Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To a T

I spent my formative teenage years living in the Outer Hebrides, in particular for the geographically challenged the bit in the red box in the picture:


The blue bit to the west of the islands is, obviously, the Atlantic Ocean. That blue bit stretches all the way to Canada with nothing between. It is not for nothing that the islands are often referred to as being on the edge of the world. I loved living there, and there are still times when I have moments where I think it would be good to go home and raise my boys the relative peace and safety.

Like most teenage kids growing up in isolated communities drinking started at a relatively early age, I think I was 14 when I had my first sneaky can of beer, nicked from a fridge at someone's house during a party at which parents were free to bring their kids along. I am not counting here the cider my parents would give us as younger kids, or my dad's homebrew that we would drink from time to time. There is something about that first illicit beer, as I say taken from the fridge when the adults weren't looking, that means more than all your parents' enlightened attitudes toward booze.

Most definitely among those first ill-gotten cans of nectar was Tennent's Lager, at a time when the cans still featured the Tennent's Lager Lovelies, scantily glad models that were probably many a teenage beer filcher's first crush. With said cans safely hidden in coat pockets we would head out to the garden and sit behind a dry stone wall, in the lee of the wind, and pretend like we knew anything about beer.

Such memories came flooding back when Boak and Bailey posted a story about them drinking Tennents when in Scotland recently, and so I resolved that on my trip home in July to do likewise. Thus it was that on the first Friday night in the Highlands, Mrs V and I left the bairns with their grandparents and wandered up to one of my favourite institutions, the public bar of a Highland hotel, the Station Hotel in Alness.

Entering through the hefty, weather beaten, teal blue doors you land practically on the bar. In keeping with public bar tradition there is no carpet, old school wooden floorboards are the order of the day. There is no fancy furniture, a few barstools, well used wooden tables around the periphery of the room, and equally well used wooden chairs. My kind of bar.

Dotted around the bar are groups of working men, ignoring the barstools entirely, standing just shy of an arm's length from their pints. At a table in the corner, a mixed group of Polish seasonal workers, in many a Highland public bar when there are ladies present in your group, you sit at a table rather than stand at the bar. Mrs V and I took up station at the short end of the bar itself, I like to be at a bar when I am drinking, next to the gaming machine, flashing with promises of paying your drinks bill for the night if you are lucky enough.

The Station doesn't do craft beer, doesn't really do local beer either if I remember rightly. I am not sure it would matter anyway, basically everyone was drinking Tennent's, which apparently accounts for 50% of all lager drunk in Scotland. I didn't bother with pictures of my pints, perhaps for fear of being called out as the metropolitan middle class softie I have become, or because it was irrelevant to being out with my wife on a rare trip sans enfants.

The first thing that strikes me is just how fizzy the pint is, though given the laser etched nucleation points on the base of the branded glassware, is it always that carbonated? Given the never ending stream of bubbles, the head pretty much stayed put, it was actually a rather alluring sight, and possibly the first time I had drunk Tennents and been able to see it.

Taking a first mouthful, my initial reaction was that if I was served this at an American craft brewery, either as a pilsner or helles, I would be pretty happy. Sure it is no Port City Downright Pilsner, but it is not a bad pale lager by any stretch of the imagination. The flavour is mostly a grainy crackeriness, somewhat similar to a Jacob's Cream Cracker, with a similar subtle sweetness as well. Am I allowed to say that it actually tasted of barley? That's a thing right? Hops are not a major component of the brew seemingly, but what was there gave enough of a clean bitterness to snap the malt to attention, as well as wisps of floral lemoniness that reeks of classic noble hops, you know, the ones from Central Europe.

Four mouthfuls in and the pint was gone, a fresh one on its way, then another, and another as we settled into the buzz and banter of the bar. At some point a pair of young girls came in, one with ID and one without, dolled up for a night on the town and pre-gaming before heading into Inverness. The gathered older folks, which Mrs V and I have accepted we are now part of, shared looks of recognition of days gone by, while the barman gave the IDless girl short shrift, and soon they were gone, while hands reached out for pints and the drinking continued.

I don't recall how many pints I had, maybe 8, but I did wonder, perhaps out loud and a tad overly loud as Mrs V and I walked back to my parents' place whether an avowedly craft bar is capable of such an atmosphere? Merrily buzzed and with no regret whatsoever for drinking Tennent's all night, I fell into a happy slumber that thankfully the twins didn't disturb until about seven thirty the next morning. I would drink Tennents again several times on the trip, each time knowing that I would miss it when I got back to Virginia.

Maybe it is the Tennents I miss, maybe it's public bars in Highland Hotels. Either way, that session will live on in the memory, despite no pictures.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Lager Doesn't Need You

Oh FFS, it's 2019, why does craft beer still feel the need to come out with this level of shite...?



So Stone Brewing, fresh from failing to revolutionise the German brewing scene with their, now sold on to Brewdog, Berlin operation, have decided that lagers "deserve flavor too"? How fucking gracious of them.

I wonder at times if there is a mine that delivers endless piles of marketing bullshit to breweries to simply reinforce the fallacy that seems common among certain sectors of the beer world that somehow lager is flavourless fizzy water (which is kind of ironic considering the nascent popularity of the "hard seltzer").

That lager is still used as shorthand for bland beer is sadly typical for for too many in the craft beer world, especially among the types that think everything needs a boatload of New World hops, or have the world "India" somewhere in its moniker.

I enjoyed a glorious lager last night, 8.3% abv, wonderfully dark, and brewed with only malt, hops, yeast, water, and nothing else. It was Olde Mecklenburg's Fat Boy Baltic Porter and it went with my wife's homemade apple pie an absolute treat. Most of my drinking since I got back from Scotland has been Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest collaboration with Bitburger, again a wonderful example of the lager arts.

Anyway, back to the original tweet from Stone, and to riff on their style of marketing, lager doesn't you to add flavour, perhaps you need to learn to appreciate the flavours and aromas of classic central European lagers. So give it a rest with the lager bashing, both obvious and insidious, and own the fact that the bottom fermented family of beer is as interesting and varied as its top fermented cousin.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2019

Picking up my dog from the in-laws in South Carolina after a trip to Scotland always feels like the beginning of the end of summer, something I am always grateful for. I am not much of a fan of summer, preferring the cool delights of spring and autumn, or in a particularly happy year, the cold and snow of winter - Narnia under Queen Jadis sounds fantastic to me. Another sign of the impending end of summer is mulling over the beers I have had in the last 12 months from Virginian breweries and coming up with my top ten...
  1. Port City Brewing - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). Normal service has been restored for my regular readers who may have been concerned that the last couple of years of this has seen the top spot taken by an imperial stout and a porter. Earlier this year my family and I has a weekend trip to Alexandria in Northern Virginia to visit my wife's cousin and her family, while in town we took the opportunity to visit Port City in the flesh for the first time. Thus it was that I had Downright Pilsner as fresh as fresh could be, and it was simply divine, singing with the lemon, hay, and oh so subtle spice of Czech Saaz hops. This beer is so painfully simple in terms of its ingredients, Pilsner malt, Saaz hops, water, yeast, but in doing things properly, including 6 weeks lagering and natural carbonation, it is process and attention to quality that make this beer stand out as the drinking highlight of the last 12 months in my world.
  2. Three Notch'd Brewing - No Veto Brown Ale (5.0%) . Last autumn I went on something of a bender. Not the traditional, all in one extended sitting, bender that is, perhaps going on a kick is a better description. I had a craving for a brown ale one rainy weekend, and thus started about 5 weeks of pretty much only drinking that style, and in the process revisting several beers that had been missing from life for a while. No Veto made a welcome return to the taps at the Three Notch'd brewpub right in the middle of that kick, and dominated it from there on in. Beautifully layered flavours of crusty bread, unsweetened cocoa, hazelnuts, and a light chocolate dance with richly earthy hops, with just a twang of a tobacco note in the mix as well. Given a quick stir to knock out the excessive carbonation so beloved of American drinkers, and some time to get it to cellar temperature and you have a simply wonderful wet afternoon tipple.
  3. South Street Brewing - Shake Your Teal Feather Pilsner (4.3%). I sometimes think I am a sucker for punishment. I see the words "pils", "pilsner", or even on occasion "pilsener" on a beer list and I know I need to try said beer. More often than not said urge leads to mild disappointment as the vast majority of craft brewed pilsners are meh at best. Thank god then for Mitch at South Street who knows his way round brewing an excellent lager. I ordered SYTF over my regular South Street tipple, took an obligatory large mouthful, none of your sipping fannying about in Fuggled world, and boom in an instant I was back in the Czech Republic. Two more mouthfuls, with a taste for Mrs V, confirmed that here was an absolutel belter of a Bohemian style pale lager. Singing with hops, the malt backing group added the necessary harmonies, and a finish that just screamed out for another mouthful. Yeah, it was that good, and all I drank for a while.
  4. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). As I said, Mitch knows how to brew a damned fine pale lager, and My Personal Helles is still probably the beer I drink the most of, I cannot say this enough, I freaking love this beer. It has got ot the point that often the folks at South Street are confused if I don't order it, and depending who is behind the bar on a given day, they don't even have to ask what I want.
  5. Alewerks Brewing - Tavern Brown Ale (5.7%). The other highlight of my autumn on the brown ale, and one that will be a feature of this autumn in all likelihood. When served at the perfect cellar temperature of 54°F, having been stored in our wine cooler at that temperature for a week or so, the complexities of the malt jump to the fore, a beautifully blended melange of sourdough bread, roasted hazelnuts, and cocoa, with caramelised oranges in the background. You often hear beer referred to as liquid bread, this was liquid bread with Nutella, lovely.
  6. Basic City Beer Co. - Our Daily Pils (4.7%). It was a Friday afternoon, I was at Beer Run in town using better wifi than I currently have at home, and this was the only beer on tap that wasn't some weird concoction, or Natty Boh, or Allagash White, which I wasn't in the mood for. Being unflitered there is a slight haze that reminds me more of a kellerbier, but the flavours were all on point and a second pint soon followed. Now if I see it on tap when I am out and about, I am a happy camper.
  7. Three Notch'd Brewing - 40 Mile IPA (6%). I know you are shocked that an American style IPA would make it onto the Fuggled list of the top 10 Virginian beers I have drunk in the last 12 months, but 40 Mile does something that so many IPAs simply do not do anymore, it gets the bitterness right. IPA is meant to be a bitter beer, not some juiced up wankfest for people who seem to not actually like the taste of beer, and yes there is a basic beer flavour. This was the first beer of 2019 for me, and also the first beer I wrote about for Flagship February. Coming back to this beer after several years of preferring other Three Notch'd beers was like seeing an old friend again. 40 Mile is everything a proper US IPA should be, a bit on the strong side, clean bitterness, firm malty backbone, and reeking with hop aroma and flavour. A classic.
  8. Stable Craft Brewing - Britchin Brown (5.5%). Yeah, brown ales need a moment in the limelight of their own, minus daft additions naturally. Stable Craft are a relatively new brewery, and Britchin Brown was on tap at a pub I frequent from time to time while I was in the middle of my brown ale kick. Once I had allowed it to warm up to a more reasonable temperature (seriously folks what's with the penguin feet obsession?), here was an excellently constructed version of the American brown ale style. Yes you get all the usual malt flavours associated with brown ale, nutty, chocolatey, and a trace of roastiness, but with Britchin Brown there is a clean refreshingness to it that makes it almost too easy to drink.
  9. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery - VIPA (5.2%). VIPA is described by Hardywood as a Virginia India Pale Ale, or even a "Virgindia Pale Ale". It is brewed with locally grown Virginian hops, Cascade I believe, and is an interesting study in the impact of terroir on hop flavour, yes you get the grapefruit and pine that is the calling card of Cascade, but there is also a subtle coconut flavour and aroma that is apparently unique to Virginian Cascade. The coconut characteristic just about makes it through into the drinking with this beer, and at only 5.2% it is a very drinkable, if not entirely sessionable, beer.
  10. Blue Mountain Brewery Full Nelson Virginia Pale Ale (5.9%). Another local brewery's flagship beer that I revisted during Flagship February and wondered to myself why I had ignored it for so long? Seriously hoppy at 60IBU, a good dose of which is a pithy bitterness that just seems to be missing from so many pale ales these days. While I would argue that at 5.9% this is not a sessionable beer, it is more certainly pintable, and goes especially well with the spicy chicken and waffles at one of my favourite brunch places in Charlottesville. Again, I find that this beer really benefits from being allowed to warm up to cellar temperature, and I don't recall it ever being available cask conditioned, but it would absolutely sing in that format.
I point this out every year, but this is an entirely subjective list based purely on my drinking in the last 12 months. If you have any recommendations of good Virginia beers I should hunt out and try, I am more than open to suggestion.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Well, so much for micro blogging July eh? Turns out the Blogger mobile app is a pile of dogshit and every post I attempted got hung up in the publishing process. Anyway, Mrs V, myself, and the twins are back from our month long sojourn to Scotland, so I have access to regular Blogger again - 2 step authentication is great, if your mobile phone actually gets text messages abroad.

One of aims while home in the Highlands was to stick as much as possible to local beer, and if that failed then to at least drink Scottish brews. The very, very, very minor midge in that ointment, was that my thinking ahead parents got me in some Timothy Taylor Landlord a couple of days before we arrived. One of my rules in life is to never say no to Landlord, and after 20ish hours of travelling, they went down superbly well.

Don't worry, I am not going to give you a blow by blow list of tasting notes of the various beers I enjoyed, and didn't, in my month back. One thing though that I did notice, and this may say more about me than it does Scottish brewing, but there seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of ABV and insanely wonderful drinking, somewhere in the range of 3.5-3.8% to be honest.

That range of alcohol seems tiddly when compared to the average craft beer being made in many a brewery in Virginia, 6.5% is pretty much the norm. Thankfully though I tend not to think of strength as a flavour or pre-cursor to my enjoyment, many of the worst beers I have ever drunk have been in that average craft beer range. Perhaps then it is a case that British brewers are just phenomenal at producing flavourful beer without boatloads of malt and the requisite hopping to avoid drinking syrup.

The highlights of drinking in this sweet spot were:

The beers listed are sold as an Edinburgh pale ale, session IPA, session blonde, and session pale ale respectively, so sessionability is a key part of the appeal, and there is not one of them I wouldn't happily spend the night on the sesh devoted to. Of the 4 only Inveralmond's frankly divine EPA doesn't focus on New World hops, if anyone ever slags off Goldings or Styrian Goldings then force this down their neck and watch them come to the light of truth.


When I finally get back round to having a pint now that the travelling is all but done, I am actually mildly concerned that nothing at the various brewpubs and bars I frequent will have the same appeal. I know that I will spend some time brewing variations on this theme, so I am not utterly bereft, but the absence of proper session beer in the US craft scene genuinely saddens me.


When I think of Lew Bryson's definition of a session beer topping out at 4.5% and that so many brewers sell "session" beers that go well north of that, I am forced to come to the conclusion that despite various well known outliers, session beer is unlikely to be a regular part of the craft beer scene. Whether that is a result of brewers being unwilling to make beers that are genuinely session strength or that a very vocal minority of drinkers advocate for the big, or unusual, stuff to the detriment of all else, I am not sure.


Thank goodness then for the homebrew store...

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Micro Blogging July

We arrived in the north of Scotland last night, via DC, Reykjavik, and Glasgow. Nearly a full day of travelling, we were knackered, and I was having a mild panic as I couldn't find my phone and losing it  would mean a serious amount of hassle.

Thankfully the phone was just in a different bag than I thought. I don't have reliable roaming this far north and I have 2 step authentication on all my Google accounts when logging in from a PC, hence I am declaring July to be the Fuggled Micro Blogging Month. I will use the Blogger app on my phone to write quick thought blogs and tasting notes, tapping away on the phone keyboard is a pain, especially as fat fingers is a reality.

Things with an off license close early this far north, so having whetted my whistle with a couple of Landlords over dinner I fancied another beer. At that point my mother mentioned that they had "a pudding beer from Christmas" in their cellar that turned out to be Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale, any port in a storm and all that jazz.

A timely reminder of why beers that say "flavoured with" are usually off limits to my world. God what awful swill. The "natural" toffee flavouring  had a taste that as it warmed reminded me of nail polish. Flabby in the finish would be an overstatement, think Austin Power's Fat Bastard post weight loss, yeah, gross eh?

Will not be buying this at World Market when we get to Virginia, that's for sure.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Big Brewing Comes to Town

Friend and fellow homebrewer Jamey Barlow sent me a link yesterday to an article in the Charlotte Observer about plans from the German brewer Gilde to open a brewery in Charlotte.

Gilde is a brewery from Hannover, a city that has a certain amount of resonance for me as when I was a kid it was near Hannover that my family lived. My father was in the British Army and he was posted to nearby Celle, and my little brother was actually born in Hannover. Recently while investigating our ancestry it seems likely that my dad's family came from Minden, again not too far from Hannover. Oh and I am going to Hannover in October for a few days with work, so that's fun eh?

According to the article, the brewery, which is part of the TCB Beverages group, Europe's largest contract brewer, will start with a 5000 sq. ft. facility they are calling The Embassy. The Embassy will seemingly be the first step toward a large production facility in a few years time, capacity is said to be half a million barrels a year in the production brewery - for context, that is about 40% of Sierra Nevada's current annual production at 2 breweries.

While it is exciting that a German brewery is setting up on this side of the Pond, I have to say that some of the quotes from Gilde CEO Karsten Uhlmann smack of an incredible arrogance toward the Charlotte brewing scene. One such quote is:
“We believe that obviously Queen Charlotte forgot to bring her beer (here) ... and we’re trying our best to correct this mistake”
Ignoring the fact that the queen consort to 'Mad' King George (the third of that ilk) never once stepped foot on colonial soil, it is also dismissive of the decade of German brewing that Olde Mecklenburg Brewing have been doing in the city.

Uhlmann also trots out the old canard about recipes having not changed for hundreds of years, to which I happily respond with a hearty "Quatsch mit Soße!". Gilde's current product range has the usual suspects, helles, pilsner, radler, usw, usw. Now, given pilsner was invented in 1842 and the first Munich helles was produced by Spaten in 1894, we're not exactly talking beers that date back to Gilde's 1546 establishment now are we?

I do however like the fact that Gilde intend to use their US brewery as a training ground in German brewing techniques, which I assume will mean decoction mashing, extended lagering, CO2 capture, natural carbonation through krausening, and a commitment to the highest of quality control processes, both in terms of ingredients and systems.

I have to admit that I don't buy into the shit that a rising tide floats all boats (seriously only a landlubber with a duck pond for aquatic adventures could believe that tosh). The economies of scale available to a half million barrel brewery will allow Gilde to undercut some of the smaller breweries in the Charlotte area, likely sinking rather than floating them.

My main hope is that Gilde's presence will further inflame an interest in central European beer styles, and that the likes of Olde Mecklenburg will see a boost from Gilde being around. I guess it also means that hunting out Gilde's beers while I am in Hannover is a must.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gaming It?

Competitions seem to abound in the beer world.

At times, it feels as though every brewery in the history of beer, which started sometime in the 1980s as well all know, has won at least one gong from some competition. Such is the sense of achievement for many that the cheap medal that comes with the award is often framed and hung proudly on the brewery tap room wall for all to see.

From what several brewers have told me, entering said competitions is not cheap either, and the price is only really worth it if you win a gong and can feast on the PR bump for a little while, especially if you win the much coveted "best in show", though a category level gold will also suffice.

Other than the Great American Beer Festival, most competitions appear to be judged mostly by amateurs, folks like me for example, and a day's judging beer with fellow amateurs can be great fun. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with amateurs being asked to evaluate a commercial operation's beer, but I have heard of plenty of instances where BJCP certified judges treat commercial beer like they would homebrew. For the record, I am not a BJCP judge and I have no ambition to part with that level of cash that could be better spent drinking beer.

Again from conversations with plenty of brewers over the last decade or so, most will produce small batches of beer specifically for a given competition. I guess that makes sense, I mean why send regular bottled beer that the consumers will be judging your brewing chops by? It stands to reason that you want the freshest beer possible, in tip top condition, one that hasn't been abused by distributors and retailers. If only there was a competition for distributors and retailers for their quality processes!

I guess from my tone that you have come to the realisation that I find the vast majority of beer competitions meaningless, a blinged up version of Ratebeer or Untappd basically, however there is one part of the whole charade that really bugs my head. Categories.

Competitions use whatever taxonomy of beer styles they feel is best suited to their goal, and some will use the GABF style guidelines while others use the latest BJCP offering. My gripe though is that no-one, it appears, ensures that the brewers are submitting to the appropriate category, everything is left to the capricious whimsy of the entrant. Thus you get situations where beers are winning gongs for categories that they are not marketed as.

A few years back a Virginia brewery made a great song and dance about a beer they sold to the general public as an "Imperial IPA" winning a gold medal in the IPA category of a competition. The competition in question had a separate category for "Double/Imperial IPA", though off the top of my head I can't remember who won that particular gold medal.

Perhaps I am being too much of a stick in the mud purist, but if you are going to market a beer as being in a given style, then you should enter it in competitions in that style category. A medal winning "Czech" pilsner with German hops and less than 15 IBUs is not a pale lager that you would find in the Czech Republic.

I am sure the following scene plays out in tasting rooms across the US, and maybe further afield too. A punter asks for a sample of something and the bartender says "this is our gold medal winning...insert style here". I guarantee that the punter is just going to assume that the gold medal is for the style the beer is being marketed as, and so will assume that the sample in hand is a good representation of the style, and thus the potential for misinformation increases.

Competitions can be useful for recognising the truly great brewers in the industry but when beers are winning gongs for styles they have no right to be representing then that brings down the level for everyone, and kind of feels like companies are gaming the system for cheap marketing.