Monday, March 2, 2015

Of Renovation and Restoration

When Mrs V and I first landed in Charlottesville back in 2009 there was a single, solitary, brewery in the city itself. Back before there was Three Notch'd Brewing, before there was Champion Brewing, there was South Street. A place I so desperately wanted to love, but which so painfully let me down time after time. Every time I went, whether with the wife or with friends, I left wondering why I had bothered to put cash in their coffers for beer that to my mind was all too often either bland, unbalanced, or in the case of Liberation Lager, simply undrinkable. I much preferred to drive for an hour or so to do to Blue Mountain or Devils Backbone.

Then the guys behind Blue Mountain bought South Street and started a renovation process that closed the brewpub for a few months. In the weeks leading up to the official re-opening I had a new lager from South Street, firstly at the local Whole Foods and then at a countryside cafe just up the road from where I live. Virginia Lager was the first inkling that things might be better at the new South Street, clean, crisp, and nicely balanced, here was a South Street beer that I liked drinking.

For reasons that escape me right now, Mrs V and I didn't make it to South Street itself until a couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday where the temperature reached a positively balmy 21°C/70°F, and in short sleeves we went into town for brunch.


One thing I always loved about South Street was the architecture, bricks and brass being order of the day, and the renovations have lightened that up a bit,but not so much that it feels like a characterless dorm room. The old copper bar is no longer there, which is kind of a shame, but the new wooden bar is beautiful in its own right, and there are bits of the old bar hanging from the walls as mementos.

Presented with the menu, we decided to do the full flight of 12 beers, which you can see below.


I didn't take notes, but each of them was perfectly drinkable, well made, and nothing to turn one's nose up at. Virginia Lager was the highlight for me, though the shandy was also excellent, as was the Anastasia's Chocolate Fantasy, a nod to one of the more notorious of Cville's former residents, Franziska Schanzkowska, better known as Anna Anderson.


The sun was shining brightly, the sky that wonderful shade of blue that winter seems to specialise in, the windows were open, and the beer was good. So we ate our brunches, can't remember what Mrs V had, but I had biscuits and gravy, which were very nice (biscuits and gravy is becoming something of an obsession), and ordered pints....to drink without regret.

The new South Street is pretty much everything you could wish for from a town centre brewpub, great location, good food, good beer, and at long last reasonable opening hours, being open from 11am now rather than the old 4pm. I get the feeling that I might be popping over more often, safe in the knowledge that disappointment is a thing of the past.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Changing The Guard

My first, and so far only, paid job in the beer world was working in the Starr Hill tasting room. As is obvious from the previous sentence, that is something that is now in the past. After five and half years of serving flights, pouring pints, giving tours, and being the 'gregarious Scotsman with a wry wit', I left Starr Hill back in December. The reason? More than anything I felt as though my time there was done, and also the utterly selfish delight of having 2 day weekends after a week at my regular job.


Today I got news which made me sad. The founder of Starr Hill, Mark Thompson has decided to retire from the brewery to pursue new opportunities and interests in life. I think that Mark, and Kristen, were the only people still at the brewery from when I started working there in September 2009, so it really does feel like the end of an era, though the beer is in very safe hands with the new brewmaster Robbie at the helm.

I have served Mark many a pint of Northern Lights, Starr Hill's flagship IPA and without wanting this to sound like an obituary, it was a great experience for me to work with Starr Hill and to get to know him.


Mark really is the pioneer of craft beer in Virginia, starting Starr Hill in 1999 and overseeing its growth from a brewpub on Main Street to a production brewery whose beer is available through the Mid-Atlantic region. A brewery that boasts the most award winning dry Irish stout in the USA, Dark Starr, and a raft of awards from the GABF, World Beer Cup, and even the Michael Jackson award at the Great British Beer Festival.

Mark was also gracious enough to do my Brewer of the Week interview, which you can read here.

Cheers Mark! Looking forward to having a pint with you some time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

'Merican Mild Month?

Each May in the UK, CAMRA encourages drinkers to indulge in Mild, a style of beer that is perfectly suited for drinking several of during a session.

CAMRA's definition of mild is as follows:
Milds are black to dark brown to pale amber in colour and come in a variety of styles from warming roasty ales to light refreshing lunchtime thirst quenchers. Malty and possibly sweet tones dominate the flavour profile but there may be a light hop flavour or aroma. Slight diacetyl (toffee/butterscotch) flavours are not inappropriate. Alcohol levels are typically low.

Pale milds tend to have a lighter, more fruity aroma with gentle hoppiness.

Dark milds may have a light roast malt or caramel character in aroma and taste.

Scottish cask beers may have mild characteristics with a dominance of sweetness, smooth body and light bitterness.

Original gravity: less than 1043
Typical alcohol by volume: less than 4.3%
Final gravity 1004 - 1010
Bitterness 14 - 28 EBU
I think I can count on the fingers of a single hand the number of milds I have drunk since moving to the US in 2009, two in particular stand out, Olivers Dark Horse and a pale mild brewed at Blue Mountain Brewery last year.


When I talk to my beer drinking mates, not all of them beer bloggers, craft aficionados, or IPA addicts by any stretch of the imagination, a common theme comes up again and again, they wish there was more session beer available, and what could be better than encouraging breweries to make milds, whether dark or pale, hopped with British hops or not, there is so much scope for brewers to play around with in this particular style?

In my homebrew messing about I have brewed several iterations of American hopped dark milds and have found that hops like Citra and Cluster lend themselves very well to complement the light roasty notes of a good dark mild. If you were to brew a pale mild, I imagine New Zealand hops such as Motueka and Pacifica Jade would work well.

Come on brewers, show us the mild mannered Clark Kent beers for a change instead of Superman!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

#IHP2015 Brewday Reminder

This weekend is the brewday for those of us taking part in this year's International Homebrew Project, where we brew an 1860 Double Stout from the Truman Brewery in London.

The full details of the recipe can be found here.

As things stand, I know of people from the following countries participating:
  • USA
  • Ireland
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • South Africa
  • Israel
  • Czech Republic
Anywhere I have missed from that list?

It's is a long weekend for me as a result of Presidents' Day, so I might even squeeze in two brewdays as it is time to do my annual lager.

UPDATE: As you can see form the comment, Austria is coming to the party too!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

About That Spoof

The ad that cannot be mentioned without whipping up a veritable cyclone of spittle flecked craft fury has certainly lead to an outpouring of media commentary. Whether it's fellow bloggers going all Roger the Rabbit and counting the ways they are offended, Twitter groaning under the weight of outrage and calls for boycotts, or retaliatory videos like the one below...



Of course it is a well made video and of course it brings up the seemingly age old canard of craft beer being made by hand, a myth which I dealt with in more detail here. The video claims that craft beer is brewed 'the actual hard way', which is of course understood as being the mythical 'by hand' method.

My first reaction when I saw that part of the video was that it reminded me of those arguments you had on the school playground about who's dad was bigger, or harder, or whatever. Another thought that went through my mind was the number of times I have heard craft brewers and drinkers claim that decoction mashing is no longer necessary for making Pislner style lagers because 'modern malts are more modified', where then is the commitment to doing things the 'actual hard way' and doing a decoction mash rather than single infusion?

It would seem to me at times the 'actual hard way' is really just a fig leaf for having a production capacity where automation is not needed because the volumes of beer being brewed are manageable without computers and other modern technology. From what I have heard from head brewers in a number of companies, more advanced automation becomes a necessity once you reach about 30,000 barrels of beer per year - a number which is about the production of Virginia's largest independent brewery.

Once a brewery gets to the point of brewing 16 million barrels of a single beer per year, I think Anheuser-Busch's total production is about 120 million barrels, so even the flagship is only 10%, then state of the art technology is an absolute necessity.

Brewing by (mythological) hand then is not really the 'hard way', it is the only viable way for small breweries who don't have the capital, market share, or need for automation. Once a brewery becomes a big company, and there are plenty of such businesses in the self-proclaimed 'craft' sector, then brewing the 'easy' way with computerised automation becomes the only way to keep up and keep growing.

It's fairly evident that there actually isn't an easy or hard way of making beer, it's all a question of scale.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

About That Ad

The pitch seems to have hit a much more fevered tone in the last few days than usual. I guess it has something to do with this Budweiser Super Bowl commercial...



Admittedly I am something of a johnny come lately to this particular party because I didn't see the commercial until the furore was in full swing on Twitter. I am not a fan of American Football, a phrase which could easily be the understatement of the year, so I wasn't watching the game and thus couldn't get my knickers in a twist at the appropriate moment. Ah well.

Yesterday though I took a few minutes to sit down and watch the commercial, and I actually quite like it. It's well made, tells a clear story, and takes a few well aimed jabs at the perceived snottiness of many a craft beer aficionado, well played Anheuser-Busch, well played. Be honest, we all recognised people we know in their depiction of people fussing over their peach pumpkin ale or whatever the hell abomination they referred to. When I watched the ad for the first time I was reminded of a scene in The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer where Max and Alan kidnap a craft acolyte from a bar...

Now, I am not going to go down the path of hand wringing about how that nasty big corporation is being mean to the little breweries that it is intent on buying up, because such a narrative (admittedly the dominant narrative it seems) misses the entire point of the commercial. It is also a flawed narrative because it conflates the Budweiser brand with the AB-InBev company. Let's get one thing straight, Budweiser is just one brand owned by AB-InBev, and this commercial was for the brand not the company behind it. Remember, Elysian, 10 Barrel, and Blue Point were purchased by AB-InBev not Budweiser, to think that Budweiser owns these craft breweries is as daft as saying that the breweries are owned by AB-InBev's other major brands, Stella Artois, Beck's, or even Leffe.

But the core message of the commercial is actually one that I can get on board with, because I have been saying something similar for quite some time. Beer is for drinking, with your mates, preferably down the pub. Sure, I am not going to go an order a pint of Budweiser because it is not my cup of tea, but I find myself increasingly drinking almost exclusively from breweries that I know make great drinking beers rather than an endless morass of shit with random extraneous ingredients -  I can think of plenty of breweries that should be focusing on quality and process management rather than what strange herbs from their aunt's garden they can dump into their next batch.

When it boils down to it though, I get the feeling that the hysteria is largely about one thing, and one thing only, the commercial is very close to home, and for many craft beer fans having the tables turned on them is uncomfortable. As with fundamentalists of every stripe, if you can't laugh at yourself then you might be taking things too seriously. It's just beer remember.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

#IHP2015 Double Stout Fun

The masses have spoken...well, 16 of them.

This year's International Homebrew Project returns to the Truman Brewery, but this time to their London location, to brew their Double Stout recipe from 1860.

The grain bill is is fairly simple:
  • 81% Pale 2 row malt
  • 16% Brown malt
  • 3% Black malt
The hop selection likewise is simplicity itself, just Goldings, but lots of them. 130 IBUs worth to be precise.
  • 52 IBU for 90 minutes
  • 49 IBU for 60 minutes
  • 29 IBU for 30 minutes
For yeast, Wyeast 1098 or 1099, British Ale - Dry and Whitbread respectively.

Strike temperatures for the single infusion mash is at 164°F and sparge at 175°F. The boil is 90 minutes.

You should be targetting the following stats:
  • OG - 1.079/19° Plato
  • FG - 1.025/6.3° Plato
  • ABV - 7.1%
  • SRM - 28
For fuller details of the mashing schedule, see Ron's book The Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beer.

The schedule for the project this year is:
  • Brewday - Weekend of February 14/15th
  • Writing - Monday March 23rd