Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Micro Blogging July

We arrived in the north of Scotland last night, via DC, Reykjavik, and Glasgow. Nearly a full day of travelling, we were knackered, and I was having a mild panic as I couldn't find my phone and losing it  would mean a serious amount of hassle.

Thankfully the phone was just in a different bag than I thought. I don't have reliable roaming this far north and I have 2 step authentication on all my Google accounts when logging in from a PC, hence I am declaring July to be the Fuggled Micro Blogging Month. I will use the Blogger app on my phone to write quick thought blogs and tasting notes, tapping away on the phone keyboard is a pain, especially as fat fingers is a reality.

Things with an off license close early this far north, so having whetted my whistle with a couple of Landlords over dinner I fancied another beer. At that point my mother mentioned that they had "a pudding beer from Christmas" in their cellar that turned out to be Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale, any port in a storm and all that jazz.

A timely reminder of why beers that say "flavoured with" are usually off limits to my world. God what awful swill. The "natural" toffee flavouring  had a taste that as it warmed reminded me of nail polish. Flabby in the finish would be an overstatement, think Austin Power's Fat Bastard post weight loss, yeah, gross eh?

Will not be buying this at World Market when we get to Virginia, that's for sure.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Big Brewing Comes to Town

Friend and fellow homebrewer Jamey Barlow sent me a link yesterday to an article in the Charlotte Observer about plans from the German brewer Gilde to open a brewery in Charlotte.

Gilde is a brewery from Hannover, a city that has a certain amount of resonance for me as when I was a kid it was near Hannover that my family lived. My father was in the British Army and he was posted to nearby Celle, and my little brother was actually born in Hannover. Recently while investigating our ancestry it seems likely that my dad's family came from Minden, again not too far from Hannover. Oh and I am going to Hannover in October for a few days with work, so that's fun eh?

According to the article, the brewery, which is part of the TCB Beverages group, Europe's largest contract brewer, will start with a 5000 sq. ft. facility they are calling The Embassy. The Embassy will seemingly be the first step toward a large production facility in a few years time, capacity is said to be half a million barrels a year in the production brewery - for context, that is about 40% of Sierra Nevada's current annual production at 2 breweries.

While it is exciting that a German brewery is setting up on this side of the Pond, I have to say that some of the quotes from Gilde CEO Karsten Uhlmann smack of an incredible arrogance toward the Charlotte brewing scene. One such quote is:
“We believe that obviously Queen Charlotte forgot to bring her beer (here) ... and we’re trying our best to correct this mistake”
Ignoring the fact that the queen consort to 'Mad' King George (the third of that ilk) never once stepped foot on colonial soil, it is also dismissive of the decade of German brewing that Olde Mecklenburg Brewing have been doing in the city.

Uhlmann also trots out the old canard about recipes having not changed for hundreds of years, to which I happily respond with a hearty "Quatsch mit Soße!". Gilde's current product range has the usual suspects, helles, pilsner, radler, usw, usw. Now, given pilsner was invented in 1842 and the first Munich helles was produced by Spaten in 1894, we're not exactly talking beers that date back to Gilde's 1546 establishment now are we?

I do however like the fact that Gilde intend to use their US brewery as a training ground in German brewing techniques, which I assume will mean decoction mashing, extended lagering, CO2 capture, natural carbonation through krausening, and a commitment to the highest of quality control processes, both in terms of ingredients and systems.

I have to admit that I don't buy into the shit that a rising tide floats all boats (seriously only a landlubber with a duck pond for aquatic adventures could believe that tosh). The economies of scale available to a half million barrel brewery will allow Gilde to undercut some of the smaller breweries in the Charlotte area, likely sinking rather than floating them.

My main hope is that Gilde's presence will further inflame an interest in central European beer styles, and that the likes of Olde Mecklenburg will see a boost from Gilde being around. I guess it also means that hunting out Gilde's beers while I am in Hannover is a must.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gaming It?

Competitions seem to abound in the beer world.

At times, it feels as though every brewery in the history of beer, which started sometime in the 1980s as well all know, has won at least one gong from some competition. Such is the sense of achievement for many that the cheap medal that comes with the award is often framed and hung proudly on the brewery tap room wall for all to see.

From what several brewers have told me, entering said competitions is not cheap either, and the price is only really worth it if you win a gong and can feast on the PR bump for a little while, especially if you win the much coveted "best in show", though a category level gold will also suffice.

Other than the Great American Beer Festival, most competitions appear to be judged mostly by amateurs, folks like me for example, and a day's judging beer with fellow amateurs can be great fun. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with amateurs being asked to evaluate a commercial operation's beer, but I have heard of plenty of instances where BJCP certified judges treat commercial beer like they would homebrew. For the record, I am not a BJCP judge and I have no ambition to part with that level of cash that could be better spent drinking beer.

Again from conversations with plenty of brewers over the last decade or so, most will produce small batches of beer specifically for a given competition. I guess that makes sense, I mean why send regular bottled beer that the consumers will be judging your brewing chops by? It stands to reason that you want the freshest beer possible, in tip top condition, one that hasn't been abused by distributors and retailers. If only there was a competition for distributors and retailers for their quality processes!

I guess from my tone that you have come to the realisation that I find the vast majority of beer competitions meaningless, a blinged up version of Ratebeer or Untappd basically, however there is one part of the whole charade that really bugs my head. Categories.

Competitions use whatever taxonomy of beer styles they feel is best suited to their goal, and some will use the GABF style guidelines while others use the latest BJCP offering. My gripe though is that no-one, it appears, ensures that the brewers are submitting to the appropriate category, everything is left to the capricious whimsy of the entrant. Thus you get situations where beers are winning gongs for categories that they are not marketed as.

A few years back a Virginia brewery made a great song and dance about a beer they sold to the general public as an "Imperial IPA" winning a gold medal in the IPA category of a competition. The competition in question had a separate category for "Double/Imperial IPA", though off the top of my head I can't remember who won that particular gold medal.

Perhaps I am being too much of a stick in the mud purist, but if you are going to market a beer as being in a given style, then you should enter it in competitions in that style category. A medal winning "Czech" pilsner with German hops and less than 15 IBUs is not a pale lager that you would find in the Czech Republic.

I am sure the following scene plays out in tasting rooms across the US, and maybe further afield too. A punter asks for a sample of something and the bartender says "this is our gold medal winning...insert style here". I guarantee that the punter is just going to assume that the gold medal is for the style the beer is being marketed as, and so will assume that the sample in hand is a good representation of the style, and thus the potential for misinformation increases.

Competitions can be useful for recognising the truly great brewers in the industry but when beers are winning gongs for styles they have no right to be representing then that brings down the level for everyone, and kind of feels like companies are gaming the system for cheap marketing.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Homeward Bound!

I am going home next weekend.

One of the delights of working from home in an IT based world is that "home" is a relative term. Usually it is central Virginia, but sometimes it is South Carolina, Florida, or in this case my proper home, Scotland. Have laptop and internet connection will work, and keep my leave allowance for times when I want to not think about work at all, like Christmas.


Going home has become a semi-regular occurrence since moving to the US, when I lived in Prague I rarely bothered, probably mainly because I couldn't afford to go home for an extended period of time every couple of years. This year we'll be home for most of July, and only a couple of days off will be required. This trip will be the twins' first jaunt to their ancestral home, and first opportunity to be fawned over by members of my family other than my parents.


Being something of a CAMRA fellow traveller, the thought of having decent real ale always fills me with excitement. Yeah I love my local craft breweries, especially those that don't fanny around with daft ingredients, but there is little in the beer world to compare to a well kept pint of ale, pulled through a sparkler, served at perfect cellar temperature, carbonated not fizzy.


I have a list of places that I will visit at least once while I am home. The Cromarty Arms is always reliable for a quality pint of the magnificent Cromarty Brewing Happy Chappy. The Castle Tavern in Inverness often has an excellent selection of real ales from across the UK, and hopefully a cask of Timothy Taylor Landlord will be in situ in July, even we agnostics need a spiritual moment from time to time. The Phoenix Alehouse, sister to The Castle Tavern, is a haven down by the Inverness bus station if you have a few moments before your bus leaves.


When Mrs V and I were last home there was a new pub in Inverness in the throes of being decked out, but it opened after we had come back to Virginia. The Black Isle Bar and Rooms, owned and operated by Black Isle Brewing, is a place I really want to get to as I don't think I have ever seen their beer on tap, though have enjoyed plenty of it bottled.

There are several breweries that I had not heard of on our last trip whose beers I want to hunt out and try, Speyside Brewery and Spey Valley Brewery for example, so I am planning to drink beer mostly from the west Highlands and Moray for the duration of my trip. Sure I'll make a exception for the likes of cask Landlord, but when in Rome and all that jazz.


One beer that I know will be a regular tipple, whether bottled at the end of a day of work, or pulled through the beer engine in a pub, is the aforementioned Cromarty Happy Chappy, a beer I have adored from the moment I first had it at the Cromarty Arms. It is a beer that I come back to time and time again when I am home, and on the occasions when friends of mine go to the Highlands they are often gracious enough to squirrel me a bottle back to Virginia.

So here's hoping to a stress free first flight with the twins, Mrs V picking up the driving on the left quickly (I have total confidence in her driving skills), proper Scottish summer weather, and that first pint...you know it'll make me a Happy Chappy.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Echt!

It used to take about six and a half hours to drive from Central Virginia to Columbia, South Carolina whenever Mrs V and I would head down to her parents'. Since the advent of the twins, now 20 months old, it often takes about eight with all the additional stops to change diapers, feed, etc, etc, etc...

We've been making the trip down US Route 29, I-85, then I-77 for almost 10 years. I am fairly sure I have some kind of muscle memory for the road, and for the longest time our single stop on the trip was at a place called Eden, very close to where the 29 crosses the Virginia/North Carolina state line. There is pretty much nothing at the rest area other than well cleaned toilets, drip coffee, and vending machine soda. This weekend though we eschewed the delights of the Eden rest area and pushed on the ninety minutes to Charlotte for our break.


I don't recall the first beer from the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery that I ever had. I feel confident it was the Copper, an absolutely on point altbier, but as to where I had it, I don't remember. What is true though is that whenever the family and I head south, or in-laws/friends come north, I make sure to stock up on Olde Meck beer, usually the Copper and their, on a par with Rothaus, Captain Jack Pilsner. I had long held ambitions to pop into the brewery some time, but just assumed it would need to be part of a longer trip to Charlotte.

For nearly ten years, as Mrs V and I were making the road trip to and from Central Virginia we were unwittingly driving within a couple of blocks of the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and their eight acre biergarten, yeah you read that right, an eight acre biergarten right in the heart of Charlotte, just off the I-77. How that knowledge was not in my head sooner is a mystery to me, you live and learn, and having learnt, we jumped off the interstate, parked up and headed into the brewery's beer hall and biergarten...


Once through the hefty wooden doors it was delightfully cool and to be honest had Mrs V and the bairns not been with me, I would have parked at the bar and never bothered with the biergarten itself, the South and I don't agree with each other when it comes to suitable summer weather. The interior is everything you expect from a central European beer hall, dark wood, benches, and a bar with banks of taps.


The boys both needed changing so Mrs V took one at a time, while I kept tabs on the other and ordered myself a flight of the 4 beers I have not tried before:
  • Mecklenberger Helles
  • Southside Weiss Ale
  • Hornet's Nest Hefeweizen
  • Fat Boy Baltic Porter
No notes were taken, but the Fat Boy will make an appearance or two in the fridge this autumn and winter, to go head to head with Port City's divine Porter, and the other three were perfectly lovely beers.


The boys suitably refreshed, and thankfully cheerful despite 4 hours cooped up in a car, with the dog in his flexi crate between them, Mrs V ordered a pilsner and I got to have my first Olde Mecklenburg Copper on draft. Naturally in the excitement of having a properly brewed altbier served in a proper altbier glass I forgot to take a picture, so take my word for it that it was superb, and looked the part to boot. With beers and bairns in hand, we headed out in the sunshine to take a place among the benches of the biergarten.


It was pretty quiet when we were there, so we took a place on a bench near the children's play area, tied the dog up to a heavy bench so he could nose around, and waited for our food buzzer to go off. Mrs V was being very responsible and had a Cobb salad that she has raved about to all our friends since, and I had the currywurst...


It was perfect. Everything about Olde Mecklenburg was perfect. The biergarten was actually a garden, you know with trees, lots of shade, and the cool air that brings. The food was bang on, the service exemplary, and the beer, oh the beer. I love Copper, but when I wandered back to the bar to get a second, I knew it was Captain Jack Pilsner that I wanted, and having inquired about the possibility of getting a litre it was back to the table to sit in the shade with my little family.


If we hadn't had another ninety odd miles to go to get to Columbia, we would have sat all afternoon, enjoying the very chill vibe, and letting the boys run off some pent up energy. It is though now a given that we will be breaking our journey at Olde Mecklenburg as a matter of course, especially as I got a couple of their one litre growlers and they have a system akin to getting propane at the hardware store where you swap the empties for filled ones at a superbly reasonable price (finally it seems someone is taking the pricing side of Reinheitsgebot as seriously as the ingredients).

The presence of a place with the ethos of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery gives me hope that the future of craft beer is not all "wacky flavors, cheap ingredients, or added colors", that there are breweries out there who share my ideal of the perfect beer experience, and who deserve to thrive because of their commitment to quality and not taking shortcuts, heck they don't even sell to retailers that will not commit to keeping their beer in a refrigerated environment!

With all that said, I think I will be filling my Olde Mecklenburg branded altbier glass with Copper from a growler when the boys go to bed tonight.

Every prospect pleases.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Live Oak Pilz

So far this year I have been to Texas twice, first to Austin and most recently to San Antonio. Both trips were for conferences related to work stuff, and in both cases I found myself drinking plenty of pilsner style lager.

I have been on a major pale lager kick of late, literally to the detriment of almost every other beer style. The highlight of said kick though was a beer brewed in Austin but which I drank in San Antonio, as I hadn't seen it available in any of the watering holes of its home city when I was there.


Live Oak Brewing are based out near Austin's international airport, hence I didn't get to them during my visit to the city back in March. Sat in a pub in San Antonio, I spied the magic word "pilz" and figured that at $3 for a 12 oz can it was worth a stab. It poured a slightly hazy straw colour, with a healthy looking inch or so of bright white foam that simply would not disappear, I was duly intrigued. The smell was on the money as well, all that classic Saaz goodness, subtle spice, floral notes, and a delicate lemony citrus note lingering in the background. With the first mouthful I knew what I was going to drink for the rest of the night, this is a Bohemian style pale lager as a pale lager should be, clean, zingy, crisp, and absolutely snapping with hoppiness, anyone that thinks hoppiness and pilsners are mutually exclusive is a muppet.


Looking up the beer on the old interwebs due to a lack of information in the pub beer list I learnt that this particular blonde delight has a 12° Plato starting gravity, which ferments out to give it a very respectable 4.7% ABV, all playing nicely with the 36 IBU of pure Saaz. Apparently the brewery uses a decoction mash on the Moravian malt, making this one of the most authentic iterations of the style I have had in the ten years since I left Prague for the New World. I wish it was available in Virginia as it would be a regular in the fridge.

As I said, I knew at first mouthful what my evening's drinking would be, and when I left there was but a single can remaining in the fridge, there had been 12 when I started. Yes it was that good, and every mouthful was savoured. What we have here is an early front runner for at least the best US pale beer of 2019.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Real Cræft Beer?

Education, so they say, is wasted on the young. As a kid growing up in the Outer Hebrides one of my favourite subjects at school was history. I loved, and still do, reading and learning about the Russian Revolution, World War 1, the Tudors and Stuarts, and British imperial history. One of the themes that I was not enamored with at the time though was Scottish Farming from 1540-1750, admittedly those dates may not be accurate but I seem to recall it being from just before the Union of Crowns through to just after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. There are bits I remember, the use of runrig systems of land use, the Clearances, the Improvers, that kind of stuff. These days I find agricultural history absolutely fascinating, probably inspired by TV shows like Tales from the Green Valley, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Wartime Farm.

It was largely as a result of my love of those shows that a couple of weeks back I got a copy of Alexander Langlands' book "Cræft", which is an examination of the history and meaning of traditional crafts such as basketry, weaving, and even haymaking. Due to the woodcut style drawings on the front cover, I was hoping that there would be a chapter on beer and ale in an agricultural setting, but sadly not. Despite this minor gripe, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who is tired of our post Industrial Revolution petrochemical driven age and interested in seeing the old ways make a come back. I can't remember the last time I read a book so quickly.

Although there was no chapter on traditional beer and ale making in an agricultural setting, many of the themes of the book prompted me to think more closely about the nature and character of the early 21st century "craft" beer boom. In particular I wondered about whether "craft" beer as practiced is in fact a "craft" at all?

Langlands deliberately harkens back to Old English in his use of the word "Cræft" to describe the pre-Industrial Revolution activities he delves into. For Langlands there are important factors in what makes something a "Cræft" as opposed to a craft hobby. At it's core, Langlands argues that "Cræft" takes that which is local and available to make something useful, for example the different styles of pottery that arose from the various types of clay in given areas of England. Such an idea really challenges the very concept of a "craft" beer business that buys in its malts, hops, and yeast from around the world, or strips its local water of everything that makes it local so that they can approximate the water of Burton, Dublin, or Plzeň. How then is the beer they produce a "craft"? It is not a product of place either, so in that sense it is not local. Businesses like Starr Hill, Three Notch'd, and Port City are thus not Virginian breweries, but breweries in Virginia.

Perhaps the closest we get to a "Cræft" brewery these days is the ever growing number of farm breweries that seem to be popping up, especially in this part of central Virginia. Places like Lickinghole Creek Brewing grow a large proportion of the ingredients they use in their products, including barley and wheat, though I don't know if they are self sufficient in malt. Such an enterprise though does perhaps point backwards to a time when beer was more about sustaining the working population than it was about hanging out with friends and getting rat-arsed, something we Brits are apparently better than most at doing.

Viewed through this lens, modern "craft" beer is distinctly un-"cræfty", and so perhaps it is an acknowledgement of this fact that the Brewers Association definition of "craft" no longer makes any mention of the ingredients or processes involved in making the product. Just make less than 6 million barrels of beer, and don't be more than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery or beverage maker.

This is not to criticise the beer and its makers, but to own the fact that what we call "craft" beer is not in any meaningful sense a "craft", it is just small scale industrial production, with all the petrochemical reliant inputs, pumps, plant, and petrochemical distribution that entails. Farm breweries growing their own ingredients are probably the purest "craft" breweries out there, but even in that world there is a reliance on industrial methods of production.

Once you own that what we call "craft" is in reality just small scale industrial production of beer the focus shifts away from the company making the beer and on to the beer itself. Stripped of its moral certainty of superiority, the liquid in the glass becomes the primary guide, as in reality it always was, to what is good beer. "Am I enjoying this beer?" is probably the only question actually worth asking, followed by "Do I want another one?".