Thursday, August 17, 2017

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2017

This weekend is the 6th annual Virginia Craft Brewers Fest in Charlottesville, actually in the city itself rather than down at Devils Backbone as in previous years. As in each of the previous 6 years of the festival, I spent time earlier this year judging the Virginia Craft Beer Cup, in which a beer that I designed won a silver medal. As usual I won't be attending the festival itself as I will be in western Virginia with Mrs V at a fiddle camp - basically she has music workshops all day and I find a cosy chair, beer, and a book to while away the day.

In years past I have presented a list of the 10 best Virginia beers I have drunk in the past 12 months, and I see no reason to change it this year...
  1. Port City Brewing - Porter (7.2%). I am fairly sure there are regular readers of this blog who will be sending me emails to make sure I am ok because number 1 on my list this year is not a sessionable pale lager. Fear not, I am fine. I was reminded of what a simply magnificent beer Port City's Porter is when I did a comparative porter tasting last December, describing it as 'rich' and 'unctuous'. During the winter and spring it was a regular in my my fridge and given half an hour to get to a decent temperature never failed to impress. If there is a better porter in America right now I would be surprised.
  2. Devils Backbone Brewing - Czech 10 (4.3%). I was desperately trying to avoid recency bias with this choice as the beer was only released last Friday. I failed. The highest praise I can give this beer is that if I were poured a pint of it in a pub in the Czech Republic I would love it, rave about, drag my friends to the pub to drink it. Obscenely easy to drink, packed with the flavours and aromas of Saaz hops, and so well made that had it been allowed in the Czech lager category at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup this year it would have blown all other competition out of the water. Proof, yet again, that corporate structure has no impact on beer quality.
  3. Alewerks Brewing - Weekend Lager (4.8%). This Munich style helles was a new one for me back in June when I wrote about a slew of this style that I tried (would the plural of 'helles' be 'heli'?). I enjoyed the beer, but there was something odd about the bottle I drank, so when I saw it on tap a few days later I tried again and it was delicious, I may have had several more. A wonderful competition of cracker graininess and lemongrass hops make it something to sit and enjoy on a sunny patio. Marvellous.
  4. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). Probably the single most regular beer I have drunk in the last 12 months, and it hasn't even been on tap at the brewpub for about 4 months (seriously guys, sort it out!). It is a lovely beer, with a superb balance of malt and noble hops, finishing with soft, clean bite that makes the first pint go quickly, and the second, and maybe even a third, fourth, fifth....
  5. Champion Brewing - Shower Beer (4.5%). Yes, yes, yes, another pale lager. It's what I like and it's my list. Another example of a Czech style lager being made in Virginia that would be perfectly welcome back in Bohemia, bursting with the hay and lemon character that I associate with Saaz hops. A great beer for rounding off a day's hiking.
  6. Three Notch'd Brewing - Ghost of the 43rd (5.2%). A fairly common, and frankly welcome sight in the bars of central Virginia. Ghost is one of the nicest American pale ales I have ever had, up there for me with Sierra Nevada's iconic Pale Ale. Loads of hops and enough bitterness to remind you that you are drinking beer (I seriously have issues with beer that has little to no bitterness), Ghost quite often disappears as soon as you see it.
  7. Devils Backbone Brewing - Excel Lager (2.6%). That is not a typo. Earlier this year, Devils Backbone brewed a 7° pale lager that was the equal of many a far stronger pale lager being brewed in this country. Beautifully balanced, not thin in the slightest, and oh so refreshing after a morning climbing to one the highest points in this part of the Blue Ridge. As I said in my post on the beer at the time, this beer showed Jason and so as true masters of the craft of brewing beer.
  8. South Street Brewery - Virginia Lager (5.0%). Despite being a wee bit stronger, South Street's Virginia Lager kind of reminds me of a less bitter Pilsner Urquell, with a similar malt profile and clean hop bite in the finish. While it lacks the additional Saaz characteristics that Pilsner Urquell has, it is a nice pintable beer that in the absence of My Personal Helles has seen me drink plenty in the last couple of months. One of the few South Street beers available bottled, it is always a good option when out and about.
  9. Three Notch'd Brewing - Oats McGoats (5.5%). This winter will be difficult since Three Notch'd have discontinued this wonderful oatmeal stout. Seriously, it is one of the best oatmeal stouts I have ever had, and so while every one and his mate runs around like headless chickens after the latest fruited murky IPA, those of us who like a grown up beer see our favourites cut from under us. Rich chocolate enveloped in a silky smooth body made this a beer that will live long in the memory, and if it should come out as a special something to fill every available growler with.
  10. Devils Backbone Brewing - Schwartzbier (5.1%). Recently rebranded as just plain old 'Black Lager', but forever in my mind 'Schwartzbier', this is a beer that I drink quite a bit of. Wonderfully roasty, yet smooth and clean, Black Lager reminds more than anything of a bottom fermented stout, which is you know anything of my drinking history is probably why I like it so much. I have to admit I don't see the point of the rebrand, but there we go, as long as the beer stays the same I am a happy camper.
I say this every year, but it bears repeating, this is a purely subjective list based exclusively on the beers I have enjoyed most in the last 12 months. I don't have any time for the daft purity dick waving that goes on as to who is 'craft' and who is not, and yes the list is skewed to my local breweries, but that's just the way it is. If you see these beers out in the wild, try them, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

#TheSession - 127 Announcement

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. (You can find more information on The Session on Brookston Beer Bulletin).

Tis the season!! Right about now breweries and beer shops are groaning under the weight of their autumnal offerings, and so for this month's Session, the 127th of it's ilk, we turn to one of those autumnal offerings, Oktoberfest lagers.

"Oktoberfest, in September?!" I hear you exclaim, but as I am sure you know, Oktoberfest begins every year in the middle of September, this year on the 16th, and finishes in the eponymous month. So what better way to start the month it all begins in Bavaria than to hunt down a load of beers labelled as 'Oktoberfest' or 'Festbier', or in some cases both, and have a little mix and match tasting session?

Feel free to dress up for your tasting, dirndls, lederhosen, that Australian backpacker outfit you keep in the back of your wardrobe for special occasions. Hire yourself an oompah band, play the birdy song, and generally get into the spirit of celebrating for the 117th time the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Whip out the grill and buy all the bratwurst you can find, proper bratwurst that is, from Germany. Shout "O'zapft is!" at the top of your lungs...you get the idea.

I look forward to reading your posts on Friday September 1st.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Perfect 10

A pub. Green tablecloths draped over dark wooden tables. Beermats propped up between the salt and pepper shakers. Above the wooden wainscoting, black and white photos of the pub being on the front line of a rebellion against the Nazis, or the Communists, who knows? Working men, smoking, talking, drinking. The barman taking minutes to pour each glass of beer, the server whisking them to tables, seemingly without being asked. The beer, slightly hazy yellow, topped with a solid white foam, gone in four mouthfuls, replaced by the server with a fresh one.


The pub I am thinking of here is U slovanské lipy, in the Žižkov district of Prague, as I remember it before leaving the Czech Republic for my current sojourn in Virginia. U slovanské lipy was, at the time, probably my favourite place to drink, utterly unpretentious, down to earth, and serving what I, to this day, think of as the height of Czech pale lager, Kout na Šumavě's magnificent desítka, or 10° lager.

All of those memories came flooding back last Saturday while I was at Devils Backbone brewing up the 16°polotmavé, which we decided to call 'Granát', and sampled their new beer called Czech 10, which as the name suggests is a Czech style 10° pale lager.


Brewed to 10° Plato, obviously, this delight of a beer has an abv of 4.3%, and if memory serves me rightly 35 IBUs of pure Saaz joy. So painfully simple, so perfectly done, just this one half pint from the lagering tank was a joy. A billowingly soft, almost pillow like, malt characteristic dances like Fred and Ginger with the lemon and hay of Saaz, coming to a firm crisp snap of a finish.

It is a mighty fine beer, and it is being release on tap today at the Devils Backbone Basecamp brewpub, so I am sure you can guess where I will be this afternoon, filling growlers.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Halfway to Darkness

I have a habit of getting interested in, and advocating for, beer styles that are perhaps out of the mainstream of craft beer. What kind of loon starts American Mild Month, for example, or convinces a brewery to make a 1920s Burton Ale, a Czech tmavé, or thinks that best bitter could actually be appreciated by American drinkers? This kind of loon, that's what. Well the loon is at it again.


Tomorrow I will be taking the wonderfully scenic drive down to the Devils Backbone Basecamp, their original brewpub in the hills, and once again we are visiting the Czech brewing world to brew one of my recipes for a rare beer style, a 'polotmavé.


The word 'polotmavé' literally means 'half-dark', and is a style of beer that sits somewhere between pale and dark lager, the one above being from Klášterní pivovar Strahov. Generally speaking, polotmavé lagers use the same malts as a tmavé, just less of the specialty malts so the beer has an amber or red colour. There is a school of thought that says polotmavé lagers descend from the Vienna Red lager tradition of the 19th century, but I don't want to jump into that today.

If advocating for Burton Ale, bitter, and mild was crazy, then I think this project is proof it is time to be packed off to the beer equivalent of the loonie bin. According to RateBeer, there have been a grand total of 15 polotmavé lagers made by US brewers, though I can't verify the faithfulness of those beers to the stuff I would drink from time to time back in Prague. In a purely Virginian context, I believe this will be the first genuinely Czech inspired polotmavé brewed in the Commonwealth. There is one other on RateBeer but the description says it was just a pilsner with a bit of roast malt chucked in to change the colour, not really in keeping with Czech tradition, so I am discounting that.

With our project, we are planning a 16° beer, which should probably finish out at about 6% abv and using the same specialty malts as for Morana, namely CaraBohemian, Carafa II Special, and Munich. On the hops front we are using a blend of Kazbek and Saaz, to give us about 30 IBUs, and of course we'll be using the Augustiner yeast strain for that clean lager bite that I love so much (especially lagers from Devils Backbone!).

The beer, which as yet doesn't have a name, should be on tap some time in October. Just in time, hopefully, to wet the heads of my soon to turn up twin sons...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Helles Yeah!

I've not been to South Street as much as usual of late, for one very simple reason, they haven't had the magnificent My Personal Helles on tap for a few weeks now. That's not a slight on their other beers, Mitch does a great job with them, it's just that the helles is my go to beer, and when the go to is gone, I get a dose of the wandering eye. Part of my particular brand of wandering eye it to pay closer attention to what is available in bottles and cans in the show (whilst lamenting the storing of lagers at room temperature and the general oldness of much of a shop's 'craft' beer selection). Browsing the racks at our local Wegman's a few weeks ago it struck me just how many breweries are bringing out helles lagers these days, so I figured I'd gather a clutch and give em a bash...


First out of the fridge was Southern Tier's Why The Helles Not? As is obvious from the picture, the liquid is a lovely clear golden colour, topped with a decent inch or so of rocky white head, which lingered for the duration of the 4 or 5 mouthfuls it took to drink. Thankfully the beer wasn't overly fizzy, though there was a reasonable amount of carbonation. Breathing in the aroma deeply, I was hit by a distinct cereal crackeriness, think Carr's Water Biscuits and you're not far wrong, now sprinkle some fresh lemongrass onto said water biscuit, you see where this is going. In the taste department, we're clearly in solid helles territory, bready malt to the fore, with that lemony bite that I associate with central European hops, beautifully balanced and very tasty. This is the kind of beer that I could happily down pint after pint of, and at only 4.6% so very close to being a session beer, it is simple but not simplistic, if that makes sense.


Up next was Weekend Lager from Alewerks Brewing, just down the road in Williamsburg, and sporting a very elegant rebrand too. Weekend Lager was distinctly paler than the Southern Tier beer, and had much less head retention, and less obvious carbonation. Rather than having the aroma of a water biscuit, Weekend Lager had a more dry bread crust thing going on, with a herbal hop note in counterpoint, and a very slight touch of earthiness that put asparagus in my brain. As for the taste, we're back to the Carr's Water Biscuits and lemongrass ballpark, but with just a miserly schmeer of butter chucked in for fun. Again an enjoyable beer, other than that odd vegetal/asparagus thing that I couldn't quite pin down, but will require me buying more of the beer for investigative purposes you understand. A bit stronger than the Southern Tier one at 4.8%, but still well within pintable territory.


I really ummed and ahhed about whether to put Samuel Adams Fresh As Helles in the basket, mainly because it has added orange blossom 'and natural flavors', and I wasn't sure I wanted a flavour tainted helles. Clearly though, I relented. Looks wise it's pretty much on the spot, golden, a half inch of white foam that leaves traces of lacing all the way down the glass. The aroma though was very different from the other two, gone was the crackers and lemongrass, come was orange peel, marmelade and a soft toffee note. Tastewise was again a departure from what I had expected, this was clearly toasty rather than cerealy, and the orange blossom (I assume) was very noticeable, but in a thin marmelade kind of way that left a slighty artificial aftertaste. Oh dear. For the first time in many years I didn't finish the bottle, it was too slick on the tongue and just generally bleurgh. Nope, won't be doing that one again.


Now, if South Street could just hurry up and get My Personal Helles back on tap, I will be a happier camper this summer.....

Friday, June 9, 2017

Black and Silver

Back in February I wrote about a project I did with my friends at Three Notch'd Brewing here in Charlottesville to brew a 19th century inspired porter, which we named Blackwall London Porter after the docks in London from where the original Virginia colonists set out for the New World.


I deliberately didn't make any bold claims about it is a 'historical recreation' as the recipe wasn't based on any one single brewing record. Rather, I spent time reading various bits and bobs about Victorian era porter, including Ron's excellent homebrew book, and took the data available to create my recipe. Without the aid of a time machine, I have no idea if Blackwall would pass muster with the working men of London, but it was certainly a beer that I enjoyed and judging from comments on things like Untappd, others did too.


Imagine then my delight this week to hear that Blackwall had won a silver medal at this year's Virginia Craft Beer Cup, and is thus the first beer I have designed to win an award at a commercial competition.

As far as I am aware Blackwall is unlikely to be found anywhere on draft anymore, but the brewery does have bottles for sale in their tasting room here in Charlottesville. So, if you're in the neighbourhood, pop in, try Three Notch'd range of beers, and pick up a bottle of porter for your jar.

Friday, June 2, 2017

To The Faithful Departed

This month's Session is being hosted by Dave over at All the Brews Fit to Pint (an excellent name for blog methinks!), and his theme is 'Late, Lamented Loves' - those beers that you loved and then lost because they are no longer brewed, where to start?

Let's jump in our zythophilic time machine and whisk ourselves back to the early 1990s, to Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and more specifically to the bowling alley that on Friday afternoons had a special rate of £1 per game. I was living in Inverness at the time in an effort to find a job for a few months in between my medical discharge from the British Army and going back to school to get an extra couple of Highers before heading to university. In order to get an extra tenner on my Jobseekers Allowance, I agreed to do some computer courses at a local skills agency. It was there I learnt the basics of spreadsheets, word processors, databases, etc. I say 'learnt' but really I knew all that stuff any way, it was just an easy way to get some extra cash. The extra £10 was handed out on Fridays, and so I would go up to the bowling alley and spend an hour or two attempting to perfect my technique, whilst drinking pints of Gillespie's Malt Stout.


There was something about Gillespie's that I loved more than Guinness or Murphy's, and I think it likely had something to do with it being a Scottish rather than Irish stout. Perhaps it was a trick of my teenage brain, but I was sure at the time that it had a slight dark blue hue to it. I seem to remember it being silkier than either my usual tipples, with a nicely sweetened finish that was more milk chocolate than the bittersweet chocolate finish of Murphy's. Time for a confession, I would love to get hold of a clone recipe for this and give it a bash sometime, whether or not it will live up to the memories though is anyone's guess.

Jumping back into our time machine, let's skip forward a few years, and shift continents to Crozet in Virginia, and the tasting room (such as it was in those days) at Starr Hill Brewing. It was August 2008 and I was again looking for a job, though this time because Mrs V and I had left Prague for the US, and life on a single income is no fun. Being a proactive sort, I had emailed all the local breweries, far fewer in those days, to see if they had any openings. Only Starr Hill got back to me, and so I had an interview to work behind the bar at weekends. Once the interview was done, I was given a tasting of all the beers they had available. The highlight for me was their dry Irish stout, the most award winning of that style in the US (a record that is still unbroken!), Dark Starr Stout. Now, you may be noticing a theme here, I am an unashamed lover of the black stuff. That first mouthful of Dark Starr was like the moment in Ratatouille when Anton Ego is transported back to his mother's kitchen and the simple pleasures of childhood comfort food.


When Starr Hill announced that it would no longer be part of their regular line up I was heartbroken, even though I had left the tasting room by this point, after some 5 years behind the bar. One of my favourite things to do with Dark Starr was to pour it about 10 minutes ahead of time so that it could get to the proper temperature, and seeing people's reactions to beer that isn't colder than penguin's feet. So gutted was I at Dark Starr's demise that I decided to brew my own version using the knowledge I had gleaned about the recipe of the years, and I like to think I get pretty close...


So there we have it, a couple of stouts that I have loved and now lost, if anyone has a clone for Gillespie's put it in the comments...