Tag Archives: Žatec

Craft and consolidation

I’ve thought long and hard about a Tinted perspective on the ‘craft’ debate. Industry insiders and writers of all denominations here in the UK, in the ‘States and elsewhere have chipped in to make this a rich vein of beer column inches. Should I join in?

The answer I reached is no. And not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s already too late. “Craft” as a word is already baseless, devalued. It’s become so over-used, so stretched that not only has it lost any useful meaning but it’s crossed the line and become unhelpful and confusing. At its bluntest it is a false amplifier, used to cast a positive halo on something questionable; at it’s most sophisticated, it adds no value to the more knowledgeable drinker who’ll work out for themselves what’s good and what’s not.

If we truly think that ‘craft beers’ are motivating for many drinkers then what do we think craft means? Or more to the point, what should it mean? Surely, you would imagine, it should involve some craft, some learned skill, human artistry, or personal flair. I like ironwork when hammered and hewn by a smith; or glass art, igneously brought to life by the likes of Jo Downs. To me that is a ‘craft’. One piece, similar on face value, is totally different from the next. Each with its own unique fingerprint.

For me ‘craft beer’ should mean this too. A while ago, I visited the Žatec Brewery in the Czech Republic. It was fairly tumbledown, apart from where investment had been made in key places: in the copper room; in fermentation, in yeast propagation and in new lines throughout. In the main, Žatec brew familiar Czech, lagered beers, not the mega hop profile of a West Coast pale ale, or the counter-intuitive thinking of a black IPA. But their beers are craft: the ingredients are picked, selected and loaded by hand. Fermentation is judged to be completed by the brewmaster not the stopwatch, maturation also. There is some slight variation in the end result, precisely part of its charm. They’re now half owned by Carlsberg, but are they any less craft?

Likewise, I recently visited Westons cider mill in Much Marcle. The vat shed there is one of the wonders of British cider making; there must be over 50 oak vats, all old, all named, unique in height and girth, strapped together with iron belts and carrying titles as varied as ‘Gloucester’, ‘Worcester’ and “Aston Villa’. But every drop of Westons cider spends time in those old oak vats. There’s just no way on earth that each batch can be 100% consistent, yet alone the fact that much of their product is ‘vintage’ so will vary enormously from one season to the next dependent on the fecundity of the harvest. Surely, this is craft? Yet within cider circles, merely because of their ‘scale’ (medium-large in cider terms, modest compared with many breweries, minuscule compared with brewing multi-nationals) many commentators claim that they can’t be described as such. They remain wholly family owned and independent.

Yet equally, I have been round a number of craft breweries who use spankingly new, gleaming stainless steel equipment and whose brewing process features automation (grist loading, hop addition for example) and is run from an iPad. Is this craft?

Our perspective has become cock-eyed. What we have to nurture is something entirely different. What we have to nurture is the human desire for variety, to be curious, to discover and try new things. A desire that in the late 60s and 70s was almost suppressed. The role of ‘innovation’ in proper beer remains as important today as it has ever been. On the one hand, we have the major international brewers putting much of their focus into mass-produced hybrid products (part lager, part spirit, often mixed not brewed) that do little for the brand other than confuse and are, in essence, a way of supplying easy drinking, relatively low cost alcohol to young adults. Conversely we have a push for discovery and rediscovery in genuine beer from national brewers to micros (and even, more patchily, with some multi-nationals) that matches this human trait and is breathing new life, new vigour back into beer. This is what we must protect, through our inventiveness and as drinkers, through out wallets.

Because have no doubt. The threat of mega-consolidation is a looming large now, dwarfing any petty questions of how to define ‘craft’. The economics of acquisition demand cost and efficiency savings. Savings mean cuts, closures and simplification. Brands will die; brew streams will be reduced, provenance will count for little. And as in turn, growth slows, so the eye of the multinational looks out into the world of burgeoning smaller brewers and eyes them lasciviously. Once they’re ‘synergized’ into their networks, the clock on them being able to carry on brewing in the way that the Founders intended, the way that built the brand and brought them success, is ticking. Tick follows tock follows tick.

So call it craft if you want to. Call it ‘interesting’. Call it ‘flavoursome’. Call it what you will. To me, it doesn’t matter. But whatever you do, support independent brewers who continue to innovate and brew with principle. A dark shadow is growing.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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Branded Glasswhere

There’s a quiet revolution going on with beer glassware. I remember when I was at University down in Exeter it was a real struggle to get your pint served in the correctly branded glass. In fact, it was rare to even see a branded glass. Guinness was the exception, so much so that it was quite typical to get a pint of Director’s or Bass served in one, often leading to me asking for it in a plain glass instead (I have nothing against Guinness but somehow any old pint in a Guinness glass spoils the experience both of the beer you are drinking and your future pints of the black stuff too).  Packaged beer was even worse. Frankly, if I asked for a glass with my bottle of swanky lager I was given a thoroughly gone-out look. ‘Look at that wazzock, wanting a glass with his beer instead of necking it from the bottle like the rest of us. Knob.’  Today you may get a glass designed specifically for the bottle.  But back then it wasn’t a case of brand glassware but rather branded glass where?

What really brought the change home was a conversation with an ex wine marketeer,  a friend of mine who has put me right on a lot of commercial issues facing the wine boys which I as a beer boy had been quite ignorant of, if not thoroughly mistaken over.  One of these issues was glassware.  Wouldn’t it be great to have an industry standard set of beer glasses to ensure that each type of beer was served in the right way? This would keep it easy for publicans….not swamping them under a sea of different shapes of beer glasses, or having them confronted by oafs sending their beer back if it’s served in a Guinness glass.  The wine boys: they have it sorted: elegant glasses, consistent across pubs to bars to upmarket clubs. I even attended a beer dinner at The White Horse in Parson’s Green where this was raised.  But funnily enough, I as with many others, was mistaken.

The first issue is how the wine makers see their challenges.  One big issue for them (perhaps not for drinkers but leave that to one side for the moment) is a lack of wine brands. Coupled with over supply this is leading to many wine markets suffering extreme price deflation and discounting, and a huge differential between the pricing drinkers experience in the on trade vs supermarkets. Whereas in beer the difference is double (using the UK example but increasingly this seems the rough rule of thumb in many markets) in wine this can be anywhere up to fourfold. And wine ‘all looks the same’ to drinkers…a glass of rose may vary slightly between labels but there’s little else to distinguish them, including no branded glasses.  The plan: introduce branded glasses. Ah.  Which just goes to show that not only is the grass not always greener on t’other side but in fact, it could be pink with yellow spots.

The second problem has been listening too closely to the licensees. Publicans have it tough, that’s for sure, not only have they got the issues with escalating duty, supermarket cut-throat deals and changing leisure patterns impacting on their business, they also have to run a complicated little business with long hours, the vagaries of staffing and recruitment, coping with weird laws and bylaws, offering food and getting their drink range and quality right. But this doesn’t always mean they appreciate the best way to run their businesses. And beer glassware is one example. If you took operational considerations to the nth degree then you would have standard height, stackable, toughened (shatter not shard to prevent glass injuries), non branded (doesn’t wash off in the dish washer) in two sizes, pint and half, capable of being used for beer, spirit long drinks and soft drink too. Oh, hang on, this is often standard fare in pubs in the UK. So, they’ve got it right, yes?

Nope. Think of your own experiences.  Here are some of mine in the last few weeks. In the Lakes, I had a pint of Black Sheep in The Bridge in Buttermere. Right glass, right setting and definitely the cause for a second.  A bottle of Erdinger nearer to home, in its preposterously curvaceous tulip glass; on holiday in Lanzarote a glass of Estrella Galicia in a handled, frosted glass; numerous bottles of Nastro Azzuro and not just in Pizza Express; in Prague a fantastic cellar-aged Žatec in a simple pilsner glass. I could go on. The point is that the glass is the fireworks over the Disney castle. The theme park is good, but those extra details make it memorable, lift it, make you want to go back.  So it’s a fine thing to see Fosters promoting their new glass; to see Stella Artois continuing to push for sales in its ‘chalice’, for Carlsberg introducing the wonderfully angular San Miguel glass, or abroad for brewers like Boston Beer investing research and development money in the right glass shape for Sam Adams Boston Lager. And sure. They get stolen, but if ever you wanted advertising in the home and prompt to buy the right beer for the right glass then surely this is a investment worth making (or sell them to bars for the price of a non branded glass – bars need to buy glasses anyway and this reduces the hit).

But why is this? What is behind the transformational effect that something as simple as a branded glass has in the purchase of a glass of beer?  Interestingly, the psychology of buying sheds some light on this. Basically when we buy, in fact when we plan to buy, there’s an emotional upside that impacts our physical state: endorphins raising our anticipation to a peak, the apex being when you actually hand over the money and buy. Thereafter the downside kicks in, big for a TV set or clothes and so on, but for a beer is pretty small (one reason beer has traditionally been described as ‘recession proof’). And the branded glass? It simply accentuates the positive …. it’s a triple win, it shows the brewer cares, the pub cares and you can show off your distinctive choice overtly.

Now ok, clearly you can only have so many branded glasses in a bar. But here is another reason for bars to sell a smaller range, with higher throughput and therefore fewer problems with glass storage and serve (as well as all the upsides of beer quality).

Back to that beer dinner I mentioned earlier. As the debate rolled about different issues, out came pudding. And with the pudding came some Trappist and Abbey beers. Westmalle was one, served of course in its Communion style stemmed glass, deep-walled and thick painted. It’s no exaggeration to say that celestial quiet filled the room for the brief moment it took to pour. There, I thought to myself, is the last word on the subject. Whisper it quietly, but ‘Vive La Revolution’.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

Lager, Part 3. Lager is as lager does.

If you take any interest in beer literature it won’t take you long to read that today, the majority of the beer drunk in the world is lager, in fact, typically a figure around 85 – 90% is cited as broadly accurate.

This is staggering. In fact, it is revolutionary given that this year, 2012, marks the 170th anniversary of the first clear, golden lagered beer from Plžen in Bohemia. If you consider that beer is known to have been consumed in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago this is equivalent to one of those Geological timelines that shows that if the age of the Earth is equated to just 12 hours, Humans have only existed in the last seconds before midnight.

It is though, wholly erroneous.

In reality, most of the beer consumed in the world today is pale.  Not pale ale, just pale in colour.  To call it lager is stretching it.

This generally assumed and unchallenged orthodoxy arises because two factors intermingle.  Firstly, these modern pale beers are brewed with strains of yeast that ferment at a cooler temperature than yeasts used for other beers (typically between 6˚C and 12˚C compared with ale yeasts at 15˚C and 24˚C). Secondly, these conditions were discovered when winter or spring brewed beer was stored in ice-filled caves to drink during Summer days when temperatures were too high to brew beer that didn’t spoil (due, as we now know, from the presence of wild yeasts in the air which would land on the beer and create spontaneous fermentation).  Given that this took place in Bavaria, these beers became known in the wider world as lager beers as they were ‘stored’ (German = lagern) and here a gentler fermentation continued to take place.

What I find intriguing is the assumption that beers fermented with bottom settling yeast and lager go hand in hand. This is where the error arises.

Actually most pale beer today is brewed with a bottom fermenting yeast strain (and in fact most beers are now brewed with hybrid yeasts that can be trained to fall to the bottom of the fermenter – even ales), but today few beers are lagered in a way, not only that was intended by the original lager beer pioneers, but also that does justice to the flavour potential of beers brewed in this way.

You see, for ale purists or for those who do not challenge the accepted wisdom, lager is ‘bland’. Either bland in absolute terms, or bland compared with the vast array of flavours in top fermenting beers. So it’s easy to level with sweeping strokes, ‘mass produced, tasteless, lager’ and justify the ale vs lager case that so damages the world of beer today.

But lager is bland if it isn’t lagered.  And here is the crux of the problem: lager is as lager does.

Most bottom fermented beer today doesn’t get the benefit of genuine lagering. And what a benefit it is.  It is a complex process where, in essence, flavours that brewers don’t want in beer are absorbed back into the yeast. Then eventually, the yeast flocculates* and settles to the bottom of the fermenting vessel.  I have debated with ‘progressive’ brewers who will claim, and probably back up with sound science, that today’s yeast hybrids and brewery conditions mean that long lagering times aren’t required.  And of course, lagering equals space and time – you need space for the tanks and you need time for the lagering, and that is capital investment needed and revenue lost.  But whatever the science says, the richness is lost – brands like Staropramen or Kozel are sad reflections of this – once great, rich, lagered beers, now brewed with cost in mind.

Of course, it’s not just the lagering. The choice of grist, of mashing regime, the yeast itself all impact flavour.  If you brew with enzymes to break down long chains of carbohydrates, this will impact flavour, as of course will the nature and type of hopping.

Yet, whilst most modern lagers are undoubtedly distant cousins of the first golden pilsner beers, they are merely that. Feral beers brewed more for the benefit of company bottom lines with the best technology at our disposal today.  These are undoubtedly pale beers exceptionelle. But they’re not lagered beers in a way that 19th Century Bavarian or Bohemian brewers would recognise.

Try a lagered beer, and really try it. Don’t just drink it; breathe it in.  Try the obvious ones – Budweiser Budvar is probably one of the few large Bohemian beers still lagering, in this case for a long time – 90 days – for the 5% export beer. Or in the German style, Warsteiner still lager, yet hop with German noble hops too for a clean yet spicy flavour.  But look out for the less well known beers. Windsor & Eton’s (yes, a British lagered beer) recently introduced Republika -they have installed lagering tanks especially for the purpose. Or Meantime’s London Lager (I know– two of them) – again, another beer with an extended maturation. Try Žatec, which is brewed with a double decoction mash and lagered for over 50 days in caves.  Breathe them in.  These beers aren’t in any way bland.  They are rich in texture, complex yet restrained in flavours, flavours which are multi-dimensional. They are refreshing yet rewarding too.  They are generally bitter, but bitter matched with a residual sweetness that leads to moreish drinkability.  They are naturally carbonated so the mouth feel is gentle and rounded.

Let’s hope that enlightened breweries such as these continue to brew genuine lager – one of the world’s more revolutionary niche beers.

* ‘scuse me.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March, 2012