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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

There Are No Good Arguments For Overpaying

Yesterday's light post--part of my only half-serious whinge series--provoked a surprising amount of very serious pushback.  A few of the comments appeared here, but far more on Facebook--the platform to which most discussion seems to be moving.  That pushback flowed down three main channels, and we shall deal with them all in due course.  However, just so we don't bury the lede too deeply: they're all wrong.  In this omnibus response, I explain why.

Filling Bombers is Ungodly Expensive
This is the most superficially persuasive case. In comments below, Frank White (who sent us unnecessarily down the rabbit hole of the culture wars), puts it this way:
A small brewery using a third party to bottle beer in small batches -- beer that cost the small guy a lot more per oz to produce, due to diseconomies of scale -- is going to have WAY higher costs of production than even a good-sized craft brewery. Try 2x.
On Facebook, TS, a brewery insider, statted it out:
For reference, let's consider a 10 BBL system. Considering grain, taxes, labor the cost per BBL is approx $105.00  Adding the costs of bottles, crowns, labels, packaging labor (assuming $12.00/Hr) this extrapolates to approx. 1,800 22 ounce bottle sales units.... If we use $5.58 as a retail price point for the 22 ounce bottle ... that yields the following Gross Marginal Profits: $10,064.29 per batch bnd Net a Marginal Profit of $6,644.86.
I truncated the quote because he also gave the stats on ten barrels converted to six packs (net marginal profit of $4,684.44 per batch).  Others made similar points, but these are the most cogent.

I think it's pretty clear from TS's numbers that 22s are plenty profitable.  But that's actually beside the point.  It's irrelevant what it costs the brewery.  If a certain package is twice as expensive as a competing package for the consumer, then it's too damn expensive.  Why on earth should anyone pay twice the cost for the privilege of drinking someone's beer?  If your business model depends on selling in a package that is twice as expensive as a competing package, maybe you need to rethink your business model.  But that is, in no case, the consumer's responsibility.  


You Need to Pay More or Risk Losing Your Fave Little Brewery
This is related to the point above, at least in spirit, but it is no more correct:
Here's an interesting thought, if the market says a 22 is worth $5.50 and your a small brewer struggling to make every dollar count, why would you price your beer less? Ever hear the one about an artist who wasn't selling any paintings until he tripled his prices?
I think everyone needs to reconsider this idea that small breweries are such hopeless business ventures.  There are struggling breweries in Oregon, but their numbers are dwarfed when compared to businesses struggling in any other market system.  You are a customer, not a brewery owner, and you need to think of your own interests. You are not responsible for keeping them in the black.  There's an obvious reason breweries are opening so fast: they're very lucrative businesses. If you want to frequent your corner brewpub to make sure they stay around, great.  But don't feel like you need to pay extra to subsidize breweries who would otherwise instantly be forced to make Hamm's.  



Other People are Paying a Lot for Beer, so You Should, Too
That title pretty much rebuts itself, but I'll go ahead and give you the arguments first:
Isn't all pricing based upon what people can get?

and
The people in just about every other major city in the country must be laughing hard at these PDX price complaints. Beer is more expensive just about anywhere else, and we shouldn't be surprised that as our city gets more media attention, more people move here, and property values, costs, etc. increase, that the beer prices will too.
This point contradicts the first point, which contended that small breweries have to charge a lot or face doom.  Here the argument is, "breweries can get away with huge mark-ups, so why are you bitching?"  Well, yes, they are getting away with large mark-ups.  That was the point of my earlier point--it feels price-gougey and I'm not high on it.  Arguing for price-gouging is an odd position to stake out.


Who Cares About a Few Bucks?
Some folks apparently have lavish beer budgets and so don't mind over-paying.  They think you shouldn't mind, either:
If you're pinching pennies to such an extent where you're seriously worried about a dollar here or there going toward supporting the bottom line of breweries you like (those guys aren't exactly getting rich and rolling in money), you should probably consider cutting beer out of your budget altogether.
and
Oh, FFS... people pay $5.50, or even $8.99, for a bomber because it simply isn't worth quibbling over the spare change between that and what they "ought" to charge. Is it less than 2 pints at the pub? Yes. Do they like the beer? Yes. Buy it, drink it, stop whining. If you're really that price sensitive, maybe you should be drinking water instead.
Okay, first of all, there are a lot of people pinching pennies.  We've just come out of the worst recession since the 30s.  Young people are living at home and working three part-time jobs.  They do not have tons of extra money laying around in piles on the floor.

But there's a reason everyone should care about this.  One of beer's central selling points is that it's a working class, everyday drink.  You buy a sixer for the week, you go to the pub after work.  It's affordable.  Craft beer is enjoying a moment of huge popularity right now that is almost certainly evanescent.  How long the moment lasts depends in some large part on how long people continue to invest in it.  All this excitement and growth depends on consumer interest.  If you start pricing beer like wine, you will lose the bottom half of your consumer base.  Beer has always swung back and forth between being a commodity product and a craft product.  We're in a craft phase right now, but there's absolutely nothing that says we have to remain in it.  If breweries start charging the same amount for a bottle of beer that good wineries do, the jig is up.  Price inflation is bad for beer, not good.  

I await your merry agreement in comments--

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I HAVE A MINOR COMPLAINT: The Bombers Are Too Damn High

Bill Night has his latest survey of Portland beer prices out this week, and I want to draw your attention to one of his findings:
  • 22-ounce bombers: $5.58
Five-fifty eight for 22 ounces of beer?  That's too damn high!*  It's almost exactly twice the cost per ounce as the average six-pack and getting perilously close to the average pint of a pub pour.  In fact, it's the same price as an average happy-hour pint. Due to a weird quirk in his sample, the bomber price actually down from last quarter, too.   For the visually-oriented:


Pints, of course, carry with them the costs of the structure in which you enjoy them and the paycheck of the barkeep (among others) who's pouring them.  What justifies the exorbitant price of a slightly larger bottle with no six-pack cardboard carrying-case?  Not that these are specialty beers made expensively or priced for rarity; nope, they're standard locally-made beers.  There can be only one reason: that people will pay it.   Stop it!

It's highway robbery and I for one planning on shaking my fist impotently at the bomber section of my local beer retailer until prices come down.

____________________
*If you don't get the reference, you've missed something special.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Exciting New Blog!

I wanted to alert you to a new project of mine.  Once a week, I'll be doing a blog over at All About Beer.  My debut post dropped today (every time people are trying to hype something, they say it "dropped) and you can find it here.  It begins:
Every beer-drinking country has a particular relationship to the beer it brews. Germans treat their lagers as a sacred trust, and breweries often have the text of Reinheitsgebot posted like a prayer on the wall. Italians are the quickest to think of their local ales as part of the gastronomic landscape—they brew with an eye to the dinner table. Americans have replaced a focus on quantity for one of quality, but in both cases there’s a maximalist orientation; now we count IBUs instead of empty cans.

The Czechs are the most interesting...
Please go and read the whole thing.  I'd love to affirm AAB's confidence in me with decent traffic, so help a brother out and click through.  Tom Acitelli has been doing some great history pieces, and John Holl even weighs in from time to time.  I'm hoping we can build a bit of a following for the online work we're doing over there.  Go have a look.

Incidentally, that blog is lightly linked to my (forever) forthcoming opus, The Beer Bible, and it shares the title.  I'll keep alerting you when posts go up there, at least for the near future. 

Hey, what are you doing still reading this blather--go check out my post.

The Dark Side of Booze

The Washington Post's Wonkblog has a great piece up today about American alcohol consumption patterns.  In particular, they include this graph, which illustrates two things very clearly:



First, almost all Americans have a healthy relationship to alcohol.  Second, a minority have a really unhealthy relationship.

Seventy percent of the population barely even drink.  Even looking at the 81-90th percentile, that group consumes just a bit more than two drinks a day.  (For men, two drinks a day is actually--if inconclusively--associated with positive health outcomes.)  But then we get to that last decile.  People in that group consume over 10 drinks a day--or three times as much as the bottom 90% combined.

This is the dark side of alcohol, and one those of us who make or write about booze should consider seriously.  The great majority of the alcohol consumed in the US--and I think this trend is typical worldwide--is being consumed by just a few people, probably all of them alcoholics by any definition.  The uncomfortable reality, as Philip J. Cook (Paying the Tab) describes in the article, is this:
"One consequence is that the heaviest drinkers are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic-beverage industry," he writes writes. "If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent."
(It's worth acknowledging that consumption patterns by those drinking Cantillon and Château Latour are probably different than drinkers of Popov vodka.  Because it is a relative luxury, I would guess that good beer is the choice of more people in the 60th-90th percentiles than the chart above reflects.  But as it gets more popular, it will naturally come to resemble national trends.) 

Just something to remind ourselves every now and again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What We Write About When We Write About Beer

Over the past month, I have been part of a four-person team judging magazine articles for the North American Guild of Beer Writers' annual contest.  We had 34 entries that were published in probably ten different publications, and they ranged from very short reviews to lengthy pieces on styles, equipment, or process.  One entry on a bit of brewing history ran on for thirty pages.  When you immerse yourself that deeply into something, you have a chance to see patterns and habit--not all of them good.  (I've written a few articles this year, and I recognized my own culpability in this.)  So as a public service, here are a few takeaways about how we can write more interesting, less repetitive stories.
  • Vary the structure.  This is how the vast majority of stories unfold: 1) anecdote about how a brewery does something, 2) expository about the subject of the article, 3) more brewery anecdotes that buttress the theme.  This is a classic form, and it's going to be hard to break the habit, partly because we like stories.  But so many of the anecdotes are repetitive--they start with a description of how some brewery does something, as if it's a wholly unprecedented.  Craft brewing is no longer new and exciting--we need to seed our articles with something more unexpected.   
  • Vary the quotes.  Gary Fish is doing something right.  He was quoted in tons of the articles we reviewed.  So were Ken Grossman, Jim Koch, and Sam Calagione.  We really need to do a better job of finding different voices to speak for the brewers.  
  • Be more critical. Critics rightly fault writers for fawning over breweries, but we do it subtly and inadvertently.  Many of the articles we write begin with the narrative as brewers would tell it, and then unfold from their point of view.  We select a topic, go interview a bunch of people, and then write what they say.  This is reportage, but it's not great reportage.  As writers, we need to figure out a way to write about beer so that it's not just a kind of soft promotion.
  • Find new ways to talk about beer.  The extended world of beer has a nearly infinite number of subjects to discuss, and yet we tend to pull out the same tired templates to discuss things.  I haven't quite figured out how to address this one, but it's a real issue.  If we were to go back in time to before Michael Jackson wrote about beer and entirely reinvent the way we write and talk about beer, what would it look like? 
For those of you who read beer books, magazines, and blogs, what would you like to see change?  Where do we need to go as we evolve?

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Nature of Saison

Suffering under some serious deadline pressures early this week, so blogging is (not unusually) crappy just now.  Nevertheless, I stumbled across this quote, which I haven't shared and don't think will be going into The Beer Bible.  But it's way to good to moulder on my hard drive.  The speaker is Olivier DeDeycker, the brewer and one of the owners of Brasserie Dupont.  I believe the phrase "microbiological intervention" is one of the loveliest I've ever encountered.

_______


Photo by Chuck Cook.
“With this barley malt they are brewing some beer, and that beer had second fermentation in wood barrels.  It was drunk in the summer by the people who worked in the fields.  So we speak of a beer with a low alcohol content, high bitterness, no residual sugar, so a refreshing beer.  It was what we call in Belgium bière de saison, saison beer, brewed in the winter and drunk in the summer.  They were brewing in the winter for microbiological reasons, to avoid [inaudible]--but with wood barrels, with the basic materials they had, of course I am sure they had some lactic.  It could improve the refreshing character of the product.  At this time they would have beer that was totally different from another one from the next year due to microbiological intervention.  We have to have something more standard, which is why we work with cultured yeast and we try to avoid any parasites.  In Dupont we work with a mix of different yeasts so we can have some difference--but that we [can] accept.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Únětická 12°

Source: Prague Beer Garden
The following post should be treated something like a public service announcement for travelers to the Czech Republic.  The beer I'm about to recommend can't be had for any price in the US, and isn't entirely easy to find even in Prague, near to where it is brewed.  And yet, should you find yourself in Prague, this is the beer you should seek.  Others might guide you to Klášterní Strahov or Kout na Šumavě (or any of a dozen or more reasonable candidates), and I enjoyed those, too--enormously.  But in the end, the one that kept calling out to me--the one that still calls out to me--is a 12° pale lager from a little brewery about 10 miles north of Prague.

The Únětický Pivovar is housed in a building where monks from Prague started brewing beer in 1710.  Brewing activities eventually stopped, but in 2010, local businessmen in the town of Únětice decided to turn it back into a brewery.  The first beers were brewed in 2011, and were instantly popular.  When I visited Prague back in 2012, Max Bahnson took me out to the brewery where we had lunch and a quick tour.  I was incredibly sick and nursing a sore head from the previous day's tour with Max, and sort of shuffled through the brewery tour.  But then we emerged into the restaurant to have lunch, and I sat down and drank a glass of the stuff.  (In the classic Czech meal, you get a meaty entree drenched in gravy and a row of thick, doughy disks which are called, curiously, dumplings.  They're unlike dumplings as we imagine them, but they're spectacular for soaking up beer and gravy.  And, it turns out, battling the flu.  I instantly put them to work that day.)

Production is small enough that they were still at the
grain-sack stage in 2012.

What followed was one of those clouds-parting-and-sunbeam-shining-down moments of transcendence that beer drinkers experience only on very rare occasions.  I think I was actually drinking the 10° that day, though I've since had more of the twelve.  It's difficult to describe exactly why this half-liter had ascended into that rare upper atmosphere of specialness.  There wasn't anything particularly unique at play: it had the same homey, fresh-bread malt base and tangy Czech-malt zing that the best světlý ležáks have.  It was just better.

The restaurant

I've come to recognize Únětická 12° by a rusticity that has something in common--at least in spirit--with saisons.  When the brewery first made the beer, they only let it lager about three weeks in order to get product out to people.  It was unfiltered and had a shimmering haziness.  Through Max's translation, they told me “We realized that if the 12º lagers for longer than a month, it will get too clear and in the pubs they will complain that it is too clear.  They want more yeast.”  As a consequence, they now lager it only three weeks.  Perhaps one of the things going on is that the elements are not quite as smooth as they are in beer lagered over a month--the malts are a bit grainier, the hops a bit more vivid.  The beer is very dry and there's a hard-water mineral note that sharpens those hops.  The best beers have an ineffable (and indescribable) character of harmony, and that's the final element of Únětická 12°. For my money, it's the best beer in the Czech Republic.

Look for it if you go to Prague.




_______________________
"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Birthplace of Modern Beer

There are a number of very cool breweries in the world, and I have been fortunate to visit some of them--the foeders of Rodenbach, the koelschip of Cantillon.  I've stood under Crown street at the sprawling Greene King brewery, where beer is pumped to the packaging plant.  Uerige still uses a baudelot chiller; Schlenkerla smokes their own malt--and I got to see both.  But there is no brewery that has had a greater impact on brewing history than the one in Plzeň, České republice.  It's not even close, actually.  When the brewery we now call Pilsner Urquell first made a pale lager 172 years ago, it changed the course of brewing forever.

Pilsner is the world's most popular beer, by miles and miles.  It's made in every country where beer is allowed, and owns something like--just spitballing now--90%+ of the total world production.  It's almost never the case that we can trace some seismic event back to a single place and know the single moment, but with pilsner's birth, we can. No doubt everyone in blogland knows the story, but here's a few sentences to set the stage.

Back in the late 1830s, the beer in Pilsen (about sixty miles southwest of Prague) was bad.  So bad, in fact, that in 1838, local officials rounded up 36 barrels of the stuff and dumped it.  For the most part, Czechs made ales then, but they were aware of lagers and wanted some of their own. Local burghers--citizens with special rights to brew--decided to take action.  They hired a local architect and sent him off to Munich to learn about how lager breweries were built, because they aimed to step up their game and make it as well as the Bavarians.  To make sure the beer was properly made, they even hired a Bavarian brewer to make the beer.  As a final touch, they built a kiln at the brewery "equipped in the English manner" that could produce pale malts.

The rest is history.  That brewer, Josef Groll, brewed his beer on October 5, 1842, and it was released on November 11.  (We even know the date!)  The first truly pale lager was born, and the revolution was under way.

The brewery itself should be considered a world heritage site--at least to those of us who value such things--and is one of the prettiest breweries on the planet.  The last time I traveled through the Czech Republic, I didn't really blog about it.  (Budvar got a better account.)  So when Mark Dredge sent me an email about a month ago asking if I'd like to go tour it again--on Pilsner Urquell's dime--what do you think I told him?  It gave me another chance to give a proper account of it, one I wasn't going to miss.

The Beer
It sometimes happens that a beer has such dominion over a style that subsequent examples are a half-step back from the original.  Eventually, the original can start to seem slightly out of step with what is "typical."  It's the case with dark, spicy Schneider Weisse, and it's the case with Pilsner Urquell.

Compared to other světlý ležáks, Pilsner is an odd duck.  It's roughly a 12-degree beer, but comes in at just 4.4% alcohol.  Yet it's also quite hoppy, with IBUs in the upper 30s.  It's got a caramelly backdrop and comes, at least in Czech, with a two-inch pile of snowy foam.  The most curious thing, though, is that dollop of diacetyl in the middle that is key to the beer's character.  For contrast, Budvar is 5%, but only has 22 IBUs--and no diacetyl.  This odd balance point--lots of residual sugar, lots of hops--makes for a rich, full-flavored beer.  That diacetyl center adds a sensual creaminess that makes it such an easy drinker.  It's altogether an unusual beer, even for the Czech Republic.  As I sampled my way around, I found that dryness was by far more characteristic of the pale lagers there--indeed, I think of dryness as being a hallmark of that type.  But not for Pilsner Urquell.



The City
If you arrive in town by train, as I did on my first visit, you can be fooled into thinking Plzeň (let's go with Pilsen henceforth, shall we?) is a tiny town.  In fact, it sprawls out distantly beyond the town square and has 170,000 people.  But the inner core is compact and contained, and you can walk from the train station to downtown in ten minutes.  The two central landmarks are the spires of St. Bartholomew Cathedral, begun at the end of the 13th century, and the minaret-like water tower at Pilsner Urquell--and they seem to wave at each other from across the Radbuza river.  (I'm not totally up on my religious history--with the Prague twice serving as the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and also the earliest Protestant rebellion, it's rich--but Pilsen is known as a Catholic town.  You see crucifixes in the brewhouse.) It's a great town for strolling, and beer geeks might find themselves drawn again and again from the town square back to the brewery.

The Brewhouse
Pilsner Urquell rests on a plot of land that stretches for acres.  Bound by buildings and gates, it forms a cloistered, spacious campus, with different functions located distant enough from one another that the guides whisk tourists around on buses.  The brewhouse is at the center of the action, both physically and psychically.  Once, rail cars came right into the center of the campus, and you follow the tracks from the visitor's center toward the brewhouse building like it's a trail. 

If you take the public tour, they walk you through the process and ingredients before you arrive at the active brewhouse.  I'll skip most of that except for offering a couple notes.  One of the coolest things on the tour is the original kettle used by Josef Groll, which was twice hidden by burial during wars to protect it from pillaging.  In the photo of it, you may apprehend for the first time why it must have been so hard to make delicate, pale lagers.  Look at that thing.  Leaving aside the rivets and seams, look at how wide and flat it is.  If fire was underneath that whole thing, it must have gotten heavily caramelized.  (I don't doubt that some of the 19th century batches were probably sublime, but let's dispense with the romance of age: beer now has got to be miles better than it ever was when brewers had to work with such crude, imprecise equipment.)

Pilsner Urquell still decocts their beer three times and uses open flames to fire the kettle and mash cookers.  As I understand it, most Czech breweries now use single or double decoction.  And for good reason.  We know so much more about malting now that there's no reason to use such a laborious process.  It's expensive, time-consuming, and except for subtle effects on the beer, mostly unnecessary for most breweries.

Nevertheless, the brewery's Robert Lobovsky says triple decoction is still critical to the profile of Pilsner Urquell.  "We need to do triple decoction for two reasons.  One, to get the golden color out, and then to get the caramelization to take place."  He added this fascinating tidbit.  "They've got the copper chains inside--you saw them in the old brewhouse when you looked in--and they [scrape] them on the bottom, so when you're 700 degrees from your heat, you're scraping up the caramelization so you don't burn the sugar."  (If he means celsius--sorry, I didn't clarify!--that's 1300 degrees F.)

One of the more amazing things about the brewhouses is that there are actually two, side by side.  The old one is no longer in service, but the brewery keeps it polished and in perfect shape.  They currently produce about 2 million hectoliters, and could expand capacity up to three million if they brought the old brewhouse back on line (a real possibility).  Both are gorgeous, but the older one is, purely from aesthetics, the prettier of the two.  I've toured dozens of old breweries, and few have a brewhouse as beguiling as the old one at Pilsner Urquell.  

The new brewhouse.

 
The old brewhouse



The Cellars
Pilsner Urquell has a fully modern building for fermenting and conditioning their beer, but no one ever cares about seeing it.  The place to go is down, to the mostly-obsolete cellars that honeycomb the earth underneath the brewery.  A hundred years ago, Pilsner Urquell was brewing a million hectoliters of beer, and it all needed to sit for weeks in wooden casks to ripen.  At one time, there were over five miles of cellars devoted to the purpose.  It was an amazing operation, with coopers and cellarman rolling gigantic barrels in and out while other wooden giants sat silently, burping slowly as their worty bellies turned to rough beer and rough beer turned to liquid gold.



The cellars alone weren't cold enough to keep the beer at the right temperature, so the brewery used a form of crude refrigeration.  They filled up these enormous caves with ice, and circulated air over them and throughout the cellars.  (It's icy down there today, but they use modern cooling, not ice.)  When you visit now, you can still see the high-ceilinged rooms with apertures at the top where ice came in.  Elsewhere, walls are painted white in lime to retard the growth of mold (it works, too--the place doesn't smell musty), and everything is damp and moist.  The cellars are like a labyrinth, and it wouldn't take a lot to get lost if you wandered off in the wrong direction.




For most people, this is the pièce de résistance, not least because the tour ends with a sample of beer from the wood.  There are a number of ways in which that tipple delivers something different than the beer made 150 years ago.  Changes in agriculture have brought improvements to barley and hops, and the brewhouse enjoys the benefit of modern technology.  (The yeast, though, which was first tested by a lab in the 1870s, is the same.)  It's easy enough to fool yourself when you see that fresh, foamy beer cascade from the barrel, though.  Many people claim moments of transcendence when they taste that beer, but I think it's mostly due to the transporting experience they've just enjoyed.  (I prefer a fresh pint of unfiltered at a pub, personally.)  But I'm not going to argue with them.

This time around, rather than descend into a reverie about what the beer might have been like, my mind turned to the remarkable way it has more or less stayed the same.  There are older breweries in the world, and perhaps a few older beers.  But Pilsner Urquell has been making just one beer at that site since it was ruled by the Austrian empire.  Over 17 decades, it has continued to make just a single beer, the same beer (more or less), as world events have crashed across the country like a wrecking ball.  The Czech lands became independent, then suffered under the oppression of two terrible empires, but all the while, Pilsner Urquell continued to make that beer.

It's a remarkable tale of continuity and even more remarkable to experience first-hand.  Beer lovers should put the Czech Republic at or near the top of their wish list (it's as cool as Belgium, honestly), and if you have the good fortune to go, definitely stop in and see this brewery.


Friday, September 12, 2014

The Nature of Indigenous

Boak, Bailey, and Stan have been considering the nature of indigenous beers--what and whether they are, and how that is distinct from "local" beer.  I know Stan has been mulling a high-concept book related to this subject, so I hope the discussion will continue on for years.  In one way, it couldn't matter less--beer is beer and almost no styles exist sui generis, separate from the influences of all others.  On the other hand, it's a critical question in a world in which information, education, and raw materials are unmoored from place.  The great thing about the 21st century is that we can pretty much access anything in the world, so our daily lives are enriched by multinational, multicultural influences.  But it also means that the local and weird may be trampled under the homogenization of international preference.  By spreading each other's materials and cultures, we may endanger them.

As it happens, I've been thinking about this for a long time.  Seven years ago, I wrote a post about this very topic.  A lot of my seven-year-old posts don't bear re-reading, but I may have been onto something when I wrote that one.  You can read the whole thing, but the piece I want to repost (and actually, rewrite a bit--it's not free of mistakes and miscues) involves the elements of indigenous beer:
  • Ingredients. People have made beer for thousands of years, and the grains they used were those that grew in nearby fields: wheat in Egypt, rice in India, sorghum and millet in Africa, barley in Europe.  Many indigenous styles include local additives, from the dates of Egypt to the gruit of Europe, to the cherries in kriek.
  • Method. Some breweries have funky ways of brewing, and these help define style. The slate squares employed in Yorkshire breweries; the spontaneous fermentation of Pajottenland; the smoked lagers of Bamberg; or the lagers fermented warm to create steam beers in San Francisco.
  • Yeast. Many of the world's classic beers emerged from the decades- or centuries-old strains of yeast. In many (most?) cases, yeast strains are connected to locations where they originated and consequently are one of the chief elements that define styles.
  • New Variations. Sometimes styles emerge by remixing the ingredients, methods, or yeasts to produce a beer recognizably different.  Stan mentions American pilsner as a possible indigenous style, and it would fit under this clause.  It was a style that couldn't be adapted to the US, with its harsh barley, without the addition of local corn.
  • "Localness." What has guided many brewers through time wasn't necessarily a desire to be innovative, but restraints of locality. They used what they had. In the age before industrialization, hops, grains, adjuncts, and water all had to be local. The character of the beer has historically been a reflection of the place it was brewed. The physical imperative is gone in the age of globalization, yet artisanal beers are still predominantly local products.
 Stan's got a nice discussion going on, so check out the comments if you visit his post.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Brief Primer on Czech Lagers

Sometimes I skip posting information that I know exists elsewhere on the internet, as if the mere existence of information somewhere means people everywhere are consuming it.  You can find descriptions of Czech lagers from people far more versed on the subject than I--Evan Rail and Max Bahnson (the Pivní Filosof) are your English-language starting points.  (Unfortunately, Evan's old blog, a mighty archive of great data, is now offline.)  Nevertheless, it is sometimes useful for a person to gather together and repeat some information for those who are coming later to the party.  In that spirit, here's a brief primer on Czech lagers.

Only One Pilsner
You do not order a "pilsner" in Prague (or anywhere else in Czech).  You could order a Pilsner, though.  In the Czech Republic, the word pilsner is a proper name reserved for Pilsner Urquell.  All other pale lagers are referred to by either their proper name or by category (see below).  I have gotten several different answers for why this is the case, but my sense is that it has mainly to do with tradition.  Josef Groll invented pilsner at the old burghers' brewery in 1842, and other breweries show great deference to this brewery (now called Plzensky Prazdroj, or Pilsner Urquell).  That beer is the ur-Pilsner, the one that begat the rest.  It is also the beer from Pilsen--not the only one, but obviously the big one--and so for these reasons it is the only one people call pilsner.

The Categories of Beer
The Czech system for grouping beer runs along two axes--strength and color.  If you imagine a table in your mind, on the one side you would have beers of different strength categories based on the Plato scale, and on the other a continuum of color running from pale to black.  So you might have a 10° pale beer or a 12° amber or a 14° dark.  But you might also have a 12° dark. (On our tour, Evan Rail mentioned that while there are no hard and fast rules, if you see a brewery list that includes a 10, 12, 14, and 18, the average Czech would assume the two smaller beers are light, the two bigger ones dark.)   

Let's start with the legal designations, which refer to Plato categories.  These changed a bit in 2011, so if you find lehké on an old list, note the change.  Also, those are my best-guess pronunciations you find.  Fluent Czech speakers may offer corrections or denunciations in comments.

Update: Indeed, the wisdom of hive mind is speaking loudly in comments, with corrections, questions, and clarifications.  Definitely have a look.
  • Stolní pivo, table beer up to 6° P.  (I've never seen one of these in the wild.)  The pronunciation is roughly stole nyee Pee voh. 
  • Výčepní pivo, from 7° to 10°.  Strangely, výčepní comes from the word for taproom and the term literally means “draft beer.”  It is applied to all beer in this range, irrespective of package.  Pronounced vee chep nyee Pee voh.
  • Ležák, from 11° to 12°.  Again, to add to the confusion, ležák literally means lager—and again, it applies to all beer in this range whether lager or ale.  Pronounced leh zhak.
  • Speciál, strong beers above 13°.  Pronounced spet zee-al.  
The colors are more straightforward--pale, amber, and dark, though for etymological reasons, I'm going to list them out of order (you'll see why):
  • Světlé, or pale-colored.  Pronounced svet lee.
  • Tmavé, or dark.  Pronounced t’ma veh.
  • Polotmavé, which literally means semi-dark or half-dark, referring to a color in the amber band.  Pronounced polo t’ma veh.
  • Černé, or black.  Pronounced cher neh.
When you're ordering these, you would mix and match.  That 12° amber would be a polotmavý ležák.  A 10° pale would be světlý výčepní.  Of course, you could also just order the beer based on its gravity, which is the easiest for Americans in whose mouths these words gurgle like giant balls of peanut butter.

Bright, Unfiltered, or Yeasted?
So far, so good, yes?  Now comes the more tricky part of the whole thing.  Not only do you have this taxonomical tangle, but you have an additional stratum of information regarding how the beer was prepared.  In addition to just regular old beer like you might find in a bottle, the beer might be unfiltered or served kräusened.
  • Kvasnicové, literally yeast beer.  It is a specific preparation that involves adding yeast or fermenting wort to fully-lagered beer right before kegging.  It brings a liveliness to the beer that has Czech beer geeks in a swoon.  Pronounced kvass nitso veh Pee voh.  
  • Nefiltrované or unfiltered beer.  Slightly confusing because both kvasnicové and nefiltrované will appear less than perfectly clear in the glass, and both may enjoy the benefits of richer, brighter flavors.  Unfiltered beer is not kräusened.  Pronounced ne filtro vanay Pee vo.   
  • Tanková, or tank beer.  Just means it's served from a large, 5- or 10-hectoliter tank underneath the bar.  What's significant is that this beer is unpasteurized, which means the flavors are sharper and more vivid.  Pronounced tank o va.
All right, are you ready to head out to the pubs?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Ease of Misunderstanding Czech Beer

This photo, captured on my camera, was actually taken
by Max Bahnson--a better photographer than I.
The golden lagers of the Czech Republic are at once the easiest and most elusive beers in the world.  They are easy because, unlike goses and gueuzes, they are imprinted on our brains as the most basic form of "beer."  Frothy, sparkling, pale--no instruction manual required.  We even have two of the most important and tasty examples at hand in Budvar and Pilsner Urquell, which means we don't have to put our brains through a remote intellectual exercise to appreciate them.  A quick visit to a decent grocery store or any bottle shop, and we can be drinking some of the world's best Czech lagers in a half hour.

But the ways in which they elude us are much more important and, after four days of intense remedial study in the Czech Republic, where I found the true story lies.  From a great distance, all Czech pilsners--světlé pivo, "pale lagers" in Czech--look alike.  If pressed, you might admit that hoppy Pilsner Urquell, with its very round body and dollop of diacetyl, isn't actually all that like the drier Budvar, with its subtle kiss of bitterness.  But, eh, really, they're yellow and fizzy and mostly all the same.

An analogy will due to dispel this poor reasoning.  Put your mind on hoppy American ales, which from a great distance also appear a lot alike.  Now, imagine the perspective of a foreign beer drinker--a Czech, say--who believes he understands the style well enough because he has ready access to Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and New Belgium Ranger.  Would you say he has an adequate understanding of hoppy American ales?

Given a simple template, it's possible to make beers that are startlingly different. That's as true with pilsners as IPAs.  I spent last week in Prague and Pilsen on a mini odyssey of discovery (on, full disclosure, a junket financed entirely by Pilsner Urquell), where I reacquainted myself with favorites like Únětické 12° (possibly the best pale lager in the world) and Pilsner Urquell (the unfiltered version is a revelation), and discovered new delights like Kout na Šumavě, Pivovar na Rychtě, and U Tří růží.  If you don't have access to the range of these beers, you can't appreciate how diverse they really are.  Once you start adding the different presentations--served with live yeast, unfiltered, from the "tank"--the dimensions grow like new galaxies. 

Over the next couple weeks, I'll try to unpack what I learned on the trip, which ranged from the pubs to the hop fields to a the top of the old water tower at Pilsner Urquell.  I may even make a comment or two about Czech dumplings, which were a minor feature of our travels.  It is a world that can't be fully accessed with the mind--you need your tongue and nose--but perhaps it will inspire a trip to the Czech lands or two.  Half liters only cost a buck and a half!

More to come--