Friday, December 19, 2014

Beers, Breweries, and Pubs of 2014

I toyed with the idea of following the format of the Golden Pints this year, but almost pissed myself laughing at the thought of nominating an 'American Cask Beer' of the year, such is the parlous state of beer's finest, and most natural, form of presentation on these shores. So, I figured I'd stay with my tried and tested categories of pale, amber, and dark, further divided by region - Central Virginia, the rest of Virginia, the rest of the US, and the rest of the World. I am also including brewery and pub categories this year. So without further ado.....

Pale
  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Grey Ghost American Pale Ale
  • Rest of VA - Port City Downright Pilsner
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  • Rest of World - Cromarty Happy Chappy
  • Honorable Mentions - Timothy Taylor Landlord, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted, Three Notch'd 40 Mile

This year was really difficult to decide from the two front runners here, both of which I drank plenty of, though on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Three Notch'd are pretty much my go-to brewery these days, their core lineup is excellent and that always makes me sure to try their more experimental stuff, because I have trust in the quality of their beer overall. When we were in Scotland over the summer, I think I drank more Cromarty Brewing beer than any other, as they blend the hopping of the New World with the sessionability of the British tradition to make beers which are the best of both worlds. As such, the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2014 is Cromarty Happy Chappy, a simply magnificent beer that I am still working on producing a decent clone of so I don't have to wait until I next get to Scotland to enjoy more of.

Amber
  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Hydraulion Irish Red
  • Rest of VA - Ardent American Mild
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Rest of World - Kelburn Dark Moor Mild
  • Honorable Mentions - Greene King The King's English IPA, Skye Red, Cromarty Atlantic Drift, McEwan's Scotch Ale
Much easier this year was choosing my amber beer of the year, even though it is more of a dark amber than some beers, but there we go. I polished off several pints of Kelburn Dark Moor while sat in the Bon Accord one afternoon in Glasgow. There is only one word to describe this beer, delicious.

Dark
  • Central VA - Devils Backbone Schwartzbier
  • Rest of VA - Lickinghole Creek Enlightened Despot Russian Imperial Stout
  • Rest of US - River Rat Hazelnut Brown
  • Rest of World - Skye Black
  • Honorable Mentions - Isley Brewing Tall, Dark, and Hopsome, Black Isle Oatmeal Stout
If you are a regular Fuggled reader, I hope you are sat down. My dark beer of 2014 is something that most people I know wouldn't even consider me liking. Enlightened Despot is a Russian Imperial Stout aged in Pappy van Winkle barrels. One day in early summer, Mrs V and I went to Lickinghole Creek Brewing and sat with a large block of farmhouse Cheddar, freshly baked crusty bread, and we sat and drank this unctuous potent brew in the peace of the Virginian countryside. It was quite simply, divine.

Fuggled Champion Beer

My overall best beer of 2014 was a revelation, a beer that I just wanted pint, after pint, after pint of, and several times on my trip home to the Highlands I did exactly that. Whether sat in the Cromarty Arms, the Castle Tavern, or the Phoenix, the very site of a Cromarty Happy Chappy pump clip was enough to make up my mind.


Breweries
  • Central VA - Three Notch'd
  • Rest of VA - Port City
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada
  • Rest of World - Cromarty
  • Honorable Mentions - Hardknott, Fullers, Lickinghole Creek


This is actually pretty simple, even though there are some great breweries on that list, producing magnificent beers. It is simple because it all comes down to which brewery I trust the most to produce the kind of beers I like drinking, flavourful, balanced, moreish. That brewery is Three Notch'd.

Drinking Holes
  • Central VA - Whiskey Jar, Charlottesville
  • Rest of VA - Mad Fox, Falls Church
  • Rest of US - Flying Saucer, Columbia, SC
  • Rest of World - Bon Accord, Glasgow
  • Honorable Mentions - Tin Whistle (Charlottesville), The Brixton (Washington DC), Castle Tavern (Inverness)


I was only at the winning pub for a matter of hours, but it was love at first pint. I wrote about the Bon Accord here.

So there we go, that was the highlights of my drinking in 2014, not a bad way to mark my 900th post on Fuggled.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Return of the Mole

March seems so long ago, it's been that kind of year, busy, busy, busy.

It was back in March that I spent a day with the folks at Blue Mountain Brewery bringing a recipe for Burton Ale from 1923 back to life. A few weeks later Sensible Mole saw the light of day. I really enjoyed the beer, rippingly bitter but with enough residual sugar so as not to feel like your tongue was being savaged by coarse grain sand paper.

Given the historical aspect of the project, we were drinking Burton Ale mild, that is, young. However, a goodly proportion of the brew was stashed away in the most neutral bourbon barrels that Taylor and company had at the Blue Mountain Barrel House. There is has sat for the best part of 9 months and aged.


Where Sensible Mole was mild, the barrel aged version is old, Old Burton Extra could could call it, and if you were a Londoner drinking it in the 1920s, that's likely exactly what you would call it.

I am not entirely sure what to expect with this version of the beer. I imagine it will pick up some faint whiskey notes and a trace of vanillin from being in the barrels. The intense hoppiness must surely have lessened in the interim, though the bitter bite will, I think, still be there. Will the beer have picked up any light oxidation from the aging process? I would like to think so, especially if it lends the beer some sherry like notes. In short though, I have no idea what to expect.

Sensible Mole OBE makes its debut this Friday at the Blue Mountain brewpub in Afton, and yes I'll be making my way out there to try it and maybe get a sense of the kind of beer my great-grandfather might have drunk in the 1920s whilst telling war stories with his friends.*

* My great-grandfather was an Old Contemptible who went to France in 1914 as part of the Rifle Brigade, saw action at places including Mons and Ypres, eventually he came home in 1916 when he was wounded in action.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Session: Who Do I Think I Am?


This month's Session is being hosted by Ding, and is based around the theme of who are we in our beer 'scene', or to put in in Ding's own words:
"So, where do you see yourself? Are you simply a cog in the commercial machine if you work for a brewery, store or distributor? Are you nothing more than an interested consumer? Are you JUST a consumer? Are you a beer evangelist? Are you a wannabe, beer ‘professional’? Are you a beer writer? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? Where do you fit, and how do you see your own role in the beer landscape?"
I am not really a fan of excessive introspection, which is perhaps odd for an introvert, but when I look at the beer milieu in which I find myself, it becomes clear that I have irons in plenty of fires.

Obviously I have this blog, which I have been writing since 2008, when I still lived in Prague and was delving into the wonderful world of Czech beer beyond the confines of Gambrinus. Writing this blog has afforded me lots of opportunities which I doubt I would have had without it; being invited to brewdays at breweries; working on recipes for breweries; being trusted to design and brew a beer for a local brewery. Would I have met as many interesting, informed, and knowledgeable people if it weren't for Fuggled? Some of the people I have met since I started Fuggled I am sure I would have met and become friends with anyway, but would I have had experiences like hearing people I had never met talk about how they went to that particular pub because of this blog they love called 'Fuggled', obviously not. Would I call myself a beer writer? I am not sure really, it is true I write about beer, and not just in this forum and medium, but it is something I do just because I enjoy writing, not something I do for a living, so I'll let others make that distinction.

If you've followed Fuggled for any length of time, you'll know that I also work for a brewery, Starr Hill Brewing in Crozet, just down the road from Charlottesville. I work in the tasting room, pouring flights, giving tours, talking about beer. It's work that I very much enjoy, especially when people comment about the 'gregarious Scotsman with a wry wit' who gives a great brewery tour. Working behind the bar often makes me wish I had my own pub, where I could have total freedom to run my bar as I saw fit (though I'd likely go bust pretty quick because I would probably serve almost exclusively real ale, which is a tricky sell over here).

Even a cursory following of Fuggled will tell you that I am a homebrewer, involved in my local homebrew club, and all that entails.

I am not someone who 'loves' beer or is 'passionate' about hops/malt/yeast. I have got over the ridiculous notion of youth that I need to go about bashing people over the head with a beer Bible and evangelise them into drinking 'craft beer'. Random side note, my favourite quote from the original Fever Pitch film is that football fans are 'like bloody missionaries, they bore you to death until you give in then they fuck off' - which actually sounds a lot like many a self proclaimed 'beer evangelist'.

So yes I brew, serve, and write about beer, but the most important thing in my opinion when it comes to my 'place' in the beer world is that I am a pubcentric beer drinker. I am a man who can think of nothing he would rather do than sit in a good pub, with a pint of something that meets my standards for good beer, with or without friends, and just enjoying the taste of well made, flavourful beer. I will do flights and samples mainly so I can find something I want a pint of, ticking and its online equivalents is not something I really understand.

So that's who I say I am, first and foremost I am a beer drinker. That I am an opinionated gobshite of a beer drinker is kind of secondary.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Things I Wish For

A quote from Jeff's latest post over at Stonch's Beer Blog:
There are quality breweries in London that produce beer that's reasonably priced, presents well in the glass and tastes not only good but is also consistent.
In that one sentence Jeff has set the bar for beer in every locale as far as I am concerned:
  • reasonably priced
  • looks good
  • tastes good
  • consistent
Not too much to ask for is it?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Oh Really?

Czech beer and brewing maestro Honza Kočka posted a link on his Facebook account about pioneers in the British 'craft' beer scene, which you can see here. Most of it is the usual innocuous waffly bollocks, but one particular sentence caught my attention, a quote from the CEO of Majestic Wine:
“Craft beers bridge the gap between wine and beer. People want something specialist and more interesting so we are moving away from sales of mass-produced beers."
Again this association of 'craft' beer with wine is presented, and as ever it misses the point.

Craft beer is not a 'bridge between wine and beer', craft beer is just beer. Pure and simple.

If you want your beer to be more like wine then I would suggest that you don't have a 'passion for beer' or whatever vacuous pile of shite you want to spout this week. Craft beer, micro beer, macro beer, mass-produced beer. It's all fucking beer, so stop with the 'it's like wine' nonsense.

This isn't to say that beer doesn't 'deserve the same respect' as wine (whatever that daft shite means), but can we stop with the comparisons for fuck sake and actually be proud of, and celebrate, beer on it's own terms.

Repeat after me:
Beer is beer, wine is wine.
Beer is not wine, wine is not beer.
Let beer be beer, let wine be wine.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

More 'Innovative' Shit

Checking through my Facebook news feed this morning, I came across a story on All About Beer concerning Stone Brewing's latest 'innovative' offering as part of their Stochasticity Project, an 8.8% Imperial Golden Stout.

My immediate thought was 'great, more marketing driven bullshit', though perhaps not for the reasons you think.

I have no problem with the concept of a golden stout, for the simple reason that my understanding of beer and its history stretches back beyond the 1970s and the 'craft beer revolution'. You see, the word 'stout' as pertains to beer originally meant 'strong', it didn't necessary mean 'dark, Irish, with nasty nitro cream head'. As such, you could drink stout ales that were pale in the 17th Century, and while they may not have been as pale as we understand them, they were sufficiently pale so as not to be dark.

I noticed in some of the comments on the Facebook post a claim that the term 'imperial stout' was itself a tautology, and again I lament to myself that the word 'imperial', much like the word 'India', has been co-opted to mean something that it didn't originally mean in the context of beer. Imperial stout was those strong dark beers shipped to the Russian Imperial court by English brewers, imperial didn't mean 'strong', stout did.

On the All About Beer story itself, is the following line, which is the one that really got my goat:
One of the great things about American brewers is their willingness to experiment. This is a perfect example of that ingenuity and determination.
A more accurate version of that would be:
One of the great things about American brewers is their willingness to take old forgotten styles, tweak slightly, and flog at a premium price. This is a perfect example of that.
Sure it might be a tasty beer, but let's not imagine that it is actually innovative, or anything new, or that adding cocoa and coffee to a strong pale ale makes it in any way a stout as we understand them today.

If you want a proper Stout Pale Ale, you should try Durham Brewery's White Stout, which I drank in the UK over the summer, it was delicious.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Crafting A Double Standard

In a piece of news strangely reminiscent of last week's, Green Flash Brewing have purchased a small brewery called Alpine Beer.

The press release punches all the right buzz phrase necessities, respecting culture, values, integrity of the beer, blah, blah, blah.

What we have here is a successful business buying another successful business because they think it will benefit their business.

Thus has it ever been, thus will it ever be.

The reaction though among the beer drinking and commenting masses? Crickets, other than a few comments about looking forward to being able to get Alpine Beer outside their heartland market.

Now, if someone could explain to me the difference, in anything other than scale, between Green Flash's purchase of Alpine and A-B's buying out 10 Barrel, or even Duvel Moortgat buying Boulevard Brewing, without resorting to stock in craft trade phraseology (you know the kind of thing, they are buying it because they are passionate about beer, or some such vacuous tripe), I would be seriously impressed.

What we are now seeing is the consolidation of the brewing market, as Big Craft cherry pick small breweries, and industrial scale brewers do likewise with regional brewers. As such, can we please get past the romantic notions and simply accept that the brewing business is exactly that, a business, and businesses will do what is best for them to survive and thrive.