Monday, May 30, 2011

Transatlantic Threesome

I awoke early on Saturday, as is my routine, but once the dog was walked, I immediately hopped in the car to buy water for brewing. I use purified drinking water for my beer and so I was at our local Food Lion right on opening time to buy 9 one gallon bottles for the brewing session that I had planned.


The seed for the brewing session was planted last May when I did a comparative tasting of two versions of my LimeLight witbier, one fermented with my usual 3944 Belgian Wit yeast, and the other with 3942 Belgian Wheat. Using the 3942 was a case of having to use what was readily available in order to meet a deadline, and the local homebrew shops not having any 3944. When I tasted the two versions, I was struck by the difference in colour, but from the comments that followed the post, it became clear that the age of the extract was the most likely cause of the differences. I thus hatched a plan.


My plan was really very simple, brew three batches of the beer in a single day and ferment with three different yeast strains. Thankfully LimeLight is an incredibly simple recipe, because it is the only beer I brew that gets all its fermentables from dry malt extract. The recipe for each 2.5 gallon batch was as follows:
  • 3lbs Muntons Wheat DME
  • 0.5oz 3.9% Saaz hops @ 60 minutes
  • 0.25oz 3.9% Saaz hops @ 15 minutes
  • 0.5oz fresh lime peel @ 15 minutes
  • 0.5oz cracked coriander seed @ 15 minutes
  • 0.15oz dried sweet orange peel @ 15 minutes
  • 0.25oz 3.9% Saaz hops @ 1 minute
The orange was a late addition to the recipe as I had forgotten that it was in the fridge and I won't be brewing with peel again until the autumn when I make my Christmas beer.

To ensure, as much as possible, consistency across the three batches, I made sure that I followed the extract same procedure for each. The DME was added to 1.5 gallons of water, while 1 gallon was chilled in advance and put into the fermenter when required. I had played with the idea of brewing a single batch and then splitting it into the three fermenters, but my brew pot would not have been big enough. Thankfully all three brews were remarkably similar, all with an OG of 1.050 and looking like the sample below.


On the yeast front, I used:
  • 3944 Belgian Wit
  • 1010 American Wheat
  • 3068 Weihenstephan Weizen
I decided to put the fermenters in my storage room rather than in the utility room as it maintains a fairly constant 66ºF as opposed to the mid 70s. 24 hours after the yeast had been pitched, this was the sight that greeted me.


The beers are the Belgian at the back, American in the middle and German at the front. As ever I named the beers and created labels. LimeLight itself remains LimeLight, but the version with weizen yeast is called Rampenlicht, the German word for "limelight", while the American is Broadway American Witbier. The beers will stay in primary for 14 days before being bottled and left for a few weeks, being ready around the middle of July.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Beer Commercials

Friday mornings are pretty easy. Get up, walk dog, shower, shave, read beer blogs, go to work. While I was sat in the comfort of an armchair, I read the latest post from Tale of the Ale. The post is mostly about the Beer Bloggers Conference that took place in London last weekend, but the thing that caught my attention most was the new advertising campaign from the Czech branch of multinational beer conglomerate SABMiller, better known as Pilsner Urquell.



I am sure that if you know anything about the history of Pilsner Urquell you will see the glaring omissions and logical flaws in the advert. Actually if you know anything about the history of beer, you'll know that the "world's first golden beer" claim is also a pile of shite (the first pale ale was marketed in the early 18th century). Any way, as it is a Friday and I am in a fairly chipper mood, I am not going to rant about these things, after all who really expects truth and historical veracity in an advertising campaign? Also the fact that I rather like the advert, it is certainly well done and if it encourages more people to drink Pilsner Urquell, go to the Czech Republic and try the unpasteurised version and then demand its availability in Blighty, that can only be a good thing. No, I think today I will just post some of my favourite beer commercials, and we'll start with the other internationally renowned Czech beer, with a quick language alert for the faint of heart....



While we are on mass produced Czech beers....



Jumping across to Blighty....



and finally, down to Australia....

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Decanting Dissolution Dubbel


As I mentioned on Monday, I spent Saturday up in Fredericksburg bottling the first beer produced by the Broederschap Brouwerij project. A quick recap about the beer, basically we brewed a straight down the line Belgian Dubbel, which we called Dissolution Dubbel. If you are interested in the recipe, you can see it here. On the day we brewed 10 gallons, which were then kegged and carbonated over a couple of weeks, and so Saturday was all about drinking the beer, bottling up a case each for Eric and myself to take home, and preparing some bottles for upcoming competitions, including the Dominion Cup on August 13th.


James took the picture above when he transferred the beer from primary to kegs, and over than being clearer and having a good inch of foamy white head, that's a good representation of the beer. As for the beer itself, well, the nose is a melange of ripe bananas, general fruitiness and a firm herbal and grassy hoppiness, with a hint of lemon which I am putting down to the Saaz. Tastewise it was bready and sweet fruit, like raisins, with a long, long, dry finish. Considering it boasts 7.5% abv, the alcohol was nicely integrated and just a touch warming. Overall then we were very happy with the way this beer turned out, and I am looking forward to taking some down to the next meeting of my local homebrew club, not to mention drinking plenty at home.

The label at the top of this post was drawn by a friend of James' and is rather apt in many ways, but if you look carefully at the three monks leaving the monastery, they are all carrying beer. I guess the next thing to do is start planning the next beer for the ongoing Broederschap Brouwerij!

Monday, May 23, 2011

BrewDog vs The World

I spent Saturday up in Fredericksburg bottling the first Broederschap Brouwerij beer, Dissolution Dubbel, which I will write about later in the week, the beer that is, not the bottling. Just as a recap, the Broederschap Brouwerij  is a collaborative homebrew project between myself, Eric at Relentless Thirst and James from A Homebrew Log.

One the things I have been planning lately is to do a blind tasting on the theme of BrewDog versus the rest of the world. So I took the opportunity to get a collection of American style IPAs from various breweries, in three countries, and sit down with Eric, James and their respective significant others to do the tasting. Mrs Velkyal played the part of barmaid as she is an unrepentant non-fan of IPA.

The five beers sampled were:
We all took tasting notes, and then ranked the beers from 1 (best) to 5 (worst) and awarded points accordingly, 5 points for each 1st place ranking and 1 point for each 5th. With Mrs Velkyal acting the barmaid and bringing us the samples so we didn't know which beer was which, these are my tasting notes, as ever in a form of Cyclops.

Beer A
  • Sight - light amber, firm white head
  • Smell - pine, toffee, light citrus
  • Taste - a soft caramel, citrusy bite
  • Bitter - 3/5
  • Sweet -3/5
I found this beer nicely balanced with a soft mouthfeel. Very much the archetypal American IPA in my opinion.

Beer B
  • Sight - Hazy soft amber, off white head
  • Smell - Tangerines, toast
  • Taste - More tangerines, biscuits and an underlying medicinal note
  • Bitter -2/5
  • Sweet -2.5/5
If I hadn't known that I bought all American style IPAs, I would have thought this was more on the British end of the spectrum. It has a long dry finish which highlights the hops beautifully.

Beer C
  • Sight - Light golden, white head
  • Smell - cheese, sweaty jockstrap, acetone
  • Taste - Sharply citrus, not much else
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
  • Sweet - 2/5
Thin bodied but again with a long long bitter finish. In many ways everything I thing is bad about most American IPAs, all hops and not much else.

Beer D
  • Sight - Light copper, ivory head
  • Smell - floral, slightly herbal and very subtle grapefruit
  • Taste - lightly caramel, like drinking pith, harshly bitter
  • Bitter - 4/5
  • Sweet -2/5
The pithy harshness takes away from the sweetness of the beer, clearly unbalanced.

Beer E
  • Sight - Golden straw, white head
  • Smell - like spicy Seville orange marmelade
  • Taste - touch of sweet malt, hop bitter dominates
  • Bitter - 3.5/5
  • Sweet - 1/5
Far too bitter, astringent and wildly out of whack. The only sample I failed to finish, simply unpalatable.

I ranked the beers as follows:
  • B, A, D, C, E
When we tallied the ranking points for each of the beers, the order was:
  1. D - Flying Dog Snake Dog, with 19 points
  2. A - Sierra Nevada Torpedo, with 17 points
  3. B - Nogne Ø India Pale Ale, with 17 points
  4. E - BrewDog Punk IPA, with 13 points
  5. C - Avery IPA, with 9 points
Given that the Sierra Nevada received more top rankings that the Nogne Ø, it placed second as opposed to an equal second. The Avery IPA received more 5th rankings than the other beers put together. Both the Avery and BrewDog failed to record a single top ranking, though both did come second once.

Certainly an interesting exercise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What's in a Name?

Whilst looking through the pictures that are already on Fuggled, I rediscovered this little delight:


I took the picture at Hotel Pegas, a hotel and brewpub in the centre of Brno, the second city of the Czech Republic, during a trip down to Moravia in 2009. The sign was in fact one of a pair, unfortunately I didn't take a picture of the other, or if I did, I can't find it. The second picture though was a German version of the Czech sign, which translates roughly in English as "Original Porter from České Budějovice" - or Budweis as it is also known.

You can see from picture that the brewery making this porter was Měšťanský Pivovar, the brewery that today is known generally as Samson, though was originally called "Die Budweiser Bräuberechtigten - Bürgerliches Bräuhaus-Gegründet 1795 - Budweis". I am guessing from the fact that the sign was in both German and Czech that it dates from the period known as the Czech National Revival, which led to Josef Jungmann publishing the first Czech dictionary and eventually the building of the Czech National Theatre in June 1881 - the original building burnt down in August 1881 and was re-built and opened in 1883.

I don't know about you, but I find that sign fascinating on so many levels. Firstly the fact that it was made in both Czech and German pointing to the multi-cultural nature of Bohemia. Secondly, the brewery that produced the beer was using Budweiser as an appellation, and this before Budvar was even created in 1895 (so if anyone say Budvar is the original Budweiser they are wrong). Thirdly, and perhaps most intriguing was that the brewery was making a porter, a style more commonly associated with London and the Baltic region.

In the modern Czech brewing law, a porter is a dark beer brewed to greater than 18º Plato, about 1.076. However, it is dangerous to read the modern Czech interpretation of porter back into the 19th century, so what was this beer? I would like to posit a theory, and I am perfectly happy for it to be complete bullshit, but I think without much more evidence available (until I finally get round to reading a book I have on brewing in České Budějovice pre 1895) I think it holds water.

As discussed elsewhere, tmavé up until the late 19th century was warm fermented. Even today if you go to the legendary beer hall U Fleků, their tmavé is distinctly stout like. From what I understand of that beer, the recipe is largely the same today as it was in the 1890s, but it is cold fermented and lagered. What is today called tmavé in the Czech lands bears an uncanny resemblance to porter, whether Baltic or otherwise. Was it then a version of porter that was poured down the drains of Plzeň that eventually led to Pilsner?

Obviously without the brewing records it is impossible to know for sure was Budweiser Porter was, but I am thinking that a little homebrew project to brew a Czech Porter would be interesting, and I have to do something with the 5 extra ounces of Saaz that I have knocking about in the fridge. When it comes to the yeast strain, I think a German ale strain is in order, something from Dusseldorf for example. I imagine that the beer would have enjoyed a long cool conditioning phase, somewhat akin to Scottish beers, and so once fermented in will sit in the cellar for a while.

Another project for an every growing list.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Does A Czech Have To Do?

I have found in my almost two years of living here in the United States that amongst the beer loving community there is a reverential awe that comes out whenever it comes up in conversation that I lived in Prague for the best part of a decade. I was going to write "beer fraternity" rather than "beer loving community" but equating the fine people I have met through beer with the boorish, obnoxious pillocks that are the stereotype of "frat boys" would be doing many a top bod a disservice.

Czech beer has, quite rightly in my opinion, an aura of excellence associated with it, and several people I have come in contact with talk about their few days drinking in Prague as one of the highlights of their beer drinking lives. However, the ignorance in the beer community over here about Czech beer never fails to astound me, and as ever it is Those Sites (how Shakespearian, like calling MacBeth "the Scottish play") that unwittingly, or otherwise, promulgate such ignorance through their rigid misunderstanding of beer styles in central Europe.

I have argued at length, both on here and on one of Those Sites, that tmavé should be a separate style for ratings, rather than being lumped together with either Dunkel or Schwarzbier. The knee jerk response is that there are too many styles already and it would just sow confusion amongst the ranks. Suggest however that Black IPA should be style and hey presto, a new style is born with an almost religious anti-critical fervour.



Czechs, however have another style of beer which is misunderstood and neglected on such sites. Polotmavé, which translates literally as "half-dark" is usually lumped together with Vienna lager, usually on the basis of them both being the same(ish) colour. Using such logic, I guess then that Schwarzbier is in fact a porter. The problem with calling polotmavé a Vienna lager is that Vienna lager as originally created by Anton Dreher used a single malt, can you guess what it was called? Most modern Vienna lagers, from what I have learnt, use a base of pilsner malt with a hefty dose of Vienna malt. Personal aside here, if you are making a Vienna with none of the eponymous malt then it isn't really a Vienna lager, regardless of the colour.



Polotmavé on the other hand, as the name kind of suggests, uses the same malts as tmavé but less of the specialty malts that make tmavé darker. As with many things in Czech brewing, their is a huge spectrum covered by the term polotmavé - from the 13º version made by Primátor to the insanely gorgeous 16º beer from Hotel Pegas that I drank in Brno. There is at least one brewery in the Czech Republic that makes both a polotmavé and a Vienna lager, called a Vídeňské červené or "Viennese Red", which to me at least suggests that Czech brewers understand the styles differently.



I guess what I am really trying to say here is that Czech beer, just as much as British, German, Belgian or American, must be understood on its own terms and not forced into artificial categories just because it makes life easier for some. It is this false categorisation that makes ratings from certain sites for some beer styles entirely irrelevant, because the model against which the beer is judged is not the same as the model from which the beer is made.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Gap in the Market?

A couple of Saturdays ago I was working in the Tasting Room at Starr Hill Brewery. To cut a long story short, one of the visitors to that brewery that day was someone I went to school with in the Outer Hebrides - he was a couple of years ahead of me but it turns out we share a few Facebook friends, and he is in the USA for a few months. Needless to say I was flabbergasted, you really don't expect to meet people from South Uist when you are doing your one day a month stint behind the Tasting Room bar.



Over the weekend just gone we met up a couple of times for beer, on Friday night we went to Beer Run and then yesterday afternoon we were out at the Timberwood Grill. Naturally we talked about the beer that he liked, and the pubs he ran when he lived in London, and those conversations got me to thinking that there is a very obvious gap in the craft beer industry, non-premium lagers. Essentially, very few of the up and coming craft brewers, and even fewer of the older microbreweries make low alcohol, session lagers (interesting thing to note, the term "craft beer" meant nothing to my friend, but microbrewery was instantly recognisable).

Of course in countries like the Czech Republic, lager isn't really all that strong to begin with. Pilsner Urquell for example fits very handily in Lew Bryson's definition of a session beer, at 4.4% abv. Many of the standard everyday lagers of Bohemia and Moravia are 4%. The fact that a pale lager with less than 4.5% abv can be tastier and more satisfying than something like an "Imperial Pilsner" (a total sham concept) is only noteworthy to those who have no real appreciation of the golden drop.

So where are the craft session lagers? Samuel Adams does a reasonably drinkable light lager which weighs in at a mere 4.07% and for widely available craft lagers, that's about it really. I am not sure about the lager scene in the UK, though I believe there are a few breweries making session strength lagers.

For all the growth in the craft beer industry, and the stagnating of sales for the macros, the fact remains that the most commonly drunk beer on the planet is pale, session strength lager. Bud Light, regardless of your opinion on the taste, is the best selling beer in the US, with 16% of the market, for a comparison, Samuel Adams has just 0.9% of the market when you add together all their brands.

There is a huge thirst out there for pale lagers but where are the craft pale lagers, the craft pilsners which are less than 4.4% abv? It's all good and well to be self-congratulatory and be "sticking it to the man" by drinking your 10% imperial stout aged on your grannies corset strings or some such, but if the big boys are truly going to be afraid of craft brewers then perhaps taking flavourful pale lagers to the guys sitting in the pubs and bars is the way to go?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Help Heal Broken Bones

Earlier this week, Jason Oliver of Devils Backbone posted that his assistant, Aaron Reilly (in the black shirt below), had broken his foot and would be off work for a while.



It turns out that the break will require surgery to fix it, and so Aaron will be off work for several months, and have medical bills to pay.

The guys at Devils Backbone have decided to help offset the costs of Aaron's surgery by donating a portion of the earnings for Aaron's brew which is currently gracing the taps at the brewpub, Reilly's Rye. For each pint sold, they will donate 25 cents and $1 for each growler.

Reilly's Rye is a really nice beer, and Aaron is a fine gent with a passion for beer. So if you are heading to Devils Backbone anytime soon, please drink many pints of Reilly's Rye, fill your growlers with it and help offset some of the bills that will be coming Aaron's way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Meaning of Lite

I am on record, either here or through my Twitter feed, as believing that the mark of a truly talented brewer lay not in his, or her, ability to brew an imperial India stout and then age said behemoth in a bourbon barrel whilst dry hopping it. For me the truly great brewers are those that can put a glass of something below 5% abv in my hand and my hand come back for more, time after time. As such, I am a fan of bitters in their various forms, mild as understood in the modern world, proper Bohemian pilsners and a multitude of other beer styles than don't knock me on my arse after half a pint. There is a reason why I differentiate between a drinker and a drunkard.

Something that has been trundling through my mind of late has been finally make the move to brewing lagers as well as ales in my little homebrew operation - a quick aside, sometimes when I read Brew Your Own magazine and see these huge great fancy setups, I feel positively embarrassed by my pot on a stove. I posted a little while ago about the technical difficulties of lagering in my small flat, but I feel as though I have a viable idea to solve that - basically my fridge has space to stand up a couple of 1 gallon jugs, so that will be the location for primary fermentation. For lagering, I plan to buy a chest cooler to fill with ice and do the lagering in the cellar, changing the ice as required.

With the technical aspects solved in theory, my mind has turned to what kind of lager to make first. Doing a proper Bohemian Pilsner would obviously be something I would love to try, but I want to learn as much about the mechanics of decoction before I step up to that particular plate. There is however a style of Czech lager that is exceedingly rare, that kind of takes my fancy as a fun little proof of concept project, I am talking about lehké pivo.

Lehké pivo translates literally as "light beer" and is, according to the Czech brewing laws, a beer which is brewed below 8º Plato, or 1.032. From what I can discover in my reading, the actual colour of said beer is not defined. "Light" in this context then is all about the low alcohol content of the beer. As far as I know, only a couple of breweries in the Czech Republic make this kind of beer, including the wonderfully titled Sklárna a minipivovar Novosad & Syn Harrachov - which translates as the Novovsad and Sons Glassworks and Microbrewery, Harrachov. The name gives us a reminder of the alleged origins of lehké pivo as a form of hydration for glassworkers, as well as for workers in heavy industry such as steel mills. Paraphrasing from memory, Evan Rail described the lehké pivo made in Harrachov as better than many a 10º lager made by the bigger breweries.

My planned recipe then is as follows:
  • 83% Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner Malt
  • 17% Weyermann CaraBohemian Malt
  • 18 IBUs of Saaz @ 90 minutes
  • 4 IBUs of Saaz @ 20 minutes
  • 1 IBU of Saaz @ 1 minute
  • Wyeast 2000 Budvar Lager
My target OG is 8º Plato, finishing off at 2.3º Plato and having 3.1%abv. In terms of fermentation and lagering, I am going to do primary for 14 days as usual (I recently learnt that Budvar is fermented for 12 days), and then lager for 30 days. Given that 30 days is pretty standard for a 12º lager, that should be plenty. I chose the Budvar yeast because it apparently brings the malt to the fore, and I don't want this beer to feel thin despite the low gravity nature of the brew.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lazarus Lager

Unless you've been living under a rock, as opposed to on this rock, you will know that I am rather partial to lager. My "go to" beer of late has been Devils Backbone's lovely Vienna Lager, I have also been availing myself of various American made pilsner style lagers, some decent, some not. Despite the fulminations of some in the beer world, Britain has a decent history of brewing lager style beers. The very first cold fermented beers in Britain are reputed to have been brewed in Scotland, as early as 1835. Unfortunately, being in the days before refrigeration, the yeast didn't survive more than a few brews, and although the 19th century saw several more attempts at brewing lager it wasn't until the early 20th century that British brewers started to make a more concerted effort to make lager.


In the 1930s, the London brewery Barclay Perkins, located in the Anchor Brewery in Southwark, employed one Arthur Henius, a Dane, to head up their lager brewing operations. During that time, Barclay Perkins produced three lager styles, two pales and a dark. Where am I going with all this historical information? Well, quite simply, last Thursday saw the culmination of a project between myself, Jason Oliver at Devils Backbone and Ron Pattinson of Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.


When we heard that Ron was coming over to the States, and would be just a couple of hours away in Washington DC, we decided that it would be good to try and arrange a brewday with Ron, and to brew a historical beer. Previously Jason had used a recipe from one of Ron's books as inspiration for his 1904 Ramsey's Stout, and with an interest in brewing forgotten beers it was natural to try and arrange something. The seemingly now tradition thread of emails ensued, unfortuantely Nathan Zeender from DC couldn't make it down for the brewday, though was involved in the email chain.

We went round several ideas of beers to recreate, and eventually came to the notion of brewing a British lager. From there it was a short step to deciding on a British dark lager, and it just so happened that in Ron's possession was a recipe from 1934 for Barclay Perkins' Dark Lager. It had to be done.

The recipe was fairly simple, the malts being lager, pale and caramel, added to the mash late on was roasted barley, in order to get colour without the harsh roasted flavour you associate with that grain. I was surprised when I saw the recipe that it was hopped only with Saaz, surprised but delighted!

Naturally we wanted to be as authentic as possible, and so various salts and minerals were added to Devils Backbone's insanely soft water to mimic as close as possible the hard water of London (when we brewed the pilsner last year I learnt that their water is softer than Plzeň!). From reviewing the brewing log's technical details Jason decided that it would be more authentic to do a temperature control mash rather than a decoction. At the end of the day we had 10 hectolitres of 14.25º Plato, dark brown wort, which had about 25 IBUs of Saaz goodness and should be ready for drinking some time in July I imagine.


It seems to have become traditional that these brewdays inevitably involve sampling various beers. Ron bought with him a bottle of the new East India Porter from Pretty Things, a recreation of a 19th century porter made with extra hops to survive the sea journey to India (sound familiar? cough, splutter, black IPA my arse cough). Keeping with the theme of historical beers, Ron also brought along a bottle of the first in the Fuller's Past Masters series, which you can see in the picture, and was a lovely beer. So lovely in fact, I wish I could find it in the States.


We had a really good day, it was a pleasure to meet Ron in person, and as ever to go brewing at Devils Backbone.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Brewer of the Week

In the North Atlantic there sits an archipelago of more than 6000 islands, covering some 120,000 square miles - an area roughly the size of New Mexico, half the size of France and 10 times the size of Maryland. Today we head to the ninth largest of those islands for our Brewer of the Week, the Isle of Man, which sits between Great Britain and Ireland.


Name: Mike Cowbourne
Brewery: Okells Brewery

How did you get into brewing as a career?

Did Microbiology for a B.Sc at Newcastle University, coudnt decide on a job and saw an M.Sc in Brewing at Birmingham University, the rest is History

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Passion for Beer and good taste buds

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

Not Homebrewed since University and never scaled any recipes up

If you did homebrew, do you still?

No

What is your favourite beer that you brew?

My favourite Okells beer is Alt

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

Worked for Wilsons in Manchester and Watney Mann in the East End of London at the old Watney Mann Paulin Brewery, cant say I enjoyed any of the Watney Beers,

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

Got to be Okells Alt again its not as easy drinking as some of the others it’s a more challenging beer

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

There no point in copying beers and if it’s a style then stick to the style of brewing but I think you can introduce twists on the flavour

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

I’m not sure at all about this collaborative brewing. To me it says I’m not good enough to stand on my own 2 feet I need help

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

None

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Do Pubs Help Themselves?

As someone who likes going to the pub, I am always happy when a pub decides to follow my Twitter feed, and I always take the opportunity of checking out a pub's website, if one is listed on the Twitter profile. Often though I find that the key information I am looking for on a pub website is missing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was followed by a pub back in the UK - where pubs are struggling and shutting at an alarming rate.  Naturally I went to have a look at their website, which is of interest both from a personal and professional point of view - for those newish to Fuggled, I work for a web design company. Part of me wonders at times if the growth of breweries without tied estates is negatively impacting the trade of pubs which are tied - and it is interesting that BrewDog are effectively building their own tied estate with their bars.

Said pub had quite a nicely designed and laid out website, easy to navigate, not laden with jarring graphics and thankfully no Flash animations. Judging from the pictures on the site, it looks like a very nice place to go and drink, have a meal and maybe even stay as they have rooms to let. Their menu was very nicely presented, and from the descriptions of the food, I would be surprised if they needed to call in Gordon Ramsey any time soon.

For the wine lovers among us there is an extensive wine list, one that even has descriptions of the wines, whiskies and spirits they have available. Key information for visiting this pub was also easy to find, opening hours seem very reasonable (minor aside, I have so little time for pubs and brewpubs that are not open at lunchtime), the place seems not to have a late license, but that's OK.

Next time I am over in the UK visiting one of my brothers, I would love to visit this pub. I just have one problem. I don't know what beer they have. Time and time again I come across this problem with pubs, I want to know what beer you serve, because I generally go to the pub to drink beer. Having a nice meal is a sideshow option as far as I am concerned, but beer is a given. Yet it is criminally overlooked. From a technical perspective it really isn't all that difficult to keep a beer list up to date on a website, especially if you are using a CMS like WordPress, and yet many pubs just don't say what beers they have.

I wonder at times if pubs are actually their own worst enemies when it comes to advertising what wine they have as opposed to beer, it's almost as though the landlords of Blighty have a Basil Fawlty style desire to entice a better quality of clientele. It's almost as though sections of the pub trade are ashamed of Britain's national drink.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hermeneutics and Beer

Hermeneutics is probably not a subject that would normally be associated with beer, but it is something I have been thinking about for quite some time now. Hermeneutics is traditionally understood as the study of the interpretation of texts, though I prefer an expanded horizon to include non-textual forms of communication. I would offer to buy a pint for the first person to point out the reference in that last sentence, but I am fairly sure who that would be, and I can't afford a flight to Dublin in order to do so.

I can imagine many of you wondering what exactly does hermeneutics have to do with beer? Well, you could argue that the brewer is the author, and when sampling his beers we, the drinker as reader, are interpreting his intention. We ask ourselves the question, has the brewer succeeded in communicating his vision of a given beer style to his audience? We must also discuss the role of the hermeneutical circle in understanding the glass of beer before us. To understand the whole, we must understand the parts, yet to understand the parts we need an appreciation of the whole.

An example then. Somebody puts a glass of pilsner in front of me, I have an understanding of pilsner as a whole - pale, hoppy, bottom fermented and then lagered. When I look to understand the parts of this particular glass of beer, I learn that it has been made with floor malted Bohemian Pilsner malt, the hops are Saaz, the yeast a Bavarian strain, and the water is very soft and post-fermentation it lagered for 30 days. From my understanding of the parts, I can say that the whole is a Bohemian Pilsner. By adding the adjective "Bohemian" to the word pilsner, I am interpreting the beer in front of me, but that interpretation is not made within a vacuum, and that is the fascinating part of hermenuetics for me, the things that influence my interpretation, for there is no objectivity in interpretation, thus, no one interpretation is more or less valid than any other.

My interpretation of the glass of beer in front me, which I have described as a Bohemian Pilsner (usefully the author has done likewise and I have confirmed that the authorial intent was a success, in my opinion), draws on a wealth of subjective experience to recognise the beer in front of me. I spent 10 years in the Czech Republic drinking some of the finest pilsner style lagers on the planet, as a result of which, anything that doesn't reach to those standards is cast aside as a failure, again a case of interpretation.

The challenge then for the drinker is to gain a proper appreciation for the whole from which to be able to understand the parts and gain a greater understanding of the whole before them. In this sense, beer styles are very useful (I wouldn't go so far as to say they are definitive, or even important) because they give a starting point for interpreting the glass in front of you. Of course, the guidelines themselves are often open to interpretation, and so the drinker effectively interprets the brewers interpretation of a given tradition. Hermeneutics can be understood as going round and round in circles, but only if you look at things from above, I prefer the idea of hermeneutics as a spiral and looking from the side - but that is a whole other conversation, that belongs on one of my other blogs.

It is this interest in hermeneutics and looking to understand why a person thinks the way they do about given beers that draws me back again and again to the beer rating websites, and some of the comments you see there. Given my unashamed passion for Czech beers, I read the reviews of Bohemian Pilsners with particular interest, and comments describing a Bohemian Pilsner as "hopped up Bud" or even "not the most exciting of styles" reminds me that many people on the beer rating sites have a different frame of reference for the term "pilsner", a frame of reference that would include Budweiser, Heineken and Carlsberg.

Looking at beer from a hermeneutical perspective doesn't allow though for qualitative statements on whether a beer is "good" or "bad" - which are in themselves interpretations with their own sitz im leben - but rather saying "I enjoyed/disliked this beer" and here are the reasons why, at the end of the day, beer is just a drink. A drink you either like or don't. A drink you want to have again or not. While I have very firm views on what kinds of beers I like or don't, being an opinionated sod, beer is not going to change my life, give my life meaning or even make me a better person. To expect anything more than refreshment, social lubrication and the potential of a raging headache the next morning is to overstate the value of beer in and of itself.