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.


  1. Nicely timed post. I was at Capital Ale House yesterday lamenting to my wife about the lack of low to average (average in my opinion being 5% ABV or less) ABV beer on the menu. Although the menu has hundreds of beers to choose from, its clear that most of the creative energy in the American brewing world is being focused on beers of 7-8% ABV and above. While I do enjoy these beers, they have their place. Its not practical to drink a couple of these beers while enjoying some time at the bar and then drive home or do anything else constructive for the rest of the day. Hopefully in the years to come American craft breweries will find that they can still creatively brew "revolutionary" beer at sessionable strength that is met with success in the marketplace. For like minded craft beer enthusiasts, perhaps some responsibility also lands on us to help create demand for more sessionable craft beer? This means ordering that Bitter, lower ABV Stout, or Mild instead of that IIPA. BTW a great one I found recently is Left Hand's Sawtooth Ale (an ESB).

  2. Left Hand's Sawtooth Ale is certainly a very nice drop, I had it as part of a flight in St Augustine on the way back from Florida. Also very nice was the milk stout, I style I would love to see more off. I am sure to extrapolate from my homebrewing to industrial brewing is somewhat risky, but in my experience, making a low alcohol beer, full of flavour and without hops being the dominant theme is far more difficult than brewing some high octane imperial stout, barleywine or double IPA. I guess that is why I like Sierra Nevada so much, they get classic styles bang on.

  3. Great post. I have a picture on my desktop of three beers I sampled at the White Horse American Beer Festival. One red beer, one stout, and a pale ale. It's there to remind me that great beer is balanced and the joy of drinking it is the variety of flavours.

    I chose this picture because: the red beer tasted of Cascades; the stout tasted of, err, Cascades; oh and the pale ale tasted mainly of, you guessed it, Cascades. Three, in theory, widely different beer types unified by the one dominant taste.

    I wanted to be wowed at the festival but ended up disappointed. There were some good beers there (and one awful one) but in the end my two companions and I became bored and frustrated at the lack of variety and, indeed, of finesse in so many of the beers. And I have had enough of "C" hops for some time!

    As soon as the US micros get rid of the "my beer is bigger than your beer" attitude and find some balance in their recipe formulation they are going to make some truly outstanding beers.

  4. Great post. I am in total agreement about wishing for more lower ABV beers. I had a discussion one night with one of the owners of Capital Ale House (very nice and genrerous fellow), about why there were never any lower (5% and under) ABV beers on his handpulls or firkins (a new one every Friday). He said the higher ABV last longer as many of his customers know nothing about beer served this way. High ABV extreme beers have a certain staus appeal for some people now. Your very kind words on your new home are most pleasing to the ear; and I have a theory why people think you are Australian; Aussie speech is "cooler" and in vogue here; England is taken to much for granted. Australia seems more exotic than Britain. Just an idea. Good luck in the next year! (GeauxT)


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