26 Aug 2013

Pivovar Hostivař, a lazy review


So, I finally made it to Pivovar Hostivař. Ever since its opening in April (I think it was) I had heard very good comments about it, but I was put off by its seemingly remote location, but the other day I was left with a couple of hours to kill in my hands and decided I would put them to good use.

Getting there turned out to be easier, and in a way, faster, than I had thought. There are buses from Skálka that take you there (and there's one, the 175, from Florenc, which must take half day), but I was in Vršovice and I chose to take tram 22 all the way to the end at Nádraží Hostivař and then take the bus (125 or 183) a couple of stops to Řepčická. Easy peasy japanese.

The brewpub can be seen from the stop, it's hard to miss. Unlike most Czech brewpubs and micro breweries, Pivovar Hostivař was not set up in an existing facility, but built from scratch. It looks a bit like a wooden box with one window in the corner showcasing the stainless steel brewhouse. I'm not much of a sucker for modern architecture (or what mostly passes for modern architecture in Prague), but I must say that I like what they've done here, the building fits perfectly in the surroundings.

Modernity continues in the interiors, but fortunately, without any of the faux-retro stuff of the Pilsner Urquell restaurants or the the almost McDonald's style of Potrefená Husa, but something very personal. Two of the walls are windows and there's an impressive mural depicting the brewing process made of crown caps covering another. It's all strangely welcoming. There's also a large garden that promises to be great place once the plane trees grow a bit and the kids' playground is added.

Service was very good; quick, attentive, friendly. Food., on the other hand was a bit disappointing. I only picked something from the limited lunch specials, smoked pork neck with spinach and potato knedlíky. It wasn't bad, just almost cafeteria-like bland; I was expecting more. Perhaps I should have ordered something from the rather interesting looking menu.

But what brings you to a brewpub is the beers, and Pivovar Hostivař gets those right. Their 11º does everything what a proper světlý ležák should do, no more, no less and I'm very, very fine with that. Their 12º is an excellent polotmavé, with a dandelion flower note managing to get herbal bitterness and caramel coated nuts to work together in harmony. The special beer that day was a Weizen, which was also the weakest of the lot. Just like the food, it was perfectly drinkable, but a bit too characterless for my taste. The H-Ale capped the session. Lately, I've become a bit weary of Czech made “Ejly” (I've got a piece on that in the pipeline), but this one turned out to be the of the kind that gives me hope for the future. It wasn't too aromatic, but it tasted clean and packed a lot of flavour in a solid, almost matron-like body, with a perfectly balanced hoppyness that, if my memory doesn't betray me, swung between the flower and the pine. Not very sessionable at 15º, perhaps, but a nice way to put an end to an evening (or in my case, an afternoon).

I also talked to one of the owners, who was doing management duties (we had met during that trip to Franconia two years ago). He came over to my table after he recognised me* and we had a bit of a talk (he also showed me around the brewery proper, nice gear they have), but that's something I'll leave for another post.

So the big question, is Pivovar Hostivař worth the trip? Yes, if you have the time, certainly. There was a lot of attention to detail put into the enterprise as a whole and that includes the beers, which, in this day an age with two new micros opening every month, is something that deserves a fair bit of praise.

Na Zdraví!

Pivovar Hostivař
50°2'46.940"N, 14°32'56.636"E
Lochotínská 656 - Praga-Hostivař
+420 702 202 903 - info@pivovar-hostivar.cz
Mon-Sun: 11-23

*As a policy, and unless I'm going somewhere expressly “on business”, I do not call or write to a place to let them know I'll be visiting them. Firstly, because I don't think I am that well known and secondly, because even if I was, I don't think I deserve any special treatment. That said, I'm always happy to talk to anyone that happens to recognise me. And yes, I happily paid my bill here like every other mortal.

23 Aug 2013

On ingredients. What ingredients?


A few weeks ago I was having a chat with U Medvídku's brewmaster Laďa Veselý, who, in between beers, told me something rather curious:

They had received a visit from Státní Zemědělská a Potravinářská Inspekce (State Agricultural and Food Inspection), who warned them about a couple of shortcomings in their labels, among which was the mention of yeast as an ingredient.

You can imagine my friend's surprise (he's been a brewer for decades and has worked at the Brewing and Malting Research Institute). And yet, it seems that yeasts are not an ingredient in beer according to Czech legislation.

That's something that may have made sense 200 years ago or so, but that sounds rather absurd nowadays, and not only if we are talking about unfiltered or bottle conditioned beers. On the other hand, I also remember that Pilsner Urquell booklet I read once that said that the beer was made with three ingredients, explaining that they didn't consider yeasts as such because they were removed once they'd done their job.

There is some logic into it. When I mentioned it on my Facebook page, someone commented that, strictly from a biological point of view, yeasts aren't and ingredient but an agent, since, according to this person, beer isn't made with yeasts but by yeasts, which is something similar to what Laďa was told by the SZPI inspector.

Once again, this will sound absurd to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about brewing, but what would happen if we applied the same logic to the other most commonly used ingredients?

There's no doubt about water. Someone once said that beer is actually enriched water, and maybe they are right.

Regarding hops, another one of the commenter on FB said that, with that logic, they aren't an ingredient since it's mainly the alpha-acids what it's wanted from them, but I see it very much like a relationship between juice and fruit; once we have extracted what we need from the product, the rest is thrown away like a peel.

The malts, on the other hand, there we have something interesting. What yeasts ferment isn't the grain, but sugars that aren't even naturally occurring in the grain, as it's case of the alpha-acids in hops, but are the result of the enzymatic hydrolysis of grain's starches that takes place during the mash. Once enough starch has been transformed into sugars, the grain is of no further use for that batch of beer and will not play any other role in the process.

So, and always applying SZPI's logic, if yeasts can't be considered an ingredient, why can malts? Of course, just the suggestion of that is even more absurd than the Czech legislation, and not only because malts provide to beer a lot more than starch/sugar, but it still gives you something to think about.

Na Zdraví!

19 Aug 2013

Just a quick thing


The debate of what is or isn't craft beer has been waning (I'm basically done with the whole thing), but there are still people around who haven't given up on their search for the ultimate definition.

Well, I think I have found it.

Mind you, it's a definition that has been stripped of all the marketing and PR generated dogmas of convenience. It's in this really good article about Lithuanian farmhouse brewer Ramūnas Čižas, who
"... uses no exact figures. The mash bread bakes for an hour, roughly, but he doesn't measure the time. He uses no thermometer, either. If he gets up in the morning and doesn't feel like brewing, he won't.
And
"... also uses his fingers to judge the temperature, but uses different fingers for the different pauses, to get the temperature right. He says that knowledge of this technique used to be considered a great secret.
The article also mentions the brewhouse of Ramūnas's grandfather, which is still in use and has some interesting features, but you'll have to read the article to find out more.

Anyway, my point is that Craft Beer, real, honest to God, proper Craft Beer is what this guy makes, all the rest are different scales of industrial production.

Na Zdraví!

12 Aug 2013

Some beer among all that water


The other day I went with my family and some friends for a short canoe trip on the Sázava river. It was fantastic, really; gorgeous scenery, quiet and fun for everyone involved, children included. Not even the insane heat was much of a nuisance; when there wasn't a gentle breeze blowing, all you needed to do to refresh yourself was to jump into the river. Believe me, if you ever get the chance to do something like this, take it, you'll not regret it.

But this blog is about beer, and not about travelling, and there was beer, of course.

We arrived in Týn n. Sázavou a bit after 9:30 and we met the rest of the group. Before we headed to nearby Čerčany to pick the canoes I was able to squeeze a quick pint, Ferdinand 11º, on tap at a shop that sold fruit, veggies, sausages, and beer. It was properly drawn, on a plastic cup, as it should be, and, needless to say, tasted lovely; few things are better than the first beer in a hot summer day.

Once in Čerčany we got in the water and off we went, to adventure.

It took me and my wife a bit to get a semblance of a rhythm going (and my daughter to stop shitting herself in fear), but once we sort of managed to control the canoe the ride was easy and a lot of fun.

We stopped for lunch at a very nice looking restaurant in an old water mill. I didn't feel like eating anything heavy, so I settled for nákladaný hermelín, surprisingly good. The beer, on the other hand was not. I think it was Konrad 10º, but I didn't bother to confirm it, it was in pretty poor condition and not very well tapped on top of it. I downed two pints, the first one decided to commit suicide down my throat and the second because I was still thirsty, and even dodgy beer is better than most things you can drink at a restaurant like this on a hot day.

A few kilometres later it was decided that we'd stop for tea. I don't know how much time had passed since lunch (I had no idea of what time it was, a bit of a luxury these days), but it could have certainly used a drink.

The place where we stopped turned out to be one of the most beautiful pubs I've been to in my life. Bistro Ledce, located next to a meadow where cows were quietly grazing, inside a building that used to be a cow shed or cow shelter (my knowledge of Bohemian rural architecture is a bit rusty, but it's a rather largish building with a wall missing on one side). The pub itself was very smartly put together: panels of crude chipboard enclosing the kitchen and the bar on the right and the loos, built in a similar fashion, on the left; between them, an open space with simple, partly mismatched furniture that spilled outside in front of the building. The staff was friendly and they were playing pretty good music. Beers on tap were Rychtař 12º and Prince Max, a really solid desítka that I wish Lobkowicz deployed more widely. I went for the 10, good form, fresh. I swallowed three and was happier than a pig in a pub in the middle of nowhere, I would have stayed there for the rest of the summer, if it'd been up to me.

We got back on our canoes for the last leg. We had to rush it a little, we didn't want to be late to return the boats and we still had quite a way to go.

In the end we made it with more than half an hour to spare. The offices of the rental company shared the building with a pizzeria and, since there was no other place in sigh, it was decided that we would dine there. I wasn't overly excited, really, the restaurant served Staropramen. I almost complained about it, by reflex, but I thought better. We were all tired and hungry and I didn't want to be one of those beer wankers that expect the world to accommodate to their tastes. So there I went, mouth shut, hoping that at least the pizza would be good.

It was good, very good, actually. As for the beer, the first pint doesn't count, I must have absorbed it through my skin. I didn't start paying attention to it until half way down the second pint, and let me tell you, it was not bad! At least not as bad as I remembered Staropramen Světlý and certainly more enjoyable than the last Gambrinus 10º I'd had. That second pint was followed by two more, and I wouldn't have had any problems with drinking another two had time so allowed.

On the way home I started thinking. Was Staropramen now better than Gambáč? After the Brazilians packed their bags, Staropramen was turned into the flagship brand of the group of breweries they had left behind, StarBev, which since last year has been under new ownership, Molson-Coors, and this might have brought in better quality, or at least, a return to some practices that the AB-InBev bean counters might have not allowed. At the same time, I've been finding Gambrinus harder and harder to swallow.

An idea started to take shape a day later. What if I compared the two most widespread beers in Prague? I thought of visiting a couple of good pubs of each brand to see which one was better at its best, and also tasting them side by side in bottles. It could be fun, and good material for a post.

It didn't get anywhere. I soon realised that it'd be a massive waste of time (and money) as I would end up proving absolutely nothing, and not only because I'm not a consumer of either of those beers.

Beer is always part of a where and when, and that Staropramen's where and when could have hardly been any better: pleasantly tired at the end of a great day, in a lovely place, with great people around. Now, if I went to Staropramen and Gambrinus pubs, I'd be in different wheres and whens, which will have an effect on the beers. On the other hand, tasting bottles of them side by side at home would be even more pointless as can't be arsed anymore with drinking beer just for the sake of analising them, it's a pretty silly thing to do.

So there you have it. I had such a wonderful day with my family and friends that even Staropramen tasted pretty good.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I hope you'll forgive the lack of photos. The camera stayed safely at home.

10 Aug 2013

Weekend musings


This bit by Boak & Bailey reminded me of something that's been in my mind for awhile.

For a long time I've lamented how little attention and respect beer gets from most food writers, restaurant critics, etc.; like, for instance, that review of a restaurant specialised in Czech food made with locally sourced ingredients that praised the extensive wine list, but made no mention about the beer on tap, or an Italian restaurant being commended on the authenticity of the (imported mostly) ingredients they use, while ignoring the fact their only choice of beer is a pseudo-imported brand, and many others. But lately I've been asking myself how bad a thing that is, and if we should actually care about it.

Mind you, this is not reverse snobbery. I've got no issue with beer being spoken seriously about, neither I'm against foodies suddenly embracing beer, or restaurants having beer sommeliers, or people people on the other side of the counter trying to reach new consumers. It is the way it's often done; it sometimes looks a bit artificial, forced. It's how I feel whenever I see a well composed photo of a beer in a wine, or any other long-stemmed glass. It's like watching at an attractive woman in an evening gown and hiking shoes sitting in a tea-room drinking whisky. There's nothing really wrong with that all in itself, but it looks quite out of place, or a silly, and unnecessary call for attention.

Does beer really need to be coated with a layer of sophistication and made to speak with a posh accent to earn any respect? Why? Only to be accepted by people who will probably take it as another passing fad? Could it be that the problem is actually ours, that we need beer to be approved by that elite so we can feel better about our tastes?

I don't know about you, but I'm comfortable with beer as something that doesn't need to be swirled, sipped and sniffed in order to be appreciated. I'm comfortable with beer drinking not as an end in itself, but as a part of something larger and, yes, more enjoyable. I'm comfortable beer culture being more at home at pubs, bars and than at tastings and pairings. I'm comfortable with beer as something that makes you burp, fart and piss and get pissed, instead of something to be contemplated in reverence. I'm comfortable with beer being only beer.

Na Zdraví!

9 Aug 2013

No excuses


Last week I was guiding a small group of Norwegians and, after a really good lunch at U Slovanské Lípy, we stopped for a pint at Pivovar Victor. It was my first visit since my review in January, which can be summarised, good service - decent beer - awful food.

When we arrived the place was empty and we were very much welcome by the bloke at the bar, who's pretty friendly. From the three beers they had that day we chose Kouřované (smoked). It didn't look good, the liquid in the glass, rather than beer, looked like something someone had scooped from the muddy banks of the Vltava after a storm, what was curious was that it had hardly any smell at all. As I expected, it was undrinkable, it tasted as if it had everything that could possibly go wrong in a beer thrown together.

I called the Výčepní and told him that the beer was off. Without any problem, he took all the glasses away and promised to bring fresh ones, the only excuse he gave was that it was an "alive beer" and that those things happen. Once at the bar he said it'd take him a bit to bring the new beers because had to tap a new keg and needed to flush the lines first.

From a fresh keg, the beer was now something else, nice amber with a shade of ochre, clean looking and I must say, very tasty, very good beer.

And yet, I didn't leave the place very happy.

The way this man handled the situation deserves praise, yes. I've been at places where they give you a funny look when you tell them a beer is duff, but this bloke took it very well and apologised repeatedly. So far so good. But Victor is an effing brewpub! A place like Zlý Časy could give you the excuse that they got unlucky with a keg, or something, but Victor? Who can they blame if the only beer they sell is the one they make themselves? (and that "alive beer" thing is nothing but a mountain of obnoxious bollocks, really). Isn't there anyone in that company that can be arsed with doing some basic quality control? ¡They only have three taps for fuck's sakes! That smoked beer was unpresentable. This wasn't a case of a mild contamination or oxidation, just by looking at it was clear that the beer wasn't well. That beer shouldn't have left the bar.

This is not the first time that something like this happened to me. It happened two years ago in Žatec, and in one of my visits to Pivovar Beznoska for my review for the Prague Post, one of the beers was already on the limit of the acceptable. Neither am I the only one who's been through this sort of situaion, Pivníci have come across the same problem more than once and so have Pivní Recenze. It's something really hard to understand and it's borderline stupid. The beer is what makes every brewpub unique, it's the place's main attractive (if not the only one); it's what makes some people willing to travel across a whole town, or even a whole country. I find it really unacceptable that a place where beers are supposed to be at their freshest will serve something stale. If they don't give the beers they make in their own premises the respect they deserve, what can one expect from the rest of what they sell?

Really, please, get your fucking shit together!

Na Zdraví!

4 Aug 2013

Perfection


It's a very hot day. One of those days when you'd rather stay inside, all blinds down, well sheltered from the sun. But you've promised your help to people who deserve it. You'll have to go out, and you'll have to work, and you'll have to be in the sun.

After midday the heat has become unbearable. Everybody has lost almost all strength to keep on working. You hear the magic words "Jdeme na pivo". You finish what you are doing and head towards the closest pub, which turns out to be a beer garden, which is actually not that close.

The place is a bit off of the little road you are walking. There's an arrow indicating the way, next to it there is the sign of a beer you don't like. But well, these people you are helping are paying and it's not that there's anything else to choose from; besides, thirst always beats taste.

You follow the arrow's instructions and take a little path that goes uphill. A few metres later you can see the entrance to beer garden and next to it there is another sign, one of a beer that, though it's not among the ones you like the most, it's a step forward quality-wise.

You head to the bar with the rest of the group. You are so thirsty you could drink the sweat of a Cossack's armpit if it was well tapped. And there you see it. You don't quite believe it at first, but there it is. Everybody before you orders it and goes to take their seats. It's one of your favourite beers; likely the favourite in a where and when like this.

You savour every molecule of that wonderful liquid, almost unconsciously, though, the first pint goes down so fast you barely register it. But it doesn't matter, there's no rush to go back to work, there's time for another one, and another one, and another one, and another one and well, yeah, why not, yet another one.

You are sitting in the shade, quietly sipping from that mug made in reassuringly thick and heavy glass. Everybody is relaxed, chatting, laughing, sharing stories. And you enjoy the company, the talk, the shade, the well deserved rest and the beer.

Beer as a reward, beer as a social lubricant, beer as relax, beer without pretensions. Beer can not be better than this. It's beer perfection.

Na Zdraví!

2 Aug 2013

The Session #78 "Your Elevator Pitch"


The Session 78 is held by the Australian Beer Bar Band blog, and it's titled "Your Elevator Pitch for Beer". The thing goes like this:
"You walk into an elevator and hit the button for your destination level. Already in the elevator is someone holding a beer…and it’s a beer that annoys you because, in your view, it represents all that is bad with the current state of beer.
You can’t help but say something, so you confront your lift passenger with the reason why their beer choice is bad.
30 seconds is all you have to sell your pitch for better beer, before the lift reaches the destination floor. There’s no time, space or words to waste. You must capture and persuade the person’s attention as quickly as possible. When that person walks out of the elevator, you want them to be convinced that you have the right angle on how to make a better beer world."
OK, let's play along by the rules of this intellectual exercise and assume that the person with us in this proverbial lift will not freak out if someone starts ranting to them about a topic they might not have any interest to begin with.

Even with that, I see two fundamental issues that I doubt can be overcome.

The idea behind this is to get your message across quickly and succinctly in a way that will make the person want to know more about what you are offering. The problem is that the arguments most people use to support the idea of "better beer" are flawed. Let's take the most favourite of them all as an example: "small, independent and/or local breweries". On the one hand, it is unfair; just like those breweries, many pubs, restaurants and shops that sell macro lagers are also small, independent and/or local businesses that struggle to compete against bigger companies. On the other hand, it's bullshit; size, ownership structure and/or address aren't a guarantee of quality or ethical business practices. And I could go on with others, but I think I've made my point. Besides, this is not a business proposal or the idea of a project, which would need to engage the intellect and even the emotions of a person, it's beer, and beer is primarily a sensory thing. If I wanted to show this person what "better beer" is about, I would have to let the beer speak for itself. The thing is that even if I had some "better beer" at hand or I was able to convince the stranger to go with me to a place where they could drink "better beer", chances are that they will not like that beer and my whole argument will crumble.

Which brings me to the second fundamental issue.

What is “better beer”? Can anyone define it beyond the realm of the subjective? No, it's impossible; just like good and evil, “good beer” and “bad beer” are arbitrary categorisations relative to our perception of benefit and harm, or, in the case of beer, pleasure; and my pleasure might very well be someone else's disgust. So, if I asked this person why they drink such "reproachable" beer, they could answer with "Because I like it", and, since “I like it” = “(subjectively) good”, this person's choice of beer can not possibly be bad.

My conclusion, then, is that there is little point in this exercise, even on an hypothetical level. I don't give a flying upside down fuck about what people drink or not. I don't have anything to gain from changing their tastes or habits (I'm not as naive as to believe that such change by itself can make this world a better place or a person happier or healthier), it's not my responsibility. That's the job of the people who sell beer and I'm not among them, nor I'm being paid to do their marketing or PR.

So, keep on drinking the beers you like drinking, support and promote the breweries that make them. Be a beer evangelist if that rocks your boat, but don't take that as your mission, there's a fine line between evangelism and fundamentalism.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Older readers of this blog might remember that I once did something like the 30 pitch, explaining some people in very clear terms that their choice of beer wasn't right. The difference here is that A: I was at a pub, B: I was pretty shitfaced. It seems to have worked, though, as that pub did away with Staropramen some time ago.

PS2: I don't think there's anything really "bad with the current state of beer". Whatever problems there might be, are mostly on this side of the counter. But you'll have to wait until Alan and I finish our book to know more about it.


PS3: Yes, I know that in some way I “promote” beers, breweries and pubs that I like in my blog and among the people I know, and also that I want those businesses to prosper (just like with every business I think is doing things well), but it is not so much “promoting” as it is “sharing”. We all do that with stuff we like or enjoy (beer, films, books, TV shows, music, shops, etc.), but what we are actually sharing is not the stuff itself, but the pleasure and joy get from it, hoping that our friends, relatives, colleagues, etc. will also find pleasure in those things, or at the very least understand why we get it.