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.


  1. Despite the asshole on the phone the other day (who, sadly, I suspect was a manager), I do love that place. The Fergus has been one my my favorites. Can't wait to try the improved version. Devil's Backbone is really coming into its own lately.

  2. Absolutely! Every time Mrs V and I head out that way we have a great time, seriously good beer. If only they had a Devils Backbone pub in town!


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