26 Jul 2013

On cans and boxes

Yesterday, while I was on the bus to Prague, I suddenly started thinking about cans. I don't know why, I hardly ever drink canned beer here (though I did while I was in Spain) mainly because none of my favourite beers come in that format (some don't even come in glass bottle!), but thought about can I did, and then I started thinking about another sort of container.

It's funny how things change with time. When I started to get interested in this beer thing there weren't many voices that spoke well of cans; to most beer people they were seen as an unworthy container for good beer, or at least that's the impression I had at the time.

But one day, some American craft breweries started to sell some of their beers in cans and our view on them changed because, well, it turned out it was wrong all along. Whatever the disadvantages of the container are, they are outweighed by the advantages, at least with some beers (though, considering this experience in Colombia with a 13 year old beer, cans might be also good for aging).

I realised then that the problem was never so much the container, but the beers we mostly associated with it, which got me thinking about tetra pack.

A few months ago I shared with you a video where a Czech wine expert blind tasted several bottom of the range wines. At one point he picks a box of wine and comments that, his opinion, tetra pack is the ideal container for wine and laments the bad reputation it's got because of the sort of wines it is associated with.

And he's right, if you think about it for a second, like cans, tetra pack doesn't let any air or light in, it's lighter and not as fragile as glass, and on top of it, it's even more stackable than cans! It'd be great for exports, for example.

I might be wrong, I believe I've heard about small British brewers using bag-in-box* for some beers, but I've never head about beer in tetra-pack. Would you buy beer in tetra-pack? If not, why? Do you know of any brewer that sells beer in this kind of container? If you are a brewer reading this, would you consider doing so? (Always assuming that there's nothing that technically prevents the use of the material).

Na Zdraví!

*tanková, by the way, follows essentially the same principle as bag in box, only that the outer shell is a stainless steel tank.

17 Jul 2013

Spanish Obervations

The reason for my recent trip to Spain was far, very far from being a vacation. In spite of that, and because I had to walk a lot here and there, I drunk plenty of beer (the heat almost forced me to do so). I didn't make any pictures, let alone take notes, but I still wanted to share with you some of my observations.

In my previous visit two years ago, at Easter, I was pleasantly surprised by the good condition of the mass produced beers at bars (temperatures notwithstanding). Unfortunately, I can't say the same this time; by and large, the beer that I had on tap was shit. Not the sort of “this is shit”, like I said the first time I drank a Weizenbier, that's subjective shit. I'm speaking about objective shit (really, it go to a point when I decided that, if all I needed was to quench my thirst, I would buy a chilled bottle or can at a shop).

As I've mentioned several times, I understand the process of beer making as a chain of many links that it could be said starts with the malting and ends in the glass. The biggest failure, in this case, was in the last link of that chain, the bar; or at leas that is the conclusion I reached, since the beers I had in bottles and cans didn't have such problem.

I doubt that bars in Ávila have the sort of cellar that is typical of Czech pubs, or that they store the kegs in cold chambers. To this we should add that cleaning the dispensing lines doesn't seem to be among the owners' top priorities, not a good combination, especially when the weather is so hot. It's not surprising, then, that most of the beers I had on tap were really far from being in top shape. This, in a way, could explain the reason behind the incredibly low serving temperatures. And yet, regardless of those, you wouldn't have needed to pay a lot of attention to notice beers that were very oxidised, with metallic notes, or even sour.

This isn't something exclusive to the big producers, but also a problem among micro brewers, or at least that is what this very good post in Cervecearte suggests. Someone much less cynic than I could excuse small brewers because for their lack of action regarding what happens to their beers after they leave the brewery, arguing their lack infrastructure, resources and their economic realities. The big brewers don't have that excuse, they just don't care. This is a clear example of poor beer culture and, as I see it, it is something where both big and small fail (regardless of the reasons either could give). But I digress.

Fortunately, not everything was so awful, there were a couple of exceptions.

At a bar near my parents place had Estrella Galicia and it wasn't bad at all (neither it was as cold as the rest). Of all the mass produced pale lagers that I had, this one was by far the best. And I say “pale lagers” because the one that I liked the most, Amstel Oro, was an pretty tasty amber lager that, at both places where I had it, was served at almost Central European temperatures.

But well, enough with the big brands, what about the “Artesanal” brand?

Ávila is a rather small town, at times it seems more like a bigger village, and that is why I was surprised to see quite a few places selling “Cerveza Artesanal”, something I hadn't noticed in my previous visit. At a bar within the old town walls there was Brabante, and several bars and shops sold Gredos, something like a local micro, as Sierra de Gredos is an area very close to Ávila. I didn't drink either of them.

In Brabante's case it was mainly because I saw it in just one place where I had not chance to go by again (and to be honest, I didn't bother too much, I had other worries to attend). In Gredos's case, the main reason was the lack of references of the beer. I'd never heard anything about it and the information on the label wasn't very encouraging. It opens telling us that the beer is made with the water from Sierra de Gredos, so far, so good, or rather, that was the only piece of valuable information that it had because the rest is pretty much the usual bollocks: brewed following the traditional method (what tradition?* Is there a brewing method that could be considered traditionally Spanish? And if so, what characterises it?), that the beer is natural (yeah, as natural as a chocolate cake) and that it hasn't got additives, adjuncts, this or that (wouldn't it be more useful to tell us what the beer does have instead of what it doesn't have?), and that's it, there wasn't even the mention of a style to at least be able to get an idea of what was inside the bottle.

There was another “Artesanal” beer whose label caught my attention, and not because of how pretty or informative it was. I've forgotten the name, it was rather German-y (no, it wasn't it was Tierra Vettona, thanks Barón de la Birra for the info), but it said it was a Pilsen. However, the back label informed that the beer was “top fermented” (and very probably, with secondary fermentation in the bottle, as it is common practice in those lands). You know that I am a bit of an anarchist when it comes to styles, but there are certain things that even I consider as minimum standards, and among them is that Pilsners are lagers, cold fermented and matured in bulk, not in bottles. Could it be that the beer was brewed with 100% Pilsner malts and with noble hops from Bohemia or Germany? Your guess is as good as mine. Apparently, the producers didn't consider that bit of information interesting enough to include it on the label, or at least not as interesting as the bollocks of the chemicals, adjuncts, etc.

Before anyone says anything, I'm not judging the beers, but giving my opinion about their marketing. It's possible that they are good, or even very good, and that I've missed something, but you know what? I couldn't give any fewer fucks even if I tried. I'm in a stage of my relationship with beer where the possibly good has no chance to compete with the probably or certainly good; and the beers from Bresañ fit perfectly into the latter; not only I'd already had two of them, but they also came very well recommended by my friend Fernando, the owner of La Barraca, the best bar in Ávila and a true beer sanctuary.

Last year, Fernando sent me a bottle of Bresañ Rubia and one from La Maricantana. I included them among a few quick reviews , remarking on the potential both had. Fuck me, didn't they capitalise on that potential! Very, very good both of them, and also the new one, Tostada. Well made beers through and through, both in bottle and on tap, with a very Belgian character. Of the three the one I liked the most (maybe because of the hot weather) was Rubia, a sort of tropical fruit salad with a few bits of citrus, showered in cheap sparkling wine, the kind that is good only to make cocktails, and a pinch of spice. Huge drinkability, in spite of its 7,5% ABV, a magnetic beer. La Barraca's beer list includes Gredos and that “Pilsner Ale” whose name I can't remember. Fernando didn't say anything about them, and I didn't bother to ask, with such a good beer in front of me, it is easy to forget about the unknowns.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I wouldn't be surprised if they labels of Bresañ had the same shortcomings and bollocks as the others, but I didn't pay attention to them, really.

* The breweries web page sheds a bit more light on the tradition thing. The owners say that it comes from their grandparents, who made beer at home “the malt and hops grown by themselves” and that the whole family drank together because the beer was healthy and natural (well...) and so on. All very romantic, but I find it hard to believe this story, not just because the weather conditions in this region are not the most adequate for growing hops, but also because MALT IS NOT A FUCKING CROP!

12 Jul 2013

This week in the Prague Post

After five years of not having a place to have a beer I like near my home, the sudden appearance of one of my favourite brews gives me more than one reason to celebrate.

You can read it here.

Na Zdraví!

1 Jul 2013

Some Monday Musings

Consumer Reports, something like the American Version of dTest, published their choice of the Best Craft Beers, where you can read this gem:
"The best lagers are very tasty but not quite complex or intense enough to be excellent."
This ranks among the most stupid thinks I've read about beer. The people who wrote this seem to understand beer almost as well as I understand the rules of Armenian grammar.

Now, I've got no problem if someone prefers complex or intense beers. That's fine, but this evaluation is presented as something beyond the "like it/don't like it" and it fails because the people behind it point as a sort of shortcoming something the beers in question are not meant to be. It's as if I criticised Lambics for being sour or a super hero film for not being realistic, it'd be more than ignorant, it'd be idiotic.

This has somehow reminded me of a couple of recent articles about wine, or rather, about wine tasting being a whole lot of bollocks (you can read them here and here). Both present a lot of examples and refer to several experiments to prove their point, and they prove it really well. After reading them (and other similar ones) I couldn't help but wonder how much this applies to beer tastings. A lot, methinks.

Beer tastings are also bullshit for the most part. I'm not saying that the experts (the wannabe experts and the rest) are deliberately lying to us (well, at least not most of them), but, as those wine articles show, they are likely being lied to by their own brains.

It is well known that our senses receive a lot more information than we are aware of. That's because the brain filters much of it and then interprets the rest (or something like that). The problem is that the way the brain interprets the information can be affected by innumerable factors, and this can result in the same object being evaluated differently depending on expectations, prior information, personal experience, sensory memory, visual stimuli, environment, health, etc. (which is why I find it hard to take seriously any review of a beer that was drunk at the end of a long session and/or day of boozing).

This in turn has made think about this whole "using the right glass" thing.

It's all quite overrated, really. Firstly, because if the shape of glasses is so important, how come only one kind is used at professional tastings and competitions?. Secondly, because of my own experience: the other day, because of laziness, I drunk Primátor Weizen in an earthenware korbel and it tasted every bit as good as if I had drunk it from a "proper glass", and the same can be said about those beers I drink from plastic cups at festivals.

Now, I'm not saying that there isn't any logic whatsoever about the shape of some glasses, but much of it seems to be accepted as almost an unchallengeable dogma. How many of you have tasted the same beer from different glasses? Hardly anyone, I suppose. So why do so many geeks fret so much about this matter?

The answer is quite easy, looks. I believe that the "proper glass" thing is mostly about looks; some beers look better in some glasses than in others, at least those are our modern "standards of beer beauty". A weizenbier, to me, looks a lot better in a "proper glass" than in a mug and since, as the experience of the coloured white wine mentioned in both of the above linked articles show, looks will affect our liking of a beer.

So there's that, "proper glasses" aren't that much bullshit after all. If you are told that a beer tastes better in a specific sort of glass, chances are that you will believe it and believing can really make reality real.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all this: when it comes to sensory experiences, never put too much trust in the word of the experts, they can be the result of an illusion. Trust your own senses, pay attention to what you are drinking and you'll be fine.

Na Zdraví!