30 Dec 2013

Last of the year

Look at that! This blog is 6 years old already. No! No! Wait! Don't go anywhere, please! This isn't one of those self congratulatory anniversary posts, a most onanistic aspect in an activity that, as a former (?) blogger from Asturias once genially put it, is already mostly onanism. No, it's none of that, it's worse. It's navel gazing at a level of tying to telekinetically remove the lint.

Most of you will have noticed that I haven't been posting all that much lately. In fact, this has been by far the least productive year in this blog. This is due to several reasons, first among them is that 2013 has been kind of crappy for me personally; there've been some good things, for sure, but the overall balance is negative. Not having enough time or money to go to places has also limited my output. All this, and other things explain why most of my post this year are rants. Rants are a good way to blow off steam and channel frustrations that aren't necessarily related to beers. However, after writing perhaps the ultimate rant with Alan, I'm kind of getting bored of that, too.

It's time to rethink my relationship with blogging. I've decided I will review beers again, but not as I used to do, or everyone else does. I want to review beers without using tastings notes – I'm almost tempted to call it a “redefinition of the beer review”, but that's quite silly, perhaps, though on the other hand, the reviews will likely be pretty silly, so there you have it. I'm still working around this and want to find the right beers to start.

I also want to write more stories. I feel there aren't enough stories written about beer and its people, even less if we look at Czech beer. I know many people whose stories deserve to be told and whose views deserve to be shared and discussed, and I'm sure there is a very large audience out there who will appreciate them. But I don't want to do it for free.

This isn't arrogance on my part, nor am I suggesting I'm going to set up a paywall here (that'd be stupid). It's about being fair with myself. You see, rants are easy, they are essentially opinions, and opinions is something you can pull out of your ass any day and without much work; at most, you'll need a few links to back them up. A story – a good story, that is – requires time, a more thorough fact checking than a rant and some research, too. Chances are that you will need to interview someone, and I don't like telephone or e-mail interviews, if they can be avoided. I much prefer to be with that person in the same room, talking to them, with hardly any questions prepared before hand, mostly listening to what they have to see, perhaps over a couple of beers, because stories tend to come out a lot better when you are having a couple of beers with someone. That sort of thing often implies travelling, which takes more time and also money. And that is, basically, the first reason why I don't want to write those stories for free, the other, the main one, is that I believe I can write pretty good stories and I'd like that work to be rewarded accordingly. I will have to figure out a way to make this happen. I'm open to suggestions.

Another thing I want to do is to start working on a second edition of the Pisshead's Pub Guide. A friend has been trying to get some financing for it, but there's nothing concrete yet and there may never be. Either way, I still want to write it and I want it to be better than the first, with a companion application for smart phones and tablets. We will see what happens with that.

That's basically it. Just don't expect a whole lot from me in 2014.

Na Zdraví! And Happy New Year!

21 Dec 2013

Thinking great

The other day, an article by The Guardian, Limited-edition beer: fool's gold? caused a bit of a stir. Alan commented on it, and so did others through several channels – some agreeing with the author, others not.*

You all know already what my position is. I like living in a world were producers of something as unessential as beer can charge any price they see fit for the things they produce; it's up to me, the consumer, to decide whether I will buy it or not, because at the end of the day, it's not about price, it's about value, and value is every bit as subjective as taste. If someone feels like paying through the nose for a limited-edition or hard-to-get beer, even if they can buy another of comparable quality, perhaps available all year round, sold for a fraction of the price, it's their choice as consumers and I've got nothing against it.

It does bother me a bit, however, to see the gimmicks some producers use to inflate prices without giving proportional value in return: fancy packaging for otherwise bog standard stuff, collaborations that actually don't bring anything new to the table, fake historical recreations, the use of exotic and very expensive ingredients that, when factored into the volume of beer produced with it you end up with a few micrograms per pint, and pre-manufactured scarcity – you know what I'm talking about, those limited-edition beers, one-offs and other hard to come by stuff, which to me it's the worse of all. Save for a few notable exceptions, there's nothing in this day an age, other marketing and opportunism, that is, that can really justify that scarcity and the inflated prices it often commands. But once again, all I can do is shrug, some people may find value in that, it's their money. I can ignore those beers or, if they do catch my attention, and are new to me, I simply apply this principle to get a fairly good idea before hand whether purchasing them will be money well spent or not.

What is fascinating to see, though, is how many apparently knowledgeable people not only fall for those tricks, but also celebrate them! (we've all been there at one point or another, I believe). The internet have convinced us that those beers are great, that they are some of the best in the world, creating in some people an almost herd-like desire to have them, to chase them, almost as if their reputation as beer savants depending on their being able to pen a tasting note of them.

Some of the comments, or rather complaints, after this year's edition of the Barcelona Beer Festival give a good example of this. Before the event the organisers posted the list of the beers they had lined up, some of which fell in the seen-as-great-rarely-ever-seen (at least in Spain) category. This prompted some people to draw detailed intoxication plans and then head to the festival. When some of those plans could not be fulfilled (apparently some of the beers weren't even tapped) the people that made them were a bit upset, some going as far as to say that it had been the promise of those beers their main reason to go the festival.

Yes, that's right. These people didn't travel to another city, spent money on accommodation, food and whatnot mainly because they wanted to spend a good day or two, drinking good beer in good company. No, it was because they were chasing a handful of beers they needed really badly to taste. What would have happened if one, or more of those beers had shown up by the end of the day, when they likely were physically and sensory tired, and perhaps a bit pissed as well? Of course, they would have run to the taps to buy a glass. Would they have been able to appreciate them in all their greatness? I doubt it. For them, being able to tell everyone and their neighbours that they have achieved that goal in their drinking careers would have been enough, I believe.

This reminds of something that happened quite a few years ago in Argentina at the launch of one of the latter Harry Potter books, can't remember which. A lot of hype had been generated by the publishers and the media, and a couple of specialised bookshops in Buenos Aires took advantage of it, very clever of them, announcing they would open their doors at midnight of the day the book was to be officially launched around the world – the Spanish version wouldn't be ready until some time later, only the original English version would be sold. As expected, not few people queued for hours outside the shop, waiting for that significant moment in literary history. One of the first people to get a copy of the book was interviewed by a newspaper. He said, full of joy, I'm sure, that he actually didn't know English, but still wanted to have that book before anyone else. The author of the report mentioned then the book, from the container of a story, had turned into a object in itself.

These beers I'm talking about have also become objects to some people. For them, drinking something flavourful, interesting, intoxicating isn't the real pleasure. The real pleasure is putting photos of those beers, together with a tasting note, in a virtual trophy room like Twitter, Untappd, Facebook, a rating site or a blog. Naturally, the people on the other side of the counter know about that and often manipulate it to their advantage, something that shouldn't surprise anyone, really.

Now, I'm not suggesting that those beers, or at least some of them, aren't great in their own right, they are, or can be legitimately considered as such. The thing is that they are expected to be great. So when they are great, all they've done was to meet an expectation, and if meeting an expectation is the least any product or service you pay for should do, doesn't it make those beers adequate?

Forget it, I'm getting too semantic here.

But there's little point in arguing which of those beers are great, or if they are worthy of all the hype surrounding them, or if they are better ones that are easier, and cheaper, to get. After all, greatness, like value, is in the palate of the beholder. Either way, I'm not all that interested in them. As far as I'm concerned, there's not beer special enough to make me dig a deep hole in my wallet, to make me go to much out of my way or to become an end in itself. And it really doesn't matter how great they happen to be, because they will lack the sort of greatness I have come to prefer, the greatness of the ordinary.

There's greatness in a well made, good, tasty beer that you can drink just because you fancy a well made, good, tasty beer.

I'm not speaking about any specific kind, style or category of beer. They can be strong or or sessionable, intense or mild flavoured, pale or dark, hoppy or malty, classic or modern, local or imported, why not? Whatever. I'm speaking about beers you often have in a cupboard, cellar or fridge and that can be popped open without that needing, or being, a special occasion that requires the right state of mind or health; beers that won't get offended if you pour it in any clean glass you have at hand and that will not expect, let alone demand, too much of your attention; beers that you can drink whenever you feel like drinking something with this or that characteristic while doing any of the normal things you do in your life, and that have nothing to do with beer. And if you don't happen one of them in your cupboard, cellar or fridge, you know that getting hold of it should not imply a substantial investment in effort, time or money.

Those beers are great, and their greatness, to me, is greater than the greatness of those other great beers. They are not objects, but beer, a mildly (or, in some cases, not so mildly) intoxicating beverage that doesn't demand a photo taken or a paean written.

Some people will disagree, I'm sure. They will argue that those great, but hard-to-get beers deserve all the attention that we should give them, and yet some, that they deserve that right moment in order to be fully appreciated, which is in fact what makes them so special.

But is that so?

It's pointless to argue about tastes, but let's try to see things in different way. If the pub or shop nearest to your home or work tomorrow started carrying those beers on regular basis, or if you moved next door to the brewery, or if they had a more 'normal' availability, and why not, price, how would your relationship with them change? Would you drink them, say, on Thursday evening while putting together a béchamel and listening to Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra or Freak Power, like I did with Schlenkerla Urbock? Or would you drop by that proverbial pub after work to knock down a glass or two on your way home?

Think about it for a second before you read on. Don't cheat. Be honest with yourself.

If your answer is yes, then perhaps what makes that beer so special isn't so much being extraordinarily good, but that it is extraordinarily rare, and that rareness is very likely fabricated. It's nothing but an artifice used by businesses to increase their profit margins and/or their cache among certain consumers.

On the other hand, 'great', 'awesome', 'wonderful', 'special', 'masterpiece' and other similar adjectives and descriptors have been so overused that they've been stripped of much of their original meaning, and not only when it comes to beer.

But why am I giving any fucks about this? I've got plenty of at the very least pretty good, solid beers within my reach to pick from, and I bet you have, too. And that should be more than enough for anyone. Is there any better, greater beer than a good one you can drink right now?

Na Zdraví a Veselé Vánoce!

19 Dec 2013

Midweek musings

You might not remember it, but last year there was a rather unnecessary brouhaha in Spain when Damm, one of the country's biggest brewers, decided not to allow a couple of promotional events – sorry, craft beer tastings – to be held during the Festa Major de Gràcia. Back then, as expected, the craftophile tribe took sides with the victims, the businesses who, taking advantage of the Festa's popularity, had organised those tastings to enrich their coffers – sorry, the local beer culture – and accused the Catalonian macro of a number of things, when all they were guilty of, actually, was demanding that the organisers of the Festa abide to what had been agreed in the contract both parties had signed.

Fast forward to the end of 2013 and we find that very same kind of people who in a review, and the comments that followed it, harshly criticised the organisers of the I Feria de Cerveza de Navidad de Pozuelo for allowing the sale of Heineken at the bar where the event took place. And they had they even nerve of promoting it somehow! Can you believe that? Vade retro! Anathema to those blasphemous heretics! How dare they!

The thing went more or less like this: unlike most people, even the blog's authors, believed at first, the organiser and the owner of the premises where the festival took place are two different persons, with the former renting the space from the latter. According to the organiser's own words, they had agreed with the owner that he would sell only cañas, not pints, of the Dutch brand, and that he would not offer it together with food, either, which the owner failed to deliver (it'd the interesting to hear the owner's side of things, but there's no reason to doubt the organiser). This is in fact reather irrelevant, as nobody among the complainers where aware of this detail. What bothered them was the very fact that, at an event dedicated to one brand, the beer of another was being offered, which some went as far as to say it was a disrespect.

Disrespect? Gimme a break! To whom?

To the attendants? Nobody was forced to drink Heineken if they didn't want it. Those who went to Pozuelos to drink craft beer could drink all the craft beer their finances allowed, and, had they wanted to, could have even shown the finger to the Heineken's tap to feel cool with themselves. If anyone felt offended because they had to share a room with people who were drinking a beer they don't like, well, that person has some more serious issues to sort out.

To the producers that were there showing their wares? To be honest, if I had invested time, effort and money to be at the festival, I wouldn't have been very happy to see people walking in front of my stand holding a glass of Heineken. But let's be honest, does the content of that proverbial glass make any difference at the end of the day if the person holding it leaves without buying my beer?

That aside, though, the producers had here the chance not only to compete among themselves, but also to compete, basically on equal terms, with one of the best known brands in the world, which a favourite among Spanish drinkers, and show their stuff is better. There wasn't anyone from Heineken there, only the waiters touting one of the products that pay their wages, while the producers had the massive advantage of being there, with their products, so they could tell people what they do, how they do it and why. It'd be up to the consumer to decide, then.

And that is where the problem lies. The thing that bothered those people wasn't actually so much the fact that the place where the festival was held also sold a macro lager, as much as that there were people who bought it. Every pint of Heineken + tapa that someone bought and enjoyed was a blow to the craftoevangelist discourse; that already tiring bollocks that insists that people keep on drinking oligopolistic industrial crap only because they aren't given the chance to drink handcrafted masterpieces, if they did, it would only take a sip of one of those living, evolving wonders of the fine art of beermaking to make them never want to drink again any of those filtered, pasteurised adjunct and chemical laden concoctions the monolithic multinational corporations dare to pass for beer. And yet, there you had, people who, even with the alternative right under their noses, went for the usual. The could be accused of a lack of spirit of adventure, though at the same time, hardly anyone can be blamed for choosing the certainty of the good over the promise of the better.

Actually, the availability of macro beer wasn't the biggest problem of an event that, in retrospective was almost doomed to fail. A couple of the producers that were there presenting their beers commented complaining of more serious cock ups on the side of the organiser. It's obvious that the bloke wasn't up to the task and thought it might be unfair to accuse him of deliberate wrongdoing, his lack of experience in the organisation of events is not excuse for his mistakes.

On a side note, the author of the blog speaks about a couple of badly made beers he drank at the event. It's curious, it seems that those beers don't offend the sensibilities of the craftophile crowd as much as the presence of Heineken.

Anyway, maybe what the Spanish micro-beer scene needs right now is a few more fiascos like this.

Concerning festivals, it could help those who would like to organise an event of this sort to realise that it is no walk in the park, and that if they aren't able, skilled or resourceful enough to do it well, perhaps they shouldn't even try doing it.

To the producers, it could help them revise their strategies and seriously ask themselves if all the investment in time, effort and money really pays off or whether those resources couldn't be better spent some other way.

Bloggers also should take this as an opportunity for some much needed self-reflection over their role in all this. Beer is a hobby that we have taken a bit too seriously and we can often become victims of our own enthusiasm, which results in our being exploited by business interests who expect that we will provide them with free advertising and activism solely for the fact that they wear a certain label on the lapels. More cynicism is needed, we must realise once and for all that our interests aren't the same as those of the brewers, pub owners, retailers, distributors or event organisers – they want to make money, we have to spend it.

Na Zdraví!

16 Dec 2013

Monday Morning Musings

I've come across a quite fun article in Spanish penned by one Patricio Tapia, a wine writer from Chile. Like, unfortunately, many of his colleagues, Tapia seems to know as much about the world beer as I do about the early childhood of Immanuel Kant, and to care even less. To be fair, though, it is also possible that the ignorance he flaunts in the article is nothing but a pose, a satire to the stereotype to better drive his message. Either way, it's evident that this bloke is not familiar wit some of the people I know, nor he reads much of what I read, otherwise, he wouldn't be saying thinks like ”To write the most perfect and enthusiastic 'tasting notes' of a beer, for words are enough 'It is really cold!'. However, if we ignore the temperature bit, four or five words could be more than enough for a good tasting note of anything, so I believe this paragraph would be a better example of what I want to say.
”Does anyone care about how to properly serve beer? Has anyone, ever, complained because a friend opened a bottle the wrong way? Has anyone complained because the glasses weren't the right ones? Has anyone, ever, stood up to complain because the intense flavour of a roast couldn't be paired with the lightness of the beer at hand?
But back to what Tapia actually wants to tell us: that he would like if wine was consumed as naturally as beer is, without all that formality. This reminded me of something I read a few years ago in an interview with someone somehow related with a Spanish DOC, Rioja, if I remember correctly, who, lamenting shrinking sales, wanted, as an alternative to revert the trend, to find a way to make wine a more “casual” beverage, like beer.

That's the way things are now. Some people are starting to wonder whether wine hasn't become too sophisticated for its own good (something specialised writers have greatly contributed to), and others insist to wrap beer in a the mantle of sophistication that's been plagarised from wine. It could be said that this is nothing but a reaction to the dumbing down of beer, though I see it more like a marketing gimmick to justify often inflated prices and questionable added values that exploits the insecurities of many consumers, who don't want to be seen as someone who enjoys drinking “just beer”. How much further can this go?

I really that with beer will have the same problem as wine. On the one hand, because, and regardless of the discourse of certain business interests, there are many among us who know very well that expensive in no guarantee for better, and on the other, because beer as a lifestyle accessory is a fad that sooner or later will go away. When that happens, it will be the companies that gambled on that model the ones with a problem in their hands, the rest of us will keep on drinking what we want, good beer at fair price will never be in short supply.

Na Zdraví!

6 Dec 2013

Remember Alan and Max's book?

“Shite weather!” He grunted as he walked in, passing a hand through his wet hair as if he expected to dry it that way.

He greeted the tapster and found an empty table near the bar. No need to order the beer. It had materialised with a “thump!” by the time he had taken off his coat and scarf. As he watched the half litre mug in front of him, he decided that no more shits would be given today about the weather, or anything else for that matter. As far as he was concerned, the whole world could go fuck itself in any way it saw fit, and to make a point of it, he downed almost one third of the glass in one long swig and put it down with an even louder “thump!”.

The first sip of the first beer of the day. That unadulterated pleasure devoid of the prevalent bollocks. That is what beer is truly about. That is the essence of beer. A blog post was beginning to write itself into his mind when he noticed a familiar face walking in cursing the weather. Just as he had.

“Hey, Alan!” said Max with a half-smile. “How're you doing?”

“Better now. What are you drinking?” Alan shook the rain from his coat.

“Beer. What else?”

Alan smiled.

As if waiting for that cue, the tapster thumped a pint right in front of Alan as he sat. Glasses were raised and for the moment no further words were said. It was now Alan's time to enter into his own communion with the first sip of the first beer of the day. He immediately softened, exhaling his worries.

“As nice an ale as ever I've had!” he declared with the utmost satisfaction sucking the wet from his moustache.

Max was startled. “Say what?! This is not ale! This has ‘lager’ written all over it! It couldn't be any lagerer even if it tried!” Max spoke with a slight hint of irritation and then proceeded to squeeze the last drops of his mug before taking the fresh, full one that had just been brought and showed to Alan so he could see how many times lager was written in the beer.

“How can this be a lager! Did you miss your mouth?”

The argument warmed. Words like “notes”, “hints of”, “mouthfeel” were used. Then thrown back and forth as if they were snowballs.  Soon the sanity, intelligence and knowledge of both were liberally put into question.

The tapster watched them in complete disbelief. Morons, he thought. Two seemingly normal fellows bursting into such a heated argument about something of such little importance. For him, and surely everyone else in his pub, it was just beer. What could be so complicated about that, he wondered.

The two then stopped, each steeping in their own juices.

“Oh! For fuck's sakes! Who cares?” said Alan sneaking a smile.

“Morons. That's what we are.” Max couldn't hold his laughter any longer. The tapster smiled and nodded as he wiped the bar.

“It's incredible how stuck in this bollocks we have all got,” Max continued looking around the room. "Look at the people here. Do you think they care? I mean, I'm sure there are some of them who wouldn't be able to recognise a hop bine even if it was growing out of their assholes! And do you think they aren't enjoying their beer? The fuck the do! And perhaps more than us, because they are not wasting any time or energy pondering over the stuff they have no control over. They are enjoying the beer for the beer's sakes and this beer it's not the centre of their universes in this pub, it's just another part of the whole lot. And I understand them. Let me tell you this,” and with a an almost conspiratorial tone, he said: “I wouldn't walk across the street for a glass of this beer, but I would walk across town to have it in this pub.”

Alan - thinking it wouldn't be wise to interrupt a Max in full rant mode - just listened, learned some new bad words and sipped his beer trying to catch up with his drinking. Once the Argentine paused to answer the call of his mug, the Canadian decided to add some fuel to the rant. He was after all still thirsty and had no intention of cutting the discussion short.

“I've noticed a pub around the corner with some pretty interesting beers.”

“Oh, yeah," Max sneered. "That place. Have you been there? It's got the atmosphere of a dentist waiting room. I won't argue about the beers there, they are lovely, much better than this.” The second mug was gone, deftly replaced by a third one. “But you know, though the truth is always in the glass, beer is a lot more than that.”
The above excerpt is the first few hundred words of the book Alan and I have been writing together since January. It's almost finished, we need to cross the last few i's an and dot the last few t's. Its working title, which may or may not be the definite, “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer – A Rant in 9 Acts”.

2013 has not been an easy year for either of us. It was hard sometimes to find the time, the energy and the right mood to sit down and write, picking up the tale where the other had left it, but it's been fun, a lot of fun, and a bit addictive in some way; we had originally planned 30,000 or so words, but it grew to almost 50,000. It was fairly easy to get carried away once we started writing; the narrative structure we gave it – a surrealist journey in the time-space continuum to wherever and whenever it was that the beer decided to take us – allowed us to get a bit silly at times – we are talking about beer, after all.

What we set to achieve with the book will be very clear to anyone who reads it, in fact, I think it's quite clear from the excerpt – to challenge the prevailing beer discourse. On a more personal level, and I believe I'm speaking for Alan, too, we wanted to challenge ourselves as writers. Putting together a book of this kind requires a more solid intellectual consistency than writing a bunch of topically related blog posts that can be separated by months, if not years, as sooner or later you come across something that makes you review your opinions, more so when you are writing with someone whose experience with beer, and life in general, is vastly different from yours.

This last bit to me was the best thing about writing this book. I've been following Alan's blog for six years already, we had exchanged a few, friendly e-mails before and not much more than that, so I can't claim that we knew each other very well. The idea to write the book together was his (I was thinking of something else), but I loved it from the get go, and after almost a whole year working with him I couldn't be happier with the result. Not only the book is like one of those very rare collaboration brews that go beyond the marketing gimmick and produce something really new, which likely neither of the partners could've done by themselves, but I believe that have also gained a good friend in the process.

Bugger, I'm getting too sentimental here! Back touting the book.

Once it's ready, the book will be published in Kindle and a few more other channels, too. It will have a wiki companion so people can know where to go and insult us (making friends wasn't one our goals), as well some other internety things that will allow us to interact with readers in some way or another – one of our plans is to write other stuff together.

So, stay tuned.

Na Zdraví!

PS: We agreed with Alan to post the excerpt an our comments on it at the same time today, here's his post, which he has cleverly used as his contribution to this month's Session.

2 Dec 2013

After the latest wave of attempts to define the undefinable

(...in which I took part, again, mea culpa)

Dear brewers, retailers, distributors, owners of drinking establishments, marketers, brand managers, CEO's, PR consultants, and anyone else directly or indirectly involved in the sale of beer, I've got a request for you, please:
As for us, we should stop playing their game. The only thing a beer needs to be is GOOD. All the rest* is different shades of bollocks, and bollocks never go further than the glass.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Credit should be given where credit is due, this was inspired by a post on the matter by Brazilian blog Bebendobem.

* This assumes, of course, that the company that makes the beer isn't a basket of cunts.