Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Old Friends: Fuller's London Porter

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather left rural Somerset and moved to the metropolis to be a porter. Sadly for any tie-in to this tale, he wasn't the kind of porter for whom London's most famous beer invention was named, he was instead a parcels porter for the London and South Western Railway, eventually becoming a Foreman Parcels Porter. Thus it was that the first of my paternal ancestors moved to London, settling first in Battersea, then moving to Merton, and spreading out from there.

I've mentioned before that my dad grew up in Chiswick, just a few miles up the river from Battersea, though on the north side rather than the south, and as such I have a great affection for Fuller's. The fact they make damned good beer helps, obviously. Having already done an Old Friends post for each of London Pride and ESB, it only felt right to complete the hat-trick and pour myself a dimpled mug of the legendary London Porter.

It is perhaps sad to admit to, but it took we a while to decide on which of my various British style pint glasses to use for this tasting. Eventually though, as you can see, I stumped for my nicely old fashioned dimpled mug for no other reason than my own capricious whimsy. For whatever reason my tulips, nonics, and pint pots just didn't seem right.

Anyway, enough of glassware, we are after all more interested in the beer itself. As you would expect from a porter, it is dark, very dark. With the sun streaming through the window it was a deep inky pitch, topped with a half inch of tan foam. There is something about dark beers, top or bottom fermented, that I just find alluring to look at, perhaps it harkens back to my early drinking days of Guinness and Gillespie's? Maybe there is something about the darkness that exudes an air of mystery that isn't really present in pale beers as you look right through and see the other side of the glass? Turning momentarily to face the sun and see the beer with the light coming through, the darkness becomes a deep, deep chestnut brown, flecked with auburn. The foam thinned out a little and then just hung around, clinging to the glass as it went down.

Taking another little side perambulation here, why are porters and stouts invariably "paired" with dessert at the end of yet another unimaginative beer dinner menu? Sure I get it that the aroma often contains chocolate, but chocolate goes great with beef too you know. Chocolate was present here too, a rich dark chocolate in the vein of Bourneville rather than Dairy Milk. I own the fact that perhaps my sense of smell does odd things, but I also get a hint of soy sauce as well as some molasses to add a savoury note to the bitter chocolate. Under all of that is the classic spicy tobacco that Fuggles brings to the table. I have never been a smoker, but sometimes when driving through the tobacco growing region of Virginia between Lynchburg and Danville, I have been known to wind my window down and breath in the smell of the fields. That's what I have in mind when I say Fuggles reminds me of tobacco.

All of that rich aromatic complexity is present in the tasting as well, yes the dark chocolate, laced with Italian espresso, toast, even hints of molasses, and an earthiness that brings an agricultural element to this most industrial of beers. While it is nowhere near as prevalent as in its stable mates, the "Fuller's" yeast flavour is there, loitering with intent behind the goings on in the foreground. 

I am a fan of porter in general, and would love to see Three Notch'd rebrew Blackwall London Porter, the 19th Century style version that I designed, but in Fullers London Porter you have in many ways the archetype of a great modern porter. The luxuriant silky mouthfeel, rich mélange of aroma and flavour, and the sheer ease with which this beer is drunk, quite rightly puts this in the very highest echelons of beery excellence. In the coming weeks I will be drinking a bevvy of other porters alongside the Fuller's to see if any of them can truly ever compare. It promises to be a fun little experiment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

In Praise of Flagships

I will confess that I had completely forgotten about Flagship February until Jeff Alworth tweeted the following:

Despite my forgetfulness, I think celebrating flagship beers is most definitely a good thing.

Flagship beers tell you so much about the brewery behind them, as well as giving the drinker a sense of what to expect from a brewery's core line-up. If the flagship is a well made beer, regardless of style, you can usually be fairly confident that the rest of the range is likely to be worth drinking. The flagship beer is the one that opens the door, builds trust, and carries the persona, for want of a better word, of the brewery.

A prime example of this would be Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, perhaps the most flaghshippy craft beer in the entire craft beer universe, and a very strong contender for being the flagship of craft beer, full stop. When Mrs V and I moved over from Prague to the US back in 2009, I knew I liked SNPA having tried it in Galway, and so I was thrilled to have easy access to what is by any grown up's standards a classic, world class, beer. Having established trust in a brewery, I was happy to spend cash on other Sierra Nevada beers, including at one memorable night at Beer Run doing a side by side comparison of Torpedo on regular CO2 and pulled through a beer engine. Ah those were the days, when Beer Run had a beer engine and regular real ale. I don't drink as much Sierra Nevada beer as I once did, but still 12 packs of canned SNPA are a ready go-to beer, as is Southern Gothic whenever I see it, and as a result of that trust built up I'll try their versions of styles I rarely drink, such as Bigfoot.

When I think more closely on my drinking these days, I find that I drink far more flagships that rarities, special releases, collaborations, or any other such marketing gimmick beers. I am sure that likely says more about me as a drinker than the beer industry, but I actually dread the day when breweries are little more than revolving doors of one-offs.

Flagship beers are statements of identity. They tell you how the brewery perceives itself, and how it wants you, the consumer, to perceive them. Perhaps more so than the calling cards of marketing such as logos, type faces, and colour choices, it is the beer marked out as the leader that defines a brewery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Little Claws of Beer

It will come as no surprise that I broke my beer fast with a pale lager. It will likewise comes as no surprise that I mostly drank pale lagers over the weekend. Also of no surprise to anyone that has ever paid attention to my wafflings here, the best beer I had all weekend was a Czech pale lager, as in actually from Czechia.

The beer in question is the 12° pale lager from Únětický Pivovar, based in the village of Ùnětice a few kilometres outside Prague. It was a beer that I had thoroughly enjoyed on my trip back to central Europe in 2019, and one that I have long hoped to see in this neck of woods as it is part of B. United's program that cold ships beer in bulk to Connecticut and then can it there. After badgering aplenty of the good people at Beer Run, I was able to put in an order for a case of this nectar, thus on Friday I collected 24 16oz cans to find space in the fridge for.

Having given it the best part of 24 hours in the fridge to get down to a steady proper temperature, I cracked open a can and didn't take notes. I just savoured what is clearly one of the best pale lagers, of any description, available anywhere in the US today. A bold claim perhaps, and if you want to change my mind, feel free to send me beer. At one point I handed Mrs V the glass and her single word response was "nice", but the kind of "nice" that tells you that she was having an Anton Ego moment for hospody a půlitry.

I have learnt my lesson of years past when it comes to getting back off the wagon after a month with no drinking, thus I ease my way back in and don't go nuts and have 10 pints on day 1 and a minging hangover come day 2. Thus it was that I found myself pondering what makes real Czech pale lager a more satisfying experience for me than pretty much any non-Czech made stab at the style?

Perhaps it's the decoction mash, whether triple or double? Or maybe, at least in Únětický's case, the continued use of open fermentation rather than the modern CCVs and how fermenter geometry affects yeast behaviour, leading to a longer, gentler primary fermentation? Perhaps it's the lack of fizziness? That's not to say that Czech beers are flat or uncarbonated, but they don't have that jagged edged, prickly fizz of many a US made lager. Maybe it comes down to doing things the way they have always been done, after all why fix what was never broken?

All that is not to say though that US made interpretations of the style, or any style for that matter, are uniformly sub-par. Bohemian style pale lagers like those brewed by Schilling, Von Trapp, and Champion would certainly stand up to scrutiny in Czechia. There is though something intangible that puts the likes of Únětický Pivovar, Pivovar Hostomice, and the much missed Kout na Šumavě, into the beery stratosphere, and that intangible seems to make it across the Pond.

Naturally I am open to the possibility that it is just my own personal Ostalgia, and those sharp little claws that never let go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Beyond January

Dry January is over, but my beer fast continues. Well, it continues until Friday. As a general rule I only drink at the weekend, thus my window of imbibing is open from about midday on Friday until Sunday evening. 

Said general rule has actually been part of my life since my early days living, and teaching English, in Prague. For most of my TEFL career I had lessons at 7am during the week, and as I was teaching people at their place of work, I felt it was bad form to turn up worse the wear for drink, a scruple that wasn't shared by many fellow teachers who would turn up to lessons pissed, or not turn up at all.

During the period of "the holidays" the rule becomes more flexible. I can't imagine Thanksgiving without cracking my first beer before the sun is over the yardarm. There is also this pandemic thing ongoing, so many a weeknight in 2020 saw a couple of litres of beer imbibed either side of the twins going to bed. Dry January is a reset more than anything else, and when you think of it that way, it becomes a 10 day beer fast rather than 31. If you can't stay off the booze for 10 days then you might have to acknowledge you have a problem.

As of right now, I really have no idea what the first beer of the year is going to be. I am fairly sure it will be had at Kardinal Hall, sat outside in their beer garden, suitably bundled for the anticipated low 50s Fahrenheit (9ish in sensible Celsius). What will be in the glass though...if the Rothaus is still on then it it is pretty much decided. You're shocked aren't you?

One of the recurring thoughts I have had during the month is just how little "local" beer I drank last year, and by "local" I mean brewed within 30 miles of my house. I can already hear the acolytes lining up to berate me for not supporting my local breweries, especially given we are in a pandemic and things are hard. Thing is, there is not a single brewery in that 30 mile radius around my house that I am aware of that makes a good desítka, dvanáctka, helles, dunkel, or even a best bitter, as part of their core range, if I am wrong please let me know.

(update: oops, I completely forgot about Champion Brewing's very respectable Shower Beer, d'oh!)

As such my money goes to breweries like Port City, Von Trapp, Olde Mecklenburg, or more recently Schilling. Even then, I am not getting a best bitter into the bargain, but I am happy to sate myself on these breweries' superb lagers. Sorry to be a truculent curmudgeon, but I am not about to start drinking an endless stream of identikit IPAs that I won't enjoy, and to be honest are likely as boring as the next IPA.

Support is a two way street.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a surprise for people who know how much I love going to the pub, but I am lucky that in my part of Virginia most pubs are open with restricted seating and so I can get my fix at least weekly. As a result of the changes brought about by the pandemic, I have limited my choice of boozers in Charlottesville to basically just Kardinal Hall and Beer Run, mainly because I can rely on them to have a good selection of lagers worth drinking.

Perhaps the main thing I miss is the fact that I haven't been on a business trip since last March, when I went, with much trepidation, to Austin for a conference. Usually when I travel for work, I try to fly through Atlanta, simply because I really enjoy sitting at the bar of the Gordon Biersch restaurant on concourse A. It will come as no surprise that my beer of choice when I am there is their Czech style pale lager, served in a half litre glass no less, though often served well over the half litre line, not that I am complaining...

All that is a long winded backdrop to saying, having not been through Atlanta airport for the longest time since I started my current job, I woke up one day in December with a hankering for a pint of Gordon Biersch Czech Pilsner. Said craving may have been stoked as a result of the news that they were closing down their Virginia Beach location, to which I had never made it. All was not lost though as due to the wonders of contract brewing, of which I am a fan, my craving would go satisfied by virtue of Trader Joe's. As you are likely aware, Gordon Biersch are the contract brewer behind Trader Joe's "Josephsbrau" range of central European lagers, and as I understand it, Josephsbrau PLZNR and Gordon Biersch Czech Pilsner are one and the same beer.

As is appropriate I poured a bottle and a half into my half litre Chodovar glass that I purloined from a pool hall in Prague, side note, I hate 12oz bottles for beers like this, is it really so hard to package them in the half litre that such beers warrant?

Ah the classic rich golden colour of a well made Czech style pale lager, it really is a thing most beautiful, especially when the beer is crystal clear and topped with a decent half inch of white foam. The head didn't linger as some Czech beers I have had, dissipating to a patch quilt network of bubbles that clung tenaciously to the side of the glass. The aroma was mostly grainy cereal with subtle hints of honey and fresh bread that made me wonder if there was just a touch of something like CaraBohemian in the grist somewhere. The hops also made an appearance with the spicy, hay, lemongrass notes that I have come to associate with the noblest of noble hops, Saaz. Tastewise, you should know the form by now if you have had a Czech style pale lager ever in your life, a gentle toasty character, with spicy hop flavours as a counterpoint to the malt. Very simple, very classic, very much what I expect, and enjoy.

Whether it is being sold as a Gordon Biersch or Josephsbrau beer, this is a lager that I am always happy to see in the fridge or on tap. While not rippingly bitter, it has a good firm bite to it that cleanses the palate leaving you ready for more. The bitterness is helped along by an excellent clean fermentation that gives the various elements of the beer voice. The finish is dry and with a delicate balance that reaches a high note before collapsing to that moment when another mouthful is required.

I will admit that I have a slight preference for the draught version that I enjoy when I am in Atlanta airport, for all the usual obvious reasons. Bluntly put, draught beer is better beer. Until the conference world restarts, and I am in no rush to get back to "normal" (if "normal" is really something worth getting back to), I will be more than happy to get more PLZNR from our local Trader Joe's, and at $7 a six pack, you really can't complain, unless you are the pretentious wanker type that wants a pilsner for $90 a six pack.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Coming Darkness

One of the many things I love about lager is its sheer variety. Now, if you are the kind of poor, misguided soul that thinks lager is some wan, piss coloured, fizzy liquid then you need to give your head a wobble and do some learning.

In recent years in particular I have been thrilled to see a steadily increasing range of lager styles available to the discerning drinker on this side of the Pond. Naturally I am most thrilled by the number of Czech style lagers that are being brewed.

While I have been known to grumble (what? me?) about the fact that many allegedly Czech style pale lagers tend more toward světlý speciál rather than světlý ležák, I am just happy to have some Czech-ish to drink. More recently it has been the dark Czech lagers that are becoming more common, and having designed what I believe to be the first authentic tmavé to be brewed in Virginia, it is a trend I keep a thoroughly interested eye on.

It was with this interested eye that I liked a picture on Instagram from Jeff Alworth of a tmavé called Tmavá Sova, which translates as "Black Owl". Naturally I approve mightily of getting the grammar right, so of course I went to take a look at the website of the makers, Matchless Brewing from Washington State and I think they make the kind of beers I like. My only beef, and thus the genesis of the this post, was the description for Tmavá Sova, which defines tmavé as being:

"a re-emerging style from the Czech Republic".

Forgive me if I am being a little touchy here, but there is no way on Odin's green Midgard that tmavé is a "re-emerging style" for the simple reason it never really went away. That's not to say that the style makes a huge proportion of beer sales in Czechia, but as far back as I can remember most breweries have at least one dark lager in their range.

When I first moved to Prague, back in the 20th century, I was a dedicated Guinness drinker and gravitated quite naturally to dark lagers such as Herold Bohemian Black Lager, a beer well regarded by Michael Jackson. Of course there is the legendary U Fleků 13° dark lager with roots back to the 19th century, when dark beers in Bohemia were still top fermented.

While it is true that there are exceedingly few Czech dark lagers actually from Czechia that make it to this side of the pond, I can think of all of 1 that is easy-ish to find, Budvar's lovely version of the style, that should not be taken as a sign of a style dying in its heartland. Pretty much every regional and local brewery in Czechia has at least one dark lager offering. Often that beer is a 14° plato beer, the type that was the inspiration behind Morana, though as is common with all Czech beers, gravities for different colours can be all over the map, Kozel Černý is a desítka for example.

Now, I know this will come as a shock to some, but there is more to beer than craft breweries making styles of beer which are little known in a brewery's sitz im leben. If I remember rightly tmavé represents about 5% of Czech beer production, which in 2018 was about 18.1 million barrels. As such somewhere just slightly north of 900,000 barrels of tmavé was brewed that year, just shy of the total production of New Belgium Brewing.

So, where am I going with all this? Simply put, just because something is new to you doesn't mean it is new, or re-discovered, or re-emerging. Tmavé is not like Grodziskie, Broyhan, or even Kulmbacher that needs to be resurrected, it is alive, well, and even evolving in its heartland.

On a less snarky note, I would love to try Tmavá Sova, and I applaud any brewery that takes a gamble on a less well-known style of beer, especially if it happens to be a lager style from central Europe. As I said at the beginning, lager is not some just wan, piss-coloured, fizzy drink for the masses, but rather a noble family of beers that have their roots in central Europe and make up some of the best beers you will ever drink, so explore, go find a brewery that is making the same kind of decisions as Matchless, and discover what real lager can be.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Happy to Schill

September 4th. The first time in the course of the whole pandemic thing that I went to the pub without a reservation, and to meet someone for a drink that I do not live with.

At that point, Virginia had been in phase 3 or something like that for a while, and my good friend Dave and his family had been sheltering in much the same way as Mrs V and our little family. It had been a damned long time since we had gone for a bevvy. We decided that it would be safe for Dave and I to meet for a beer, as long as the venue was somewhere we could sit outside and have a little physical distance, a beer garden perhaps. On a side note, both Dave and I hate the phrase "social distancing", preferring "physical distance", human beings are social animals and we can be socially close without being physically close. 

Anyway, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon as I sat on the benches of Kardinal Hall's beer garden waiting to finally see my friend for the first time in what seemed like forever. By "see my friend" I mean sit, drink, and talk shit without anyone else around. Sorry wives and kids, love you loads but sometimes I just need to have some bloke time. I had arrived a little early and already had my first litre sitting in front of me...

Said beer was from a then new-to-me brewery in New Hampshire, Schilling Brewing Company, the beer in question was Alexandr, a rarity in these parts, an actual desítka!! Technically speaking a desítka is just a beer that has a starting gravity of 10° Plato, usually though they are also pale, though more often than not they don't pack the same 5% abv punch as Alexandr. Even so, I wasn't quibbling, I was too busy reveling. Alexandr is quite simply a wonderful pale lager, clean, flavourful, moreish, is it any wonder that I declared it the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2020? Nope, it isn't.

Other than their very nice Oktoberfest lager, Konstantin, again at Kardinal Hall, I had kind of given up on getting to drink much more of Schilling's range as their beers appeared to be rarer than hens' teeth in this part of Virginia. There was a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth at this situation because I kept seeing folks I follow on Twitter and Instagram posting about another Czech style pale lager in their lineup called "Palmovka".

Other than the obvious reason for wanting to try it, Czech style pale lagers are just my thing and I am willing to try any beer that claims to be one, sadly much to my own disappointment. The second reason though was that for a year or so of my decade in Czechia I lived in said part of Prague. Palmovka is one of Prague's main transport connection hubs, with a metro station, bus station, and tram stops all clustered round a crossroads. I was living just a couple of tram stops up the hill from Palmovka during the flood of 2002 when the metro station, and a fair old chunk of the surrounding area, was completely inundated by the water. I also thought the can label was just wonderful, showing the three metro lines that criss cross the city. 

Random fact, when I first moved to Prague I lived in an area called Černý Most, right at one end of the yellow line (that's line B if we're be officious) and a couple of stations were still under construction, Hloubětín and Kolbenova. The maps back in 1999, however, showed the future Kolbenova as being named ČKD, after a large Czech engineering firm that had a factory nearby once upon a time.

To cut a long story short, I was in Beer Run picking up some other stuff, checking on my order of a case of Únětické pivo when they mentioned that they had some Schilling stuff, namely Alexandr and Palmovka. If you were in the queue that day when I dashed off to grab a couple of 4 packs of Palmovka and kept you waiting, I can but apologise again, and thank you for being so gracious. How I waited the couple of hours needed to get the beer down to a decent temperature is baffling to me now...

Oh. My. Good. God. What is this nectar? A perfect example of a dvanáctka, starting gravity of 12° Plato, but you knew that, that's what. Again there is the slight cognitive dissonance of a dvanáctka being 5.5% (would be closer to a 14° beer based on multiplying the abv by 2.5), but in terms of Maillard reaction breadiness dancing on your tongue, gorgeous Saaz hoppiness - grass, lemon blossom, and a light spiciness - all singing together into a glorious whole, this is as good a Czech style beer I have ever had in the US. I am not sure I could have chosen between this and Alexandr had I tried Palmovka before writing my Pale beer of the year review.

Now I want to buy everything I can in their range that makes it to central Virginia, and drink gallons of Alexandr whenever it is on tap at Kardinall Hall. Beer Run currently has Alexandr, Palmovka, and a 13° Polotmavý called Augustin that looks like a fantastic beer from the reviews I have seen. I fear a sly trip to the bottle shop is in order to add supplies to the already groaning beer fridges is in order, even if I will be waiting until February to actually tuck in.

Based on these two beers, and also their Oktoberfest lager Konstantin that I had one afternoon, I can safely say that another New England brewery has been added to my list of favourite lager brewers in the US. Properly made lagers seem, finally, to be a more prominent part of the craft brewing scene on this side of the Pond. When you have the likes of Schilling, Olde Mecklenburg, and Von Trapp churning out consistently great beer it is becoming easier to ignore the IPAs, fucked up goses, and daft pastry stouts that take up too many taps, and revel in my own personal Ostalgie.

Old Friends: Fuller's London Porter

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather left rural Somerset and moved to the metropolis to be a porter. Sadly for any tie-in to this ...