25 Mar 2014

Sad News

I heard about last week, but I foolishly hoped it wasn't true, that it was all a joke of some sorts. It wasn't. Kaaba-Lucemburská is closing down this Friday. And I'm quite sad about it.

The feeling is a completely different to when Svijanský Rytíř closed. Kaaba has been a regular stop for me for at least the last three years or so. Actually, it was more than that. My relationship with this little café in a side street in Vinohrady went far beyond the good beer I could drink there. Going to Kaaba for a couple of late morning pints on Tuesdays and most Thursdays became a ritual, something I needed to do. Kaaba was a place where I could detach myself from my daily life without losing touch with reality. It was a place where nobody knew, or cared, that I write about beer; for them I was this bloke from Argentina who's been living in the Czech Republic for over a decade and every now and again was able to tell a good joke or a funny anecdote.

Nobody can be blamed for this. It's something that just happened. The owner got one of those you'd-be-an-utter-idiot-if-you-refused job offers, doing the sort of stuff he most loves and having a café didn't make any more sense to him. All the štamgasty understand that and wish him the best, but there's still a sense of loss. We've talked about where we could meet for those morning chats, and we've decided to leave our phone numbers and e-mail addresses to somehow try to stay in touch. Some of the regulars are even entertaining the idea of setting up a non for profit, or a club and open a similar place nearby, but we all know that it'll not be the same. It just won't have the same magic.

If you have a favourite pub, bar, café or watering hole of any sort. Go there, go as often as possible and enjoy it as much as you can, and, if you don't do it already, chat with the regulars and the staff. You never know how much longer that place will be there, and, once it's gone, you will miss it.

For those who are around town this week and know Kaaba, you have until Friday to drop by for a last pint.

Na Zdraví!

19 Mar 2014

Back to the roots brewpub reviews: Pivovarský Dům

Before I begin, I must tell you that I'm really excited about this project. Not only I got some great feedback, but it has also given me an excuse to go back to some places I visited in ages, places that I used to like a lot, but you know, life. (On a side note, maybe we should all do that more often, go back to places or beers we once loved, but that now are almost part of our past) It has also given me a pretext to finally make it to the, for the time being, though not for much longer, newest brewpub in Prague, Pivovar Liboc, though I still haven't decided how excited I am about it.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the order in which I would post the reviews. Chronological – from the oldest to the newest brewpubs, or the other way around; geographical or maybe pitching one of the older brewpubs against one of the newer ones. But I've opted for something far more logical and straightforward, based on whenever I had enough time and happened to be near and/or could be arsed with going to a given brewpub.

So, without further ado, let's get to reviewing the shit out of some brewpubs.

Pivovarský Dům

I think the last time I was in Pivovarský Dům was more than three years ago while researching for the The Pisshead's Pub Guide. It's a great example of what I was speaking about at the beginning. I loved this place and its beers, it was one of my regular watering holes back when the fingers of one hand was enough to count the brewpubs of Prague. I don't remember ever having a bad experience here, I simply stopped coming. So it was good to be back.

Nothing has changed in the main room, which is a welcome sight, as I've always liked its style. I took a table right next to the brewing kit and realised I was surrounded by Russian tourists. They weren't part of an umbrella following herd, they were couples or small groups of thirty-somethings, or so I reckon, by the most part who didn't know each other. This isn't a complaint or even criticism. I've got nothing against Russian tourists, especially when they are as well behaved as those were, and for the pub, their money is every bit as good as mine. But, and though nobody can be blamed for that, it does take away some of the atmosphere.

The most remarkable thing I noticed was the sampling trays on every table – you know, that thing with the tiny glasses with all the beers Pivovarský Dům makes. It was as of these people were there following instructions; otherwise they wouldn't be taken seriously back home. Something I'm pretty sure they've read on a popular guide book. But I don't want to make any of fun of them, after all, we beer geeks/enthusiast aren't too different, are we? Whenever we go to any of those beer Meccas we feel an almost obligation to visit a list of places because we've been told that we mustn't miss them - “what you were in Brussels and didn't go to Moeder Lambic? What sort of monster are you?”.

But enough social commentary, let's get to the beers.

The Štěpán – Světlý Ležák was like a sensory trip to the past, it reminded me why I used to believe this was the best pale lager in the world. Simply amazing in its simplicity, and in a way, surprising. It tasted like finding beer money in the pocket of an old jacket. It more than made up for the lacklustre atmosphere and if I'd had time, I would've stayed for an unmoderate number of pints.

I wish I could say the same thing about Štěpán – Tmavý Ležák. There wasn't anything objectively wrong with it, it just was not my thing. Felt like having tea and pastries with your aunt, when you could be eating a roast somewhere else. But that Pale Lager, uuuuuuuhhhh! I need more of that in my life.

Pivovarský Dům
50°4'31.287"N, 14°25'25.766"E
Lípová 511/15 – Prague 2
pivodum@iol.cz - +420 296 216 666
Mon-Sun: 11-23:30
Trams: 4, 6, 10, 16, 22 – Štěpánská

16 Mar 2014

A View from the Notch

Chris Lohring is the owner and Brew Master of Notch, a Boston based brewing company specialised in Session beers. I met him and his wife almost two years ago when they came to Prague and we spent a glorious afternoon at Únětické Pivovar, drinking several litres of Desítka.

He mentioned not long ago that he had decided to leave the Brewers Association and I was curious about why, and also wanted to ask him a few more questions; he has some quite interesting things to say.

How long was Notch a member of the BA?
Two years I believe, I opted out in 2013. With my previous brewery Tremont, I had been a member as well, both pre and post-merger (Association of Brewers and Brewers Association of America).

How did the BA change during those years?
The real changes came after the merger, at least that from my point of view. Very small brewers were now in the same organization as some very large brewers. We saw how that played out with the craft beer “definition” change. Over the years I saw the BA focusing more on issues concerning their largest members, and that resulted in decisions that benefited them the most.

What was the thing that made you say "fuck it", the last straw?
The definition changes. If there really is a benefit in defining the beers we make, let's be honest with the intent. There was this driving need for million barrel brewers to be perceived as small for marketing reasons, and ultimately that was not a reasonable decision.

Also, the desire to remove the older regional brewers from the craft definition through an ingredient specification was misguided. (This has since been corrected.) The use of corn, or rice, was deemed “non-traditional” and not craft. That really got under my skin, to the point I brewed a pale lager made with heritage corn from a local farm just to show it can have a positive, flavorful impact on a beer.

As “innovative” craft brewers we are heralded for using any ingredient under the sun but corn and rice are excluded from that definition? The myths built around adjuncts are long and mostly inaccurate. I don't have space for a corn rant here, but I wrote about it on the Notch website.

I assume it wasn't the only one, what were the other factors that eventually made to quit the BA?
Mostly that I'm a small brewer who watches every penny and the yearly dues I paid could be best spent elsewhere. It really just came down to that – was I getting value for my money, and I decided that I wasn't. It's not a “statement” or a message but a financial decision. I thought buying coasters for my draft accounts would be a better use of that cash.

And the style guidelines, I'm not a style freak, but they do help inform consumers. One Czech style (!) and a session beer “style” with an ABV range of 4.0 to 5.1%. A lower limit on session beer! I wrote the BA regarding the Session Beer definition and was ignored. In what mature beer producing country would 5.1% be considered session beer, or have a lower limit of 4.0%?

The BA is looked to for guidance and information from the press, consumers, and industry, and they are communicating that a session beer is 5.1% ABV? That is the equivalent ABV as a shot of bourbon or a 5oz glass of 12% ABV wine. Is that what we want to be communicating?

(No need to give names) Do you know of any other breweries that have recently left the BA or are seriously considering doing so?
I'm sure they are out there, but I haven't spoken to anyone about it. I tend to keep my head down and focus on my business, and other than being on the board of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, I'm not out speaking to many brewers outside my area. I haven't even told anyone I left until now. Again, it's not really a message I'm making, just a decision based on value and a disagreement of the BA's direction.

The other day the BA announced a change in the definition of craft beer, according to which it is now kosher to brew with adjuncts like corn. What are your feelings about it?
I think their reputation was taking a hit, so maybe they are listening? But it really looks like they have a shifting agenda based on what provides the best outcome for their board and larger members. I may be wrong on all of this, but the ever changing definition tells me otherwise. There is still some jockeying for position, as a publicly traded brewery is craft, yet a brewery of modest size that has 25% investment from AB is not. That makes little sense to me.

Andres Araya from 5 Rabbit gave an interview to Good Beer Hunting where, among other things, he speaks about the challenges of contract brewing. As a "brewery-less" brewer yourself, can you relate to what he says?
Every contract brewing arrangement is unique, so I don't think you can look at it monolithically like he does. And I mean that from both perspective of the host brewery (who owns the physical plant) and the tenant brewer (who uses another's facility).

I owned a production brewery and began brewing professionally 20 years ago, so maybe I come at it from a different view. My host breweries have been chosen because they give me absolute flexibility in ingredients and process, while allowing me to be hands on if I chose to be. For the most part I can use any yeast I want, any malt, and any hop. I'm old school and don't care for peppers, chocolate nibs, or fruit in my beer, but those options are available to me if I want. Corn too! Are there beers I cannot make? Yes, I'd love to put a Berliner Weisse in cans and sell them in 12 packs for $15, but I'm not bringing lactobacillus into a brewery anytime soon.

Also, my contract partners allow me to produce at scale. If I started a brewery on day one to launch Notch, it would not have been possible to offer my beer at a competitive price. This business is all about margin and scale. To put beer in 12 packs priced to the consumer at $15 and realize a gross margin that keeps the business afloat, you need SCALE. And that is exactly the package the session beer consumer wants - 12 pack cans. Yes, I could have grown into that volume with my own brewery, but finding investors to float a cash flow until break even for a session beer brewery in 2009 would have been futile. And I don't have a trust fund.

So for me, and this is certainly not for everyone, contract brewing was the only real viable path to introduce a session beer brand. And since I've been a brewer and had owned my own brewery for almost a decade, I'm not rushing to build a facility to “live the dream”. My goal is to make the absolute best beer I can and offer it at the best price possible, and my own brewery does not fit that goal right now. I will build another brewery eventually, but I will most likely always rely on contract partners for scale and competitive pricing.

I've seen recently quite a bit of criticism directed at breweries like Notch. Some of it appears to be fair - failure to disclose the place where the beer is actually made - but not all. How do you feel about it? Would you compare it with the negative campaign that in the 90s AB ran against Sam Adams?
I think some of the criticism directed to contract brewers is warranted, and some contract brewers only need to look at the mirror as to why. Many contract brewers hide or are not forthcoming with the place of production. If your office is in X and you brew in Y, telling your consumer it comes from X (or leading them in that direction) will ultimately come back to bite you. In the 90s we called these companies post office box breweries, and this practice ultimately hurt everyone because the brands were not being truthful. The consumer felt lied to, and all small brewers were tarnished, especially when AB came out swinging against Boston Beer. I hate to see current day contract brewers (and me in particular!) get dragged into this mess again.

The "gypsy" thing is contract brewing with a sexy new name, but honestly, I really don't know what gypsy brewing means. Just don't call me one.

I have one tenet at Notch that I follow (and my employees must follow) - tell the truth, always. I brew in 3 different breweries and have been without a true home base since day one. I live in Massachusetts, and for the first year I brewed all the beer in Maine (by me, with my own hands, in a brewery I worked in previously), and I called myself a Maine brewer because that was the truth. Fours years later, a small bit comes from Maine, most of my beers come from Massachusetts, but I have significant production in Connecticut too. When a consumer asks, where are you from? I list the locations, and sometimes they haven't trailed off and lost interest by the time I finish. It would be easier to say "in city X" where my post office box is located, but I refuse to do that. I respect the consumer and beer too much for a slight marketing advantage.

Thanks Chris, and hope to see you again soon for another session.

Na Zdraví!

12 Mar 2014

A short announcement

As I've already mentioned, I've got a bit bored of ranting and I'm trying to take this blog in a different direction, having a go at beer fiction or at a different, and to me more interesting, way to review beers, among other things, which I've so far enjoyed

But the other day, as I was walking around in this lovely early spring weather we're having, I thought I could also be fun to go a bit back to basics and review the 16 brewpubs that are currently operating in Prague, all of them. It'll be, though, with a much more cynical approach than back in those days when the mere announcement of a new brewery was enough to give me a beer boner. I haven't decided yet what shape the reviews are going to take, though posting a bunch of three to four short reviews is for the time being the most likely candidate.

The methodology, on the other hand, will be very simple, and down to earth. I will go to each brewpub once and drink a pint of each of their staple beers, with a focus on Světlý Ležák whenever possible, and staying away from any seasonals, specials or similar things, as I believe that brewpub that doesn't offer at least one solid regular beer available all year round isn't worth the visit. Also, no tasting notes, well, I will try very hard to avoid them, at least.

So, stay tuned.

Na Zdraví!