19 Oct 2014

It was all a well crafted lie

By now you must've heard about the shitstorm raised by Dan Paquette. If you haven't yet, go here, here or here to get a good picture.

Of all the people who've so far commented on the issue (or at least, of the ones I follow), I think it is Zak Avery the one who's seen it most clearly when speaks about the “sexy” and the “dull” bits of the beer business, and how the latter has been largely ignored.

All this often unconditional praise for a branch of the brewing industry, which in some cases reaches almost religious fervour, seems to have many people believe that setting up their own micro-breweries is only a few bits short of guaranteed success. It is not much more than a matter of slapping those two words on the label, having the right attitude, speaking—perhaps preaching—about your passion, and your awesome masterpieces will sell by themselves. Everybody loves craft beer, right? It's so huge that the evil, monolithic, multinational macro breweries are afraid of it. Why would they come out with their “crafty” beers, otherwise?

Marketing? Pfff! Who needs marketing when you're part of a Movement! Marketing is the bullshit the industrial breweries use to sell their swill. Craft beer is not commercial, it doesn't need any of that. If you make friends with some of the influential bloggers and writers, and other Craft Beer Evangelists, who will love you from day one, they will tell the world how awesome your masterpieces are, and then the orders will pour down. Aren't beer bars and stores also part of the movement, after all? It's where the revolution is taking place!

Consistency? Pfff! Consistency is sooo overrated! Creativity! That's the thing everyone wants, no matter the price. Be creative, and passionate (don't forget your passion, never forget your passion) and people will buy tickets to buy your beer. Spread the gospel of your awesome, creative masterpieces, everyone will love it, mate! You'll be like a rock star! Those who criticise you? Don't listen to them, they are only penny-pinchers who want to hurt the Movement...

You've been fed so much bullshit! And by us, the bloggers, the writers, the magazine editors. We've all bought that and then sold it to you at some point or another, and some still do.

That thing about the movement, the revolution? Bollocks, all of it. They're marketing buzzwords at best. What you are part of is an industry, a market, with the same rules as every industry and market. And this industry and market, just like any other, can be unfair, very unfair.

It doesn't matter how great your beers (or rather, how great you think they) are, you'll still have to go out and sell them. Bloggers, writers, magazines and reviews will help you only to some extent. You will still need to get the attention of bar and shop owners. It is incredible how many brewers don't understand that it is not me whom they have to convince to buy their beer, but the owners of the pubs and shops where I go (I might love you beer, but if I can't find it at my favourite pub or shop, I will buy another beer that I love)

And you know what? The owners of pubs and shops don't care how good your beer is. Well, they do, but not nearly as much as how good it can be for their business. They might wish you well, they might love your stuff as drinkers, but few will not hesitate to drop it to make room for some other thing they believe it'll be better for their bottom lines.

I know, I know, that sucks. And some of those pub and shop owners will even expect you to send them a keg or a case or two for free. You hate that, don't you? Them cunts! It's awful... But wait a second! Didn't you send a case to a blogger the other day (or was it a magazine editor?) or had a couple of them over at the brewery? How many cases or kegs did you sell after they posted their glowing reviews?

Once again, I apologise if we've made you believe it was easy, even if you were a fool for believing it in the first place. It's not. It may've been a few years ago, when we were happy to get at least some diversity, but we've got plenty of diversity now, and not enough money to buy it all.

Now, stop whining and go and sell your beer already. Accept reality as it is, because you I doubt you'll be able to change it.

Na Zdraví!

PS: About the bribe thing. It is another aspect of business reality, and a very ugly one that will not be eradicated, however good the justice system may or may not work, as the lines are often blurred—where does a legitimate business incentive end and a bribe start? All you can do is ask yourself how wise it is to do business with someone who asks you for baksheesh.

17 Oct 2014

Coming soon: Česká Pivní Válka

Below is the the trailer of an upcoming documentary co-produced by Evolution Films, Česká Televize, and FAMU called Česká pivní válka (Czech Beer Wars).

It follows three people: Pepa Krýsl, a very well figure of the Czech beer world, a Brew Masater and someone who makes a living out of, basically, selling breweries; Martin Jarošek, a composer so angry at Plzeňský Prazdroj that he goes all the way to South Africa to, well I don't know what for, really; and Ladislav Bureš a home-brewer (or should I say a farmhouse brewer?) from Moravia.

I'm fully aware that criticising a film it's an pointless intellectual endeavour, and an unfair one at that. But the internet has been built on unfairness and pointless intellectual endeavour (and porn), so here you go.

From the trailer and the film's blurb (in CZ), I get the impression that there's something loudly absent in this story, the regional breweries.

We have a microbrewing boom in the Czech Republic not because in the last few years almost 200 romantic beer enthusiasts decided to realise their life-long dreams, but mostly because business people see microbreweries as a sensible investment—provided you have the space, having your own brewery up and running it's not too expensive, and if it's well managed, you can expect to get the money back in five years. In other words, it's the love of money, rather than the love of beer, what has fuelled the phenomenon. Nothing wrong with that, as a consumer, I judge breweries mainly by the quality of their products, not by the intentions and ideals of the owners. That aside, and with such good chances of success, you can't really talk about a war, let alone a revolution. A renaissance maybe, but I'm that sure of that anymore.

The regional breweries, on the other hand, they didn't have it so easy. After a world war, four decades of deliberate Communist neglect, sudden market de-regulation and the depredatory style of Capitalism of the 1990s, it is surprising that so many are still around today, especially considering how many didn't make it.

Whatever one might think of the companies, owners or products (not everyone is a saint, nor all are good), the fact is that without Bernard, Svijany, Ferdinand and the other 30+ regional breweries, the Czech beer landscape would be similar to that of most countries I can think of—with very little, if anything, in between the macro and the micro—not a good picture, in my opinion. Actually, I wonder how many Kulový Blesk-like pubs, Matuška-like breweries, pivotéky and imported beers would there be today if regional breweries hadn't managed to so successfully crawl out of oblivion last decade (now, that's what I call a renaissance!).

Anyway, perhaps I'm being unfair and, regionals or not, the film may end up being good. I guess I will have to watch to find out.

Na Zdraví!

Česká pivní válka premières on Oct. 30

11 Oct 2014

On beer and the flies that love it

This article on fruit flies and beer is really worth a read—in a nutshell, according to the research referred to in the article, the reason why those little flying bastards are so attracted to your pint is symbiosis; and it's a relationship that goes way, way back— and arrives right when Ron Pattinson has been posting a very interesting series on the history of Lambic.

It's a shame, however, that the author, Annie Sneed, isn't someone more knowledgeable about beer, or at least, with a broader view on the topic. If she was, I doubt that after speaking about a research carried out by the University of Leuven and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium, she would've said that ”there’s a new trend among beer-makers called ‘wild fermentation’”. And she might have also been prompted to the ask those questions that are screaming to be asked, especially after learning that:
Because yeast can’t move around on their own, (…) they probably developed this strategy as a way to escape nutrient-poor environments and migrate to nutrient-rich places that fruit flies frequent, like ripe fruit or rotting trash.
The questions, then, are: Does this mean that take part in the the spontaneous fermentation are not in the air after all? Do fruit flies play a role in the production of Lambic, or have they in the past? Could it be that we owe the very existence of beer to them?

Maybe someone can answer them, maybe not. Either way, this shows how much is there left to know about our favourite booze.

Na Zdraví!

PS: It is by no means my intention to criticise Ms Sneed, nor the magazine, as she's isn't posing as an expert on the topic, and, besides, because it does open the door to someone who is an expert to dig a big deeper.

10 Oct 2014

Kostelec, Kounice, Community, Tradition

The gentleman in the picture is Kárel Klusáček, owner of the Maltings and Microbrewery in Kounice. Far from an absentee owner, he looks after pretty much every aspect of the running of the company, and he's 83 years old.
I had the pleasure, and honour to meet him last Wednesday during a trip I had put together for a good friend of mine and two of his mates.

The trip started with lunch at Černokostelecký Pivovar, or rather, at Háje, where we took the 10AM bus there.

A few days before, I had talked to Milan Starec, a.k.a. Květák, to let him know we were going, and to ask him if they could help me with the visit to Kounice. It was no problem, he said, they could arrange everything, even a taxi, or something like that, to that town.

I called him when we arrived. He said that Vodoch, the owner, would meet me at the pub after lunch, and he would take care of everything.

Food was good, very good. Beers were even better, a 10° from Frýdlant and Černá Svině, the 13º black lager, brewed right there, by Minipivovar Šnajdr. Vodouch came over when we were half way down a pint of that beer, and his first question was how we liked it. Gorgeous, it was. Better than any other time I'd had it. An extraordinarily good batch of an already very good beer that they hope will become the norm, as Vodouch said. And we were lucky, it was the last keg.

Once the glasses were emptied, Vodouch showed us the whole place, letting us poke around, answering every question; a VIP tour, one could say. If everything goes as planned, the brewery they've been painstakingly restoring for more than a decade should come back to life at the beginning of next year. What these people are doing there is nothing short of remarkable—a story that I've promised myself to tell one day, soon.

After the tour, Vodouch told us the wait for him by a white van—he was going to drive us to Kounice, there were some empty kegs to take back there, after all. In the courtyard we met Hanz, Zlý Hanz. He was returning some stuff he had borrowed for a (very successful) presentation he and Kulový Líbor had the day before for their import business. (For those who still don't get it, this is what a real beer community looks like, people helping each other, expecting no more than a thank-you, or perhaps a pint, in return).

We got to Kounice in no time, it's only 13km away. On the way Vodouch talked some of the stuff they're working on. He also told me that he wants no more than 10 different beers for next year's Vysmolení and Vykulení; he believes there's not much of a point in having more, and I agree.

Mr Klusáček wasn't there when we arrived in Kounice, but he was on his way. To Kounická Hospůdka it is then. We didn't feel like standing outside in what turned out to be a beautiful autumn day.
Quite a nice place that village pub is, in an unpretentious, village way. The first round was the house's Světlý Ležák. Excellent, if a tad to gassy, it was like any proper Světlý Ležák should be, but with something else, something that no tasting note can fully describe. it was followed by Mouřenín, the Tmavý Ležák, though not as good as Černá Svině, was still a very fine tipple.

Mr Klusáček was already waiting for us at the gate of the maltings when we left the pub a few minutes later. He greeted each of us with a big smile and a firm handshake. He was glad, eager, to show us around.

The family business begun in 1860 when Mr Klusáček's grandfather, who came from a family with already a couple of generations in brewing, bought the brewery and maltings from the Liechtensteins. In 1900, he shut down the brewery—the building is still standing, on the left of the gate—when it was clear that it could compete with the modern lager breweries of the nearby bigger towns—Nymburk, Český Brod, Kostelec—and decided to focus instead on producing malts. After getting to absolute power in the late 1940s, the Communist regime evicted his son—Mr Klusáček's father—when it nationalised the company.
Mr Klusáček wouldn't see the inside of the facilities until they were restituted to him in the early 1990s. Recently retired, he did what any other sensible person in his position would do, take the wheel firmly and carry on the family tradition (proper tradition, in flesh and blood), right where his father had been forced to leave it. He had a bit of luck, too, the Commies had continued to produce high grade floor malts during the 40 years of their regime.

All this we were told, as well as how they make their floor malts, how the same cultivar of barley can have different properties when grown in fields 30km apart, and much more, as Mr Klusáček guided us around the malting facilities and then the brewery; never stopping to catch his breath, never excusing himself for slowing us down, because he wasn't. His only “complaint” was a comment he made when going down a steep flight of ancient wooden stairs: he had to be careful because he'd recently had spine surgery. Let that sink in for a moment.
At the brewhouse—a 5hl do—besides beer and brewing, he talked about the e-shop for brewing supplies—his malts and Weyermann's, hops, Czech and imported, and yeasts—bought by microbreweries from all over the country, the export business, his story with an Texan brewer, among other things. And in the cramped space of the fermenters and tanks, he confessed that the beer isn't brewed by him, but a Brew Master he's hired, but that he's learning.

We tasted all the beers of course, straight from their tanks. The IPA, the Ginger Beer, both excellent, and the Světlý Ležák, mind bendingly good, surprisingly better than a few metres away at the pub.

When the visit finished, and we said good-by to Mr Klusáček, we still had about half an hour to kill before we had to take the bus to Český Brod, where we would catch the train back to Prague. Back to the pub, it is. The stop was only a few metres away. While we drunk our pint—this time the IPA, one of the best I've had in this country—the conversation wasn't about the beer, but about this incredible 83 year old man. A person who loves, and is proud in what he does, with more life in him than most people half his age I know, myself included, many days.

I promised myself I will go back soon to Kounice, and sit down with Mr Klusáček to listen to his story in every detail. Like Vodouch's, or Sister Doris's and Sonja's, his is a story that deserves to be told at length.

Na Zdraví!

9 Oct 2014

Local vs Good vs Outstanding

A couple of days ago, Stan whether Quality trumps Local.

To me, the answer is very easy, a big YES. I've said it many times, I believe it is important that we support local businesses, but, as I've put in my comment there: as far as I’m concerned, everything is subordinated to quality, or rather, my perception thereof; and that includes local. If a local brewery doesn’t make a beer I will want to drink, I will not buy it, I will not support that business. Why should I? Fortunately, that’s not the case where I live, and I’m happy to support my “local” brewery, which makes great beer, with business and more.

But the thing that caught my attention the most in that post is a quote from an article by one Greg Engert, that says:
Now, the desire to drink local brews has reached a fever pitch, often blinding publicans and craft beer drinkers alike from what should ultimately guide our choices: Is the beer of the highest quality? Is it bereft of off-flavors? Is it delicious? In short, is it superlative and memorable?
Editing the second part of my comment a little, I think that Engert’s search for the outstanding and the memorable is foolish, to say the least. It’s putting yourself in a position where you will likely be disappointed. Does any sensible person really want to live like that? ¿Isn't good, good enough? ¿Since when? We should embrace the good, praise the good. The outstanding should remain that, something out of the ordinary, something that surprises us, and for it all the more valuable. When everything is outstanding, nothing is.

Na Zdraví!

PS: On the other hand, the fact that someone can consider a beer bereft of off-flavours as outstanding and memorable speaks pretty much by itself.