Monday, October 14, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Josephsbrau

Having seen off the challenge of Spaten, Josephsbrau Oktoberfest from Trader Joe's hoved into view.

I am happy to admit to having a soft spot for the Trader Joe's range of contract brewed beer, where else can you get thoroughly reliable, solid central European lagers for under $6.50 a six pack? Of course, the lagers are brewed by Gordon Biersch, and while they may lack the sex appeal of trendy breweries, I have never once had a bad beer from them, they just do them right, and do them well.

But how would it stand up to the beer that is the only annual release I keep an active eye out for?


Once again with the Cyclops:
  • Sight - pale copper, nice white head that lingers and leaves a lovely bit of lace
  • Smell - tangerine citrus hops, toasted teacake, some herbal notes
  • Taste - juicy sweet malt character, fresh scones, firm citric bitterness
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
What a cracking beer this is.

Let me tell you a story, last weekend Mrs V and I took the boys to the Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia's Eastern Shore for their first camping trip. Along for the trip was my good friend Dave, his wife, and their son who is only a couple of months older than our pair. Dave and I drink a lot of beer together, and we have been caning 12 packs of Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest like nobody's business this year. Indeed, we polished off another one on Friday night, having got the tents sorted and the children to sleep. On the Saturday, we started on the Trader's beer, though admittedly I waited until the sun was down to start drinking, and the consensus then was that Trader's is a more drinkable beer.

It is, then, on that basis that Sierra Nevada has been knocked off its perch in the Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off. Josephsbrau Oktoberfest is simply delightful and unlike other seasonal beers that folks describe as "drinkable" it doesn't fall into the bland trap.

The king is dead!


Long live the king!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Oktoberfest Crown Challengers - Spaten

So....where did we leave it? Oh that's right, from my perspective the winner of the Fuggled Oktoberfest Taste Off was Sierra Nevada's collaboration with Bitburger. As is the way of things though, the shops suddenly had more beers bearing the Oktoberfest label and so I knew I had to find a way of incorporating those into things.

The plan then is simple, a series of head to head tastings and whoever is left standing at the end will be declared the Fuggled Oktoberfest of the Year, a prize so unmatched in prestige that it is quite literally priceless, oh ok then it has no monetary value.

The first contender was Spaten's Oktoberfest, marketed as the "Ur-Märzen", the original Märzen, it seemed only natural to start things off with this.


Using the Cyclops beer evaluation tool, here's my thoughts on Sierra Nevada
  • Sight - copper, medium white head, nice lacing
  • Smell - toasty malt, light brown sugar, floral hops
  • Taste - slight peppery hop note, toasted teacake, nicely clean bitter bite
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
There is a reason I have drunk a lot of this since it came out in August, it is damned delicious. What then about the challenger?

  • Sight - rich orange with red highlights, firm white head, good lacing
  • Smell - sweet grainy malt, subtle honey, citrus and spicy hops
  • Taste - soft toffee, caramelised grains, a bit indistinct
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Ok, so it is a nice beer, good balance leaning more toward the malt, and with a nice clean finish. The problem with it though is that it is just rather forgettable.


Sierra Nevada then holds onto their crown...but other challengers are lining up.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - The Final

The final four.

Originally my intention had been to have a pair of semi finals followed by a final and third place play off, kind of like the World Cup, but I changed my mind.

On Sunday morning, Mrs V and I, with the twins in tow decided to go to the Somerset Pasture Party being held just up the road from us. Basically the "party" is an exhibition of vintage steam and gas powered contraptions, and with sons that get all excited at trains we figured they'd enjoy it too. We had also arranged to meet up with my good friend Dave and his wife Ali, along with their son, who is slightly older than our boys.


Once done with choking on wood and coal smoke, thank god for what remains of the EPA and the Clean Air Act frankly speaking, we all decamped to our place for lunch and drinkies. With the ladies in the kitchen preparing lunch, the kids watching cartoons and/or playing with toys, I decided to split the bottles I had for the four remaining beers with Dave and choose a final ranking for them. The final four, as a reminder, were:
We decided to rank them purely on the basis of personal preference rather than comparing to any particular style definition, especially as from the picture you can see that they cover a range of colours and interpretations of "Oktoberfest" lager.


Our initial rankings were:

Dave
  1. Goose Island
  2. Ayinger
  3. Sierra Nevada
  4. Samuel Adams
Al
  1. Sierra Nevada
  2. Ayinger
  3. Samuel Adams
  4. Goose Island
Other than both having Ayinger as our second favourite, everything else was up in the air. Dave had Goose Island ahead on the basis that it was not as interesting a beer as Ayinger and Sierra Nevada and therefore something he was likely to down plenty of in a sitting, I had it last because I thought it was not as interesting as the others and I would get bored after a couple, same justification, different outcomes.

We both agreed that Ayinger was a really complex, interesting beer, very different from the American beers, but excellent drinking. The question was whether we would want to drink it by the litre? Both of us said that a couple of pints would be fine, but eventually we would end up with palette fatigue.

Between us I think we have probably drunk well in excess of 120 bottles of this year's Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, and we both love it. I put it first because it would be something I could drink plenty of, and have done so far this year, without getting bored. Dave put it just behind Ayinger because Ayinger was more interesting and if he was just having a couple then he would go for the Ayinger.

It sounds terrible to say, but both of us thought Samuel Adams was just "meh". It's ok, not terrible interesting, not terrible, but also not something either of us would happily down a 12 pack of together on the deck, the sweetness we agreed was one dimensional.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, we asked our respective wives to try our first choices and let us know their thoughts, but Ali preferred the Goose Island, and Mrs V the Sierra Nevada. Birds of a feather and all that jazz.

So we decided to have a policy of horses for courses. If you are having a session and don't want to think too much about the beer you are drinking, go for the Goose Island. If you are having a session and want a beer that doesn't just fade into the background, go for the Sierra Nevada.

While Sam Adams will not likely make another appearance in my fridge this year, the Ayinger most certainly will as I found that I really enjoyed it, even though it was much more "old school" märzen than the moodern, paler, Oktoberfest lager styles. I can imagine using it in many late autumn and winter recipes, especially for soaking fruit for a cake, or in my roasted garlic and onion jam recipe that I plan to make again soon.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - To The Final Four

And so the 16 became 8...

Time for the quarter finals of the Fuggled Oktoberfest taste off. Once again I did this blind, with Mrs V choosing at random numbers for the draw and them bringing me the quarter finals in whatever order suited her whimsy. The quarter finals were:
  • Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier vs Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Port City Oktoberfest vs Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Samuel Adams Octoberfest vs Paulaner Märzen
Unlike the first round, which if you are interested you can read about here, I am going to include my tasting notes for the quarter finals, as ever using the Cyclops beer tasting template designed by a friend of mine, and these are in the order Mrs V gave them to me, winners in italics.

Samuel Adams Octoberfest vs Paulaner Märzen


Samuel Adams Octoberfest
  • Sight - light red, large ivory head, good clarity and head retention
  • Smell - unsweetened cocoa, toffee, light lemony hops, bread crusts
  • Taste - bready malt, light toffee, subtle spicy hops, just a touch thing
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Paulaner Märzen
  • Sight - copper, small white head, decent retention, very clear
  • Smell - grainy malt, cotton candy, herbal hops
  • Taste - Smooth, doughy bread, grassy hops, balanced but lacking bite, touch lemony
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Although the Sam Adams was a bit thinner than the Paulaner, the lack of a clean snappy bite really counted against the German beer.

Port City Oktoberfest vs Goose Island Oktoberfest


Port City Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, thin white head, lingered
  • Smell - light citrus, cereal, slightly toasty
  • Taste - toasted crusty bread, some grassy hops, subtle citrus, slightly dull finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, thin white head
  • Smell - orange citrus, bready, toffee, floral hops
  • Taste - toasted muffin, flower meadow hops, some subtle spice, very nicely balanced
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
A surprise here in Goose Island winning over Port City, but it had more going on, especially in the aroma department, and the balance in the finish was very good.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Devils Backbone O'Fest


Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Sight - deep orange, tight ivory head, excellent retention
  • Smell - toasted cereal, light cinnamon, bready malt
  • Taste - brown sugar, juicy sweet malt, citrus hops, subtle lemon and lime, clean finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Sight - amber, large fluffy head, excellent retention
  • Smell - English toffee, toasted biscuits, light lemon
  • Taste - rich toast, honey, bit thin in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Sierra Nevada takes the tie here as a far more complex and flavourful beer, O'Fest is good, but not up to Sierra Nevada.

Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier vs Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen


Hofbräu
  • Sight - deep gold, solid white head, good retention
  • Smell - weetabix, light citrus
  • Taste - boiled grain, metallic hops
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen
  • Sight - rich amber, firm white head, superb retention
  • Smell - crusty bread, toast, subtle spice
  • Taste - honeyed malt, sweet bread, toffee, lovely clean finish
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
Ayinger was in a league of its own here, like a proper homemade fruitcake compared to the sweet confection that masquerades as fruit cake come Christmas time.

And so we have our final four, and I have to admit a couple of surprises here, I really didn't think Goose Island and Samuel Adams would make it this far. How did they fair? Come back Friday...

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Oktoberfest Taste Off - Round 1

I am not entirely sure I thought this one through.

Sitting watching the idiot box with a glass of Von Trapp Oktoberfest in my hand, I decided it would be a fun idea to get my grubby mitts on every Oktoberfest I could in the Charlottesville area and try to decide which was the best one.

I ended up with 18 beers, it would have been 19 but Beer Run have been out of Von Trapp Oktoberfest ever since the notion popped into my head. The 18 were:
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Port City Oktoberfest
  • Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest
  • Devils Backbone O'Fest
  • Blue Mountain 13.Five Oktoberfest
  • Goose Island Oktoberfest
  • Schlafly Oktoberfest
  • Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen
  • Paulander Oktoberfest Wiesn
  • Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier
  • Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
  • Weihenstephaner Festbier
  • Benediktiner Festbier
  • Brothers Craft Festbier
  • Samuel Adams Octoberfest
  • Brooklyn Oktoberfest
  • Legend Oktoberfest
To whittle this down to 16 beers for a knock out style first round, I gave the beers each a number and had Mrs V give me 4 numbers at random for a pair of qualifying ties, which ended up being:
  • Great Lakes Oktoberfest vs Schlafly Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest vs Brothers Craft Festbier
Rather than taking notes for the qualifying round, I drank each beer blind and made my decision as a pure beauty contest, figuring that I would pay more attention to the beers themselves in the competition proper. Thus Sierra Nevada and Schlafly made it through. Despite Great Lakes and Brothers Craft being sent home early, both were perfectly decent beers, though Great Lakes was sweetener than I like for a lager beer. With capricious whimsy completing the first round, we made the draw:
  • Ayinger vs Blue Mountain Brewery
  • Benediktiner vs Port City Brewing
  • Hacker-Pschorr vs Devils Backbone Brewing
  • Hofbräu vs Brooklyn Brewery
  • Paulaner Märzen vs Legend Brewing
  • Paulaner Wiesn vs Goose Island
  • Weihenstephan vs Samuel Adams
  • Sierra Nevada vs Schlafly
To keep this as blind as possible, the inestimable Mrs V randomly picked the ties to pour and didn't tell me which beer was which for each pair. I did take some notes for round 1 but outcomes were heavily influenced by which beer I preferred, so rather than bore you to death with my tasting notes (and honestly how many times do you want to read "malty"?), here are the pictures, with the victorious beer in bold.

Hofbräu vs Brooklyn Brewery


Weihenstephaner vs Samuel Adams


Paulaner Wiesn vs Goose Island


Paulaner Märzen vs Legend


Benediktiner vs Port City


Hacker-Pschorr vs Devils Backbone


Ayinger vs Blue Mountain


Schlafly vs Sierra Nevada


A couple of takeaways from these results. I was really surprised that Samuel Adams made it past the first round as normally I find it way too sweet for my tastes. There were some seriously difficult decisions here, had I been doing this with friends fisticuffs may have ensued, it was that close, in particular the Ayinger vs Blue Mountain and Schlafly vs Sierra Nevada ties.

This weekend I will do the quarter and semi finals, having bought extra bottles of any of the beers that I need. Tempted to run a poll on what people think will win...

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.