Friday, March 15, 2019

For the 1%

Last night I was about to send out a tweet to the effect that the six pack of Anchor Porter I was starting on was likely to be my last beer from that most august of craft breweries, and that fact actually made me sad. I really like Anchor beers, and they are not that easy to come by for some reason in this part of Virginia, so when I go to South Carolina I make sure to get a six pack of either their Porter or Liberty Ale.

The reason I was on the verge of a one man boycott was the way management were stifling attempts of Anchor workers to unionise and use the power of collective bargaining to improve salary and conditions. To make sure I had my fact straight, I made sure to check on the old interwebs for stories about the situation, to be presented with news that the workers had successfully voted to unionise. Naturally I was very pleased, and assuming Anchor's management does nothing to punish or interfere with the workers' rights to be in a union I will continue drinking Anchor with a clean conscience.

However, this got me thinking about how few craft brewery workers actually have union representation at their place of employment, and also the generally poor levels of remuneration and benefits for what is a dangerous job. Based on a survey of salary and benefits done by Jeff at Beervana, it is very rare for a head brewer/brewmaster to earn north of $48,000 - which equates to £36,200 or €42,385. Jeff goes into much more detail here, and it is worth checking out his analysis, and subsequent posts.

Given a median individual income in the US of $31,000, it would appear at face value that brewmasters are doing ok, earning 54% more than median, but let's take a moment to step away from the folks at the top end of the brewing totem pole. According to Jeff's analysis, a lead brewer is earning $38,000 per annum, still above the national median, but pretty much on par with the median in Virginia.Once you get to the bottom rungs of the brewing ladder, you dip just below the median salary.

And yet, according to the Brewers Association, the craft beer market in 2017 was worth $26 billion, that's $26,000,000,000 (US billions being smaller than European billions, much like standard beer serving sizes). That $26 billion is in retail dollars, so let's remind ourselves of this breakdown of the costs of a six pack of beer.


According to this infographic, 52% of the cost of the six pack is markup from the middle men that come between me and my beer, distributors and retailers. So using that number as a guide, the production value of the craft beer industry is about $12.5 billion. The most shocking part of that breakdown though is the cost of labour, just 1% of the cost of your 6 pack is the hours the brewers spent making that beer. Risking physical injury and even death in the event of a tragedy, to earn a single percent of the pie, the same single percent of the pie as the yeast gets.

Perhaps it is the left wing blood that flows through my veins, being the grandson of a leader in the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in Scotland that lead hunger marches in the 1930s, but so little regard for the value of the workers making a company's beer sickens me. That may explain why when I hear stories of breweries that victimise workers for having the temerity to stand up to management and demand better working conditions (and some breweries I have seen the insides of are death traps) and better pay I will always stand in solidarity with the working brewers and thus not drink that brewery's products until workers are free to unionise.

In the meantime, cheers to the workers at Anchor Brewing!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Olde Mecklenburg Brewery Copper

Leaving the flagship beers of central Virginia behind, I want to take a quick trip down Route 29, I-85, and just a tiny bit of I-77, to Charlotte, North Carolina.

It is almost embarrassing when I think about it just how many times since Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened its doors in 2009 Mrs V and I have driven right past without stopping in. The brewery and its 8 acres of beer garden, yes you read that correctly 8 fucking acres of beer garden, stick that in your poxy patio with a potted tree pipe and smoke it, is literally a couple of minutes off the interstate on the last stretch of the drive to my in-laws in South Carolina.

Then when you look at the beers that they make, you probably think, what the fuck have you been playing at Al?? Everything they make is central European in origin, mostly German, and you know me, I am a complete Teutonophile. Best of all? Not a single IPA in sight, yeah can you believe it, a craft brewery in the USA that doesn't have an IPA as its flagship. What does it have then? A pilsner perhaps? A kölsch? Nope neither of those, the flagship is a Düsseldorf style altbier, named Copper.


Copper has become one of my go-to beers when I am able to get hold of it, which basically means whenever Mrs V, the Malé Aličky, and I go south, or the in-laws come north and I put in a beer order. As you can imagine from the name, and see in the picture, Copper is exactly that, a lovely transparent copper orange, topped with a nice, healthy, rocky foam, as you would expect from even Düsseldorf's finest (which is Schumacher since you didn't ask but I'll tell you anyway). Admittedly you probably look daft taking a big sniff from a half litre mug of beer, but who cares when the aromas of bready malt, floral hops, and orange blossom coming wafting through the foam? Those themes dominate the drinking, fresh bread with a schmeer of honey, meadowy floral hops tinged with something citrusy, think lemon and orange rather than grapefruit, and a good solid bitterness to cleanse the palate. You can't get away from the fact that this is a nailed on version of a classic beer style, one that is old school, and all the better for it. This is serious beer flavoured beer for serious beer drinkers, none of your daft silly shit ingredients to muddy the waters here thank you very much.


Next time the family and I go south, probably in the summer, we will definitely be breaking the journey at Old Meck's beer garden, let the boys stretch their legs and run around while mum and dad enjoy several fresh altbiers.

Every prospect pleases.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Blue Mountain Brewery Full Nelson

It's fair to say that I like Blue Mountain Brewery, and have pretty much from the moment we first walked through the, original, door back in 2009. We have watched them grow, both as a venue with the original brewpub at least doubling in size, and as a company, adding the Blue Mountain Barrel House and South Street Brewery to their fold. I have named a beer for them, Isabel, and we did a historic brewing project together, introducing central Virginia to the delights of 1920s Old Burton Ale. It is also fair to say that I simply do not get down there often enough, thankfully there are plenty of places in town to find their beers on tap.

Weighing in at 5.9% abv and with 60 IBUs, Full Nelson is Blue Mountain's flagship, a beer that when I found my notes from our first visit in 2009 I described as being "a delight". That was also my opinion when I most recently had a couple of pints, again sharing a pitcher with my mate Dave.


As you can tell from the picture, Full Nelson is squarely in the old school American Pale Ale category, old school of course not being any denigration of a lovely beer. Despite the 60 IBUs, there is enough malt to balance that out and make for one very drinkable beer, perhaps not a session beer, but certainly something worthy of a few pints in a single sitting.

Being an old school American Pale Ale, you get a good wallop of bitterness as well as the classic pine and citrus flavours that the style is known for. That bitterness though is softened by the almost Plzeňesque water source, which gives the beer a roundness that pale ales made from a harder water source lack, and in my world that makes it a more pleasureable drinking experience. In many ways Full Nelson is a throwback to simpler times in the craft beer world, before the IPAification of everything, before beer as murky as sheep phlegm, before endless new releases. In other words, a flagship, pure, simple, and endlessly enjoyable.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - South Street Satan's Pony

In the nearly ten years since Mrs V and I upped sticks from the Czech Republic (not sorry, but I will never refer to the Czech lands as "Czechia"), Charlottesville and it's immediate environs have experienced something of a brewing boom. In 2009 there were just 4 breweries within about 20 miles of the city, and only one of those in Charlottesville itself. The oldest of those 4 breweries, and the only one in the city of Charlottesville proper, is South Street Brewery. Established in 1998, the brewpub has always been one of my favourite spaces in which to drink, though until 2015 the beer was, all to often, undrinkable, as I wrote about here.

Apparently it hadn't ever been thus. Prior to starting Blue Mountain Brewery, Taylor Smack had been the brewer at South Street, and they had a good reputation. When 8 years later Taylor bought South Street, he and his wife Mandi set about restoring that reputation, to superb effect. South Street beers are now worthy of the space they are brewed and consumed in, and in doing so they also restored the flagship, Satan's Pony.


Satan's Pony is a rarity among flagship beers in that it is not an IPA, rather it is, officially, an Amber Ale. I tend to think of it though as more of a ruby mild in the tradition of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby as it is 5.3%. Sadly I think the term "ruby mild" would sell less than "amber ale". The picture above was taken a couple of weekends ago at brunch, my good friend Dave and I shared a pitcher of Pony, and once it had got to cellar temperature it was quite revelatory. With only 12 IBU, malt complexity comes to the fore. It has a lovely biscuity base, British biscuits that is, think Rich Tea. On top of the base is layered toffee, a subtle toastiness, and the soothing flavours of unsweetened cocoa. With hops basically there to add bitterness for balance, this is anything but a one dimension hop fest, and it is all the better for it. It is simply delicious.

Now, if you know me in the slightest, you'll likely be reeling from all the glowing positivity above, so let me say this about Satan's Pony, it doesn't get the love it deserves.


South Street is one of the few places I know in Virginia that has a beer engine, and thus the ability to have real ale hand pulled at cellar temperature, and I can think of no better beer in their range to be elevated to the heights of real ale than Satan's Pony. When I say elevated, I mean no silly shit ingredients, I don't want a pastry ruby mild, or dry hopping, or cocoa nibs, or, well, anything else really. Satan's Pony, properly cask condititioned, then properly cared for by the cellarman, pulled, when ready, through a sparkler, would be a thing of beauty.

This year sees the 21st birthday of South Street, and Satan's Pony has been a major part of that ride. You could make a strong argument that Pony is the flagship craft beer for Charlottesville and central Virginia, and in the spirit of Flagship February get out there and try it folks, then thank Taylor and Mandi for restoring its lustre (before bugging them for having it on cask...)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

#FlagshipFebruary - Three Notch'd 40 Mile IPA

I do hope you are sitting comfortably dear reader, especially if you are one of my regulars, as I am about to do something rarely seen in these here Fuggledy parts, extol the virtues of a pale ale of a hoppy nature.

Not only was last Friday the beginning of Flagship February it was also the day on which my dry month was over, and so it seemed appropriate for me to break the fast with a local flagship beer. Thus I wandered into the cavernous brewpub that is Three Notch'd, sat at the bar, and ordered a pint of 40 Mile IPA.


40 Mile is a rare beast in that it is an IPA that I have liked from the outset of its brewing, and still like to this day, despite the fact that I don't often drink it. I think part of my liking for 40 Mile is that it eschews the modern craze for a lack of bitterness, it is properly twangy in that department. The star of the hop flavour department is El Dorado, popping with tropical and stone fruit, making 40 Mile so much more than just another pine and grapefruit bomb. As with any beer that I like, balance is important, and the malt character is not lacking either. With delicate poise, the light toffee notes of the crystal malt add restraint. With a relatively modest 6% abv, 40 Mile is something that you can take a couple of with lunch and not be the worse for wear, though caning it all day is most definitely not the wisest thing a one can do.


I remember with much fondness my first taste of 40 Mile, or at least the beer that would become 40 Mile. In the very early days of the Three Notch'd project, the founders organised a meet and greet with their brewer at the pub next door to their original location. Wanting to support my friend that is one of the founders, I got along and met with Dave Warwick and tried several of the sample beers he had with him, including an IPA that shock of all shocks, I really liked. When it first made an appearance in the old taproom (a space I deeply lament the passing of, it was for a long time the best drinking hole in Charlottesville) I drank 4 pints of the newly monikered 40 Mile while my friends watched aghast that Al was drinking multiple pints of an IPA.

In terms of sales, 40 Mile has been surpassed by Minute Man IPA, an IPA of the New England ilk, but in moving from their original digs to the new brewpub where I had my first beers of 2019 last week, it is clear that 40 Mile remains the flagship and the brewpub is known as "the house that 40 Mile built".

Friday, February 1, 2019

Real Ale: Real Craft

I am in the planning stages of going home to Scotland for at least a month this summer. Inevitably that means things like plane tickets, making sure travel documents are up to date, getting passports for a pair of 15 month old children, getting 15 month old children to sit still for photographs for said passports, and so on and so forth. Thankfully my current employer is ok with me taking my computer with me and working from the UK so I don't have to use up all my holiday time, working in IT is fantastic at times.

Inevitably intermingled with all these practicalities are thoughts of beers to hunt out, pubs to go to, breweries to visit, that kind of beer tourist crap that I admit to being terrible at. You see, I have this problem, when I find a place I like I often don't feel like changing it up, and I have a short list of must hit boozers and must drink beers for my time home. One thing all these bars have in common, whether in Inverness and environs northwards, or in Glasgow, is they have decent selections of cask ale.


While I am not a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, and in no way, shape, or form an anti-keg beer zealot - forget dry January, that would be abstinence in the US - I do consider myself very much a fellow traveller on the path of real ale righteousness. Nothing, and I literally mean nothing, beats a pint of flavourful, well conditioned, well tended ale drawn from a cask, served at the right temperature. That is something each boozer on my little list has in common, they do cask ale right, and that means sparkled as well, naturally.



There does seem to be something of a false dichotomy though in the UK when it comes to the relationship between cask ale and craft beer. Just so there is no room for misunderstanding, let me say very clearly that the biggest difference I see is that craft beer is ultimately a product of a brewery, while cask ale is a craft throughout its life cycle.

Think about that for a moment. Craft beer basically gets made, kegged, chucked in a pub cold room and then poured from a tap. When the keg kicks, a member of the bar staff goes to the cold room, puts a new keg on and carries on. It is exactly what I did for many years behind the bar at the Starr Hill brewery tasting room. It doesn't take any special skill to pour beer behind a bar that serves kegged craft beer. That's not to say that keg beer is crap beer, it is after all just a different dispense method, rather that when it comes to delivery there is very little that can go wrong once the keg is tapped.


Now consider real ale, delivered to the pub cellar where it needs to sit at the right temperature until it is ready to be vented, and even then it takes time to get to the appropriate condition for serving. It takes a trained cellarman to keep the ale flowing with as little disruption to customers. Even in the pulling of your pint, there is right way to pull through a beer engine. There are many stages at which real ale can turn to shit, especially once it has left the relative safety of the brewery, and of course once the cask is tapped the clock is running on when it will turn to vinegar, a problem that keg beer generally doesn't have, I know of breweries that have found old kegs of beer in the back of their storage and put it on tap to customers who were none the wiser, and happily paid full price for essentially old beer.

I think sometimes cask ale gets a raw deal, demeaned by crafties and lout drinkers alike as old man beer, mistreated by far too many pubs, in the US often served slapped on a bar and with the cask groaning with silly shit, and cloudy as fuck too. When the craft of real ale is done right, the beer has passed through the hands of multiple artisans (and being a good cellarman is an art), and the end product is a pint of beautifully cool, well conditioned ale, there is nothing that compares.


Cask ale is the product of craftsmanship from beginning to end.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sober Reflections - #TheSession

Before launching into my beery navel gazing that is the "theme", for want of a better word, that Alan has set before us for this month, let me say that I am so glad that he decided to pick up the baton and keep running with The Session.


Coming back to Alan's request, he wants us to reflect on the month now drawing to its close:
How was your dry or wet January? Did the campaign actually change your behaviours in any way? Or is it just good to reflect on the idea of alcohol and health and this is a great way to do it?
This is the 12th year that I have taken January off the booze. I am not sure there was even such a thing as "Dry January" back in 2007, back when my standard beers were Gambrinus, Kozel, and Budvar. That first month off the booze came about as a result of a particularly drunken Christmas and Hogmanay season, and just sick of feeling shitty with a hangover.

In common with many smokers' anecdotes, the hardest part was going to the pub, to watch football, and not having a half litre beer glass in my hand. After about 10 days though that wore off and I found that I quite enjoyed waking up with a clear head on a Sunday morning and walking along the Vltava in the crisp winter cold. When February 1st came around though, I was ready for a beer, but my palette had changed, and of the old faithfuls only Budvar satisfied.

My dry month has become as much a feature of my drinking life as my love of Czech lager and best bitter, it's just something I like to do for no other reason than I feel that it is good sometimes to take a step back, even switch off a little bit, and tune out the noise that surrounds much of the craft beer industry.

This year has been the hardest I can remember, and I am glad that I am a stubborn, bloody minded Highlander, as that determination to get to the finish line will get me through. It would be too easy to say that the fact that I have 15 month old twins has made the month harder, I had the same twins, though younger obviously, this time last year. Life with 3 month old twins though is a completely different kettle of fish, and not drinking when you have to deal with 2 or 3 feedings each night was likely beneficial.

In talking about this with Mrs V, as inestimably wonderful as ever, she noted that compared to even 3 or 4 years ago I probably don't drink quite as much, and so for the first Holidays period I can recall, there were no epic, or even semi-epic, sessions on the booze. There was a fairly steady stream of a couple of imperial pints each night, and a few extra at the weekend, but nothing where Mrs V felt as though I had had enough, before my going on to have a few more. Without sludgy hangovers to deal with, the feeling of clean came much quicker than the usual ten days.

This year has also likely been harder because the boys, as is the want of kids that age in winter, have been an endless source of snot, fever, and the attendant discomforted upset that goes along with such things. When bedtime is over and done with so many nights I have looked longingly at the Sierra Nevada mix pack, cans of König Pilsner, and growler of South Street doppelbock in the fridge, only to have that dour Highland determination remind me that a few more days without will make that first February beer all the sweeter.

And then comes through the news about Fullers. As with previous sales of breweries I very much like, I am incapable of the caterwauling and gnashing of teeth that is de rigeur at times like this. However, I think the news is the first time such a thing has happened in the middle of my drink free time, and perhaps I am clearer headed than usual, but this time the lamentations of St Jude's acolytes grated more keenly, like the banshee's wail. As someone pointed out, there is a likely overlap of caterwaulers and folks that derided Fullers as "boring brown beer". Some people will find any reason for a moan.

Anyway, Friday is on its way, and I am looking forward to having a beer or two with lunch to get back in the swing of things.