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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Try Offering Dry

A friend on Facebook posted this interesting little article in the Morning Advertiser today, which basically states that Dry January will "be the death" of the British pub.

The article goes on to state that 5 million British drinkers have signed up for the "official" Dry January project run by those tireless, puritanical, temperance folks of Alcohol Concern. The number of people completing the challenge in previous years is not mentioned. If my own observations of friends who, like me, attempt to take 31 days off the bevvy can be extrapolated out, I would not be surprised if fewer than 2 million people actually succeed.

I have mentioned in previous posts that I have little truck with either the official Dry January brigade or the plucky rebellious sorts advocating for Tryanuary, which encourages folks to break out from their normal drinking, preferably at some craft beer, leave your wallet with the barman, type place.

Now forgive me I am being cynical but could someone please just decide what exactly it is that is killing the British pub? Is it the smoking ban? Brexit? Climate change? It seems at times that anything that diverges from the image of Blighty as basically The Shire writ large is the greatest harbinger of doom for the pub industry.

Now forgive me if as a mere punter I am missing something, but haven't we just had the Christmas and Hogmanay period, when pubs are slammed to the gunwales pretty much for the entirety of December? Why was no one complaining that all these people out on the piss were putting too much money in the boozers' coffers?

It seems to me that rather than whining to the media about how a dip in custom is affecting their business's profitability, landlords would be better served taking on board the ethos of Tryanuary and give the Dry January folks an actual alternative to booze. I know too many places that only have some crap like lime soda as a non booze option.


How about offering traditionally made soft drinks, ditching the post-mix swill from Pepsi or Coke, like those made by Dalston's or Lovely Soft Drinks? Thankfully here in central Virginia most of my favourite places to drink also make their own ginger beer, and in the case of Three Notch'd it's bloody delicious.

Running a business means adapting to market forces and the capricious whimsy of the consumer, pubs are no different.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Local Flagships

It would appear that I have entered uncharted territory, being described as "all a’giggle" and "excited and on-board", phrases not normally applied to this fine upstanding example of the Highland Scot, a study in taciturn. I refer of course to my enthusiasm, suspicious naturally, for the upcoming Flagship February. One of the reasons I am happy to support Flagship February is that it chimes so nicely with my Old Friends series of posts, several of which has featured brewery flagships that I hadn't drunk in a while.

It does however raise the question, in this era of almost weekly new beer tappings, one off collaborations, and limited availability releases, how do you identify a brewery's flagship? Well, Stephen Beaumont, the driving force behind the project offers this:
the beer that formed the foundation of the brewery… not necessarily its current best-seller
That pretty much seems to be on point for a definition. As an example I asked the brew master at Three Notch'd here in central Virginia what he considered to be their flagship beer, to which he responded 40 Mile IPA, despite the current best seller being their Minute Man NEIPA. I imagine then there will be a fair amount of IPA in the drinking of folks supporting Flagship February, I remember well sitting with the MD of another local brewery just before they started distributing widely in Virginia and being told they only chose an IPA as one of their packaged beers because it was expected by most craft beer drinkers. Thankfully though, in this part of the world at least, not every brewery has an IPA as their flagship.

The guys at Blue Mountain have their Full Nelson, a "Virginia Pale Ale" that is pretty much a classic American style pale ale, with all the citrus and pine hop thing you effect, you could almost call it "old school" but that would be a disservice to what is a fine, fine beer.

Just a wee bit down Route 151 (the Boulevard of Booze), Devils Backbone's flagship is their simply wonderful Vienna Lager, which I wrote about for the Old Friends series.

Coming into town itself and at South Street, one of my favourite haunts when it isn't January (side note, this year's dry month is harder than previous years), their flagship is Satan's Pony, an amber ale that is magnificently crushable and I wish they would have it on their forlorn beer engine, sans silly shit in the cask. It would be a revelation I am sure.

Again popping out of Charlottesville, to Starr Hill in Crozet and here we do have an IPA for a flagship, and again a beer I wrote about for Old Friends, the Northern Lights IPA, at one time the best selling IPA in Virginia. There was a question in my mind about whether Northern Lights would be the Starr Hill flagship, but since they no longer include Jomo Lager, Pale Ale, Dark Starr, or Amber Ale in their core lineup, it's pointless to ask.

As well as being an opportunity to remind myself of some beers I have enjoyed mightily in the past, Flagship February could also be the kick up the zythophilic arse I need to get to some of the newer local breweries and try their flagships

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

My Name is Fuggled, And I Approve #FlagshipFebruary

It started with a post on Vinepair about the struggles of flagship beers in the American marketplace. Step forward Stephen Beaumont with the idea of Flagship February, a month dedicated to celebrating the core brands that are the back bone of many a craft brewery. It was thus that Flagship February was born.

The idea is pretty simple, spend a month drinking and celebrating those flagship beers that are the backbone of many a brewery's offering. This is the kind of thing that I am more than happy to get behind, especially as it chimes nicely with the Old Friends series that I have been doing here on Fuggled.

With that in mind, I plan to make flagship beers a major feature of my drinking, and posting, in February, and not just from the central Virginia region - partly because several of them have Old Friends posts already.

Now, to start encouraging industry folks I know to stock flagships on tap in their bars, or have some kind of special deal in their tasting rooms....