Friday, December 2, 2016

#TheSession 118 - The Feast of Four


This month's iteration of The Session is hosted by the venerable Stan Hieronymous, whose latest book I am currently reading as it happens. His theme for this chilly December day is:
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?
A challenging theme for sure, more so because I have a general aversion to the concept of the beer dinner (how many more times do I have to read of innovative pairings like chocolate and stout for dessert?). So I am ditching the beer dinner part of his theme, sorry Stan, and focussing on four people that I would invite to dinner with the inestimable Mrs V and I....


Unless this is your first visit to Fuggled, in which case welcome, or have been living under a rock since the Pliocene, you will know that I lived a large chunk of my live in the Czech Republic. I love Czech food, Czech booze, Czech people, etc, etc, and no one person embodies the Czech Republic more to me than Václav Havel. Playwright, philosopher, politician, and above all dissident, Havel understood what it was to suffer for his beliefs, denied the ability to go to a university with a humanities program due to his bourgeois background, imprisoned several times for his views opposing the Communist Party during the post Prague Spring era, one of the founders of Charter 77, and if details in the magnificent biography 'Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts' are to be believed, a raconteur extraordinaire. I imagine dinner with Havel, fuelled with beer - Havel would take visiting dignitaries to the pub - would be an evening to remember, especially if that beer fuel were Kout na Šumavě's magnificent 10° pale lager.


I've lived in the US now for seven and a half years, and being the kind of person I am, with the interests I have, I have taken great delight in reading about the Founding Fathers. It is difficult in central Virginia to get away from the Founding Fathers, after all, three of the first five Presidents were from the Charlottesville area and my house is pretty much equidistant between Jefferson's Monticello and Madison's Montpelier. My favourite Founding Father though is Benjamin Franklin. From reading about his, and there is no other way to put this, unbelievable life (seriously, if someone wrote the life of Benjamin Franklin it would be mocked for being unrealistic), here is a guy interested in pretty much everything, an unparalleled intellect, and seemingly not jammed so far up his own arse as to be a bore. As for the beer to serve with our growing band on luminary visitors, a good cask of Fuller's London Porter would do the trick here.


When I was at college, studying to be a  minister of religion, my favourite subject was hermeneutics, and it was through that subject that I developed a lasting love of language and its functions. I find things like semantics, semiotics, linguistics, philology, and etymology endlessly fascinating. So my third guest to arrive at my dinner table should come as no surprise, Umberto Eco. I love Eco's novels, in particular The Name of the Rose, as much as his essays and writings on literary criticism, and the thought of getting to sit down with him and just talk books, words, language, and symbols would be enough to make me smile broadly whilst skipping around the kitchen. For a mind such as this, the beer to be served would have to be complex, layered, polyvalent you might say, a good strong ale....North Coast Old Stock Ale, perhaps left in the cellar for several years, which reminds me that I have a bottle from 2010 floating around somewhere.


Rounding out my guests at the Feast of Four is Scotland's finest comedian, Billy Connolly. In common with the other guests, here's a guy with an incredible range of interests and knowledge, and a wonderful way of looking at the world. I imagine he would be the anchor that would stop the other three drifting off into the intellectual ether. The fourth beer that would be making an appearance at the feast would be probably my favourite beer on the planet, and I am sorry for the shameless self promotion, Three Notch'd Bitter 42.

So there we have it, the guests and the beer, but what of the feast itself? What would Mrs V and I lay on for our guests....
  • Starter - French onion soup
  • Main course - Mallaig langoustines and chips
  • Pudding - Sticky toffee pudding and custard
  • Cheese, fruit, oatcakes, coffee
For music through the night, I would just play my Teuchter Tunes playlist from Spotify, a collection of traditional music from around the world, including Scotland, Ireland, Appalachia, Brittany, and others.



Hopefully the following morning we would wake with raging hangovers, happily distended bellies, and an inclination to do it all again

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Fly In The Ointment

Mrs V and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday as we have every year since moving to the US in 2009, at her parents' place in South Carolina. The only beer I took with me was the homebrew I make each year specially for Mrs V's uncle, my plan was to just go to a supermarket for a load of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and then maybe squeeze in a trip to one of the Green's Warehouse Discount Beverages to pick up some stuff that I can't get locally.

After six and a half hours on the road, including sitting in traffic around Kannapolis in North Carolina (traffic is always bad there it seems), the last thing I really felt like doing, having stretched my legs a bit, was to jump back in my car and go to a beer shop. Then Mrs V's mother mentioned that there was a new bottle shop just round the corner from their house, so naturally I was happy to check it out rather than going to a Bi-Lo or Piggly Wiggly hunting for nuggets in the morass of BMC.

Said bottle shop is called, conveniently enough, Bottles Beverage Superstore and they run the full gamut from soft drinks to spirits, they even stock ingredients and equipment for homebrewers. Oh and their selection of beer was excellent. Lots of local South Carolina beers, including the River Rat Broad River Red Ale which I have enjoyed muchly on my last couple of trips to SC, and the staff actually seemed to know their stuff which makes a pleasant change.

Naturally they had endless banks of IPAs from across the US, and they have a really good choice of Central European beers, though I tend to think stocking lager on a shelf at room temperature is a major no-no. I even managed to pick up a couple of beers from the Black Isle Brewery back home in Scotland. Oh and the prices were pretty damned good, $7.99 for six packs of Sierra Nevada beers??? If the in-laws come visit for Christmas I'll be putting in a bulk order for Kellerweis, which is rarer than hens' teeth in this part of Virginia.

I have a feeling that Bottles is going to be a regular stop whenever we are in Columbia, perhaps because of their 30-odd tap growler filling station, however I do have one gripe, and it is a gripe I have made about bottle shops before, selling out of date beer. Checking the dates on bottles has become something I do with British beers, especially Fullers as there are still loads of the old bottle style floating around, and the 4 packs of London Porter being sold at $11.99 (I think) were a couple of months past their best before date. The one that got my goat though was a bottle of Krušovice Imperial I picked up on a nostalgia kick that when I inspected it having got home (yes, yes, I know, caveat emptor and all that jazz) had this on the label


Born on the 24th July 2015, more than 16 months before I decided to drink it on Saturday afternoon. Keep in mind that this is a beer that would have been fermented at cool temperatures and then lagered at near freezing, before being sent out in distribution, where goodness knows what perils it has gone through, to sit on a shelf at room temperature for goodness knows how long.

It has got to the point now where I am going to check every single bottle and six pack of beer that I buy, especially beer not brewed in the US (and even then if it's not from the east coast I'll check that too), so I am not paying full price for a sub-par product. Also as a side note, perhaps it is time for bottle shops, large and small, to seriously consider their stocking strategy. Sure, shelf after shelf of the weird and wonderful looks fantastic to the casual shopper picking up their 18 pack of Budweiser or 12 pack of IPA depending on their particular brand of beery conservatism, but leaving slower shifting stock to sit around until Ragnarök is frustrating to say the least.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Scrumpy!

A while back, when Mrs V and I were training to walk the West Highland Way, at least one day a weekend you would find us out in the mountains with our good friends Dave and Ali traipsing along trails. One of those weekends, and actually an Ali-less hike, we started out from Milam Gap in the Shenandoah National Park headed for the Lewis Falls. Perhaps the most unexpected thing we came across during the hike were feral apple trees.

Before this area was a national park, the Milam apple was a local staple cash crop, and there are some fascinating pictures of apple, and 'sider', sellers at the trail head. As we hiked back to the car we agreed to return in the autumn and glean as many apples as possible with a view to making our own cider. Thus a few weeks ago we returned with a couple of bags to fill with feral apples, mostly fairly small and tart, but a few bigger, blander ones as well - I also picked some thistle heads for making cheese with at some point.

There was however a problem, we didn't have a press with which to get at whatever juice was in the apples. Eventually though Dave decided to invest in a hydraulic press and we got together to see what we could get. First things first though, I must admit that this was a small scale project, just a half bushel or so of apples, and they really didn't look promising, as you can see.


Given the small scale of the project we decided not to worry too much about how we were going to grind the fruit, preferring to pound the apples to a pulp using a 2x4 and an aluminium brew pot.


The important part of this run was to test the press, and as you can see from the following pictures, it was a resounding success.




Once we were done, we had about a gallon and a half of fresh pressed apple juice ready to just sit around and let whatever wild yeast was on the apples do it's thing, and with it plans to increase production on the next run!


Said next run came a week later. Dave had been out walking his dogs around the Crozet area and noticed orchards with lots of dropped apples on the floor. Having inquired as to the ownership of said orchard he learnt that it was possible to glean fallen apples for a pittance, and thus we set a date and time to meet up and gather what we could between the three of us. Again Ali wasn't able to join us, but studying for her PhD defense was an acceptable reason.


Over the course of a couple of hours the three of us managed to glean about 4 bushels of fallen apples, gathered into burlap coffee sacks that weighed down Dave's car to a rather worrying extent.


We headed back to Dave's place to test out his even newer bit of kit, for he had built a grinder!

video

Having a grinder made short work of turning the shit ton of apples we had gathered into a respectable pulp for putting into cheeses in the press, and after a few hours of grinding, pressing, drinking Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest and my home brew best bitter, we ended up with 17 gallons of juice, all of which is fermenting away to make that most wonderful of glorious booze products, cider. Even though I am first and foremost a beer drinker, I do have a soft spot for cider, especially in summer, with a Ploughman's lunch....ahhhhh the idyll.


We paid $20 for the apples, which works out to $1.18 per gallon of juice, given 8 US pints in a US gallon, we will be drinking cider sometime next year for just $0.15 per pint. Not a bad return on investment for a couple of hours labour in an orchard, and then several hours drinking and pressing juice. Almost makes you wonder what the mark up is on commercial cider?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Self Bitterment

An acquaintance recently asked me why I seem to be constantly brewing beers that belong in the broad family of bitter. It's true that at least every other brewday is some form of ordinary, best, or extra special, and there is a very good reason for this fact. Bitter, regardless of sub-type, is one of my favourite styles of beer to drink and for all the hoopla around craft beer and its endless IPAing of every form of beer possible, most American breweries simply don't bother with bitter as a style.

What then is a chap supposed to do, especially a chap with little interest in IPA? Sorry hopheads, your addiction is one dimensional most of the time regardless of the latest hop to come out of the Pacific north west. The answer is obvious, a chap must either take the risk of ancient, and and badly oxidised, bottles from Britain, lurking around the local bottle shop that neither knows nor seems to care what they are doing, or a chap can make his own. So unless Three Notch'd Bitter 42 is available, I make my own.

A couple of weekends ago I kegged up my most recent batch of best bitter, and having stolen the requisite amount of beer to do gravity measurements and all that jazz, I gave it a taste and thought to myself, this could be good. After a couple of weeks in the keg, I took some growlers of said brew to a friend's place on Saturday in order to lubricate the grinding and pressing of apples for cider that took up a hefty chunk of the afternoon and evening. Boy had my hunch been right, it is as good a best bitter as I have brewed, and certainly one that I would have no objections to paying proper hard currency for.


As you can see from the picture, the bitters I go in for tend to be on the paler side of the spectrum. I rarely, if ever, use crystal malts, preferring one of either Victory, Biscuit, or amber malt as my single specialty grain, and my base malt is usually Golden Promise. For this particular batch I single hopped with Calypso as I had some floating around in the freezer, and at least half of my calculated IBUs tend to come from the first hop addition. In terms of yeast, I have found that Safale S-04 does everything I need, if I remember rightly S-04 is one of the Whitbread yeast strains. I don't bother with water modifications, working on the theory that my well water tastes good, so it's fine for my beer. I brew to make something to intoxicate myself with from time to time, not to do science experiments - and given my ability to blow shit up at school in chemistry class, that's probably just as well.


While it is true that I sometimes lament the indifference of many an American craft brewery to the bitter family of beer, I love the fact that it has given me an excuse to work on my own brewing skills by repeatedly making my own versions. Sure I rarely make the exact same recipe twice, but there are common themes that run through each iteration, such as sticking to as simple a recipe as possible. Also the key to a solid bitter is in the name of the beer itself, don't be afraid of using hops predominantly for bittering rather than flavour and aroma. Hop bitterness is the very soul of a good bitter recipe, it must be firm, bracing even, but never acerbic. This is a beer designed to be drunk in imperial pints over an extended period of time, so balance is vital, once I am finished with a pint, another one should be welcome. Oh and 'balance' is not synonymous with 'bland'.

Bitter is a misunderstood and underappreciated style of beer in the craft world it would seem, thankfully they are pretty easy to make, and done well endlessly satisfying to drink, and that's the whole damned point surely?.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Feast of Oktober

It seems at the moment that every brewer and his uncle is having an Oktoberfest celebration, whether or not said brewer regularly makes bottom fermented beers in the German style (and they say craft beer isn't marketing driven!).

Being a fan of the lager arts, and not wanting to limit my Oktoberfest drinking to Sierra Nevada, I gathered together 7 bottles of American made versions of the 'style' to try in a blind tasting. As ever I was ably assisted by the lovely Mrs V, and her willingness to traipse up the stairs when I had finished each glass of beer is much appreciated.

The beers for this little taste off were:
Such a delightful little lineup...


Using, as ever, a slightly modified version the Cyclops beer evaluation method, here's my findings.


Beer A
  • Sight: rich copper, ivory head, dissipates quickly
  • Smell: general sweetness, touch corny, wood and spice
  • Taste: bready, touch of burnt toast, clean finish
  • Bitter: 2.5/5
  • Sweet: 2/5
Overall well balanced though on the thin side, nothing to really hunt out.


Beer B
  • Sight: orange, large off-white head, slight haze
  • Smell: some toffee, baking bread, floral
  • Taste: sweet juicy malt, herbal hob bite
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Ever so slightly boozy/hot, mouthfeel was nice and full, and slightly creamy, a bit on the too sweet side.


Beer C
  • Sight: rich golden, white head
  • Smell: bready, biscuits, trace of spice
  • Taste: sweet toffee, pretzels, earthy hops
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Nicely balanced, good clean dry finish, clearly well made and nicely integrated.


Beer D
  • Sight: gold, voluminous white head that lingers
  • Smell: grainy, light lemon and herbal hops, almost like autumn leaves
  • Taste: bready malt, sweet but not in a caramel way, firm bitterness
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Slightly creamy mouthfeel, but firm bitterness cleans that right up, very nice beer.


Beer E
  • Sight: light red, smallish off white head
  • Smell: syrupy caramel
  • Taste: heavy caramel, dark toast
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Full bodied and a touch cloying, really needs a hop bite, finish not as clean as expected.


Beer F
  • Sight: deep orange, off white lingering head
  • Smell: raw wort, weetabix topped with caramel sauce
  • Taste: Very sweet, sickly caramel/syrup dominates
  • Bitter: 1/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Tasted undercooked, like the raw dough in the middle of an underdone loaf, barely any noticeable hops.


Beer G
  • Sight: rich copper, small, stable, white head
  • Smell: lots of toffee and bread, spicy hop notes
  • Taste: cereal, caramel, like dulce de leche on toast
  • Bitter: 1.5/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Sweet, warming, and overall nicely balanced, bit too sweet though for my tastes.

Having drunk all seven beers, I ended up with the following rankings:
  1. Beer D
  2. Beer C
  3. Beer B, G
  4. Beer A, E
  5. Beer F
My favourite beer, and here I wasn't actually surprised, was Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest, with the Ninkasi right on it's coat tails, a sign perhaps that I prefer the more modern pale Oktoberfest style to the older, darker, sweeter variant.

The other beers were:
  • Beer A - Brooklyn
  • Beer B - Port City
  • Beer E - Sam Adams
  • Beer F - Shiner
  • Beer G - Blue Mountain
So there we have it, 7 beers, all bar one that I would drink a pint of, 1 that I would happily drink plenty of, and one that I have been drinking maße of.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Selling Stale

Tomorrow I am planning to do a blind tasting of American made Oktoberfest lagers. I have already gathered 7 examples form across the US. Yesterday I decided to check a bottle shop near my office to see if they had any single bottles available so I could bump my testing up to 10 beers.

Having realised that there was nothing that I didn't already have, I took to looking around and seeing if anything else might take my fancy. Ever since I wrote a post about being in a local gas station that also has a decent selection and noticing out of date beer being sold at full price, I have started check out the 'best before' or 'bottled on' dates to make sure I am not getting stale beer.

The first bottle I picked up and looked at was this from Green Flash...


A best before date of November 2015??? What the actual fuck? Surely a retailer wouldn't try to push this stuff on an unexpecting public at daft prices?


Oh wait, yes they would. That's right folks, this particular Charlottesville, Virginia, bottle shop expects people to pay north of $12 (after tax) for 4 bottles of year out of date beer.

Hoping this would be a one off, I started checking out some of my favourite beers, especially the Fuller's stuff, which while still in date was in the older bottles, so it is coming to the end of its shelf life. Then there was this...


I do like Bengal Lancer as a general rule, and sure I know the history of IPA meant that it travelled in hot conditions for 6 months to get from England to the Sub-continent, but this bottle will be 2 years past it's best before date in just 120 days. Yours for full price.

As you know if you are a regular Fuggled reader, I love the lager family of beers and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils is something that I am always happy to drink. Unless of course it was bottled nearly 8 months ago, and is sat on the shelf of a very warm shop, kind of like this one.


As I was leaving the shop I noticed that they were selling day old bread with a sign informing the customer that the bread wasn't that day's. If only they treated their liquid bread with the same respect.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Price is Too Damned High!!

With the searing heat and humidity of the central Virginia summer finally starting to dissipate, Mrs V, myself, and our friend Dave went for a walk in the Shenandoah National Park on Saturday morning. Before meeting up with Dave we popped to our of our favourite drinking holes for breakfast, and despite the earliness of the day (it had just gone 8am) I had a couple of pints to wash down the tacos with.

Given that all but 2 of the taps were pouring Ballast Point beers it was evident that the pub in question had very recently had a 'tap takeover', or 'illusion of choice' as I now call them. Snide comments aside, my couple of pints were the Longfin Helles and a very delicious beer it was too. I heartily approve of the growing number of helles lagers that seem to be popping up on brewery products lists of late.

There was another reason I plumped for the helles...can you guess what it was from this picture?


Yep, $2.50 for an imperial pint. Call me cheap if you wish, but it was simply too good a price to overlook, 40oz of beer for less than 16oz of some of the other beers on the list, and even a few 10oz options. Sure it helped that the beer was just the kind of thing I like drink, even in the morning.

Looking over the rest of the price list, I couldn't get away from the idea though that the price of a pint of craft beer is getting ridiculous, especially when you compare the price of the Longfin with that of the California Kölsch right above it, $7.50 for 20oz. Given the similarities between the two styles of beer, why would a retailer charge three times as much for an additional 0.7% and 5 IBUs worth of beer?

The kind of beer that normally fills that budget slot in this particular pub is something like PBR or National Bohemian, so perhaps there is a pervasive bias against pale lagers, and by extension pale lager drinkers.

What it really means most likely is that the price of craft beer is too damned high and retailers are gouging their customers left, right, and centre whilst prancing about in artisanal fig leaves.