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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In Praise of Sierra Nevada

There are times when the MO of much of the craft beer industry, whether producers or consumers, seems to be an obsessive compulsion toward the new, the varied, and the never to be repeated. In times such as these it feels as though any brewery that is more than a couple of years old has become passé, and god help them if they have the temerity not to completely revamp their lineup at the whim of an Untappd Beer Rating Advocate. In such a milieu, thank goodness is all I have to say for a brewery like Sierra Nevada.

I still remember vividly my first Sierra Nevada beer. I was in Galway, sat next to the peat fire in a pub called Sheridan's On The Docks, watching Ireland play New Zealand in the Autumn Internationals, it was the great way to round off what had been a grand day out drinking. Having reacquainted myself with Bishop's Finger and Spitfire from Shepherd Neame I spied the green label of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and texted Evan Rail back in Prague to ask if it was worth trying, at €6 a pop,...a few moments later came the resounding recommendation, thus I duly ordered a bottle and poured it into my glass. It was love at first mouthful, and sat in that bar on the very edge of Europe I knew that it was going to be a regular beer in my fridge.


Since moving to the US, beers from Sierra Nevada have probably been the most common in my fridge. Cans of Pale Ale and Nooner Pilsner are staples at the moment. Every August has taken on a near religious ecstasy as I wait for the latest iteration of their Oktoberfest collaborations.



Whenever I see their Stout and Porter in the shops I have to buy some.


Kellerweis and Summerfest remind me of many a drinking session in Pivovarský klub. Narwhal is as good an imperial stout as you could imagine.


The fact that Sierra Nevada do so many classic beer styles so damned consistently well is something that needs to be lauded by beer lovers across the land. It's isn't boring to make a German style pilsner that would hold it's own in the Black Forest. It isn't playing it safe by being the archtype of the American Pale Ale. Quality and consistency don't get enough praise among beer lovers in this country at times, though maybe I am just a grumpy old man who wants his SNPA to taste the same every time I drink it. That trust is an important part of my willingness to splash out for Sierra Nevada beer more often than not, shit I even tried (and loved) Otra Vez simply because I trust them to do a good job.

I think I only have one gripe about Sierra Nevada really, that they don't have a best bitter as part of their regular range of beers. I am sure they would knock that so far out of the park, Timothy Taylor's would be looking over their shoulders.

So here's to the Grossman family that own and run Sierra Nevada, long may you continue and prosper doing what you do best, making quality classic beers.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Session 129 - Whither the Session?


How exactly is it the first Friday of November already? Rhetorical questions aside, as it is so, that means it is time for The Session, hosted this month by Eoghan of Brussels Beer City. Eoghan's theme for the month is "Missing Local Beer Styles", which he boils down to being:
"what beer style would you like to see being brewed in your local market that is not yet being brewed?"
As Eoghan points out, beer choice can often seem to be an exercise in choosing from endless variations on the theme of IPA, which is incredibly boring after a while. While I consider myself very lucky to live in a part of Virginia with plenty of breweries who make beers beyond the confines of a modern interpretation of India Pale Ale (does the modern concept of IPA even relate to India Pale Ale in anything other than name any more?), I naturally have beer styles that I miss.

If you have read more that 2 or 3 of my blog posts you will likely know well by now that my favourite beer styles are (not necessarily in order):
  • Bitter
  • Pilsner
  • Dry Stout
  • Mild
Of those 4 styles, the only one brewed in this area that I can get with any regularity is Pilsner, Champion Brewing's lovely Shower Beer.


Once upon a time Starr Hill Brewing, where for the sake of full disclosure I used to work, brewed a dry Irish stout called Dark Starr, it was sublime, it is still the most award winning dry Irish stout in America, it hasn't been brewed for about 3 years if memory serves. When I worked behind the bar of the taproom I would pour Dark Starr early so it could get to the right temperature to unlock the flavours, and many people discovered they actually did like stout after all.


I manage to get my mild kick in the pub for a single month each year as several of the local breweries support my American Mild Month project, but outside of May, mild is as rare as hen's teeth. The same could be said for bitter. Unless Three Notch'd Brewing has put out my Bitter 42 Best Bitter recipe, fresh bitter is basically unicorn shit in these parts.



Thankfully there is a place where I can semi-regularly get my fix of all three styles, guaranteed fresh, and at the generally reasonable price of less than $1 for an imperial pint. That place is of course my kitchen, and the beers are my homebrew renditions of the styles.

Even though I like to think that I am a pretty decent brewer, there are times when I would like nothing more than to be sat in the pub nursing a pint some tasty, session beer while reading a book or hanging out with friends. Given that reality, the one beer "style" that is grossly underrepresented in Central Virginia is just that, session beers.

I recently did some research into the state of core beers being produced by the various breweries within 35 miles of my house and discovered that the average ABV is 6.7%, and found not a single core beer that would satisfy the definition of session beer as laid out by Lew Bryson.

I realise this has the potential of making me sound like a total druth, but I actively enjoy drinking. In common with most people from those mad islands on the west of Europe, the pub is the place I am happiest, and I can think of few things I would prefer to do than spend an afternoon drinking pints with friends, or alone just reading a good book. Were I to have such a session on 6.7% ABV beer, I would be in no fit state to get myself home.

So come on brewers of Central Virginia, try introducing session beers to your core ranges, bitters, stouts, milds, as well as pilsners! Given that they are cheaper to make, it'll help your bottom line as well!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

17° Perfection

Goodness me it's been a while since I posted.

Mitigating circumstance is that just 5 days after my previous post, Mrs V gave birth to our twin sons, the malé Aličky as they have been nicknamed, and we are getting to grips with this whole parenthood thing.

On Saturday, we introduced the malé Aličky to that most august of establishments, the pub. I fear that in the rampantly puritanical mind of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (for those unaware, a front organisation feigning academic respectability for the heirs of the Temperance League and their prohibitionist cohorts) the boys are already scarred for life as I have had several beers right in front of them already.

Said introductory pub was the original Devils Backbone brewpub down in Nelson County, and the occasion was the tapping of the beer I brewed with them back in August, a Czech style Polotmavý Speciál. Polotmavý because it is neither light nor dark, but a deep red kind of in between, and Speciál because it has an original gravity of about 17° Plato. In keeping with Czech tradition the name of the beer is Granát, which is "garnet" in Czech, a reference to the famous gemstones from Central Bohemia.


"But how did the beer turn out?" I hear you say....

Well, it pours a really rich deep auburn, that the picture above maybe doesn't capture fully, and yes I am biased but I think all my children are gorgeous. The head is a healthy inch of ivory foam that lingers for the duration and leaves some lovely lacing down the glass. Aroma wise, there are some traces of a lightly herbal hop character, but given the beer is more balanced toward the malt, the classic Central European smells of fresh bread and a sweet malt aroma (I can't think of a better description honestly, when you smell CaraBohemian malt you get what I mean). In terms of taste, there is lots of breadiness, and a healthy dollop of sweetness, think dulce de leche and you're close, all backed up by a firm hop bite that stops the beer from being sickly - is there anything worse than a sickly sweet beer? Having lagered for a nearly 10 weeks, the finish is clean, crisp, and despite the malt forward nature of the beer, refreshing.

You know, the more I think about it, the more it reminds me of a 14° Polotmavý Speciál from Minipivovar Hukvaldy that I relished back in 2008 over lunch with Max in Prague.

So yes it turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and my only regret is that it won't ever see the light of day at Pivovarský klub. Given the volume of the batch, I expect it will only be on at Devils Backbone for a few weeks, so if you are in the area get along and try the first recorded authentic Czech style Polotmavý in Virginian history.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Irish Pub

The pub is probably my favourite institution on earth. Whenever I am off on my travels I spend more time researching places I want to have a drink than I do what beers are available in a particular drinking hole. I guess that's what makes me an awful beer tourist, you'll not find me visiting places just because of the breweries that are there.

The kind of pub I like doesn't have to have a stellar beer selection of the latest, greatest, trendiest IPAs and the like. Some of my favourite places to drink when I lived in Prague sold the near ubiquitous range of Prazdroj, Gambrinus, and Kozel Černý, but I loved them all the same. Beer is not the point of the pub, community is, conversation is, comfort is, consolation is.

As I have got older, my taste in pubs has tended more and more to the simple pleasures of a well cared for pint enjoyed with good company. If I wish to get rat-arsed and listen to the greatest cheesey hits of the 90s, I can do that in the comfort of my front room.

Any way, all this thinking about pubs is because last night I came across a wonderful documentary film on Netflix called 'The Irish Pub' and spent the hour and a bit of it in a fog of nostalgia, there being so many similarities between pubs in Ireland and those in the north west of Scotland where I grew up.

Here's the trailer, and if you have Netflix look it up for the whole thing.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Session 127 - Oktoberfest Round-up


The real thing is just a few days away now, so what better time to do the traditional round up of posts for the Session? The theme I asked folks to write about this month was 'Oktoberfest lagers'.

Jack over at Deep Beer wondered whether Oktoberfest lagers come out too soon, and offered a theory that the russets of many an Oktoberfest lager make it worth waiting for the leaves to turn before tucking in.

The Beer Nut managed to find a couple of examples of the style to write about, including an obligatory maß sized can of Eichbaum Festbier - and referred to me as 'His Royal Lageriness', which I rather like.

Other than being two of my favourite blogs to read, Alan at A Better Beer Blog, and the dynamic duo of Boak and Bailey both find themselves underserved locally when it comes to Oktoberfest lagers, and thus ponder the question what would festbier be in an English speaking context? I have to admit when I saw the themes for both posts I was hoping for a treatise on historical 'October beer'.

Closer to home. Tom Cizauskus waxes lyrical about the delights of this year's Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest in collaboration with Brauhaus Miltenberger. Stan compares the Cannstatter Volkfest in Stuttgart to Munich's Oktoberfest, noting that they happen around the same time, and that he has never actually been to Oktoberfest, which neither have I, and I am not overly vexed by that fact, and Jon at The Brew Site reveals Deschutes' hybrid autumnal IPA, Hopzeit.

Thanks again to everyone that took part, and if I failed to mention anyone's posts, just leave a message in the contents and I'll update this post.

UPDATE 1: a really fascinating post from Andreas Krennmair about what was served at the real Oktoberfest in the 19th century, including a surprising visitor from Bohemia.

UPDATE 2: as Thom poins out, I forgot to mention my own post, so here is a link.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Session 127: A Feast of Oktober


This month's Session is hosted by, well, me. My theme for this month is Oktoberfest lager, and I have had a few well meaning people ask me why I chose the theme of Oktoberferst for the September Session. It's quite simple really, Oktoberfest begins in the middle of September, that and the fact that given the weirdness that is American brewing's obsession with having season beers in the shops well before a season actually starts, the shelves of supermarkets and bottle shops are already groaning with Oktoberfest style lagers, so why not drink a load of them?

In my original announcement of the theme I said:

"Feel free to dress up for your tasting, dirndls, lederhosen, that Australian backpacker outfit you keep in the back of your wardrobe for special occasions. Hire yourself an oompah band, play the birdy song, and generally get into the spirit of celebrating for the 117th time the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Whip out the grill and buy all the bratwurst you can find, proper bratwurst that is, from Germany. Shout "O'zapft is!" at the top of your lungs...you get the idea."
Well, sadly I don't have any lederhosen, or an Australian backpacker outfit, nor to I have a thing for the birdy song. I do however love German sausages and mustard, so I gleefully paired my tasting of Oktoberfest lagers with a plate of bockwurst, fried potatoes, and Dusseldorf mustard...


This though is a beer blog, so on to the beers themselves, of which there were 5, said 5 being:
  • Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest
  • Blue Mountain 13.5 Oktoberfest
  • Great lakes Oktoberfest
  • Otter Creek/Brauerei CAmba Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada/Brauerei Miltenburger Oktoberfest
How were they? Let's find out shall we?


Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest
  • Sight - copper, small white head that vanishes quickly
  • Smell - some bready malt, lightly spicy in the background
  • Taste - very lightly toasted bread, slightly grassy, crisp finish
  • Sweet - 1.5/5
  • Bitter - 1/5
So yes, Leinenkugel's is a MillerCoors owned brewery, but I really couldn't give a rat's arse about that, this is a beer blog not a corporate structure blog. The beer is pretty light bodied, but not thin, it just lacks the heft I have come to expect from American Oktoberfests. It's a pretty inoffensive, perfectly well made beer, something that would be fine to drink on a night out, though the lingering sweetness in the finish would get tired after a while, I like my beer bitter and my lagers clean.


Blue Mountain 13.5 Oktoberfest
  • Sight - deep burnished copper, half inch of linger white foam
  • Smell - noticeable noble hop character, floral, citrus, some toffee
  • Taste - lightly toasted bread, a very subtle smokiness, bit of a metallic tang
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The local beer in my selection, Blue Mountain being about 20 miles from my house here in Central Virginia. 13.5, the number of degrees Plato that is the starting gravity for this beer, is very much the archetypal American made Oktoberfest lager. It has a nice smooth finish that isn't so sweet as to be cloying, but I find it has a slightly odd bite right at the end and lacks the clean snap I would expect from a Central European lager. Still, a decent beer for an afternoon in their brewpub, preferably in the rain, but I am weird that way.


Great Lakes Oktoberfest
  • Sight - dark honey (thanks Mrs V for that description!), voluminous slightly off white head that lingers for the duration
  • Smell - fresh scones and a floral meadow in the height of summer
  • Taste - caramel and toffee up front, bready backbone, malts definitely the star of the show
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
I quite like Great Lakes beers, in particular their porter, but this beer just didn't do it for me. It has a distinct lack of bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the malt, and the finish was oily sweet, not the clean snappy bite I expect from a lager beer. Not so much bad as misguided.


Otter Creek/Brauerei Camba Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, white head that disappears pretty quickly
  • Smell - saltine crackers, floral hops, lemongrass
  • Taste - fresh bread, some yeastinessm abd a good hop bite in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
I don't recall having an Otter Creek beer before, but this collaboration was one I really enjoyed. It has the expected lager snap that I love, and it very nicely balanced so that drinking it is an absolute pleasure. I may have mentioned this before, but I find myself liking the more modern paler interpretations of Oktoberfest lager than the darker sweeter efforts that seem to be the norm over here. More breweries should work with German/Central European breweries for their collaborations.


Sierra Nevada/Brauerei Miltenburger Oktoberfest
  • Sight - golden honey, firm white head
  • Smell - black tea, bread, and hay
  • Taste - sweet doughy malt, floral hops, quite grassy, juicy (not in a ridiculous NE "IPA" way though)
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
I really am biased toward this beer, I am sorry, but these annual collaborations are becoming the highlight of my drinking year. This year has a fantastic firm bitterness that scrapes the palette and makes you want another mouthful. The beer is hefty enough to be interesting without being overwhelming, and it has that perfect clean finish that I want, it is delish. End of story. Keep on doing this Sierra Nevada!

So there we go, five Oktoberfest lagers, all of which worked fine with my bockwurst, kartoffeln, und senf...and I am pretty sure it won't be the last time this autumn that I pull a package of German sausages from the freezer, fill up my 1 litre glass with lager, let's be honest it'll be Sierra Nevada's until the shops run out, and pay homage to my Germany ancestors and my own Germanophilia. Prost!