Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Microbrew is Meaningless

I read an article yesterday about some university professor who stated a preference for Coors over and above many a craft ale. As you can imagine, the ire of the craft beer legionnaires was duly raised - I mean, how dare someone state a preference? The professor then went on to say that when he was in Prague, the pale lagers he drank were "uniformly terrific", and of course in the minds of the craft beer legionnaires this was proof positive that he had been drinking the very microbrewed beers that he had been putting down in his article.

Now believe it or not, I don't enjoy ranting that much, unless of course we are in beer's natural environment, the pub for those unsure of where that would be, and I am with friends generally putting the world to rights. However, when I see ridiculous statements along the lines of Pilsner Urquell being a microbrew then I am sure you can appreciate my annoyance.

Pilsner Urquell is not, never has been, never will a microbrew. That's not to say that I think Pilsner Urquell is a bad beer. When you get it from a good pub, using a tankove system, and thus unpasteurised, it is still one of the truly great beers of the world - one of which is mentioned in my Pocket Pub Guide to Prague. I don't care if it turns up at festivals purporting to be about craft beer, it simply does not fit the given criteria of a craft beer according to the Brewer's Association. Production is about 8.5 million US barrels a year, and the company is an entirely owned subsidiary of SABMiller. To put their production volume in context, 8.5 million barrels, or about 10 million hectolitres for the metric among us, is almost 1 hectrolitre produced for every man, woman and child in the Czech Republic. That's 100 litres, or 200 large beers in the pub - in American measurements that is 3381 ounces of beer, or 211 16oz pints of beer. If you were to scale those numbers up for the population of the USA, Pilsner Urquell would need to produce nearly 300 million barrels a year. In it's proper context then, Pilsner Urquell is a macro-brewery plain and simple.

The comments thread that followed the initial article showed quite clearly the perils of attempting to jelly mould any given concept outside that concept's original context. Hence, the division between "craft" beer and industrial beer is largely irrelevant outside the American context. Without the lunacy, and inherent hypocrisy, of Prohibition, the idea that good beer was invented in the 1970s holds no liquor. Given that, it makes the claim that Pilsner Urquell started out as a microbrew just as spurious and irrelevant as claiming "Guinness is a lager" (yes, that was in the comments as well!).

You cannot take modern concepts and force them into history, you must allow history to speak for itself. If, in 1839, you had sat down with the good burghers of Pilsen and tasted whatever it was they were about to dump, you wouldn't have been saying "let's start a microbrewery"! You would have been saying something along the lines of, "we need to invest in the latest technology and make ourselves a more consistent, better beer". Along with the other burghers of the city, you would then spend vast sums of money building a state of the art brewery, hiring a Bavarian brewer - because, let's face it, Bavarian brewers tend to be the best at what they do. Hey presto, Pilsner Urquell is tapped on November 11th 1842 and becomes a phenomenal success. If you have ever been to the brewery in Plzeň, one thing is plainly clear, this brewery was built for volume. It was never built as a little operation that became popular and had to scale up. You have to remember that at the time, every pub in Plzeň would have served a locally brewed beer and so you had to be prepared to supply hundreds of pubs almost instantly.

Coming back to the professor's claim that the beers he enjoyed in Prague were "uniformly terrific" and subsequent claims that he was drinking microbrew, again I doubt that would stand up to reality. Admittedly here I am surmising, but if the professor was there as a tourist, without the benefit of insiders to point him in the right direction, then most of the pubs he went to would have been in Staré Město, Nové Město or Malá Strana. Most of the pubs in question would have been serving Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Staropramen or Gambrinus, none of which are microbrew in a Czech context. Budvar though is right up there in terms of being a great beer, but again I would say that within the Czech context it would be spurious to label it "microbrew". However, and I think this is the best light from which to see the professor's article, even bilge water like Staropramen is a damned sight better than Coors or Miller, so it is no surprise that he was blown away by "uniformly terrific" Czech pale lager. Speaking from more than a decade's worth of living in Prague, given a choice between a god awful Gambrinus and an equally god awful lager in the UK (Foster's springs to mind) or the US, I would take the Gambač every time. When it comes to craft pale lagers, there are few that I would take over a Budvar, but that's a different post.


  1. The prof likes what he likes. It's a free country.
    Great link.

  2. Nice rant, though I have one counterpoint to make: you say the craft vs. macro distinction is relevant few places outside the US. I think it's easier count the places where it doesn't apply than those where it does, to wit: Belgium, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, the UK (probably just England, actually) and possibly the Netherlands.

    Everywhere else, I posit, it's relevant. Everywhere else is either countries where there is no history of beer culture, macro beer was the default and the American craft beer revolution has spawned new craft breweries and brewpubs at the opposite end of the industry; or else small countries like Ireland and Denmark where the macros achieved full-spectrum dominance before the anti-monopoly legislation was in place to stop them.

    In most countries I've been there's a clear distinction between macro and craft beer. Though, of course, neither designation says anything about beer quality.

  3. Just wondering what a tankove system is?

  4. Basically unpasteurized beer arrives at the pub in a large tanker and is pumped into plastic sacks inside pressurized serving tanks. The pressure forces the beer to the tap, and the beer never comes in contact with oxygen prior to the point of service.

  5. Did it exist before the invention of plastics, or did they go straight from wooden casks to tankove?


    Everything you ever wanted to know about tankove pivo.

  7. as you say PU from the tank is divine, though I do wonder what I would do if offered a Gambrinus or a Bud, might depend in the context, if in the US I would go for G, but when offered it in Prague or Pilsen I am invariably disappointed, best thing about G is the new visitor centre where you can have a go at taking virtual football penalties, I got 3 out of 3

  8. ATJ,

    Thankfully the chances of having to make that choice are fairly slim. I used to drink copious amounts of Gambrinus, usually whilst hurling abuse at TV screens in sports bars, and it was really only in the last few years that it has become so hilariously bad (though to be fair, Gambrinus Excelent isn't totally awful). It got to the point, in pubs I watched football in, that I would rather drink PU despite the added cost and smaller servings.

  9. There's a thread on BeerIdiot now where some halfwit is complaining that Pilsner Urquell isn't as good, now that it's mass-produced.