Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Pedant's Dilemma

I have been drinking quite a bit of a certain beer style of late. No, not mild ale, though I have enjoyed a fair few of those so far this month, especially the Three Notch'd 'Method to Your Madness'. Nor is it lagers, though the most recent iteration of Devils Backbone Morana is a delight to savour, and South Street's Back-to-Bavaria dangerously drinkable. Nope, I have been drinking a lot of a beer style that really brings out the pedantic purist in me. Session IPA.

My current favourite is Lickinghole Creek's wonderful 'Til Sunset, 4.7%, moreishly hoppy, and a beer I would happily drink all summer if need be. Then there is Founder's All Day IPA, a similar story, and also South Street's Conspicuous Consumption. It's as though American craft brewers suddenly realised that hoppy beers need not also be imperialised to shit and that people actually like a drink rather than just a collection of tastings (cynical side note, I wish they'd also learn to do the basics of proper cask conditioning before fucking around with nonsense ingredients and chucking them in a firkin).

What then draws out the pedant in me? The style name itself really (another side note, how come 'session IPA' got a style of its own on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate so soon after being invented, but the 19th century Bohemian tmavé tradition was lumped with Dunkel and Schwarzbier until recently?). What the hell does 'session IPA' even mean?

Clearly most of these beers fail to meet the definition of a 'session beer' being stronger than 4.5% abv, and 'IPA'? Does that even have any meaning at all anymore as it has been bastardised and had any meaning beaten the shit out of it? Then there is the question of how a 'session IPA' really differs all that much from a standard American Pale Ale?

But there is, I think, a solution to my ire, and I am sure I am pissing into the wind with this, but here goes anyway. 'Session IPA' is, in reality an Americanised version of the great English classic, the Extra Special Bitter. Look at the style guideline numbers for ESB:
  • ABV: 4.8-5.8%
  • IBU: 30-45
  • Colour: 8-14 (deep gold to deep amber)
Look familiar?

And the GABF description?
ESBs are amber to deep copper colored. Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures. Fruity-ester aroma is acceptable. Hop aroma is medium to medium-high. The residual malt and defining sweetness of this richly flavored, full-bodied bitter is medium to medium-high. Hop flavor is medium to medium-high. Hop bitterness is medium to medium-high....The overall impression is refreshing and thirst quenching. Fruity-ester and very low diacetyl flavors are acceptable, but should be minimized in this form of bitter.

It's almost that as though the IPA driven craft beer world is taking another leaf from the Anheuser-Busch playbook, except instead of the word 'light' they are using the word 'session' (the other leaf being opening multiple breweries to deliver fresh beer to different locales - nothing new in that, the big boys did for the very same reasons decades ago).

What would be wrong with calling them American Special Bitters?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Session #99 - Roundup

Well, that was the Session that was, and this is the round up that is. The theme for Session #99 was on localising mild, and we got an interesting array of responses.

Over in Ireland, The Beer Nut got 'historically pedantic' and pointed out that most modern beer would be considered 'mild' due to the focus on freshness. Staying in Ireland, The Drunken Destrier suggests than making an 'Irish' mild would largely be an exercise in dropping the booze on an Irish Red Ale while asking the question 'do we want or need a 3-4% ABV red/brown ale with little hop character and low gravity?' Meanwhile, my good friend Reuben of The Tale of the Ale, aka 'johnny come lately' on account of his post being a week late, suggested the possibility of going native with an Irish mild by using 'bog fauna like heather and bog myrtle', an idea I have to admit I like, being a fan of Williams Brothers and their collection of historical ales.

Coming back to this side of the Pond, Sean Inman of Beer Search Party wondered how to create a mild that would appeal to a 'Brit living in L.A.' as an homage to both the homeland and the locale. Fellow VA blogger, American Mild Month co-conspirator, and all round good top bloke, Tom Cizauskas took to Yours For Good Fermentables to discuss 'The Audacity of Mild'. Jon at The Brew Site suggested a pumpkin mild for the US or a manioc mild in Brazil, before telling us about a beer called Murican Mild. Stan Hieronymous points out that beer can also be localised when it is 'part of the local fabric'.

Up in Canada, Alan, of A Good Beer Blog, took the opportunity to compare the situation for mild drinkers today with that of the last time mild featured as a topic for the Session. In the southern reaches of the Americas, Bolivian homebrewer The Brewolero engaged in an 'imagination exercise' for localising mild to the ingredients available in East Asia, in particular Cambodia and Vietnam.

Heading over to mainland Europe, Joan Villar-i-Martí of Birraire tells us that mild is not a popular style among his fellow Catalans. Skipping up to Berlin, Joe Stange wants to 'abstract the mild' so that it can fit in his sitz im leben, wherever his leben is sitzing at that time.

And there we have it. Thanks to everyone that took part! If I missed your post in the roundup, let me know and I'll rectify that as soon as possible. Cheers people!!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Session 99 - Homebrew American Mild

This month's Session is hosted by, well, me! My theme for this month is around 'localising mild', tying in with the American Mild Month project that I started and that kicks off today, with 46 breweries around the US committed to having mild available for May.

I work in the software industry and localisation is something of a common theme for companies selling their software to different countries and cultures, and it was sat in a meeting one day that I realised that beer has a long history of localisation. For example, in the wake of Josef Groll creating Pilsner Urquell brewers across the world saw there was a market for pale lagers in the Pilsner vein, and so they took to trying to reproduce the original in their own context. Out of the original Pilsner came the German Pils, American Pilsners, and arguably even beer styles like Helles, Dortmunder Export, and modern light lagers, all of them variations on a theme that made the best of local ingredients to create something akin to the original. Thus pilsner was localised, the same could be said of IPA in the modern era as well.

In my own homebrewing I like to make localised versions of the British beer styles I grew up on and still enjoy to this day, such as best bitter, Session 42 for example is a best bitter made with entirely US ingredients, and most especially of late with dark milds. Last year I dipped my toe into a localised dark mild with a beer whose malt bill was American 2 row, Victory, Chocolate, and Black malt, the hops were Chinook, Northern Brewer, and Cascade, and which weighed in at only 4% abv. I probably overdid the hops a fair bit because it lacked the balance I was looking for.

This weekend I am planning to brew an American Mild, as I am now calling them, to conform to the guidelines laid out in the American Mild Month post 'An American Mild?'. The beer is tentatively called 'Mild Mannered Merican' and is as follows:
  • 66% US 2 Row Pale malt
  • 13% Victory malt
  • 13% Caramel 120
  • 6% Flaked barley
  • 10 IBU Calypso hops for 60 minutes
  • 5 IBU Calypso hops for 15 minutes
  • Safale US-05 yeast
According to my brewing software that should give me a 4.5% abv beer that is a rich copper bordering on red colour, and veers to the sweeter end of the spectrum, though I find using US malts also makes the beer a bit drier and crisper, so it shouldn't be cloying. I like Calypso hops for the tropical fruit flavour rather than the grapefruit thing of Cascade and Amarillo, as well as a trace of strawberry in the background. The clean nature of American ale yeast will hopefully let the balance of malt and hop really take centre stage to make it eminently drinkable.

Mild is in many ways in a similar situation today as porter was back in the 70s, neglected, almost forgotten, and ripe with brewing opportunities. With more and more beer drinkers wanting session beers, perhaps its time has come once more and in localising mild to the ingredients and tastes of a new audience, there will be a renaissance of this wonderful beer style.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finally - #IHP2015 Truman's Double Stout

This past Saturday, Mrs V and I hosted a little soiree at our place, ostensibly to christen the patio we had built last autumn, but it pissed down from about 11am so we were restricted to the kitchen, which is where the best parties happen anyway.

At the beginning of the day I wasn't sure whether my version of the 1860 Truman's Double Stout would be ready. Having tired of bottling batches of beer, I have started using my 1 gallon cubitainers, which I refer to as 'caskitainers', more and more, and I had 2 caskitainers of stout sitting in my cellar. As I say though, I wasn't sure if I wanted to inflict the beer on friends without having tried it myself, beyond the sample from packaging the beer, which was pretty damned delicious.

A few jars to the good later, I decided to throw caution to the wind and pulled out my little homemade beer engine and the first of the caskitainers. With everything hooked up, I poured myself a sample...

My goodness, this was nice. Huge great dollops of bittersweet chocolate, kind of like the 1lb bars of Belgian dark chocolate you can buy at Trader Joe's. In the background lingered a roasty bite that stopped the beer from being cloying, and the came through in the finish an assertive hop bite. The body was full and luscious, bordering on lascivious, and the densely creamy head could almost convince the unknowing drinker that it had been served through an abomination nitro tap, actually there was a little kink in the line which caused an effect not unlike a sparkler, the natural way to drink cask ale anyway.

Suitably emboldened, I offered our friends glasses of the beer, which went down very well, much to my relief, and so we finished off a caskitainer and a half. Thankfully I still have half a cask in the beer engine, and with no extraneous oxygen getting in, should still be in fine fettle when I finish it off tonight...

Every prospect pleases, and I might have to brew more of this.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Praise of Contract Brewing

Most Saturday mornings I do the weekly shop, often while Mrs V is running more miles than I care to imagine. It's become something of a semi-regular routine, she runs, I go to Trader Joe's in Charlottesville. I like Trader Joe's in general, and not just because they have good Nurmburger bratwurst actually from Germany, or because they have a pretty good cheese selection, there's just something nice about shopping there, especially right at opening time when it is quiet. Our local branch also has a reasonable beer selection.

Thus it was I decided I should try all Josephsbrau beers they had a available and got single bottles of their hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, Bohemian lager, Vienna lager, and Spring Prost maibock. Over the past week I have drunk them all and found them all to my liking, and in that I am really not surprised. As I understand it the beers I bought are brewed under contract by Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, and in my experience Gordon Biersch brewers are well trained and reliable, Jason Oliver at Devils Backbone being a prime example.

With the price of independent beer seemingly climbing ever upwards, with scant regard sometimes for the beer actually being worth drinking, it is good to know that I can get a six pack of well made, quality beer for $6.50 rather than $10.

This all got me thinking about contract brewing and that it is actually a good for consumers when stores are contracting good 'craft' breweries like Gordon Biersch for Central European styles, Firestone Walker for the Mission St series, and Unibroue for their Vintage Ale. It is good because it means that well made beer doesn't have to become the preserve of those who can afford it. It's also something of a challenge to craft beer in my opinion, in that breweries need to justify the price of a six pack in quality terms to make me willing to spend the extra 42%.

So let's have more stores taking a leaf out of Trader Joe's book and having their own brands of beer, made by reputable breweries with a focus on quality and reasonable price. Oh and while they're at it, perhaps Traders could sign up a brewery to make a best bitter for them? Timothy Taylor for example....

Friday, April 10, 2015

Announcement for Session 99 - Localising Mild

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. (You can find more information on The Session on Brookston Beer Bulletin).
The topic for May's edition of The Session is Localising Mild.

Each May CAMRA in the UK encourages drinkers to get out and drink Mild Ales. This May is the first, as far as I am aware, American Mild Month, which has 45 breweries, so far, committed to brewing mild ales. Of those 45 breweries some are brewing the traditional English dark and pale mild styles, while a couple have said they will brew an 'American Mild', which American Mild Month describes as:
a restrained, darkish ale, with gentle hopping and a clean finish so that the malt and what hops are present, shine through

An essential element of the American Mild is that it uses American malts, hops, and the clean yeast strain that is commonly used over here. Like the development of many a beers style around the world, American Mild is the localisation of a beer from elsewhere, giving a nod to the original, but going its own way.

That then is the crux of the theme for The Session in May, how would you localise mild? What would an Irish, Belgian, Czech, or Australian Mild look like? Is anyone in your country making such a beer? For homebrewers, have you dabbled in cross-cultural beer making when it comes to mild?

The first Friday of May is also the first day of May. May Day, or International Workers Day, and it is apt that a beer style closely associated with the industrial regions of England should be the theme for the Session. Have at it folks!

To participate in the Session, write a post on the topic of Localising Mild, and leave a comment here with a link to your post on or before May 1st 2015, and I will include it in my Round-up.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

#IHP2015 - How Not To Get Project Done

There is a carboy in my basement filled with a wonderful looking black liquid that promises much, if the raw wort was anything to go by. The carboy is still holding my version of the International Homebrew Project 2015 beer, a double stout from the 19th Century originally brewed by Truman's in London.

I have no defense other than being mildly frustrated that the Prime Dose bottle conditioning product from Northern Brewer is out of stock (an excellent product that has cured all my packaging woes, and works great for cask conditioning as well!) and I haven't seemed to find the time for packaging beer of late, including the Extra Alt-Pils that is still in the lagering tank!

Anyway, while I may suck at shit done and organised, others do not, including Szabolcs from Hungary who wrote about his version of the beer here, as well as taking some seriously nice pictures.

If any of the other brewers that made the beer have written up posts about their versions, drop me a line or put a link in the comments.

As for me, I will package it one evening this week into my little casks and write about it in a couple of weeks once it is properly conditioned.