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?".

Friday, May 10, 2019

Come Helles or High Water

One of my favourite places to grab lunch and a bevvy on a Friday has for a good few years now been South Street Brewery. When I worked in Charlottesville itself the place was just across the street from my office, these days I tend to go in and meet folks for lunch and do some work parked at the bar. So much of a regular am I at South Street that several of the bar staff no longer bother to ask me what I want to drink, they know I want a glass of My Personal Helles straight off the bat. If there is something new, and potentially worthy of further inspection, they'll give me a sample, just in case I wish to veer from the path of helles righteousness.


As there was no-one else at the bar I got talking with the barman about the brewery's bottled offerings, and wondered out loud more than anything else whether My Personal Helles would ever be part of that range? Thinking about it a bit more, I came to the conclusion that it would actually not benefit the beer itself to be available in bottles, especially given the abuses that appear to be the norm in the distribution and retail channels.

The barman, who to my shame I had been calling Drew forever until my mate told me it was Adrian (ugh....parent brain is a think for men too I am sure) asked why I thought that helles as a style was not really suited to the bottled format, especially given the prevalence of helles (heli?) in bottles as the style has gained traction with American drinkers. In reality it came down to one simple thing, I believe there are some styles that are simply best drunk in a pub, beer hall, or beer garden. Random memory from my early years in Prague, there was a beer hall in the heart of Staré Město called Radegast that was basically the perfect beer hall, sadly it is gone now, sacrificed to the "improving" Noughties that stripped the centre of the city of so many characterful boozers and drinking dens.

Beer styles, for want of a better word, are the product of the beer culture from which they arise, and there is something delightful about drinking German style lagers in Germanic style surroundings, hence beer hall or garden is perfect. Sure the beer tastes broadly similar sat on my deck, and I even have plenty of trees to look at, but the purest element of a beer culture is missing. People, lots of them, enjoying beer in a convivial environment.

Perhaps they are sitting alone at a table reading the newspaper, or with their minds buried somewhere in a book. Perhaps they are a family enjoying the garden, kids free to wander around a bit while their parents keep an eye on them and feel relatively normal for a little while (this particular street is a two way one, family friendly boozer, boozer friendly families). Perhaps they are a works outing for a Friday liquid lunch before calling it a day a few hours early. For whatever reason people are in a drinking establishment they are creating a culture, of which the beer itself is just a single part, and in the case of helles, and arguably the standard beers of beer cultures around the world, it is the supporting act, not the star.

It's entirely possibly that I am a contrarian, but I have never really been much of a trend follower. I have an inbuilt aversion to people of an evangelical persuasion, whether their evangelion be religion, craft beer, politics, the list could go on for pages, though I am sure my aversion is in reaction to my years as an evangelical Christian, even though Brit evangelicals are nowhere near as bad as many a 'Murican Evangelical.

I can't imagine a helles ever really being the main act. Even at South Street My Personal Helles isn't part of the core range, but it has a dedicated following among regulars. Perhaps that is why it is better as a draught only beer, you actually have to deliberately go there for a pint rather than having it commoditised into cans or bottles, thus participating in the beer culture, and the culture is the important thing.

Monday, April 29, 2019

For The Love of Lager

I am a Lagerboy, plain, simple, and proud of the fact.

Sure there are top fermented beer styles that I love as well, but nothing is as satisfying as a pint of well made pale lager. The crackery, bready, malt, the snap and floral bouquet of noble hops, the lingering finish, clean, crisp, and almost daring you to try and stop drinking. Perhaps a dark lager could compete however, adding some toasty, smoothly roasty notes into the mix, hopefully with some of that Munich sweetness that is beyond even the finest crystal malts in the deftest of hands.


I have written before about how in this part of Virginia we are somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to locally brewed lagers. South Street in the heart of Charlottesville have probably the single most regular beer I drink, My Personal Helles, which in my mind is pretty much the archetype for a good helles in my world. Devils Backbone's Schwartzbier is a staple during the colder months, and if I am honest I doubt there is a better example of the schwarzbier on the planet - a bold claim I know.


However, I have a gripe, for some reason the beer distributors in this part of Virginia have decreed that craft lager from breweries such as Port City and Troegs will not be available on the shelves. When Mrs V and I go to do our weekly shop at the local Wegmans it appears that the entire Port City lineup is there. If you fancy their magnificent Porter, you will be happy. If their delightful witbier is your thing, not a problem. Want one of their IPAs, bob's your uncle. Hankering for the deliriously wonderful Downright Pilsner.....yeah, fuck you, not a chance.


I can tell the same story about Troegs. Fans of hoppy beers of varying degrees of India-ness are more than catered for, people that know Sunshine Pils is one of the best pale lagers being made anywhere on planet earth, let alone the east coast of the USA, can once again fuck off in the minds of the beer distributors and retailers of central Virginia.

I have asked time after time at store after store in the area for them to stock both of these delights, but their absence continues to stand out like a sore thumb, more galling for the fact that just a couple of hours drive away in Warrenton, gateway to the gridlock that is Northern Virginia, the Wegmans stocks both Downright and Sunshine. So what gives?

I assume the same distributor handles Port City Optimal Wit as Port City Porter (though with the fucked up nature of distribution rights and the asinine politics of beer distribution who knows if that is actually true), so why have they taken the unilateral decision to deny the drinkers of central Virginia a world class Czech style pale lager? I likewise assume the guys filling the Charlottesville Wegmans shelves with Troegs' IPA have the ability to add a little Sunshine to our lives, but choose not to.

Can anyone explain?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Old Friends: Samuel Smiths Oatmeal Stout

We are on the cusp of a proper change in season here in central Virginia.

The threat of frost has receded, and most mornings when I walk Honza, our Cairn Terrier, it is a rather pleasant 55° Fahrenheit, that's about 13° Celsius for those of you that live in the 21st Century. With the warming days and shortening nights I tend to find that I am drawn to paler beers as my beloved porters, stouts, and dark lagers are banished for these painful weeks until the Summer Solstice has passed and I feel alive again - I am a winter soul through and through.

To wave farewell for a few months, I decided to do an Old Friends post on one of my absolute favourite beers, Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout.


Samuel Smiths' beers are probably the easiest British beers to get on this side of the Pond, and our local Wegmans carries most of their range, including the Organic Lager which may feature more regularly in the coming months' drinking.

Is there an Oatmeal Stout out there that is more closely associated with the style than Sam Smith's? I honestly can't think of one, it is as synonymous for me as Guinness is with Irish Stout, Sierra Nevada with Pale Ale, and Żywiec with Baltic Porter. So how was this most famous, and august, brew?


As you would imagine it poured as black as India ink, and interestingly, just as lustrous. Having mastered the art of pouring into a nonic glass, there was a mere half inch cap of foam that lingered for the duration of the drinking, protecting the precious liquid below. I have given up drinking Sam Smiths beers from my Sam Smiths glasses due to the etching on the bottom of the glass that creates a massive head. The aromas were exactly what you expect from a stout, coffee, chocolate, you know the deal, though I always find with this one that a trace of pipe tobacco forces it's way through the head to make you think of Gandalf the Grey enjoying the finest pipeweed in all of The Shire.

The aromatic themes, as is so often the case with stouts, carry on into the flavour department, think a slice of grannies bestest chocolate cake, served with a fine Italian espresso, then add in the silken mouthfeel of the oats and you have a luscious pint of dessert. Having, as is my wont, let the beer come up to cellar temperature, the carbonation was unobtrusive, just enough to clean the palette and leave you wanting more.

What a simply glorious way to bid farewell to the colder days of winter and early spring, though admitted I am already looking ahead to autumn's return.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Cleveland in dem Haus

Last week I was in Cleveland, Ohio, for a conference. Having admitted in several posts that I am a terrible beer tourist, I have determined that whenever I am away on a business trip I am going to try and change that narrative. Naturally I had done some research on Cleveland and had a list of breweries whose wares I at least wanted to try, time can often be at a premium on these conference trips and so I usually find a well regarded pub with a decent local selection so I can at least try a few new things.

Then I saw the magic words "Hofbräuhaus Cleveland" and knew without a shadow of any doubt that if time allowed then I would be going. Inspired by the thought of Bavarian style booze and food, I checked Google Maps and discovered it was 0.4 miles from my hotel...yeah, you know I was going there. Thus it was having landed in a much colder than Virginia Cleveland, and spent the afternoon getting set up for the conference exhibition, I took a stroll and allowed my mind to wander back to central Europe...


It being a Wednesday night, the Hofbräuhaus was not exactly busy and so I strode past the classic bench tables of a bierhalle, headed straight for my favourite place to drink, the bar itself.


Behind the bar stands the heartbeat of any brewpub, the coppers, and in this case actually copper, or at least copper clad, shining brightly. I was actually thrilled when I saw them, I knew their beers would be brewed in the US rather than shipped from Germany, but for some reason I hadn't expected them to be brewed in house. The thought of fresh, brewed in situ, Hofbräuhaus lagers filled my heart with joy. Yeah, I am a sucker for pretty much all beer and food related Teutonic things, I would say "German" but let's not leave out the Austrians shall we?


When in Rome and all that jazz, I started out with a half litre (yes!!) of the Hofbräuhaus Original...


Original is a Helles that is clean, crisp, with a nice noble hop bite and enough malt body to make it wonderfully easy drinking without dissipating into wateriness. It was a lovely beer with which to stare in bafflement at the food menu - how exactly does an avowed teutonophile decide between schnitzel and wurst? With a half litre of dunkel perhaps?


As I said it was cold in Cleveland, about 30°F when I arrived and there it had stayed in anticipation of warmer times, and so the dunkel just seemed more like cold weather drinking. This was lovely, rich, spicy, gently warming, touches of cocoa, tobacco, and that light cinnamon thing that you get with German hops. With a decision made on the food front, jägerschnitzel, another half litre was duly ordered as I had found my beery muse for the night.

I am fairly sure that Hofbräuhaus Cleveland will not win many friends among the punks and illuminati of the craft beer world, but for those of us who love a well made, classic, German style lager, it is a great place and one that if ever life takes me to Cleveland again will be due another visit.

Thinking about it in light of the news that Stone had sold their Berlin brewery to BrewDog, maybe the problem was craft beer's attitude to Germany rather than Germany's attitude to craft beer, after all Bavaria basically invented "traditional ingredients". Perhaps in the beer drinking heartlands of the world, there is less demand for beers "with a twist", and perhaps craft beer largely fails to understand that for the normal German drinker something like a helles, pilsner, or dunkel is as good as they want it to get?

And who is to say they are wrong? Not this guy, that's for sure.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Done Right, Damn Right, Downright.

I have mentioned many times that I am an abysmal beer tourist. Here in the Charlottesville area there are plenty of breweries I just haven't bothered to go visit, a fact perhaps influenced by many a local brewery's lack of lager in their lineup - it's a post for another day but recently I have been feeling as though I have come full circle in wanting mainly to drink properly made lagers to almost the exclusion of all else.

At the tail end of last year, Mrs V's cousin took up a job that had her and her husband transplant from Greensboro, North Carolina, to the interminable gridlock that is Northern Virginia, Alexandria to be precise. This weekend just gone, Mrs V and I went up, with the Malé Aličky to tow naturally, to visit, and I saw an opportunity to rectify my errant ways. Alexandria is home to one of my favourite breweries, Port City, and it really was high time for me to darken the door of their tasting room/bar.

Given the high regard in which I hold Port City, it is perhaps odd that I don't post about them more often, though there is a major mitigating circumstance. For some reason, best known only to the distributors and retailers in this part of the world, their Downright Pilsner is rarer than hens' teeth. Their majesterial Porter is something I save for the darker nights of autumn and winter, once I get my fill of the annual Oktoberfest, which is always a fine brew. Usually I have to limit my Downright consumption to the occasions when I see it on tap.

Well, on Sunday it was on tap just a few yards from where it had been brewed as I dragged the family along to get my fill of fresh Downright before Mrs V drove us back to central Virginia.

I am sure I have said this many times before, but there is simply no other Virginia brewed pilsner, whether Bohemian, German, or American in style, that is anywhere near as good as Downright Pilsner. There are a couple that come close, looking at you Devils Backbone Meadow Bier and South Street Shake Your Teal Feather, but Downright has so far held off all comers looking to take that particular crown.


Perhaps it's the simplicity of the recipe, just Pilsner malt and Saaz hops? Perhaps it is the 6 weeks of lagering, or maybe the mildly untraditional dry hopping with Saaz? Perhaps it's the 43 IBUs that all that Saaz brings to the table (yes you read that right, an American made Czech style pilsner that hops it with the best of Czech made Czech lagers). Perhaps it's the fact that Downright is a dvanáctka, that's a 12° Plato beer for the non-Czech speakers of the world?

Actually, it is all of the above. Downright is done right, and when you do things properly you get good results. Could Downright stand up if served on the taps of august Prague establishments like Pivovarský klub? Damn right it would. In fact, I am convinced it would quickly become a favourite among the cognoscenti of the Czech beer world.

Now then, when can I get back to Alexandria, given that my crowlers are finished and already I am hankering for more...?

Friday, March 29, 2019

Ordinary Homebrew

It's fair to say I now have a house beer. Well, let me qualify that a little by saying it is fair to say that I have a house grist and yeast combination, the hops I tend to mess around with. My house beer is my best bitter recipe that in the hands of Three Notch'd is known as Bitter 42, but in these here parts is still called Session 42 when I use Goldings, and {hop name} 42 when I don't.

Such has been my focus in the last couple of years on brewing best bitter, I have neglected entirely my good friend, Ordinary Bitter, that even lower gravity beer that is ideal for pouring into a pottle sized jug and forgetting all about the week just gone by. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I have become the de facto brewer for house parties and concerts at my wife's fiddle teacher's place, and we have one coming up in May with a rather well known fiddle player, and so naturally I have my thinking hat on.

The easy thing to do would be another keg of the Limelight Witbier I brewed for the St Patrick's Day festivities and which kicked in under 2 hours. Given that May is American Mild Month, brewing a pale mild crossed my mind, but mild is always a tricky thing to explain, even more so when it isn't dark, and being honest I am yet to hit on an Americanised version that I really love. The even easier thing I guess would be to take the Session 42 recipe and scale it down to ordinary bitter strength, but as my dad always says, if it's easy, is it worth it?

So a brand new ordinary bitter recipe is the decision, and given the challenge of brewing something low alcohol and not woefully insipid, it something I am looking forward to. The recipe I have settled on does share some characteristics with Session 42, mainly in that it is on the paler side of the bitter spectrum. The recipe looks like this:
  • 43% Maris Otter
  • 43% Golden Promise
  • 7% Victory Malt
  • 7% Crystal 15L
  • 19 IBU First Gold for 60 minutes
  • 6 IBU First Gold for 15 minutes
  • Safale S-04 yeast
Apparently this will give me a starting gravity of 1.039, which once the yeast has done it's thing will give me a 3.8% ABV beer to back up the 25 IBUs of First Gold hops. In terms of colour I am looking at about 6-7 SRM, or nicely dark gold.

If I have the time and can find the equipment I might be tempted to put it into my cask and serve it from a gravity tap, but I never carb my beers too much anyway in the keg so it would mostly be for novelty value.

The name for this particular brew, Boatman - I was listening to The Levellers as I designed the recipe.