Monday, August 30, 2010

Are You For Real?

On Friday afternoon I needed a pint. A proper pint that is, one that is 20 fluid ounces, or just over half a litre, as in 68ml over half a litre (for those outside the States, not everything here is bigger than elsewhere, their pint is a mere three quarters of the real thing). Thankfully the pub I frequent most often here in Charlottesville, and that not as often as I would like, now knows that when I ask for a pint, that's what I get, a  proper pint, in a nonic glass - my favourite shaped glass.

The pub in question is Beer Run, a bar, restaurant and bottle shop rolled into one, 2 minute drive from my house, delight. They also have a handpull, with a sparkler! Friday's firkin of fun was a barleywine from Cricket Hill, and it was delicious, far too easy to drink for an 8%abv beer. I needed a pint, the second one I wanted. So all seemed right with the world, a sparkled pint of barleywine, not cold, not warm, just right, pulled nicely and served by a smiling young lady - seriously, what more could you want in life? Perhaps being sat by a roaring peat fire, with my new Cairn Terrier puppy stretched out at my feet would round the scene out perfectly.

I love seeing handpulls in pubs, there are at least two such treasures here in Charlottesville that I know of, the other being in South Street Brewery. I am not a fan in the slightest of cold and fizzy beer - and people that try to give me a frosted glass are politely asked to return with a normal glass, thank you very much. If I want cold and fizzy, I'll drink Pepsi. Even when I am in the Starr Hill tasting room, I pour the Dark Starr Stout just after giving a group the penultimate beer for the day, so it can warm up and the lovely chocolate and coffee aromas and flavours can unlock and come to the fore.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I often sit in the pub gazing at the beer engine and thinking about the stillage. I assume as most beers I have had on cask at both Beer Run and South Street are properly stillaged. Then my mind wanders back further in the process, to the filling and priming of the cask itself, and whether or not it is possible to use a regular Sanke keg as a cask? I am then filled with dread, am I being duped? Is this really cask conditioned ale, or is it just unfiltered beer, pulled through a beer engine?

At the end of the day though, it is the beer in the glass that is important, and every pint I have had in Beer Run from the beer engine has been a delight - especially the Joker IPA they had from Williams Brothers a while back, oh and the Two Hearted Ale from Bell's in Michigan, oh yes, mustn't forget Cricket Hill either - a brewery I will have to winkle out more beer from.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Brewer of the Week

I like to keep an eye on my Google Analytics account for Fuggled as it tells me all manner of interesting information - interesting if, like me, you are something of a stato with a taste for useless trivia. Seriously guys, if I may have a moment of hubris, you want me on your pub quiz team! One stat that has been consistent over the lifetime of this blog is the third most common country from which I get visitors. Norway. I have never visited Norway, though I would love to. I have only once met someone from Norway, as in actually meet rather than chat online, and that was in PK. When there were a few beers from a Norwegian brewery at a Christmas beer event in Prague a couple of years back, I got Evan Rail to pick me up a few bottles of stuff as I was in France at the time. Those beers were simply superb, and today, it is my privilege to have as Brewer of the Week, the maker of those beers.....

Name: Kjetil Jikiun
Brewery: Nøgne Ø, Det Kompromissløse Bryggeri AS

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I do not really know if I can call it a career. I am still an unpaid owner of Nøgne Ø, and there has been no dividend paid to the shareholders to this point. It all started with my homebrewing. At one point I realized that I just had to get out there and make my brews available to the public. I guess I felt like an artist, unable to get out with my message.

As such, Nøgne Ø was started. As we had no money, it was done on a shoestring budget, and the brew system was made with scrap metal and old milk tanks.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

A brewer needs to be dedicated to make his/her products better every time he/she brews. He/she needs to be meticulous in paying attention to detail, and to document what took place in each individual brew.

Before being a professional brewer, did you homebrew? If so, how many of your homebrew recipes have you converted to full scale production?

Yes, I was a homebrewer. Only three of my homebrew recipes were brought into commercial brewing. It is interesting to observe though that two of these are today Nøgne Ø’s best selling beers.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

No, I do not have time. Absolutely all time off (time off from my other (and paid) job) is spent at the brewery. I do not have time to meet friends, maintain cars and house or having hobbies (like homebrewing).

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

That has got to be our lemongrass ale. It is very straight forward and simple to brew. Single mash, low original gravity, not too many hops in the whirlpool, though lots of nice aroma in the brewery, because of all the lemongrass!

If you have worked in other breweries, which other beer did you enjoy brewing, and why?

I have never worked for other breweries. Only my own. I have been involved with some collaboration brews though. I think brewing Special Holiday Ale (with Stone and Jolly Pumpkin) in Jolly Pumpkin’s brewery in Dexter, Michigan, was a thrill! Ron Jeffries’ set up and techniques are extremely interesting, and the beer is of course wonderful too!

Of the beers you brew, which is your favourite to drink?

The beer I always get back to, and which I never get bored of, is IPA. I like it fresh, with lots of things going on, like undisciplined flavours and aromas. Actually I prefer it straight out of the fermenter, before it is ready for bottling.

How important is authenticity when making a new beer, in terms of flavour, ingredients and method?

I think authenticity is only important when brewing to style. We allow ourselves to fairly creative though with regards to ingredients and methods. Of course, we would never allow ourselves to omit using unmalted wheat in a witbier, as this is so significant for that style, but we use peated malt in our tripel, and rye malt in our imperial stout. The final result though must clearly convey to the customer which beer style he/she is drinking.
Some of our beers are not to style, as Peculiar Yule, Winter Ale, Sunturnbrew and #100. It is quite liberating to think out of the box when creating things like those. Focusing on flavours and aromas only and not paying attention to authenticity.

If you were to do a collaborative beer, which brewery would you most like to work with and why?

This probably sounds insane, but I would like to do a collaborative brew with Heineken, Budweiser, Carlsberg or one of the big industrial brewers. It would be fantastic to make something interesting and at the same time something which the big masses would have access to. That would be a great way to reach out to a larger audience.

Which beer, other than your own, do you wish you had invented?

The world is full of wonderful beers. I love a lot of them. I guess what makes them so interesting to me is the fact that they were invented by others, and the fact that I do not know the whole story behind. Small secrets can be good for love affairs.

Some beers I totally admire, would be Fullers ESB, Anchor Liberty, Westmalle Tripel, Oscar Blues Ten Fidy, Avery Maharaja, Three Floyds Dreadnaught, ……………………………

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Dominion Cup Results

Patiently I waited, patiently that is once I had given the Dominion Cup organisers my address again because I couldn't remember filling it out when I registered. 2 weeks went by and still no sign of the score sheets for the 3 beers I entered in the Domion Cup, Virginia's largest home brew competition, then yesterday they arrived.

I had already been tipped off that my dunkelweizen/weizenporter had scored 30 out of 50, putting it in the "Very Good" category - defined as "may have a minor flaw (technical or stylistic) or may be lacking in balance or complexity". The thing though with the score sheets is that they give feedback which I can use to improve my beers.

Continuing with the dunkelweizen, which came 10th from 20 entries, the theme from both judges was that it was more roasty than malty. The dark grains in this beer were caramel 60 and chocolate, so perhaps in future versions I will tone back the chocolate and add an extra caramel malt, perhaps a 10 or 20, especially if it is being entered in competition as a dunkelweizen.

The peat smoked mild scored 33 out of 50, and placed 7th out of 15. In my eagerness not to allow the smoke to overpower the other elements of the beer I only used a very small amount, which seems to have caused the biggest criticism of this beer. I entered the beer in the Smoke Beer category rather than the mild or porter categories, and am now convinced that it needs more oomph to really make it as a smoke beer. Next time it will be a mild, or I'll just add more of the peat malt that I still have vacuum packed away.

The last of the three beers was Samoset 2009, my barleywine. Averaging 32 out of 50 from the 2 judges (the higher score coming not just from a Master BJCP judge but also a professional brewer), Samoset came in 6th out of 25. Both judges really only had two criticisms, both said it was a touch thin and that it would have ranked higher as an American Barleywine rather than the English that I put it down as.

Overall, I am very happy with the score sheets, especially as I have been brewing for little more than 18 months and am using the extract with grains approach. This weekend I will be dropping off more beers for another Virginia home brew competition and hope to score as well there as in the Dominion Cup.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Almost every homebrewer I know gives the beer he, or she, makes a name, and I was thinking the other day about the things that inspire the names we give our beer and brewing operations. For example, I refer to my brewing as "Green Dragon Brewing", going back to the original name after a brief flirtation with Pivovar Brewing, which is almost a tautology when translated from Czech. Brewery Brewing? Nah, sounds a bit naff really. The name Green Dragon Brewing was chosen because in the film version of Lord of the Rings, Pippin and Merri sing a song about beer, which contains the line "the only brew for the brave and true, comes from the Green Dragon".

With the beers I brew, the names often reflect the ingredients, or what I am trying to achieve in making the beer - of course it is easy to say that I am just trying to achieve making a good beer, but there are often reasons that underpin the recipe creation process. Take for example my India Black Ale that I bottled last week, called Red Coat India Black Ale. The thinking behind the the beer is that India Black Ale, or Black IPA if you must, is nothing more than porter using different hops and too many of them. Replace the Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe et al with British hops to the same IBU rating and hey presto, you have over hoppy porter. Red Coat of course refers to the soldiers of the British Empire for whom beer was shipped out to both the American colonies and India.

A beer such as my spiced Christmas amber ale, called Biere d'épices, harks back to my growing up in Germany and loving the smell, and taste of course, of the gingerbread houses my mother made at Christmas. Why use French as the name though? Well, simply because my parents now live in France and given the Belgian yeast and French hops in the beer, it sounded more apt than "Lebkuchenbier" -  though of course a quick change of yeast and hops, and Lebkuchenbier could yet be this year's Christmas libation of choice.

Tomorrow I will be bottling the Best Bitter I brewed a couple of weeks back, single hopped with First Gold and fermented with Wyeast 1968 London ESB yeast. The name is Gunnersbury Gold, gold for the hops and Gunnersbury for the park in London where my brothers and I would play when we went to visit my nan in Southall.

The one thing I haven't done of yet is get seriously creative and create labels for my bottles. There is a very simple reason for this, I have, in the words of Blackadder, all the "artistic talent of a cluster of colour blind hedgehogs in a bag". I did though create this little thing for my recent weizenporter, Black Rose.

However, Rob from OptaDesign is supremely talented and created this label for LimeLight.

What then inspires your homebrew brands and label designs?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Anything But Brown and Boring

Growing up in the far north west of Scotland, there were two main beer choices when you finally hit your 18th birthday for your first legal beer. The cool kids at school almost uniformly went for mass produced lagers, your Carlings, Fosters and Tennants of this world. Those outside the secondary school jet set drank Guinness, or Murphy's depending on which pub you went to. When you ventured to the mainland, quarterly trips to Inverness being the highlight of life pretty much (even Skye was a thrill!), pubs with bigger selections beckoned, Caffrey's or John Smith's in a pub rather than from a widgeted can was the height of excitement.

Yet, sat on the bar, seemingly forlorn was Newcastle Brown Ale, the old man beer. As far as I knew nobody drank it other than the old men. Brown ale had an image problem, it was boring. Fast forward nearly 20 years and I still hear the same way of thinking, though usually about bitter as well as brown ale, the so-called "boring brown beers" that Britain seems to excel at producing. A minor aside, it really pisses me off when Brits bash their native products, being lured by the glamour of sexy foreign imports with odd names and sufficiently pretentious ingredients to get mentioned in the Guardian.

Last weekend Mrs Velkyal and I went out with some of my Starr Hill tasting room colleagues for some post work drinkies. I say post work, it was for them post work, it was for me post brewing at Devils Backbone. Just round the corner from the Starr Hill brewery is a pub called Fardowners, and it is a good pub, with nice food, a good buzz and a decent selection of beer. On reading the draught beer selection (sorry I rarely drink a bottle when I go to the pub, I just don't see the point of that unless it is something rare), I was almost aghast when the only beer that appealed was a brown ale from Williamsburg Alewerks just a couple of hours up the road. Aghast purely because I had always thought of brown ale as old man beer, and well, who wants to admit they may be getting old?

Three fabulous pints later and I knew I needed to explore more in the world of brown ale, in particular American Brown Ale, I will however admit to Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale being something of a go to beer in the absence of anything else that take's my fancy. After digging around in the cellar, I found a couple of bottled versions of the Williamsburg Tavern Ale that had so delighted my palate, and as luck would have it, our local supermarket just got in Sierra Nevada's autumnal seasonal, Tumbler, a brown ale.

First up was the Williamsburg Tavern Ale, which poured a deep crimson with a thin, ivory head and then out of the bottle came the evidence of bottle conditioning, a happy surprise! Can we have more bottle conditioned beers over here please? The nose was just as I remembered from Fardowners, lots of cocoa off set with the slightest hoppy citrus thing. Drinking it was a wonderful balance of the sweet chocolate maltiness and the bitter bite of the hops, which are Cascade and Amarillo I believe, to round out the beer there is a soft toffee touch that makes it such easy drinking. Really it was wonderfully smooth and tasty, a great beer for sitting on the balcony in the autumn chill and just watching the sun go down over the turning leaves.

What can be said about Sierra Nevada that hasn't already been said? They nail classic styles so perfectly that it would be easy to drink nothing but Sierra Nevada and never get bored. Their Tumbler seasonal special, described as an "Autumn Brown Ale" rather than a "Fall Brown Ale" which I would have expected, pours a very dark copper, with a red tinge and a light tan head. Again the cocoa notes are there, but this time there is a tobacco smell - you know the kind of tobacco smell from people rolling their own, a smell I love by the way, even though I have never smoked in my life. Tastewise, again chocolate, but lighter than the Williamsburg brew, with caramel and biscuitiness thrown in for good measure, with a crisp hoppy bite in the background. Another beautifully balanced beer that you could drink all night.

Brown Ale in the hands of Sierra Nevada and Williamsburg Alewerks is anything but boring, it is well made, tasty and the kind of beer that makes you more than happy to have another, and then another. All round good stuff, if drinking this stuff makes me an old man, then the old men knew a thing or two.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Homebrewer of the Week

This week's Homebrewer of the Week interview is really a Homebrewers of the Week, as both Boak and Bailey of blogging fame weigh in on this particular interview. I had the pleasure of meeting them in Prague a while back and enjoyed boozing with a couple of people who so obviously enjoy their beer, so without further ado, here goes.....

Name: Boak and Bailey

How did you get into home brewing?

BOAK: We can't quite remember the exact motivation but, in about 2004, I bought Bailey an extract home brewing kit for his birthday.

BAILEY: And I made a couple of brews, both of which were terrible, and lost interest. They were terrible, by the way, because we did literally everything wrong.

BOAK: Then a year or so later, we picked up some better books, and had another go, and haven't stopped since.

Are you an all grain brewer or extract with grains?

All-grain, although we occasionally experiment with extract and sometimes use DME.

What is the best beer you have ever brewed and why?

Hard to say. Our first lager, maybe, or the IPA we made for our 10th anniversary party – lots of our guests loved it and still rave about it now.

What is the worst, and why?

Oh, there have been too many disasters. Probably the Belgian-style beer which got an infection and smelled of poo/vomit. The biggest disappointment was probably a Belgian-style blonde which looked great, smelled pretty good, but tasted like pure alcohol.

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

Probably our various lagers. It's so hard to get bottled lager in the UK which is anything like the stuff you get in Franconia, so we rely on this stuff to fill our stone krugs during the summer.

Do you have any plans or ambitions to turn your hobby into your career?

Doesn't everyone? We daydream, but we don't want to do anything professionally until we really know what we're doing. There are too many slightly amateurish microbreweries out there for us to go wading in to the market. Given how little time we have for brewing, it's going to be many years yet.

Of the beers you brew, which is your favourite to drink?

Think the answer is the same as for 5 above – the lagers we make consistently make us smile.

How do you decide on the kind of beer to brew and formulate the recipe?

BOAK: we tend to make sure we have a fairly broad range of ingredients in store and then see how we feel on brew day. I'll usually formulate a recipe using Qbrew (, with a stack of brewing books and references for inspiration.

What is the most unusual beer you have brewed?

We've found that the more unusual beers are our least successful, generally speaking. We've experimented with raspberry and blackberry wheat beers; we've put star anise into strong ales; and added spice to stout. Our must successful experiment was probably the use of sherry-soaked oak chips in a couple of super-strong beers, which added a whole extra dimension without much hassle.

If you could do a pro-am brew, what would you brew and with which brewery?

Cantillon! We'd have to move to Brussels for several years, of course, and we'd make something like a framboise but with blackberries from Walthamstow Marshes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back to Bohemia

As I mentioned in Monday's general post about Devils Backbone, I spent Saturday with their brewing team. The project in hand was to brew a replica of the original 1842 recipe used by grumpy old Josef Groll to create what became Pilsner Urquell. I first heard about their plans for this beer back when I was browsing Jason's blog in the light of the magnificent 1904 Stout (please, please make more!), and patiently I waited. Each month Devils Backbone send out a newsletter to those who have signed up, and on receiving it earlier this month I replied, simply asking when the pilsner was coming? Following a few emails between Jason and I, he very graciously invited me to come out and help brew, so, of course, I jumped at the chance and cleared my schedule.

At 8 o'clock on Saturday morning I rolled up to the brewery, or rather, was driven by Mrs Velkyal as she needed the car to go rowing, to be met by Jason, and bags of milled grain filling the brewhouse with that gorgeous malt aroma. Eventually we would be joined by Jason's assistant, Aaron, and coming in and out pretty much all day was Heidi, who was taking photos and making a video. Jason's brewhouse is German designed and built, although in a former life it was in Japan. Being German built, there are three vessels rather than two, the usual mash tun/brew kettle and lauter tun being joined by the decoction kettle. In keeping with the plan to be authentic as possible, we would be doing a triple decoction  mash, which takes about 3 hours rather than the more common 90 minute infusion mash.

Just briefly, though I imagine most of you know how decoction mashing works, essentially you bring the main mash to a predefined temperature, pull off a portion of the mash into the decoction kettle, bring that to the boil and then return the decoction to the main mash, which raises the mash temperature and creates Maillard reactions. Obviously for a triple decoction you do this three times, each at a higher temperature than the last. Entirely oversimplified I know, but there we go.

With regard to the recipe, Jason was using an article in The New Brewer magazine as his guide, which called for Bohemian Pilsner malt, in Jason's case floor malted from Weyermann, acidulated malt and a touch of light caramel malt (if I recall properly, I didn't take notes, I was too busy being awed at brewing with a champion brewer). The hops? Well to quote Connor McLeod, "there can be only one", Czech Saaz. One of the things I was really interested in was to see the water profile. Plzeň is famous for it's incredibly soft water, but to my surprise this wasn't to be an issue, because the well from which Devils Backbone draws its liquor is actually softer than Plzeň! For yeast, Jason stuck with the Augustiner lager yeast he uses, which really adds to the authenticity because it was a Bavarian yeast that first fermented the sugars in the wort that gave birth to the pilsner style lager. It was my pleasure then to get the process started by chucking in the first bag of milled Bohemian Pilsner malt.

The mash took about 3 and a half hours rather than the usual three, mainly because the decoction kettle wasn't heating the decoction quick enough, soon fixed though with a good whack of a hammer - recalling the comment of another brewer I know describing his job as "1 part artist, 1 part scientist, 1 part handyman". To celebrate the first decoction we popped open a bottle of Budvar, the second was marked with Devils Backbone's Vienna Lager, the third with one of Aaron's recipes Reilly's Rye, which was very nice. With the three decoctions done, the mash was pumped over to the lauter tun to be sparged. The picture below shows the first runnings of the wort back into the brewing kettle.

During the sparging process we popped into the bar for some lunch, some more samples - the highlight being for me the UK IPA and their Congo Pale Ale, a Belgian IPA which was distinctively champagne like. Eventually though we had 11.5 hectolitres of wort, measuring at that point 11.5° Plato, correctly predicted by Aaron. Once the boil was on, and it was a vigorous boil, in with the first round of hops - ah the smell of Saaz. I am sure I am entirely biased, but Saaz is one of my favourite hops, wonderful aroma, great flavour in the beer. To mark the first and second hop additions, I pulled out a bottle of the barley wine I brewed last November, of which only 13 bottles remain (from an original batch of 18 that is). Both Jason and Aaron were very complementary about the beer, and given it's marked hoppiness, I may have miscategorised it in the recent Dominion Cup. The third hop addition was heralded with their Scottish ale, Ale of Fergus, to which I alluded on Monday, along with the comment that they don't normally mark all the stages of the process with a toast - a practice I fear I would institute if I had my own brewery!

Obviously in between stages Jason and Aaron weren't just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, there being plenty of jobs to be done, such as sanitising the fermenting vessel, harvesting the yeast, preparing for the next days brewing by milling the grain. With everything done to prepare for the wort, it was pumped through the heat exchanger and into the waiting fermenter. I was intrigued to see how they would pitch the yeast, basically as the wort is being pumped into the fermenter, the yeast is pumped into the same hose through a valve, while aeration is achieved with a jet of filtered air rather than pure oxygen. When the final gravity measurement was taken, it read 12.5° Plato - just right for a Bohemian Pilsner.

And there it is, Devils Backbone's replica 1842 Pilsner. When the fermentation is about 1° Plato from the target, the airlocks will be closed and the remaining CO2 created will carbonate the beer, a process called "spunding". Under pressure, the beer will then be transferred to a lagering tank to sit for at least 30 days, before again being moved, under pressure, to one of the serving tanks.

I want to thank Jason and Aaron for having me along to take part in the brewing process. it was a fantastic day and we have discussed doing another brew day together. In the meantime I will wait patiently for what I hope will be a wonderful drop of lager that I will fill every growler I own with. Cheers!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Beer with Backbone

I mentioned in a post a while ago that of the 3 brewpubs in the general vicinity of Charlottesville, the only one that Mrs Velkyal and I have taken all our guests to has been Devil's Backbone. I say brewpub rather than brewery because Starr Hill is just that, a brewery with a tasting room rather than a pub.

Yet to reach their second anniversary, the guys at Devil's Backbone have already amassed a collection of awards and medals, which are beautifully mounted and on display in the pub, including the 2010 World Beer Cup Champion Brewery and Brewmaster - Small Brewpub. On Saturday, I got to spend the day with Jason Oliver, the brewmaster, and the Devil's Backbone team, assisting in the brewing of a Pilsner, which I will go into more detail about on Wednesday.

As you can imagine, spending eight and a half hours behind the scenes while brewing is in process certainly teaches you an awful lot about the process. Of course, I understand the process and as a homebrewer do many of the same things as a professional brewer, although on a far smaller scale, but seeing it being done in this environment really adds to your appreciation of the end product.

Although it is possible to see Devil's Backbone beers in a few local bars in Charlottesville, obviously the vast majority of their beer is sold on premises, even so, for some reason I just simply imagined that they kegged their beer in standard kegs. Instead, they have large serving tanks, stored in a refrigerated room and linked directly to the taps at the bar, in essence it the same the "tankove" systems used by some pubs back in the Czech Republic. Devil's Backbone also carbonate their beers naturally rather than injecting CO2, which lends the beer a softer body and a smoother mouthfeel that I find particularly pleasing. I tend to find force carbonated beers simply too fizzy for my liking, carbonation yes, fizziness no.

Being a brewpub rather than a small brewery, there is a certain sense that they are free to change and adapt their recipes in order to improve them, brand consistency is not so much of an issue I guess. While we were brewing on Saturday, we tried several of the available beers, including their Scottish 60/- ale, named Ale of Fergus. When I first had it back in August 2009, I was left underwhelmed. The beer was pale, kind of boring really. How things have changed on that front! The beer I tried on Saturday was much darker, with a fuller body and more rounded sweetness, as Jason described it "somewhere between a 60/- and a mild" - simply put it was a beer I would drink round after round of.

Something I always like to ask brewers is where they get their ideas for beer from and I was particularly keen to find out about the inspiration for the 1904 Stout which I so enjoyed when Mrs V and I brought her parents out for dinner. I really wasn't expecting to hear that Jason owns one of Ron Pattinson's books, Brown Beer to be precise, and had used the information in there to create his recipe. When I posted about the beer, I gave it the title "Ron Would Love It!" without knowing that Ron's love of beer history had inspired it.

I have deliberately left a lot of the practical things I learnt about brewing on Saturday as I want to post about that experience in particular on Wednesday. Suffice to say that Devil's Backbone make excellent beer and as a venue for a night out is difficult to beat.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Homebrewer of the Week

Tis Friday, so it must be time for the Homebrewer of the Week mini-series. Therefore, without further ado.....

Name: Matthew Herrera

How did you get into home brewing?

Well I’ve always loved beer good beer and loved to try new styles whenever I got the chance. One year for Christmas my wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit which I used to make my first pale ale. My wife said “you’re always looking for a good beer maybe you should try making your own?” I was thrilled at the idea and the new kit! Being the technical person that I am I quickly realized that this Mr. Beer kit was novice at best. After more research I soon moved on to a bucket and carboy set up doing extracts and have since fell in love with the hobby, It has to be one of the most satisfying hobbies I have ever done!

Are you an all grain brewer or extract with grains?

I do mainly all grain brewing now although I have done a few extracts since moving to all grain. I find I just get a much better beer with all grain, I like the flexibility I have with the malts and mashing temps and I can really fine tune my wort. Also I like knowing that I made my beer from scratch if there is an off flavor I can’t blame it on the extract I have to recount my steps examine my process and find out what went wrong and where. I enjoy that part of it though it sounds silly but each mistake I make I learn from and feel it really makes me a better brewer.

What is the best beer you have ever brewed and why?

Funny I always think the best beer I’ve ever brewed is going to be the one in the carboy and as soon as I taste it will say Eureka! Honestly I have made a few beers that I simply would rather pour down the drain. To date I would have to say the best beer I ever made was a Chocolate Vanilla Porter, it was based on a Deschutes black Butte clone but I tweaked it and it was outstanding. It had a great chocolate and vanilla flavor with some nice earthy notes like you find in a black butte, it was well attenuated but still had great body not cloying but more creamy or silky on the pallet. The aroma was smooth like fresh vanilla, I think the stars aligned when I brewed this batch and the tide was just right! Actually I think it turned out so good because I was painstakingly diligent about my sanitation, and following my process. I hit the right mash temps held them for the right amount of time added the right amount of hops used a good yeast starter with aeration and held the proper fermentation temps (critical). I think my experience shined through on this batch with everything I learned.

What is the worst, and why?

The worst beer I ever made by far was a peach ale. It had a horrible medicinal phenolic flavor, I never figured out if this was due to my yeast or the peaches I added but the peaches were canned so I am leaning towards the yeast. I used saf ale 05 and I think my fermentation temp was too high. I have heard of others getting this same spicy medicinal taste with this yeast so Im pretty sure that’s what caused it. Also I may have under pitched stressing the yeast and contributing to extra phenols. I think the beer would have turned out great if I used different yeast and had my temps and pitching rate correct.

What is your favorite beer that you brew?

Honestly I have never made any beer twice there are just so many styles to make and beers to try there is just not enough time in the day. I have found that my pallet changes almost seasonally, sometimes I just go through these periods where I want pale ales, then I just want lagers, or IPA’s. I try to drink a variety but my favorite style is always changing. Lately I’ve really been enjoying ESB’s and German and Bohemian Lager’s.

Do you have any plans or ambitions to turn your hobby into your career?

Isn’t that every brewers dream! I think the day I brewed my first pale ale I was already dreaming of a microbrewery. Actually I have taken some semi serious steps in the direction of “Nano Brewer” you can look it up on the ABC website it’s a legal brewery on a nano scale there are already a few here in California. I was researching it, calling the alcohol board, calling supply companies pricing equipment and even came up with a name and found a partner. It’s something I still want to do but has been put on hold for a little bit as I figure out some personal issues in my life. I already have some of the equipment I need and am hoping that by end of 2011 I will be rolling. I plan on starting with one barrel batches and selling locally to pubs and restaurants from there I will see where it leads. I would like one day to have a 60,000 barrel a year brewery…..One day.

Of the beers you brew, which is your favorite to drink?

Of the beers I’ve brewed my favorite ones to drink are the ones that turn out good! It really depends on the season and the mood. I can’t say there is one beer that I have as a favorite, if it tastes good I like to drink it! In general I like my beers to be clear and clean tasting. That is one reason I like to rack to a secondary, it really helps clear the yeast and leaves the trub behind. My current brew is a bohemian lager, I used an interesting technique to clear it. First I crashed it down to about 44 before adding yeast or aerating, after 3 days I racked to a secondary leaving all the trub behind, I then aerated the wort and added the yeast. Over the next 3 days I raised the temp to 50 and held it there for fermentation. I tasted the beer before kegging and wow! This beer is brilliantly clear and clean tasting, I think it’s my best beer yet!

How do you decide on the kind of beer to brew and formulate the recipe?

Well with the abundance of free recipes on the internet these days it isn’t too hard to find a good one. Whether you use websites, books, forums or try to make your own there is plenty of info out there. I think having a good understanding of a style is important before venturing off into uncharted territory. I typically will take a recipe and slightly tweak it to my own. In the past I’ve used beer smith to help formulate recipes as well as a website called the brew masters warehouse, but most recently I downloaded an application for my I-touch called brew pal and it was only $1.00! I really love this app it is almost as full featured as beer smith with the convenience of being able to carry it in my pocket and follow a brew plan step by step. I also like that you can just go crazy and make up an off the wall recipe and it will find the closest BJCP category that your recipe falls into. I guess I decide on a beer I want to make depending on the mood I am in. Sometimes if I’ve tried a particular beer that caught my attention I will try to make something in that style. I’ve also planned ahead on the season and have brewed darker beer in the winter and lighter beers in the summer.

What is the most unusual beer you have brewed?

The most unusual beer I have brewed has to be my lemon honey ale. I used real lemons and real honey, I thought it would be a great session beer or lawnmower beer on those hot sunny days. I wanted it to be thirst quenching and easy drinking. Well I added to much lemon and not enough honey it tasted like lemonade beer! I still think it could be a great beer but I would add less lemon and more honey next time, or maybe just use honey malt. I may retry this one again soon.

If you could do a pro-am brew, what would you brew and with which brewery?

I think it would have to be an IPA. I have tasted so many IPA’s and they really range in character. I have tasted some that are too cloying, some that are so bitter it taste like drinking hop squeezing. I have tasted some with great aroma but not enough bitterness, and I have tasted some that hit it right on with a perfect balance. To me an IPA has to have good balance, I think too many times brewers try to cover up mistakes by adding more hops and it still doesn’t taste right. I think the perfect IPA is clean and crisp with not too much malt character and a bouquet of floral aroma with just the right amount of IBU’s. I would have to choose stone brewing Co. to do an IPA. They in my opinion have a great IPA, also IPA’s have a pretty simple malt bill which would make it easier to hit my gravity and %ABV on target. They ferment out relatively fast and if you stay in the 6 to 7 % ABV they do not take very long to mature. Every brewery should have a great IPA as a staple brew, at least in the USA. Even though IPA’s were first made in England for India I think the US really took off with the style and made it what it is today.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Red Coat is Coming!

Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale, American Style India Black Ale, call it what you will, seems to be the latest fad de jour, and yes I have written about it before, and yes I am still unconvinced that it is not a porter over hopped with the wrong hops.

One of the joys though of being a homebrewer is that I can be a cynical sod AND put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. Firstly though a quick precis of the project; take a clone recipe for ASIBA, switch out the hops for British varieties, whilst keeping the malts and yeast the same, and see how porteresque this British Style ASIBA would be. Simple.

I only brew very small batches by some people's standards, usually a couple of gallons, but for this experiment I really didn't want to have a case of bottles lying around if the beer was piss awful, so I scaled the recipe to just a single gallon, or a dozen 12oz bottles when the time comes. Of the recipes in the Brew Your Own article, I plumped for the clone of Widmer's W-10 Pitch Black IPA, and choose Admiral and Goldings as my hops, deciding in the end to stick with Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast, the recipe for a single gallon was as follows:
  • 2lbs light DME
  • 6oz Caramel 10
  • 3oz Carafa II de-husked
  • 2.5oz Briess Special Roast
  • 0.4oz 10.5% AAU Admiral @ 75
  • 0.3oz 10.5% AAU Admiral @ 2
  • 1oz 4.5% Goldings @ 2
The original gravity was exactly the same as for the Widmer Clone, hitting 1.064 or 16° Plato. With regard to IBUs, the calculator I use showed that again I hit the mark by getting 65 IBUs - just an aside, the site with this IBU calculator has all manner of fun tools which I find very, very useful and heartily recommend. I brewed while Mrs Velkyal was out at rowing, just finishing cleaning up as she walked in the door and dragged me out to the shops, by the time we got back, about 4 hours later, the airlock was bubbling away happily.

I plan to bottle the beer on Sunday morning, before heading off for a shift at the Starr Hill tasting room, and sampling the collaboration Black IPA by the four brewers of the Brew Ridge Trail. If my version is at least drinkable, part of me is prepared to hate it and ditch the lot, thus the very small batch, I will enter the beer in the next homebrew competition I plan to enter, in September. Though in quite what category, I have no idea.

As for the name of my new beer? Red Coat India Black Ale, for fairly obvious reasons I am sure.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Guilty by Association

One theme that seems to do the rounds time after time is trying to define the nature of a "craft brewery". Some will tell you its about the ingredients they use, others will say that it is about the size of the operation, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what constitutes a craft brewery. While I don't want to get into that whole discussion in depth, one thing that has been bothering me of late is the loose use of the very term "craft beer".

I am on record as not being a huge fan of the term itself, after all, does a beer like Orval qualify as "craft beer" given the use of hop extract or not? I do not believe that we are experiencing a "craft beer revolution" as some would grandiosely put it, rather we are having the beer equivalent of the organic and slow food movements, realising that chemicals and additives have no place in the food chain. The craft beer movement is really just a reflection on our culture's return to a pre-industrial model where local products were the norm rather than the exception.

And so craft beer grows, while the mass produced beer makers lose market share. One trend that troubles me though, is the big boys picking up the term "craft beer" and claiming a portion of the market for themselves.

One example of this struck me the other day when I saw an advertisement for a beer festival which is coming to Charlottesville in the coming weeks, Top of the Hops. The event website proudly proclaims that visitors will get "two-ounce sampling[s] of craft beers from around the world", eager to see what samplings would be available, I checked out the breweries coming to town. Some of the local breweries coming include Legend from Richmond, whose beers are excellent, Blue Mountain from just up the road and from further afield Bell's Brewery.

A couple of brewers coming though kind of stand out from the crowd, Blue Moon, Leinenkugels and Pilsner Urquell in particular. Now, it isn't the quality of the beer I want to discuss, or the ingredients, but rather the companies behind these breweries. Everyone and his uncle knows that Blue Moon is a Molson-Coors product, while Leinenkugels and Pilsner Urquell are both SABMiller brands. Isn't it slightly incongruous to have a product like Blue Moon or Pilsner Urquell described as "craft beer" - are they even sure that the Pilsner Urquell is from Plzen rather than brewed under license in Russia or Poland?

A craft brewer, at least here in America, according to the Brewers Association is "small, independent and traditional". When discussing the independence of a craft brewer, they further claim that if more than 25% of the company is owned by a non-craft brewery, then they no longer qualify as such. Obviously that disqualifies Pilsner Urquell as a beer from a "craft brewery" in the American context, unless of course SABMiller are somehow to be afforded that status, oh wait, they aren't small enough.

In allowing representatives from the big industrial breweries in a "craft beer" festival, I feel that the image and "brand", if you will, of craft beer is diluted, blurring the edges for many consumers as to what constitutes a craft beer. A further example of this would be product placement in supermarkets, where you generally have beers divided into "domestic" and "import", with craft beer lumped in with the import beer. Given the amount of wrangling that goes on in the retail process about where products are placed on supermarket shelves, it is no coincidence that Blue Moon is always in the import/craft beer section, but surely as the product of mass swill producing Coors it should be in the domestic section?

I would like to make clear though that I have no problem whatsoever with Blue Moon, and even enjoy Pilsner Urquell in the right circumstances, but to create in the consumers' mind an association with craft beer through participation in a "craft beer" festival is disingenuous, whether on the part of the brewery or the festival organisers I wouldn't like to say. If, however, craft beer is to stand apart from the morass of mass produced muck, then the "movement" needs its own festivals, with clear and strict definitions of who qualifies to participate - I would suggest the Brewers Association definition as a starting point, even if that means well known breweries are turned away because they have gone beyond the definition of craft, to become small industrial brewers, it would also mean openness on the part of breweries as to ownership information.

One festival though that I will be attending is the River Bend Beer Festival in Scottsville where the criteria for being allowed to participate includes being a Virginia brewery, thus giving small local breweries an opportunity to present their beers to a slighter wider audience, kind of like the Slunce ve Skle festival I so enjoyed in Plzen - though unfortunately without Pivni Filosof to get rat-arsed with drinking shots.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Homebrewer of the Week

We are staying rather close to home for Homebrewer of the Week today. Just about an hour away from Charlottesville is Richmond, capital of Virginia and one time home to the government of the Confederate States of America. It is also home to fellow homebrewer, beer blogger, beer enthusiast and all round general top bloke, E.S. Delia, whose blog, Relentless Thirst is always a worthy read.

Name: Eric Delia

How did you get into home brewing?

I got into homebrewing after delving into the craft beer movement in general. One catalyst for this was the blog I started years ago, which began to lead me on a path to discover what beer was truly about. It’s a path I was already sort of on before I even was aware of it. The brewing process had always intrigued me, ever since I visited the Anheuser-Busch plant in Williamsburg, Virginia as a kid. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that you can’t understand beer without being a homebrewer, but I do believe it adds a certain depth to that understanding.

Are you an all grain brewer or extract with grains?

All-grain. Started as an extract brewer doing partial mash.

What is the best beer you have ever brewed and why?

A saison I brewed the first time around turned out to be phenomenal, at least by my meager standards. I think the temperature settings I used in fermentation imparted great flavors, but the yeast didn’t attenuate all the way (something saison yeasts are known for). I then had to use a neutral yeast to finish it out, but it had been a while and I worried that I’d lose the batch. When everything seemed to go wrong, the beer turned out great in the end.

What is the worst, and why?

Hard to pick just one! Ha! But I’d venture to say it was a Dark Mild ale I brewed with maple syrup. The extra sugar ended up making this beer overcarbonated, and while the flavor was where I wanted it, the carbonic acid really killed the round sweetness it was supposed to have.

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

Well, I do all sorts of styles and types, but I’d have to say that the saison I revisited is my favorite, just because it turned out so delicious. This latest batch is coming into its own.

Do you have any plans or ambitions to turn your hobby into your career?

It would be an amazing opportunity to turn my homebrewing into a career, but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

Of the beers you brew, which is your favourite to drink?

Again, I’d have to go with that saison. However, I brewed a Witbier that was just a rock-solid, standard, easy-drinking beer that seemed to be great to enjoy at any time of the day or year. Relatively low alcohol content and a straight-forward, full wheat flavor made it quite quaffable.

How do you decide on the kind of beer to brew and formulate the recipe?

Research and experimentation. I’ll normally get an idea for a beer, look around to see what my malt base will look like and what kind of additional flavors I want to infuse into my mash. Then, I’ll construct the rest of the beer on top of that. Sometimes it doesn’t produce the characteristics I’m hoping for, but other times it makes for fantastic surprises.

What is the most unusual beer you have brewed?

I collaborated with a couple friends on a beer called Figgy Stardust. We basically reduced some whole figs, used Laphroaig malt in the grain bill, and added honey. The flavor components were quite subtle, but together it was off-the-wall enough to be named in honor of the Starman himself.

If you could do a pro-am brew, what would you brew and with which brewery?

Tough question, and for me it would depend on what we’re trying to brew. At the moment, I’d love to peer into the mind of Dany Prignon over at Fantôme and do an off-the-wall saison, but it’d be hard to pass up this kind of offer with any brewery, really.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Come Autumn Come...

It's one of the those days here in Charlottesville, warm, cloudy and wet. It isn't actually raining at the moment, more that a damp murk has been drawn over the city. If it were about 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler I would be sat here thinking about it being the kind of weather I grew up with in Scotland, and would be as happy as a pig in clover. I like cool, damp and dark weather you see, it is perfect pub weather - honestly, can you think of any place better to be during a downpour, or more likely back home, a steady soaking of drizzle, than a comfy pub with a pint of something good in your hand?

The problem though with such weather is that when you add in the extra heat and attendant humidity, my brain just turns to mush and I have problems deciding on what to write about. But as the weather has put me in mind of autumn and its delights, I have of late started stocking up the cellar with beers for the coming dark months - winter being my favourite season of all. As such, the following beers have been added to the cellar in preparation.

I have been on the look out for Fuller's 1845 for a while, and so when I asked the Wine Warehouse if they could get some in, the good people there duly obliged. At the moment I have 4 bottles in the cellar, in due course I will be buying up some more of their stock to join the London Porter, Vintage 2008, 2009 and Bengal Lancer in the cellar. 

Ettaler Dunkel is very much Mrs Velkyal's beer, we had it when we went to The Bavarian Chef for a special occasion of some sort and she liked it a lot. Bell's is a brewery I really like (they bottle condition their beers!), and dopplebock is a style I am ambivalent about, so I am hoping to see a little light with Consecrator. What can be said about Samuel Smiths, other than it was ridiculously cheap for such a well regarded brewery?

Ok, so a lot of people think of Kölsch as more of a summer beer, but in my experience it has a malty sweetness which lends itself just as much to supping as the leaves change to amber as it does to refreshing yourself in the heat of a German biergarten. Doppelsticke is an extra powerful Altbier from the Uerige Brewery and Alt is again one of my favourite styles, and I love that bottle. Rauchweizen I have discussed at length elsewhere and the bottle of Göse is there because I want to try and get more of a handle on that style, which uses salt and coriander.

These bottles are just the beginnings of the dark nights cellar, sure there will be plenty of homebrew being stocked up, my imperial stout and spiced Belgian amber ale will make appearances, and come Thanksgiving the first of my 1 year in the bottle barleywine will be cracked open. Another batch of the peat smoked Mild previously known as Experimental Dark Matter will be in the works soon, renamed as Machair Mild.

Sure, there are plenty of sunny days to enjoy, but it is the dark and cool of a winter's beer that I am looking forward to.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Reflection

It has been a year and 3 days since Mrs Velkyal and I pitched our tent in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course regular readers will know that the 10 years before that, 6 in the good lady's case, were spent mostly in Prague. I say "mostly" because I had a three month stint in Minsk, Belarus, and a few months living in a town called Mlada Boleslav about 50km outside Prague, and home to Skoda Auto.

When we moved over to the States, I was very much looking forward to getting to grips with the craft beer scene here, especially the local one. I have mentioned several times that we live in an excellent part of the world for beer, and one that has a fair bit of brewing heritage - we are only about 2 miles from Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello, and the good man was known for the quality of his homebrew. Despite wanting to immerse myself in local beer (take that whatever way you will), one of my priorities was to find a source of Budvar so I could still enjoy my favourite large scale production Czech lager. So far, I am yet to find the pot of golden lager at the end of the rainbow, and so when we venture to South Carolina, I pick up a case of the good stuff to grace the shelves of the cellar.

As you most likely know, I work occasional weekends in the Starr Hill Brewing Company tasting room, giving out little samples of beer and trying not to baffle visitors with technicalities - I work on the theory that they are more interested in the beer, and not the process, those interested in the process can take the tour. Reactions are always interesting when taking people through the samples, and it is surprising how often someone will tell me their favourite beer and when asked why they like it, they answer "because it doesn't taste like beer". I also find it interesting the number of ingrained preconceptions which abound and need to be gently corrected, though that really isn't my style. The number of times I have had to explain the difference between cellar temperature and room temperature is as numerous as the grains of sand in the Sahara. Oh, and quite how people can think I am Australian given my pretty standard BBC accent is beyond me, answers on a postcard please.

While we are happily blessed with good breweries in the area, and in the case of Blue Mountain and Devil's Backbone, excellent brewpubs, finding a pub to call my regular has proven to be somewhat trickier. It is not a case that there are no good pubs, it is a case of not being able to walk to them, or to get the bus (ok, ok, there is a bus system and I am sure I could work it out somehow), so going to the pub means driving, finding a parking space and then one of us having to be exceedingly moderate, and I guess you know who that is most of the time! My favourite haunt  in terms of pub ambience is Court Square Tavern in the centre of the town - a quietish pub with a decent selection of beer and a nice feel to it. If we lived closer I would most likely call it my local. Beer Run also has a good selection of beer and a variety of draught beers, not to mention one of the few handpulls in town, but again I can't just totter home merrily after a night out.

As for the world of tipplers, I have met several fellow bloggers and even a few readers who have come into the tasting room at Starr Hill and it is great to see that beer lovers here are broadly similar to beer lovers I have met in other parts of the world - good humoured, generous and always happy to share knowledge. I think it was the first or second weekend we were here that we went up to Richmond to attend a beer blogger/lover get together hosted by E.S. Delia of Relentless Thirst renown. We had a great time, drank some wonderful beers, my contribution being BrewDog Paradox Smokehouse, but the beer highlight of the event was a homebrewed dark mild, which was delightful.

Memories of the dark mild, partly brewed by this rather talented artist, leads me nicely into one of my few criticisms of the brewing, and drinking, scene in this neck of the woods, the lack of session beer. I am a big fan of the Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project and wish more brewers took up the challenge of making flavourful beer with less than 4.5% abv. One brewer with whom I am acquainted commented that "there is no market" for session beer. I would however suggest that he is wrong, the market is out there, but it is drowned out by the hopheads and extreme beer fanatics who salivate like rabid dogs at the thought of the latest, greatest "innovative" beer. Such fanatics are, thankfully, in my experience a minority here, but they are so vocal, so passionate, so bloody Talibanesque that you would think their view of beer is the only legitimate one, and they are wrong.

To quote BrewDog "beer was never meant to be bland, tasteless and apathetic". There is certainly nothing tasteless about a well made dark mild, there is nothing bland about a London style Porter and anyone who can think that a faithful Bohemian Pilsner is apathetic really needs to extract their head from their backsides. Yet, at the mercy of the Zythotaliban, too many brewers are making bland hop bombs, let's not mistake lemon sucking bitterness for complexity; too many brew bland blonde beers as a crossover for the masses (and I say that as someone who wants people to appreciate well made beer, and so a properly made bitter usually does the trick); all too common among the Zythotaliban and the brewers that cater to them is an apathy toward malt and yeast, surrendering all to the mighty hop.

All in all though, I am enjoying experiencing American beer, and, for the most part, meeting American beer lovers. I still have plenty to discover, more beer to drink, more people to hang out with in bars, all the while remaining true to my belief that beer is the everyman drink, not a lifestyle accessory, not a badge of being cool, not a fashion statement, and most certainly not an opportunity for oneupmanship. Beer is about people. The people who make it, the people who care for and serve it and the people who drink it. Beer people are largely good people, beer people are my people.

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately. At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerb...