Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Taste of the New

It seems crazy sometimes, but it is almost 5 years since I drank my first ever Starr Hill beer. It was in May 2009 that a friend of mine brought a bottle of the much missed, at least in my world, Starr Hill Pale Ale back to Prague with her. A few months later, having arrived on these shores, I was working in the Starr Hill tasting room, and drinking a fair bit of the Pale Ale, and the Dark Starr Stout as well.

Fast forward to April 2014 and I still work at the tasting room a few weekends a month, and I still wish the powers that be would resurrect the old Pale Ale. I haven't worked since the beginning of March for one simple reason, the tasting room has been closed for renovations.

This weekend, that all changes. The tasting room will once again be open for business, though it is hugely different from the old days. Gone is the simple wooden bar with industrial kegerators behind it, replaced by a custom built bar with lines that run directly to the cold store, so no more lugging kegs from the cold store to the bar on a trolley I guess. Gone is the stifling heat of summer, and the frozen backsides of winter, we now have a closed in, temperature controlled space which looks out on the production floor of the brewery itself.

A couple of weekends ago we had a team meeting to be introduced to the new space and, to put it simply, it is stunning. The guys that designed the space have done an amazing job, and incorporated some neat touches from the old days of Starr Hill when it was a brewpub in Charlottesville.

To say I am looking forward to getting back behind the bar is something of an understatement, and what a glorious bar it will be to be working behind!

The grand opening is this Saturday, but I will be working on Sunday, so come on down, enjoy the new space, and of course drink the beer!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vive La Difference?

There was a recently a story in a local newspaper that Stone Brewing are looking at building their second brewing facility (sounds so much more 'craft' than 'factory' don't you think?) in the Charlottesville area, specifically near Crozet. Of course this caused much excitement, and likely no little disappointment should they choose to go elsewhere. It also got me thinking.

Let's imagine that the powers that be bend over backwards to bring Stone to this part of Central Virginia, tempting them with all manner of sweeteners, tax-breaks, and sundried incentives, and behold in a couple of years Stone II is open for business. Central Virginia is already becoming something a must visit area for beer tourism, just look at all the award winning breweries we have here, and Devils Backbone picked up more bling at this year's World Beer Cup. Naturally people will want to visit Stone, and I am sure they would in their droves.

There is a question though that nags away in the back of my head, would it not be utterly disingenuous to consider Stone a 'local' brewery, or their beer as 'local'? Sure it would be 'locally brewed', and having access to fresh Pale Ale would most assuredly be a 'good thing', but would it have the same sense of place as Full Nelson from Blue Mountain, Starr Hill's Grateful, or Three Notch'd 40 Mile? I realise that the very concept of 'local' beer is a massive misnomer given ingredients pour into breweries from around the world, and even the water has its localness stripped out quite often. However, there is something romantic about drinking beer made by breweries born and raised in your local area.

The same goes for all the big breweries in the process of setting up secondary plants on the East Coast, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium in North Carolina, and Green Flash in Virginia Beach. Sure it'll be great to have fresher beer, but I don't think I will ever be able to think of it as local, it'll just be another national brand made in multiple factories, likely by the very latest in technological brewing plants. In fact it will be no more local, in my mind, than Blue Moon being made just up the road in Elkton, or Budweiser down in Williamsburg.

If someone could just explain to me, in words of one syllable or less, how exactly the likes of Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium doing pretty much exactly what Anheuser-Busch did about 70 years ago is different? Enjoying the growth of the post-war economy, producing more than 3 million barrels a year, Anheuser-Busch opened secondary plants to bring fresh beer to their consumers. Oh, and by 'explanation' that doesn't include kraft-aid giveaway phrases like 'crafty', misleading consumers' 'tricking' or anything else that attempts to set up the straw man that Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium are anything other than big brewing concerns. Just because 'craft' is trendy doesn't make their doing exactly the same as AB all those years ago any different, or better, or worse.

It's just business.

Friday, April 4, 2014

My Name is Rat, and I Approve This Ale


5 years since the Armistice brought the Great War to an effective end, the man that would become George VI married the woman I only ever knew as the Queen Mother, and the Irish Free State joined the League of Nations.

At the Anchor Brewhouse in Horsleydown, the Courage Brewery was making a beer which in the pubs of London was known as Old Burton, though in the brewery itself it was called KKK. Burton Ale has become something of an obsession of mine, rich as it is in history and brewing possibilities. Like all beers, Burton Ale has evolved, changed, and been understood in different ways throughout its history, and today it is all but ignored.

When I wrote a post called 'Time For Burton' at the end of last year, I suggested that Burton Ale was just the kind of beer that the 'craft' beer world should revive, much as is happening with Grodziskie. A comment on that post inspired me to comment on Facebook that it really was suprising that Burton Ale, big, boozy, and bitter, wasn't being made by 'craft' breweries, and would any of my pro-brewer friends be willing to pick up the baton?

Enter Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton. It's fair to say that I have a very big soft spot for Blue Mountain, they make one of my favourite pale lagers in the US, Blue Mountain Lager. They make one of my favourite winter beers, Lights Out. They make probably the only strong pale lager in the US that doesn't make me want to lament a total absence of balance, Über Pils. Yes, it is very fair to say that Taylor and co know what they are doing. About half an hour after my post, Taylor had responded and initiated the traditional back and forth via email that eventually lead to last Friday's brewday, when we recreated Courage's Old Burton from 1923.

We were forced into a slight change for our version of the beer. For some reason brewing supply companies on this side of the Atlantic don't seem to stock invert #3, the dark version of invert sugar syrup which gave the original much of its colour. Unfortunately British brewing supply companies that carry invert sugars don't have distribution or their products in the US, can't imagine why. What to do, what to do? Baker's invert sugar syrup was the answer, fully inverted, but also clear, so we upped the black malt a tad to adjust the colour.

By the time I turned up at 8am, the mash was already done and sparging was underway. Patrick, the brewer, had got in at 5am to get started, and with a 3 hour boil ahead of us, it's just as well he did. The colour of the wort was startling, deep, deep brown, but it lightened up with the sparging, and adding 10 gallons of clear invert syrup lightened it further so that it ended up a rich red/brown shade.

Another shock was the amount of hops we chucked in for the bittering addition. 22lbs of East Kent Goldings, for 15 barrels of beer! With the other additions of Nugget, and the Goldings used to dry hop the beer, we used something like 3lbs of hops per barrel, or a calculated 102 IBUs - take that, random IPA!

There are few things I enjoy more than a day in a brewery, the ceremonial dumping of the the hops, the chat about beer and brewing, discovering that one of the reasons the brewery wanted to do this project was precisely because it took them our of their comfort zone, and of course digging out the mash tun. Call me crazy, but that really is something I look forward to getting stuck in to.

Anyway, we ended up with about 15 barrels of dark, bitter, so very bitter, wort, which is being fermented by the McEwan's yeast and when it hits the taps at the brewpub will be about 6.5% abv, rippingly bitter, with plenty of residual sugar to take the edge off the hops. Simply put, it will be like nothing out there at the moment. Taylor is also planning to put some in some of his barrels to age for a year or so...

The name for this most auspicious brew....Sensible Mole, obviously.

Monday, March 31, 2014

#IHP2014 - The Drinking

It's fair to say that I really enjoy brewing historical beer recipes, and the International Homebrew Project is probably my favourite homebrew project each year. This year's IHP beer was a porter originally brewed in 1834, in Norwich in East Anglia, at a brewery called St Stephen's. 6 weeks ago I brewed by version of the beer, and last night I popped open a bottle...

As you can see from the picture, it pours absolutely jet black, absorbing the light, with dark brown edges, and a lingering light brown foam that lingers and lingers. Damn it looks inviting. The aroma is dominated by bittersweet chocolate and coffee, the classic roastiness of brown malt, backed up with a supporting cast of tobacco, spice, and earthy hops, and just a slight trace of booze.

The roasty theme continues in the taste, again a coffee element with a hefty dose of dark bittersweet chocolate chucked in for good measure, and a pronounced nuttiness, that made me think of a tablespoon of Nutella stirred into an espresso. The bitterness of the hops is very much present, but not in a grimace inducing way, the balance is surprising really.

This is one full bodied, velvety beer, which still has a little bit of boozy hotness which once is settles out will make it dangerously moreish. The thing that surprised me most about this porter is having a calculated 82 IBUs and yet it has a wonderful balance to it.

I imagine I'll be brewing this again at some point, probably when the nights start to draw in again after summer.


I will be posting links to other versions of the International Homebrew Project as I come across them, or am sent the link.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

#IHP2014 - Write Up Reminder

Seems an age since I brewed my version of a porter originally brewed in 1834...

Well, this weekend I will get to drink the stuff, and then on Monday write about it on here.

Also on the historical brewing front, on Friday I will be at Blue Mountain brewing helping to brew a Burton Ale from 1923, originally brewed by the Courage Brewery in England.

Should be a good weekend all round.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Anything But Utter Nonsense

A few weeks ago I got an email from an old drinking buddy, attached to said email was his new book. The drinking buddy was Max, perhaps better known as Pivní Filosof, and the book, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, co-written with Alan from A Good Beer Blog, and referencing one of my favourite authors.

With fewer than a hundred pages, I thought it wouldn't take that long to read it, but life has a way of getting in the way of pleasures like reading, and thus I only finished it yesterday morning. As the subtitle suggests, this a rant about the way 'craft' beer is perceived by its fans and the snake oil salespeople that peddle its myths, lies, and videotapes.

Couched within a series of conversations between the authors, in various drinking contexts, the book looks at many of the themes that surround the 'craft' beer industry; pricing, beer culture, the definition of 'craft', and various other instantly recognisable motifs. There is a supporting cast of well known bloggers, including a quick mention for Fuggled (on page 72), as Max and Alan bar, and continent, hop.

I found myself nodding in agreement often, as the authors round on the daftness that surrounds 'craft' beer, especially the banality of a sizeable portion of its fans and acolytes, in particular the difference between tasting beer and drinking it. While I like a flight in a new brewery, it really only serves one purpose, to help me choose a pint to drink afterwards. Probably my favourite episode in the book is the kidnapping of an archetypal 'craft' beer geek, and the de-programming of his craft sanitised mind.

Having had the pleasure of drinking with Max, reading the book reminded me of sitting in places like Pivovarský klub, Zlý Časy, and U Radnice (where he, I, Evan Rail, and Rob finished off a keg of Primátor Stout), and speaking with him, which was always fun.

The book is engaging, raucous, and overall a good read. It identifies many of the issues that I have with the current state of much of the 'craft' brewing industry, and associated hangers on. If you feel uneasy with much of the conversation around the beer industry, then The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is essential reading.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Homely Brew

There are times when I read other homebrewers blogs and I am overcome with a sense of equipment inadequacy. Seriously, some of the rigs that people have bought, built, pilfered, or otherwise acquired are seriously impressive. It can leave a chap and his cobbled together 'system' feeling something akin to a malady requiring the work of Doctor Freud to overcome.

My 'system' has no pumps, no false bottoms, no flashing lights and gizmos, but the beer doesn't seem to suffer from such technical rusticity. Perhaps my favourite piece of kit though is my lagering tank.

If you have followed Fuggled for a while, you know that most of my homebrew projects are done on a small scale, about 2.5 gallons usually, and so a 2.5 gallon water bottle makes an ideal lager tank, once you rack the beer off the yeast cake. You will also know that lagers are generally spekaign my favourite types of beer.

My latest homebrew project to use the lagering tank is a doppelbock, with a starting gravity of 18.5° Plato, which attenuated sufficiently to give me 7.6% abv. I transferred it last night into my latest lagering tank, where it will sit for about 8 weeks, for no other reason than capricious whimsy. I usually give lagering tanks a couple of uses and then chuck them in the bin. An added bonus is that they slip nicely into the fridge, so there is no need to go out and buy a lagering fridge and the attendent temperature controls.

Ever since my first homebrew efforts in a poky flat in the heart of Prague, I have tended to repurpose everyday bits and bobs for the noble art of making beer, you could call me a Homebrew Womble if you wish.