Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Session Fizz

When I was home in the summer I drank almost exclusively cask conditioned ales, as well as a fair few bottled conditioned ales. If I recall correctly, I may have had fewer non-real ales than I have digits on my hands. I am utterly biased I admit, but cask conditioned ale is, for me, one of the heights of the brewer's, and cellarman's, craft.


When we landed back in Philadelphia after our holiday, we grabbed a couple of seats at a bar and ordered food and beer. My beer was Yard's Philadelphia Pale Ale, a beer that I actually quite enjoy, but after 3 weeks of Happy Chappy, Skye Black, and Kelburn Dark Moor, it was just too fizzy for me.


On Sunday afternoon some friends of mine came into the bar at Starr Hill, having just returned from a few weeks touring round the south of England. Taking in the delights of London, the New Forest, and the Cotswolds, and reveling in the pleasures of....cask conditioned ales in the pub. As we chatted, my friend commented on how much more beer she drank while in the UK than she would normally, and while part of that is likely to have been a result of the lower gravity of many of the beers, she also said that the lack of excessive fizz meant she didn't feel bloated after a few pints, which got me wondering about session beer.


I love session beers, as pretty much anyone that knows me will tell you. I can think of no better way to while away several hours than being sat in the pub, drinking low alcohol, flavoursome beers. For me though, a session starts after the fourth pint, which can be tricky when the beer it north of 6% and much fizzier than something properly cask conditioned, and no, putting still fermenting beer in a firkin with a slew of weird shit doesn't count, you could call it 'casky' in juxtaposition to the real thing.


My thought then is this, are cask conditioned ales more conducive a session, because they don't fill you up with excessive CO2 to burp and fart out along the way? Perhaps an extra, admittedly optional, criteria is required for the definition of session beer? Less fizzy than standard beers.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Hand Made Tale

One of the most common marketing memes amongst brewing companies is that their beers are 'handmade', 'handcrafted', 'made by hand', or some such term, often phrased in juxtaposition to something along the lines of 'not by machines'. This zythophilic ludditism plays very well with people looking for a more 'authentic' or even folksy view of beer, but it really doesn't fit very well with the everyday realities of working life in many a brewery.

Beer is, by its very nature, an industrial product, something that would never occur in nature, and the processes that go into making your pint, whether that pint comes from SABMiller or your local microbrewery, are heavily mechanised.


Let's start at the beginning. The mill, which crushes the malt so that the sugars and enzymes can do their thing in the mash tun, is a machine. I don't know of any brewery, regardless of size, out there that has its brewers use a pestle and mortar to crush their malt. Perhaps there are nanobreweries using the hand cranked barley crushers that many a homebrewer would use, but they still just hand cranking a machine.

Let's head then to the mash tun, where the grain will sit in warm water while alpha and beta amalayse do their thing to the starches in the grain. Here again machines come to the aid of the brewer in the form of mash rakes, which admittedly not all brewers have the luxury of. With mashing done, it's time to lauter and sparge the grains, pumping more water over the grains to extract more wort from the mash, pumps being machines.


I think you see my point, and I don't need to go through the entire brewing process pointing out where mechanisation is part and parcel of modern brewing. Ultimately the use of machines is an every day reality is the vast majority of breweries. Sure some may have more advanced systems involving hop chargers to automatically dose the boiling wort, but these tools don't impact whether or not the beer is actually worth drinking.

If transparency is really all that important in beer marketing then there are plenty in the craft segment of the industry whose marketing is guilty of deceiving the consumer. Claims that their beer is 'handmade/handcrafted' ring hollow when the truth is they use many of the same machines and technologies as industrial scale breweries.

I don't believe that the use of machines in a brewery impacts the flavour of a beer as much as the choice of ingredients, recipe, quality control processes, or the skill of the brewers themselves, but they do make a lovely straw man as a replacement for faceless corporations.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Homebrew for Hunger

Once again this year, our local homebrew shop, Fifth Season, is hosting a charity event called Homebrew for Hunger, which raises money for our local food bank. This year's event will be bigger than last year's, with 40 local homebrewers participating, as well as several of the local breweries.


Along with a healthy clutch of brewers from the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale, I'll be pouring a couple of my beers.
  • Genius 1883
  • Red Coat East India Porter
Genius 1883 is basically the recipe for Guinness Extra Stout that is in Ron Pattinson's magnificent book of historical recipes scaled for homebrewers. My version ended up being 7.5% abv, a deep inky black (obviously), and if the sample was anything to go by dangerously moreish, I think I will have to brew this one again for my own consumption over the winter.

Red Coat East India Porter is a variation on a beer I brewed a few years ago, just when Black IPA was starting to become all the rage. Basically it was a snarky project where I took the grain bill from Widmer's W-10, as it appeared in Brew Your Own magazine, and ditched the American hops for British ones to get the same numbers of IBUs at each addition. I then entered said beer in a homebrew competition and it took gold in the robust porter category, scoring 42/50 in the process. This time the hops are slightly different, gone is the Admiral, and in come Fuggles and First Gold, to play with the East Kent Goldings. This beer is a bit lighter than the Genius 1883 at 7.3%, but is just as dark. In terms of calculated IBUs it sits at around 67, and most of the hop flavour and aroma will be coming from the First Gold and Goldings.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a slew of brewers from CAMRA taking part including Jamey with a couple of variants of his Foreign Extra Stout and Kölsch available. Tom will be there with a chocolate milk stout, Patrick with a cocoa, chipotle milk stout and Double IPA, and Noelle, who brewed the fabulous Raucous IPA, with a breakfast stout and an IPA, as well as several other brewers, and the club's resident cidermaker, Kevin.

As you can see from the banner above, the even takes place on Sunday October 26th, and runs from 1pm to 5pm. Tickets are still available either online or at the shop itself. So, if you're in the Charlottesville area that Sunday, I would encourage you to come along, support the food bank, and drink some good homebrew beer!

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Greene King IPA

Quite some time ago, just a few months after I started this blog, I found myself sat in a pub in England. It was Christmas day, the last time myself and my three brothers were all together, dinner was done, and things were winding down toward the evening. My eldest brother and I took a stroll to the pub at the end of his then street for a pint or two. Stood at the bar, the options were somewhat limited, so I ordered a pint of Greene King IPA. Said pint didn't last but a mouthful or two, the smell of rubber carpet underlay was so strong that I gave it up for a pint of Guinness.

A couple of weekends ago, bimbling around our local Trader Joe's, I came across bottles of The King's English IPA, which according to the label is brewed and bottled by the very same Greene King. I hadn't bothered with the back label until Mrs V and I had got home, decided we were in for the day, and I figured it was time for a pint. I had bought two bottles, and polished them off with gusto, so when Mrs V and I were at our weekly shop yesterday I got another pair to see if it would become a regular in the cellar.


As for the beer itself, it pours a deep amber, bordering on red, topped off with a firm ivory head which lingered for the duration. The dominant aroma was toffee, laced with traces of cocoa, and just a hint of spicy hop aroma floating around in the background. Tastewise, the beer is a complex balance of bready malts, which come straight to the fore, only to give way to a sweet orange bite of hops. Balance really is the key word here, balance and a drinkability that belies the 6% abv.


As I savoured the last half pint of the latest pair of bottles I wondered at that pint of Greene King IPA in the English pub, as well as the Guinness that replaced it, and thought about the fantastic beers that bigger brewers are more than able of making. This Greene King IPA is like the Foreign Extra Stout to regular Guinness, something that makes you wonder why they bother with their uninspiring flagship.


Needless to say, The King's English will indeed be something of a regular in my cellar.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Viennese Whirl

I was running early for work, and by work I mean a shift behind the bar at Starr Hill, so I pottered into a supermarket near the brewery to peruse the beer selection, you know, just in case. In many ways it was a fairly standard Harris Teeter beer aisle, and fair play to them they generally have some good beer. In with the cases was Sierra Nevada's 'Fall Pack' mix case, a selection of 4 beers, 3 bottles of the Pale Ale, Tumbler, Oktoberfest, and Vienna. Having not had the Oktoberfest at all  or the Vienna in quite some time, I got myself one and drove off to work.

As I drove home after work, I decided that a blind tasting was in order. I recalled Sierra Nevada's Vienna Lager being rather nice when I had it on draft a few years back at a Beer Run tap takeover (they also had Torpedo on cask, and it is much better than the kegged product), so I decided to compare Viennas. To that end I got another couple of representations of the style, and with the aid of my beautiful assistant, Mrs V, set to comparing the following:
Here are my notes, in the style of Cyclops as usual.


Beer A
  • Sight - amber, large fluffy head, lots of carbonation
  • Smell - dominated by bready malts, light honey notes, some earthiness
  • Taste - juicy cereal/graininess, soft caramel like sweetness, gentle hop bite, clean
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
  • Notes - slightly slick mouthfeel, bit on the watery side but nicely refreshing

Beer B
  • Sight - orange/copper, large slightly off white head, no noticeable bubbles
  • Smell - grain, general sweet aroma, light toast, grass
  • Taste - clean malt flavour, bready, slight syrup, undertones of earthy hops
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
  • Notes - Slightly on the sweet side, medium bodied, nice carbonation, easy drinking

Beer C
  • Sight - rich copper, medium sized ivory head
  • Smell - some toast, juicy sweet honey
  • Taste - richly malty, honey/maple syrup, fresh scones, clean crisp hop bite
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
  • Notes - Complex array of malt flavours, balanced really well with a clean hop bitterness, refreshing and moreish, slightly slick mothfeel
Rather than try to identify the beers, I decided to just note the order in which I preferred them, and was as backward as C, B, A, which turned to be as follows:
  1. Devils Backbone Vienna Lager
  2. Starr Hill Jomo Vienna Lager
  3. Sierra Nevada Vienna

All three beers are perfectly drinkable, but Devils Backbone's Vienna, as befits a multiple award winning beer just stands out with its complexity. It really is one of the best lagers in general in the US in my utterly unhumble opinion.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Get Your Smokey On!

Tomorrow sees the release of a very exclusive beer at the Starr Hill tasting room, where, I am sure you are aware if you've been reading Fuggled or a while, I occasionally work behind the bar and give tours of the brewery. The beer in question is hopefully the first in a series of brews designed and brewed by the tasting room staff, and available only in the tasting room.

This first beer is a smoked altbier, brewed with Pilsner, Munich, and Carafa II malts, as well as mesquite smoked malt from the Copper Fox distillery in Sperryville, Virginia. In terms of hops we used Perle as a first wort hop, and for the bittering addition, with Hallertau for flavour and aroma. Rather than using Starr Hill's standard top fermenting yeast, we used the Wyeast German Ale strain, which is from Düsseldorf's Uerige brewery.

A few weeks ago at the monthly tasting room team drinkies we got to sample the beer before it sat in cold conditioning, and it was everything we wanted it to be. The smoked malt is evident, without overpowering the rest of the beer. The Munich malt adds body and a malt richness, and the hops balance everything delightfully. At 5.6% and a deep brown colour, this really is a fine beer for an autumnal Friday evening. It's only a shame there is no fire place in the Starr Hill tasting room.

The name of this august brew? Smokey Das Bier, and it will only be available tomorrow from 5pm at the tasting room in Crozet.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Let's Make Some Beer

I have homebrewed now since 2008, when my started with a very homely, cobbled together, 'brew  kit', back in Prague. As is in my nature, I have read, and read, and read books on homebrewing, from introductory texts to tomes of technical data about the various stages of the mashing process. I never tire of reading about brewing and gleaning new ideas, thus I got a copy of 'Make Some Beer' by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, the founders of the Brooklyn Brew Shop.


Subtitled 'Small-batch Recipes from Brooklyn to Bamberg' the book has about 35 recipes, inspired by breweries around the world, as well as ideas for food to pair with the beers. The recipes themselves are designed to make a single gallon of homebrew, and there are scaled up versions for those doing 5 gallon batches. The recipes are clearly written out, with clear instructions for performing the various stages of the brewing process. However, there are no technical details such as original gravity, calculated IBUs, and other useful numbers.

Rather than being a dry collection of homebrew recipes, anecdotes are littered throughout the book, providing back stories to each of the recipes, and giving the reader a sense of the writers' personality.

Overall, 'Make Some Beer' is a well written, diverse collection of interesting recipes and stories. While it may lack some of the technical details of other homebrew books, it is an easy resource to dip into when looking for an idea for a recipe, and I look forward to scaling some of the recipes up to my own small batch size of 2.5 gallons.