30 Sep 2014

The Answer

You are at a pub (or a beer bar, or whatever, you know what I mean). You're not alone, you're with a bunch of people. You aren't there for a tasting or any other beer-focused thing, you're there simply to hang out with those people, and that place was chosen because everybody liked it enough, or whatever.

You order a beer, it's not the first of the day, maybe not even the first of that session; and it's a beer you've drunk already several times, though you don't drink it too often. There's nothing in that beer that makes you look forward to it any more than you look forward to any other good beer you know. You ordered it for the sole reason that at that where and when you fancied drinking something like that.

You get the beer, you thank the person that brought it to you with a nod, and you carry on with the conversation your were having, or listening to the story one of your friends was telling, whatever. The glass of beer you've just got is just another thing in the whole.

When the time has come—maybe you finished saying what you had to say, or or chewing what you were chewing, or you don't want the head to fall—you take the first sip, or rather a proper swig of that beer.

And that's when it happens. Maybe it's only a split of a second, maybe longer. But it happens. When that swig fills your mouth, the whole world comes to a stop, and your senses become part of a vortex. You feel like you are starring in a cliché of a TV advert, and you don't mind it one bit.

You exhale, put the glass down, looking at the beer, and seamlessly go back to reality, knowing you've just found the answer to the question of what makes a beer great.

Na Zdraví!

29 Sep 2014

Musings on the bus back home

Last weekend I was hired for the daunting task of taking a group of 22 Swedes out for beer. Nice gig, can't complain.

We went first to Pivovar U Tří Řůží, where I had arranged a tasting of all the six beers they had on tap that day. It worked out pretty well. I introduced each of the beers (which were all really, really good), answered the questions some of the people in the group asked about them, and about brewing in general, while the rest mostly talked about what they were tasting. Everyone was satisfied.

With the tasting behind us, we took the tram to Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, where we were to have dinner. We had two, long tables with benches (I love long tables with benches, they should be mandatory at every pub) in a room we would have to share with two other groups, bigger than ours—one of people in their fifties, the other, of students.

Fortunately, we were the first to arrive, and we could order the food and the first round before the other two groups showed up. (though it should be mentioned that the staff was great, even when they were serving more than 100 people). Unlike at the tasting, here the questions about the beers were few; the Swedes seemed to be more than satisfied with getting mugs full of the excellent stuff they make in Strahov. Everyone was in a good mood.

After the other two groups had arrived, an oompah music duo started playing. I dislike dechovka as much as the next non-retired urbanite, but I must admit that in a crowded beer hall that sort of music makes more sense than anything other. Soon everyone was swinging their mugs, banging the tables or clapping to the rhythm of the music. When the duo was not playing, each of the groups would sing their own songs, really loud, to the appreciation of the other two, and also of the staff. One of the Swedes even got the whole place to do a Mexican wave. Everyone laughed and sang, and had a riotous great time, with the exception perhaps of a couple of the kids in the youngest of the three groups, who felt too cool to be having so much fun. It was a terrificly fantastic evening, and I got paid for that!

For some reason, on the bus back home, that all got me thinking about the bit of a shitstorm Shock Top raised when their latest marketing campaign dared to suggest that craft beer is pretentious. Man! Didn't some people get their knickers on a twist!

It's all quite silly, of course. A beverage can't be pretentious. Would a bottle of, say, Heady Trooper or Dark Lord start making faces at me if I fancied mixing the beer with Fanta, or if I necked it while watching Dr. Who and eating frozen pizza? Some people would, certainly, and would likely try to convince me that I'm doing something wrong.

So, it's not the beer, but some of the people surrounding beer that often make things look so, with their serious faces, esoteric language, guided tastings, food pairings, elaborated tasting notes, right glasses and proper serving temperatures.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with any that, quite the contrary. Firstly, because in its worst manifestation, it's nothing but marketing dressed as a cultural thing. Secondly, because, marketing or not, there are people who truly enjoy all that. At the same time, we must not forget that there are many other people (more?) that see only pretentious, snobbish bollocks in all that premeditation and seriousness, and all the things one needs to get right to “properly” enjoy a beer; and if not that, they see it as something that sucks the fun out of their favourite tipple, and you can't blame them, just like you can't be surprised if a company uses it in their marketing.

But back to my story. As well as the tasting at Pivovar U Tří Řůží went, I don't think I need to tell you where it was that we had the most fun.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Thanks Aaron and Taste Local Beer for the gig!

24 Sep 2014

A Casual Lunch

The other day, some business that I had to take care of took me to Braník, more precisely, near the place where Zemský Pivovar will have their brewery (and a fuckton of work ahead of them). I think it was the first time ever I was around that neighbourhood, and once I finished with what I had to do, and with time in my hands, I decided I'd do what I always do in such situations, wander about.

It was a very fine day for walking, even walking uphill, and that part of Braník turned out to be a pretty nice and very quiet residential neighbourhood, though one lacking in pubs (I only walked past one that didn't look too inviting).

Feeling increasingly thirsty, I followed my feet downhill to end up in Podolí, in front of a place called Pivovarská Restaurace Dvorce (my feet are the best guides I need). The name sounded familiar, and after standing there for a full minute, I remembered I had seen it mentioned a couple of times in Pivni.info. The pub taps beers from both of Richter's breweries—U Bulovky and Jihoměstský—with prices ranging from 30 to 39CZK/0.5l.

It was late lunch time, the tables outside were all taken. Inside it'd be then. The best way to describe the interiors is “forgettable”, as if all the owners could be bothered with was to put the furniture and whatever else was needed to get the place working. The service, on the other hand, was really friendly and, more importantly, efficient. The food was also good. I had roasted boar with cabbage and knedlíky, great value at 75CZK.

As mentioned above, all the six beers on tap are brewed by Richter. When I arrived I was very thirsty and almost by reflex I ordered the 11º, only to realise that it was Jihoměstská; after my last experience with it, right before getting awfully wet, I wasn't sure I wanted to drink that again, but it was too late, the waitress was tapping it already. Wasn't it a surprise? It was in great form, if a bit too gassy, tasted almost like a very good Vienna Lager, likely the best pint of this beer I've ever had.

I felt adventurous after finishing my meal. I went for the Pale Ale, a bargain a 39CZK a pop. It was beauty, really. None of the loud, hoppy thing kids like drinking this days, more classic English than modern American. Tasty, clean and wonderfully well made. I would've stayed for another one if it hadn't been for the soundtrack. Awful.

Dear restaurant owners and managers,

It is good that you allow your staff to listen to music while working, even if they want to listen to the sort of computer generated crap some executive believes should be the hits of the summer. But does it have to be the fucking radio, and in particular, a Czech pop radio?

I can understand people liking that sort of music, even if I find it absolutely hideous, but nobody in their right mind can enjoy the ads, nobody in their right mind can take any pleasure whatsoever from having people screaming at you every ten minutes, urging you to buy shit you don't need.

Is it so hard to get that old laptop you sure have plugged to some speakers and play something from there?

Please, think about that, everybody will be grateful.

Apart from that, the place is highly recommended.

Na Zdraví!

Pivovarská Restaurace Dvorce
N 50°2.80080', E 14°24.96283'
Jeremenkova 7 – Prague-Podolí
+420 728 532 020 – restaurace@dvorce.cz
Mon-Fri: 11-23, Sat-Sun: 12-23
Tram: 3, 17. Bus: 118, 124 (Dvorce)

22 Sep 2014

A recipe to celebrate the arrival of Autumn

A couple of weeks ago, as we drove to the Farmers' Market in Dejvice, I asked my daughter what she wanted for dinner. Duck, she said (ain't that the best daughter in the world?). For some reason I've now forgotten, roasting a whole bird was out of the question that day. Fortunately, one of the stands was selling duck breasts that day and I bought three. While I sipped a beer at the market, after finishing with the shopping, I though about how I would cook them.

This is what I came up with. You'll need:
  • Duck breasts (obviously), deboned
  • 250-300ml of good Pale Lager (any pale would work, I think, even an IPA!)
  • 2-3 (depending on thickness) Tbsp red currant jam, or whateverberry jam
  • 1 medium sized carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium sized onion, coarsely chopped
  • Sage, savoury, marjoram
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • salt, pepper
Put a deep pan to heat until it reaches a temperature of are-you-mad-you-want-to-burn-down-the-house degrees, and put the already seasoned breasts skin-side down. Let them fry until the skin turns brown and turn them over. You won't need to add any oil, the lovely, lovely lard under the duck's skin will take care of things just fine. Fry the breasts for two minutes or so and take them out. Lower the heat a bit and add the veggies, then the herbs. Stir everything until the onion starts getting some colour. Add the beer, let it simmer down and add the jam one spoon at a time, always mixing so the bugger won't stick to the bottom of the pan. Stir well, let it bubble away for a couple of minutes and put the breasts back in the pan, this time with the skin side up. Cover and poach gently for 40-45 min. If you feel the sauce is still too thin at the end, you can thicken it letting it reduce for a couple of minutes at full blast—be sure to keep the breasts warm while doing that. That's it. Lovely, I promise.

Na Zdraví! a Dobrou Chuť!

PS: Sorry for the lack of pictures. I made a couple, but they turned out crap. Too hungry to bother with things like illumination and focus.

16 Sep 2014

This is perhaps my last word in "Craft Beer"

A couple of weeks ago Alan and I got an e-mail from Stan saying that, in a moment of weakness, he'd agreed to write a piece about the phrase "craft beer" asking us if we believed that the phrase, or the concept created an "us vs them" mentaility.

The following is what I wrote back to Stan a couple of days later (with some minor editing), which are, I believe, my final thoughts on this whole craft beer bollocks:

First of all, I don't see “craft beer” as a concept, but as a brand, one that's basically in the public domain. As any other brand, it has a series of—more or less fanciful—positive attributes associated to it, which have made it a very successful and valuable brand, with a pretty loyal consumer base—people who, in many cases, don't drink Russian River, Stone or New Belgium, they drink Craft Beer. So far, so good. I've got nothing against that, quite the contrary. If using those two words can help a good brewer sell a few more hl, then it can't be bad.

Unfortunately, some people in the industry have used those attributes as some sort of foundation to build an “us vs them” rhetoric that, instead of sticking to “we are good and our products are great”, will point, disproportionately, to “they (the big brewers) are bad and their products are crap”, creating in the process the mythology of a revolution, a movement that expects everyone to believe that a nano-brewery in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada, a brewpub in Wyoming, a neighbourhood bar, a liquor store, and the consumers are all in the same thing together, and that the consumer is in the front-line of “the war against crap beer”. And they've been successful in that, too, not only thanks to the people on the other side of the counter selling that tale, but also thanks to not few writers and bloggers—buying is not quite enough, you must evangelise the masses, spread the gospel of craft beer.

That was working fine until the big, industrial, commercial brewers (as if craft brewers were not commercial) decided they also wanted to play the “quality game”, either with their own brands, or buying well established craft brewers. And they've done it really well, so well that some lines have become blurred to the point that the “big beer = bad beer” equation started to crumble, resulting in the “craft vs crafty” nonsense a couple of years back, where the BA was basically telling us that how good, interesting, well made, flavourful a beer may be doesn't matter as much as who makes it. They still urge us to take sides—theirs, of course—but now business has taken precedence over quality. You wouldn't expect less from a trade association, but it's the disingenuous way they've done it what has bothered many people, myself included.

And there's another thing. I can't avoid getting the impression that to, some extent, the craft vs crafty stunt was meant to divert the attention of the fact that for that nano-brewery in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada represents a much bigger threat than Blue Moon or Shock Top.

I don't know how much longer they'll be able to keep this charade going. There are signs that the edifice is slowly starting to fall apart—Lagunitas's bitching against Sam Adams Rebel IPA (funny coming from a Californian company that opened a factory in the Midwest), the Gypsy vs Brick and Mortar Brewers (another us vs them thing there), among others.

But I believe that we—meaning those who don't make a living out of selling beer—are making to much ado about nothing. Most people can't bothered with taking sides, least of all when it comes to something of such little importance to them; and, whether we like it or not, neither do they care too much about who makes their beer. One day they might go to the taproom of their local micro, the next to Wal-Mart to buy Sam Adams, and at the weekend they will happily drink Corona with a lime wedge at a party or Bud Light while watching the game with friends, without seeing any moral conflict in that. And rightly so. We've been painted a black and white picture, but the reality is full of shades of grey.

Na Zdraví!

15 Sep 2014

A short comment on Vykulení

What can I say that I didn't already say in May? Because as I did say last week, Vykulení is basically the same as Vysomlení, but bigger, which means that it is a bloody great beer event, even if not as minimalist. The beers were really, really good—at least the ones that I bothered paying attention to. I know some people weren't big fans of the Smoked Porter, I loved it, and kudos to Jarín for sticking to his guns and making the beer he wants to make, the way he wants to make it, and doing it well, which is more than you can say about too many new breweries these days. Not in the case of last Saturday at Černokostelecký Pivovar, fortunately. Once again, the beers were really, really good—at least the ones that I bothered paying attention to, but even among those that I didn't pay attention to, I didn't find anything I disliked. Not that I drunk everything, mind you. The single malt beers, those were good. Nice, simple exercise. Three of them, one with Pilsner malts from Kounice, and the other two with Munich I and II from Bamberg. My favourite were the first and third one, simply because they tasted better than the other. But all of the beers I drank were good, even those I paid hardly any attention to—who really wants to devote too much attention to beer when there were other, more interesting things to pay attention to. The atmosphere was great, but then, Černokostelecký Pivovar does have a very special atmosphere. Add to that a bunch of friends and known faces with interesting conversation, and you tend to forget about the beer your drinking, which is good because, come on! It's just beer, but very well curated beer. Why can't all festivals be like that? I don't know, I don't care. When you start drinking at 10 AM and stay up until 2 AM having more fun than anyone would sensibly expect to have—which you pay with the appropriate hangover the day after—that is a question that I can't be arsed with finding an answer to. The fact is that the people at Černokostelecký Pivovar know how to put a beer event together better than anyone I know.

So what can I say that I didn't say in May? I don't know. It was great, and that should be more than enough. No, it's not enough! Even though I said it in May, I will say it again. Thanks Vodouch, Milan and Jarín (for letting my crash at the brewery, what a beautiful thing that is) and to everyone there for such a fantastic day, and congratulations and respect for the great job you are doing.

Na Zdraví!

PS: I don't know how much I drunk, but it was a lot, both of the stuff I bought and the beer from a separate tap reserved for the friends of the house (Únětický Posvícenský Ležák

10 Sep 2014

See you this Saturday at Vykulení

I'm really looking forward to this Saturday! I'll be going to Vykulení at Černokostelecký Pivovar.
Vykulení is quite similar to Vysmolení, but bigger, with more beers and breweries, including some imported ones (you can see the whole list here) and with a focus on floor malts. Like at the sibling festival in May, there will be beers drawn from the wood in different ways, but also a few single malt beers brewed by the in-house Černokostelecký minipivovar Šnajdr.

It all looks quite interesting, but, more importantly, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun!

See you there.

Na Zdraví!

PS: As in the previous occasions, I've been invited to spend the night in Kostelec. What a beauty it is to not have to worry about getting back home after a whole day on the piss!

1 Sep 2014

The Straw Challenge

I don't quite subscribe to the theory (for lack of a better word) of the “right glass” for this or that style of beer. Firstly because sensory experiences can not be objectively evaluated or quantified (EDIT: outside of a controlled environment), and secondly because there are many other factors that contribute to the experience of drinking beer that the theory hardly ever takes into account. But I don't want to argue about it. I believe we will all agree that beer is best enjoyed when drunk from a glass (well, I prefer an earthenware mug, but let's not argue about that, either).

However, if you still have friends among the normal people—you know, people who don't give more than a fuck and a half about beer because, it's just beer—sooner or later you will face a situation where glasses (let alone the “right one”) won't be available. At best, there will be some plastic cups, but quite often not even that; and your only alternative will be to drink from the bottle or can, which is something very, very bad to do. It's a disrespect to beer, in particular to the beer your surely brought, because you'd rather not drink the industrial crap your friends drink, and because there's not better place to spread the gospel of craft beer than a barbecue.

Of course, you could bring your own glass, but do you really want to be that person? And if you do, are you really willing to get up, go to the kitchen and wash the glass every time you finish drinking a beer? (Because if you are obsessed enough to bring your own glass, then that's the least I would expect).

There has to be an alternative. One that will spare you the opprobrium of drinking from a bottle, but won't get too much in the way of enjoying the party.

What about straws? They are inexpensive; you can buy a pack at pretty much every supermarket, they're easy to carry, you can leave them on a table inconspicuously and then make fun of drinking beer with a straw. At worst, people have you for an eccentric, which is a lot better than “weirdo who brings his own snifter to a party”.

When I was a kid in Argentina I remember people saying that drinking beer with a straw or with a spoon will get you shitfaced like no other thing (I can see why some people would think a straw is a good idea, but a spoon? Who the fuck has ever drunk beer with a spoon?). In retrospective, it must have been some sort of urban legend, not unlike that about the lethal combination of watermelon and wine, but I never thought of drinking beer with a straw and I don't know anyone who did. Nor did I ever read something about it. So, instead of googling it, I thought that taking the matter empirically would be a lot more fun.

I chose two beers—Hubertus Světlý Ležák, from Kácov, because it'll be the most likely type of beer you'll find at a party, and Staffordshire IPA, brewed by Marston's for Marks and Spencer, because, just because.

At first I thought of doing a blind tasting, but I quickly realised that I was an idiot, so I did my best to leave behind all prejudice, and evaluated the above mentioned alternatives—glass, plastic, bottle, straw—with an open mind. I also drunk a full bottle in each case as, outside competitions (and who cares about competitions?), there's no point in evaluating beers like those two (or any other for that matter) in a smaller measure (and because, if I'm going to do something silly, let's get at least mildly pissed as a result).

(And no, I didn't drink all eight bottles in one go, it was in two separate days)

Hubertus presented notes that suggest a walk at dusk, in late summer, on a freshly mowed lawn while eating a baguette freshly baked by a jolly fat Frenchman. The IPA, on the other hand, was biscuity—shortbread perhaps? Not the real stuff from Scotland mind you, but a cheaper imitation you can buy at Lidl—and a bowl of.... Bloody hell! They tasted like a pretty good pale lager and a decent IPA should taste like.

(To be honest, I had planned to write silly tasting notes like the ones above, but the experience turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. The glass was the control sample.)

Plastic cup:
In both cases, there was a lot more head than in the glass, and it had a different consistency—like the dollop of froth you get on a latte, or something like that—and it also stayed longer. Must be the material. They also tasted more bitter, as if the hops had taken a step forward.

This must be the first time that I drink a beer straight from the bottle paying attention to it. Hubertus was awfully carbonated, to the point that the bubbles would wreck most of the structure of the beer. Things improved as the bottle emptied, with the beer also getting more bitter. The IPA, on the other hand, fared much better. It was still gassier than from glass or plastic, but not as much as the lager. Maybe it was the design of the bottle—with a shorter, stubbier neck—or it could be that the beer was less carbonated to begin with. Either way, I kind of enjoyed it, and it also kept a more uniform profile.

I wasn't expecting much, to be honest, but it was even worse than that, at least with the Lager. It was like drinking beer while suffering from a strong cold or a pollen allergy. The dullness wasn't so bad with the IPA. The bitterness was still there, but almost like listening to music through a thin wall, and the malts were almost absent. It tasted a bit like a weak hop tea with a pinch of something sweet. It wasn't unpleasant, but not something I need to do again, either.

What do I get from all this? Both beers tasted best from a glass, but not by that much, really. I can see other people liking them from a plastic cup better. After all, it's all a matter of taste, so probably you should try it yourselves and make up your own minds.

Or not. Really, if you fret about things like this when you are at a party, or some other similar situation, chances are that you are taking too seriously something that is supposed to be fun. Quite often (if not always) the best way to drink a beer is the most convenient and comfortable available. Remember that.

Na Zdraví!