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.

6 Sep 2013

Are you around next weekend?

So, you've got a plan already.

Sat. 14/9 is the tenth edition of Černokosteleckého Vykulení at Černokostelecký Pivovar, which is very similar in nature to another great beer event, Vysmolení.
Though, as you can see in the image above, the beer list is much larger than the event in May, there'll still be beers tapped in different ways straight from freshly lined wooden barrels, including a couple of Germans, plus a Czech Porter that's been lagering in Catalonian red wine barrels since March, I believe. I can't imagine a better excuse for not missing it. 

Na Zdraví!

PD: Buses to Kostelec nad Černými Lesy leave every hour from Háje (381, 387) and take 45min to get there.

2 Sep 2013

Monday morning rant

When I came across this article in Food Republic “8 Simple Steps: How To Not Be A Dick While Drinking Beer” I thought it'd be another piss-taking on the beer snobs. I was wrong, very wrong; the article could be summarised as “if you criticise the holy craft beer loudly, your are a dick and a few bits of common sense and manners”.

To be fair, the author of the article, Jon Katz, does make a couple of valid points. It's a shame that they are drowned by the sort of craftoevangelist bullshit that I wish had been eradicated of the beer discourse already. It becomes quite painful to read, to be honest.

What prompted the author to write this piece was, in his own words, reading “a comment left by an unsatisfied beer drinker on a favorite brewery’s Facebook page.”

Unfortunately, the comment isn't quoted or linked, so we don't know what the author really means by passive aggressive, but it seems that what shocked him the most was that a beer from this brewery--one that he considers good--was described as “dishwasher”, which to him is too harsh and unnecessary. (though, to me, is a perfectly good descriptor for some beers I've had).

The real bollocks, however, starts in the second paragraph, which opens with this pearl of wisdom, and I quote:
“It’s easy to forget that beer is a privilege, not a birthright.”

I wish I could believe that nonsense is only the product of a poor choice of words, but I can't. This is similar in nature to that “craft beer saved good beer from extinction” idiocy uttered by a Spanish based English brewer, but regardless of that, my feelings are confirmed by the own author later in the same paragraph when he says: “converting a friend to craft beer-ism”. He makes it sound like some sort of hardcore, dogma-based, ideology, something that should not be questioned.

The list itself continues pretty much along the same lines, #1 - Constructive criticism is constructive if you are, says:
Breweries want to hear from you, but don’t sabotage their social media platforms with offensive messages. You bought the beer and maybe it’s not your favorite, but don’t drive away potential consumers because you got upset. If you email the company directly, they’ll send you a replacement beer for free. Orange County's The Bruery recently did this with the release of their slightly-off Ebony & Oak stout, so it really does happen.
Now, I agree that there's no real need to be offensive, and that criticism should be fair and well argued, but what the author says is still many ways of wrong. If someone got upset--not mildly disappointed, but upset--with a product they bought, they have every right to voice their displeasure in any way and through any channel they see fit. Brewers that set up a Facebook page to interact more directly with consumers should accept that as part of the game (and this also applies to the breweries' fanboys). If they are confident of their products and have earned the respect of a solid consumer base, then they have nothing to fear (and if they feel a negative comment is unfair or offensive, they can always delete it).

But where the author is not only wrong, but also almost irresponsible is in the second part of #1.

I'm sure that there are some breweries that will gladly send you a replacement if you give them a good enough reason, but what the author is suggesting is that all of them do so, always. No, they don't and, unless we're speaking about a clear cock-up in quality control, I don't see why they should.

The next point, #2 - Yes, beer is expensive but it’s generally worth it, is even worse:
If you’re buying an expensive beer, there’s a reason for it: making good beer can be expensive, especially the barrel-aged variations people (read: we) love. Part of splurging for a beer is the adventure, and like any adventure, if it’s not what you expect, don’t be a jerk. Wine drinkers pay $50 a bottle for young wine all the time and some of it suuuuucks, but it's part of the game. Rate it on a website specifying the batch number or vintage year, and move along.
Where to begin? O yeah. Making good beer can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be so, on the other hand there are many expensive beers that are just average stuff dressed in fancy clothes and not few that are downright shit. Telling the world that you feel you've been ripped off by either of these two kinds of beers does not make you a jerk, it makes you someone who values their money, an idea the author doesn't quite seem to grasp, or at least not when it comes to “craft beer”, as his comment about young wines clearly shows. That comment, by the way, is a really stupid way to make an argument, it's almost like comparing sausages to chocolate. Firstly because wine is a lot more expensive to make than beer. Secondly, because the fact that an expensive, crappy beer happens to be cheaper than a crappy wine, doesn't make that beer any less expensive or crap.

As a capitalist, I love living in a system that allows producers of something as unessential as beer to set any price they see fit for their products. Whatever their reasons are, it's their choice and their right. But those who sell beer that can be considered expensive should realise and come to terms with the fact that high prices will result in high expectations, and those expectations will have to be met. Arguing higher costs not only is poor excuse for lack of value, but it's also an insult to the consumers' intelligence.

The sort of craftoevangelism people like Jon Katz propagates should die already. It's not doing anyone any favours. Beer is not a fucking privilege! Breweries don't put their beers on the market to grant us any special rights or benefits, they do it because it's their business, and once those beers are on the market, they become just another product that we can choose to buy with our (in many cases diminishing) disposable income. Without us, the consumers, those breweries would not exist and we should expect, no, demand, more respect from them.

People who have paid for a product can't be considered jerks for expressing their legitimate opinion, regardless of how harsh that opinion might be. If trashing macro breweries is accepted, and even expected, then craft brewers are fair game, too. After all, they all want the same, our money.

Na Zdraví!