Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: The Final 6

We needed a tie breaker...

If you recall from the previous post, where I tasted 24 beers marketed for Oktoberfest, Benediktiner Festbier and Left Hand Oktoberfest had tied for top position in their group. In terms of their score, they had exactly the same points in each of the categories, the solution then was to drink them blind again, score them again, and then average their scores to break the tie, hopefully. It turned out the Benediktiner squeaked home by the narrowest of margins, giving me a final 6 of:

  • New Realm Bavarian Prince (märzen)
  • Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest (märzen)
  • Benediktiner Festbier
  • Sierra Nevada (märzen)
  • Von Trapp Oktoberfest (märzen)
For the final 6 I decided to stick with the blind tasting and my points method of
  • Appearance - 3 points
  • Aroma - 10 points
  • Taste - 15 point
  • Balance of bitterness and sweetness - 2 points
  • Personal opinion - 10 points
With the inestimable Mrs V again decanting the various cans and bottles while I pottered away to make sure I wasn't aware of what I was drinking, the final 6 scored as follows:
  1. Ayinger - 34/40
  2. Great Lakes - 33/40
  3. New Realm - 33/40
  4. Sierra Nevada - 32/40
  5. Von Trapp - 31/40
  6. Benediktiner - 27/40
Having used the average of 2 tastings to split Benediktiner and Left Hand, I had decided that I would use the same method to decide the final rankings of the 2020 Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off, giving us...
  1. New Realm Bavarian Prince - 67/80 (33.5)
  2. Great Lakes Oktoberfest - 65/80 (32.5)
  3. Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen - 64/80 (32)
  4. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest - 63/80 (31.5)
  5. Von Trapp Oktoberfest - 61/40 (30.5)
  6. Benediktiner Festbier - 58/40 (29)
I won't bore you with my full tasting notes for the winner, but on both occasions, about 10 days apart, I noted a superb malt complexity that was mostly the classic toasted bread thing that you get with Munich and Vienna malts, sweet without being sugary or caramelly. In terms of personal opinion, both times I gave it 8/10 and noted that it is the kind of beer I would happily sit and drink several maß of.

As in previous years, I wouldn't be too surprised if I pick up some singles of other Oktoberfest lagers that weren't available when I collected the entrants to see if Bavarian Prince can hold onto its crown, but as things stand, well done New Realm for creating a lovely märzen that will be in my fridge for a while yet this autumn (also, yay autumn is here!).

Friday, September 4, 2020

Oktoberfest Champions League: Group Stage

The plan was simple, find at least 24 beers being marketing as "Oktoberfest" lagers, whether festbier or märzen, and decide which is the best available in central Virginia.

The first year I did this I restricted myself to lagers brewed in Virginia, last year I changed that to include non-Virginian beers that are available in the shops. When I restricted myself to VA beers, I could just do a single sit down flight, whereas last year I did a knock out competition with a final four. I have to admit that I found the knock out approach somewhat onerous, so for this year I decided to have 6 groups of 4 beers, chosen at random, and the winner of each group would go to a final group stage.

The 6 groups lined up as follows:


At first glance, groups 1, 3, and 6 looked to be the most difficult, and so it turned out, with several well regarded Oktoberfest lagers not making through to the final group of 6, which I will write about in a later post, once I have given my tastebuds a day or several off, and a chance to reset by drinking helles and pilsner again.

To choose a winner in each group I decided to combine the Cyclops tasting notes method that I like to use with a quasi-BJCP point approach, which I broke down thusly:
  • Appearance - 3 points
  • Aroma - 10 points
  • Taste - 15 points
  • Balance of bitterness and sweetness - 2 points
  • Personal score - 10 points
Given the festbier and märzen variants when it comes to Oktoberfest lagers, I judged them according to their respective BJCP category descriptions. The definition of festbier specifically calls out "amber hues" as unacceptable in the colour department, any beer that veered into orange was judged as a märzen regardless of marketing.

Here then are the final standings by points.

1. New Realm - Bavarian Prince (34/40)
2. Great Lakes - Oktoberfest (32/40)
2. Sierra Nevada - Oktoberfest (32/40)
3. Left Hand - Oktoberfest (31/40)
3. Von Trapp - Oktoberfest (31/40)
3. Benediktiner - Festbier (31/40)
4. Ayinger - Oktober Fest-Märzen (30/40)
4. Samuel Adams - Octoberfest (30/40)
5. Devils Backbone - O'Fest (29/40)
5. Warsteiner - Oktoberfest (29/40)
5. Edmund's Oast - House Oktoberfest (29/40)
6. Port City - Oktoberfest (28/40)
7. Paulaner - Oktoberfest (27/40)
8. Shiner - Oktoberfest (25/40)
8. Leinenkugels - Oktoberfest (25/40)
9. Blue Mountain - 13.Five Ofest (24/40)
9. Brooklyn - Oktoberfest (24/40)
9. Ballad - Oktoberfest (24/40)
10. Schlafly - Oktoberfest (23/40)
11. Starr Hill - Festie (22/40)
11. Brother's Craft - Festbier (22/40)
12. Bingo Beer - Oktoberfest (21/40)
13. Genessee - Oktoberfest (19/40)
14. Solace - Gute Nacht (10/40)

To ensure that the tasting was completely blind, Mrs V picked beers at random from the fridge while I was out of the room, and other than the one litre can of Paulaner as the final beer, I had no idea about what was what until we sat last night and worked out the rankings.

The final 6 though are not to be the top 6 beers by points, but rather the 6 beers that won their respective groups, although this is pretty much what ended up happening, which gives me a bit of a headache. Left Hand and Benediktiner tied for their group, even to the point of having the exact same points for each category, so this weekend I will try and find some more Left Hand and do a beauty contest tasting to decide the winner. If I can't find the Left Hand, then Benediktiner will go forward.

The rest of the final 6 are:
  • Ayinger
  • Great Lakes
  • Von Trapp
  • New Realm
  • Sierra Nevada
I definitely get the sense that splitting these 6 will be a very difficult task, but we leave that for a few days and another post.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book Review: Vienna Lager

 A few months ago I bought "Historic German and Austrian Beers for the Home Brewer" by Andreas Krennmair and have thoroughly enjoyed dipping and and out of the book for inspiration and plans for the upcoming winter lager brewing season. It was on the basis of having enjoyed it so much that I ordered his latest book, "Vienna Lager", from Amazon within moments of him announcing it's release on Twitter.

A few days later it dropped through the door (figuratively speaking), and just last night I finished it. Sure it is not a weighty tomb, but I have read it in snatches as life allows, even so, a month is pretty good going by my standards these days.

What we have here is the life and story not just of the Vienna Lager style, but also a deep dive into the life of it's creator, Anton Dreher - he who went wandering around British breweries with Gabriel Sedlmayr, filching samples with Bondesque contraptions as they went. Scion of a family of innkeepers and brewers, Dreher built the largest brewing company on mainland Europe in the 19th century, at its height boasting 4 breweries, one each in Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, and Italy.

Andreas then follows Vienna Lager on its journey from its Austrian homeland to the New World, as it became an established part of the German brewing world in both the US and Mexico, and thence onward to its acceptance within craft beer.

While being focused on Dreher and Vienna Lager in particular, the book gives the reader an insight into the massive changes wrought on the European brewing industry in the second half of the 19th century. Not only are we talking about the introduction of three of the most influential beer styles, but also the introduction of English malting techniques that allowed maltsters to create consistent pale malt, and thus the world was set on the path of pale lager domination.

Andreas' book is full of fascinating technical detail, the kind of thing that very much appeals to the technical writer in me. At the same time he succeeds to keeping the technical details accessible and not overwhelming. An added bonus for homebrewers, and possibly commercial brewers looking to re-create history, is a selection of recipes for Vienna lager through the ages, naturally the early ones of just Vienna malt and Saaz hops appeal to me most of all, and perhaps this winter will finally see me take the plunge into decoction mashing.

What Andreas has done here is write the definitive guide to Dreher and his Vienna Lager, and made a valuable contribution to knowledge of the development of pale lager in general. It is an excellent read, go and buy it, now.

Monday, August 10, 2020

To Helles and Back

If you've been paying attention these last few years, you'll know that pale lager is my thing. Whether we are talking světlý ležák, Pilsner, helles, or even Dortmunder, I probably drink far more pale lager than anything else. In my world, the path to brewery greatness is paved with golden lager and if a brewer can knock out a good one then I am more likely to try their other wares, while coming back to the pale stuff regularly.

Returning from a recent sojourn to South Carolina, as I mentioned a few posts ago, I stocked up on Olde Mecklenburg beers, their altbier, pilsner, and the seasonal helles specifically. I had it in my mind that I wanted to include it in a three way tasting with Von Trapp Helles from Vermont and Virginia's Port City Helles, which is their current seasonal as well.

There was only one problem, the seeming ambivalence of central Virginia's supermarkets when it comes to lager -  seriously, most of them will have the complete range of Port City but not the Downright Pilsner, or they'll stock everything from Tröeg's except Sunshine Pils. Having been back from South Carolina for well over a month now, I only got round to the tasting this weekend due to the hassle of finding the Port City Helles, having scored a case from the ever reliable Beer Run.

With the runners and riders in place, I dived on in...


Port City Helles - 5.2%, bottled June 8, 2020
  • Sight - clear light golden yellow, half inch white foam that leaves nice lacing
  • Smell - floral hops, light bready malt, lemon, hay
  • Taste -  subtle wildflower honey, nice light crustiness, lemongrass
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
A lovely, lovely beer. Supremely balanced with a medium dry finish that just leaves you wanting more, nice and clean. Port City have a wonderful way with lager beers and this year's Helles is up there with the best of their range. Beer this good makes the Virginia summer almost bearable. With the lemon and grass thing going on, I wonder if they use Saaz for the hopping?


Olde Mecklenburg Mecklenburger Helles - 4.9%, canned July 2, 2020
  • Sight - crystal clear yellow, thin white head, visible carbonation
  • Smell - cereal grain, lemongrass, wildflower meadow
  • Taste - water biscuits, citrus (lemon and key lime), subtle spice note
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Another very moreish beer. Finishes really clean though maybe just a touch on the dry side, which brings the hops slightly to the fore. Delightfully well balanced.


Von Trapp Helles - 4.9%, best before September 29, 2020
  • Sight - golden yellow, excellent clarity, half inch of white head that lingers, tracing a fine lacing on the glass
  • Smell - citrus, freshly microplaned lemon zest, all flavour no pith, freshly baked southern biscuits
  • Taste - crackers, lemon, wildflower honey, elegant herbal notes
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The finish on this one is soft and pillowy, just dry enough to keep it clean, but with a malt presence that is just cut through by a lingering bitterness that doesn't dominate. The balance is absolutely perfect making this an absolutely magnificent beer that would more than hold its own in the biergartens of Mitteleuropa.

Three absolutely storming beers, all wonderful examples of a style that when South Street's My Personal Helles is available is basically my go to. I would love to be able to compare all four at some point, though that may have to wait as South Street haven't had it on in a while. However, as I tweeted last night....


Thinking further of this question today, if I had to choose either the Port City or Von Trapp then after much agonising it would be the Von Trapp, by the shortest of short noses. Both are gorgeous beers that I will happily drink all day and night sat on my deck, but Von Trapp has one significant advantage that pushes it into the winner's circle. It is available year round and not just for a couple of months in the summer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Book Review: Historical Brewing Techniques

At the beginning of this year I resolved to get back to reading as much as possible.

In the carefree days of not being a dad I would read something like 2 or 3 books every month, but with Fin and Bertie wreaking havoc on all things in chez Reece, that dropped off dramatically. Sorry if it makes me a total failure of an Enlightenment man but there were days when crashing in bed was just about all I could manage.

Anyway, I resolved to read at least 1 book each month, and have so far kept to that plan, with a combination of fiction by new-to-me writers, beer writing by the likes of Pete Brown, and in "Historical Brewing Techniques" by Lars Marius Garshol the latest book by a blogger whose writing I have enjoyed for quite some time.


One of the things that I have enjoyed most about Lars' blog posts from his trips to various parts of the Baltic world to brew with farmhouse brewers has been that they go beyond the formulaic "I went here, we brewed this, it tasted like this". Not only do you get a sense of the beer, its brewing, and its tasting, you get a very real sense of the people making the beer, their culture, their sitz im leben, and you see how intimate the beer is to their existence.

That sense of anthropology, history, linguistics, and even mythology is infused throughout the book making it much more a book about people than a drink. To really understand farmhouse ale from the Baltic world and Russia, you need to understand the people and the world they live in, and that is infinitely more interesting to me than tasting notes.

One thing that really struck home, mainly because lately I have found myself somewhat jaded with the goings on of the craft beer world and its obsession with the emperor's new clothes of "innovation", was Lars' drawing a distinct line between craft beer and farmhouse ales. Just because a brewery uses kveik to ferment their umpteenth IPA doesn't tie them to the farmhouse tradition.

Also as a homebrewer it was great to see the simplicity, even rusticity, of the farmhouse brewers' setups. There are times when I feel a little down on my own setup, usually when listening to a friend describe their latest, greatest piece of homebrewing technology, as if squeezing an extra gravity point from the malt, or hitting a rest temperature to within hundredths of a degree, actually makes all that much difference to the flavour of the beer.

Throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the vitality of brewing in the development of human civilisation, and in the farmhouse tradition described, in the Nordic and Baltic worlds in particular. It is not a stretch of the imagination to realise that the farmers and warriors we call Vikings very likely used the same methods and ingredients over a thousand years ago.

This wonderful book is probably the best "beer" book I have read in many years, I use inverted commas there quite deliberately as it is not a simple "beer" book by any stretch of the imagination. It is a guide to a world that is dying out, almost gone, and one that tells a far longer story of humanity than industrial brewing could ever hope to.

If you haven't already, go and buy this book, it is worth every penny.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Old Friends: Fuller's London Pride

The Old Friends series makes a return today, and in some ways goes right back to the beginning. The first beer of this series was also from Fuller's, their style defining ESB, but when I originally conceived this notion, it was today's beer that so nearly went in the trolley, London Pride.

I may have mentioned this before, so forgive me if you have a better memory than me, but I have a soft spot for Fuller's due largely to their location. The Griffin Brewery is in Chiswick, a parish in the ancient county of Middlesex, near where my dad grew up, and not far from Chiswick County Grammar, where he went to school. At the tender old age of 16, my dad joined the army as an apprentice radar engineer, and so began 30 odd years of being paid to traipse around the UK and Europe, being shot at on occasion for the privilege. Most of my memories of that part of the world are from when we would go and visit my nan in her ground floor council flat near Gunnersbury Park.

I haven't been to London in many years, not since I used to make epic bus trips from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Prague, some 1400 miles away. I have never really been a fan of flying, so taking the bus from Uig to Glasgow, then Glasgow to London, and finally London to Prague, a total of about 48 hours, made sense to me, yeah I'm weird. In fact it has been so long since my last trip to London that it pre-dates my interest in decent beer, and so if I did drink when I was there it was usually something like Guinness in my glass.

One of the reasons that I went with the ESB for the first Old Friends post was that at that point I would pick up a four pack of Pride at least once every couple of months. In the two years since that post that has dropped away dramatically, so why not reacquaint myself? On to the beer then we go...


  • Sight - copper/amber, thin white head that quickly dissipates, reminds me of the scum you get on a London cuppa sometimes, magnificently clear
  • Smell - the "Fuller's aroma", Seville orange marmelade esters, toffee, subtle black tea, and sweet spices, think nutmeg
  • Taste - toffee sauce ,some fruitiness like plums, plain scones fresh from the oven, slight grassiness in the finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5

There are times when I drink this that I really understand why American brewers and drinkers have such a hard time grasping the fact bitter should be, well, bitter. It's not that it is terribly sweet, though the mouthfeel feels a little like undissolved jelly cubes, it's that the hops are nudged out by the famous Fuller's yeast character, as well as not being the same kind of citrus as folks are used to here. So many breweries here use very clean top fermenting yeasts that the character of the beer is so different, and I wonder if American breweries under hop the style as a result?

Having said that, it is still a lovely beer and one that is incredibly consistent. I found my tasting notes from a post I wrote about several English ales a few years back, and was pleased to see many of the same descriptors. I am not sure it will return to being a regular in the fridge, my tastes are very much in the lager world again these days and I actually found the switch to top fermented beer kind of jarring.

I suppose when winter comes I should complete the triumvirate of Fullers beers and pick up some London Porter...

Monday, July 27, 2020

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2020

As July draws to its inevitable end, it is that time of the year when I sit down and think about all the Virginian brewed beers I have had this year and select a top ten.
  1. Port City Brewing - Franconian Kellerbier (4.7%). I have drunk an awful lot of this beer in the last couple of months, and the highest praise I can give it is that I am gutted it is not part of the regular lineup, as it would be a permanent fixture. A lovely balance of sweet Munich malt and German hops makes it far too easy to keep pouring down my throat, which is exactly what I have been doing. Sadly I have just one 4 pack left...
  2. Port City Brewing - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). A well deserved one-two for the guys up in Alexandria. Now, sure it is not exactly "traditional" to dry hop a Czech style pilsner, but when it crams so much Saaz goodness into a bottle then I am inclined to turn a blind eye. I bitched and moaned to the beer buyers at our local Wegmans for about 18 months to get this in stock, and my shopping trips have been happier ever since they did, even if I had to wait a month to buy some as it came in just in time for my dry month at the beginning of the year.
  3. Basic City Brewing - Our Daily Pils (4.7%). Our Daily Pils is one of those beers that is a fantastic stand by, whether on tap or as a six pack of cans. Absolutely redolent with the wonderful flavours and aromas of Saaz hops, it is somewhere between a Czech style and German style pale lager, and one that I enjoy muchly, usually with three cans tipped into my litre glass.
  4. Ballad Brewing - Fast Mild (4.2%). This one came right out of left field. Back in December I popped into Beer Run on a Friday afternoon for a feed and a pint before picking up my boys from school. I saw the magic words, "dark mild" and thought, what the heck, let's give it a bash. And bash it I did, 4 mouthfuls. Bash again I did, a slightly more considered pint this time as I let it warm up to something akin to cellar temperature, and what you have here is a gorgeous mild that I would love to have on cask, preferably without the silly shit American breweries are so fond of.
  5. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). You know the story, this is the local beer that I drink far more of than any other. It really is a fabulous helles, perfect soft billowing maltiness, subtle hopping, and that snap to attention that proper lagers have. Sat at the bar one day, the barman said he thought it should be bottled, I disagreed, and still do, a beer like this is best in the pub it is brewed in. With all that has gone on though with lockdown, I haven't had it in months, it is quite possibly the only beer I really miss.
  6. Devils Backbone Brewing - Alt Bier (5.6%). Beers that have undergone extensive lagering are always going to be a major theme in any list I produce. When Jason and I brewed Morana back in February I had a half pint straight from the lagering tank, where it had rested for about 6 weeks already. When I went down to drink Morana, it was on tap, having lagered for another couple of months, I had a few pints, brought home some crowlers, and reveled in every drop. I have never been to Dusseldorf so I can't trot out the old line about it taking me back to the Altstadt, but by Odin it makes want to go one day.
  7. Alewerks Brewing - Tavern Brown Ale (5.7%). The ultimate in old man beer styles, and one that thankfully so far the weird shit ingredient brigade have largely left alone. Once the leaves start to turn, not too long now, I get the urge to drink brown ale, at cellar temperature of course, and just enjoy beer for it's own sake. Of the brown ales that grace the fridge each autumn, this is the one I look forward to more than any other, just a wonderfully complex beer that leaves you more than satiated, it leaves you satisfied.
  8. Alewerks Brewing - Weekend Lager (4.8%). Weekend Lager is to spring and summer what Tavern Brown is to autumn, a wonderful complement to the season, especially on draft with brunch sat on a patio. Another beer that warrants pulling out my litre glass, filling it up, and losing myself in the golden liquid.
  9. Port City Brewing - Helles (5.2%). Three beers in my top ten for Port City, all of them lagers of course, and also the third helles on the list. You might get the idea that I love lager or something like that. Unfortunately this is is just a seasonal for a couple of months in the summer, but it is always worth the wait, and when it is available you'll find me on my deck, under the umbrella (not a big fan of the sun to be honest), taking in the sounds of rural Central Virginia, admittedly while dream of rural Mitteleuropa.
  10. Champion Brewing - Shower Beer (4.5%). Yeah, I know. a seventh lager on the list, the third pilsner. What can I say, lager is what I like to drink and Shower Beer is a damned good lager. Supremely sessionable, dripping with Saaz, and painfully easy to just sit and drink several crowlers of in an evening (I may or may not have done that several times). Consistently good beer, not much more than that you can ask for.
Every year I say this, but this list is the perfection of post-modernist beer thought, entirely subjective, based on the last year of drinking, and sure it says more about me than it does about Virginian beer. I am though happy to hear what people think are great beers being made in the Commonwealth so that I can hunt them out and give them a bash.

Oktoberfest Champions League: The Final 6

We needed a tie breaker... If you recall from the previous post , where I tasted 24 beers marketed for Oktoberfest, Benediktiner Festbier an...