Friday, February 21, 2020

Classics Revisited: Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout

For reasons best known only to history and circumstance, I don't recall having had a Samuel Smith's beer when I lived in the UK. I am sure that my pre-Prague drinking life largely consisting of Guinness, Murphy's, Caffrey's, and John Smith's in pubs of varying amounts of Oirishness may have played a part.

My introduction to Samuel Smith's was, if memory and Blogger labels serves, in Bicester when visiting one of my brothers. I lugged a fairly impressive haul of British beers back from Oxfordshire to Prague, including their Taddy Porter, Oatmeal Stout, and the muse for today's classic revisit, Imperial Stout.


When you think about a brewery so steeped in nostalgia for the Victorian era, you'd kind of expect their Imperial Stout to have the kind of provenance and heritage that only the noblest of blue blooded families can claim. Alas, as I discovered doing some background reading for this post, the beer was apparently first brewed in the 1980s, originally for the American market. Even so, I still list it as a classic as I have heard plenty of craft brewers name check it as an inspiration for their own imperial stouts.

Let's get started then...


Yes, I am pouring an imperial stout into an imperial pint glass, even branded (yay Christmas mixed packs with glassware), but at 7% abv, this is not exactly rocket fuel when compared to the standard abv of most American craft beer. As you can see from the picture it had a massive head, a fact I put down to the traditional Victorian practice of etching the white Yorkshire rose onto the bottom of the glass. The head never really settles down when using my Sam Smith's glasses, so there was a lot of lacing left as I drank the inky obsidian liquid. There was actually enough foam in the bottom of the glass at the end to have a mouthful of the moussey goodness.

I am sure you can imagine that through such a dense head if was fairly tricky to pick out a lot of aromas, though definitely in there were licorice, a touch of coffee, a wallop of black treacle, and a kind of tobacco/herbal thing that I always associate with Fuggles. Tastewise, the black treacle character was very much to the fore as well as some bittersweet chocolate, think something north of 80% cocoa and from South America. There were also some light fruity esters, as well as those herbal hops coming through in the finish.

For an imperial stout that is on the lighter end of the abv spectrum, it most certainly doesn't feel as though it is lacking heft. The silky mouthfeel and full body are almost sensuous.

I am sure there are folks out there who would claim that this is really just an old school porter, especially because of the abv thing. I am not one to quibble with how a brewery wishes to brand their beer (unless they win awards for it in a different style than that market it), and can happily say this classic stands up to scrutiny as one of the best imperial stouts out there today.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Old Friends: Unibroue Maudite

From time to time I wonder if I have ever really got over the fact that my parents moved back to Scotland after about 6 years living in the Haute Vienne region of France. Don't get me wrong, I am glad to have somewhere to stay when Mrs V and I go to Scotland, but I loved going to the part of France they lived in.

During our 2008 Christmas trip we went into the Leclerc supermarket in La Souterraine, as ever I made a bee line for the beer aisle, where I noticed a few bottles of beer that looked markedly different from the massed ranks of French macro pale lager. Naturally I picked up a couple of each, and some Orval, hoping to try local French craft beer. Those bottles were all Unibroue, and I didn't read the back label at first, so only at my parents' place did I learn said brews came from Canada.

From that moment on I knew that Unibroue beers would be something I would enjoy from time to time when Mrs V and I jumped over the Pond, and so it has been, though usually their tripel, La Fin du Monde. Over the years I have found my tastes shifting ever further away from big hitters, as you probably know if you follow Fuggled with any sense of regularity. Having recently been reminded that I quite like the occasional dubbel, I figured I'd resurrect the Old Friends series and get myself a 750ml bottle of Maudite, Unibroue's dubbel...


First things first, I love the fact that the label is still basically the same as it was in 2008, showing the chasse-galerie of French Canadian lore, which may, if my reading is correct, itself be a version of ancient Wild Hunt stories. Any way, the beer...


This is an interesting one when it comes to describing how it looked on pouring into my goblet because so much depended on the light. Sat looking out of a window, sunlight streaming through, the beer was a deep dark copper, with red highlights, but sit with the light behind you and it appears to be a muddy brown. Whether light is to the fore or behind, the head is slightly off white, rocky, and lingers, leaving some delicate lacing down the sides of the glass.

The aroma is dominated by spices, hardly surprising as this is a spiced ale according to the label, mostly I was getting nutmeg and ginger, with a touch of clove. It immediately put me in mind of the fruit cake recipe I make each Yuletide. Lingering among the spices was a touch of molasses. some grassy hops, and just a hint of dried fruit. All of those characteristics carried on over to the flavour department as well. The fruitcake motif was reinforced, and augmented, with prunes, brown sugar, and just a light trace of banana as it warms - I drank it at the recommended 50° but inevitably it warmed as 750ml of 8% booze is not something for chugging fresh from the fridge, unless you are a philistine of course.


Maudite is definitely on the sweeter side of the spectrum, but the hops that are there give it just enough of a scrape to make drinking the entire bottle anything but a syrupy struggle. While a hefty beer for sure the alcohol is not really all that intrusive, it could even be called dangerous as it lies well integrated in the background. Overall a lovely beer that it was delightful to spend some time with again after many years, and having re-established contact I think I'll go hang out with the accursed crew of the flying canoe again some time soon.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Classics Revisited: Westmalle

For fear of sounding like a naysayer, one of my main issues with the craft beer scene at the moment is its constant, incessant, pursuit of the new. Many of the breweries I follow on various social media outlets are forever promoting new IPAs beers, weekly IPA beer releases, or their IPA latest collaborations. To quote "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" by Madness, it's become a
"perpetual steady echo of the passing beat
A continual dark river of people
In their transience and in its permanence"
Being something of a contrarian, I decided recently that I wanted to revisit classic beers and breweries that existed long before the current boom in craft beer, kind of making 2020 have a little hindsight.

You really don't get much more originalist than monastic brewing, and when we talk about beer being made to nourish takers of vows and pay for their work in the world, there is nothing more iconic than Trappist Ale. At some point throughout this year I plan to revisit as many of the classic Trappist beers as possible, but first up is Westmalle.

Located in the Belgian province of Antwerp, Westmalle Abbey was established as a priory in 1794 before becoming a full Trappist abbey in 1836, in which year the monks under the guidance of the first abbot, Martinus Dom also established a brewery. At first the monks brewed only for their own consumption, but started selling to the local area in 1856. Westmalle produces three beers, Extra, Dubbel, and Tripel, but here in central Virginia only the latter pair appear to be easily available.


The dubbel, the recipe for which apparently dates back to 1926, pours a deep mahogany, with garnet glints shining through at the edges. The head is light tan and dissipates pretty quickly to a patchiness on top of the beer, giving the glass a swirl though rouses it nicely. The aroma is dominated by fruity esters, raisins, cherries, and dried figs. Floating around in there as well were traces of toffee, brown sugar, and bread. The fruit dominates the drinking as well, but in a fruitcake kind of way, when the fruit has been liberally soaked in booze, my mind leapt to rum in particular for some reason. With a scrape of effervescent carbonation, the medium full body avoids being cloying. The dry finish was a little unexpected, perhaps a product of US dubbels that I tend to find overly sweet, even sickly.


Moving on the 9% behemoth that is the world's original Tripel, this one pours a slightly cloudy gold with orange highlights. The head this time is pure white, though it too dissipated to patchiness and roused nicely when swirled. The big player in the aroma department is bananas, but not in the same sense as you get with many a hefeweizen, these bananas have been lightly caramelised in butter, perhaps with a couple of slices of apple chucked in as well.  Other than the fruit, there is a spicy note as well as a reasonable hint of the booze hit to come. While the booze is present in tasting, mostly I was getting some nice toasted malt, a bit of grass and lemons, and even a light syrup flavour, it does not dominate. The body on this one is fuller than the dubbel, but that same effervescent carbonation does its thing and makes it anything but a sticky beer.

One thing that was clear from drinking this pair Westmalle beers is that I honestly don't think that tripel will ever be my thing. That's not to say that it was a 'bad' beer, that is clearly not the case, but that is just not the kind of beer I enjoy drinking on a regular basis, even when chilling at home and without the need to drive. The dubbel on the other hand I can see becoming a vaguely regular visitor to the fridge, one that I kind of wish we were having an actual winter to enjoy with it,

Monday, February 3, 2020

Because We Can

Saturday was one of my favourite kind of days, a brewday with one of my local breweries.


In this case I was down at the Devils Backbone Basecamp once more. The plan, to brew Morana for the fifth time. Morana is, as a quick recap, a 14° tmavé speciální, or for the non-Czech speakers a 14° dark special lager, modeled on the sadly now departed Kout na Šumavě dark lager of the same strength.


From the very first time we brewed Morana, back in 2010, it has been double decocted as a nod to the traditional brewing practices of central Europe. It has also always undergone a long period of lagering, about 45 days. It has always used floor malted Bohemian pilsner malt, as well as CaraBohemian, Dark Munich, and de-bittered Carafa II, and it has always been hopped exclusively with Saaz hops. For this most recent brew none of these things have changed. At the end of the slightly longer than many a brewday, decoction does that, we had an on the nail wort that is going to make a simply fantastic beer.


From here on in though, Morana is in uncharted territory. You see, Devils Backbone have recently invested in some fun brewing equipment that we hope will bring Morana, a beer described in Jeff Alworth's Beer Bible as "the best New World effort to make an Old World beer", closer to her Old World antecedents.


Where in years past Morana would have undergone fermentation in a cylindrical conical tank, this time she is being fermented in Devils Backbone's new open fermenter, indeed she is the first lager to do so. As ever when Jason Oliver and I get together I learn shit tons of fun stuff about brewing, and naturally I asked what difference, if any, an open fermenter would make. Apparently the difference is less in the open nature of the vessel than it is in the geometry of it, being broader and shallower than a CCT. If I understand what Jason told me correctly, the CO2 generated by the yeast has a larger area in which to bubble to the surface, raising the yeast as it goes. This results is a fermentation with less circulation in the vessel, resulting in a more leisurely process, and thus the yeast is less stressed than it would be in the CCT. Again, assuming I understood correctly, this will impact the body and mouthfeel of the beer, making it even more luxuriant than previous iterations.


Having fermented for the requisite length of time, and once it is with about 1.5° Plato of target gravity, it will be moved over to a CCT to finish the fermentation with the CO2 valve firmly shut. With the natural carbonation achieved, it will be pumped over to another new toy that Jason gets to play with, one of the horizontal lagering tanks. There she will sit for 45 days at near freezing, and when the time comes to keg her up and drink, she will not be filtered.


During the brewday, Jason treated me to a couple of samples of German style beers sitting in the horizontal tanks. Currently lagering and soon to be on tap at Basecamp are Ein Kölsch and Alt Bier, no prizes for guessing the styles based on the names. Whenever they have been on tap in the past, Mrs V and I have made a point of getting to the brewpub for a few jars and to fill several growlers, based on the samples taken from the zwickel, we'll definitely be heading down in the not too distant future.

I remember once Jason being asked for an article in some brewing magazine about why he does decoction mashes for his lagers, to which he responded "because I can". What better reason to decoct, open ferment, and lager horizontally a Czech style tmavé for authenticity than simply that, because we can?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Changing the Conversation - Parents in Pubs

According to some folks I had a misspent childhood.

There are many Sunday afternoons in memory where my little brother and I were at the Sergeants' Mess bar with my mum, dad, and assorted other military families. We would be given a stack of 10p pieces, the old big ones that often had a two shilling coin mixed in, and summarily told to fuck off and play pool while the adults sat around drinking. If the noise of a group of kids got too loud, within moments there would be one of the collected kids' parents, invariably actually one of the dads, on their way to tell us to pipe down.

My dad had an equally misspent childhood in London, and often regales anyone that is listening with stories of being sat outside the pub, given a glass of orange juice and an arrowroot biscuit to keep him company.

My twin sons are continuing that tradition, we first took them to the pub when they were 10 days old, they slept the entire time. Now they are toddlers they are learning to sit at a table, drink their milk or water (juice and soda for kids can fuck off in our world), and colour in their books. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal.

When I was back in central Europe in October, basically every pub I went to had families sitting at tables together, parents with half litres in hand, and kids engaged as part of the group and the occasion, and more than once given a sneaky sup of booze. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal.

As a result of the recent article in Pellicle on the theme of kids in pubs, these thoughts and memories came flooding back. The article is well worth the read, though in my opinion it is really more about women in pubs than children as no-one seems to be addressing the idea that fathers take their kids to the boozer with them. Likewise I am not going touch that aspect here, mainly because as a father to toddlers I know from experience that even taking them to the park by myself can be a challenge. The boys will have to wait a couple more years before the three of us head to the pub sans Mrs V.

Several of the commentaries I have read as a result of the original article take the approach that kids in pubs are a "bad thing" and that the norm for "family-friendly pubs" is basically Lord of the Flies. From a purely anecdotal level, as that is the only level possible in a beer blog unless I plan to document pub life with pictures, dates, and times (I have no such ambition, or the time to do so), is that the vast majority of kids in pubs are supervised and reasonably well behaved. Of course, if your expectation of kids is that they should be seen and not heard then you are ripe for disappointment, and frankly that is your own problem.

What I did decide to do though was to take a look at the history of children and the pub, and one of the first things to pop up was this cartoon.


As you can see, the picture purports to show the scene at a London pub at 9 PM, and right there front and centre are children. To the left I see a toddler and probably an older sibling, getting a jug of ale, the toddler may be about to have a meltdown and is being taken away. To the right a mother, I assume, is holding the hand of another toddler. Stood at the bar is at least one woman holding a baby. The picture was first published in The Evening Chronicle in 1858.

Kids in pubs is not some kind of new alternative lifestyle being pushed by the politically correct hordes intent on destroying western civilisation as we know it. For as long as pubs have been regarded as community assets the community has taken its kids to the pub with them. Growing up around alcohol and the people drinking it is just plain normal. A little further evidence for this is the poll I decided to run on Twitter:

From more than 300 responses to the poll, 58% of respondents' parents took them to the pub as children. What then is going on?

The problem here, in my unhumble opinion, is that we are focusing far too narrowly on children in pubs. Kids that misbehave in pubs are in all likelihood the kind of children who misbehave in other public spaces such as on the high street and in the shops. In reality the issue here is one of parenting, of which the child's behaviour in public is a symptom not the disease itself. Parents that take their kids to a public space and then let them run wild to the detriment of others using the space are the problem.

What then, to paraphrase Lenin, is to be done? The knee jerk reaction is to ban children from all pubs and create a generation that have no idea how to behave in the pub, have no positive impressions of life around alcohol, and are thus more likely to view booze and boozing as illicit and ripe for misuse. Not being a fan of bans in general, even ones, like the smoking ban, that don't impact me personally, landlords should have the freedom to set the rules for behaviour in their own pub, whether that is no kids after a certain time of day, making plain that families breaching said rules will be asked to leave the premises, or having a separate "quiet lounge" so that those who just want a pint can enjoy the space without being triggered by the presence of small humans.

Such is the nature of our society, seemingly on both sides of the Pond, that no one solution will make everyone happy. Some will cry out "why should I go to a different part of the pub?" if the landlord creates a quiet lounge, others will go running to the local tabloid with stories of the mean landlord kicking them out because their kids are high on sugar and the sheer bliss of being ignored by parents. Of course there is the old refrain from pre-smoking ban days that if you don't like smoky pubs just don't go, the same could be argued for pubs with kids in them, if you don't like it, go some place else.

Kids will always be in pubs, it's just part and parcel of being a community, but they also need to be given the tools and space to learn how to behave when they are there, and that is the responsibility of the parents. It is on the parents to make sure their children are behaving in a manner that respects the public nature of the space they are in. So let's stop raising the straw man of children in pubs and focus on the core issue, parents control your children.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Half Cut

Decisions, decisions, an excess of choice is not always a good thing.

There are times when I sit agonising over a beer list trying to decide what beer to pour down my gullet next. Interestingly enough, such existential angst rarely happens when faced with the tap wall equivalent of an anti-immigrant's wet dream, invariably it is when faced with both a pale and a dark lager that rank among my favourites.


When facing this dilemma back in the Czech Republic, the answer was often to order a "řezané pivo" which literally translates as a "cut beer". A řezané pivo is nothing more than half a serving of pale lager and half of dark, though in Czech law said beers must share the same starting gravity. From experience, however, pubs are more than happy to make a řezané that would be technically illegal. In the warm fermented world this is known as a black and tan, where a pale ale and stout are the ingredients.


As you are no doubt aware, the drinking world that is Fuggled is a lager dominated one. On a couple of occasions at the Devils Backbone Basecamp I have asked for a řezané, though memory is hazy as to what was involved, most likely their magnficient Schwartzbier and Gold Leaf lagers. When sitting at home though I have been known to mix up Von Trapp's Helles and Dunkel, and more recently the Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack Pilsner and their winter seasonal Dunkel. To add some context to what was going into my glass, the Captain Jack is 4.8%, thus assuming a starting gravity of 12°, and has 25 IBUs. The Dunkel by contrast is 4.9%, so just a quarter degree of Plato difference assuming the Czech method of multiplying ABV by 2.5 to arrive at starting gravity, and again has 25 IBUs.


It was halfway through a recent řezané that I realised I had never bothered to sit down and actually think about the interaction of the two beers. So it was that one of the final beery drinks of 2019 ahead of my dry January was decided upon and I poured the Olde Mecklenburg combination into a glass...
  • Sight - beautiful clear red, mottled head, quarter inch of foam, excellent retention
  • Smell - freshly baked crusty bread, Nutella, some floral hops
  • Taste - toasty, blonde roast coffee, nutty toffee, lemons in the background, trace of cocoa
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
First things first, a confession, I only just looked up the specs on the Dunkel and was surprised that it has 25 IBUs. I had assumed that it would be a little lower and that the overall perception of bitterness in the blend would be more subtle than I found it. Thankfully I like my beers to be bitter, and in this blend that bitterness is right there, front and centre. There is a very strong possibility that my first beer at home when I resume drinking on February 1st will be this precise mix as I have plenty of both beers in the fridge. Now that I know they are so close in starting gravity to each other, I might try to layer the beers so that the dunkel sits on top of the pilsner. At some point I will also delve deeper into the Von Trapp Helles and Dunkel mix, as well as bringing their Pilsner to the party, and if by some miracle I can squirrel a bottle of Olde Mecklenburg Dunkel away somewhere then when they bring out their summer seasonal Helles an experiment could be called for.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pilsners of the South

Just after Christmas Mrs V, myself, the twins, and the in-laws took a trip down to Williamsburg, one of my favourite places in Virginia to visit. As the one time capital of the colony of Virginia, and close at hand to places like Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg really appeals to the history nerd in me, it also happens to be home to the Alewerks Brewing Company, makers of one of my favourite brown ales in the US, and also a lovely helles lager.

Unfortunately for this trip a visit to a brewery was not on the cards, so I had to limit my beer to what was available in the store, in this case a pretty decent Harris Teeter. Having driven the couple of hours it takes to get there, I took a detour to the store to stock up on booze, picking up a six pack each of New Realm Euphonia Pilsner and Wicked Weed Uncle Rick's Pilsner. Knowing that I had some Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack Pilsner back home in the fridge, I decided on a comparative tasting.

Said tasting was planned for the evening of the last Sunday of 2019 when joy of joys I discovered that our local Wegman's was finally stocking Port City Downright Pilsner (it had only taken 18 months of badgering for this wonder to occur). Thus the threesome became a foursome, and as the kids watched their Krtek cartoons I dived in...

New Realm Euphonia Pilsner - Georgia/Virginia


  • Sight - pale yellow/straw, thin white head, poor retention, slightly hazy
  • Smell - white pepper, watermelon, trace of generic citrus
  • Taste - crackers, melon, slightly musty, pithy bitterness in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
New Realm Euphonia, from the new brewery of Mitch Steele formerly of Stone Brewing, won best in show at the 2019 Virginia Craft Brewers Cup, and sorry if I am being blunt here, how that happened I have no idea, there are plenty of much better beers in general in the Commonwealth. This is not a bad beer, far from it, it is a nice German style pilsner. I found it a bit thin overall, though it didn't go so far as to be watery, and it was just too fizzy for me, perhaps that is a reaction based on my week or so of drinking German pilsners in Germany on tap, but still, too much gas involved.

Wicked Weed Uncle Rick's Pilsner - North Carolina/Virginia


  • Sight - crystal clear gold, quarter inch white head that lingers for the duration
  • Smell - spicy, pepper, slightly bready, some floral notes, tangerines
  • Taste - soft marmelade, custy bread, citrus - lime/mandarin, pithy bitter bite
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Even though this is a Wicked Weed beer, the can says that it is brewed and packaged in Lexington, Virginia, which makes me think that it is being brewed by Devils Backbone on behalf of their AB-InBev stablemates. This is a really good beer, ticks all the right boxes for what you would expect from a German style pilsner, especially given it has that sharp snappy crisp bite that screams good fermentation practices. I can see this being pretty regular in the old beer fridge this year.

Olde Mecklenburg Captain Jack Pilsner - North Carolina


  • Sight - clear gold, half inch white head, very good retention
  • Smell - floral hops, lemony citrus, a touch of spice, some grainy character
  • Taste - light toast, clean citric hop bite, touch of lemon, water biscuit crackeriness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
I make no secret of the fact that love this beer, and indeed Olde Mecklenburg in general. Captain Jack is beautifully balanced, with both hops and malts shining through but neither stealing the limelight from the other. There are times when I can think of nothing I would rather drink than three bottles of this poured into my Paulaner 1 litre mug, every mouthful finishes dry and refrshing, willing you to keep on drinking. I have no shame in showing my bias here, but this is for me one of the top 5 lagers being brewed in the US right now.

Port City Downright Pilsner - Virginia



  • Sight - golden, slightly hazy, firm white head, excellent retention
  • Smell - Saaz, Saaz, more Saaz, and then some Saaz, lemons, lemongrass, slightly spicy, orange blossom, think alpine meadow and you're close
  • Taste - very much dominated by the hoppiness that comes with the judicious use of Saaz, lemons up front and some some grass and spice in there too, malt background has bready character
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Again I will make no apologies for being a fan of this beer. Downright is a wonderfully balanced, drinkable beer that I can happily sit and drink all night. However, it does lack a little of the clean finish that I really like in my lagers, and although it is in the Bohemian style it doesn't quite have the body that comes with the territory, perhaps due to it not being decoction mashed. Even so, it is a damned fine beer and one I am thrilled to see available at Wegmans. I will be stocking up come February.

If I were pushed into ranking these four very good beers, all of which I would happily drink wherever and whenever, it would look like this:
  1. Olde Mecklenbug Captain Jack Pilsner
  2. Port City Downright Pilsner
  3. Wicked Weed Uncle Rick's Pilsner
  4. New Realm Euphonia Pilsner

Classics Revisited: Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout

For reasons best known only to history and circumstance, I don't recall having had a Samuel Smith's beer when I lived in the UK. I a...