Monday, May 31, 2010

Ron Would Love It!

Sometimes I feel inordinately lucky to live in a part of Virginia which has at least 4 craft breweries within about 30 miles, I say "at least" because the 4 I am talking about are all west of Charlottesville and there may me more to the north, south and east.

Having spent the weekend working the tasting room in the Starr Hill Brewing Company and having a great, if exhausting time, last night Mrs Velkyal and I took my good lady wife's parents to another of the local brewers, Devil's Backbone. I remarked to Mrs V on the way home that of all the brewpubs in the area, Devil's Backbone is the only one we have taken all of our visitors to, but I digress.

I needed a pint, hefting kegs and cases of beer is heavy work, pouring samples and chatting with customers means being on your feet for the whole shift and constantly on the move, it is tiring but I love it - I have to admit though I am not sure entirely what I love more, talking about the beer or making sure that it is in the best possible condition within the realm of my influence, essentially making sure the lines are clean, but again I digress.

Devil's Backbone currently have a stout, nothing remarkable about that you might think, but this one is not an Irish Stout, it is a recreation of a 1904 London stout from Whitbread, including, according to the brewer's blog, the requisite specialty grains and fermented with the Whitbread yeast. What a simply lovely beer it was! A touch sweeter than you would expect from an Irish stout, but with big cocoa aromas and a smooth texture reminiscent of pouring warmed dark chocolate straight down your gullet. I wish I'd had my camera, speaking of which - I imagine this on cask would be magnificent!

According to Jason's blog, coming soon will be an attempt to recreate Pilsner Urquell, from the original recipe using the traditional methods - triple decoction, enough Saaz hops for 40IBUs and bohemian malts are I assume already ordered, quite though how they will get the water to the required softness I have no idea. But this I am looking forward to. Will my search finally be over? Will this little corner of American finally have a pilsner worthy of the name? Will I be agitating for it to be a regular beer if it is good?

There is only one downside to Devil's Backbone. It is not in Charlottesville itself and thus I can't walk home merrily pickled. Every trip then is one to savour.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Brewer of the Week

We are close to home for Brewer of the Week, very close to home in fact. Starr Hill is a brewery in the little town of Crozet, just to the west of Charlottesville and is the place where on occasion you will find me behind the bar of the tasting room waxing lyrical about beer.

Name: Mark Thompson
Brewery: Starr Hill Brewing Company

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I studied biology at James Madison University and then moved to Portland to work at the Norwester Brewery, this was in the 1990s, basically I was in the right place at the right time. After Portland I went to work for the Mile High Brewery in Denver, Colorado.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Being the kind of long haired crazy professor! Brewing is half science and half art, so you have to be able to deal with both.

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

Not really.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

No, it would be like washing windows for a hobby if you were a professional window washer.

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

I really like the hoppy beers, and at Starr Hill that means Northern Lights, our IPA.

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

Nor’Wester in Portland Oregon circa 1993. Fresh out of Siebel institute I developed a Mai Bock recipe from soup to nuts. It was one of the one receipe’s that I sat down and did every calculation. The receipe was over 6 pages long with all kinds of math formulas. In addition it was the first lager beer that I ever made commercially. I was vindicated when several years after I left the brewery that beer won a silver medal at the GABF.

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

Again, Northern Lights is the one I drink most of.

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

Has more to do with the feel of the brand. The liquid has to be great to begin with but if the brand does not make you feel good holding it in your hands it will not sell. I have no problem buying German variety hops grown in the US or using domestic pilsner malt instead of floor malted European malts. Beer is a very simple beverage that is best with local ingredients.

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

Local ones. We are planning on doing a collaborative beer for the Brew Ridge Trail with Devils Backbone, Blue Mountain, And South Street.

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

Sierra Nevada Celebration

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Not To Blog

Yesterday I flew back from North Dakota to Virginia, with a couple of hours sat around in Minneapolis airport again. It happened to be lunch time, and we happened to go to Rock Bottom Brewery again because we knew the food was good. This time I was planning to go into full tippler mode, out came the notepad, swiftly followed by a pen, I checked I had enough battery on my phone to use the camera and I ordered the sampler tray - my bosses looked on, amused by the level of my preparedness for taking notes about beer, pausing only to comment they were surprised I didn't have a printable sheet instead of regular paper. I have actually thought about it, but then I realised I didn't want to look like some total sad basket case, just a part-timer with a notepad is fine for me.

The samples came, carried on a rather natty metal rack, and placed on top of the info card for the beers, each glass on the description of that beer. There were 6 beers in the line-up, ranging from a witbier to the brown ale I had on Monday. Phone camera in hand, I took pictures, I made my notes, I enjoyed most of all the English pale ale and the brown ale, the other beers were perfectly fine as well, all in all an enjoyable little sampling. I wanted to look at the pictures, after all a mobile phone camera doesn't always take great shots. In this case it had not taken any shots at all. The reason? Quite simply I am a prat, and forgot that with this phone you take the snap and then press "save", unlike my old phone by the same manufacturer where you take a snap and it was saved automatically. So no pictures of the beers to go with the descriptions, so to spare you all a frankly tedious brain dump of tasting notes, I thought I would own up to my dim-wittedness and assure you that if you find yourself in Minneapolis airport with time to spare, hunt down Rock Bottom Brewery and enjoy some decent beers and the excellent fish and chips, which is salmon rather than cod!

You live and learn.

Monday, May 24, 2010

An Unexpected Treat

A bit late posting today, but there are mitigating circumstances your honour. I am travelling from Charlottesville in Virginia to the wilds of Dickinson, North Dakota on a business trip - tomorrow I am giving a presentation for a potentially lucrative contract. The problem is that I hate flying, and getting to North Dakota takes two flights and a couple of hours driving either side of the flying.

It was unexpected then as we strolled through Minneapolis airport with 90 minutes to spare before the second flight to find a brewpub on the concourse. I was grateful though because I needed a beer, and the beer I had was very nice indeed, a brown ale with Special B and chocolate malt, and a third malt I can't remember. The hops were listed as Willamette, and the beer went down a treat with the fish and chips I had for lunch, the being salmon, which was really good.

I might have to try making a brown ale soon as most of my darker beers are more in the porter and stout realm in terms of darkness, speaking of which, I bottled the peat smoke dark mild yesterday and I think I may have created a thing of beauty!

Here's to the first bottle in a few weeks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Brewer of the Week

For this week's Brewer of the Week we head to London and to the brewery which makes some of my favourite beers, and for which I have a huge soft spot owing to the fact that my father's side of the family come from the same neck of the woods.


Name: John Keeling
Brewery: Fuller's

How did you get into brewing as a career?

My mother made me get a job. The local brewery Wilson’s took me on as a laboratory assistant where I stayed for a couple of years before studying brewing at Heriot-Watt.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

To drink beer. I think it is very important for a brewer to drink their beer in the pub with their friends. This will enable them to understand what it is that people like about their beer, it will lead to great satisfaction that other people enjoy your beer and that will drive you on to produce even better beers.

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

I did home brew at the age of 16 to 18. It was so long ago I cannot remember any of the recipes. However it did give me a love of brewing.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

No I don’t homebrew. After a day’s work I would prefer to relax over a pint than make a beer.

What is your favorite beer that you brew?

London Porter. It simply is so different to the other beers. The aromas of coffee and roasted malt fill the brewery. Even the surrounding streets have the aroma of coffee


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

When I was with Wilson’s my first job was to sample the FV’s every day. I loved this job because we would make 8 different beers in one day and looking at the different colours of each and the different aromas would fascinate me. My favorite was Mann’s Brown Ale again because it was a dark beer and so different to the bitters and lagers.

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

The brewer’s favorite is Chiswick Bitter. When I first joined Fullers I worked for the Assistant Head Brewer Philip Eliot who insisted that we all drank Chiswick. When he retired we calculated that he accounted for 0.5% of all Chiswick Bitter sales.

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

I think to be honest is important in all walks of life. I think that it is better to be honest than to argue about authenticity. For many years we used maize in our recipes. We did this because it made the beers easier to fine not because maize was cheaper than malt. Nowadays because the malt is of higher quality we are 100% malt. However it would be more authentic to use maize! The same is also true about methods. Modern methods get a bad press because people think that traditional methods are best and many brewers use modern methods just to reduce costs. However modern methods will improve quality too. Why did we use maize? Because malt quality was not good enough. Why is it so good now? Because of adaptation of modern methods.

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

We are planning something along those lines. I actually believe that breweries have always collaborated to a degree. We want our Junior Brewers to do something with other brewers. We will be exchanging brewers with Stone this year hopefully and maybe something will come of that. I have many friends in brewing and perhaps I would work with them. Maybe I could work with my friend Toshi in Japan or perhaps with Stefano and Kelly at Thornbridge. I have never met the Brewdog people but I bet we would enjoy a pint together. If I had to pick one to work with then it would have to be Hardknott Dave.

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

I don’t think that beers are invented they kind of evolve.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We Are Not Geeks!!

I hate the term "beer geek", I loathe it, detest it and for me it engenders all manner of negative images, did I mention that I hate the term "beer geek"? Let's get this straight then, I am saying that I hate the term "beer geek", anyone still not clear on the subject of my ire this morning?

Again I will have to go through dictionary definitions, guess what people, the term "geek" existed before Bill Gates, before the internet and before hop bombs exploded all over the brewing world.

A quick lesson in etymology then, it would appear that the word "geek" has its origins in the Scots term "geck", derived from Low German which meant fool or simpleton, and was coined as "geek" in the early 20th century to describe a carnival performer, in particular a sideshow freak. Of course, language, being a human construct, evolves and the meanings of words develop throughout history. The word "geek" today has 5 major meanings:
  1. a computer expert or enthusiast,(a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
  2. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp. one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
  3. a person who is regarded as foolish, inept or clumsy
  4. a person who is single minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
  5. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.
Obviously many beer lovers have elements of some of those definitions, though I am yet to meet the craft beer drinker who also engages in chicken decapitation, having said that, if the chicken had more than 75 IBUs it might catch on.

In my experience of beer lovers, definition 3 would be a major disadvantage, would you want to be clumsy with a pint of something delicious in your hand? The latter half of definition 4 is also completely out of the window for the true beer lover because beer lovers are, again in my experience, very social people. Of course the natural habitat of the beer lover is the pub, a more social place would be difficult to find. Beer is the drink that brings people together, the great leveller of western society if you will (I hold no truck with beer being the "working man's drink" bollocks, it is the everyman drink, and no they are not the same!), geeks generally though sit apart from the great morass of society, beer lovers should be at the very heart of it.

Now perhaps I will not be causing a shift away from the term "beer geek" for the majority of people who love the amber nectar, but it would be nice to find a term which better describes the majority of beer lovers I have had the pleasure to meet in the last couple of years. Not one of them would fit the definition of a geek, as they have been heartily likable, urbane, assured, social, and without a penchant for chicken abuse.

Let's find a term worthy of them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is Innovation?

I have blogged before about how important context is to the appreciation of beer, thinking in particular about the context of being in a good pub with well cared for beer. Recently though I have been pondering over the wider context of drinking beers from outside their "sitz im leben" to use a term from hermenutics, basically drinking foreign beer out of the context that created it.

I have written often about the difficulty of finding a pilsner that comes close to those that I drank regularly in the Czech Republic, but also I find that drinking the pasteurised Pilsner Urquell that we get here in the States simply doesn't do the job either, though I find the Budvar holds up fairly well to the rigours of transportation.

This widened scope of thought raised the question in my head the other day of how valuable is it for non-American breweries to export to the US American style beers, and the phrase "carrying coals to Newcastle' immediately to mind. For those unversed in the delights of English phraseology, it basically means that taking coal to Newcastle would be pointless because there is so much of it there already. So it is with beer, especially IPA, in the American context. 

When I go to one of the various booze stores I like here in Charlottesville with a mind to get a nice, big hoppy IPA in the American style then I have a short list of beer that fits the bills, Sierra Nevada Torpedo being number 1 on the list (a seriously magnificent beer). The American IPAs sat on the shelf which were brewed in the UK simply don't get a look in, not because they are bad beer, they aren't, not because I don't like them, they are ok, but somehow it just doesn't feel right, almost like choosing Wimpy instead of Wendy's.

This line of thought then took to wondering about what exactly is "innovative" beer, and again that is contextually conditioned (approved by CAMRA for sure!). So big hop bomb IPAs are not exactly innovative any more in the American context, in fact they are almost the style of beer against which a craft brewery is measured, yet in the UK they are something new and sexy, and thus innovative. Innovative in the American context would be a dark mild, like that made by Blue Mountain Brewery recently, it would be a best bitter, again something that Blue Mountain has in the pipeline from what I understand. The "boring brown beers" of the UK are innovative in the American context, and much welcomed in the Velky Al context.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Brewer of the Week

Tis Friday, so that means that it is Brewer of the Week day! This week we head off to London and to a brewery so new that at the time of the interview they were still in the process of doing their logo!

Name: Phil Lowry
Brewery: Saints&Sinners (currently brewing at the Brew Wharf, London)

How did you get into brewing as a career?

Never really considered brewing a career, rather a skill within the passion that I have for beer and the beer industry. For my full time, I work at Beermerchants.com and Cavedirect, a specialist on-line beer retail website and a large family owned beer import and distribution company. This keeps me very busy during the week and then I get to brew at the Brew Wharf with good friend Steve at weekends. He works at Gadds of Ramsgate. We were looking for a brewery to produce our beers, a space to research and time to develop ideas and test the waters. Where Brew Wharf was looking for a part time brewer, we took the chance and seemingly a few beers in, and the beers are going well.

I actually started brewing by accident, coming from winemaking family, I actually got to brew whilst I was a student, a loose connection in thought process on the part of a needy brewpub manager “I knew how to make wine, I could make beer”, where I was naïve enough and brave enough to just get on with it, until a more formal brewer was engaged and I moved on to bigger things. I really enjoyed the process, the control, and the result; but most importantly seeing people really enjoy the results of your labors.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Somewhat mad. I think most brewers walk a different path to many in life. Not that this is a failing, but more an insight into the demands of brewing is on a human. Primarily intelligence is a clear requirement. But there is also clear indication toward the dichotomy of requirements upon a brewer:

We need insight and knowledge on the artistry of combining organic materials; hops, malt, water and yeast in the right proportions, to achieve a desired, interesting and at the very very least a drinkable result. Then packaged to be enjoyed and sold to a demanding public. We also have to have knowledge of flow, process engineering, and more than rudimentary repair on the fly skills to get through a brew day. I would also suggest that working in such an environment, where breweries can be in places on the fringe of the working building, we can hide do what we like as long as the beer is good and on time! It’s very much an indication of “left and right brain” make up. Not to mention the analytical skills!

Combine all those demands, with modern communications, being fit and healthy, we’re a strange bunch for sure. Perhaps it could be boiled down to being a bit geeky, a bit techy and a bit foody. Oh and having facial hair!

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

I have always homebrewed, more so with Steve. It’s really been resource for us to get flavours that we like, as for upscaled? Not really, but beers will be coming soon more akin to what we drink, although I would still brew what we brew on the big system if I was brewing at home.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

To be honest, it’s a time thing. We really love brewing, but we’re both busy people. We have thought about using the old 100 litre system as a pilot brewery, but considering that the big system is only 750 litres, it’s really a pilot system anyway! We might use it to experiment in time, but now, its gathering dust.

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

We really liked Hoptimum, a bright hoppy pale thing – 5.2%, citrusy drinking beer – brewed to really test the water with hops. We followed up with a simpler, yet complex in flavour, 3.8% pale, called GoldFish bowl – that was brewed to see what the reception was for a malty, lighter beer; really can drink loads of that! Steve and I like to brew beers that are balanced, yet try to have complexity, and are drinkable. Steve, being American, and I spend lots of time there, we do tend to use American hops, but this is not to say that beers brewed with UK hops are boring; we just like the citrus, piney twang! All said, we are brewing a mild for May, which will more than likely be an heirloom styled brew, we have some special hops that we will drag out for that little number. Then I would expect a version of Insomniac out of our brewhouse.
You’ll see more hoppier styles than malty styles, from me. Where as Steve is also into Maltier and spiced brews.

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

Both Steve and I have brewed at a couple of other breweries, a semi-collaborative thing, but formal work – a couple, mainly grunt work, was ok; put that down to experience and cleaning techniques, very important, but damn hard work! Steve works at Gadds of Ramsgate.

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

Really, it’s the one in hand at the end of the day. Brewing at BrewWharf is very compact, very hot and very hard work – so pretty much anything afterwards really hits the spot! I do tend to err toward the hoppier end of the spectrum.

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

Brewing for authenticity isn’t something that sits in a recipe, for me. It’s more a personal philosophy – am I going to do those amazing hops justice by hiding them under a really pungent phenolic yeast? Or the like. I tend to keep things true and simple, driven by lots of research and insight, and pestering Justin, Jeff, Eddie and Kelly, Mike and Fergus with dumb newby questions.

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

I would like to extend the collaborative beer idea to more than one brewer, working three or four ways – really getting more cooks in the kitchen to spoil the broth! We have a collaborative with Jeff coming up, really looking forward to that. We’re game for anything, and I hope Kelly from Thornbridge, Dom from Marble and a few others come in a have a play. They’ll probably teach me loads!

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

Phil: Blind Pig, from Russian River & Denogonizer from Drakes
Steve would say: Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout & Bells Oberon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Revolutionary Tosh

One of the streams of consciousness that spouted forth from one of the people I was listening to in a pub recently was loosely around the theme of the "craft beer revolution" which is apparently sweeping the world with a tsunami of beery goodness. In fact, as the gentleman in question pontificated and warmed to his theme, the phrase "craft beer revolution" was dropped into conversation with all the regularity of a Valley Girl saying "like" or "so".

Is there any more vacuous and pointless phrase in the beer world today than "craft beer revolution"? For crying out loud we can't even agree on a definition for "craft beer", having heard of late that apparently the likes of Samuel Adams and Fuller's don't count because they are big companies, a symptom no doubt of the bitter fan unable to handle that his once exclusive domain has been invaded by scurrilous interlopers whose only interest is to enjoy a nicely made pint rather than question if said beer is "in keeping with the style".

Now, I don't want to get into the whole definition of what constitutes "craft beer", but I do want to pick up on the word "revolution". Just for reference sake, here is a dictionary definition of "revolution":
  • an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.
  • a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, esp. one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence.
  • a sudden, complete or marked change in something.
Obviously people drinking "craft beer" is not bringing about the first definition there, in fact if some of the beer geeks I have overheard of late were let loose anywhere near government I would be running for the hills, as they have all the fervour of the Spanish Inquisition or the McCarthyite Trials. I guess definition two is out of the running as well, purely from observation in the local supermarket, the vast majority of people are still buying Bud Lite, and I am yet to see a craft beer fundamentalist smash a mini-keg of beer over someone's head in an effort to get them to convert. Three is a no starter because it has taken Samuel Adams 25 years to become one of the biggest craft beer companies in the US, and they have just 0.9% of the total American beer market according to their current advertising.

Evidently then, all this talk of "revolution" is complete and utter unfounded bullshit, but it sounds great in marketing a product, after all why be normal and every day when you can be "revolutionary"?! Of course the marketing bullshit brigade would have you believe that almost every product you buy these days is revolutionary, whether it is your vacuum cleaner, the shoes on your feet or the amazing new healthy sweetener which is just natural sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.

The question though has to be asked, what is going on with craft beer? It is beyond question that, especially in the American market, there are more and more craft breweries, making a wider range of beers, as well as crossing beer styles to make hybrids and new styles (and no, Black IPA is not revolutionary either, interesting yes, revolutionary no - putting the ingredients together in a slightly different way is not a revolution). Aging your beer in wooden casks is not exactly revolutionary either, what do you think they used before metal? Using weird and wonderful herbs and spices is nothing new either, think of beer before hops, so that's not revolutionary.

The British context is easier to get a handle on in my opinion because we never had the insanity that was Prohibition, and so still have a few decent sized independent breweries that have been around for more than a century. Of course there are plenty of new microbreweries opening up across the UK and their share of the market is increasing, but is it revolutionary? On the mainland of Europe there is a similar story, large family owned breweries are being supplemented by a growing number of smaller start ups making beers which have never been seen in those countries before, but still the larger breweries use the traditional methods and ingredients and can be regarded as "craft" brewers.

So no, there is not a craft beer revolution going on, though there may be plenty of revolting craft beer and craft beer drinkers. What is happening is a renaissance of the brewing industry, and if in the course of that renaissance the big industrial brewers want to jump on the bandwagon and make craft beers and widen the number of people enjoying well made beer then that can only be a good thing in my book.

Here endeth the, slightly longer than intended, lesson.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Give It A Rest!

Sat in a pub a couple of weeks ago, I overheard (bad habit I know, listening to other people's conversations) someone describe beer as "the new wine". Sat on the deck of a local brewpub yesterday, enjoying several very nice pints of mild (an American brewer making mild!!) and there is a chap also on the deck who sneers and pouts his way through a sampler flight as though he were some kind of authority on beer and nothing will ever satisfy his demanding palette.

These two incidents got me thinking about how easy it is at times to talk total shite and appear to know what you are talking about, but also that sometimes the beer gets lost in all the geekery, that the pure pleasure of drinking beer gets subsumed in the naming of the chemicals that create flavours, whether desired or not. One of the challenges I like to set myself when I am working the Starr Hill tasting room is to not geek out about the beer and talk about diacetyl, IBUs and the like. Unless I am asked about such things, I make the assumption that the person I am serving is less interested in the geek details of the beer, and more interested in what they taste.

This then raises the question, do we take the geekery too far? Does our geekiness put people off trying "craft" beer because we do such a poor imitation of regular human beings, lacking the need to pontificate about our supposed superior knowledge? In being "beer evangelists", do we become like the distasteful wings of any movement, where there is no allowance for experiences beyond our scope of what constitutes a valid beer experience (like enjoying a Michelob lager)? A slight aside perhaps, but the number of times I have seen the same look in the eye of the hophead chasing his next fix as the spiritual types that jump from religious experience to religious experience is quite telling.

Have we forgotten that at the end of the day, it is just beer. It is not the solution to world peace, although you could argue that getting everyone together in a pub to discuss how to move forward would be more effective than all the inter-governmental wafflings that pass for politics. It is not going to reverse global warming, it is not going to bring an end to the trafficking of drugs, animal parts or human beings, it is not going to ensure that every human being on the planet has access to education and health care, and it most certainly won't bring an end to sectarian strife in any part of world. After all, it is just beer.

I don't hold with the romantic notion that beer is the working man's drink, just as I don't hold with the notion that the politics of left and right are relevant anymore. Beer is the everyman drink, and as beer geeks, bloggers and writers surely it is our task, if you can call it a task, to relate to every man about the drink we love and want others to love?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

More Brewing Tunes

I am brewing this morning, and perhaps this afternoon as well. Mrs Velkyal is out at a work thing today so I have the flat to myself, which means I get complete control of the stereo (we differ somewhat on the definition of good music), so here are the highlights of today's brewing tunes.



Ah, The Beautiful South, enough said!



ELO, beacause you can't beat a bit of Jeff Lynne



Primal Scream - just what is it exactly you want to do?

Simple, make great beer!!!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Brewer of the Week

For Brewer of the Week we head back to the UK, to Bakewell in Derbyshire, perhaps more famous for the pudding named after the town (it is not a tart, I am repeatedly told by friends from Derbyshire), but certainly gaining a stellar reputation in the brewing world as well, as home to the Thornbridge Brewery and beers such as Halcyon and Jaipur.


Name: Kelly Ryan
Brewery: Thornbridge Brewery

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I had finished a Microbiology degree and was doing a Food Science degree under the late Professor Jean-Pierre DuFour. JP (as he was known) was a Belgian brewing professor who headed up the Food Science department and his passion and love of beer was both enthralling and captivating. I did a couple of postgraduate papers on Fermentation Science and Flavour Chemistry with him and realized I was hooked. I then got accepted into a 2 year Trainee Brewer scheme with DB Breweries in New Zealand and the rest is history!

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Passion. You need to be curious and innovative and instinctive and absolutely love what you do. Couple that with the fact that brewers make beer, not money and it becomes absolutely essential!

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

No, I never did any homebrewing at all. I went from a scientist who enjoyed beer and learning about the science of brewing straight into a massive production facility. In some ways, not being a homebrewer was an advantage here as working for a big brewery as a trainee means you don’t have a lot of chances to get creative and develop recipes. That’s why I love being a craft brewer!

If you did homebrew, do you still?

The closest I get to homebrewing is playing around with experimental beers on our UK 10 bbl Hall brewery… Homebrewing on a mass scale.

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

Tough question! Currently it’s a beer that I’m trying to perfect called The Light (a 2.9% dry-hopped light ale). This type of beer is a real challenge. It’s about exactly balancing flavours and mouthfeel and aromas with little margin for error. Small beers are the toughest to brew… you can’t hide behind massive malt or hop flavours as easily. I love the challenge!

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

Probably Fyne Ales Highlander. It was one of the first ever craft brews I did and is a wonderful balance of delicate hop and delicious malt.


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

I really like our New World Brown Ale, Ashford, as a session beer though am rather fond of Kipling, our 5.2% South Pacific Pale Ale. Must be my body craving a taste of New Zealand and those incredible Nelson Sauvin hops!

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

One of our brewery's catchphrases is “a contemporary take on traditional thinking”. I respect tradition and authenticity and am stoked to be part of one of the world’s oldest professions but the brewing industry has always been about innovation and pushing the envelope, whether it be through harnessing the latest technology or just pure experimentation. We constantly do a lot of research into old brewing practices and ingredients. It’s up to us as brewers to make these a bit more contemporary through their use. Most people today wouldn’t be that keen on beers such as “Cock Ale” where they would throw a rooster into the boil… we tend to be a little more reserved that that when it comes to authenticity. I much prefer playing around with herbs, fruits and spices to get fantastic breadth of aroma and flavor. But balance is also key!

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

So far we have collaborated with Brooklyn Brewery, Epic Brewery in NZ and Dark Star Brewery. We’re working on doing something with Odell’s Brewing from the US later in the year which is really exciting as I rate Doug’s St. Lupulin as one of the nicer beers I’ve tried and his Red Ale, 5 Barrel Pale and IPA are fantastic too! It’s also going to be really fun to work with someone who has the same hopback as us. Hopefully we’ll learn a lot from him about optimizing its use for hop aroma and flavor. I also think it would be great fun to do a collaboration with Dogfish Head. I love the drinkability of their beers even though they use some crazy ingredients. Very inspiring.

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

Would have to be Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. The most fascinating aroma of any beer I’ve tried, through the use of a massive South American hardwood vat. I love this beer!!!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Getting It Emphatically Right

A couple of months ago I had a gripe about the standard of a large number of breweries' websites, though admittedly I then balanced that with a piece about a couple of website which I think are very good. Well, Unibroue's new website is just about the best brewery website I have seen, anywhere.

It looks great, is easy to navigate and is packed full of interesting information for the beer lover, including where you can find there beers, I think just in North America though because I know I can get them at the L'Eclerc (it is I.....) in La Souterraine. Anyway, here are a couple of screenshots to prove my point, and I for one am happy that the great beers at Unibroue finally have a website worthy of them!




Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Who Do We Think We Are?

I made a promise to myself before Mrs Velkyal and I made the move from Prague to the USA that I would not allow myself to become a blinkered drinker; that I would try beers made by the big boys of the brewing world over here, whether that be SABMiller, AB-InBev or Molson-Coors. I don't believe in objectivity when it comes to rating a beer, and I am slowly allowing myself to worry less about adjuncts, some of which are essential to a given beer style.

Admittedly I will rarely blog about beer from the big boys, not because I think they are necessarily awful beers, nor yet because I want to show off my serious beer drinker credentials by mouthing off about them, but because there are plenty of others out there taking that role and I simply can't be arsed to repeat ad nauseum the prejudices of other people, I don't want to fall into group think. I will say this though, having had a few bottles of Budweiser since I have been here and I can think of at least a couple of Czech lagers which given the choice, I would drink Budweiser instead of.

One thing though that I have noticed of late is comments about how the big boys are trying to muscle in on the craft beer scene by producing beer which to the uninitiated seem as though they would be craft beer, think Blue Moon from Coors or the Michelob range from AB-InBev. Perhaps I am being overly generous to the industrial brewers, but is imitation no longer the sincerest form of flattery? They have recognised a market trend and because they are businesses they want a piece of the action, it is a natural part of market economics. Is does however challenge preconceived notions about what is and what is not "craft beer", and if a brew from one of the big boys happens to meet those criteria, is it disingenuous of us in the beer geek world to not call it "craft beer"? It might not be "good" be in our world, but it is "craft" beer, which is another preconceived prejudice that needs a swift kick in the crotch, not all "craft" beer is good, in fact I can think  of plenty with is boring, plain or just down right crap.

Now, speaking as a Brit, I wonder if our devotion to, and championing of, smaller breweries is because we have an in-built cheer for the underdog attitude? A bit like cheering for Fulham in the Europa League final, or supporting Ross County in the Scottish Cup Final (on a side note, having been to Victoria Park many times when I lived in Fortrose, I am supporting County in the final for affectionate reasons rather than plucky underdog cheering). What happens though when the small brewer becomes a medium size brewer? How often have you heard people claim that Deuchers IPA isn't as good as it used to be? Strangely such comments come out when a brewer gets a larger share of the market - a bit like,and I have used this phrase before, bitter Pearl Jam fans claiming Nirvana sold out for commercial success.

Those somewhat random thoughts then lead me to the question in the title of this post, who do we as beer bloggers, geeks and lovers think we are? What is our role in the beer community? What do the brewers actually think of those of us who take time to write about their beers? Answers on a postcard to....well ok, leave a comment.

Monday, May 3, 2010

To Wit or to Wheat?

One of my favourite beers that I like to brew has the "brand" name LimeLight. LimeLight, for those not in the know is my take on a Belgian witbier, but instead of curacao orange peel, I use lime peel, I use just one type of hop, the noblest of noble in my opinion, Saaz, and usually I ferment said brew with Wyeast's Belgian Wit.

My first batch of LimeLight this year was given the working title LimeLight 2.0, a reference to the fact that I was expecting it to be different from the original LimeLight that I brewed back in Prague, largely because I assuming the malt extract I was using was different. However, using Munton's wheat extract didn't change things dramatically and 2.0 was a slight, although definite, upgrade on version 1.

I planned to make a batch of 2.0 for the wedding of a friend in Greenville, South Carolina, that Mrs Velkyal and I went to last weekend. As it was, when I went to the homebrew shops here in Charlottesville, neither of them had the required yeast, and time was short to order it from Northern Brewer. Invention being the mother of necessity, I decided to use Wyeast's Belgian Wheat for the fermentation process, and hope the differences weren't huge. Thus LimeLight 2.1 was born.

Stuart Howe, over at Real Brewing at the Sharp End, posted last week about yeast, which was almost serendipitous as I had decided to post about the difference the yeast strain makes in two batches on the same beer, what I wasn't expecting was just how different the two beers are. Here is LimeLight 2.0:


and here is 2.1:


Quite a difference there in colour, the original is golden with an orangey depth to it, whereas 2.1 is coppery orange. I have read that yeast can affect beer colour, but I wasn't expecting that difference. Reviewing my brewing notes, yes I am that sad, and there were no significant differences between the two brews other than the yeast. So I need to ask those brewers more experienced and skilled than I, is it possible for yeast to make such a difference in the beer colour?

In terms of flavour, 2.1 has a more pronounced booziness, which in turn brings out the spiciness of the coriander, and has a fuller body, which would make it an excellent autumnal beer, as the nights draw in and the leaves turn the colour of the beer. 2.0 however, is dry and crisp, bursting with a lemony citrusness that makes it ideal for hot summer days, cold from the fridge.

It would seem then, that the yeast strain, even two which seem very similar according to the description in the catalogue, can make a huge difference in the beer. Naturally, this opens all kind of avenues for playing around with my homebrew, avenues that of course need to be taken, just to see where they go.