Friday, March 23, 2018

Old Friends: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager

I am going to make an assumption with this post, namely that you have been reading Fuggled for a while and thus it will come as no surprise to you that I am a devotee of lager. There is just something about most lager styles that I find appealing, given a choice between some trendy glitter bomb juicy IPA and a pint of Miller Lite, I am likely to take the Miller Lite more often than not.

When Mrs V and I made the move from Prague to central Virginia we knew that finding a good local lager was high on our list of priorities. For a while we bounced around Blue Mountain's Classic Lager, Starr Hill's Jomo Lager, and the beer that is today's Old Friend, Devils Backbone Vienna Lager. Eventually Vienna Lager won the day and became my standard lager in the fridge. I really can't think why I stopped keeping a six pack of it in the fridge, probably something to do with the well made contract brewed lagers that I could buy at Trader Joe's.

Being a central European style lager, it seemed only right to pour it into my half litre mug from the lovely Purkmistr in Plzeň that I got at the first Slunce ve Skle festival a decade ago. What a glorious deep copper beer with orange edges and half inch of off-white head that leaves a fine tracery of lacing down the glass.

I had forgotten just how much I loved the aroma of Vienna Lager, laden with a smell that I can only describe as like large amounts of honey spread on freshly toasted bread. Floating around in the background is a lovely floral hoppiness that reminded me of walking in the Czech mountains in the height of summer, side note I have always loved the Czech word for flowers, 'kytičky'.

Anyway, before I lapse into a Bohemian revelry, we should actually drink the beer, that is after all the whole point of this most wonderful of liquids. Teacakes, that's what I get, teacakes freshly taken out of the oven, spread with more honey, and then snaffled with all the delight of an illicit, though simple, pleasure. There is a light citrusy bitterness to the beer that gives the beer a balance that makes it thoroughly moreish.

That thing I mentioned earlier about there being something about most lagers that I find appealing, it is the clean bite that comes with a well made, properly lagered beer. The best way I can think of to describe the perception I am thinking of is that it is a tight snap that leaves the palate waiting for more. Drinkability, that is ultimately what love about lager styles, I find them more drinkable than many of their top fermented cousins.

With it being Friday, I might just swing by the shop and pick up a 6 pack of Vienna Lager to enjoy this evening once the boys have gone down for the night...every prospect pleases.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Hardknott Decision

There was sad news this morning when I opened Facebook. Dave Bailey, once of the Woolpack Inn and more recently of Hardknott Brewing has decided to call it a day with the brewery.

In Dave's post he cites the saturation of the craft beer market in the UK as one reason for deciding to close down. By the sound of it, the market is exceptionally tight for small brewers without their own tied estate to guarantee a route to market. That coupled with the parsimony of some real ale drinkers can only make life very challenging.

I am not sure if Dave's beers made it to this side of the Pond but I am confident they would have been well received here. When I was home in 2014, I made a point to try as many as I could lay hands on, and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

I want to wish Dave all the best in whatever comes next and sincerely hope he remains involved in beer as it would be a shame to lose his knowledge, passion, and drive from the industry.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Old Friends: Starr Hill Northern Lights

Many moons ago, when Fuggled was in its infancy, Mrs Velkyal and I were still living in Prague, and a night out on the lash didn't cost me an arm and leg, a friend brought me a bottle of beer from a brewery called Starr Hill. The beer in question was simply called Pale Ale, and I wrote about it here. Fast forward a few months and Mrs V and I had made the transition across the Pond, a night out on the lash cost me an arm and a leg, and I was working for the very same Starr Hill Brewery, spending my weekends behind the bar at their tasting room.

Back then in the dim and distant days of the late noughties, I actually quite liked the occasional IPA, and given the employee perk of a pay day case of beer, I quite often drank Starr Hill's IPA, Northern Lights, and I quite liked it. Sure, I preferred Dark Starr Stout, but a pint of Northern Lights was a regular sight.Come the beginning of 2015 I decided to move on from Starr Hill and start enjoying 2 day weekends without any work, and as a result I drank less and less of their beer. When thinking about beers to include in my Old Friends series, it made sense to include some Starr Hill stuff, and Northern Lights seemed the obvious choice, so I bought a couple of 12oz bottles as part of a build your own six pack, and poured them into my imperial pint dimpled mug...

I have to admit to almost reveling in an IPA that poured as beautifully clear as Northern Lights, a light copper liquid topped with a good half inch of white foam that lingered resolutely and left a delicate lacing down the sides of the glass.

The aroma was classic American style IPA, redolent with pine resin, positively dripping with grapefruit, and just a hint of herbal dankness in the background, it was like time travel. Tastewise the citrus and pine flavours from the hops where upfront and centre, but being an East Coast IPA there was a sweet toffee note that lent an element of balance. Being a more old school IPA, the bitterness was very much there, firm, bracing, and everything a bitter beer should be, lovers of NEIPA need not apply here for sure.

With each mouthful, and a quick 4oz top up on the 20oz pint glass, the bitterness built, like the layers of hand dipped candles. With an ABV of 5.3%, Northern Lights isn't going to knock you on your arse, but the booze is well integrated and doesn't detract from the interplay of hop bitterness and malt sweetness. Northern Lights is an old school East Coast IPA, but in a good way, a bracingly bitter beer that deserves revisiting by many.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Old Friends: Fuller's ESB

Wandering around the shop yesterday getting the weekly necessaries, I got thinking about what beer I wanted to buy. I have plenty of beer in the cellar at the moment, but most of it is dark, porters, stouts, that kind of stuff, there was very little pale beer, and no lager (purely because lager gets drunk pretty quickly in my house as I love the stuff). Usually when we go to our preferred supermarket we do our booze shopping last as the wine and beer sections are in the back corner. I have a confession to make, I am really bad about trying new beers and breweries at the moment, mainly because it is difficult to place any faith in the consistency and quality of many of the start up breweries flooding the shelves. Anyway, looking at the shelves of British beer available there were so many familiar names, but beers that I had not tried in goodness knows how long, and thus is the genesis of this new series on Fuggled, "Old Friends".

I almost picked up a four pack of London Pride, a beer I know well and enjoy drinking reasonably often. Between the stash of Pride and London Porter were a pair of ESB four packs, so I checked the best before date (a sad necessity in these parts) and took home the one pack that was still within the freshness range. It had been years since I had last indulged in a pint of Fuller's ESB, and that was on draft one homebrew club night many moons ago. Extra Special Bitter, as a style rather than the Fuller's brand in particular here, is one that gets brewed relatively often by American breweries, and even though it is part of the bitter family, I am much more of a best bitter drinker, and quite often leave the ESBs I see alone. Anyway, on to the ur-ESB...

As I said, it had been a long time since my last pint of Fuller's ESB, so for some reason best known only to the recesses of my memory I was mildly surprised at the beautiful copper colour of the beer as it sat in my freshly cleaned nonic imperial pint glass. I remember having a similar feeling when I had a few pints of cask London Pride in Inverness a couple of years back, why did I think they would be darker than that? I loved the colour, especially in the late winter sunlight streaming through the doors to our deck, with a schmeer of off white foam, every prospect pleased.

There are some breweries whose beer have a distinctive smell and Fullers is one of them. For some folks the familiarity of that aroma and taste has bred contempt, I find it deeply comforting as I know when I smell a Fullers beer it will be a good beer. The aroma is that of marmelade made with Seville oranges, citrusy, lightly floral and with traces of crystalised sugar. Tastewise, again that marmelade character is evident, though it is not overly sweet, being balanced with pithy hop bite that cleans the palate and leaves you ready for more.

Goodness me what a lovely beer I had been neglecting all these years, perhaps in part because of the 5.9% ABV, which while not strong (the average for core range beers in Central VA is about 6.5%), is a good 20% stronger than most beers I drink regularly. I still have a couple of bottles in the fridge, but they'll be gone soon enough, and I imagine ESB will be finding it's way more often in to my drinking life again, though more as an evening indulgence, perhaps while reading or watching something on Netflix once the twins have fallen asleep and Mrs V and I have an hour or so to ourselves of adult time. It'll be a welcome addition to the routine...

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Session: Three Things

My post for this month's iteration of The Session is a tad late, something of a theme recently, but when I last looked at The Session's web page, no topic had been announced, and I only discovered the topic this morning. Our host for this month is Jay Brooks, one of the founders of The Session, and his theme is looking for answers to three questions, so let me oblige....

Jay's first question is:
what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?
The word that immediately springs to mind is classic.

When I think about the kind of beers I like to drink they are all well established styles with widely accepted parameters. Think about a pilsner, four simple ingredients is all that it needs, malt, noble hops, lager yeast, and soft water. Consider the best bitter, again the simple interplay of good pale malt, with some crystal or toasted malts chucked in for flavour and colour, English hops, characterful yeast, and whatever water you have knocking around essentially. The third in my classic triumvirate is dry stout a la Guinness. When you drink an example of any of these styles you know what to expect and that for me is part of their appeal, I don't want to be challenged by random ingredients, twists, or new fangled ideas of what a beer style could be, I want a quality interpretation of a classic style.

Question the second is:
what two breweries do you think are very underrated? Name any two places that don’t get much attention but are quietly brewing great beer day in and day out. And not just one shining example, but everything they brew should be spot on. And ideally, they have a great tap room, good food, or other stellar amenities of some kind. But for whatever reason, they’ve been mostly overlooked. Maybe 2018 should be the year they hit it big. Who are they?
This is a very difficult question to answer, especially when you consider what is meant by 'underrated'? Rated by whom? Depending on how you answer that question, you could argue that Sierra Nevada are underrated because for the trend chasers they are insufficiently sexy, even though they simply do not make a bad beer in their range.

Assuming though that we are not talking about such ratings, my first choice would be the winners of the Fuggled Amber Beer of the Year for 2017, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, NC. Olde Meck are a rarity in the American brewing scene in that all their beers are German styles and they don't brew a single IPA - fancy that, a brewery sufficiently confident in their products so as not to pander to the IPA worshippers. Whether it is their altbier, pilsner, dunkel, or Oktoberfest, every beer I have has from them has been superb, and whenever I go to South Carolina with Mrs V, I know I will be stocking up for the return trip as they are yet to be distributed in Virginia.

Sticking with the Carolina theme, my second underrated brewery is actually the oldest brewery in Columbia, South Carolina, Hunter Gatherer. I still remember my first trip there, having walked 7 miles from Mrs V's childhood home into the centre of Columbia a couple of days after Christmas in 2011. As they are currently in the latter stages of opening a production brewery, I am limiting myself here to their brewpub, which is in many ways the archetype of a brewpub that I would love to open. A fairly limited selection of only 4 beers, technically 5 but their don't brew a lager so they have Warsteiner (if memory serves) on tap, but each well made and tasty, bare brick walls, wooden furniture, and excellent food coming from the kitchen. I make a point of visiting whenever we go south, you should too.

The third and final question is:
name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of
This one is relatively simple:
  • Best Bitter - there is only one brewed with any regularity in this part of Virginia, and it's my recipe. I am not sure if the American drinking public really get the idea of a bitter in general, perhaps confused by the notion of a bitter beer or even the idea that hoppy beers don't have to taste like grapefruit juice. Whatever the stumbling block, I wish more breweries would take the bull by the horns and make this wonderful style, and then serve it at cellar temperature, from a beer engine.
  • Dark Mild - sure there is a healthy dose of self interest here, being the founder of American Mild Month (which will be back this year for it's 4th outing), but I tend to think that any brewer worth his or her salt is well able to brew a mild and make it interesting. Sometimes all I want after work on a Friday is to down a few pints in short order, and mild is the perfect beer with which to do so.
  • Altbier - there are few better beers than fresh altbier, and while there are a few available locally, they all seem to use crystal malts to give the expected colour, but then contribute a slick sweetness that really doesn't work with the style at all. More examples like Olde Meck's Copper would be more than welcome.
All classic styles, all wonderfully well made, and all worth sitting in the pub for hours drinking, which is kind of the whole point of beer as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beer and Breweries of 2017

A bit late admittedly, though there are mitigating circumstances involving trips to the emergency room with my twin sons, but as they say, never late than never eh? I have somewhat rationalised this year's lists by having just a single 'Virginia' entry rather than splitting it into central VA and the rest of the commonwealth as in years passim. With that, let's dive on in.

  • Virginia - Devils Backbone Czech 10
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Nooner
  • Rest of World - Rothaus Tannenzäpfle
  • Honorable mentions - Pilsner Urquell, Three Notch'd The Ghost, New Belgium Dayblazer, Black Sheep Ale

Admit it, you're shocked that my three choices here are all pilsners. If you are then clearly you haven't been paying enough attention. Anyway, all three are wonderful versions of my favourite pale lager style, all crisp, clean, painfully easy to drink, and so beautifully made it makes you wonder why people bother with dumping random shit in the fermenter. Choosing just one is tricky, but when it comes down to it, having a desítka in Virginia puts DB's lovely Czech 10 ahead by a short nose.

  • Virginia - Port City Oktoberfest
  • Rest of US - Olde Mecklenburg Copper
  • Rest of World - Minipivovar U Medvídků Oldgott Barrique
  • Honorable mentions - Schlenkerla Märzen, Fullers 1845, O'Hara's Irish Red, Three Notch'd Hydraulion

Whenever Mrs V and I, and I guess from here on in for a few years, the twins as well, head to South Carolina I always make a point of getting some Copper from Olde Mecklenburg Brewing in Charlotte, NC. Copper is an altbier that unlike many that claim to be of that style over here isn't made with caramel malts in place of the traditional Munich malts. It is as close a genuine altbier as you will find brewed in the US, and I love the stuff.

  • Virginia - South Street Brewing Munich Dunkel
  • Rest of US - Anchor Brewing Porter
  • Rest of World - Riegele Noctus 100
  • Honorable mentions - Sierra Nevada Porter, Sierra Nevada Stout, Guinness 200th Anniversary Export Stout, Three Notch'd Oats McGoats, Sv. Norbert Dark Lager

While in Columbia for Thanksgiving, I stocked up on beers that I rarely, if ever, see here in Virginia and it is one of those that walks off with the title of Fuggled dark beer of the year. Anchor Porter is a beer I had heard much about but never actually seen in the wild. When I popped open a bottle to go with my dinner one evening I was blown away with just how complex and beautifully made it was, especially given it's comparatively lightweight 5.6% abv - one I will be stocking up on whenever I am in SC for sure.

Fuggled Beer of the Year

Of my three category beers of the year, the one that walks away with the overall Fuggled Beer of the Year will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that knows me. I will quite openly admit to the fact that I enjoy drinking beer, I am not much of one for visiting breweries and sampling their wares before moving on to another brewery and repeating the experience. If I do flights it is to find what I want to drink for the rest of my session. When I found out that my friends down at Devils Backbone were making a 10° Czech style pale lager I was excited to try it, and it was simply one of the best examples of the style I have ever drunk, up there with the likes of Kout na Šumavě and Zlatá labuť. Being able to sit in the Devils Backbone brewpub with friends, enjoying superb food, and the perfect desítka to wash it all down with, was sublime. Well done Devils Backbone, the Fuggled Beer of the Year is Czech 10, please make it again!!

  • Virginia - Three Notch'd Brewing
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Brewing
  • Rest of World - Guinness
  • Honorable mentions - Devils Backbone, AleWerks, Fullers, Olde Mecklenburg Brewing,
I am sure I have said this many a time, but I am a terrible beer tourist, and as such I don't tend to go off on brewery sampling trips. I am also a rather conservative drinker in the sense that I tend to find breweries that I trust to make quality beers and I stick to them. Given the price of a six pack these days, there is no way I am splashing north of $10 for a six pack without knowing that I will be enjoying every beer. There is one brewery that in my world stands heads and shoulders above all overs at the moment and I think I have drunk more of their beer this year than any other brewery. Congrats then to Sierra Nevada Brewing for being the Fuggled Brewery of the Year for 2017, keep up the great work!

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Session 130 - Festival Perfection

The final first Friday of 2017 is upon us, so of course that means it is time for this month's Session, hosted by Brian Yaeger. For this month, Brian asks us to imagine our ideal beer festival, and so without further ado, let's dive on in....

Firstly I have something of a confession to make, I can count on the fingers of less one full hand the number of beer festivals I have been to. That's no comment on beer festivals themselves but rather an admission of the fact that if I have a choice, and a potential alibi, I will avoid big crowds at all possible cost. I can also count on the aforementioned fingers the number of people capable of coaxing me out of my introvert cave to attend such an event. Clearly then, the first requirement for the Fuggled Festival of Beer is that it be a relatively small and low key event.

To facilitate such a low key event, the venue would preferably be out in the sticks a bit. Not necessary in the wilderness of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park, but in a hotel in a small country village would do nicely. The event would also be outside so that those hardy souls who make the trek have magnificent vistas of mountains and fields to drink in as they drink their beer. If the venue has some kind of courtyard then all the better. Actually, if the venue were a hotel with a brewpub and a courtyard, with views of the countryside, that would be perfect.

As this is a beer festival we should give some consideration to the beer itself, and in keeping with my theme of being low key, I would limit the number of breweries in attendance to somewhere between 15 and 20, and then further limit them to having a maximum of 2 beers available. Said beer would be draft only, so that attendees get the freshest taste of beer possible. Breweries are free to bring whatever beers they feel like serving, whether it's flagships, seasonals, or one-offs, it's entirely up to them.

This being my beer festival, it would primarily be a drinking festival rather than a tasting one, as such beers would be available in either half pint or full pint sizes (and pint here means the 20oz imperial pint). We're all adults here, so the only limit on the amount attendees can drink is based on their ability to hold their bevvy, keep their significant other happy, not be a nuisance, and not run foul of the police. We're all adults here right, so personal responsibility is important.

So we have our venue and the beers sorted, but what about box office? Straight off the bat I will say that I hate the idea of buying tokens with which to trade for beer, especially when the price of the token is more than the cost of a beer at the festival in a local pub. I also hate the idea of having a set number of beers as part of my entry fee. As such, entry at the door would be relatively cheap but would include a half pint glass, made of actual glass and not plastic. If attendees would prefer a full pint glass, there would be a small surcharge on the entry fee. The entry fee would be as low as possible to allow it to cover the cost of the venue and glassware. Brewers would then be selling their beer to the attendees at whatever price they feel appropriate, so total cost to an attendee would be the cover fee plus however much they actually choose to spend.

Getting away from the logistics and the beer for a moment, I would want to have a snack stand as well pumping out food that goes well with beer. Think a central European sausage vendor and you're in the right ball park, we're talking snacks not meals. I would also arrange a couple of local bands to come and play sets during the festival, though it would be more a background noise kind of thing than a focal point of the event.

As I re-read this with my editor's hat on, two things strike me. Firstly this is basically my vision of a good pub writ large, and secondly it bears a marked resemblance to the first Slunce ve Skle festival that I went to in Plzeň back in 2008. It was at Slunce ve Skle that I met Max for the first time, drank plenty of good beer from small breweries I had never heard of, and hung out with an eclectic group of expats and locals just reveling in good beer with good company. It was a perfect afternoon's drinking, one that I would love to recreate.