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.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 4

The last two days of Mrs V and I's West Highland Way hike covered the 26 miles from Glencoe to Fort William, with an overnight stop in Kinlochleven. 26 miles of some of the most dramatically beautiful scenery anywhere on the planet. Rugged, moody, mountains, innumerable streams tumbling down the hillsides, lochs reflecting the ever changing sky, and, in the distance, the great hulk of Ben Nevis.

Before setting out from Glencoe, there were things to be dealt with, namely the blister that had been slowly building over the previous few days. It had got to the point where I couldn't actually get my boot on that morning, something had to be done. Given that hacking the entire toe off wasn't really an option, I made an incision in the blister and drained it thoroughly before Mrs V went into full on nurse mode and taped it up. Suitably booted we went up to the centre's cafe for a bacon roll, to discover to my joy that they had a full fry available, and so it was back to plates of protein and a pot of tea for breakfast. There really is no finer start to a day of hiking. Re-fuelled we headed out past the Blackrock Cottage, toward the Devil's Staircase and Kinlochleven.


The weather was perfect for hiking, cool, overcast, with the ocassional shower. Once I got going, the toe was fine, but if we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, getting going again was a pain that bordered on masochism. Sometimes though, you have to forget the pain and just revel in the countryside.


I have always loved this part of Scotland, and whether it when travelling home from university, Eastern Europe, or wherever I had been, it was when I got to Glencoe that I really felt back in my element. I love this part of the world, and still have a vague notion that one day I'll stop my wandering and find a place to settle among the mountains, preferably near the sea as well. The big challenge on this particular day would be scaling the Devils Staircase, which takes you to the highest point on the West Highland Way, about 1800ft above sea level, and affords you one hell of a view.


The rest of the day's hike is literally downhill, an almost dis-spiriting downhill at that as you follow the switchbacks into the valley with just tantalising glimpses of Kinlochleven itself. It was on this downhill trek that we ran in to Søren again, bedecked with new hiking shoes and as happy as the day was long having found an English chap to walk the way from Rowardennan with. As we continued on our way, Mrs V commented that she was glad to see Søren again and that he had found someone to walk with, soppy moment alert, but Mrs V really is a wonderfully compassionate soul.

Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill and headed for the centre of Kinlochleven in hopes of remembering where our guest house for the night was. Having failed miserably at the memory game, we popped into the Tailrace Inn to use the free wifi, and naturally slake the inevitable thirst that had built up. The Tailrace is a cozy little pub, just off the main drag, opposite the chippy, and with a draft selection that didn't really appeal in the moment, so I broke with my tradition and joined Mrs V on the cider, Bulmers I think it was, with an unnatural orange glow to it.


I drink much quicker than my lovely wife, so having located Tigh-na-Cheo, our room for the night, I went back to the bar for a closer inspection of the bottled selection, and joy of joys my old friend Bitter & Twisted was there. We would head back to the Tailrace that evening for food and another couple of pints, Bitter & Twisted being available in half litre bottles, before turning in for the night.

If ever you find yourself staying in Kinlochleven, Tigh-na-Cheo is a fantastic guest house, comfortable, a cracking fry in the morning, superb service (again with an Eastern European flavour, this time I think the staff were mostly Czech), and with an excellent range of bottled beer available on an honesty box basis, If you've spent the day hiking, they have absolutely massive baths, which are positively luxuriant after 6 days of just showers. Safe to say, Mrs V and I enjoyed our stay there.


The final 16 miles starts with a steep climb to make the Devil's Staircase weep, then on to the Lairig Mor pass that goes through yet more stunning countryside to Fort William. My feeble words can't do justice to the magnificence, so here's a few pictures instead.




It was walking through Lairig Mor that we needed our rain gear for the first time since Conic Hill as finally the famed Highland weather smashed into us, lashing us with driving rain and a stiff breeze that made limping along almost miserable, but for the growing sense of achievement of being on the final leg. Eventually you scale the last hill, just shy of Dun Deardail, and start the descent into Glen Nevis, with the Ben looming over you. We had originally planned to climb Ben Nevis the following day, but the state of my feet and the weather forecast put pay to that idea.

Coming down into Glen Nevis you are jarred back into civilisation as the final couple of miles are on a tarmac path into Fort William, past the original end of the hike, and along the high street to the official end. After 94 miles of mostly well maintained mountain trails, walking on tarmac again is a brutal return to the real world. Thankfully right next to the end of the West Highland Way there is a Wetherspoon's pub called The Great Glen. It seemed only apt for my first beer having completed the West Highland Way to be the Devils Backbone IPA, brewed specifically for Wetherspoon's.


My memory of the IPA is somewhat hazy now, and note taking wasn't really a priority with an aching body, and trying to decide where to have dinner that night, as well as the thought of the extra mile uphill to come in order to get to our accommodation for the night, an excellent place called Braeside House. I remember that it was very much an East Coast style American IPA, and that was just fine by me. We would return to the Spoon's that evening, having sat on a bench eating a fish supper, and a pint of Innis & Gunn's Craft Lager was downed with some disappointment, it was pretty dull stuff to be blunt, before taking ourselves off to the Grog and Gruel for a nightcap couple of pints from their beer engines. I don't recall what they were, but the condition was excellent, and the spot was duly hit.

When you take into account the getting to and from various guest houses, microlodges, and B&Bs, we must have walked close to about 110 miles in the 8 days we spent on the West Highland Way. The vast majority of pubs were exactly what I would expect from a Scottish boozer, and it was great to see beers from the likes of Harviestoun readily available pretty much everywhere we stopped. One thing that this trip reminded me of was that a good pub is not defined by its beer selection, its number of taps, or the hipness of the breweries they stock. Good pubs are places of banter, relaxation, and shared experience, good beer can help, but it's not a requisite. The night at the Climbers' Bar will stick in my memory for a long time as an almost perfect pub session, and they had all of 2 handpulls besides the more generic big brewery offerings, and the two hot toddies seemed to do the trick for Mrs V's sore throat.

Of course there was more drinking to be done while I was home, but we'll get there.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 3

Our stay in Bridge of Orchy made a nice break in more ways than just a comfy bed to rest our heads after a day among the hills. The folks at Taransay Cottage are vegetarians, and so breakfast didn't come replete with black pudding, bacon, and other sundry pork products, which was actually a welcome change despite being an unreconstructed meat lover. We had also spent the evening talking about hiking, music, and other stuff, so while I had a couple of bottles of beer, the only throbbing the morning after was the ever expanding blister on my toe.

I was really looking forward to the day's hike, we would be crossing one of my favourite places in Scotland, Rannoch Moor. Prior to our hike I had only ever seen the Moor from the A82, usually from the heights of a Skyeways bus (showing my vintage there!) to or from Uig heading to or from home, and I had always been enchanted by the expanse of empty moorland. Before reaching the moor though we had to cross Ben Inverveigh and pass the Inveroran Hotel too early in the day to be open. Having wandered past, cursing the time (as lovely as yoghurt, fruit, and bread is for breakfast, I was famished and wanted to keep my packed lunch a bit longer), we eventually came to Thomas Telford's drove road.


For those not versed in Highland history, the drove roads replaced the old military roads in the late 18th/early 19th century, and their primary purpose was to provide a better way for Highland farmers to drive their cattle to market in the south. It was on a remnant of that road that we would cross Rannoch Moor, and it was a bitch of a hike with my feet starting to scream with pain from my blistered toe, and a hot spot developing on the sole of the same foot. Still, the scenery was stunning and the actual hike not wildly difficult, but the relief as we started our descent into Glen Coe was palpable, and we noticed that there were still pockets of snow high up on the mountains.

We would spend the night in a microlodge, aka 'hobbit house', at the Glencoe Mountain Resort, where there is a cafe that sells beer, but we decided to drop our bags, shower in the converted shipping containers, and stroll off to the Kings House Hotel's Climbers' Bar. For those unversed in Highland hotel lore and custom, most hotels have a couple of bars, a lounge bar and a public bar. Lounge bars tend to be carpetted, upholstered chair affairs, while public bars tend more to the wooden floor and furniture. If you know me, you know where I much prefer drinking. Hotels also tend to insist that us grubby hikers of the world drink in their public bar, also known from time to time as a 'boots bar'.


Having wandered round the back of the hotel, for that is where hotel public bar doors usually are, I found myself looking straight into pub heaven. No carpets, solid wooden furniture, a hole in the wall bar with a couple of handpulls, and a bar back laden with single malt. Mrs V snagged a small table practically in front of the bar, next to a trio of climbers who had spent the day Munro bagging, while I got the drinks in, cider as usual for the wife, and a pint of Cairngorm Black Gold stout from one of the handpulls for me.


My previous experience of Cairngorm beer was when I was home in 2014, and while it was perfectly acceptable bottled, I wasn't left with any urge to find more of their beers. Black Gold though was in absolutely tip top nick this time, and it shone, The highest praise I can give it is that if you took my much missed Starr Hill Dark Starr Stout at its peak in around 2014, subjected it to proper cask conditioning, without the silly fripperies of bullshit additions, you would have Cairngorm Black Gold. It was divine, roasted coffee, dark chocolate, a silken mouthfeel, and as the drizzle floated in the glen outside, it was just the beer I wanted. The plan was simple, a couple of pints, a feed, and head back up the road to the hobbit house for an early night.

Well, that was the plan. The reality turned out rather different, though we did get the feed, and a bowl of whatever soup of the day was on certainly warmed the cardiac cockles. The plan, though best laid, started ganging agley while I was getting a second pint and Mrs V got talking to one of the chaps sat on the adjacent table, for some reason the bar staff were fannying about with the TV looking for football. As I mentioned in the previous post, Mrs V was starting to get ill and had taken a hot toddy in Crianlarich in an attempt to head off a sore throat, to little effect. I only caught snatches of the conversation as I stood waiting on the barmaid to give up with the TV, including advice to the effect that Irish whiskey is best used in hot toddies. A few moments later, with bread mopping up the remains of the soup, a toddy was placed in front of Mrs V, the lemon studded with cloves, something I had not seen before in a toddy.

Thus started a evening of banter, round buying, and being in a Highland bar at it's finest. With a few pints inside me, I decided it was time to indulge in my other barley based love, single malt. Behind the bar was Balvenie Caribbean Cask,a 14 year old whisky matured in rum casks, which goes very very well with cask stout you know. Rounds of whisky ensued, and eventually we had to head back out into the gathering gloom of a drizzled Highland summer night.

Weaving our way up the hill, easier said than done walking into the wind, the drizzle turned to rain, heavy and backed by a reasonable breeze, that made the final few hundred yards up the hill a struggle, honestly it was the wind and the rain, not the beer and whisky. Soaked and blootered, I passed out and slept like a bairn.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Session #114 - Roundup


For the August iteration of The Session I asked folks to go discover pilsners in all their glory, regardless of where they came from.

In Ireland, The Beer Nut went shopping for a blind three way tasting and found that identifying pilsners is no easy thing. Also Irish, though not in Ireland on the day of The Session, Reuben at The Tale of the Ale was actually in Plzeň, and wrote about the key ingredient for the eponymous beer, the water.

Pottering off further east, Jordan at Timely Tipple also took the core theme of my challenge to heart and bought a slew of pilsners to compare, and also reminded us that Evan Rail has written magnificently on the history of Pilsner Urquell. Meanwhile, the Bearded Housewife, who is currently in the Czech Republic "immersing [his] progeny in their Slavic legacy" took the time to remind us that for Czech folks there is only one Pilsner (a worldview that 10 years in the Czech Republic I have quite some empathy for).

Coming back to the Americas, Stan Hieronymous tells us about pilsners being brewed in St Louis, while in California Derrick breaks down another threesome of pale lagers.  Skipping up to Colorado (if memory serves) Tom Cizauskas from Yours For Good Fermentables uses Mozart as a simile for pilsner, and caused me to blush deeply when I read his post. Due south in Bolivia, Embracing Limitations praises contract brewed pilsners from Trader Joe's.

Finally, heading north to Canada, Alan has nothing to add.

I want to thank everyone that took part in this month's Session, and if I missed anyone, just add your link to the comments on this post.

UPDATE: Mike from Lost Lagers writes about one of my favourite beers right now (I was about to write 'favourite beers to drink' but what the fuck else do you do with beer?), Sierra Nevada's Nooner Pilsner.

UPDATE 2: I forgot to mention my own post, called 'Urquell and Not'.