24 Jan 2015

So, ABIB has bought another independent brewery

You've all heard the news of ABIB's newest acquisition, so I'm not going to repeat it.

What amazes me, though, is, on the one hand, that many people are still surprised with this sort thing, as if it was something new, and on the other, the reactions of many of those people: sadness, anger, disappointment...

I could understand it if the brewery had shut down for some reason or another and the beers that had become their favourite aren't available anymore, that could be sad, we all tend to develop a personal attachment to some products and memories don't taste as good. But that's not the case here, the brewery still there, making the same stuff they were making the day before, they could keep on buying it, if they wanted, but they choose not to.

I'm not going to argue with that choice, the reasons are legitimate, but not enough to warrant anger, let alone questioning the owners' decision, as if they should have first consulted the thing with their fans.

Running a company, even if it is successful, especially if it is successful, is very hard and demanding, and the owners of a company choose to sell it, we should assume that a: the offer was good enough (perhaps more than they would have been able to earn on their own) and b: that they saw it at the time as a sound business decision.

Thinking, or even suggesting that this means in some way trouble for the industry is even more foolish to some extent. Macro brewers will keep on buying smaller breweries, at least for some time, it's something natural and expected. What will happen with those breweries, only time will tell, some will be shut down, or not. Either way, for every independent brewery sold to bigger corporations, I'm sure there are dozens more that either are not interesting enough as an asset, nor will they ever be, or whose owners wouldn't sell it to anyone, at least not for the time being, and in a market where brand loyalty isn't as strong, there's room for everyone, provided they are able to do things well.

In the meantime, if you were a fan of Elysian, feel happy for the owner, and go drink something else, if you want, I'm sure you've got plenty to choose from.

Na Zdraví!

20 Jan 2015

Since everyone is doing lists, here's my Top 10 Beers

In no particular order
  • The first beer I drink every day
  • The beer I drink after doing some hard work
  • The beer I drink to quench my thirst on a hot day
  • The beer I drink with friends
  • The beer I drink while making dinner for the family
  • The beer that surprises me for some reason
  • The beer I'm drinking right now
  • The beer I'll be drinking after that
  • The beer a friend gives me as a present or shares with me
  • The beer I can drink straight from a lagering tank
Can't argue with it, can ya?

Na Zdraví!

Disclainer: This list has been heavily inspired by this one here

19 Jan 2015

An afternoon with Zemský Pivovar

When I first got to know something about Zemský Pivovar back in 2013, I was impressed by their ambition. New micro-breweries are a dime-a-dozen these days, and unless one is opening near where you live, they are hardly interesting news anymore, but 20,000 hl/year one? That's not something you see every day, in fact, it's something we haven't seen here since Chotěboř opened in 2009!

But by the beginning of 2014 (if I remember correctly), it seemed that some things were not going quite well. To begin with, the quality of the beers had dropped to the point that some of the pubs that had received Zemské Pivo with enthusiasm were now reluctant to stock it (it should be said that the same was happening at the same time with Chotěboř, where Zemské is brewed).

It was also about that time when I head the rumour that the future of the enterprise was uncertain. Apparently, the company was not able to raise the necessary capital, without which Prague 4, the owner of planned site of the brewery, would not sign the lease. Had these people bitten more than the could chew? Well, not quite.

The rumour was unfounded, but only to some extent. There was a moment last year when the project, at least in the shape and location Zemský Pivovar wanted to realise it, was in jeopardy, but money had nothing to do with that. It was more complicated.

The municipal authorities of Prague 4 had always liked the project, not only because it would bring brewing back to Braník, but also because the brewery would be in Dominikanský Dvůr, a heritage protected building that has been almost empty (and largely neglected) for half a century. However, and maybe because 2014 was an election year, or for other reasons, instead of signing a contract with Zemský Pivovar, they chose to let the municipal council decide on the matter. And that's when the problems started.

When the project was posted on the official bulletin board, as the law requires, and ad-hoc civil association came out of nowhere, declaring their total opposition to it, without giving any particular reason.

This prompted Zemský Pivovar to organise a series or community reach-out events, but in spite of their success and the positive feedback they got from the from them, this group of concerned citizens still refused to meet the brewing company, while they lobbied the council members.

In the end, the council voted “AYE”, and a letter of intent was signed. It was only then that the civil association agreed to a meeting with Zemský Pivovar to discuss the project. And that is when things got somewhat funny.

The meeting can't be said to have started amicably, but after steam had been released, the group of concerned citizens, much to the surprise of the representatives of Zemský Pivovar, said that they actually liked the project. Like the municipal authorities, they loved the idea of Dominikanský Dvůr being revitalised, and with a brewery to boot. The problem was that MČ Praha 4 is considered the most corrupt in the city, where competition isn't exactly lacking, and they had assumed that this was just another one of their dodgy dealings. But after studying the project in detail, and realising that ZP were kosher, they promised they would do anything they could to help. Funny how people can find common ground when they actually sit down to speak in a civilised manner.

All this and more was told to me by Max Munson and Pavel Prchál, two of the people behind Zemský Pivovar, last October right in Dominikanský Dvůr. They had invited me to show me the place and to meet Joshua West, the American brewer that designed the recipe for Zemský India Brown Ale (brewed in Louny), a pretty fine beer, I must say.

When I first saw Dominikanský Dvůr “in person” , it was clear to me that there was a lot of work to be done for it to become a brewery. However, from the outside, I would have never been able to fathom just how much!

As I mention above, the place has been mostly unused for half a century, and the last tenants were very frugal with the fucks they gave about this historical building complex—in some of the oldest parts, layers of concrete had been poured right on the original hardwood floors, and some parts of the roof, at least in October, were literally falling apart.

How long it will take to restore Dominikanský Dvůr, nobody knows yet. At the time of my visit, they had just started with the proceedings to get a building permit. Fortunately, the heritage preservation authorities, the hardest nut to crack, gave their thumbs up, but it can still take a couple of years until construction works can begin,

The plan is to get the brewery up running as soon as possible, and then gradually work on the rest. Once finished, besides the brewery, the site will have a pub, small shops, a spa, offices for the company, and the courtyard will be turned into some kind of public square. Eventually, and if everything goes well, a fifth building should be added, pretty much on the spot where the one that was demolished in the 1960s-70s once stood. Another thing they would love to get done, even if they are aware of how improbable it will be, is to get the street Jiskrová—where the once main entrance to the complex still stands—down to its original level.

As for the brewery itself.

I must confess to having had my doubts about Zemky's claims to “resurrecting” a brewery. Not because I didn't believe that Dominikanský Dvůr once housed a brewery, but I thought it'd be something like in Břevnov, where the brewery also shut down at the end of the 19th century, and now there's no physical trace of it left. (As far as I'm concerned, for a brewery to be considered resurrected, first of all, the building must still be there, and the new factory should occupy at least a substantial part of it, preferably, what once was the brewhouse.)

Well, I was wrong. The brewery, or rather, the buildings that once housed a brewery, is still there.

As it stands now, Dominikanský Dvůr is a complex of four buildings laid out in a “U” shape. If you're standing in the courtyard, the one on the right is the oldest part of the complex (and the one in worst shape), dating from the 17th century. The building right in front of you used to be the maltings. The “humna” (the floor maltings) is still fairly recognisable regardless of the refurbishings someone did at some point that make it look like a black prison, but knock down those walls, add light, and you'll have a space that would look somehow like a smaller version of the restaurant at Únětický Pivovar—in fact, that is where the restaurant will be. Next to it, on the left, is the tallest structure of the complex, the kiln—surprisingly, the furnace still down there, next to the humna—while the structure on your left is where the brewery proper used to be. Closer to the kiln were the fermenters. Upstairs, under the roof was likely either the storage for grain, or the coolship, if not both. The brewhouse was most likely located in the space with higher ceilings, closest to the outer walls of the complex.

It is not known what layout the brewhouse had, or what sort of beers were brewed there (likely, not lagers, or at least that is what the lack of a cellar suggests), and actually, they are still not sure what will the layout of the future brewery be. The ceilings might be too low accommodate the modern technology necessary to brew 20,000 hl/year, which is quite a lot more than the 13,000 hl/year Dominikánský pivovar Braník, as it was known at the time, was brewing at its peak in 1870s, according to pivovary.info.

That brewery, by the way, was was shut down in 1899, when Společenský pivovar pražských sládků a hostinských, akciová společnost, later known as Pivovar Braník, was established as a response to the the onslaught of lager, the history of which ended a bit over a century later in a rather tragically ironic fashion.

Several times I've heard the people of Zemský Pivovar saying that the production of Dominikanský Pivovar was just shifted to the new, much bigger, and modern brewery down the road. I doubt that it's true. At most, their owners became shareholders of the new brewery, and only shut down the one they already had, because keeping it going wouldn't have made any sense; just as the owners of U Medvídků did in 1898 when they became shareholders of První pražský měšťanský pivovar, in Holešovice, curiously, also shut down by Staropramen. History aside, it'll be interesting to see how they sort out the space issue without getting in trouble with the heritage preservation authorities.

Anyway, although Zemské Pivo in it's current manifestation is not among my favourite brands—it's one of those that I don't actively look for, but don't mind finding—this is the sort of project I can get a bit excited with. I love seeing breweries being resurrected, even if they haven't brewed for well over a century. I wish them success.

Na Zdraví!

PS: There's one thing I don't quite understand, the name change, from Zemský Akciový Pivovar to Zemský Řemeselný Pivovar. They have a cool story and a great location, and “Akciový”, besides sounding nice and needing no explanation, makes sense from a historical point of view. Why then shoehorning an imported, tired and worn out term like “Řemeselný” (craft)?

Disclaimer: After the very thorough tour of Dominikanský Dvůr, I was treated to a few beers while I chatted with Joshua West at a nearby restaurant. A few weeks later I was also invited to the official presentation of Zemský India Brown Ale at Jáma-The Hollow, where I was treated with several butt-plug shaped glasses of the beer and a bottle to take home. Thanks Max and both Pavels.

2 Jan 2015

2014, wrap-up

It's been almost a month since I posted something here. I've been too busy, and brain-fried to write anything, let alone anything worth reading. Not that the following will be one of my best posts, but I do want to get back on the writing saddle, and there's no better way to do it than taking advantage of the date and look back a bit at the year that was.

2014 was, in every aspect I can think of, much, much better than 2013. It was a fairly good year, I'd say, and I hope 2015 will be at least as good.

Publishing The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer was fun. Shortcomings notwithstanding, it was mostly well received and writing it together with Alan was a great experience. We had some more plans for it, but my workload made it impossible to give the necessary attention.

But let's talk about beer.

Most remarkable Czech beers of 2014

On tap: I could go for Únětická 10°, not only it's a great beer, but drinking it at my village's pub after a hard day of work is wonderful. And yet, if volume consumed was parameter, Pilsner Urquell would win. It's the beer that I believe drank the most, not so much for the beer itself, but for where I mostly drink it. Several times I went there to have a quick pint or two before noon, and ended up drinking six because I was having too much fun to leave. However, the winner is a beer that last year I drank only once Purkmistr 12%, and let me tell you why.

I was on assignment in Pilsen that day, Pivovar Purkmistr was the last stop of a crawl that included a trip to Dobřany. I was tired in more ways than one, that Světlý Ležák was the seventh or eighth pint of the day, but when I had that first swig, all my senses came back to life. It was that good, and so was the second pint.

Bottled: Gypsy Porter is still great, if only Kocour would make it year-round. I also loved Kynšperský Videňský Ležák, and their Polotmavé the few times I've had it. The winner, however, is Rampušák, not only it's a gorgeous Světlý Ležák, but at 69 CZK for a 1.5l PET bottle is great value, too (and if you have a problem with PET bottles, you might be a snob).

Most remarkable foreign beers of 2014

Bottled: I was very impressed by Ora Nona from Bresañ (thanks Fernando). Quite improved from previous year's, especially after spending two months in my “cellar”. Schlenkerla Urbock is still one of my favourite beers in the world, but it's beaten by the year-round availability of Märzen, the winner of this category, together with Schneider TAP-5. Really, why bother paying through the nose for an experiment by Mikkeller or his imitators, or some gimmick by BrewDog when I can get beers like those two for 55 CZK/0.5l each?

On tap: It'll have to be some of the stuff I had in Bavaria. Helles Naturtrüb at Au, Augustiner Helles or Andechs Helles in Munich? TAP-5 for setting the tone of what would be a great beer day? All of them, yeah.

Most remarkable pubs of 2014

I must say that, as far as I'm concerned, Zlý Časy is still unmatched, followed by Kulový Blesk. Hanz and Líbor are doing things really well, and they want to do them still better. They deserve all the praise they get, and then some.

I was also impressed by Dno Pytle, even if I wasn't in the best shape when I went, and I fell in love with Hostinec U Tunelů, in Karlín (a proper review of it coming soon). Klášterní Pivnice Šumaván, a.k.a. Prašivka certainly deserves to be mentioned. Had a great time there with my friend Matthew back in March, and finding Matuška in top form at 45CZK a pint it's more than remarkable.

Most remarkable breweries of 2014

Pivovar Clock, because it shows that a new micro-brewery can still mean a good micro-brewery. Kounický Pivovar; not only because its beers are great (I opened 2015 with its fantastic English Porter), but also because it's owned and run by an 83 year old geezer that's got more life in him than most people half his age, myself included. Needless to say, Únětický Pivovar is still my favourite, followed by Břevnovský Pivovar.

Most remarkable beer experience

That day in Munich was simply unbelievable! The beers were by the most part great, and the company was even better. What more can a pisshead ask? So was the day in Kostelec-Kounice. But I guess that the most remarkable experience was that Friday, because of it's extraordinary simplicity.

Most remarkable disappointments of 2014

Three: The first brew of Vinohradský Pivovar. Something bland or average could've been forgiven, something flawed not. But that is not nearly as bad as being served, not one, but two rotten beers at Pivovar Marina Holešovice, and they knew it, they were serving them almost at Mediterranean temperature. Primátor IPA; unlike Bernard with their less than stellar Bohemian Ale (at least the pale one, the dark one was much better), they had the experience and the know-how, I was expecting better from them. (though it must admit that it tasted quite nice when I drank it with home-made tvarohové gnocchi with bryndza and bacon fried onion).

That's enough for the past.

I've got plans for 2015. One of them, of course, is to publish the second edition of “Prague: A Pisshead's Pub Guide”. My April goal, however, is looking quite unlikely. I haven't been able to do much work, and it could be said that I'm behind schedule with the research, but it will be published, that much I can promise. There's another project I'm working on, which I'll be announcing soon. I don't know what the response be, though. We will see.

Anyway, that's it for now. I promise to post something more interesting next time.

Na Zdraví! And Happy New Year to all of you!