Friday, February 26, 2010

Gold and Guinness

I like Bitter. I like Ordinary Bitter, I like Best Bitter, I like Extra Special/Strong Bitter, so of course I wanted to brew my own - ah the joys of being a homebrewer, being able (at least in theory) to make some of the beer styles you love and in essence grew up on. I have said it many times on here before, I was never much of a lager drinker before I went to Prague, for reasons I may have to delve into in order to ascertain whether I was in closet with regards eventually discovering craft beer.

Anyway, to my theme, brewing a best bitter. That was the plan at least, but the OG was slightly low and so it became an ordinary bitter, something low in alcohol and refreshing was the plan. Last weekend Mrs Velkyal and I went to visit her cousin and Sicilian husband in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I took a couple of bottles of my bitter with me for them to try, and they liked them, so I thought I should do a proper analysis of the beer I had called Ring of Gold - fermented with Ringwood Ale Yeast and hopped only with East Kent Goldings.

I am not sure the colour really comes through from that picture, but it was light copper, with almost straw like edges, the picture does though capture the head perfectly, white, thinnish and with plenty of stickability. As I had used EKG for my hopping, the nose was very lightly floral but Mrs Velkyal when asked for her opinion suggested, albeit through a slightly stuffy nose, a light citrusiness. Tastewise, again, being an ordinary bitter, it had touches of toffee and a certain grassiness that I put down to the hops, so not wildly sweet nor a hopbomination. Overall, a perfectly drinkable bitter that wouldn't disappoint if served on a warm summer's day as it was refreshingly clean, though a bit on the thin side.

One beer which did however catch my attention this week was Guinness Extra Stout, a six pack of which I picked up for a 3 way taste test to come soon, but I had a couple of bottles last night anyway. Extra Stout is the one without the nitrogen widget, and what a difference it makes, a light brown head, plenty of roasted goodness on the nose and the taste is just as a stout should be. Thank goodness this still exists, even though brewed in Canada.

This weekend will see lots of bottling and brewing work. Into bottles will go the Samoset Orange Barleywine, to condition for Thanksgiving, and the American Pale Ale which I brewed as part of the International Homebrew Project. Being brewed this weekend is another batch of Gael 80/- and then a dunkelweizen, for which I am yet to settle on a name. So a good weekend is in prospect, and a good weekend I wish you all! 


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting it Right

My minor rant at the poor quality of many craft brewery and brewpub web sites on Monday got me thinking, always dangerous, about those breweries and brewpubs that actually do have good web sites, and what are the features of a good web site? Obviously we all have our own preferences, and also our own idea of what a web site should do, but I think there are some features which are universal to a good web site, regardless of the business a person is in:
  • visually attractive
  • easy navigation
  • engaging content
One brewer who gets all three right from my perspective is Everard's, back in the UK, take a quick look here at their home page:

I am a big fan of the colour green, it is after all the colour of my eyes, and this particular shade of green is very appealing. But notice that the design is not just plain green, the pattern in the background is very reminiscent of the classic pub wallpaper which no doubt every British reader has seen in dozens of traditional pubs. Perhaps I am over psycho-waffling here, but that creates an image of a company that values tradition, and the traditional role of the pub as community centre. Personally I find the layout of the home page very easy to follow, and the navigation bar just underneath the banner has clear labels and there can be no confusing what you are going to see when you click on "Our Ales" for example. In terms of content, Everard's pubs are clearly described and beautifully photographed, while the list of beers includes the Cyclops notes, which of course Everard's pioneered. 

For me, the Everard's web site works on every level, as does the new web site for Lovibonds, another of my favourite breweries, here is their home page:

Now, this is quite different from Everard's, but what it shares with the Everard's site is that it is visually attractive, I particularly like the slide show which forms the bulk of the home page, scrolling through the various beers the brewery makes. Again the navigation is very easy, and as a craft brewer with no pub estate, the "Where to Try" tab on the navigation bar is vital! I also like the fact that they have integrated e-commerce into the web site, so people can order their beer from the brewery.

So there you have it, rather than just ranting about poor web sites, a couple of examples of breweries doing as good a job with their cyber presence as with their brewing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Visit Our Web Shite

I have been somewhat reticent about writing up this post, although it has been pottering around my head for a while, but what the heck.

Marketing is part and parcel of business, you simply can't get away from it. Why is Windows the dominant operating system for PCs? Because its predecessor, MS-DOS, was marketed so well and became the dominant pre-Windows OS - back then there was a raft of other available operating systems, some better than MS-DOS, that went to the wall. Windows built on the success of MS-DOS and ran with it.

So it is with breweries, industrial breweries have larger, more loyal, customer bases,  not because of the quality of their beer but because they have better marketing. Now, of course, this is something that in many ways is a circular argument, of course they have better marketing, they have more money, and because they have more money, they have better marketing. Having said that, BrewDog, I am fairly sure, doesn't have the marketing budget of AB-InBev, yet they do a very good job of marketing their beers, whether or not you agree with their methods.

One thing though that constantly shocks me, and I say this with a professional interest, is that a large number of craft brewers and brewpubs have piss poor web sites, their beer may be great, but their web site lets them down. When I say I have a professional interest, I should declare here that I am the Business Development Director for a web design studio here in Charlottesville, so I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at web sites. To be horribly blunt, many a small brewery's web site looks as though it was designed by someone's nephew, whilst sat in a basement listening to Rammstein or some such. Not just ugly, but with poor navigation and a lack of interesting content, not to mention the regularly broken links which really irks me, taking BrewDog though as my example again, they have a well designed web site, which sells their vision, beer and merchandise very well.

It is too easy for a small brewer to say "I can't afford a fancy web site", but I am not talking here about having a fancy website, with videos of swaying barley and the like. Something that is clean and professional looking, rather than being as spotty and horrible as the nephew that built it, is really not all that expensive. While every brewery has its core, local, customer base, the growing number of beer tourists makes a good looking web site all the more important, because the web site is the gateway to the beer, as well as being a gathering point for the existing customer base to learn about new products and events.

Without good marketing a company will fail, regardless of how good, innovative or drinkable the product is - if people aren't spending money, then you aren't making any, and a good web site will help you make more money, which despite all the "I am in it to make great beer" shite, is the real reason a person starts a business - they want to be richer than they were when they started.

Just a small aside, at the weekend, I was the featured blogger over on the Beer Wench's blog, so pop along and have a read.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Perhaps, Perhaps Not, Perhaps Maybe, Who Knows?

I am having one of those days today. The kind of day when you look at the little rich text editor in blogspot and can't quite decide which of the many beery threads floating around your head to focus on.

Do I write about non-alcoholic beer, or should I really research that more before expending writing time on it? What about trying to find out how many people actually brewed (I know of two) as part of the International Homebrew Project? What about some of the home brew recipes to be made in the coming weeks in preparation for my parents visiting from France, and can I persuade them to bring me some French beer?

It's all enough to make you want to go and have a breakfast beer, with plenty in the cellar that wouldn't logistically be a problem, but would I end up just stood there umming and ahhing until I decided to just put the kettle on for a nice cuppa?

The old line I used to be indecisive, but now I am just not sure, comes to mind.

So instead, I will leave you for this week with some tunes and my heartiest wishes for an excellent weekend to one and all, and most of all for a minor miracle - Scotland to win a 6 Nations match, given though it is Italy this week, I am taking nothing for granted.

Love her or hate her, her voice is divine, almost the vocal version of the uilleann pipes in my world.

Something for punks.

This was on an advert for the Palm Pre, musical love at first listen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ignoble Pils

I am sure I have said this many a time before, but I have a soft spot for Samuel Adams, despite their various beers that simply don't do it for me, such as Samuel Adams Light. So when I was in Walmart on Sunday morning (best time to go, seriously, if you value your marriage), and saw the latest Spring seasonal from Boston, I just knew it had to be tried, in the hopes that finally there was an American Pilsner worthy of that illustrious name.

According to the waffle on the label, Noble Pils is made with all 5 of the noble hop types, Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, Hersbrucker and Saaz, as well as a portion of Czech Pilsner Malt. Knowing that the Boston Lager uses a double decoction mash in the process, I expect that Noble Pils uses the same basic process, more of which later. As you can see from the picture, the beer pours a golden straw colour and is topped with a fluffy white head, so far so good. As ever I was using my Lovibond's half pint glass because it is the perfect size for American beer bottles.

Straight from the fridge, the beer smells of lemons, grass and a subtle spiciness, however, as it warms up it begins to smell of a brewery - you know that boiling wort smell. Taste wise, it is very grainy, with a kind of toasty background and a weird soapiness going on (not helped by the smell of lemons), after a while it just becomes dull, almost as though something is not right, once again I am disappointed by an American Pilsner (a contradiction in terms as Plzen is in the Czech Republic).

So the journey continues, the search for a decent pilsner style lager made in America - sure there are lagers made here that I love, Boston Lager for one, Blue Mountain Lager for another, but where is the genuine article? Where is the American made pilsner that is made from Czech Pilsner malt only, with only Saaz hops, in a place with very soft water? Where is the American made pilsner made with a triple decoction mash and lagered for at least 30 days? In talking with a brewer I was told that most American lagers are infusion mashed because they don't need to be decocted, but are they getting enough Maillard reactions?

Perhaps though I should give up drinking beers with the words Pils or Pilsner on the label which don't actually come from Plzen? Perhaps I should focus on the many great ales that are made over here, and save up all my Pilsner drinking for the next time I am back in Prague, sat in Bruska, enjoying tankova Pilsner Urquell?

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Praise of Sample Trays

Think about sampler trays for a moment, if you will. When do you normally order a sampler tray? Yes, when you are in a place for the first time and you want to try a little of each of the beers available before ordering a full pint of the one you fancy most. I never once thought that a sampler tray would become something to look forward to in and of itself, an end rather than simply the means to an end. Such are the joys of being on blood thinners (I hate to mention it all the time at the moment, but it is surprising how much it influences every tiny detail of life).

The Bavarian Chef is a restaurant some 25 miles from Mrs Velkyal and I's flat here in Charlottesville, and we had reservations for Saturday night. Neither of us bother much with Valentine's Day, so this was to be our special dinner out, but without having to deal with couples going all gooey eyed at each other over their wiener schnitzel. One of the attractions for us was the fact that Bavarian food is very similar to Czech and we have been feeling nostalgic of late - I blame Anthony Bourdain and this clip. While making the reservation I asked what beers they had on tap, the reply came back: Spaten, Paulaner Oktoberfest and Hefeweizen, Ettal Dunkel and Schneider Aventinus, so I was intent on my one beer for the day being the Aventinus. Then I saw the sampler tray, so the decision was easy really. 

The Spaten lager was a nice pale lager, Ettal Dunkel is lovely and received the Mrs V seal of approval, Aventinus was everything I remember. For some reason though I find Paulaner beers leave me cold, the hefeweizen lacked the sparkling zing I have come to expect from weizens while the Oktoberfest reminded me of cardboard. A quick word about the food, very nice, huge portions but some things were just a bit on the sweet side for our tastes.

Of course Saturday was the brewing day for the International Homebrew Project, and I now have an American Pale Ale fermenting happily in my primary, and plans to use the remaining Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade hops in a big American style IPA to be called Hopbomination. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Liquid Ginger Bread

It seems like a veritable age since I wrote tasting notes about a beer I brewed, but in the spirit of better late than never, here is a picture of my Christmas spiced amber ale. I called this particular brew Biere d'épices, roughly translated from French as Spiced Beer, a play on the French for gingerbread, pain d'épices.

My intention with this beer was to make a Christmas beer which wasn't too heavy and cloying, but still have those classic Christmassy flavours, cinnamon, clove, ginger and sweet orange peel were all thrown into the boil. The hops were from France, Strisselspalt, a low alpha acid hop which I would needs tons of if I wanted to create a hop bomb version of this beer, but I like a variety of flavours in my beer instead of having my tongue stripped bare.

So on to my Cyclopic notes:
  • Sight - dark amber to red, light tan head
  • Smell - gingerbread, mild orange
  • Taste - biscuity with jammy blackberry notes and a dry finish
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Taste - 1.5/5
This was a very subtle beer, with lots of flavours and aromas knocking around. The body was medium and the finish as well as being dry left a warming alcoholic glow. One of the inspirations for the beer was growing up in Germany and going to the Christmas markets every year, Biere d'épices brought all those memories flooding back.

PS - don't forget, if you are taking part, to brew your American Pale Ale this weekend as part of the International Home Project.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Just a Reminder

This weekend is a brewing weekend, but not just any brewing weekend. This weekend is the beginning of the Fuggled International Homebrew Project, when those who want to take part will be brewing the American Pale Ale which is the product of all those polls I ran.

For those unaware of this project and interested in taking part, the recipe is here.

Originally I intended everyone to post about their beer on Monday 21st March, however I have decided to make the posting day Friday 25th March, just to make the schedule a touch easier.

On a side note, I bottled LimeLight 2.0 on Sunday. This version of LimeLight is a trial batch for a friend's wedding in April, when I am planning to make sufficient beer to give every adult a bottle. This version is far spicier than the original, and has more of a hoppy bite to it, so I have great hopes for it when I try it after 3 weeks conditioning. If the aroma that burst out of the fermenter is anything to go by though, it will be good.

Monday, February 8, 2010

For Whom the Bell's Toll

In the ongoing aftermath of my DVT, and subsequent drinking limitations, it has been a trial not to put a glass of something delicious and alcoholic to my lips. The trial was made all the more challenging by the fact that I didn't have a drop of the amber nectar for the duration of Advent - I thought I would lose the inevitable Christmas poundage in advance, rather than spending January dry, as has become my habit.

Effectively then, I have had a two month hiatus with regards to beer. Last week though the doctor said I could have the "occasional half pint", warning me not to "go crazy". Apparently the danger in boozing whilst on blood thinners is not just the extra thinness of the blood, but the possibility of having an accident and bleeding to death - not something I would relish to be honest. I was all set for my first post-op beer when the doctor rang to give me my weekly INR update, basically they tell me where in the therapeutic range for Warfarin I am. It was at the higher extreme of where they wanted it, so a change of dosage was required, and back in to storage went the beer, as I decided to give the new dosage a couple of days to bring the INR down a bit.

For those of you who know me well, such restraint must seem nigh on miraculous.

This weekend though, I could bear it no longer, and simply needed a beer in order to celebrate Liverpool winning the Merseyside derby, again, and Dirk Kuyt scoring against Everton, again. The beer I turned to was Bell's Third Coast Old Ale, a 10.2% big hitting, toffee laden, delight.

Bell's have become something of a favourite brewery of mine, indeed my final beer the night before the operation was their simply sublime Two Hearted Ale. Third Coast certainly maintained those lofty standards I have come to expect from Bell's, and to say a "half pint" (you have to love small bottles on occasion) of this magnificent beer hit the spot, would be the understatement of the year. If you are yet to try anything from Bell's then I recommend a quick trip to your local bottle shop and correcting your oversight immediately.

Today I had blood taken for this week's INR, assuming all is well, I am planning Budvar tonight.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hopped Scotch?

Yesterday my brewing ingredients for the International Homebrew Project arrived from those lovely people at Northern Brewer, and now I fear my fridge is starting to resemble a hop store. In the fridge, awaiting the wondrous transformation into beer are packs of Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial and Saaz. 

For my scaled down version of the American Pale Ale for the IHP I will only be using about half of the Amarillo, Cascade and Centennial, though obviously none of the Saaz. Now, the sensible thing to do would be make a second batch of the American Pale Ale recipe, I should really think of a name for it - I have been referring to it of late as CAC, which is definitely not good in so many languages. Sensible has never been my strong point though.

What to do though? Stout with Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade? Or perhaps a porter would be better, just to test a theory I have that the so-called "Black IPA" is really nothing more than an over-hopped porter. I could, of course, up the malt content and make an IPA, or really give the malt a boost and make a hoppy Wee Heavy (calling it Wee Hoppy, naturally).

Decisions, decisions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Brewing Some Thoughts

Having perhaps been a mite critical of All About Beer magazine this week, even though I do generally enjoy reading it, I feel I should balance that out by giving some praise to Brew Your Own magazine, which I also thoroughly enjoy - probably because it gives me loads of ideas about beers to brew and some technical brewing info to boot.

Take for example, this edition's featured beer style, dunkelweizen. I have enjoyed several dunkelweizens, usually at PK in Prague, but I am yet to brew one for myself, so a few recipes and a well written article describing the flavours and how it differs from a regular hefeweizen was well appreciated. Now all I need to do is work out my own recipe, which I have already decided to hop with the extra bag of Saaz I have in the fridge, and find a slot in my brewing schedule.

Also in the current BYO is an interview with James and Martin from BrewDog, which was interesting, but best of all some clone recipes for Punk IPA, Hardcore IPA and Rip Tide! So that's another couple of projects for slipping into the schedule, though I was kind of chuffed that my Machair Mor is somewhat similar already to Rip Tide, I use far more chocolate malt though and has a higher ABV. The recipe for Hardcore IPA looks like something I will try in the spring and leave to age for autumn.

The BrewDog article got me thinking about the difference between the US and UK brewing scenes, and how the experience of Prohibition is such a driving force here. Thankfully we never had Prohibition in the UK, our brewing industry has never been destroyed by fanatical religious folks on a crusade to make society better, though by "better" they usually mean, just like them. Post-Prohibition beer until the Craft Brew Revolution was simply awful from what I have heard from those older than me.

I am sure many of us have mixed feelings about CAMRA, but right now I am glad that they took a stand against the watering down of Britain's brewing traditions and laid the foundations for a growing independent brewing scene in the UK (I admit that is perhaps overstating their role). I wonder how many of the regional and independent brewers like Everard's and Fuller's would have ended up as brands for InBev and the like without CAMRA re-igniting interest in cask ale?

I guess what I am trying to say is that Britain has centuries of brewing history and tradition that needs to be valued by beer lovers and praised by beer bloggers and writers, the likes of Everards and Fullers make beer that people, whether nerds or not, want to drink. It is great that BrewDog are opening people's horizons to American style IPAs, but we should never forget the great British beers that can be found up and down Great Britain, without CAMRA how many of them would still be around?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Oh for crying out loud!!

Love 'em or hate 'em, beer styles are part and parcel of life for the beer aficionado. Styles should be a product of a communal consensus as to what makes, for example, a stout a stout rather than a porter, and while I sympathise with those who see limited value in styles, they do give a frame of reference, a sitz im leben if you want to get hermeneutic, for what are the accepted parameters for a beer.

The one thing though that makes me rant and rave about beer styles is when beers are misplaced within the beer category world. Take for example the current edition of All About Beer, which I pick up from time to time at my local Barnes and Noble. This edition has a "Buyer's Guide for Beer Lovers" about the many varied strains of lager out there on the market place, such styles as "pale lager", "pilsner" (I promise not to get into provenance and authenticity here), as well as a few bock variants.

Gripe number 1 is putting Primátor Premium Lager in the pale lager category, while Staropramen Lager apparently belongs in the pilsner category. Now, those of us who know something of the Czech brewing scene, and if I am mistaken I am sure emails will be arriving fairly quickly, will know that when a brewery from outside Plzen labels their beer "premium", then you can be fairly sure that it is their 12º version of the original, especially when said brewery also has a lower gravity lager available.

Gripe 2, when giving a history lesson, please, please, please get your history right. When describing the Baltic Porter category, apparently "traditional lager-making breweries along the export route [from the UK to Russia] developed their own version of the style". Firstly, the style was developed in the UK and was picked up as a top fermented beer in the 18th century by brewers on the route. It wasn't until many breweries switched over to bottom fermenting in the second half of the 19th century that Baltic Porter became a predominantly "lager" style beer, though some places still make it as a top fermented ale, mostly in Sweden.

Gripe 3 - this is a quote from a review for Colorado Kölsch, which describes kölsch as being a "response to the popular pilsners being produced in the Czech Republic in the 1840s". Historically speaking, bollocks, bollocks and more bollocks. There was only 1 pilsner being brewed in Bohemia in the 1840s, strangely it was a beer called Pilsner, from the town of Pilsen, to use the name of the city at the time. There were no doubt other lagers aplenty, but only one pilsner. Secondly, there was no Czech Republic in the 1840s, there was Bohemia, a multi-ethnic part of the Austrian Empire (the Austro-Hungarian bit turned up in 1867), the Czech Republic however didn't exist until 1993 to be strict about these things.

My last gripe, or rather the last gripe that I will share with you good people, came from the regional winners of the USBTC winner for the "Bitter/ESB" category in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast region. The beer in question is one I have written about before, Starr Hill's Pale Ale. Now, Starr Hill Pale Ale is a perfectly decent pale ale, it has plenty of the citrus hoppiness you would expect from a pale ale made in the US - anybody else seeing my issue here? If I were to put Fuller's style defining ESB next to Pale Ale, they simply would not be considered expressions of the same style. Whoever decided to label this beer a Bitter/ESB (and don't get me started on the differences between Bitter, Best Bitter and ESB), really needs a trip to the UK to discover the glories of Bitter in its natural environment.

Here endeth the lesson. The lesson being "get your bloody facts right!"

Now that I have calmed myself a bit, I am planning which beer to have this evening as the doctor says I can have a beer a couple of times a week - will it be homebrew, Budvar or a nice hoppy American IPA?

The agonies of choice.

Of Bostonian Beer...

 A couple of weeks ago I was up in Boston for a work related conference. Having only ever been to the city for a few hours previously, to vi...