Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Going For An English

I seem to have a thing for underappreciated, and in some cases misunderstood, beer styles. There are, in my unhumble opinion, few pints that I enjoy more than an imperial nonic glass filled with mild, pilsner, or porter. I especially enjoy them when said beers are straight up versions of the style rather than some craftified wank with additional ingredients in some vain effort to be 'innovative'. Perhaps the most underappreciated and simultaneously misunderstood, at least here in the US, of my favourite beer styles is the family of bitters; ordinary, best, and extra special.

Obviously I am fortunate in many respects that my favourite local brewery, Three Notch'd, brews Bitter 42 every year. Bitter 42 is a best bitter that I designed and is inspired by my favourite pints of best from the UK, Timothy Taylor Landlord and Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. Speaking of Bitter 42, if I remember rightly is should be hitting the taps again in a month or two.

Anyway, this post is about wandering around our newish Wegmans and deciding to do a comparative tasting of all the English pale ales I could lay my hands on, and that were still in date. Thus it was that I wandered out of the shop, pushing a trolley that as well as the usual groceries included the following:
Before getting into the beers, I quite often get asked by folks what the difference between an English Pale Ale and a Bitter is, to which I usually respond 'nomenclature'. If I have understood the history correctly, the breweries called the beer a pale ale while the drinkers referred to it as bitter. Simples (and if I am wrong I am sure Ron, Martyn, et al will correct me).

On to the beers then, starting with the lowest ABV....


Black Sheep Ale
  • Sight - rich orange/amber, solid half inch of ivory foam that lingers, bit of chill haze
  • Smell - oranges, honeyed toast, slight lavender
  • Taste - honey on digestive biscuits, tangerines, some spicy hop character
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
  • Notes - Slight metallic note in the finish, but generally wonderful balance, something that makes you long for a day's cricket at Headingley


St Peter's Organic Pale Ale
  • Sight - golden, thin white head, almost like a pilsner
  • Smell - little bit of funky weed straight out the gate, Jacob's Cream Crackers
  • Taste - crackers, clean hop bite, slightly vegetal
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
  • Notes - really dry finish, with bitterness that builds with drinking, resulting in a tannic tea character that's really pleasant.


Fuller's London Pride
  • Sight - dark amber/copper, half inch of cream white foam
  • Smell - that Fuller's smell, you know what I mean, orange marmelade
  • Taste - toffee and toast, slight grassiness, all wrapped up in that Fuller's flavour
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - beautifully balanced, though not as enjoyable as the cask version, still bloody marvellous


Samuel Smith's Organic Pale Ale
  • Sight - deep copper, quarter inch of ivory head
  • Smell - bread, herbal hops, light citrus
  • Taste - scones fresh from the oven, dulce de leche, toffee
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - smoth, almost creamy, fuller mouthfeel than the other beers
4 variations on the theme of an English pale ale, all of them very nice, though I have a clear and distinct favourite. Black Sheep Ale has long been something that I pick up in bottle shops whenever I see it, and it seems our local Wegman's has it pretty much all the time, so I'm picking it up more often now. I do wish more breweries stepped out of the mainstream and made bitter over here, not including all the overly sweet ESBs that do the rounds come autumn and Christmas time, and while bottled beer never lives up to the glories of cask, I'm glad I can get my bitter on whenever the mood strikes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Original Budweiser?

Look at this label.


Clearly the label dates from the period of Budweiser's history when it was brewed by Anheuser-Busch for Carl Conrad's company, C. Conrad & Co. As such it belongs to the period between 1876 and 1882, when Conrad went bankrupt and the brand become the property of Anheuser-Busch in their own right.

I find this label fascinating for one simple reason, the description of the beer, which reads, for those unversed in German:
"Budweiser lager beer, brewed from the finest Saaz hops and Bohemian malt for C.Conrad & Co..."
Why is that interesting? The use of Saaz hops and Bohemian malt for a start, and also the absence of rice, beechwood aging, or anything else that modern Budweiser is well known for.

Was Budweiser originally an all malt lager, made with Czech hops? If that were so, it certainly sounds much closer to the Czech lagers I came to love in my decade in Prague. That in itself raises further questions, when did rice come into the picture, and when did they switch to German hops instead of Saaz?

If anyone has definitive answers I'd love to know.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Blackwall in Bottles, and Harrisonburg

As I wrote about in my previous post, today sees the release of my new beer with Three Notch'd Brewing.

Blackwall London Porter will be on tap at the Charlottesville tasting room from opening time today. It is also being released today at their tasting room up in Harrisonburg, to my shame I am still yet to get out to Three Notch'd there, hopefully one day soon.

I mentioned on Monday that the beer is also being bottled, a first for my various brewing projects, though today's launches are draft only, so here's a sneak peak at the label.


When Dave at Three Notch'd told me the beer was going to be bottled, he asked me to come up with some ideas for the label. The only thing I knew I wanted on the label, without a doubt, was the part of the London docks where Blackwall actually is. The map used on the label dates from 1852, tying in with the era of porter I was looking to recreate. Three Notch'd use a local design company called Okay Yellow to do their label work, and I think they have captured my intention perfectly.

To say I am excited about today's release is an understatement.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Blackwall London Porter

On April 26th 1607, three ships came sailing into the Chesapeake Bay, they were the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed, and in their bowels lay the genesis of both the United States and the British Empire. These intrepid souls had set out on their journey on the 20th December 1606, setting sail from Blackwall in London, and sailing via the Azores and the Caribbean. Eventually the 105 men and 39 sailors would establish Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the then new world.

Blackwall is an intrinsic part of London's history as one of the great ports of the world. Not only did the colonists that established Virginia set sail from Blackwall, so to did Martin Frobisher in his search for the North West Passage, and it was here that the East India Company would build its ships to travel to the fabled Orient. By the 19th Century, Blackwall Yard was lending its name to a new type of ship that replaced the East Indiaman, the Blackwall Frigate, and eventually got into building steam ships as London held on to its position as the pre-eminent entrepot of the age.

What does this have to do with beer? Well, it was around this time last year that I got an email from the guys at Three Notch'd Brewing letting me know that we needed to find a new name for Session 42 because a brewery that is not even in the Virginia market has decided to trade mark the term 'session' and was doing what American craft breweries seem to do best and threatening legal action. One of the names that popped into my head at the time was Blackwall Best Bitter, but eventually we decided to go with Bitter 42. However, I really liked the name Blackwall, and given the history tying that part of London with Virginia, I decided to brew a porter using the name.

Now, as anyone who knows their beer history will tell you, porter didn't exist in 1606 when Christopher Newport and his crew set out from London, so doing a 17th century 'porter' was out of the question. Thus I came to the 19th century, when arguably London was at its peak, and the beer being drunk by the mass of people working in the docks and moving all the goods from place to place was porter.


I didn't want to just take a recipe from Ron's excellent book of homebrew versions of historic beers, but I did use it as my primary source for learning about the ingredients and their proportions for my recipe. Thus I settled on this as my interpretation of a 19th century London porter:
  • 53% pale malt
  • 30% brown malt
  • 15% amber malt
  • 2% black malt
  • 32 IBU of Fuggles for 60 minutes
  • 15 IBU of Fuggles for 30 minutes
  • Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale Yeast
According to Brewtoad, this would give me:
  • OG: 1.069
  • FG: 1.020
  • ABV: 6.4%
  • SRM: 32
  • IBU: 47
Happily the trial batch turned out pretty much as I wanted it to, and next Thursday will see a much bigger batch being released by my friends at Three Notch'd. If you're around the Charlottesville area, head out to the tasting room around 6ish and give it a bash. Apparently it will be available in bottles as well, so take some home and wait for winter to actually turn up to drink it by the fire!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Public Service Announcement: Sierra Nevada Recall

A friend of mine posted a news article on my Facebook feed this morning about a Sierra Nevada recall that has been issued, so in the interests of public safety I figured I'd also post about the recall, just in case folks haven't seen it yet.

Apparently there is an issue with some of the bottles coming out of the Mills River brewery in North Carolina. According to articles I have read, there are a limited number of bottles which have a defect that causes them to lose carbonation, and possibly also break on opening - with the attendant risk of that piece of glass falling into the bottle and potentially causing injury if unwittingly drunk.

The beers impacted by the recall are:
  • Pale Ale, bottled between December 5th and January 8th
  • Torpedo Extra IPA, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Tropical Torpedo, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Sidecar Orange Pale Ale, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Beer Camp Golden IPA, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Otra Vez, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Nooner Pilsner, bottled between December 5th and January 13th
  • Hop Hunter IPA, bottled between December 5th and January 13th

For more details on the recall itself, see Sierra Nevada's website.

Thankfully the bottles of Narwahl I was given by Mrs V's cousin while we were in South Carolina over the holiday period are unaffected, and I don't think I actually have any other Sierra Nevada beer in the house at the moment, but do please go and check your stashes.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Angry Ill-Informed Snobs Ahoy!

Several of my friends work for Devils Backbone, on the business side of things as well as the brewing. They are all really nice people, and I love it when I have the opportunity, or more usually the happy accident, to hang out with them and talk beer. You would be hard pressed to find a more knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and generally positive bunch of folks, and it helps that Jason shares my love of decocted and bottom fermented beers.


Yesterday, one of my friends was visiting another brewery taproom in Virginia, whose beer and staff are apparently awesome, and she was wearing her Devils Backbone sweater as the weather has been a little cold of late. On seeing said Devils Backbone sweater, some customers in the establishment began to harass my friend, including this delightful comment:
"Fuck those corporate sellouts, and fuck you for working for a bunch of overrated corporate dicks."
Charming eh?

Of course the root of this animosity is last year's news that Devils Backbone are now partially owned by AB-InBev, I am not aware of the full details of the deal but I vaguely recall hearing that AB-InBev don't own the entirety of Devils Backbone. If I am wrong I am sure I'll be corrected soon enough.

It would appear then that in the mind of some craft beer purists it is acceptable behaviour to accost someone you do not know, verbally abuse them, and basically be a total twat of a human being because that person works for a successful brewery. Part of me wouldn't be too surprised if the wanker in question used to drink lots of Devils Backbone beer and is all butt hurt because of the sale, or has a palette so refined that they can taste the corporate structure in the beer.

Whichever way you look at it, and I can understand people choosing to spend their money on whichever brewing company is most acceptable to them, this is completely unacceptable behaviour, the kind of thing you would expect in the school yard from 7 year olds, not from people legally old enough to drink.

One of the things I love about Devils Backbone, and the folks that work there, is that they live by their motto 'beer positive', craft beer fans would do well to do likewise.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Mysteries of the East

I have been pondering what to do with this year's International Homebrew Project, especially with 70% of respondents to my little poll over in the right rail saying they would take part depending on the recipe.

As I was looking back at previous years' projects I realised that we have done several styles without ever tackling the most popular craft beer style, India Pale Ale.


That then will be the theme for this year, but don't worry I don't expect you to do a Pete Brown and traipse your homebrew on a ship from Burton to India via Brazil. I am going to avail myself of some historic IPA recipes and then run another poll to decide which one gets the nod.

If you are one of the 7 folks that said your participation was dependent on the recipe, please leave a comment on this post about whether India Pale Ale works for you.