Wednesday, July 1, 2020

NoVA Franconia

Whether it is a trendy fad or something more lasting and meaningful, I love the fact that well made lager beers are enjoying a moment in the spotlight here in Virginia.

Sure, there have always been reliable go-to breweries and beers when the lager cravings hit, or as I like to call them, "the weekend", such as Devils Backbone or Port City, but it seems as though there are more options in the shop when it comes to Virginia brewed lager.

Right now I am drinking a lot of one particular beer from the ever reliable Port City Brewing of Alexandria up in Northern Virginia. They already make 2 of my favourite beers, the lovely Downright Pilsner, and an Oktoberfest that is a more than welcome sight in autumn, so when I heard they had brought out a beer called "Franconian Kellerbier", well you knew I would hunt it down.

I didn't really have to do much hunting as another of Charlottesville craft beer fixtures, Beer Run, had it available for curbside pickup about a week after I first heard about it. Minor aside, Beer Run have been an absolute lifesaver in the last few months with a steady supply of Von Trapp lagers.

This is not about the glorious wonders of Von Trapp, it is about this beer here...


Doesn't it just look lovely in my Port City half litre bierkrug, even if the can is slightly less than a full half litre. I love that rich, ever so slightly hazy, amber and the big cap of foam so befitting of a German style lager. To look at it kind of reminds me of my usual favourite German lager, the divine aU from Mahr's Brau. 

The aroma is dominated by a wonderful toasted malt character, sitting beneath the rustic earthiness and general spice that you get with Spalt hops. I have to admit that I don't spend an awful lot of time sticking my nose into the beer because it is just so damned tasty.

That toasted bread thing is there, as is the deep sweetness that I always associate with Munich malts (ie, not sugary), and again the earthy hops bring balance and some slightly floral notes to the party. All of this is rounded out with a clean finish, a medium body, and a touch of hop bitterness that makes it magnificently easy to drink, which at 4.7% means no hangover if you bash a few of these of a school night.


I like to think of these kind of beers as "country beers", the kind of thing you would find in a village Gasthaus, possibly the only beer on tap, served just metres from where it was brewed, and very much the local hero of beer. The kind of beer that you could imagine sitting in the sun, under the shade of a old tree, and just letting the world go by, while you engaged in something completely unrelated to beer, like shelling peas that you just picked from the garden.

I have drunk a fair old whack of Franconian Kellerbier, and it is more than fair to say that I am going to miss it when it is gone, being but a seasonal beer, rather than year round. Would I swap it for one of Port City's regular lineup to be a year round brew, you bet I would, the world is quite sufficiently stocked for IPAs these days, so one of those can go as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Visiting the Devil to Worship a Goddess

Mrs V and I went to the pub on Saturday.

Those words seem so unremarkable in the normal flow of things, but with life the way it is at the moment, it is quite staggering how poignant they are. I was inordinately excited to do something so banal as going for a feed and a drink with my wife.

Said pub was the Devils Backbone Basecamp brewpub about an hour's drive from where we live, and there was an ulterior motive, Morana was on finally on tap. According to the brewmaster, it was the best batch of the 5 we have done. It was also the first batch that included open fermentation and horizontal lagering as part of the process.

A while back, I wrote about what it would take to get me back to the pub and my thinking then was that would have to be a vaccine or reliable treatment. Thinking a little bit deeper, I had made the assumption that going back to the pub was within the context of business as normal where you pick a venue, rock on up when you feel like it, and deal with whatever is going on at the time. I had failed to consider the possibility of reduced capacity opening.

Here in Virginia we have just entered "phase 2" of the re-opening plan, which for pubs means 50% capacity, no more than 10 people at a table, and tables at least 6 feet apart, and no sitting at the bar itself, as well as various best practices and recommendations. One thing that Devils Backbone are doing which gave me the confidence to arrange a visit is that they are operating on a reservation only basis, and they have posted a full list of their practices on their website, including mandatory masks when not sat at the table.

With our bespoke, Mrs V made, masks on faces, we arrived at Devils Backbone and it was obvious from the get go that here was a process that had been thoroughly thought through and was functioning well. The major benefit of of reservations only is that there are no groups of people loitering while hoping for a table to to open up. Once we were seated we were told that there was a 90 minute limit to our reservation and that menus were available through a QR code on the table (which meant I had to download a reader app as my phone is a bit old).

Both Mrs V and I were seriously impressed with our trip to the Basecamp, and I think the reservations thing is going to be the deciding factor for any future trips to pubs. Pretty much everything was done in such a way as to minimise physical contact between patrons and staff, all food and drink was served in one time use containers, and staff wore masks all the time. If there was one thing that wasn't quite working it was the single occupancy status of the toilets, with nobody overseeing that, groups of people ignored the signs on the doors and went in together.

Anyway, the beer, that is after all why we were there...


Jason was on the money in telling me that it is the best batch yet. Goodness me it is a delicious brew, sure I am biased, but I honestly think Morana would stand up to and tmavé being brewed in Czechia. Reviewing notes on previous batches, this one has a silkier mouthfeel and a slightly fuller body. All the lovely deep malty sweetness of Munich malt is there, and the unsweetened cocoa of the Carafa too, in amongst it all is the spicy character of Saaz, not the star for sure, but not a wallflower either.

Admittedly the beer doesn't look its best in a single use plastic pot, so here it is as Perun intended, in a tuplák glass...


Fantastic beer, superb, safe setup for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, while still being able to enjoy a pint of one of my favourite beers in the world, and all at a place that Mrs V and I have loved ever since we came to this part of Virginia.

I know there are some people out there who still hold a grudge against Devils Backbone for being part of the AB-InBev universe, but at the end of the day that is their problem. I said it when the deal was first announced that as long as the beer remained good, the people running the show still ran the show, and the overall ethos of Devils Backbone didn't change, then I wasn't going to be a dummy spitter. I still haven't spat my dummy, see no reason on the horizon to do so, and with their superb handling of opening up in a safe manner, I can only say I love them more than ever.

So, if you are in the area, get yourself a reservation, another benefit was how easy that process was on their website, and go enjoy some beers in the sun.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Stick Don't Twist

I have developed a business plan.

I believe that if it is successful, then I will become an exceedingly rich man, can buy a small Hebridean island to retire on and raise my children in a place of peace.

The plan is devastatingly simple, whenever a brewery uses one of the following phrases in their beer description, the give me a Dollar, a Pound, or a Euro, depending on the brewery's location:
  • "our interpretation of"
  • "classic <insert style>, with a twist
Not wanting to limit my revenue streams, any phrase that has similar connotations will be included in the collection scheme.


Now, I am not the kind of person who is wildly strict about beer styles, if your porter is just a touch strong, I will not insist you call it a stout. If your best bitter uses Cascade instead of Goldings, I won't declare it a Session IPA. However, beer styles have evolved for a reason, especially when it comes to beers that have a very distinct geographical basis.

Take one of my favourite brewing projects that I have ever been involved with, Devils Backbone Granát, the first polotmavé to be brewed in Virginia. Granát just squeezes out Morana, which incidentally is on tap at the Devils Backbone Brewpub at the moment, because polotmavé as a style is even less well known and understood than tmavé.

Part of the pleasure of doing brewing projects with local brewers is designing the recipe itself, which for me is not just a case of wanging a few ingredients into brewing software to hit the right numbers but about background reading on the style and how it is perceived in its homeland, and the expectations of drinkers. For fear of sounding like an anti-innovation stick in the mud, part of my aim when I design these recipes to to be as faithful to the culture whose beer I am attempting to replicate and introduce to a different audience. In a perfect world, I'd be able to ship some of the Czech over to the likes of Evan and Max to get their take on them, and where they would stand in the pantheon of Czech breweries,

Anyway, back to Granát. As a recipe it built on the Morana research quite a bit, for the non-Czech speakers "polotmavé" literally means "half-dark", so the idea is to use the same malts as in your tmavé but less of the specialty malts to make a lager that sits somewhere between dark copper and deep red. From the research that went into the recipe's creation, the specialty malts used are more often than not:
  • Munich
  • CaraBohemian or CaraMunich
  • Carafa, usually de-bittered
Sticking with the kind of malts used in Czechia is important as far as I am concerned because substituting in different malts, more easily obtainable perhaps, changes the flavour profile. While it is perfectably possible to make a tasty red lager using Caramel 60, chocolate malts, and black malt, it isn't how it is done in Czechia.

This applies, in my mind at least, to most beer styles, though obviously Czech lagers are a world I am very interested in. Of particular concern, and perhaps I am being idealistic here, is that when bringing a little known style into a new market and not being faithful to the ingredients used in the originals breweries do their customers a disservice. When friends of mine who have tried Granát and Morana go to Czechia, I want them to have an accurate frame of reference for the tmavé and polotmavé they will drink there. A case in point would be swapping out CaraMunich for a crystal malt, the sweetness is so different that the same beer brewed with these malts would be noticeably different, and in my mind without CaraMunich, much diminished.

Imagine trying to brew an American Pale Ale with just Saaz, it wouldn't be identifiable as an American Pale Ale. It might be, and I would put money on it being so, a fine tasty beer, but American Pale Ale it is not. I have written before that I think authenticity is important, and even more so with styles that are unusual in a given brewery's sitz im leben.

If we in the beer world want to co-opt concepts such as terroir and the importance of place with regard to how beer styles originate and evolve then I think we also need to pay respect to those concepts when brewing relatively rare styles. One of the things I really love about beer culture is learning new things, trying styles from places I have never even considered, but how can I trust that I am getting as close to the real thing is breweries are constantly twisting, and shouting about it?

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Belgian Pilsner?

Yeah, ok, I know.

The vast majority of beer brewed and consumed in Belgium falls squarely into the "pilsner" category of pale lagers. When one thinks of pale lager from Belgian, Stella Artois inevitably pops up first, but also Jupiler, maybe sometimes people will mention Maes, and I have fond memories of drinking Primus in Ieper many moons ago.

Belgian beer is admittedly not something I drink a lot of. I do enjoy the various Trappist ales, as well as the occasional lambic, gueuze, Flanders red, or oud bruin. Not a fan of saisons to be honest, but a good witbier has it's place. I do though have a general rule when it comes to beer styles that have their origins in Belgium...they need to actually be brewed there. I make an allowance for Allagash White, and Celis White too for that matter, but when your average IPA merchant suddenly starts pumping out sours and funky shit then I will happily avoid.

All of this is a long way round to owning that I don't recall having drunk many beers from Ommegang before, if at all. This is no sleight on Ommegang at all, I have just never quite been able to persuade myself to buy something of theirs. Then they brought out Idyll Days Pilsner.

The first 4 pack of 16oz cans I bought was purely on a whim. Browsing the list of beers available from Beer Run for curbside pickup, I saw the magic word "pilsner" and decided that I should try it out. I guess I liked it as I polished off all 4 cans while video chatting with a mate, so naturally no notes were taken, until yesterday. The boys were in bed for their afternoon nap, it was warm but overcast outside, and having taken obligatory photos, I parked myself on the deck for a mini session...


According to the marketing blurb on the Ommegang's website, this is brewed with Czech floor malted barley, Saaz hops, and is then lagered for 30 days, and gets packaged without being filtered. Hmmm...Czech ingredients, Belgian lager yeast, decent lagering period, all sounds good.

The first thing that struck me as I poured out the can into one of my Czech lager glasses was the colour. I was not expecting a 5% abv beer to be quite this wan shade of pale. After last week's experience of wildly fizzy yet headless pale lager, it was nice to get a proper voluminous dollop of white foam that stayed around on top of the beer for the duration and left a nice bit of lace down the glass.


Making their way up through the head were aromas of crackers, specifically water biscuits, as well as delightfully subtle lemon grass thing, with touches of hay and floral hops as well. The subtlety in the aroma department carries on over in to the realm of taste as well. There is a slight sweetness, not unlike savory scones freshly out of the oven, and the lemongrass character of Saaz is noticeable, though restrained and delicate.

Restraint really is the key word here, everything is in balance, with neither hop, malt, or yeast taking over, as I initially noted down, nothing dominates and nothing is lost. One thing that I did not realise before reading the Ommegang website just now was the use of flaked corn in the grist, I barely even noticed it when I was drinking. The finish has the clean snap I expect of a well made lager, and left me wanting another mouthful, my 4 pack disappeared pretty quickly as a result.

It really is a lovely beer, one that will make many a visit to the fridge, and who knows, maybe I'll try some other Ommegang products too...?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Opening Up?

Today sees the beginning of "phase one" reopening in Virginia.

From a beer perspective that means restaurants, breweries and brewpubs are able to re-open for outdoor seating only, at 50% of their listed capacity, while maintaining appropriate physical distancing, and groups of no more than ten at any given table.

The various social media platforms I use have been almost swamped with posts from businesses announcing their decision to either expand their operations or not. The tone has varied from sombre and serious, mainly among those companies not opening up further, to celebratory from those opening up, and to be blunt some posts have been puerile to the point of crass.

Having seen a great swathe of posts I put the following on Facebook the other day:
"Have seen too many breweries, brewpubs, and restaurants touting offering outdoor seating service as of Friday with the notion of "getting back to normal".

Well forgive me for not sharing the relief while there is still no vaccine, no reliable treatment, and no cure.

Two weeks from Friday we'll be back to square one."
As a result of that post I have had several conversations with folks in the industry that I count as friends, whether brewers, servers, or owners. The majority of owners feel stuck between a rock and a hard place as they need to have some kind of revenue to pay the rent on their buildings, having unscrupulous landlords not willing to work with them to find a solution that doesn't put staff at risk. Most of the brewery staff I know are concerned that re-opening is going to turn into a shit show as people ignore physical distancing requirements, refuse to wear masks, or just behave in anti-social and frankly selfish manners, all in the name of getting their drinkies on.

One of the brewery owners I spoke with asked me the following question "what will it take to get you back to the pub?", I had no real answer on the spot, so I figured I'd take it out to Twitter...



Of the 25 people that responded to the question more than 75% are waiting for a vaccine or reliable treatment before heading back out to the pub, and I tend to agree with them.

I really do miss going to the pub, I am much more of a pub goer than a craft beer geek. I am as  perfectly happy in a great pub with a pint of Guinness as I am drinking craft lager in any of my favourite brewpubs in the Charlottesville area. However, until there is some form of medical protection against both the virus and the selfish stupidity of people banging on about their right to not wear a mask, I'll continue my drinking from home. Speaking of which, it's Friday and will soon be time to pick up a stash of fantastic lagers for the weekend while my Cascade hopped best bitter conditions in the kegerator.

Wherever you are drinking this weekend, drink responsibly, be safe, and wear a damned mask,

Thursday, May 14, 2020

VPL - Virginian Pale Lagers

It took eight weeks, but by last Saturday I was actually getting a little bit of cabin fever, so I asked Mrs V if it would be ok if I went out to do the weekly shop. Generally Mrs V is our designated person for doing the shopping during these weird times as both myself and one of my boys are asthmatic, and so we want to minimise the possibility of either of us getting sick.

There were ulterior motives for wanting to get out of the house for a few hours, namely it was Mother's Day and I needed to get Mrs V a card, some fancy booze, and ingredients for dinner. I also wanted to pick up some different beer from Wegmans as they still do BYO six packs, and so ended up with a selection of 2 Czech style Pilsners, 2 German style Pilsners, and a pair of Munich Helles.

I started with the two Czech style beers, both of which I have drunk plenty of over the years but not really sat down and analysed them.

Champion Brewing Shower Beer

  • Sight - pale golde, healthy quarter inch of foam with good retention, superb clarity
  • Smell - Ceareal grain, hay, touch of lemon, some floral hops
  • Taste - Bready malt base, spicy hops, nice citrusy, clean, bitterness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3
In so many ways this is a wonderful Czech style pale lager. Only 4.5% abv, 100% Saaz hops, a really nice firm bitterness and a lingering clean finish pointing to good clean fermentation. If I were comparing to some of the pale lagers back in Czechia, I would put this in the same league as Herold, a good solid brewery with a devoted following.

Port City Brewing Downright Pilsner

  • Sight - Slightly hazy pale gold, good firm white head, nice retention
  • Smell - Lemony and lime citrus character, some breadiness, alpine meadow time floral notes
  • Taste - Bready malt character, some spice, bit lemony edging to pithy, clean fermentation
  • Sweet - 2.5/5
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
Medium bodied, with high carbonation, almost too bitter in some respects, citrus character borders of pithiness.

As I said, I have drunk plenty of both these beers of the years, and am of the opinion that they are dead certs for being in the top five pale lagers in Virginia. I am pretty sure that both would go down pretty well back in Czechia too, but they just don't reach the heights of something like Pivovar Hostomice's majestic Fabián 10°, Únětický's 12°, or the much missed Kout na Šumavě 10°. Making a not entirely unreasonable assumption that the ingredients are broadly similar, I do tend to think that the difference is in process, in particular the fact that Czech breweries still do decoction mashing, and that the Maillard reactions that causes brings something indefinable to the glass that focusing on ABV, IBUs, and other brewing by numbers stats simply cannot bring to the beer? I say it fairly often, but decoction really does matter if you want to make an authentic Czech style lager, regardless of colour or strength.

Moving from Czech style pale lagers over the border, so to say, to German style...

Basic City Our Daily Pils (unfiltered)

  • Sight - Pale gold, slight haze from being unfiltered, thin white head, distinctly not fizzy
  • Smell - Subtle malt sweetness, fresh bread crust, floral hops, some citrus like mandarin
  • Taste - Bready malt with a touch of biscuity sweetness, slightly earthy, spicy hops and a trace of citrus
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
This has actually become something a regular tipple for me. Back in open pub days, ah the memories, I enjoyed many pints of it at Beer Run, often sat at the bar of a Friday afternoon with work done and the boys yet to be picked up from school. At 4.8% it sits squarely in the ball park for a German pils and has all the refreshing drinkability you would expect from Germany's finest. Definitely a welcome addition to Virgini'a lager scene.

Lost Rhino Brewing Rhino Chaser

  • Sight - Gold, think white head, dissipates quickly, good clarity
  • Smell - Mostly cereal and bread upfront, almost worty, with some subtle spice
  • Taste - Sweet, sugary caramel notes, a little hop flavour with a spicy cinnamon finish
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
This actually reminded me more of the modern Festbier than a pilsner. At 5.6% it is simply too strong to be authentic, but then the can does tout that the brewery has ""Americanized" the classic European Pilsner", a turn of phrase that strikes fear into my heart as it invariably leads to a disappointing drinking experience. If you want to make a pilsner, make a fucking pilsner. If you want to make a strong pale lager then make a strong pale lager. Just as decoction matters, so do styles when it comes to setting the drinker's expectations.

Ok let's leave the pilsners behind and venture into Helles.

Bingo Lager

  • Sight - Yellow, excellent clarity, fizzy, lots of bubbles, no head at all (WTF?)
  • Smell - Light floral hops, slightly grainy, generally indistinct
  • Taste - Bready malt, clean citrus bitterness, touch of corn in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
I want to give the brewery the benefit of the doubt here as there seemed to be a dink in the seam of the can lid, which may help explain the absolute absence of head. When I swirled the glass half way through drinking I did come some white foam but it disappeared quickly. The beer itself is well balanced and decent enough, I guess I will have to buy another one just to see if the can lid theory works out.

Stable Craft Helles

  • Sight - Pale golden, think white head, fizzy, good clarity
  • Smell - Crusty bread, spicy hops, earthy, some rather odd onion/garlic notes in the background
  • Taste - Non-descript, some malt, some hops, prickly carbonation, lacking clean lager character
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
This one was a major let down. I was willing to give Stable Craft a try because I have enjoyed their brown ale from time to time, but this was dull and muddled rather than bright and zingy as I would expect from a Munich Helles.

We are lucky in some ways in Virginia that we have some decent pale lagers being brewed, but we also have some that are simply sub-par, and in this tasting we ran the gamut of what is out there in that regard. On the helles front it is safe to say that once South Street have some of their My Personal Helles back in stok I will be slaking my thirst with it.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Session: Quarantine Edition - The Round Up


As promised, one week after The Session - Quarantine Edition here is the round up.

Straight off the bat, I want to thank everyone that took part and wrote something on the theme of "where are you at?". I was kind of overwhelmed by the response from the beer blogging community and the number of posts created, from what I have seen we had a grand total of 19 contributions to the theme, so let's delve in and see what's what eh?

First up is Jordan, also known as tripleclutcher on Instagram, and it was there that he posted a picture and a lengthy description of his new drinking habits, including "more local beer".

Alan McLeod in Canada taxed my shoddy Latin with a post titled "Mea Taverna Quarantina", or "My Quarantine Tavern", and told us about his home, where he does most of his drinking, that he doesn't "miss the pub. Much".

Over at The Brew Site, Jon tells us about how he had stocked up on homebrewing ingredients before the lock down because his local supplier was shutting down. As well as brewing he is asking the question of breweries and brewpubs, "who...is going to survive?". Sobering thoughts indeed.

I am not quite sure of Mark at Kaedrin's description of the Quarantine Edition of The Session as a "triumphant return" but hey we'll take it. He then goes on to tell us about the things he misses as a result of nearly 7 weeks in lockdown, mostly bottle shares and how he and his friends are getting around that.

DaveS at Brewing in a Bedsitter is having a "very cosy catastrophe".

A new blog for me, which is one of the great things about The Session, and Carey, to quote her tweet managed "to vomit out some words on life", and very fine words they are too, about the new normal in her drinking life.

Sucking Stones is another new blog on my radar, and I am pleased that the theme "stuck a chord". Simon had ambitious plans to homebrew several times a week as a result of lockdown, but then had a realisation.

Coming to a blog that I, and many others know well, The Beer Nut in Dublin brings us tasting notes of a couple of new beers from The Porterhouse, as well as his ecstacy at finding canned Rheinbacher at his local Aldi.

Resident beer satirist Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards is in the enviable position of being able to get Oakham's lovely Green Devil, while also being designated a "key worker".

When Lisa Grimm upped sticks and moved to Ireland, her plans included "weekend trips in Ireland and the odd hop over to London for theatre". As a result of the lockdown, she seems to be getting a crash course in Irish craft beer and its attendant community.

In "Pressing Pause on the Cassette Tape of Life", Michael of Bring on the Beer owns to writing his post while being 5 beers to the good, top man! He owns that his drinking "skyrocketed" at first but has settled down in recent weeks.

Skipping over to Germany, Andreas Krennmaier, aka "the daft ejit" had many of us drooling with pictures of Schönramer Pils and Mahr's Brau Helles, while telling us about life as an IT guy working from home. Side note, I just noticed his post about making a Mahr's Brau aU clone, and if Beer Run don't have it back in soon I'll be giving that a bash!

Co-founder of The Session, and craft beer guru in general, Stan Hieronymus tells us about how he likes to go to the pub and observe the goings on, and that he looks forward to the return of a normal that looks rather like the old one.

Ray and Jess at Boak and Bailey are finding that once the fight or flight response passes the brain adjusts to the new normal, and they are "drinking less, but savouring what we drink all the more".

Another new blog for me, Brews and Views makes me deeply jealous by writing about the lagers of Utopian Brewing in the UK and their British Pilsner and Dark Lager, both of which I am very keen to try, so hopefully one day when I get back to the UK...

Fellow Mitteleuropaphile Joe Stange, aka The Thirsty Pilgrim, likewise has me deeply jealous, mainly because of his 4 tap kegerator at home, including a Czech style side tap for the much hyped slow pour, and a very fine dark lager in the pictures.

Skipping over to the West coast, Jeff Alworth of Beervana writes about the delights of drinking alone at home, and how "comfortable" beers take precedence in days like this.

Once again to the new to me blog realm...Steve at "Wait Until Next Year" tells us about one of the best phenomena of this whole situation, beer delivery services.

Lastly, the host, me. I wrote about how I feel very fortunate to be able to be "At Home" through all this, and while it is not ideal for Mrs V and the twins, I am actually enjoying having them around all the time.

NoVA Franconia

Whether it is a trendy fad or something more lasting and meaningful, I love the fact that well made lager beers are enjoying a moment in the...