Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Going for An English - Lager Edition

Pale lager, it's just my thing people.

Whether it's a pilsner, of German or Czech extraction, a Helles, a Maibock, or a Kellerbier, if it's pale and lager I'll give it a bash. Some might draw the line at drinking mass produced pale lagers, but I have a soft spot for Tennent's (if anyone fancies sending me a slab of those beautiful yellow cans, feel free), and from time to time I quite like a Budweiser, not Bud Lite, proper Bud.

English lager is not really a common sight over here in Virginia. Once upon a time our local Wegmans stocked Charlie Wells Dry Hopped Lager, which was ok, but more recently they have started stocking Pure Brewed Lager from that bastion of ale brewing, Samuel Smiths. In one of those spur of the moment things, I picked up a four pack as I had no recollection of ever having tried it, though I did recall that the Tadcaster brewers used to brew under license for Ayinger, so I guess they know what they are doing.

The cans themselves don't really give much away in terms of style, but the beer has an abv of 5% and won a gold medal as an "International Style Pilsner" at the US Beer Open in 2018. In a rare moment of brand consistency, I poured the 16oz can into one of my several Samuel Smiths pint glasses...

Pretty looking beer there, I think you'll agree. However, I have a minor gripe, nucleated glassware often does my head in, you know the kind of thing, glasses with laser etchings on the base that ensure the head is constantly refreshed, I am just not a fan. Next time I try it, I will use one of my standard German beer glasses to get a better sense of actual, unaided, head retention.

So, yes, top marks for looking exactly as a pale lager should do, suitably golden, crystal clear, and all topped off with white foam. That anything in the aroma made it though that mass of foam is a wonder, but there was some lovely floral notes, some grassiness, and the very subtle toastiness of a Vienna malt. The breadiness was evident in the drinking as well, with a lovely lemoniness that firstly put Tettnang hops in mind, but then made me think of lemon curd on toast, minus most of the sweetness of the curd though.

Overall, a very respectable pale lager that put me more in mind of a Helles than that grab bag of naff that is the "International Style Pilsner". Assuming that the 4 pack I snagged at Wegmans on Saturday wasn't the last they will ever have, I still haven't forgiven them for no longer stocking Black Sheep Ale, then this might just become a frequent visitor to the Velký Al beer fridge.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Too Much?

Nelson County in central Virginia is the very definition of bucolic. Rolling, forested hills, the beautiful Rockfish and Tye rivers, farmland aplenty, and not a single incorporated town, the county seat, Lovingston, de-incorporated in 1938.

For a 14 mile stretch of Virginia State Route 151, Nelson County is home to many of the area's local wineries, breweries, a couple of cideries and at least one distillery. From its junction with US-250 to Devils Backbone, about 14 miles, is home to 15 businesses that produce and sell alcohol. Being in such a beautiful part of the world, many of the local wineries in particular have a sideline as events spaces, especially weddings, and local breweries also have live music. In more "normal" times, the area is positively heaving with visitors.

Now it seems that some of the local residents have had enough. Yesterday Mrs V and I went to Devils Backbone again as they currently have the latest iteration of Ein Kölsch on tap, and I noticed a sign on the side of the road, having just turned of US-250, that said, and I paraphrase:

"No more alcohol, event spaces, amplified music, and increased traffic in our rural areas."

I have to admit, and I realise there is a hefty dose of irony here, that I can sympathise with the attitude presented on the sign. Mrs V and I rarely bother with Route 151, other than to go to Devils Backbone, simply because the traffic can be crazy and many of the more popular spots, such as Blue Mountain Brewery and Bold Rock Cider, are often packed before lunchtime. Several places along the road have undertaken projects to increase their parking capacity, even so seeing cars parked along the verge is not entirely uncommon. When I think to when Mrs V and I first moved out here, there were only two breweries on Route 151, Blue Mountain Brewery and Devils Backbone, with about 12 miles of wineries in between, not a single cidery or distillery.

This got me thinking about the point at which all this development becomes a burden rather than a boon to a local area. In 12 years living in central Virginia, I can only remember a single major road works project on Rt 151, otherwise it is still a run of the mill, rural, one lane each way kind of road. According to the Nelson County Comprehensive Plan, this 14 mile bit of road sees an average of 8500 trips per day. Obviously the majority of the traffic is personal cars, though at weekends there will be literally bus loads of booze tourists visiting the area.

It's very easy for us to celebrate the fact that we have such a wealth of options on our doorstep, and very beautiful ones at that. As I mentioned last week, I love going down to Devils Backbone and enjoying superb beers in a frankly stunning location, but would I want to live on this little stretch of road that constantly hums to the noise of the infernal combustion engine? I also have to ask myself the question, how will I feel if the proposed breweries coming closer to my neck of the woods create something similar?

I am not going to propose any solutions, as a few jotted thoughts on a blog post are hardly a suitable substitute for the consideration, planning, and balancing of the needs of various stake holders. Though I can honestly say I feel a sense of understanding for the people putting out signs like the ones referenced above. It's a difficult question for rural areas, how do you balance economic development with maintaining the very idyll that makes an area such a draw in the first place? Is having ready access to excellent beer really worth the added strain on infrastructure, increased noise pollution, and a sense of your home becoming someone else's playground?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Feel the Schwarz

I love doing a comparative tasting. I find that taking a selection of beers from a range of breweries really helps me calibrate my expectations of a given style. Given that part of the aim of a comparative tasting for me is to educate, or often re-educate, my palate on a given a style, I often make sure to have an archetype of the style being tasted in the mix.

A style that I have been keen to do such a tasting for is that Thuringian speciality, bratwurst, no wait sorry, I meant schwarzbier...though schwarzbier and bratwurst could easily be a weekend lunch or dinner.

The archetypal schwarzbier is of course from Köstritzer, and while I have regularly seen it on tap in my local area, only recently has it started turning up in packs of four half litre cans. At the same time, my Schilling Beer Company kick shows no sign of abating, and their Feldberg happened to be on the shelves of Beer Run when I popped in on Friday afternoon. No schwarzbier tasting would be complete without two time World Beer Cup medalist (one gold, one bronze) Schwartz Bier from Devils Backbone.

Having considered doing the tasting blind and ranking the three beers in order of preference, I opted just to drink them sequentially, starting in Germany...

Köstritzer Schwarzbier

  • Sight: dark brown, garnet edged, half inch tan head with decent retention
  • Smell: roasty, mostly well toasted bread, some dark caramel, slightly woody, earthy hops
  • Taste: again toast, not quite burnt toast, but not far off, some coffee, unsweetened cocoa
  • Sweet: 2/5
  • Bitter: 3/5
A good start to the tasting. While it is clearly a "big brewery" product, Köstritzer being part of the Bitburger empire, it is a big German brewery, which usually means the beer will at least be clean, technically proficient, and well made. It might be just a little thin and marginally one-dimensional, but would I drink it happily every day? Why, yes, yes I would.

Schilling Beer Co. Feldberg
  • Sight: dark mahogany, brown highlights, ivory head, good retention
  • Smell: earthy/oaky upfront, milk chocolate, grassy and floral hop aroma
  • Taste: rich chocolate, earthy, petrichor, traces of coffee
  • Sweet: 3/5
  • Taste: 3/5
The Schilling love in continues! This is one nicely balanced beer, rich without being overwhelming, there is something of a coconut character floating about that made me think of Bounty bars. The fuller mouthfeel and more medium body help to make this a more complex, and satisfying, beer.

Devils Backbone Schwartz Bier
  • Sight: near black, garnet edges, half inch light brown head, good retention
  • Smell: deeply bready, some cola, chocolate cake, floral hops
  • Taste: very well toasted bread, espresso, light cocoa
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
  • Bitter: 3/5
There is a reason this beer has a gold medal from the World Beer Cup for the schwarzbier style, it is a damned fantastic beer. Supremely balanced, the body is somewhere between Köstritzer and Schilling, and the finish is long and clean. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

As I said , the aim of this tasting was not to pick out a winner, but rather to calibrate my palate as well as take the opportunity to see where Schilling would stand in relation to the archetype and one of the world's best iterations of the style. Very handily is the answer to that particular question. However, at $7 for a couple of litres of good beer, it is difficult to look past Köstritzer, though it is great to finally have options when it comes to beer to drink with bratwurst...

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

In Praise of the Brewery Steve Built

I learnt this morning through social media that Devils Backbone founder Steve Crandall had died. Now, I didn't know Steve particularly well, having only met him a couple of times, but if you have been a regular on Fuggled for any length of time you will know just how much the brewery he founded means to me. I do count several Devils Backbone folks as friends, and knowing the strong family ethos that permeates the company, I know they are hurting right now.

If memory serves, the genesis of Devils Backbone was Steve, and his wife Heidi, wanting to create something akin to an alpine gasthaus in a part of Virginia that at the time was better known for its wine than its beer. The first time Mrs V and I went down to Roseland I remember the joy of seeing such a beautiful brewpub in some of the finest surroundings I have ever seen. The original building, which is still the beating heart of a much increased venue - they have a distillery, campgrounds, outdoor bar, and probably more stuff since I was last there - was built largely from reclaimed materials. My personal favourite "feature", for want of a better word, is the solid wooden flooring, it is just beautiful.

Over the years that followed, Devils Backbone became something of a regular haunt, indeed at one point I remarked to Mrs V that it was the only local brewery that we had taken all of our visitors too. A fact that is still true, whenever friends come to visit us for the first time, the hour long drive to Devils Backbone for beer and a feed is de rigeur.

I don't believe it would be an understatement that the Virginia beer scene would be infinitely poorer without the work of Steve Crandall and Devils Backbone. They were instrumental in the founding of organisations like the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, as well as the Virginia Craft Beer Cup, which they hosted for the first few years, and won 3 years in a row.

In the 12 years I have lived in Virginia, Devils Backbone have been a staple of my drinking life, and the brewery about which I have posted most on Fuggled. As such, I am incredibly grateful that Steve followed his vision to create a place to drink world class beer in one of the most beautiful parts of Virginia. With that in mind, I will be raising a glass or two of Vienna Lager in his memory.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Introducing...The Dave Line Project

Once upon time, back in the late 1980s, my dad starting making his own beer. Through the hazy fog of time, I can vaguely recall a collection of carboys, airlocks bubbling, as the generally brown liquid fermented away before being racked into large polypins to essentially become cask ale. I don't remember my dad ever really getting beyond the "buying a kit from Boots stage", no doubt something like those still available from Munton's, with a sachet of yeast under the lid, and the kind of thing that was my own first steps into homebrewing.

While I have no recollection of my dad's homebrewing from a taste perspective, I was well and truly underage when my younger brother and I offered to "help" pour beer at dad's 40th birthday bash and indulged ourselves in the illicit nectar when folks weren't looking, one thing that stuck in my brain was a book...

Dave Line's "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" was a well thumbed tome during my dad's homebrewing years, and I remember dipping in and out of it as a teenager. There was something intriguing about all these foreign beer recipes, their strange sounding names, exotic ingredients, and in some cases recently revolutionised countries. I couldn't in all honesty tell you what I found interesting about the book, but when I started brewing my own beer back in 2009, I knew I wanted to hunt down a copy of my own, dad's having been lost in any one of a series of moves.

The version that I eventually got my hands on is a revised edition from the 2000s and takes into account changes in the homebrew market in the 25ish years between the original publication and the newer edition. Dave Line himself died in 1980, but I am sure that he would love to see what has become of homebrewing in the 40 years since, and that his books are still available. I also recently bought the the "Big Book of Brewing" for reference, and I love the hand drawn illustrations as well as the wealth of knowledge the book contains.

So...as I reveled in homebrew nostalgia, I thought to myself that it would be fun to try and update some of the recipes in "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" with a view to actually getting round to brewing again soon (twins, seriously). Thus the Dave Line Project was born, and I am slowly working my way through the book, updating the recipes to modern ingredients and methods.

Being something of a contrary sod (you've all noticed that too right?), I decided to go for a deeply uncool recipe, and what could be less cool than mild? While I was being uncool, I decided that it would be fun to go for a recipe from a much reviled brewery, thus the first beer to get the VelkyAl treatment was Watney Mann Special Mild.

Admittedly I have stuck pretty close to the recipe in the book, though I don't intend on adding hop extracts or saccharin tablets after my boil, and I'll be kegging rather than bottle conditioning. My recipe then is:

  • 77% Golden Promise
  • 17% Invert #3
  • 4% Flaked Barley
  • 2% Molasses
  • 20 IBUs of Fuggles for 90 minutes
  • Safale S-04
For all of that, the aim is to get a beer that has:
  • OG: 1.031
  • ABV: 3%
  • IBU: 20
  • SRM: 8.4° (somewhere between dark gold and pale amber)
I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by how pale this recipe came out, especially with 17% of the fermentables being from a 50° Lovibond invert sugar syrup. Perhaps I should bump up to invert #4? If anyone reading this recalls Watney Mann Special Mild, let me know what colour it was. My choice of base malt and yeast are simple capricious whimsy, after all the title of the book is "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy" not "Brewing Beers Exactly The Same As Those You Buy".

If all goes to plan (looking at you twins to cooperate and let daddy find a few hours to get something done for a change), I hope to have the first Dave Line Project beer ready in time for Mild Month, also known as "May". In the meantime, I'll be working on a few more recipes from the book.

Update: based on David's comment about the beer being dark brown, I changed the recipe to use invert syrup #4, and the SRM went to 21°, which is seemingly darker than a red ale, but not as dark as a dunkel, so I think #4 will do the trick.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Old Friends: Devils Backbone Gold Leaf

I spent last weekend camping at the Westmoreland State Park, on the banks of the River Potomac, with my family and our good friends. Whenever we go camping, having a cooler full of beer is a pre-requisite as once all our children are in bed, we stoke the campfire, and enjoy a good drink.

As I was working, it was up to Mrs V to get to the shops for supplies, including at least part of the beer for the weekend. Not wanting to burden her with multiple trips to various shops with the twins in tow, I was more than happy for her to just get a 15 can pack of something, and the first beer that popped into my mind was Devils Backbone Gold Leaf.

Gold Leaf is kind of difficult at times to pin down in terms of style. Sure it is as pale as a German pilsner, but only weighs in at 4.5% abv and is relatively unbitter with 21 IBUs. Sure you could call it a helles, though you would be more in the ballpark of Andechs Vollbier Helles than say Spaten's.

Having had the 15 pack on ice for the best part of the day, it finally came time to have a beer. The kids were suitably knackered from running around and relatively quietly eating their dinner, so pssst went a can and without taking notes or bothering with a glass (the picture is from an old post) we tucked in...

It is quite often that you see people talking about how the context of a beer is important, usually when drinking some mega-swill from a frosted glass on the beach in Greece, but Gold Leaf hit the spot perfectly. Yes, it is a somewhat subtle beer, but those 21 IBUs include judicious amounts of Saaz and Tettnang, giving the beer a lovely floral taste that always makes me think of alpine meadows, replete with all singing all dancing Teutonic maidens in dirndls. 

There is enough heft in the malt side of things to keep it from being watery, and that just aids the refreshment. It took about 3 mouthfuls to polish off the can, and without thinking pssst went another one, and so on, and so on until the 15 were gone, the embers of the campfire were beyond smooring, and sleep beckoned.

An inspired choice then, so huzzah for old friends like Gold Leaf!

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Bauhaus Brauhaus

New England has become something of a theme in my drinking of late. I refer not to the murky swill that is all the rage among drinkers of IPA, a beer trend that I find simply baffling. If I want my fruit juice to be alcoholic, I'll bung in some vodka. Nope, I refer to the gratifying number of breweries from those northern climes who make quality lager, you know, the kind of beers I love.

The current object of my affection is New Hampshire's Schilling Brewing Company, makers of the delightful Alexandr 10° and Palmovka 12° Czech style pale lagers. I recently also had their Augustin 13° polotmavé, which was a very respectable drop, though not one that will take the place of its pale stable mates. The same can not be said for their tmavý ležák, Modernism...

Modernism has a relatively modest abv for most American made Czech style dark lagers, at 4.8%, which if I were back in Czechia I would assume a starting gravity of 12° Plato. This is however no shrinking violet of a beer, packed as it is with the classic flavours and aromas of Czech dark lagers. Yes coffee, yes some cocoa, also hints of cola, and even some sweet Munich notes. Being very much in the modern vein of dark lagers, a hefty wallop of floral, spicy noble hops. Complexity without overdoing it, I approve. Goodness me I like this beer muchly, thank goodness I still have some cans in the fridge, alongside which now reside a 4 pack of Schilling's Landbier Dunkel...

Schilling, in common with that other New England staple in my beer life, Von Trapp Brewing, just don't seem to put a foot wrong at the moment, and this lager boy is most assuredly not complaining.

Going for An English - Lager Edition

Pale lager, it's just my thing people. Whether it's a pilsner, of German or Czech extraction, a Helles, a Maibock, or a Kellerbier, ...