Monday, January 8, 2018

The Session: Three Things

My post for this month's iteration of The Session is a tad late, something of a theme recently, but when I last looked at The Session's web page, no topic had been announced, and I only discovered the topic this morning. Our host for this month is Jay Brooks, one of the founders of The Session, and his theme is looking for answers to three questions, so let me oblige....

Jay's first question is:
what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?
The word that immediately springs to mind is classic.

When I think about the kind of beers I like to drink they are all well established styles with widely accepted parameters. Think about a pilsner, four simple ingredients is all that it needs, malt, noble hops, lager yeast, and soft water. Consider the best bitter, again the simple interplay of good pale malt, with some crystal or toasted malts chucked in for flavour and colour, English hops, characterful yeast, and whatever water you have knocking around essentially. The third in my classic triumvirate is dry stout a la Guinness. When you drink an example of any of these styles you know what to expect and that for me is part of their appeal, I don't want to be challenged by random ingredients, twists, or new fangled ideas of what a beer style could be, I want a quality interpretation of a classic style.

Question the second is:
what two breweries do you think are very underrated? Name any two places that don’t get much attention but are quietly brewing great beer day in and day out. And not just one shining example, but everything they brew should be spot on. And ideally, they have a great tap room, good food, or other stellar amenities of some kind. But for whatever reason, they’ve been mostly overlooked. Maybe 2018 should be the year they hit it big. Who are they?
This is a very difficult question to answer, especially when you consider what is meant by 'underrated'? Rated by whom? Depending on how you answer that question, you could argue that Sierra Nevada are underrated because for the trend chasers they are insufficiently sexy, even though they simply do not make a bad beer in their range.


Assuming though that we are not talking about such ratings, my first choice would be the winners of the Fuggled Amber Beer of the Year for 2017, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, NC. Olde Meck are a rarity in the American brewing scene in that all their beers are German styles and they don't brew a single IPA - fancy that, a brewery sufficiently confident in their products so as not to pander to the IPA worshippers. Whether it is their altbier, pilsner, dunkel, or Oktoberfest, every beer I have has from them has been superb, and whenever I go to South Carolina with Mrs V, I know I will be stocking up for the return trip as they are yet to be distributed in Virginia.


Sticking with the Carolina theme, my second underrated brewery is actually the oldest brewery in Columbia, South Carolina, Hunter Gatherer. I still remember my first trip there, having walked 7 miles from Mrs V's childhood home into the centre of Columbia a couple of days after Christmas in 2011. As they are currently in the latter stages of opening a production brewery, I am limiting myself here to their brewpub, which is in many ways the archetype of a brewpub that I would love to open. A fairly limited selection of only 4 beers, technically 5 but their don't brew a lager so they have Warsteiner (if memory serves) on tap, but each well made and tasty, bare brick walls, wooden furniture, and excellent food coming from the kitchen. I make a point of visiting whenever we go south, you should too.

The third and final question is:
name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of
This one is relatively simple:
  • Best Bitter - there is only one brewed with any regularity in this part of Virginia, and it's my recipe. I am not sure if the American drinking public really get the idea of a bitter in general, perhaps confused by the notion of a bitter beer or even the idea that hoppy beers don't have to taste like grapefruit juice. Whatever the stumbling block, I wish more breweries would take the bull by the horns and make this wonderful style, and then serve it at cellar temperature, from a beer engine.
  • Dark Mild - sure there is a healthy dose of self interest here, being the founder of American Mild Month (which will be back this year for it's 4th outing), but I tend to think that any brewer worth his or her salt is well able to brew a mild and make it interesting. Sometimes all I want after work on a Friday is to down a few pints in short order, and mild is the perfect beer with which to do so.
  • Altbier - there are few better beers than fresh altbier, and while there are a few available locally, they all seem to use crystal malts to give the expected colour, but then contribute a slick sweetness that really doesn't work with the style at all. More examples like Olde Meck's Copper would be more than welcome.
All classic styles, all wonderfully well made, and all worth sitting in the pub for hours drinking, which is kind of the whole point of beer as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beer and Breweries of 2017

A bit late admittedly, though there are mitigating circumstances involving trips to the emergency room with my twin sons, but as they say, never late than never eh? I have somewhat rationalised this year's lists by having just a single 'Virginia' entry rather than splitting it into central VA and the rest of the commonwealth as in years passim. With that, let's dive on in.

Pale
  • Virginia - Devils Backbone Czech 10
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Nooner
  • Rest of World - Rothaus Tannenzäpfle
  • Honorable mentions - Pilsner Urquell, Three Notch'd The Ghost, New Belgium Dayblazer, Black Sheep Ale


Admit it, you're shocked that my three choices here are all pilsners. If you are then clearly you haven't been paying enough attention. Anyway, all three are wonderful versions of my favourite pale lager style, all crisp, clean, painfully easy to drink, and so beautifully made it makes you wonder why people bother with dumping random shit in the fermenter. Choosing just one is tricky, but when it comes down to it, having a desítka in Virginia puts DB's lovely Czech 10 ahead by a short nose.

Amber
  • Virginia - Port City Oktoberfest
  • Rest of US - Olde Mecklenburg Copper
  • Rest of World - Minipivovar U Medvídků Oldgott Barrique
  • Honorable mentions - Schlenkerla Märzen, Fullers 1845, O'Hara's Irish Red, Three Notch'd Hydraulion


Whenever Mrs V and I, and I guess from here on in for a few years, the twins as well, head to South Carolina I always make a point of getting some Copper from Olde Mecklenburg Brewing in Charlotte, NC. Copper is an altbier that unlike many that claim to be of that style over here isn't made with caramel malts in place of the traditional Munich malts. It is as close a genuine altbier as you will find brewed in the US, and I love the stuff.

Dark
  • Virginia - South Street Brewing Munich Dunkel
  • Rest of US - Anchor Brewing Porter
  • Rest of World - Riegele Noctus 100
  • Honorable mentions - Sierra Nevada Porter, Sierra Nevada Stout, Guinness 200th Anniversary Export Stout, Three Notch'd Oats McGoats, Sv. Norbert Dark Lager


While in Columbia for Thanksgiving, I stocked up on beers that I rarely, if ever, see here in Virginia and it is one of those that walks off with the title of Fuggled dark beer of the year. Anchor Porter is a beer I had heard much about but never actually seen in the wild. When I popped open a bottle to go with my dinner one evening I was blown away with just how complex and beautifully made it was, especially given it's comparatively lightweight 5.6% abv - one I will be stocking up on whenever I am in SC for sure.

Fuggled Beer of the Year

Of my three category beers of the year, the one that walks away with the overall Fuggled Beer of the Year will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that knows me. I will quite openly admit to the fact that I enjoy drinking beer, I am not much of one for visiting breweries and sampling their wares before moving on to another brewery and repeating the experience. If I do flights it is to find what I want to drink for the rest of my session. When I found out that my friends down at Devils Backbone were making a 10° Czech style pale lager I was excited to try it, and it was simply one of the best examples of the style I have ever drunk, up there with the likes of Kout na Šumavě and Zlatá labuť. Being able to sit in the Devils Backbone brewpub with friends, enjoying superb food, and the perfect desítka to wash it all down with, was sublime. Well done Devils Backbone, the Fuggled Beer of the Year is Czech 10, please make it again!!

Brewery
  • Virginia - Three Notch'd Brewing
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Brewing
  • Rest of World - Guinness
  • Honorable mentions - Devils Backbone, AleWerks, Fullers, Olde Mecklenburg Brewing,
I am sure I have said this many a time, but I am a terrible beer tourist, and as such I don't tend to go off on brewery sampling trips. I am also a rather conservative drinker in the sense that I tend to find breweries that I trust to make quality beers and I stick to them. Given the price of a six pack these days, there is no way I am splashing north of $10 for a six pack without knowing that I will be enjoying every beer. There is one brewery that in my world stands heads and shoulders above all overs at the moment and I think I have drunk more of their beer this year than any other brewery. Congrats then to Sierra Nevada Brewing for being the Fuggled Brewery of the Year for 2017, keep up the great work!


Friday, December 1, 2017

The Session 130 - Festival Perfection


The final first Friday of 2017 is upon us, so of course that means it is time for this month's Session, hosted by Brian Yaeger. For this month, Brian asks us to imagine our ideal beer festival, and so without further ado, let's dive on in....

Firstly I have something of a confession to make, I can count on the fingers of less one full hand the number of beer festivals I have been to. That's no comment on beer festivals themselves but rather an admission of the fact that if I have a choice, and a potential alibi, I will avoid big crowds at all possible cost. I can also count on the aforementioned fingers the number of people capable of coaxing me out of my introvert cave to attend such an event. Clearly then, the first requirement for the Fuggled Festival of Beer is that it be a relatively small and low key event.

To facilitate such a low key event, the venue would preferably be out in the sticks a bit. Not necessary in the wilderness of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park, but in a hotel in a small country village would do nicely. The event would also be outside so that those hardy souls who make the trek have magnificent vistas of mountains and fields to drink in as they drink their beer. If the venue has some kind of courtyard then all the better. Actually, if the venue were a hotel with a brewpub and a courtyard, with views of the countryside, that would be perfect.

As this is a beer festival we should give some consideration to the beer itself, and in keeping with my theme of being low key, I would limit the number of breweries in attendance to somewhere between 15 and 20, and then further limit them to having a maximum of 2 beers available. Said beer would be draft only, so that attendees get the freshest taste of beer possible. Breweries are free to bring whatever beers they feel like serving, whether it's flagships, seasonals, or one-offs, it's entirely up to them.


This being my beer festival, it would primarily be a drinking festival rather than a tasting one, as such beers would be available in either half pint or full pint sizes (and pint here means the 20oz imperial pint). We're all adults here, so the only limit on the amount attendees can drink is based on their ability to hold their bevvy, keep their significant other happy, not be a nuisance, and not run foul of the police. We're all adults here right, so personal responsibility is important.

So we have our venue and the beers sorted, but what about box office? Straight off the bat I will say that I hate the idea of buying tokens with which to trade for beer, especially when the price of the token is more than the cost of a beer at the festival in a local pub. I also hate the idea of having a set number of beers as part of my entry fee. As such, entry at the door would be relatively cheap but would include a half pint glass, made of actual glass and not plastic. If attendees would prefer a full pint glass, there would be a small surcharge on the entry fee. The entry fee would be as low as possible to allow it to cover the cost of the venue and glassware. Brewers would then be selling their beer to the attendees at whatever price they feel appropriate, so total cost to an attendee would be the cover fee plus however much they actually choose to spend.


Getting away from the logistics and the beer for a moment, I would want to have a snack stand as well pumping out food that goes well with beer. Think a central European sausage vendor and you're in the right ball park, we're talking snacks not meals. I would also arrange a couple of local bands to come and play sets during the festival, though it would be more a background noise kind of thing than a focal point of the event.


As I re-read this with my editor's hat on, two things strike me. Firstly this is basically my vision of a good pub writ large, and secondly it bears a marked resemblance to the first Slunce ve Skle festival that I went to in Plzeň back in 2008. It was at Slunce ve Skle that I met Max for the first time, drank plenty of good beer from small breweries I had never heard of, and hung out with an eclectic group of expats and locals just reveling in good beer with good company. It was a perfect afternoon's drinking, one that I would love to recreate.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In Praise of Sierra Nevada

There are times when the MO of much of the craft beer industry, whether producers or consumers, seems to be an obsessive compulsion toward the new, the varied, and the never to be repeated. In times such as these it feels as though any brewery that is more than a couple of years old has become passé, and god help them if they have the temerity not to completely revamp their lineup at the whim of an Untappd Beer Rating Advocate. In such a milieu, thank goodness is all I have to say for a brewery like Sierra Nevada.

I still remember vividly my first Sierra Nevada beer. I was in Galway, sat next to the peat fire in a pub called Sheridan's On The Docks, watching Ireland play New Zealand in the Autumn Internationals, it was the great way to round off what had been a grand day out drinking. Having reacquainted myself with Bishop's Finger and Spitfire from Shepherd Neame I spied the green label of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and texted Evan Rail back in Prague to ask if it was worth trying, at €6 a pop,...a few moments later came the resounding recommendation, thus I duly ordered a bottle and poured it into my glass. It was love at first mouthful, and sat in that bar on the very edge of Europe I knew that it was going to be a regular beer in my fridge.


Since moving to the US, beers from Sierra Nevada have probably been the most common in my fridge. Cans of Pale Ale and Nooner Pilsner are staples at the moment. Every August has taken on a near religious ecstasy as I wait for the latest iteration of their Oktoberfest collaborations.



Whenever I see their Stout and Porter in the shops I have to buy some.


Kellerweis and Summerfest remind me of many a drinking session in Pivovarský klub. Narwhal is as good an imperial stout as you could imagine.


The fact that Sierra Nevada do so many classic beer styles so damned consistently well is something that needs to be lauded by beer lovers across the land. It's isn't boring to make a German style pilsner that would hold it's own in the Black Forest. It isn't playing it safe by being the archtype of the American Pale Ale. Quality and consistency don't get enough praise among beer lovers in this country at times, though maybe I am just a grumpy old man who wants his SNPA to taste the same every time I drink it. That trust is an important part of my willingness to splash out for Sierra Nevada beer more often than not, shit I even tried (and loved) Otra Vez simply because I trust them to do a good job.

I think I only have one gripe about Sierra Nevada really, that they don't have a best bitter as part of their regular range of beers. I am sure they would knock that so far out of the park, Timothy Taylor's would be looking over their shoulders.

So here's to the Grossman family that own and run Sierra Nevada, long may you continue and prosper doing what you do best, making quality classic beers.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Session 129 - Whither the Session?


How exactly is it the first Friday of November already? Rhetorical questions aside, as it is so, that means it is time for The Session, hosted this month by Eoghan of Brussels Beer City. Eoghan's theme for the month is "Missing Local Beer Styles", which he boils down to being:
"what beer style would you like to see being brewed in your local market that is not yet being brewed?"
As Eoghan points out, beer choice can often seem to be an exercise in choosing from endless variations on the theme of IPA, which is incredibly boring after a while. While I consider myself very lucky to live in a part of Virginia with plenty of breweries who make beers beyond the confines of a modern interpretation of India Pale Ale (does the modern concept of IPA even relate to India Pale Ale in anything other than name any more?), I naturally have beer styles that I miss.

If you have read more that 2 or 3 of my blog posts you will likely know well by now that my favourite beer styles are (not necessarily in order):
  • Bitter
  • Pilsner
  • Dry Stout
  • Mild
Of those 4 styles, the only one brewed in this area that I can get with any regularity is Pilsner, Champion Brewing's lovely Shower Beer.


Once upon a time Starr Hill Brewing, where for the sake of full disclosure I used to work, brewed a dry Irish stout called Dark Starr, it was sublime, it is still the most award winning dry Irish stout in America, it hasn't been brewed for about 3 years if memory serves. When I worked behind the bar of the taproom I would pour Dark Starr early so it could get to the right temperature to unlock the flavours, and many people discovered they actually did like stout after all.


I manage to get my mild kick in the pub for a single month each year as several of the local breweries support my American Mild Month project, but outside of May, mild is as rare as hen's teeth. The same could be said for bitter. Unless Three Notch'd Brewing has put out my Bitter 42 Best Bitter recipe, fresh bitter is basically unicorn shit in these parts.



Thankfully there is a place where I can semi-regularly get my fix of all three styles, guaranteed fresh, and at the generally reasonable price of less than $1 for an imperial pint. That place is of course my kitchen, and the beers are my homebrew renditions of the styles.

Even though I like to think that I am a pretty decent brewer, there are times when I would like nothing more than to be sat in the pub nursing a pint some tasty, session beer while reading a book or hanging out with friends. Given that reality, the one beer "style" that is grossly underrepresented in Central Virginia is just that, session beers.

I recently did some research into the state of core beers being produced by the various breweries within 35 miles of my house and discovered that the average ABV is 6.7%, and found not a single core beer that would satisfy the definition of session beer as laid out by Lew Bryson.

I realise this has the potential of making me sound like a total druth, but I actively enjoy drinking. In common with most people from those mad islands on the west of Europe, the pub is the place I am happiest, and I can think of few things I would prefer to do than spend an afternoon drinking pints with friends, or alone just reading a good book. Were I to have such a session on 6.7% ABV beer, I would be in no fit state to get myself home.

So come on brewers of Central Virginia, try introducing session beers to your core ranges, bitters, stouts, milds, as well as pilsners! Given that they are cheaper to make, it'll help your bottom line as well!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

17° Perfection

Goodness me it's been a while since I posted.

Mitigating circumstance is that just 5 days after my previous post, Mrs V gave birth to our twin sons, the malé Aličky as they have been nicknamed, and we are getting to grips with this whole parenthood thing.

On Saturday, we introduced the malé Aličky to that most august of establishments, the pub. I fear that in the rampantly puritanical mind of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (for those unaware, a front organisation feigning academic respectability for the heirs of the Temperance League and their prohibitionist cohorts) the boys are already scarred for life as I have had several beers right in front of them already.

Said introductory pub was the original Devils Backbone brewpub down in Nelson County, and the occasion was the tapping of the beer I brewed with them back in August, a Czech style Polotmavý Speciál. Polotmavý because it is neither light nor dark, but a deep red kind of in between, and Speciál because it has an original gravity of about 17° Plato. In keeping with Czech tradition the name of the beer is Granát, which is "garnet" in Czech, a reference to the famous gemstones from Central Bohemia.


"But how did the beer turn out?" I hear you say....

Well, it pours a really rich deep auburn, that the picture above maybe doesn't capture fully, and yes I am biased but I think all my children are gorgeous. The head is a healthy inch of ivory foam that lingers for the duration and leaves some lovely lacing down the glass. Aroma wise, there are some traces of a lightly herbal hop character, but given the beer is more balanced toward the malt, the classic Central European smells of fresh bread and a sweet malt aroma (I can't think of a better description honestly, when you smell CaraBohemian malt you get what I mean). In terms of taste, there is lots of breadiness, and a healthy dollop of sweetness, think dulce de leche and you're close, all backed up by a firm hop bite that stops the beer from being sickly - is there anything worse than a sickly sweet beer? Having lagered for a nearly 10 weeks, the finish is clean, crisp, and despite the malt forward nature of the beer, refreshing.

You know, the more I think about it, the more it reminds me of a 14° Polotmavý Speciál from Minipivovar Hukvaldy that I relished back in 2008 over lunch with Max in Prague.

So yes it turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and my only regret is that it won't ever see the light of day at Pivovarský klub. Given the volume of the batch, I expect it will only be on at Devils Backbone for a few weeks, so if you are in the area get along and try the first recorded authentic Czech style Polotmavý in Virginian history.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Irish Pub

The pub is probably my favourite institution on earth. Whenever I am off on my travels I spend more time researching places I want to have a drink than I do what beers are available in a particular drinking hole. I guess that's what makes me an awful beer tourist, you'll not find me visiting places just because of the breweries that are there.

The kind of pub I like doesn't have to have a stellar beer selection of the latest, greatest, trendiest IPAs and the like. Some of my favourite places to drink when I lived in Prague sold the near ubiquitous range of Prazdroj, Gambrinus, and Kozel Černý, but I loved them all the same. Beer is not the point of the pub, community is, conversation is, comfort is, consolation is.

As I have got older, my taste in pubs has tended more and more to the simple pleasures of a well cared for pint enjoyed with good company. If I wish to get rat-arsed and listen to the greatest cheesey hits of the 90s, I can do that in the comfort of my front room.

Any way, all this thinking about pubs is because last night I came across a wonderful documentary film on Netflix called 'The Irish Pub' and spent the hour and a bit of it in a fog of nostalgia, there being so many similarities between pubs in Ireland and those in the north west of Scotland where I grew up.

Here's the trailer, and if you have Netflix look it up for the whole thing.