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...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Mild of the Month

With it being June 1st, American Mild Month is now over for another year. I really wish I'd had more time to dedicate to the project, but life and work got in the way (on the up side, it is good to be busy, and my brain is still readjusting to impending fatherhood). I got to enjoy some nice mild ales during the month, Maelstrom from Three Notch'd Brewing springs to mind immediately.

The mild though that I enjoyed most throughout the month was one that is sadly not available in this part of Virginia, Oliver Brewing Company's Dark Horse. Oliver Brewing Company, headed up by fellow Brit Stephen Jones, were early supporters of American Mild Month and in many ways I think of Dark Horse as the unofficial flagship beer of the project. Dark Horse is as classic an English Dark Mild as you will find in the US, a straight down the line 3.8% ABV dark mild.

My first experience with Dark Horse, and Oliver Brewing in general was back in 2012 when my best mate and I went to Baltimore for a weekend on the lash. Nursing a well earned hangover we wandered into Pratt Street Alehouse and took our hair of the dog in the form of Dark Horse, about 6 pints if memory serves, so when Stephen offered to send some cans of the beer my way, there was no chance I would look said dark gift horse in the mouth.


As you can see in the picture, Dark Horse is one of the expected colours for an English Dark Mild, kind of a dark brown, but with crimson edges, and a nice looking light tan head that seems to just float there for the duration of the drinking. Just for reference, here's a picture of it in my dimpled mug as well as the nonic above (yes I have a thing for ye olde pint glasses).


The aroma was mostly unsweetened cocoa powder with a slight undercurrent of a grassy tobacco thing that I always associate with Fuggles hops. I realise this will likely sound insane to some, but the aroma was distinctly 'pub-like', and by that I mean classic British boozer 'pub-like' rather than modern brick and chrome craft beer bar, you could almost say it smells curmudgeonly. As for the flavour, again the cocoa character is present, but with a slight hazelnut spread thing going on as well, think schmeer of Nutella on fresh toast and you're pretty much in the right neck of the woods. There is just enough hop bite to cut through the malt, but not enough to dominate the beer, some people use 'balance' to damn with faint praise, I use it because I love balanced beers that I can drink all night, Dark Horse has balance. Even though Dark Horse is 'only' 3.8% you'd never tell as it isn't watery in the slightest.


Thankfully Dark Horse is a year round part of the Oliver Brewing Company lineup, and hopefully it will eventually find it's way to central VA on a regular basis, along with the rest of their beers, of which I have fond memories from 2012. Still, it was the ideal beer with which to see in and see out American Mild Month 2017, and here's hoping for more time to make the 2018 much bigger and better.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Impartial Pursuit: The Fourth

I realised when I had this crazy notion of writing about the mass produced lagers that suffer so much craft cognoscenti opprobrium that it would be an irregular feature on Fuggled. I didn't realise that there would be a year between part three and today's fourth installment, in which I look at a beer that has a storied history, hispter street cred, and is now stable mates with BrewDog. I refer, of course, to Pabst Blue Ribbon.


Once upon a time, think late 1970s, Pabst Brewing Company was the third largest in the US but then went into a precipitous decline that saw them in the late 90s brewing less than a million barrels a year. Enter then the heroic hispters, and the brand's revival to the point that in 2015 the company won the GABF's award for best large brewing company. Anyway, enough with the Wikipedia entry details, what about the beer in the can...?


Well, it pours a golden yellow not unlike the Heineken from my previous Impartial Pursuit post and sported a surprisingly voluminous, bright, white head. Even more surprising, at least in my mind, was that the head lingered far longer than any of the other mass produced lagers I have tried. In common with the other beers, the aroma was dominated by a cereal character with wisps of lemongrass hops floating about. Tastewise, and again in common with the other beers in the series, it was mainly a rather indistinct grainy flavour with very little discernable hop flavour, overall it was just plain bland, though it didn't have the slick corn character that I was expecting, and neither was it as thin as I imagined it would be. Thankfully it was as clean as I expected, which is always a good sign in a lager.


I very much doubt I will be adding to Pabst's bottom line again any time soon, though not because I think the beer is badly made, it quite obviously isn't, but because if I am on the look out for a mass produced lager then Heineken is a couple of steps up in terms of having stuff going on in the flavour and aroma department, and is nowhere near as fizzy as PBR, or Bud/Coors come to think of it. I doubt it will be another full year before I dip into macro beer world again, though I am not sure where to go for the next beer, Miller High Life perhaps?

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Most Excellent Lager

It had been a while since Mrs V and I had gone hiking with our friends Dave and Allie. There are mitigating circumstances though, mainly revolving around Mrs V and Allie being pregnant. We decided though to go on a short hike of only 3 miles yesterday up a mountain called Spy Rock, which has some wonderful views once to you get to the top, having scaled a near sheer rock face to do so, an interesting logistical challenge with 2 pregnant women and 2 dogs.

One of the appealing features of choosing Spy Rock was it's proximity to Devils Backbone for a couple of post hike pints, and I was looking forward to sinking a couple of Meadow Biers in short order. Unfortunately when we arrived they didn't have it on tap, though Jason tells me that they recently brewed another batch, so I'll be heading down with growlers to fill for that. They did however have another pale lager that sounded like it would do the trick.


Do the trick it did. The beer is called Excel Lager, and as you can see from the picture is a beautiful golden colour, had a nice white head, though slightly diminished by the time I took the pic. In terms of flavour it was everything you would expect from a central European lager; a perfect balance of grain and hop, nicely medium bodied, light honey notes in the background, and a firm but unobtrusive bitterness that demands another mouthful. Both Dave and I polished off our first pint in about 5 minutes.

Best of all with this absolutely stunning beer was that it has an ABV of.......2.6%. Yes, you are reading that number correctly, 2.6%. Using a method I learnt in Prague of multiplying ABV by 2.5 to get the approximate starting gravity, I was drinking a 6.5-7° Plato lager, the like of which I could imagine being brewed in a northern Bohemian glass works as refreshment for the workers.

To put this beer in a bit more context, I spent Saturday up in Northern Virginia judging for the Virginia Craft Beer Cup and was handed the Czech lager category. This sedmička would have easily made the top three beers we judged, and would have been a very strong contender for first place, it is that good. However, since Devils Backbone are no longer permitted to participate in the competition by virtue of being owned by Anheuser-Busch, this beer will likely not get the praise and credit it deserves.

I have said it many times, anyone can throw boat loads of hops into the kettle and get something the lupulin loonies will lavishly laud to the heavens, but it takes a true master craftsman to create a 2.6% beer that is refreshing and flavourful. Jason Oliver and the crew at Devils Backbone are such masters of the craft.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hail Mild Month!

Finally it is May, which of course means that on both sides of the Pond it is Mild Month.


Mild Month has been going for a while back home in Blighty, and CAMRA are at the heart of encouraging drinkers to try something a little different this month. Over on this side of the mighty Atlantic, I started American Mild Month in 2015 with the aim of encouraging brewers and drinkers to put down their IPAs and take a walk on the mild side.

Unfortunately I've not had as much time to commit to this year's iteration of the project as I would like, day job and all that, but it is good to know that there are plenty of breweries in the US who have taken up the baton and will have milds on tap in May, including several here in Virginia.

I hope to find time to scoot around the Old Dominion a bit trying milds from breweries like Three Notch'd, Mad Fox, and the Virginia Beer Company, as well as enjoying the Oliver Ale's Dark Horse sent down for myself and the designer of the American Mild Month logo form Baltimore in Maryland.

So let me encourage people to try at least a few pints of mild this month if you see them, and post pictures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the hashtag #MildMonthUS.

Happy drinking!