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