Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Happy Chappy

Driving along the A9, north of Inverness, out past my parents' place in Alness, beyond Invergordon, and eventually to Nigg, there is a ferry. Having driven on to the ferry, been turned round on the turntable so you can get off again in a couple of minutes, you set off across the Cromarty Firth to reach the eponymous village on the Black Isle.

Cromarty is in many ways the archetypal small Highland town, picturesque sea front, cottages, a handsome church, the house of the local worthy, a couple of hotels with public bars. I liked it immensely, especially when strolling around I noticed magical words on a chalk board outside the Cromarty Arms Inn...'real ale', but we had a date with the cheesemonger first. Suitably stocked up with dairy delights it was time to sit away from the beautiful sunshine and enjoy a quick drink, cider for Mrs V, Irn Bru for Dad, and tonic water for Mum. The Cromarty Arms only has a single hand pull, and on that pump was Happy Chappy from the Cromarty Brewing Company.

Described on their website as a 'New Wave Pale Ale', Happy Chappy is made with a selection of New World hops, from both the US and New Zealand. I have to admit I was kind of craving some citrusy zing on the day we went to Cromarty, and Happy Chappy satisfied that need, perfectly, especially as to me it was more lemon and lime that generic New World grapefruit. So I had another. The second pint lasted slightly longer than four mouthfuls, so I enjoyed the biscuity malt base, the touch of toffee, and the long, lingering finish. So I had another. Number 3 was sheer delight, the body belying the 4.1% abv, and the hops shone through, making me almost regret that we were going on to other locales this day, I could have sat and drank Happy Chappy all afternoon.

En route to Fortrose in an abortive attempt to go to the Anderson (stupid me didn't check their opening hours), we stopped into the brewery itself, picked up some bottles, some t-shirts, some swag, you know the kind of thing you do. They only had three beers in bottles that day. Kowa Bunga, Red Rocker, and Wild Bush. Stocked up, we moved on with the rest of our road trip on the Black Isle.

That evening back at my parents, I drank a bottle of each of the three I bought. Unencumbered with a pen and notepad, I didn't take notes, but each of the beers was excellent, and thankfully lacking the dominant grapefruit thing that sometimes seems to be de rigeur with New World inspired beers.

Not normally one for Belgian inspired beers, the Wild Bush had me wishing I had bought more than just a pair of bottles. As well as more of the lime/lemon thing from the hops, there was a noticeable coconut flavour, which I assume is from the gorse flower, which worked well with the honeyed sweetness that never quite got into cloying territory.

From this point on, whenever I saw a Cromarty beer in the pub, my mind was made up, from the amazing Atlantic Drift in the Castle Tavern, to Hit The Lip in the Bon Accord, every single beer was magnificent, and all the more so for being cask conditioned. I have heard, and read, people waffle on about how hops from the US, Australia, and New Zealand are suited to cask conditioning, and based on my experiences drinking Cromarty ales on cask, such notions are clearly bollocks. I would go so far as to say that the absence of fizz actually elevates the flavours of New World hops.

It's fair to say that I am a fan of Cromarty Brewing Company's beer. Flavourful, balanced, drinkable, and moreish....everything I look for in a pint. The only downer is that they aren't available in the US, so I guess I'll just have to go home again, and not wait 9 years to do so.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Great Cheer

I may have mentioned, in one of my various social media outlets, that my recent trip to the Highlands was the first time I had been home since May 2005. Back then, in the dark days of Liverpool having only won 4 European Cups, I tended to drink stuff like Caffrey's, John Smith's, Boddington's, or Staropramen whenever I was visiting home from the Czech Republic. I enjoyed the occasional bottle of Fraoch, Bishop's Finger, or something a little less 'mainstream', I liked drinking beer, but wasn't overly fussed about what the beer was.

Fast forward then to last Friday afternoon, sat in the Bon Accord in Glasgow, polishing off multiple pints of Kelburn Dark Moor, Caledonian Brewing Summer Valley, and to my delight Cromarty Hit the Lip. Up to that point I could count the number of non-cask conditioned beers I had drunk on the fingers of one hand. In those three weeks at home I drank a lot of good beer, in some wonderful pubs, while meeting some fascinating people. In short, it was almost the perfect beer fueled holiday.

In the next few posts, I will tell you about some of the breweries and pubs I enjoyed, and no doubt flesh out some of the thoughts that pottered their way through my mind as the pints flowed. Perhaps the beers were there in 2005, but it seemed to me that the brewing world in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is blossoming, and that brings great cheer to my heart.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Brewer of the Week

It seems rather apt that with the World Cup taking place in Brazil at the moment, I should have a Brewer of the Week interview from a Brazilian brewery, Amazon Beer. As I have to finish packing before flying off to Scotland on holiday today, I will leave you with Caio...

Name: Caio Guimarães
Brewery: Amazon Beer

How did you get into brewing as a career?

My father founded the Amazon Beer in 2000. Since then, I became a huge fan of craft beers. I started to study all about beers and make courses like Beer Sommelier and Master of Styles at Siebel Institute. Now I can join my passion and my job.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

The brewer cannot be afraid to fail. We have to study and work hard, and be curious - always trying to innovate the brewing process and the flavors!

Before being a professional brewer, did you homebrew? If so, how many of your homebrew recipes have you converted to full scale production?

I have never homebrew before.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

Stout Açaí, because of the smell of the chocolate and roasted malts.

If you have worked in other breweries, which other beer did you enjoy brewing, and why?

I have never worked in other breweries.

Of the beers you brew, which is your favorite to drink?

I love drinking Witbier Taperebá. It´s a light and refreshing beer that works very well with the hot weather in Amazon Rainforest. Taperebá is a fruit which makes the beer a little bit acid and sweet. Awesome!

How important is authenticity when making a new beer, in terms of flavour, ingredients and method?

Authenticity is the soul of Amazon Beer. For us, doesn't make sense copying beers from Europe or US. We want to create brazilian beers with brazilian ingredients. And there's no better place to this as Amazon Rainforest. Here, we have a thousand of possibilities to make beers that people never tried before.

If you were to do a collaborative beer, which brewery would you most like to work with and why?

We brewed recently a Saison with Anderson Valley Brewing, Pete Slosberg and Sean Paxton (all from US) and it was amazing. I like very much the idea of collaborative beers. If it is possible, I would like to brew with Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Brewing), because we have the same concept of discovering new - and strange! - ingredients to brew unique beers.

Which beer, other than your own, do you wish you had invented?

Pilsner Urquell. It's a revolutionary beer.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Into the Woods

Last night saw a rather large thunderstorm roll over the Charlottesville area. Being something of a non-fan of Thor smacking Mjölnir against his anvil, I took refuge in my beer cellar, sat myself down on an unopened case of beer, and began to read. My material for this delve into sanctuary? Evan Rail's latest Kindle eBook, "Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest".

Without wanting to steal Evan's thunder, because each and every one of you needs to go and buy this work, this is all about my favourite Czech brewery, and the brewery that if I never drank another beer from any other brewery I would still have a rich and flavourful beer life, Kout na Šumavě. If i remember rightly, and there is a fair old beery fog to claw my way through, it was Evan himself who first recommended I head up to U slovanské lipy to try Kout's beer, and what occurred was simply obsession with first mouthful, both for the pub, which was a right Czech dive (aka the perfect pub), and the beer. There were many more nights spent in U slovanské lipy with Evan, Max, Rob, Boak and Bailey, Mrs V, and a raft of other folks that I insisted on dragging up there to try the beer, usually finished off with a malé 18° tmavé...

One thing that really comes through in Evan's prose is his sheer passion for the brewery, its history, and their products. You can't help but get the feeling that Evan thoroughly enjoyed writing this book, such passion for the subject makes the book an absolute delight to read. I may have mentioned this in my review of Evan's last eBook, but reading his work is almost like being sat in the pub with him, talking about beer, from that perspective it is clear to me that Evan is a writer with a clear, authentic, and unforced, voice.

The book also recounts a tale about an American writer wanting information for an article about the tmavé style, which brought a smile to my face, because said writer was Nathan Zeender, and the article in question included my tmavé recipe. Such a small, and friendly, beer writing world we live in. For those with long memories, Nathan joined Jason and I at Devils Backbone the first time we brewed Morana.

There are plenty of other episodes recounted in the book, each revolving around that wonderful, almost anachronistic brewery in the wilds of Bohemia, but to find out what they are, you need to pop over to Amazon and spend literally a few bucks (seriously, $2.99 for a work of this quality is insanely cheap), and don't wait for a thunderstorm to read it. Find your favourite pub, that serves your favourite beer, and listen to the voice you will recognise instantly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

In Praise of Science

Business is booming. Breweries are springing up left, right, and centre. It seems like not a month goes by without reading about a new brewery opening up, an established brewery expanding, homebrewers 'living the dream' by opening their own place. It seems as though every one and his uncle wants a piece of the everyman drink right now (which kind of makes me nervous, but that's for a different post).

In all the excitement of the new, I wonder if we forget the excitement of the improved? Let me give you an example. I work in the tasting room at Starr Hill from time to time, it's a job I love doing, and the most recent cause for excitement from my perspective is the continued resurgence of a beer I once really enjoyed and then went off. Jomo Lager is one of the staples of Starr Hill's range, it has been brewed, as far as I am aware, for as long as there has been a Starr Hill Brewing Company.

In the last couple of years the brewery has invested a lot of time and money into process management, quality assurance, and brewing science. It is an investment which is paying off in the most important place, in the glass. There was a time when Jomo was something I didn't really care for, because it was inconsistent, sometimes good, sometimes not. With the improvements in process over the last few years, Jomo is a beer I have come back to and found myself thoroughly enjoying once more. In fact, I think it is the Starr Hill beer I have drunk most of so far this year, even more so than the lovely Dark Starr Stout.

I sometimes wonder if the science of brewing doesn't got lost in the excitement and occasionally homespun culture that is much of 'craft' brewing, almost as though scientific rigour in the brewing process is a path to the dark side of BMC-esque status. Whether or not you want to drink the beers being made by the big boys, you cannot deny that they have the science side of things down to a fine art, ensuring a consistent customer experience, and the brand loyalty that comes with it. It makes me think that there are breweries out there that need to spend less money on more tanks and more money on getting the liquid in their existing tanks consistently excellent.

It has been the application of brewing science that has made Jomo one of my go to Starr Hill beers, making it again the beer I described as:
a lovely clean lager which goes down with inordinate ease, nicely hoppy but with a lightly sweet undertone - just the kind of beer which requires a leafy beer garden, a warm late summer afternoon and a busty serving wench making regular trips to your table, laden with steins of joy, the smell of bratwurst grilling nearby and so on.
There really is no higher praise for a beer than wanting to drink lots of it...

Two 'In Praise of...' posts in a couple of weeks? What the heck is wrong with me? I haven't had a rant in a while.

Friday, June 13, 2014

In Praise of the Brewery Tap

I went to the pub the other day, shock horror, and something has been on my mind ever since.

The pub in question had a good selection, including a decent range of local beers and those from further afield, such as:
  • Champion Killer Kolsch
  • Three Notch'd Hydraulion
  • 21st Amendment Bitter American
  • Bell's Oberon
Something that piqued my interest was the pricing. The 2 local beers in that list, Champion and Three Notch'd, were priced at $5 and $6 for a pint respectively, and the beers from further away were both $5.

Said pub is about equidistant between the two local breweries, so what would be the reason for the extra $1 in price? Sure it could be the extra 0.3% abv that Hydraulion has over Killer Kolsch, though the extra 0.3% abv, but given that Blue Mountain's very nice Full Nelson was likewise priced at $5 on the menu and is 0.6% abv more than Hydraulion, I assume not.

This little vignette shows the one big annoyance of mine with retailers of 'craft' beer, their sheer inconsistency when it comes to pricing similar products, oh and don't get me started about places claiming to have hundreds of 'craft' beers and then including Estrella, Guinness, and Leffe in their lists.

I guess this is one of the reasons why I find myself drinking more and more locally produced beer ('local' beer is a total misnomer given that ingredients are shipped in from around the world) in the places where they were brewed. I prefer my money to be going directly to the producers of the beer rather than through the mitts of various middle men. One of the best things to happen to Virginia beer is the passing into law of SB604, which allowed breweries to sell pints through their tasting rooms.

The brewery tap is fast becoming the best place to drink, and support, local producers of beer. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sterling Job!

Two of my favourite things right now involve the world 'sterling'.

First up is Raheem Sterling, who plays for Liverpool, and has had an outstanding season terrorising many a defence in the Premier League. The other is called 'Of. By. For.', the latest beer from Three Notch'd Brewing.

'Of. By. For.' is one of those beers that I always insist on trying, but always dread, an American made pilsner. If you've followed my witterings for any reasonable amount of time, you will know that I go on ad nauseum about my love of pilsner, and how it is so difficult to find well made representations of the style on this side of the Pond. Thus it was that I lurched up to the brewery on Friday after work, a man on a mission...

To perfectly honest I don't remember much about those first pints, they slipped down so easily, and I was in something of a dash to get home. On Saturday afternoon Mrs V and I were in town, running errands, when she commented that she 'fancied a drink'...well, we were in the neighbourhood anyway, and the football was on, oh and Derek was there, so a couple of hours, and 6 pints, later I knew I had fallen in zythophilic love with Dave's latest offering.

As you can see from the picture, it pours the perfect wan golden that is expected of such a beer in the Czech Republic, with a slight haze, and a voluminous pure white head, oh I was transported back to the beer halls of Prague, Plzeň, and Brno. The aroma was laden with lemon blossom, freshly mown grass, and that cracker graininess that pilsner malt delivers. Given that Sterling has a healthy stock of Saaz its heritage it was very much in the ballpark I was expecting. But what about the important bit, the drinking itself, it was lovely. Dry without being thin, zingy without being overly bitter, and packed, I say packed, with hop flavour. If there is one criticism, it is that at 5.6% it is a touch boozy, but it is incredibly moreish so you can happily banish that particular thought.

I see many pints of this wonder in my future....many pints, and not infrequent litres.