29 Nov 2013

And Nøgne-Ø isn't Craft anymore

The news that Norwegian macro brewer Hansa bought a majority stake in Nøgne-Ø has naturally created a lot of buzz in the beerosphere (beerosphere, why not?), very similar to what happened a few years go with Goose Island, among others.

What I found fascinating, though hardly surprising, was the reaction of not few people. Judging by some of the comments, it seems they feel betrayed because some sort of imaginary promise has been broken. Some people have gone as far as to accuse the owners of Nøgne-Ø of “selling out”; like teenagers or hipsters lamenting that the obscure indie band they love so much has decided to allow Nike to use one of their songs in a commercial, only that it's worse. You can philosophically accuse an artist of “selling out”, as art is not supposed to be about money, but a brewery? A brewery starts as a business, it was about money from the beginning!

People like differentiating between shareholders and the owners of microbreweries, saying that for the former money comes first, while for the latter what comes first is beer. I believe they are wrong, money comes first in both cases. Yes, the owners of a microbrewery will have a closer relationship with the product their company makes and sells than the CEO of SAB-Miller or an accountant in Diageo, but at the end of the day, it's always about the money; the differences are in the strategies, policies, expectations and scales. If the most important thing was the love of beer, as many seem to believe, then they would remain home brewers or at most semi-commercial nano brewers selling basically directly to the end consumer as a source of extra income or to further finance their hobby.

That's not the case of Nøgne-Ø and countless others. It was profit that drove them to sell their beers through the state owned bottle shop monopoly in Norway; it was profit that drove them to sign international distribution deals to make their beers available in who knows how many countries already. They willingly compromised on quality in order to make more money. Between the brewery and the end consumer there can be three degrees of separation; there's no way on earth that the owners, or anyone in the company, can be certain about the conditions in which their product will be at the end the chain. They can only hope for the best, hope that the distributors, retailers and pub owners will take proper care of their beers, but even enthusiasts with the best intentions can fuck up royally sometimes; passion doesn't make up for a lack skills and knowledge.

To be fair, though, I can understand that some people, especially those who make a point of supporting independent companies, feel this as a loss; I don't think I would be too happy myself if Heineken or Staropramen bought Únětický Pivovar. I would likely take my money elsewhere, as there are plenty of really good independent breweries to choose from, but I wouldn't hold it against the owners, in fact, provided they kept the quality, I'd still buy the beer every now and again.

But let's look at this from a different angle. Let's say that you learn that this was the plan of Nøgne-Ø's owners all along: to set up a brewery, make it successful and build a strong brand relatively quickly, only to sell it to someone bigger after a few years (this is purely hypothetical, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's not an accusation), would your opinion on the beers change in any way? Would that make them suddenly worse? It shouldn't. Would you feel you'd been lied to? There, that'll teach you to blindly trust the words of anyone who wants your money.

Little update (forgot to add this): Congratulations to the owners of Nøgne-Ø, really. Good for them. And I wish them success with their new partners.

Na Zdraví!

PS: The timing of this news couldn't have been more appropriate, just when some people on the other side of the counter are, again, trying to define “Craft Beer” as something tangible for the consumer: beer that can only be made by an independent brewery. I wonder what BrewDog has to say on the matter.

27 Nov 2013

And here we go again...

.. I've got nothing better to do today so...

If it hadn't been for Cooking Lager's comment in Ed's blog I would have missed this. BrewDog has had another go at proposing the basis of a legal definition to the “Craft Beer” fairy tale. It's shorter than the previous one, and Blue-Moon-less, but it still packs quite a lot of nonsense.

Right at the beginning they say that:
”There is also strong precedent for legally defining Craft Beer. Legal definitions are everywhere and are designed to protect a product’s reputation from poor imitations. ‘Bourbon’, ‘Whisky’ and ‘Champagne’ are 3 examples where they have protected premium drinks from cheaper imitations and helped both the consumer and the category in the process. Cheddar Cheese anyone?”
This is almost like trying to make a Chinese contortionist out of logic, really. “Bourbon” (never miss a chance to harangue the American masses), “Whisky” and “Champagne” are protected indications that speak about the product they regulate and protect, where it is made and how, not about who makes it. Diageo, the world's largest booze making corporation have in their portfolio Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Rum, Cognac, Champagne and Bordeaux wines, and Tequila, and they could have České Pivo and maybe even Kölsch, if they wanted. In other words, when you buy one of those products, you know what you are buying, there's a guaranteed provenance and certain quality standards that the product must meet. But what do you buy when you buy “Craft Beer”? Looking at BrewDog's portfolio, it can be anything from the barely alcoholic Nanny State to monstrosities like Tactical Nuclear Penguin, all made in different ways with ingredients from all over the world. That's because the definition of Craft Beer, as proposed by BrewDog and pretty much everyone else who has tried, speaks about the producer and very little about the product itself, which, as far as protected indications go, it's the most important thing.

But let's got to the definition itself, which has been updated.

They've done away with the volume limit. European Craft Breweries don't have to be “small” any more. Very sensible, indeed. A new point was added that says that A European Craft Brewery is committed - ”If the brewer has an estate, at least 90% of the beer they sell must be craft beer.” I don't know what to make of it, I find it oddly specific, though.

The other three points in the definition have remained unchanged. #3 – Being independent, I take it for what it is, the sine qua non condition for eligibility for membership in BrewDog's private club (shrugs notgivingafuckingly).

I'm almost in full agreement with #2 – Honesty; I just don't see very much the point with: c) All their beer is brewed at craft breweries. If the recipe was designed by a craft brewery, the ingredients are also theirs, and they supervise all the production process and quality control, does it really matter who the owner of the factory happens to be, as long as everything is mentioned on the label?

It's #1 that bothers me, though. The say that a European Craft Brewery is “authentic”, that they brew all their beers at original gravity (obviously referring to High Gravity Brewing – HGB) and don't use any adjuncts that lessen flavour and reduce costs. Firstly, it is largely unnecessary, if #2 is complied with, then it'll be up to consumers to decide whether they want to drink a beer made with corn syrup or not. And secondly, and more important, it insults the intelligence of anyone with a modicum of knowledge about beer. To be honest, in principle, I agree with the HGB thing, it's clear that it's used only to either reduce costs or to increase capacity without investing too much in infrastructure. However, I've lately been wondering whether HGB hasn't become guilty by association, very much like some adjuncts. Could it be that you can still make great beer with HGB, if you know what you are doing? I'm not really sure; on the other hand, can James and Martin swear that no Craft Brewer uses other processes and techniques that can compromise the quality of the product only to reduce costs?

But the steaming, stinking pile of oxshit is in the adjuncts bit, really. How can you possibly determine the intention behind the use of an adjunct just by seeing it mentioned on the label? And, if the intention can not be determined, shouldn't we judge based on the end result? Westvleteren uses refined sugar for their beers, according to this definition then, they, and the rest of the Trappist breweries, many, if not most, Belgian brewers and anyone else who makes beers the Belgian way, can't be craft breweries, or at least those beers can't be considered Craft. People like James and Martin will obviously argue that the adjunct in question is used actually to give those beers the "right profile", or something along those lines. Fair enough, but they are still brewing cheaper and, if they used 100% malt, the beer would have more flavour, wouldn't it? (But then again, consistency has never been one of the characteristics of the craftophile discourse, really).

But what is that flavour thing craftophiles like to speak so much about, anyway? Can anyone draw an objective limit between flavour -ful and -less? No, because it's all subjective and relative to one's experience. Someone who mostly drinks big ass DIPAs or Imperial Motherfucking Stouts will likely find a good desítka or a Kölsch to be very dull and boring, whereas I know of people, lifelong drinkers the likes of Cruzcampo, who have flipped with their first sip of Gambrinus or Budvar Světlý, are the in any way wrong to consider those beers tasty and interesting?

The roots of all this lie in the moronic elitism – or elitist moronism – prevalent in much of the craftophile discourse, where “good beer” is an objective entity defined by what the crafterati approve of, based on their collective personal tastes; anything else is dull, boring, bland, mainstream, industrial and therefore, bad.

But none of this irritates me as much as BrewDog's cheap demagoguery, which, to make it worse, is seasoned with a pinch of hypocrisy.

In the paragraph that I quote above, James and Martin tell us that legal definitions have protected “premium drinks from cheaper imitations”, which, according to them, can help the consumer. This is curious, because James himself left a comment in my previous post on this matter saying:
”The definition is not, can never be, and was not intended to be a guarantee of quality. The fact that you criticize my proposed definition in that it does not guarantee quality shows a real lack of understanding of the beer industry in general and what I was setting out to achieve with the definition.”
So, if in James own words, this definition basically disregards quality, how can it possibly help us in any significant way, when quality is the most important thing for the consumer?

But wait, because it gets worse, they almost go full Fidel Castro when they say that a legal definition is important because it will “guide consumers and ensure they are protected from being exploited by monolithic mega corporations masquerading as craft brewers” Give me a fucking break! Do they really believe this bollocks? Of course they don't! Which makes it really worse. But then you see comments like this: ”Beer that is brewed without managerial, historical or profit related constraints. Allowing brewers to have artistic control of their beer. Thats craft beer!” And you realise the audience they are speaking to.

It's very clear to anyone with half a brain what this definition wants to ensure, that our money goes into the right pockets; the best interest of the consumer is and has never been among the priorities. I doubt it'll go very far, though. It's so silly that they would need to pay a shite load on lobbyist to have anyone who matters in these matters take it seriously, or so I hope.

Na Zdraví!

PS: If you haven't already, read Pete Brown's long post about craft beer. From a marketing perspective, it makes loads of solid points. It's a bit a bit of a shame that he almost blows it all at the end by saying: ”So long as bigger brewers remember that craft is about brewing before marketing, about flavour before packaging, about integrity and honesty before segmentation and exploitation”. Though, if he's right with that, then there is many a craft brewer who don't make much of craft beer, just sayin'.

25 Nov 2013

Monday comments

I came across two really fantastic beers the other day, Mate's from Pivovar U Bizona and Lví Srdce from Třebonice; the former a 12º polotmavý ležák, the latter a 11º pale ale, regular beers through and through, but with a twist. Mate's was brewed with yerba mate and Lví Srdce with juniper.

What set them apart from many other beers brewed with unconventional ingredients was that they still tasted like beer. If nobody told you, and you were not paying too much attention, chances are you wouldn't notice those ingredients. If you did pay attention, chances are you would only be able to notice an uncommon flavour that you would know belongs to the beer. That's exactly what happened to me with Mate's, which I had on tap at the Farmers Market in Dejvice. I bought it because it was a 12º polotmavé, just that; I loved it, and only when I was halfway down my second pint I learned about what it was made with.

I want to have more beers like this, really.

I would also like to see more beers like Old Burton Extra, from Fuller's Past Masters series. In a time when much of the attention still goes to brewers swinging their dicks while screaming, it's very refreshing to drink a boozy beauty that tastes reassuringly old fashioned - the beer equivalent to sitting in one of those big, brown leather armchairs after a long walk.

But enough with this onanism. Beer Man is one of the most interesting beer related projects I've seen in a long time. According to the lead of this interview with Ikary Perera, it is ”An antropoligical project that studies the role of beer as a cultural and socialising agent in tens of countries".

Beer Man is one of the finalists in a competition by Discovery Channel called Born to Be discovery. There's also a blog, but, frankly, I was expecting more. The idea itself, however, is still very valuable, and refreshing! While we waste our time and energy arguing derivative nonsense like “craft”, “industrial”, “styles” and whatnot, Perere reminds us that for most people beer is “just beer”, but at the same time, a lot more – something that we sometimes forget a little.

Let's hope the project does become a documentary series or, at the very least, something good to read.

Beer as “just beer”, what a beautiful thought.

Na Zdraví!

6 Nov 2013

Pečené koleno 2.0

A few years ago I posted a recipe for pork's knee that is still getting visits and comments from grateful readers. Since then, I've discovered the pleasure of slow cooking or, more precisely, slow roasting; you know, putting some meat in the oven a basically forget about it for the next few hours. I know I'm not saying anything new, but, for those of you who haven't tried it, it's a wonderful way of making food. So, instead of marinating, boiling and then roasting, what I did this time was only roasting, for about 8 hours. The word "heavenly" doesn't do justice to the result.

Anyway, this is what I did. With a mortar and pestle I crushed coarse sea salt, allspice, black and sichuan pepper, caraway seeds, thyme and a pinch of Hungarian paprika. I rubbed the 1.5 kg piece of pig with some of that mix, put it in a roasting pan. I showered it with about 0.3l of Pardubický Porter (I believe any full flavoured, dark, malt forward beer can work just fine), then I tossed in the rest of the spice mix together with a small onion cut in half, a couple of garlic cloves and some bay leaves. I covered the pan and put it in the oven to roast at 60°C for about 6 1/2 hours, basting it every now and again, then I turned the oven up to 150°C for another hour or so, and half an hour before serving I took the lid off, turned the oven almost all the way up to get the skin nice and crispy.

As I say above, heavenly doesn't do it any justice.
Everyone should try this out.

Na Zdraví a Dobrou Chuť!