecký Pivovar are holding the second edition of Vysmolení.

Last year, I had a great time and I'm really looking forward to going again this Saturday.
The excuse for this event is to pay homage to a once very important trade in the Czech beer industry, the cooper, presenting perhaps one of the important jobs these artisans had, pitching.

Like last year, there will also be four beers specially brewed for the occasion, a desítka, a dvanáctka and two smoked beers, one made with beech smoked malts, the other peat smoked. The beers will be poured from wooden barrels with two dispensing methods, top pressure with air compressor and old Bavarian style, by gravity.

Personally, I'm looking forward to see how much the restoration works at the brewery proper have advanced. What these people are doing is really commendable. Instead of setting up a brewpub, they decided to put back into work the original brewhouse, that is fired with wood or coal and has a 160hl capacity, and that was last used a quarter of a century ago.

Of course, that is only the cherry on the pie of something that will certainly be a day full of good friends, good fun and good beer.

So you know where to find me.

Na Zdraví!

13 May 2013

Monday Musings

Peklo na talíři (Hell on a plate) is an internet "TV" show that reviews products sold by supermarket chains, trying to raise awareness about the rubbish we buy and the tricks used to sell it.

The topic of this episode (sorry, I can't embed it) is cheap wines and, as usual, the host has invited a renown authority on the matter, who will, as announced, blind taste eight samples.

After going through them, the expert explains that the wines belong to the "entry level" category and, among other things, mentions something very interesting, the key about wine is personal preferences and expectations. Taking this into account, this good man picks two wines saying that they are good for what they are, simple, clean and "work like wine", he also says that they are fine to mix with soda or a summer cocktail.

I didn't bother to read the comments, but I can imagine the reaction of some connoisseurs (or people who fancy themselves as such) after seeing that an authority of that caliber praising "such crap". And I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be too different from the reaction of many a craftophile and fetishist, if someone did something similar with low end beers, which, much to the chagrin of some, despite their low price, can be quite fine.

As I've been saying for some time, just like with wines, the evaluation beers is all a question of personal preferences and expectations. For most people, "beer" means "moderately alcoholic, inexpensive refreshment", and the best selling beers in each country fit into that paradigm. People drink those beers because they consider them good for what they are.

Unfortunately, a great part of the craftophile discourse isn't be able to wrap its mind around that. Some seem to believe that people live in a lie, that at some point in history the Illuminati, the Freemasons and the Reptile People decided to brainwash us with crap beer that nobody in their right mind could enjoy so as to make it easier for aliens to invade us, or something along those lines. While there are others who strongly believe that the opinions and preferences of the niche they belong to should be considered a universal truth in everything that relates to beer, failing to understand that beer is not art.

It's been some time since I left "beer evangelism" behind. On the one hand, because I stopped worrying what other people were o were not drinking, and on the other, because I believe it approaches beer in a totally wrong way.

The evangelist and the craftophile tell the average consumer "what you drink is shit, it's not beer. Beer is what I drink," and they are awfully wrong. This doesn't mean that an evangelist or craftophile should change their opinion about those beers they qualify as "shit", but that they should accept the fact that the average consumer sees them as "good", that they enjoy them for what they are, no more, no less, and that there is now way anyone can be wrong about it.

Of course, this mentality isn't something isolated, but part of a bigger line of thought, the belief among craftophiles that their tastes and habits represent the true beer culture and that those who drink mass produced beers, not only live in a lie, but also lack culture.

¡What a massive lie! Firstly, because they apply to beer the already obsolete elitist concept of "culture" and secondly, and even more important, because to a certain extent, and at some level, many of these people, in spite of how they see themselves, don't understand "beer" anymore.

Beer has always been a part of a where and when. When drinking or evaluating a beer becomes an end in itself, when the main goal is to check some boxes, assign a score or write a review, beer is abstracted from its natural environment, which is the where and when. It's a bit like trying to understand an animal by the way it behaves in a zoo.

To me, therefore, the person who has a better understanding of beer is not that who at a festival starts taking tasting notes, who regularly attends or organises tastings, or is able to recognise with a sniff the many different hop varieties from around the world, but that who sees beer as one of the elements of a where and when and who takes on beer in its natural environment, even if that means occasionally doing things that "experts" will find reproachable, like drinking straight from a bottle. And there is the true beer culture, drinking without the need of paying more attention than the necessary to determine whether you like the beer or not, while letting oneself to be carried away by a given where and when.

Na Zdraví!

10 May 2013

This week in the Prague Post

The third installment of the series about non-pub places where to have decent beer. This time in Prague 6.

You can read it here

Na Zdraví!

3 May 2013

Let's talk about what's important

Let's talk about "Premium Beer".

Why are some beers "Premium" while others aren't'? How can we define "Premium"? Is it a matter of ingredients? Is proper "Premium Beer" made with 100% malted barley o are natural ingredients like rice and corn also allowed? And if so, is there a limit in how much of the can be used? Isn't the use of these adjuncts maybe mandatory? Can rice and corn be used to give character to a "Premium Beer" or should they be used only to cut down costs? Is there a maximum or minimum production volume for "Premium Beer"? Does this limit apply to each batch or annual production? How about processes? Can a beer be "Premium" if it's not filtered and pasteurised? Is "Premium Beer" allowed to "evolve" or is it better to mummify it in a bottle or can? And is the can a worthy container of "Premium Beer"? Is "Premium Beer" a prerogative of big brewers or can it be produced by small ones, too? Can it be brewed with passion or only robotically and without any feelings? Must brewers issue a manifesto about the philosophy and spirit behind their "Premium Beer"?

Ridiculous, init? Well, if you think about it, not much more than the constant attempts on this side of the counter to find a definite definition of "Craft Beer". This week alone, there have been two, one in Spain and another one in England. In fact, Pete Brown asks if anyone is still interested in a definition of craft beer. Unfortunately, it seems so.

But I'm in a fairly good mood today, so I decided I would present you with what I believe is a definition of "Craft Beer" that will put an end to all this debate once and for all.

As I was saying on Monday, what we all really want is "Good Beer". All the rest is subordinated to that. We can all agree on that, I believe. When we decide to buy a beer, we don't really do it because of its denomination, we do it primarily because we know we will like it, we have reasons to believe we will like it or we expect to like it. Nobody buys a beer knowing, believing, expecting they will not like it.

In an ideal world, perhaps "Craft" would equal "Good". The sad truth, however, is that this doesn't happen, and never will, ever.

In theory, and still with a great intellectual effort, we could reach a consensus on the meaning of, say, "small". We could even determine what ingredients, processes and technologies may or may not be used to make "Craft Beer", and regulate accordingly.

The problem is that "Good" will always remain an opinion based on a sensory perception, one that can also change at any given moment. And since nobody is wrong when they say they like or don't like a beer, it is simply impossible, even at a theoretical level, to determine consensually what is good and what isn't. Therefore, "Craft Beer" is a label, a brand, and as it happens with every other label or brand, it has been assigned a series of more or less plausible and logical attributes to convince the consumer to buy it.

Taking all this into consideration, I propose the following: a beer (or brewery) is "Craft" when the person that commercialises it so indicates. Very simple, clear and watertight. No room for vague interpretations. For us, consumers, it works wonderfully (what the other side of the counter might think of this is their problem), after all, what we want to buy is "Good Beer" and a beer isn't good thanks to how well its maker fits into an arbitrary definition made up to serve commercial interests; a beer is good because it is (very likely) well made and, first and foremost, because you like it; while a crap beer will still be crap regardless of what is or isn't written on its label.

So, I don't know about you, but I think I'll have myself some "Good Beer".

Na Zdraví!

PS: If some day, while drinking "Good Beer", someone asks you if it is "Craft", answer saying "I don't know, it's good. It's brewed by so and so, here or there". If this person insists on seeing the "craft credentials" of your beer, you will be speaking with someone who doesn't consume beer, but brands. People who consume brands are fools and life is too short to waste time arguing with fools.

This week in the Prague Post

I speak about the upcoming Czech Beer Festival, that is being held again in Výstaviště Praha – Holešovice, with a few changes, unfortunately, not all of them for the better.

You can read it here