28 Jan 2016

Sleep well, Ležák is safe

The general public can sigh in relief. Those evil bureaucrats won't be messing with their cultural identity. At the same time, local geeks and brewers can sleep well in the knowledge that Czech beer nomenclature won't be the object of international mockery once the new legislation comes into force sometime this year. The most contentious issue of the proposed amendment to Regulation no. 335/1997 Coll. of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic has been settled with a compromise.

It is been agreed that Ležák will remain as a category, but only reserved to bottom fermented beers, as God and Praotec Čech intended, while all the rest will be indicated as Plné Pivo—always for beers of 11 to 12.9° Plato

At last Tuesday's press conference, representatives of the Czech Association of Micro Breweries (Českomoravský svaz minipivovarů - ČMSMP) explained that this, and the other changes, will more accurately reflect the current picture of the local beer market, adding that, in order to keep up with the evolution of the market, further amendments should be expected in the near future.

That's an aim I share, and I would therefore like to contribute a few ideas to the future amendments:

Výčepní pivo, as a name for a category has been made obsolete and inaccurate. Since 2009, most of the beer in the Czech Republic is drunk bottled, and I'm sure someone somewhere is laughing at the image of láhvové výčepní pivo, like it happened with top-fermented Ležák. The legislation should somewhat address that, too. My first choice for the new name, Lahváč, presented two problems: on the one hand, it is still a registered trade-mark, on the other, it could create confusion at a pub; people would no longer order “Výčepní”, but a “Lahváč” and the server might bring them a bottle instead of a draft beer. A better name then would be Chlastační pivo. It sounds nice, I think—Braník chlastační pivo světlý—and it's very accurate. Degustační pivo should be also considered instead of Silné. (Ležák, of course, should not be touched, I wouldn't like Pavel Páral to make a fool of himself again with an opinion piece about beer.)

The name Plné pivo seems to have been chosen a bit on a rush and that is why, I believe that, besides opening the door for a lot of silly jokes, it does not fully express the contrast with Ležák. To that purpose I suggest Stoják, Rychlák, Svrchňák or simply Ejlák.

But the changes should not end there. Beer nomenclature has a lot of inaccuracies, some of which border the offensive. India Pale Ale should be revised. Not only modern IPAs have nothing to do with India, but the name also refers to colonial oppression and brutality. I suggest Hop-forward Pale Ale or Indiscreet Pale Ale, if they want to keep the acronym. Imperial, as an indicator for stronger, presents a similar problem. Not only this country hasn't been part of an empire for nearly a century, but the word is also contrary to the tenets that form the pillars of European values. I suggest Democratic, Inclusive or Humanistic as alternatives.

But let's not get carried away. This is a concern that transcends the boundaries of Czech beer culture and thus, it should be addressed at the international stage.

Na Zdraví!

25 Jan 2016

The Tram Beer Challenge (2): I.P. Pavlova - Újezd - Chotkový Sady

There's a tram at the stop (I.P. Pavlova, in case you missed the first instalment). I could catch it, but I'm no Bruce Springsteen—I wasn't born to run. And there's no need, anyway; any tram would do.

It doesn't take long for one to come, the 22 to the centre. I'm trying to figure out where I'll have to get off, but I can't quite remember whether there is a stop between Karlovo nám. and Národní tř. There is. Újezd is my destination, then. I know where I'll drink my next beer.

Kampárium was one of the new places I wanted to check out for the 2nd edition of the Pisshead's Pub Guide. I didn't make it in the end; I'm not sure why—laziness, probably. Good to have an excuse to see what this pub is like, and drink some Polička in the process.

Other than the staff, it's empty. Both servers greet me with a wide smile when they see me coming in and going down the stairs, as if they were happy to finally see someone who will take them out of their boredom.

There aren't any seats at the bar. You can sit on stools by the wall opposite, but those tiny semi-circular shelves (they can't be called tables) between them look awfully uncomfortable. I take the table nearest to the bar, and order Hradební Tmavé. I haven't drunk that beer since Kaaba closed almost two years ago, I'm glad it's on tap here. The waiter doesn't look very happy I'm not ordering food, though.

The beer takes long to arrive and the wait is not worth it. Its distinctively stale character could have been appreciated by a Porter drinker in 18th century London, but I'm a (mostly) Lager drinker in 21st century Prague. I should probably return it, but I can't be bothered; it is no worse shape than the Gambrinus I had earlier at Na Břežance. I'll bury my face in my book and will try not to pay too much attention. (To give them credit, though, the glass has been very well washed and rinsed).

I'm tempted to order the 15° from Dobruška that's also on tap, but I decide against it. Not only I fear it will have a thicker Flemish accent than the one I'm finishing, but because I don't want to stay here any longer. This place is as boring as the music they play, and as mildly irritating as the fake flowers decorating the ceiling. (Really, who decorates the vaulted, bare-brick ceiling of a cellar with fake lotuses? What do they want to convey with that? That the owner is a slightly overweight, loud woman in her fifties who wears golden rings on all her chubby fingers and has a silly hairdo?). I pay and leave, feeling better for not having bothered with Kampárium during the fieldwork for my book.

Újezd is a bit crap. It's three ways, and all the stops are far a part, there's also poor visibility. I'm lucky, though, before I can figure out a vantage point, a 12 comes from Smíchov. I break into a trot, I don't want to miss this one.

The route of the 12 was changed a couple of years ago, I think. Which is good, otherwise I would have to get off at Čechův Most, and that stop is rubbish. Now, I must get off at Chotkový Sady, which is actually not that much better.

If the weather was nicer—like sit-under-a-tree-sipping-beer-from-a-plastic-cup nice—I would venture into Letná, even if it meant bending the rules, but it isn't and I will have to make do with what I have at hand: an Italian restaurant whose name I can't remember or Café Pointa. I pick the latter only on the merit of being closer.

Fancy looking place this one is; almost as fancy as the patrons--who I bet earn in average significantly more than me. To make it more clear that I'm not the audience of this establishment, I'm the only one with a beer, but that's not what bothers me, really (honestly, I'm 44 and all my shots of notgivingashitasil are up-to-date). It takes me a little to figure it out: the tables are way too close to each other, preventing any sense of intimacy. I can hear very clearly every single word of the conversation at the table next to mine, and they aren't speaking loudly. A woman is talking about all the people she knows at some Municipal Authority. I know I shouldn't be listening to that, but it's impossible not to.

I don't stay here for a second pint, either. The beer, Pilsner Urquell, tastes all right, but I feel my time will be better spent drinking elsewhere, even if I still don't know where.

50°4'54.523"N, 14°24'20.932"E
Říční 9 – Praha-Malá Strana
+420 730 629 299 – kamparium@kamparium.cz
Mon-Sat: 10:30-23, Sun: 11-22

Cafe Pointa
50°5'48.688"N, 14°24'27.105"E
Na valech 2 – Praha-Hradčany
+420 233 321 289 - info@cafepointa.cz
Mon-Fri: 9-22, Sat-Sun: 9-21:30

18 Jan 2016

The Tram Beer Challenge (1): Karlovo nám.- Perunova - I.P. Pavlova

So here I am, crossing the street to the Karlovo nám.–Moraň tram stop, eager to start the Tram Beer Challenge.

The trees and roofs are still clinging to the snow that fell earlier in the week, as if they were relishing in the feeling of it, unwilling to let it go. Soon, however, the snow will turn into what many Czechs unlovingly, and accurately, call sračka. In the meantime, I'm enjoying it—when was the last time it snowed like this? Last winter? I'm not sure, nor am I about the previous one.

I don't have to wait, I see a tram coming just when I step on the pavement: the 10 to Sídliště Ďáblice. I count the stops; I will have to get off at Perunova. Bugger! I know all the pubs there, they're in the guide (and those that aren't, aren't worth a visit). Wait! There's this one. It's a bit further than I'd like, but I haven't got much of a choice, have I?

As I start walking down Chorvatská, I realise that this may not have been a very bright idea. To get back to the tram stop I will have to go up the hill, on the icy pavement, with several kg of groceries on my back. And they wonder how I can stay so lean.

I must've walked past Restaurace Orion a thousand times on my way down to Vršovice, and not even once I thought of going in, even if the patio in summer looks very nice. No patio today, I'm afraid. I'll have to go inside.

It's a lot smaller than I thought! Can't be much wider than a train carriage, if that much. There aren't too many people (though I doubt this place could ever fit enough people to be considered “many”, at least not inside). I'm hungry and I take a tiny table in one corner of the main room. The beer list is of the Gambrinus-Kozel-Urquell persuasion. I get a Gambáč—is what everybody is drinking—and fried feta with chips (which turns out to be excellent, really).

The TV's on, but it's not on a music or a sports channel. It's showing the last few minutes of a documentary about the Costa Concordia shipwreck. It's as sensationalist as you'd expect. The only interesting bit is right by the end, when they speak—all too briefly—about the project to salvage the wreck (ever since I worked at the construction of a power plant, I've been fascinated by large-scale engineering projects). Another documentary starts after a few ads; one that couldn't be any more out of place. It's about Lebensborn, the program of the SS to have Aryan soldiers shag Aryan girls to produce Aryan babies who will take over the world, or something like that. It's a serious topic that we should all know about, but it's not the kind of thing you want to watch or listen to while you're trying to enjoy a beer; it almost makes me wish they had MTV on. (On a side note: if you think of it, the Nazis are some of history's biggest and most pathetic loosers. They had their asses handed to them in the war they started, which resulted in their country being occupied and split for more than 40 years and have become a lazy, though legitimate, descriptor for evil. Who can possibly be inspired by them? Idiots, that's who.)

After I finish the second beer and pay the bill, I leave trying to decide whether I've liked Orion or not. Beer and food were more than fine—better than I'd expected, perhaps—but the place hasn't got much of an atmosphere going on (and I doubt it can improve much at a later hour); though once the weather gets warmer, it can become a good spot for a quick pint al fresco—I must make a mental note to check it out then.

It doesn't matter which tram comes first—10 or 16, on either direction—they both follow the same route, at least for the required number of stops, which is now four.

I see one approaching, the 10, it will take me back to where I came from. Not all the way back, I'll have to get off at I.P. Pavlova.

I can't be arsed with U Graffů, in the square proper. I'll go down Lublaňská. There's an “Irish” pub and one that looks a bit tourist-trappy. No thanks and no thanks. The one with the Gambrinus sign at the far end of the block it is then.

As with Orion, I've walked past Na Břežance loads of times, but never went in. Time to change that.

This place is alive, really, really alive; and packed. I'm lucky to find a free table in the fairly large main room—the taproom is full and the Salónek seems to have been reserved for a school reunion of class 1917.

Whereas service at Orion was slow (but in a good way), here is fast and very attentive. It takes me no time to order my beer: Gambrinus 12° Nefiltrované.

Before they bring it, I notice a woman at a nearby table eyeballing me as if she was trying to figure out where she knows me from, hoping she actually doesn't. It creeps me out a bit, I must say. I try to forget about her reading my book: Clive Barker's “Galilee”. (I'm enjoying it less than I did when I first read it about 10 years ago. It feels a bit as if Neil Gaiman had tried to write a Jackie Collins novel.)

By the way, the beer: the flavours are dominated by a mild, yet relentless note of why-I-will-never-be-a-fan-of-Lambic. I want to get something else for second course, but I'm reading as I empty the glass—I'm still averting the gaze of that woman—and I only manage to nod to the waitress asking if I want another one, before she disappears with the glass.

Frankly, I don't care. The beer was still drinkable, barely (and the second tastes better, actually), and I'm liking it here in Na Břežance. There's nothing different or new, nothing remarkable, nothing I haven't seen in countless other pubs in town. It might be the familiarity, or that the place is still full; and noisy. There's no TV in sight, nor any music I can hear; only the sound of people having a good time. The best music any pub can have.

I almost order a third pint, but I have other things to do. Some other time, perhaps.

Restaurace Orion
50°4'26.674"N, 14°27'33.972"E
Říčanská 7 – Praha-Vinohrady
+420 702 806 632 – restorion@centrum.cz
Mon-Sun: 11-23

Na Břežance
50°4'26.618"N, 14°25'52.757"E
Lublaňská 49 – Praha Vinohrady
+420 222 514 124 – 222 514 124
Mon-Fri: 10-24, Sat-Sun: 11-24

14 Jan 2016

About Those Changes in Czech Beer Regulations

Czech beer regulations are set to be updated. Most of the changes, however, are in nomenclature; though not all of it is pointless.

Once the amendment comes into force, the category Speciál will be called Silné Pivo. It does make a bit of sense, maybe; a beer doesn't need to be higher than 13° to be “special”, and there is nothing special about many beers bigger than 13°. Though, whether a beer with an ABV just north of 5% can be considered strong is another question.

Porter as a legal category will be scrapped. The is the one change I fully agree with. Right now, a brewer who wants to make something like Fuller's London Porter could technically speaking get in trouble because the beer isn't 18° or higher. Not anymore. (I just wonder how long it will take for a beer geek to come out of the woodwork, shouting that Pardubický Pivovar must change the name of its Porter because it is not an Ale).

The most contentious issue in the proposed amendment—at least for the local beer community—is that the current text does not contemplate renaming the category Ležák, something a few people have been fussing about for some time already. I don't quite see where the problem is, really. I don't see many of those people having an issue with Black IPA, Imperial Pilsner or Imperial Black Berliner Weisse (I'm not making that one up, believe me), or that Výčpení Pivo is sold in bottles and cans. Why then is Ležák wrong?

Ladislav Jakl, who knows his beer, explains it here. Let's forget for a second the rather convoluted, and not entirely accurate analogy with cars that he uses. According to him—and all the rest—Ležák is a style; therefore, only beers of that style should be categorised as such. I see several problems with this view. Firstly, Výčpení Pivo and Speciál can also be Ležák, if we understand it as Lager. And Lager isn't a beer style proper to begin with, it's a beer family; or more precisely, a method of beer making. Any cold fermented beer will be a Lager, and even warm fermented beers can be as well, if the secondary fermentation is at low temperatures, and relatively long, as is the case with Kölsch, Alt and some Abbey Beers (though it's a bit more complicated there).

But what if Ležák does not equal Lager? As a translator, I know very well that it is often the context and not a dictionary that determines how a word must be understood in another language, and this goes specially for beer. A Helles is a Helles and a Dunkles is a Dunkles; you can describe them as a German or Bavarian type of pale/dark Lager, but they are a lot more than that. Perhaps, we should take the word Ležák the same way? But then, what happens with Světlý, Polotmavý and Tmavý/Černý? Never mind, it's a pointless debate now; or will be soon, once the category is renamed Plné Pivo (Vollbier, or Full Beer), as it has been announced.

I'm tempted to make the silly joke that whatever is not Plné Pivo is what, Prazdné Pivo? Just to illustrate how unnecessary all this is. But it'd be an even bigger was of time; to all intents and purposes, the categories could be called Honza, Pepa and Tonda and it would make no difference to the consumer, and very little to the brewers. The current nomenclature has been no obstacle for the explosion in diversity style-wise of the last few years (they had no obligation to put the category, in large letters, on the front labels), and I don't see how the amendment could affect that one way or another . Everybody orders or buys beer of a given Balling degree, brand, colour, or style, and they still will. I don't think anyone will ever ask whether the Stout they're about to order is a Ležák or Speciál, Plné or Silné, Pepa or Tonda.

Na Zdraví!

12 Jan 2016

World Beer Idol, as it happend (well sort of)

I was at Hradčanská on a cold Saturday morning, early enough to make me question some of my life's choices, waiting for the minibus that would take me and the other judges to Zichovecký pivovar, and I still wasn't sure what to expect from World Beer Idol, my first experience judging a beer competition. Would I be up to the task? Would it all be as serious as I feared?

The trip to Zichovec was pretty uneventful; I spent most of it talking to Chris Baerwaldt, from Pivovar Zhůřák, and we got to the brewery, the stage of the competition, at about 9.

It didn't take too long for the thing to get properly started. Jakub Veselý, the organiser, divided the judges in three groups. Mine was quite multinational: two Czechs, a French, an Australian, a Yank and me. We were given the score sheets and told how we should fill them in. We were to rate each beer according to appearance (15 points), aroma (30 points), flavour and mouthfeel (30 points) and brewing style (25 points).

I had never assigned a score to a beer, ever. I'd never seen the purpose of it. I was a bit wary at first as there's no tangible, objective benchmark to start from; what is the perfect [insert style/category]? We had the style guidelines, I would have to make do with them. I also knew the categories I signed up for well enough to be able to at least give a fair assessment.

It didn't take me long, however, to start feeling comfortable with assigning grades to the different aspects of each beer; it helped that the first category our group judged was German Pils. I quickly understood that I should not compare the beers with each other—as I would do in real life—but to evaluate them according to the required characteristics of the category. When in doubt, I would err on the side of generosity. But I would also be strict, and even ruthless, if a sample so deserved. The only thing that would not stop bothering me was to give a low score to an otherwise excellent beer because something in it was outside parameters of its category—it was not true to style—but so were the rules of the competition and I had to abide to them.

There would be three more rounds in the morning session, and by noon we had judged, in total, 20 samples of 10 categories: German Pils, Imperial Pilsner, Dopplebock/Eisbock, Smoked Lager, German Hefe-Weizen, Dunkelweizen, Weizenbock, Porter, Extra Stout, and Imperial Stout (there were some categories with only one sample, and I found them a lot easier to judge).

The afternoon session was three rounds. Our table judged APA and AIPA (which, to be honest, were overall quite poor; only two of the beers could be considered decent, at best). And third, Radler, was judged by all three groups (one of those Radlers was in fact an excellent drink).

I had feared that everything would be very serious and boring. It wasn't. Everybody took the job very seriously—at least I know I did—but it was not solemn, as you'd expect to see in a court. We talked quite a bit among ourselves, exchanging opinions about the samples—mostly between rounds—but we didn't discuss scores. Overall, it wasn't all that different to what you'd see in the earlier hours of a beer festival, when nobody is pissed yet. It was quite fun, actually.

The one thing that surprised me the most, and not pleasantly, was the appalling quality of some of the samples. I can't understand how a professional brewery with at least a hint of self-respect would voluntarily send to a competition a beer that is objective shit (but then, given that some professional breweries sell objective shit, I shouldn't be surprised).

But the party was not over yet. The the best beer of the competition, the World Beer Idol proper, still had to be chosen.

Seven judges were picked for the final. I was one of them, which was totally unexpected (but flattering, I must say).

The process here was different. We were brought one sample each from six different categories (presumably, the beers that had the best scores): Helles, Witbier, Dopplebock/Eisbock, Bière de Garde, Oud Bruin, and Smoked Lager. The winner would not be chosen based on score, but by elimination. After tasting the samples, we discussed which would be eliminated, one by one. It was all decided by consensus, until we reached the last two: Dopplebock and Bière de Garde. We couldn't agree here, so we voted and the latter won by one raised hand. I had voted for the Dopplebock—it had been my favourite beer of the morning session—but it was only a matter of personal taste; the Bière de Garde was a superb beer, and a worthy winner, no doubt.

We were not disclosed the identities of the breweries that took part in the competition, and the winners will be officially announced in a few days. I will post them here, for sure.

People with more experience in this kind of thing than me (which was pretty much everyone, I believe) praised the organisation. There were a few hiccups and there is room for improvement (as expected for a first edition), but nothing serious; everything worked out pretty well. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It has not changed my opinion on the relevance of competitions as a consumer—if anything, it has reinforced it—but I must confess I wouldn't mind do it again someday.

With the serious business of tasting and judging over, it was time for the serious business of drinking the house's beers.

I didn't have any references of Zichovecký pivovar (in fact, I didn't even know it existed until now), but I must say that their beers went from very good to superb (the IPA was perhaps the weakest one, but it was still very fine by Czech standards), as was the food, the service and the place overall. We can say it was a nice reward: getting to know a brewery I otherwise doubt I would have bothered with—it's a few blocks from the middle of nowhere, between Slaný and Žatec (FULL DISCLOSURE: we did not pay for the beers we had, nor for lunch).

The bus back to Prague picked us up at about 6. We were all in a very, very good mood. Most of the team went to BeerGeek to keep on drinking. I got off at Hradčanská and let Honza Šuráň and Pavel Borowiec talk me into going for a couple of pints with them, before getting on my way home.

I didn't choose the pivo life. The pivo life chose me.

Na Zdraví!

8 Jan 2016

Presenting: The Tram Beer Challenge

I mentioned it the other day, but I want to explain this new project in more detail.

The starting point will be the Karlovo nám.–Moraň tram stop, where the most lines go through. I will take the first tram coming from either direction and will get off at the sixth stop. There, I will find a pub, have a couple of beers and maybe some food, and go back to the stop I god off at, where I will take tram coming from either direction and will get off, this time, at the fourth stop, where I will find a pub, etc., etc. The procedure will be repeated, always starting from the last stop I got off at, until I can't be arsed any longer.

Originally, the legs were going to be 10 stops each, but I thought it would make the trips unnecessarily long, so I cut it to six stops one way and four, the other; eliminating the risk of going back too soon where I started, or swinging endlessly between two stops.

Since I won't know where I'll be going, there will no point in doing any research at home, and since I don't carry internet in my pocket, I will have to trust my memory, if I know the area, or my instincts, if I don't. In any case, the pubs I visit will have to be new to me.

I'm very excited about this project. During the fieldwork for the 2nd edition of The Pisshead's Pub Guide, I sort of rediscovered the joy of going into a new pub in my city. And this time, it'll be even better: I won't have any schedule or greater purpose, other than putting together a review that will hopefully be more than the veni, vidi, bibit kind. It's certainly a lot more fun than drinking a new beer at home, alone, make a photo and write a bullshit tasting note or get the latest badge at Untappd.

Stay tuned, the first adventure is coming soon.

Na Zdraví!

5 Jan 2016

Guess what I'm up to this Saturday

For all those who follow this blog, my opinion about beer competitions* will be a well known fact; that's why I was a little surprised when a bit over two months ago, Jakub Veselý, of Pivo Falkon fame, asked me if I wanted to be one of the judges of a new international beer competition he's putting together.

I agreed without giving it a second thought. I enjoy having new beer experiences as much as the next beer geek, and this one will also give me a chance to see what competitions are really, first hand.

The first edition of World Beer Idol takes place this Saturday, 9/1, at Zichovecky pivovar. It's very conventional: there are over three dozen categories that cover Lagers, Ales, Weizens, Porters and Stouts, Sours, and even Nealko and Radler; the samples, sent by the breweries, will be evaluated in blind tastings, with a session in the morning and another in the afternoon. Judges have been asked which categories we feel fit to evaluate objectively. I marked a bunch—most of the Lagers and Weizens and a few of the rest—I won't enumerate them because I still don't know which or how many I'll be judging.

I'm not used to evaluating beers on the basis of tasting sample—at least, beers that aren't fucked up—but on the basis of how much I enjoy them and their value for money, and only after having drunk enough—usually, half litre, at least. But the judging criteria is very straightforward, and I know the categories well enough, so I trust I'll be able to do a good job. I'm actually quite looking forward to it. I'll report on the experience, hopefully, some time next week. Stay tuned.

Na Zdraví!

*Just in case: Competitions and their results are irrelevant, as far as the experience of the consumer is concerned. The beers evaluated are samples selected and sent by the breweries themselves; as understandable as that is, they aren't the beers that we drink.
The only exception is První Pivní Extraliga that judges beers from half litre bottles procured by the organisers through regular channels, and also awards consistency. But it's relevant only to that extent, as the evaluation proper is done with blind tastings of small samples.