Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Beer of Autumn 2015

Last autumn I bought myself a mixed 12 pack of Sierra Nevada beers consisting of three bottles of Pale Ale, Vienna Lager, Oktoberfest and the Tumbler Brown Ale. Each and every beer was a delight, as you would expect from such an august brewing company as SN. With the heat of summer finally on the wane, I kept my eyes open for this year's version, looking forward to, in particular, the Oktoberfest. I don't remember which shop I was in, but there was an absence of the mix pack, but six packs of the Oktoberfest were already on the shelves (at the end of August but that's a different post), so I picked one up and took it home for a Friday night of beer and films, oh yes, I know how to party.

As I poured 3 bottles into my 1 litre Paulaner glass, which is my preferred glass for most lagers, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance as I was expecting a much darker beer, a hunch which was confirmed with a quick scan of my Instagram feed. It was only then that I bothered to read the label properly and discovered that gone was the deep red Oktoberfest I had loved, and in its place a collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele from Augsburg in Germany. One of my constant gripes about many an American made Oktoberfest lager is a tendency toward sweetness derived from caramel malts rather than Munich malts, with a German brewery on board though I figured this would be something more Teutonic.

As you can see from the pictures, this is no deep red lager, it is a lovely rich golden, bordering on copper, and that big white head just seems to linger, and linger. Tastewise we are talking full on German style lager, clean, crisp, slightly grainy and with a cracker dry finish, there is some juicy sweetness from Munich malt that prevents the beer from being puckering and then there is the hop bite, again crystal clear and sharply defined. A touch of lemon, some floral notes, and all of this perfectly married together in a 6.0% abv beer that makes a chap want to dash off to Lowe's, buy a wooden picnic table, hire an Oompah band, dress Mrs V up in dirndl, and get merrily sloshed under the oak tree in our back yard. Yes it really is that good.

I have said many times before that really I am a very unfussy drinker. Make something that is delicious, well made, and not laden with silly shit and I'll happily drink it until it runs out, and this beer has filled that role perfectly so far this autumn. I think I am on something like my 3rd case of it, and given that I expect supplies to start being shifted on for the next big seasonal thing, I am looking forward to the knockdown price 12 packs to stock up well into November.

I also love this promo video on the Sierra Nevada website...

Apparently Sierra Nevada will be picking a different German brewery each year to collaborate with on the Oktoberfest, and there is a part of me that would love to see them work with Brauerei Carl Betz from Celle in northern Germany, for no other reason than I lived in Celle for about 5 years as a child.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Guest Post: Always There

Part 3 in the 'Always There' series of posts comes from TenInchWheels who as well as being a good writer is a magnificent photographer, take a gander at his blog sometime, even though he hasn't posted in a while, the pictures are great. Anyway....

For more than two decades I’ve been a Londoner. And for most of that time, the capital has largely been a dismal place for the lover of good beer.

I grew up in Keighley, and anyone who’s read my blog will know that I’m an unashamed Taylor’s fanboy. Maybe I’m biased about our local heroes, but I really don’t care. I earned my beergeek chops on sparkled, cellar-cool Landlord, drunk from the fountainhead, The Boltmakers Arms. From the immaculate old coaching inn to the shabby lock-in in the shadow of a derelict mill, a good pint in almost any pub could be taken for granted, and still can be. Until I left home for art college, I didn’t even know it was possible to get a bad pint.

In 1992 I moved to London. London! The greatest city on earth! Surely, in this throbbing metropolis of impossible-to-please Cockneys a good pint was a dead cert. Well, no. The pubs were good, but the beer was almost universally bad. For the first few years I persevered. Always ordering from the handpump, and I was nearly always disappointed. It was a matter of pride to find that elusive, decent (or consistently decent) pint. Soho, Camden, Shoreditch, Brixton, Holloway, Holborn, Highgate, Hackney, Bethnal Green. Flat, flabby, skunky, sour, murky, eggy. I’ve run the gamut of pints that I’ve had to return to a stink-eyed barman, swatting off the inevitable ‘it’s meant to be like that’ comments. Too many ‘nearly’ pints winced down. Too many unfinished nonics of flat, soupy brown boredom left on sticky tables. One famous day I took my dad to a pub, where - on asking what real ales were ‘on’ - he was told that the bank of six handpumps was just for decoration. So I gave up. For years - now it can be told - I drank Kronenbourg, Newcastle Brown or (heaven help me) Strongbow. But one thing kept me going through those terrible years. Bottles of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.

On trips home I’d bring bottles back down on the train with me, my rucksack clinking like a milk float. Rare sightings in supermarkets were moments of rejoicing. Visitors would leave them in the cupboard, where I’d find them behind the cornflakes with a moist, homesick eye. Crack off the cap, wait a second, pour. The head settles. First sip and the tingling hit as your palate wakes with that characteristic smack of grapefruit and marmalade which drifts into an astounding lip-smacking, citrus-bitter finish. Full-bodied. Satisfying. As comfortable as my old Redwings, as cosy as a cashmere scarf in a Pennine February. You don’t want cosy? I do. It’s the taste of permanence, rootedness, and home.

Landlord’s a legend, and nowadays it’s in every London pub worthy of a visit. I’ve even seen it sold in a bowling alley. Taylor’s have brewed Landlord since 1952, and it’s always been a favourite among beer fans. But it was a rare sight on handpump in the capital until 2003. That was when Madonna lit Taylors’ blue touchpaper by claiming in an interview with Jonathan Ross that she enjoyed a pint of of their most famous brew at Soho’s Dog And Duck. Did anyone really believe her? It didn’t matter. Suddenly, you started to see it all over the place. And in London it was terrible whenever I tried it. And in 2015 it usually still is. So Landlord is still my go-to bottle, and probably always will be.

And now London is a city with more breweries than I can count, and a beer choice that’s impossible to comprehend. I’m sat typing this with a choice of at least twelve places to get a good, well-kept local beer within a five or ten minute bike ride. I have the pick of the best brews in London on sale at my local bottle shop, the Wanstead Tap. When out and about I no longer have to carry a mental map of a half-dozen ‘reliable’ pubs. A revolution has happened - but there’s still work to do before this is truly a great ‘beer city’. Now you can now get Landlord in almost any supermarket, but the contents of my rucksack on trips back from home still ring and tinkle as the the train clatters south to Kings Cross. Although nowadays it doesn’t matter too much if a couple of those bottles don’t survive the journey.

Friday, September 18, 2015

High Oktane Ale

Usually when I am working on a collaboration beer with one of the local breweries the process is something like this:
  1. Come up with idea
  2. Flurry of emails
  3. Brew trial batch
  4. Review trial batch, make tweaks
  5. Brew production batch
  6. A few weeks later, drink it
My most recent beer creation project though is somewhat different.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Trader Joe's Oktoberfest lager which I have been enjoying greatly of late. A couple of days later, Ted from Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, OR, emailed me to see if I had any ideas for an Oktoberfest beer as he had been asked to provide a cask for a festival at a beer bar near him. It was funny he should ask....

I have been playing with the idea of vaguely 'Central European' pale ale for a while now but had never really found a formula which appealed to me all that much, though I had considered a paler version of altbier as a contender. Ted's question pushed my thinking into overdrive and that coupled with a comment from Tom Cizauskas on that post made me think about doing a 'to style' Oktoberfest lager, but using a nice clean top fermenting ale yeast for fermentation.

The recipe ended up like this:
  • 60% Dark Munich
  • 40% Vienna
  • 16 IBU Tettnang for 60 minutes
  • 8 IBU Tettnang for 15 minutes
  • Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale
The predicted numbers are:
  • OG: 1.056
  • FG: 1.014
  • IBU: 24
  • SRM: 12
  • ABV: 5.5%
I am brewing my version tomorrow, though Ted brewed his last week and it is already casked up and will be ready to rock at the brewpub in Oakridge in about a week. A cask will be making its way to The Beer Garden, in Eugene, and to Machine House Brewery in Seattle.

From what Ted has told me, his version had an original gravity a tad bit lower than planned, at 1.051, but the final gravity was fine, so the beer is 4.6% abv, and to use Ted's phrase had 'a high drinkability factor right out of the fermenter'. The name for Ted's brew is 180 Oktane, so if your in the area over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Departure from Our Regular Programming....

I may have mentioned on here before that as well as beer and pubs, I love music.

I wish I played a musical instrument to a standard better than the ability to strum a few chords on the guitar. Mrs V on the other hand is sickeningly talented when it comes to music, a classically trained pianist, self taught guitarist, and now she is learning to play the fiddle, and seemingly doing well at it. In particular we love folk music, whether it is traditional Irish and Scottish music, stuff from the Appalachians, or even Eastern European.

A few months ago Mrs V and I went to a concert of a group called Celtic Fiddle Festival and had a great night listening to a combination of Scots, Irish, Breton, and Quebecois music. Well, this weekend is another opportunity for Charlottesville and area folks to enjoy some Quebecois folk music.

On Sunday night a band called De Temps Antan will be playing at The Haven, starting at 7pm, with tickets available at the door for $25, or in advance for $20 from the Blue Ridge Irish Music School. There will also be a workshop with the band from noon at the Charlottesville Waldorf School at $10 a pop for adults and a fiver for kids.

The band's promotional blurb from their website says:
Using Quebec's vibrant living music tradition as a springboard for musical innovation De Temps Antan forms a power trio catapulting audiences headlong into the future of French-Canadian music and culture.

It takes a special blend of musical talents to revisit and revitalize traditional music with equal measures of reverence, humor, Joy, natural ability and breathtaking turn-on-a-dime instrumental virtuosity. Welcome to the musical world of De Temps Antan!

Since 2003, Éric Beaudry, André Brunet (Celtic Fiddle Festival) and Pierre-Luc Dupuis have been exploring and performing time-honored songs and melodies been fine tuned and adapted to the needs of each generation. Using fiddle, accordion, harmonica, guitar, bouzouki and foot percussion (among a number of other instruments) these three virtuosos blend boundless energy with the infectious 'joie de vivre.' With De Temps Antan you will enjoy a musical event unlike any other.

For an idea of what to expect see, their promotional video:

Monday, September 14, 2015

Guest Post: Going Steady with Golden Beers

Part 2 of the 'Always There' guest post mini-series comes from those fine folks Boak and Bailey, and with that minimalist introduction (seriously if you aren't already reading their blog you should be) out of the way, I hand you over to them.....

Al wanted us to think about beers that we keep going back to which, as far as we're concerned, is just another way of asking: 'What are your favourite beers?' After all, your favourite album isn't one you listened to once, enjoyed well enough, but then left to gather dust: it's the one that pops up under 'frequently played' on iTunes -- the one you have on CD, deluxe double CD, MP3 and in your Spotify favourites. You could hum it in your sleep.

We've said before, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Westmalle Tripel is the Very Best Beer in the World. We always have some in the house and it's pretty much Boak's default beer. It never seems to diminish in WOW factor -- every time, it amazes us afresh.

Pilsner Urquell is on the list, too, especially now it comes in brown glass in the UK and can be bought for around £1.50 ($2.35) per bottle. We have a fridgeful right now and it's the perfect no-brainer beer -- quietly satisfying, but not demanding of attention.

When it comes to cask-conditioned beer in the pub, there's an obvious answer: St Austell Proper Job. Established in the 19th century, St Austell is our local big brewery here in Cornwall, and Proper Job is a golden, US-accented IPA first brewed in homage to Bridgport's classic take on the style more than a decade ago. Brought down from 5.5% to 4.5% ABV over the years, it was a 'session IPA' before that was a buzz-phrase, and is a beer we can easily drink multiple pints of, several times a week. So that's exactly what we do.

So, there you go: that's what amounts to our top three beers, right now, in the real world. We like trying new things and find plenty to enjoy at the silly end of the market but, if need be, those three would easily do us for the rest of our lives.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Welcome to Starbeers

This morning I had a revelation, an epiphany. It was like lightning struck my brain, and yes it hurt. It was a revelation that may explain why I find much of the current hoopla around 'craft beer' so fucking puke inducing, and I am not referring to the abominable habit many an American brewer has for putting silly shit in a beer, pouring it into a firkin, slapping it on the bar, and calling it cask. Today I realised that craft beer, including many of its fans and acolytes, is becoming Starbucks.

Yep, you read that right, the buzz and culture of craft beer is painfully similar to going to a Starbucks and having to use nonsensical terms just to get a fucking cup of coffee, whilst having easy listening muzak inflicted on you in the background, and bubble headed wotsits trying to decide if they want 2 pumps of caramel in their skinny latte or just an extra swirl of wank.

When I think about it more deeply the more I am convinced that is where the whole shebang is headed. Different pour sizes, beyond the usual big/small, pint/half-pint, thing. In the UK it is all thirds, halves, two-thirds, pints, here in the US quite often it is 10oz, 16oz, or 20oz (and yes I know a place that does a 'supersize' 25oz beer!). I look at that and all I see is short, tall, grande, venti, and trenta. God help us if some overly addled bright spark comes up with names for all the different sizes, or we adopt the Aussie approach.

Now think about the craze for putting silly shit into beer, whether to be served turbid and shitty from a firkin or bright and freezing from a keg. It gets to point where it is likely reading a fucking Starbucks menu with stuff like 'salted caramel mocha frappucino', or a 'cinnamon chai tea latte' - what the fuck are you talking about??? Reading some craft beer menus, and I'm looking at you Asheville, gets me all in a state of Bernard Black doing his taxes:

I imagine there are even people who spend the day sitting in craft beer bars, sipping a barrel aged sour pumpkin spice white stout, whilst tapping away on their laptops....

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guest Post: Always There

My recent post on the theme of 'Always There' was the precursor to a mini-series of guest posts around the same theme. Today's post is from my good friend, and sometime drinking buddy, Eric, formerly of Relentless Thirst fame. And so with further ado.....

Let me begin by dishing out this well-worn saw: the brewing industry has undergone radical changes in the past ten years. When I first started blogging, I can recall tracking down new and exciting beers from other states that you had to make a special trip just to taste or buy. Since I've stopped blogging, it's hard to go anywhere without seeing beers from all over the country, let alone the world, on the menu at places that aren't even all that beer-centric. There are countless styles to choose from, new breweries to become acquainted with, and a wide range of quality. This should represent the triumph of the consumer, but much like the music industry these days, it's hard to sift through the noise. And much like that favorite album from yesteryear you still queue up on Spotify, there are certain beers that you always return to for their familiarity.

So what's "always there" actually mean? To me, this implies a reliable beverage that can satiate my palate's desires at any given moment; a beer that I don't have to think about to enjoy it, but when I do I appreciate it all the more. I can come up with a handful of beers that fit this motif, but one that sticks out indelibly in my mind is Stiegl Goldbrau. That's right, the pale Austrian lager that comes in pint cans. And let's start with that: cans. Great for transporting a light-sensitive product, as well as portability to places that don't allow glass containers (most useful in the summertime). Furthermore, it's a PINT - my preferred volume for easy-drinking, relatively-low ABV Central European beer.

Though if it were just tall cans of beer I was after, I could choose from thousands. Why this one? Well, for starters, it's inoffensive. I can drink this beer in the sweltering summer heat, or in the dead of winter. But inoffensive doesn't mean it has to taste like nothing (I'm looking at you, Landshark Lager). In this case, I'm talking about appreciating the subtle nuances, being nudged with flavor rather than beaten over the head by it. Goldbrau offers a pleasing, noble hop aroma and a touch, just a touch, of pale malt sweetness that makes it akin to a Munich Helles lager. A clean, drying finish allows you to take another sip and experience it all over again.

I could stop there, but I won't. The last, and most important criterion for me, is that it's consistently well-made. And this is after being transported thousands of miles from Salzburg to the States. Brewing is the intersection of art and science, and too much of either can leave you reaching for something else. But too often I think "craft" beer drinkers prize the unbridled whims of one madcap brewer over the technical prowess of another. It's infuriating to hear some zealots dismiss all lagers, and thus centuries of brewing knowledge and discovery, with the wave of a hand. When I drink this beer, I'm reminded of how light lagers came to be so long ago, and the concentrated efforts that were necessary for them to come to fruition and ultimately fill my glass.

Though I may never become the conservative-minded Teuton, content with drinking the one beer produced by the village brewery that dates back to the 13th century, I do prize a beer that's "always there". Though a beer may seem "simple" or common, I'm surprised at how many breweries miss the mark. If it were so easy, I'd have a difficult time choosing an "always there" beer. But it wasn't hard at all. For me, Stiegl Goldbrau is that beer.