Last Sunday, 35 beer fans from around Europe met in Plzeň to sample what must have been one of the world’s best collections of unusual beers: the Grand Tasting of the 2008 Ratebeer European Summer Gathering.
How unusual? This year’s Grand Tasting list included brews from Ghana, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, as well as scores of other countries which are even better known for malt beverages. It included geographically obscure brands of average quality, like Bosnia’s Sarajevsko, as well as sought-after cult favorites like Bass No. 1 and P-2 Imperial Stout, all of which were imported into the Czech Republic in the backpacks, suitcases and automobiles of users of Ratebeer.com. All were readied for the hard work of tasting — and rating.
“It gets kind of weird once you get up past 100 beers in a tasting,” admitted one attendee.
The event came as the culmination of the group’s three full days of beer tourism in Plzeň and Western Bohemia. On Friday, the Ratebeerians were given a special behind-the-scenes tour of Pilsner Urquell, where they tasted possible special beers that brewery has not yet produced (including rye beer and a red ale). On Saturday, they had a blind tasting of the Czech Republic’s yeast beers at Klatovy’s renowned Modrý Abbé. In between they visited brewpubs in Plzeňský kraj, including this year’s new arrival Purkmistr, all the while gathering steam for the Grand Tasting on Sunday.
Previous commitments kept me from showing up for the first two days, but I did manage to make it to the Grand Tasting with a few unusual bottles from home, including three of Klostermann, one of Pivovarský klub’s Florenc 14:14, and one of Grado Plato’s Chocarrubica.
(Unfortunately, the flip-top Florenc 14:14 bottle had developed a strong brettanomyces character in the many months since it was bottled. A couple of tasters liked the acidity, but that’s certainly not how it was meant to taste.)
With what looked like more than 300 bottles, cans and mini-kegs, it would be impossible to overstate the range of the beers. I was especially impressed by the Mikkeller Barrel Aged X Imperial Stout 2007, of which only 40 signed bottles were produced, all of which were sold for charity, this being example number 30. Intensely black and vinous, it tasted like soy sauce, only if soy sauce were a beer, and if that soy sauce beer were utterly delicious.
Other faves: the ’98 geuze from 3 Fonteinen. The twenty-six-year-old Felix Oud Bruin from 1982. The outstanding Schneider & Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse. The Grain Barrell Stout from Gourmet Bryggeriet. The Rojiza Fuerte from Argentina’s Araucana. And many more.
The enthusiasm for beer was infectious — these are people who live and breathe beers and rating them. The general preference seemed to be for imperial stouts, strong porters and Belgian sour beers, but more than a few unusual Czech brews showed up, courtesy of attendees who had spent the previous days touring the country. I saw plastic bottles of Belgrád polotmavý from Hotel Belvedér in Železná Ruda, as well as the full line of bottles from Pivovar Novosad in Harrachov, neither of which I’ve ever seen in Prague.
One thing I didn’t see: local attendees, other than organizer Filip Miller, who put the event together. Perhaps Czech beer fans are content with their own beers, and don’t have too much interest in trying rare Flanders reds. Perhaps it’s a language issue.
In the end, the pictures speak for themselves. Here are a few snapshots of what must have been one of the world’s greatest private beer tastings — at least until next year.