Monday, April 29, 2024

Best Beer Ever!

Shock, horror, a new post at Fuggled!

Yes, it has been a while, but mitigating circumstances, I have been heads down writing my first book, which is due out in the autumn hopefully, oh and building A.I. type tools in my day job - yeah, it's been busy.

Just before things went a little wild though, I found time to brew a beer for my new fermentation and lagering chamber - yes, sir, I bought a small chest freezer and temperature control to allow me to brew lagers whenever I felt like it. It also means that I can now lager outside of my kegerator, so while I have a lager going in the in the freezer, I can have quicker to make top fermented beers on tap.

Anyway, that beer that I brewed for the first run of the lagering chamber was a Vienna lager. It was a very simple recipe, a SMaSH Vienna as I used just Murphy & Rude Vienna malt and Tettnang hops, the yeast was Wyeast 2308 - Munich Lager, oh and I made no changes to my water at all, because I never do - not even when this weekend I brew my first double decoction Czech style 10° pale lager.

The Vienna was my first double decoction brewday, and thankfully I hit my target gravity of 13° right on the nail. Sure, my calculated IBUs were a tad high at 32, but I wasn't all that bothered by that fact. Eventually, after 14 days in primary, 2 days for a diacetyl rest, 28 days lagering, and 7 additional days being gently carbonated, I got this delight:

And delightful it certainly was, given how quickly it flew out the tap. I didn't take any detailed notes, but my first beer after the keg kicked was Olde Mecklenburg's superb Munzler's Vienna Lager, and it was pretty similar, so was happy. It was definitely the best lager I have ever brewed at home, and would probably be somewhere in my top 3.

Of course, if I have a great brewday this weekend with my desítka, who knows where things will stand...

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately.

At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerbier that I brewed on New Years Eve. The recipe was nothing spectacular:

  • 6.5lb Murphy & Rude Vienna malt
  • 3.5lb Murphy & Rude Munich 9 malt
  • 0.5oz Magnum
  • 2oz Saaz
  • 1oz Hallertauer Mittelfrüh
  • 2 packets Saflager 34/70
If anything were out of the ordinary about this beer, it was that it marked the first time I did a decoction mash. The beer that eventually came out of the tap was lovely, and looked like this:

Admittedly I was somewhat gutted that it had kicked so quickly as it was a lovely, lovely beer, still I am planning my next brew of it, especially as I finally caved and bought a chest freezer to set up as a fermentation and lagering chamber.

As I said though, the price of beer has been on my mind. Part of me was a little confused as to why the keg kicked so quickly, after all a 5 gallon keg is supposed to be about 40 pints. Yes, when I filled the keg, I think there was only 4.5 US gallons in the keg itself, which is 17 litres for the cool, modern, kids using metric, even with a 10% wastage factored in, that would be about 35 beers. It was then I had a brain wave and remembered that by far and away I do most of my drinking from half litre glasses like the Tübinger mug in the picture, so maintaining 10% wastage, we are down to 31 half litres, but if I actually fill my keg with 5 gallons/19 litres, with wastage it becomes 34 half litres, or 36 US pints.

If I were to drink 36 US pints at current standard prices in the Charlottesville area, that would be $252 for a full keg, but with only 4.5 gallons in the keg, it becomes $230. I decided then to calculate how much said beer cost to make, and it break down something like this:
  • grist: $25.84
  • hops: $12.22
  • yeast: $17.98
  • total: $56.04
My water is free as I have a well, but if I include that at the rate of $1.30 for a gallon of Walmart bottled water, I used 8 gallons for a total of $10.72, making our ingredient total $66.76, or $2.15 per half litre of beer. Now, it would be completely disingenuous of me to say my beer only cost $2.15, as I haven't included costs for labour and buildings, etc.

My single decoction brewday for this beer consumed about 7 hours of my time, so if I calculate that at $14.30 per hour as the lowest hourly rate for a brewer in Virginia. Apparently the average in Virginia for a professional brewer is $18.25 per hour. My keg has now cost me an additional $100, so we are at $166.76. Brewing the beer though is not my only labour here, I also have to serve it to myself and my friends. So let's say at a party, a 5 gallon keg of beer kicks in about 3.5 hours - based on my experience of providing kegs to parties - at the minimum wage for Virginia tipped employees of $12 per hour, that would add $42, so we're at $208.76 for brewing and serving a 5 gallon keg of a fairly standard beer. I haven't even factored in rent for my few square feet of garage where I do my brewing and store the product while it is fermenting, but let's call that $10 a month based on the size of my house and my mortgage, with bills chucked in there too. So now my keg has cost $218.76 to brew, store, and serve. If I get a full 34 half litres out of that, we are at $6.43 per half litre.

Thankfully, I don't have to pay myself to make beer, neither do I pay myself to serve the beer, and so the real cost for a half litre of my own beer at home is about $2. One thing though that is really clear to me from this little exercise is that ingredients are not the bulk of the cost of making the beer, it is a the people, equipment, and place to do so. Obviously I am also not able to take advantage of the economies of scale that a commercial brewer (sorry idealogues, if your favourite beer is made by a company that does so for a living it IS a commercial brewery), especially when it comes to non-linear increases such as the ingredients, and don't forget to factor in that a single decoction brewday in my garage takes about as long as a single decoction brewday at a professional brewery with the appropriate kit. 

It is ultimately scale that makes such comparisons effectively futile.

Is it enough to make me give up brewing my own beer because what is the point in saving less than a dollar a pint? Not in the slightest, because here in the real world it is a hobby where I just so happen to make beers that I really enjoy brewing, drinking, and sharing with friends. I also feel that reducing the hobby down to just the financials is to lose sight of why I brew - to have on tap beers most US breweries don't touch with a ten foot barge pole, the creative urge to develop and improve recipes, and when you live in a place where the absence of walkable pubs is stark, being able to have a draft beer whenever you feel like it - is to miss the point at the end of the day.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

A Loss for Virginia

The Virginia brewing scene is a poorer place today.

Do we still have around 350 breweries in a state with a population of 8.6 million, giving us a brewery for approximately every 24,000 people? Yes we do. Can you go in pretty much any decent sized store and get beer brewed in Virginia? Yes you can.

Still, the Virginia brewing scene is a poorer place today.

"Why?" I hear you ask...

Yesterday, Josh Chapman, owner and brewer at Black Narrows Brewing on Chincoteague Island announced that they have decided to close their doors - their final weekend in operation will be February 16-18th. You may, or may not, know that I wrote a profile of Josh and his brewery for Pellicle just last year.  It was also just last year that their magnificent malted corn lager "How Bout It" was awarded a Good Food Award - the corn in the lager being an heirloom variety, grown on the Eastern Shore, malted by Murphy & Rude in Charlottesville, and fermented with a yeast strain derived from a Chincoteague oyster. Beer does not get much more local than that.

My few hours on Chincoteague with Josh was a shot in the arm for me. Here was someone making beer in ways that deeply resonated with me, on equipment that wasn't state of the art, in a manner that seemed to encapsulate the early pioneers of craft beer. Josh's hops were mostly from the Eastern Shore, he only used Murphy & Rude malt, which is all made from Virginia grown barley, he did interesting things, like using pine needles, oyster liquor, and eelgrass in his beer. He supported his community by taking what they could offer, and returning it to them in the form of insanely tasty beer.

Black Narrows was a local brewery in perhaps the purest sense of the word.

In announcing the closure, Josh noted that "we watched our ingredients, equipment and labor costs increase. It was all too much". In the end, the finances of being a hyper local, community supporting brewery just couldn't sustain the business, when I interviewed Jasper Akerboom noted that "If you start a brewery, you are not going to get very wealthy". Prescient words perhaps.

Thankfully, the beer scene on the broader Delmarva Peninsula is not losing Josh entirely, and there is something new in works, and when it opens you bet your life I'll be trekking up past northern Virginia to get there - and how much I hope the corn lager will be part of this new adventure.

I am not generally a sentimental person when it comes to the business of brewing, but when it came to Black Narrows, I genuinely wanted them to succeed and thrive as their vision of what local, community, brewing means is something I can readily sign up for, where a company is not just a local brewery, but a brewery for locals.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Dark Thoughts Abound

Tmavé, the Czech style dark lager, has been on my mind a lot recently.

Not just because Morana is available at Devils Backbone Basecamp at the moment, I don't believe it is on at either of their other locations, Outpost in Lexington or Back Yard in Charlottesville, but hopefully it will be at some point. Also not just because I am planning to brew my own version of Morana, that I call Černý Lev (that's Black Lion for the non-Czech speakers), at some point in the nearish future as I have started doing decoction mashes with my homebrew. These two facts though are related to my pondering...but first a quick jaunt back in time, to last November.

I went back to Prague, which you probably know as I posted about some of the beers and pubs I went to, but I didn't write about every pub or even every beer I had in the pubs I did write about. While I did write about the perfect session at Hostomická Nelevarna, I didn't mention that I had a couple of half litres of Hostomice's delightful Fabián Tmavý 14°. To my mind it is one of the best dark lagers being brewed in Czechia today and certainly one of my favourites. As my group of friends and I discussed the finer points of Czech beer in general, it was mentioned that Fabián Tmavý is not a classic Czech dark lager, because the proportions of Pilsner and Munich malt are reversed.

In my homebrew version of Morana, which is basically the same other than using CaraMunich I rather than CaraBohemian, which I can't see to find in any of the online homebrew stores, the grain bill is:
  • 74% Bohemian Pilsner
  • 11% Munich
  • 11% CaraMunich I
  • 4% Carafa III Special
Initially, I was shocked at the idea of using so much Munich malt in a tmavé, but also deeply intrigued by how such a beer would turn out. I imagine it would be richer, with a deep malt character, a more intense breadiness, and would probably take an extra wallop of hops to give the balance I would expect. As I was pondering, and reading the Pivovar Hostomice description of Fabián Tmavý, a phrase jumped out at me, that I think I probably just glossed over previously, "Tmavé speciální pivo bavorského typu", which translates as "special dark beer, of the Bavarian type". The description continues...

"K výrobě tohoto speciálu bylo použito čtyř druhů sladů, což zaručuje plnou, výrazně sladovou, chuť a však bez sladkého doznívání většiny českých, tmavých, piv. Toto pivo je nečekaně výrazně chmelenoa výrazná hořkost udílí tomuto pivu nečekanou pitelnost. Tmavé pivo, které Vás překvapí."

Which translates as:

"Four types of malt were used to produce this special, which guarantees a full, distinctly malty taste, but without the sweet aftertaste of most Czech dark beers. This beer is unexpectedly very hoppy and the strong bitterness gives this beer an unexpected drinkability. A dark beer that will surprise you."

So, we still have the 4 types of malt, just with more Munich than Pilsner from what I was told, and big dose of hoppiness and bitterness to make the beer more drinkable. For reference, Morana has about 25 IBUs. I decided to create a new recipe for Černý Lev, taking into account the markers laid down by Hostomice, so here goes:
  • 70% Munich
  • 15% Bohemian Pilsner
  • 10% CaraMunich I
  • 5% Carafa III Special
  • 25 IBUs Saaz for 60 minutes
  • 13 IBUs Saaz for 30 minutes
  • 2 IBUs Saaz for 5 minutes
  • Saflager 34/70 Yeast
My aim would be to keep to 14°, as that seems to be the sweet spot of the modern tmavé, including the direct inspiration for Morana - the much missed Kout na Šumavě.

There is, however, a question that keeps pottering through my mind, and I am being vaguely cynical with this question. As I plan to get back into entering homebrew competitions this year, do I enter this particular beer in the Czech dark lager category or do I take my lead from Hostomice and enter it as a Munich Dunkel, given the phrase that this is a dark beer "of the Bavarian type"? 

Monday, January 8, 2024

Rauchbier Revival?

Tis January, so 2 things must be true, I am taking the month off the booze, and I am diving into the Austrian National Library's online newspaper archives looking at the sometimes weird, but often wonderful world of brewing in Central Europe prior to World War 1.

I really don't take a structured approach to my, ahem, "research", usually preferring to just to enter a keyword or phrase, select the publication I want to look at, and start scanning through images. Just a side note, I find these kind of publications so enlightening about the brewing, and broader, world at the time, as opposed to reading technical brewing treatises. In particular I love trade ads in journals like Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer, Gambrinus Brauerei und Hopfen Zeitung, or Saazer Hopfenzeitung und Lokaler Anzeiger as they give you a picture of the ingredients, machinery, and assorted allied products being made and sold in Central Europe.

Anyway, purely on a whim, I decided to see what I would get if I typed "rauch" into the advanced search, pre-filtering to Der Böhmisches Bierbrauer. There were 115 results returned, and so I decided to sort further by searching on "rauchbier" specifically, which gave me this single result from October 26th 1909:

The headline in bold there declares there is a "Re-emergence of "self-malting"", going on, quoting an article from Bamberg in the "Allgemeine Anzeige für Brauer und Mälzer" which, assuming the translation is reasonable accurate goes on to say:
"The depressed situation of the small breweries is now leading them to return to the old arrangement of malting themselves. Over the years, people have gotten used to getting the malt ready from the malt factory. Today's cheap (?) barley price offers the hand for a return to the old system and so the old Bavarian smoked beer will soon appear again. Whether this will prove successful remains to be seen in the future."

If this report is correct, smaller breweries in Bavaria were going back to malting their own grains because the cost of the raw materials was sufficiently low to make this economical again, rather than buying their malt from the likes of Weyermann, whose maltings is massive pile right next to the railway station in Bamberg.

What jumped out most to me though was that the relative low cost of barley could lead to the return of "the old Bavarian smoked beer". This raises the question then, did rauchbier die out in Bavaria in the latter 19th century and only revive when breweries starting taking back the ability to make their own malt, as, for example, Schlenkerla continue to do so to this day?

Another question this raises is, were malting companies such as Weyermann not providing rauchmalz and thus the beer died out? Was there customer demand for rauchbier to the extent that any other malting company at the time was providing rauchmalz?

As ever, more questions than answers at this point, but if we can take this report at face value, it looks possible that rauchbier as we know it today could so easily have gone the way of grodziskie, broyhan, and Braunschweiger mumme, but for the alleged fact that barley was cheap in the years running up to World War 1.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Pubs in AI

For those that don't know, my day job is as a Product Manager in the world of academic publishing. As with any other software based industry, artificial intelligence is becoming part and parcel of the work we do, so I spend a decent amount of time playing with various tools like ChatGPT, Bard, and DALL-E.

I had been messing about with Bing's DALL-E powered Image Creator for a few hours when I hit upon the idea of using it and ChatGPT in tandem, basically having ChatGPT to summarise a body of text into a prompt of fewer than 50 words to enter into Image Creator.

I decided to take the text of my post back in August describing my dream pub, and initially ChatGPT gave me the following prompt:

Imagine a North Atlantic dream pub with church-like simplicity, perched by the ocean. Picture a cozy interior featuring a great hall structure, discrete spaces, and a roaring fireplace. Capture the North Atlantic ambiance with clouds, sea bird cries, and the scent of the ocean. Envision a community-friendly space, welcoming children responsibly, with a wall of books and a local-focused drink and food selection. Embrace the comfort, camaraderie, and North Atlantic charm of this dream pub.

Image Creator then generated 4 images based on the prompt, of which this one I felt was closest to the prompt.

My initial thought with this particular image was that the church was too ornate for what I was thinking off when I described the simple Calvinist architecture of many a North Atlantic church, so I asked ChatGPT to refine the prompt further, resulting in:

Imagine a serene North Atlantic dream pub, its simple coastal church design nestled by the ocean. Picture a warm interior with a great hall layout, inviting spaces, and a crackling fireplace. Feel the North Atlantic ambiance with clouds, sea bird sounds, and the scent of the ocean. Visualize a welcoming community space, children embraced responsibly, featuring books, local drinks, and hearty food. Sense the comfort, camaraderie, and pure charm of this dream pub.

The best of the resulting images was this one, and it was definitely closer.

I still felt that the building was too grand, and too obviously a church, so I asked ChatGPT to target the kind of very simple churches you see in rural Iceland.

Envision a serene North Atlantic dream pub, mirroring the simplicity of Hellnar, Iceland's church. By the ocean, it offers a humble layout with cozy spaces, a crackling fireplace, and the North Atlantic's natural charm. A warm community space welcomes all, featuring books, local drinks, and hearty food. Embrace the comfort and camaraderie of this unpretentious dream pub.

Finally I felt as though the best image of the 4 provided got to the heart of the kind of pub I had in mind when I wrote my post.

I shared this image on several of my socials, and the reaction has been mostly positive, that this kind of pub would appeal to people that follow me.

Not wanting to rest on my laurels, I decided I would see if AI could give me an accurate image of a real pub I have described in a post, starting with a post from my last trip to Scotland in 2019, when I had a night out with Mrs V in the public bar of the Station Hotel in Alness. The text based prompt that ChatGPT spat out was:

Generate a nostalgic image of a traditional Scottish pub: teal blue doors, worn wooden interior, patrons enjoying Tennent's lager. Capture the lively atmosphere, groups of working men, and the couple at the bar. Emphasize the charm, gaming machine, and the essence of camaraderie in this Highland pub scene.

Bing's closest response was this.

Whilst not an absolute match, if you have spent any time drinking in a Highland hotel's public bar, you will definitely recognise the scene, and it actually makes me feel nostalgic for home.

With so many pubs visited over the years, I think that this kind of fun will be something I do pretty often. and see how the technology, and my ability to create prompts improves.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Fuggled Boozer of the Year

Originally I considered doing a "brewery of the year" but as I don't want to drag this year end review into 2024, or try you good folks' patience with endless posts about 2023, I ditched it and decided to just have boozer of the year as my final fling, especially as this year I have travelled outside the US a couple of times, so a rest of the world category is actually a possibility.

My definition of "boozer" here is pretty all encompassing, places where I can get a full serving of beer, whether that be a pint, half litre, or 12oz bottle, so brewery tap room counts as well as a cafe with decent beer selection. A Prague park bench at 2 in the morning with bottles of Bernard from the potraviny though doesn't count, mainly because it was bloody cold. Onward then to the places...

  • Caboose Tavern - Vienna
  • Devils Backbone Basecamp - Roseland
  • Patch Brewing - Gordonsville
Honorable mentions: Kardinal Hall - Charlottesville; Beer Run - Charlottesville

There are some places that are just special to me, and every single one of the boozer in this list are places I go to regularly and that I love drinking in. In several of them, I know the staff well enough that it is almost a stupid question as to what beer, or at least beer style, I want to drink. One place though stands out simply because I am convinced my drinking life over the last 14 years would be all the poorer if it didn't exist. I am talking, of course about the original Devils Backbone brewpub down in Nelson County. While the campus, for want of a better word, is far more extensive than it was in 2009, it has maintained the vibe of an Alpine lodge, especially when the weather is dreich outside and the fires are going. On our last few visits I have become somewhat misty eyed looking around at the now worn in and comfortable building and how much I love going there. It helps that Jason makes some of the best beer in Virginia, and founder Steve's vision is very much being honored to this day.

Rest of the US
  • Live Oak Brewing - Austin, TX
  • Olde Mecklenburg Brewing - Charlotte, NC
  • Savage Craft - West Columbia, SC
Honorable mentions: Hofbräuhaus - Pittsburgh, OH; Hunter-Gatherer Hangar - Columbia, SC; Scholz Garten - Austin, TX

I love beer gardens, especially beer gardens that have air conditioned tap rooms as well, which is basically every beer garden in the South. Life in this part of the world would be awful without air conditioning. I have a particular fondness for the kind of beer garden that has large mature trees that dapple the sunlight, water stations dotted around, a kids play area, and some of my favourite beer to boot. Every time Mrs V and I head to South Carolina for some family function, we drive within a mile of Olde Mecklenburg Brewing and their 8 acre beer garden in the heart of Charlotte. Now, every time we are driving to or from SC, we stop and stretch legs, have a beer, and let the kids run around for a while in the play area. We are so enamored with Olde Meck, that even though it is 4.5 hours into our 6.5 hour drive rather than the midway point, we always stop there, and look forward to it muchly.

Rest of the World
  • Hostomická nelevarna - Prague, CZ
  • U Slovanské lipy - Prague, CZ
  • Fjöruhúsið Hellnum - Hellnar, IS
Honorable mentions: Dobra Trafika - Prague,CZ; Únětický Pivovar - Únětice, CZ; Café Captein & Co - Amsterdam, NL.

No surprise here that the list is dominated by pubs in Prague, Czech beer culture speaks to my soul, and I always feel deeply at home in a traditional Czech pivnice, hospoda, hostinec, pick your Czech word. It is also not a surprise that the best boozer in the rest of the world is the place where I had my favourite session this year with my favourite people. Obviously then I am speaking about Hostomická nelevarna (sorry Evan), where my friends an I revelled in world class beer, great snacks, and the kind of time that only a great pub can produce.

That is also the reason that the Fuggled Boozer of the Year is also Hostomická nelevarna, a pub so small that I could in theory recreate it in one half of my garage if I had the skills. It is everything a proper old school boozer should be, unfussy, unpretentious, maybe a little rough around the edges, but with world class beer and the classic Czech vibe of being a place dedicated to the drinking beer with friends. 

Best Beer Ever!

Shock, horror, a new post at Fuggled! Yes, it has been a while, but mitigating circumstances, I have been heads down writing my first book, ...