Monday, October 17, 2016

Self Bitterment

An acquaintance recently asked me why I seem to be constantly brewing beers that belong in the broad family of bitter. It's true that at least every other brewday is some form of ordinary, best, or extra special, and there is a very good reason for this fact. Bitter, regardless of sub-type, is one of my favourite styles of beer to drink and for all the hoopla around craft beer and its endless IPAing of every form of beer possible, most American breweries simply don't bother with bitter as a style.

What then is a chap supposed to do, especially a chap with little interest in IPA? Sorry hopheads, your addiction is one dimensional most of the time regardless of the latest hop to come out of the Pacific north west. The answer is obvious, a chap must either take the risk of ancient, and and badly oxidised, bottles from Britain, lurking around the local bottle shop that neither knows nor seems to care what they are doing, or a chap can make his own. So unless Three Notch'd Bitter 42 is available, I make my own.

A couple of weekends ago I kegged up my most recent batch of best bitter, and having stolen the requisite amount of beer to do gravity measurements and all that jazz, I gave it a taste and thought to myself, this could be good. After a couple of weeks in the keg, I took some growlers of said brew to a friend's place on Saturday in order to lubricate the grinding and pressing of apples for cider that took up a hefty chunk of the afternoon and evening. Boy had my hunch been right, it is as good a best bitter as I have brewed, and certainly one that I would have no objections to paying proper hard currency for.

As you can see from the picture, the bitters I go in for tend to be on the paler side of the spectrum. I rarely, if ever, use crystal malts, preferring one of either Victory, Biscuit, or amber malt as my single specialty grain, and my base malt is usually Golden Promise. For this particular batch I single hopped with Calypso as I had some floating around in the freezer, and at least half of my calculated IBUs tend to come from the first hop addition. In terms of yeast, I have found that Safale S-04 does everything I need, if I remember rightly S-04 is one of the Whitbread yeast strains. I don't bother with water modifications, working on the theory that my well water tastes good, so it's fine for my beer. I brew to make something to intoxicate myself with from time to time, not to do science experiments - and given my ability to blow shit up at school in chemistry class, that's probably just as well.

While it is true that I sometimes lament the indifference of many an American craft brewery to the bitter family of beer, I love the fact that it has given me an excuse to work on my own brewing skills by repeatedly making my own versions. Sure I rarely make the exact same recipe twice, but there are common themes that run through each iteration, such as sticking to as simple a recipe as possible. Also the key to a solid bitter is in the name of the beer itself, don't be afraid of using hops predominantly for bittering rather than flavour and aroma. Hop bitterness is the very soul of a good bitter recipe, it must be firm, bracing even, but never acerbic. This is a beer designed to be drunk in imperial pints over an extended period of time, so balance is vital, once I am finished with a pint, another one should be welcome. Oh and 'balance' is not synonymous with 'bland'.

Bitter is a misunderstood and underappreciated style of beer in the craft world it would seem, thankfully they are pretty easy to make, and done well endlessly satisfying to drink, and that's the whole damned point surely?.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Feast of Oktober

It seems at the moment that every brewer and his uncle is having an Oktoberfest celebration, whether or not said brewer regularly makes bottom fermented beers in the German style (and they say craft beer isn't marketing driven!).

Being a fan of the lager arts, and not wanting to limit my Oktoberfest drinking to Sierra Nevada, I gathered together 7 bottles of American made versions of the 'style' to try in a blind tasting. As ever I was ably assisted by the lovely Mrs V, and her willingness to traipse up the stairs when I had finished each glass of beer is much appreciated.

The beers for this little taste off were:
Such a delightful little lineup...

Using, as ever, a slightly modified version the Cyclops beer evaluation method, here's my findings.

Beer A
  • Sight: rich copper, ivory head, dissipates quickly
  • Smell: general sweetness, touch corny, wood and spice
  • Taste: bready, touch of burnt toast, clean finish
  • Bitter: 2.5/5
  • Sweet: 2/5
Overall well balanced though on the thin side, nothing to really hunt out.

Beer B
  • Sight: orange, large off-white head, slight haze
  • Smell: some toffee, baking bread, floral
  • Taste: sweet juicy malt, herbal hob bite
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Ever so slightly boozy/hot, mouthfeel was nice and full, and slightly creamy, a bit on the too sweet side.

Beer C
  • Sight: rich golden, white head
  • Smell: bready, biscuits, trace of spice
  • Taste: sweet toffee, pretzels, earthy hops
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Nicely balanced, good clean dry finish, clearly well made and nicely integrated.

Beer D
  • Sight: gold, voluminous white head that lingers
  • Smell: grainy, light lemon and herbal hops, almost like autumn leaves
  • Taste: bready malt, sweet but not in a caramel way, firm bitterness
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Slightly creamy mouthfeel, but firm bitterness cleans that right up, very nice beer.

Beer E
  • Sight: light red, smallish off white head
  • Smell: syrupy caramel
  • Taste: heavy caramel, dark toast
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Full bodied and a touch cloying, really needs a hop bite, finish not as clean as expected.

Beer F
  • Sight: deep orange, off white lingering head
  • Smell: raw wort, weetabix topped with caramel sauce
  • Taste: Very sweet, sickly caramel/syrup dominates
  • Bitter: 1/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Tasted undercooked, like the raw dough in the middle of an underdone loaf, barely any noticeable hops.

Beer G
  • Sight: rich copper, small, stable, white head
  • Smell: lots of toffee and bread, spicy hop notes
  • Taste: cereal, caramel, like dulce de leche on toast
  • Bitter: 1.5/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Sweet, warming, and overall nicely balanced, bit too sweet though for my tastes.

Having drunk all seven beers, I ended up with the following rankings:
  1. Beer D
  2. Beer C
  3. Beer B, G
  4. Beer A, E
  5. Beer F
My favourite beer, and here I wasn't actually surprised, was Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest, with the Ninkasi right on it's coat tails, a sign perhaps that I prefer the more modern pale Oktoberfest style to the older, darker, sweeter variant.

The other beers were:
  • Beer A - Brooklyn
  • Beer B - Port City
  • Beer E - Sam Adams
  • Beer F - Shiner
  • Beer G - Blue Mountain
So there we have it, 7 beers, all bar one that I would drink a pint of, 1 that I would happily drink plenty of, and one that I have been drinking maße of.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Selling Stale

Tomorrow I am planning to do a blind tasting of American made Oktoberfest lagers. I have already gathered 7 examples form across the US. Yesterday I decided to check a bottle shop near my office to see if they had any single bottles available so I could bump my testing up to 10 beers.

Having realised that there was nothing that I didn't already have, I took to looking around and seeing if anything else might take my fancy. Ever since I wrote a post about being in a local gas station that also has a decent selection and noticing out of date beer being sold at full price, I have started check out the 'best before' or 'bottled on' dates to make sure I am not getting stale beer.

The first bottle I picked up and looked at was this from Green Flash...

A best before date of November 2015??? What the actual fuck? Surely a retailer wouldn't try to push this stuff on an unexpecting public at daft prices?

Oh wait, yes they would. That's right folks, this particular Charlottesville, Virginia, bottle shop expects people to pay north of $12 (after tax) for 4 bottles of year out of date beer.

Hoping this would be a one off, I started checking out some of my favourite beers, especially the Fuller's stuff, which while still in date was in the older bottles, so it is coming to the end of its shelf life. Then there was this...

I do like Bengal Lancer as a general rule, and sure I know the history of IPA meant that it travelled in hot conditions for 6 months to get from England to the Sub-continent, but this bottle will be 2 years past it's best before date in just 120 days. Yours for full price.

As you know if you are a regular Fuggled reader, I love the lager family of beers and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils is something that I am always happy to drink. Unless of course it was bottled nearly 8 months ago, and is sat on the shelf of a very warm shop, kind of like this one.

As I was leaving the shop I noticed that they were selling day old bread with a sign informing the customer that the bread wasn't that day's. If only they treated their liquid bread with the same respect.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Price is Too Damned High!!

With the searing heat and humidity of the central Virginia summer finally starting to dissipate, Mrs V, myself, and our friend Dave went for a walk in the Shenandoah National Park on Saturday morning. Before meeting up with Dave we popped to our of our favourite drinking holes for breakfast, and despite the earliness of the day (it had just gone 8am) I had a couple of pints to wash down the tacos with.

Given that all but 2 of the taps were pouring Ballast Point beers it was evident that the pub in question had very recently had a 'tap takeover', or 'illusion of choice' as I now call them. Snide comments aside, my couple of pints were the Longfin Helles and a very delicious beer it was too. I heartily approve of the growing number of helles lagers that seem to be popping up on brewery products lists of late.

There was another reason I plumped for the helles...can you guess what it was from this picture?

Yep, $2.50 for an imperial pint. Call me cheap if you wish, but it was simply too good a price to overlook, 40oz of beer for less than 16oz of some of the other beers on the list, and even a few 10oz options. Sure it helped that the beer was just the kind of thing I like drink, even in the morning.

Looking over the rest of the price list, I couldn't get away from the idea though that the price of a pint of craft beer is getting ridiculous, especially when you compare the price of the Longfin with that of the California Kölsch right above it, $7.50 for 20oz. Given the similarities between the two styles of beer, why would a retailer charge three times as much for an additional 0.7% and 5 IBUs worth of beer?

The kind of beer that normally fills that budget slot in this particular pub is something like PBR or National Bohemian, so perhaps there is a pervasive bias against pale lagers, and by extension pale lager drinkers.

What it really means most likely is that the price of craft beer is too damned high and retailers are gouging their customers left, right, and centre whilst prancing about in artisanal fig leaves.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Beer Snobs Are the Worst

Words fascinate me, the stories they tell, the culture they reveal, the way they change through time, how they can be used to comfort, heal, wound, and destroy. Whoever came up with the old rhyme that 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me' was an idiot. Words are, whether spoken or written, the most powerful thing the human race have ever created.

Etymology, the study of the origins of words, is one of those areas that I find particularly fascinating, and a word whose etymology is deeply interesting is 'snob'. According to a folk etymology the word came about in the great public schools of England, places such as Eton and Harrow, where the boys of non-noble families were listed as being 'sans noblesse', abbreviated as 's.nob'. Sans noblesse itself derives from the Latin 'sine nobilitate', in both cases means someone who is without nobility. Whether or not the folk etymology is correct is another thing, and according to the Oxford Dictionaries it isn't, the true origins being a term for a shoemaker's apprentice, however the point remains, a snob is one lacking in the traits usually associated with nobility, as opposed to traits associated with the nobility.

Unfortunately this lack of nobility is all too evident among the self styled beer snobs of the universe. When I worked in the Starr Hill tasting room you could usually rely, at least once a shift, on some gobshite spouting off about stuff he clearly knew little about, especially when it came to brewery relationships with bigger brewing companies. At the time Starr Hill had a distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch, which many an ignoramus took to meaning AB owned Starr Hill, and thus how could any of us truly love beer and work for an AB shill - usually they never saw the irony of their drinking in the brewery, but blinkers are a powerful device.

I have mentioned in previous posts my disdain for the ridiculous, and often vitriolic, comments made on various social media outlets about the purchase of Devils Backbone by AB-InBev, but a post by DB brewmaster Jason on Facebook caught my eye this week, I repeat here verbatim and with Jason's permission:
"I apologize for this beer realm rant, overt eyes - I don't care what your opinions are about ABI buying Devils Backbone Brewing Company but please don't come into any of our locations and impose your world view upon my co-workers. Please do not be rude to them and please do not act like you are all knowing about their situation. This is their work space and where they make a living. This is not a hobby or a diversion for them, unlike your visit. This is what we do! 99% of my co-workers had no idea about ABI purchasing DB. As soon as I was looped in, I ADVOCATED for it! ME, I did. I will debate anyone about this. Please direct your arguments to me. Everyone is entitled to their opinions but please do not be rude and callous to my co-workers. The ones with the strongest feelings are often the most ignorant. I don't expect to change anyone's minds but I can & will certainly make them look likes asses. It is so easy to do. Believe me. Case in point, on an un-related FB post about Goose Islands Bourbon County Stout someone suggested (with all the certainty in the world) to expect a cheapening of ingredients. Which in particular? Which malts & hops, what process?? The answer is that person was talking out of his ass like it was gospel but none of it is true. Yet confident to post such un-truths he was.Thousands of people toss that crap out there. Question the blanket statements. It's sad, dangerous, and distasteful, that people talk about peoples professions and livelihoods with such authority while knowing very little about it. If you are a beer aficionado, enjoy your hobby but please think twice about trying to bring other peoples businesses down with vitriol. This is our livelihood and you know less than you think. Trust me. I've been brewing for a LIVING for 20 years and I know so much more about beer, brewing, and the industry than most of you self satisfied, beer snobs. That is a FACT! Sorry to end on a negative note but god damn, what does it take to house train people these days? Why don't we speak about the things we know, celebrate the things we love, and think twice about chiming in on all the other shit?? Beer snobs are the worst thing about craft beer. Hands down."

I heartily agree with everything Jason says here. Beer geeks, lovers, appreciators, yes be that absolutely, Don't be a beer snob, and most definitely don't be a jerk to people at their livelihood.

Friday, September 2, 2016

#TheSession 115 - The Write Rail

Goodness me, where did August go? Seems like only yesterday I was hosting the 114th Session. For number 115 Joan of Birraire asks us to:
talk about that first book that caught their attention, which brought them to get interested in beer; or maybe about books that helped developing their local beer scene.
I want to start by stating the obvious, I love books. Whether we talking about beer book, historical novels, works on literary theory, scientific theory, or theology I have a constantly growing library that no Kindle or e-reader could ever replace. I have a near constant stack of about 7 books on the dresser on my side of the bed as I finish the top one, a new gets added to the bottom, or the middle. I read somewhat voraciously, any opportunity to read is seized upon.

Joan's theme though is specifically books about beer, and naturally I have a fair few, most that I use as reference books for my homebrew. Ray Daniel's 'Designing Great Beers' is an essential source for homebrewers in my world. Sure the history side of things can be questionable at times, but the analyses of various styles is very helpful when I am in the process of creating a recipe to try out. Just as valuable is Ron Pattinson's 'The Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beers', and while I have only brewed a straight up version of 4 or 5 of the beers there, I use the book again as a reference, looking for patterns in behaviour that I can interpret in my own brewing. The third in my triumvirate of regular reference reads for brewing might come as more of a surprise given how rarely I brew Belgian style beers, but Stan Hieronymous' 'Brew Like A Monk' is great reading.

When it comes though to beer books that I enjoy reading purely for their own sake, there is one writer that for me stands head and shoulders above us all (and admittedly I am stretching the definition of 'book' just a bit here), Evan Rail.

It may be that I am slightly biased given that Evan and I shared many a pint when I lived in the Czech Republic, but whether directly writing about beer or not I thoroughly enjoy reading his work. Evan's Kindle Singles are the kind of writing to which I can really only aspire, often witty, deeply profound, and drenched with experience. The singles 'Why Beer Matters', 'In Praise of Hangovers', and 'Why We Fly' are all wonderful, and the half hour or so it takes to read each one is to lose yourself for a bit as Evan draws you into his world.

Given that it is Friday, go download those three of Evan's titles on Amazon, sit with a pint or two of your favourite beer (it really doesn't matter what) and discover, or discover again, a fantastic writer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Railroad to the Isles

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mrs V and I had planned to climb Ben Nevis the day after completing the West Highland Way. That plan had to be put to one side as my feet were something of a state, and also the weather decided not to cooperate. Minor interesting fact, there is apparently a gale at the summit of Ben Nevis every three days on average! Thankfully, we had a back up plan, a day trip to Mallaig.

I have only ever been to Mallaig a handful of times, usually as an alternative to the Kyle of Lochalsh way to Skye when heading home to Uist. I have a lingering memory of the greatest steak sandwich in all of human civilisation being available from a van on the quayside (shocking that food trucks existed before the urbanites got the notion in their heads, eh?). There were no juliennes of this, coulis of that, or salsas of the other, just perfectly cooked steak between two pieces of buttered bread, delightful.

Bear in mind when I say this that Scotland is one of the most beautiful places on earth, yes I am biased I know, but the railway line from Fort William to Mallaig is one of the most stunning I have travelled. Oh, and we took the steam train.

Although we had this as a back up plan, we hadn't bought tickets for the train, so we took our chances and joined the queue on the platform. Happily we managed to snag the last pair of first class seats, and when the time came duly took our seats in the 6 seater carriage. Our fellow travellers for the trip were an English mother and daughter, and a Swedish couple. The Swedes were over mainly to check on a cask of whisky they owned at a distillery, and doing a few trips to other distilleries. Naturally with a shared interest in the things that can be done with malted barley, we got to chatting. The English folks were very much looking forward to crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct as they were huge fans of Harry Potter.

After a few hours of trundling through the Highlands, with steam billowing alongside the carriages, we pulled into Mallaig itself. With just a couple of hours to wander and grab something to eat, Mrs V and I made a bee line for the Chlachain Inn on account of there being a 10% discount on food in a brochure on the train. Stepping into the public bar my heart almost leapt for joy, not only were there handpulls, but the beer was from the Isle of Skye Brewery. I went straight for the Skye Red, a beer I had thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. In many ways it reminds me of O'Hara's Red, but with the added benefit of being cask conditioned.

With time ticking away, thoughts turned to food, and being in Mallaig means one thing, and one thing only, seafood, plucked from the cold waters of the Scottish west coast. While trying to decide on a main course, Mrs V decided to break out of her usual culinary safe house and try haggis. Mrs V is not a big fan of offal in general, much to my chagrin sometimes, so I was understandably rather shocked when she ordered the tempura battered haggis with a peppercorn brandy sauce. I was even more surprised, and somewhat delighted, when she wondered aloud where haggis had been all her life, she loved it, absolutely loved it, a fact further confirmed a couple of weeks later in Glasgow when we had haggis pakora in an Indian restaurant. When it came to main courses, Mrs V took the seafood platter, which featured a veritable raft of locally caught fish and crustacea, while I went for langoustine and chips....

Drenched in a garlic and herb butter, by the time I got through all 6 of the langoustine and most of the chips, the bottom of the bowl was filled with garlicy, butter, mushy chips that were decadent in the extreme. If we didn't have to head back to the train station, I could happily have had another serving. Fresh seafood, landed that morning on the quayside just yards from the front door simply cannot be matched. That fact may explain why I rarely eat shellfish when I am not at the coast.

The train back to Fort William seemed to go much quicker than the ride out, again we were sat with our Swedish and English friends, and this time we availed ourselves of the bar in the restaurant car with cans of McEwans, a step down from the Skye Red for sure, but still a perfectly good beer, a phrase I once thought I would never say.

If you ever find yourself in the West Highlands, and I thoroughly recommend you go, a trip to Mallaig on the train is something well worth the money, and when there make sure to stop in the Chlachain Inn. Whether just for a pint, the Skye Red was in fine form and excellent both sparkled and unsparkled, yes I am that sad that I asked for a half pint of unsparkled to see the difference and unsparkled didn't shine next to sparkled, or for a meal. It was superb.