Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Too Many Taps?

Being a man that likes his beer and prefers drinking it in a pub, you can imagine that I have rather forthright opinions on what makes a good pub, especially when it comes to what is on tap and how I know about it.

Firstly, more is not necessarily better. The number of times I have gone into one of my regular boozers and been thoroughly unimpressed by the beer selection is starting to disturb me, and when I say "regular" I am including a couple of places in South Carolina. Having more than 10 beers is all well and good, but when the selection of beers flowing from those taps is 7 American Pale Ales, 2 American IPAs and Guinness, then the pub is lacking a vital balance, and usually I end with a couple of pints of Guinness and an earlyish night.

Secondly, and kind of leading on from the first, regardless of the number of taps you have make it plain what is actually available. There is one pub in Columbia, South Carolina which is particularly bad for this kind of thing. Unless you are sat right at the bar then all you have to go on is an out of date menu and a blackboard with scrawly writing which is difficult to read from a distance of more than 2 inches. If a pub is going to insist on having an ever changing line up of beer then I hope they built printing costs into their business plan for keeping customers informed. I actually wonder if this is one of the reasons why trips to Columbia now usually entail going to a small brewpub that has 5 beers on tap at any one time?

While talking about keeping customers informed about what's available, a major pet peeve of mine is those pubs that have a website and then don't keep it up to date, but that's a different post altogether.

From my perspective, and I am sure I have mentioned this before, the optimal number of taps in a pub is 6, broken down as follows:
  • 2 Permanent taps, stout and pale lager
  • 2 Seasonal taps, preferably from breweries within 100 miles of the pub
  • 2 Random taps
Having only 6 taps also allows for a less time consuming cleaning regimen, having clean lines and taps being absolutely essential. If I had my own pub I would clean all the lines at least once a week, and if necessary between kegs on the seasonal and random taps.

I wonder how many places overstretch themselves, thinking they need dozens of shiny taps and funky tap handles to attract customers?

* - the picture of stout there is not Guinness, it is Starr Hill Dark Starr - possibly my favourite Virginia brewed stout.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Generally speaking I brew on a Saturday. Mrs V goes running on Saturday mornings and so I try to have my mash started by 7am, half past at the latest. Starting early means finishing before lunchtime and having the rest of the weekend to just lounge around, I also usually do the laundry while the wife is out, productive wee bunny that I am on occasion. This Saturday was no different other than it being the prescribed weekend for those of us taking part in the International Homebrew Project.

To my knowledge, homebrewers from the US, UK, Ireland and Latvia took part this year, if anyone from anywhere else brewed then please let me know. The beer, as I have mentioned several times, was a recreation of a 120/- beer from Edinburgh's Wm Younger's Brewery in 1853. Despite the hugeness of the beer, over 9% and at least 90 IBU, this was a beer for drinking young, or "mild" to use the parlance of the day.

I posted my exact recipe on Friday, though my actual hopping was slightly different due to a higher alpha acid rating on the Kent Goldings I bought that afternoon. Usually I use a single ounce for my hopping, not being a massive hophead, so chucking 4 packets of hops in total into the kettle left a lot of hop sludge as you can imagine! I also missed the target gravity of 1.114, coming in at 1.110  instead, though if the Beer Calculus tool on Hopville is correct, the dry Windsor yeast currently doing a number on the fermentables will produce a beer with 10.5% abv.

Just a quick note to the other brewers, I have adjusted the schedule slightly, and now plan to do a write up on how the beer turns out on Friday April 13th rather than the first week in April. Being such a big beer I want to give it just a little time in the bottle.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Brewday Approacheth!

I brew more Saturdays than not at the moment. I think part of that has to do with the fact that during the summer I really need to use the storage room, that doubles as my beer cellar, to keep the temperature for primary fermentation around the 68°F. Given the amount of other stuff in the cellar, I only have space to keep a couple of carboys on the go at any one time. During the winter though I can ferment inside at reasonable temperatures and use the cellar for lagers and those ales that work at lower temperatures, thus giving me more fermentation space. To say my cellar is starting to creak and groan with homebrew is an understatement.

This weekend I will be brewing again, though as part of the International Homebrew Project. If you recall, those that took part in the poll decided to brew a historic Scottish mild, from the 19th century. Being a 19th century beer, the term "mild" has a different meaning, which was that the beer was still young and hadn't developed any of the raciness of an "old" ale. A mild ale was not necessarily, if at all, the low gravity session beer we expect today, indeed the beer we are brewing has an estimated 91 IBU and 9.1% abv, putting it very much in barleywine country by today's style guidelines - indeed, I am thinking about letting a couple of bottles of this age for the rest of the year to enter in the Palmetto State Brewers Open to defend my Strong Ale gold medal.

The recipe is posted over on the IHP 2012 page, but I have to modify it a little for my purposes because I have a small mash tun, which handles about 5lbs of grain, so I will be topping this up with judicious amounts of dry malt extract. My exact recipe is as follows:
  • 4.5lbs Golden Promise Pale Malt
  • 4.25lbs Munton's Extra Light DME
  • 2.25oz Kent Golding hops @ 90 minutes
  • 1.75oz Fuggles hops @ 20 minutes
  • 0.5oz Fuggles hops for dry hopping
  • Dry Windsor yeast
I will be tweeting during the brewing, using the hashtag #BrewdayIHP, so if you are also planning to brew and have Twitter, let us know about it, and also put your final numbers in a comment to this post. Happy brewing everyone!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Somewhere New

I ventured into a new pub last night, well new for me at least. McGrady's, as the name kind of suggests, is an "Irish" pub here in Charlottesville, and for some reason that escapes me I had never darkened its door until last night. Tuesdays at McGrady's is trivia night and I love a pub quiz, though, as the friend I was with discovered, the term "quiz night" seems not to be the common parlance in these here parts.

I think the main reason I had never crossed the threshold is that my experience of ethnopubs is decidedly something of a curate's egg. Most have been awful, but some have been good. There's just something grating about the way many of them range from twee to patronising, with a detour into aggressively nationalistic though getting some key elements wrong. McGrady's though just felt like a rough round the edges pub with green walls, an Irish flag and comedy "Himself" and "Herself" toilet door signs.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised, they had a decent selection of beer, though from a purely aesthetic point of view I am not a fan of a wall of tap handles at the back of the bar. I counted 4 beers on tap from our local breweries, a couple from Devils Backbone and one each from Starr Hill and Blue Mountain, which is really good to see.

I have probably said this countless times, but staff make a huge difference to a pub. Would PK have been the same without Klara for example? The staff at McGrady's were pretty good based on this single visit so far, our "server" (a term I really don't like much) was efficient, unobtrusive and generally on top of things. One of the things guaranteed to really annoy me is having a waitress come by every couple of minutes asking if everything is fine or if I need anything, and last night they seemed to get it right, often enough so you don't feel forgotten, infrequent enough that you don't feel like you are being schmoozed for a tip. While I am thinking about it, worse still is when the shift manager is under orders to stop at every table to make everything is OK, there is a fine line between customer service and obsequiousness which is crossed more often than not.

We didn't win anything in the trivia, not really having had to know much about the history of Mardi Gras as a child. It's interesting just how different growing up in Britain is to growing up in the US despite our shared language, a constant source of bemused looks in the Velkyal household is talking about TV shows from our respective youth. I am fairly sure I'll be back at McGrady's fairly regularly as it seems to be my kind of place, and it has a pool table, again always a good thing - thankfully though there is enough room to wield a cue, unlike a bar in Portree I used to go to from time to time.

* A quick reminder for those doing the International Homebrew Project, this weekend is the brewday and I will be tweeting about it with the hashtag #BrewdayIHP.

** the picture is not mine, it is from McGrady's website.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stepping Back

I am fairly certain that were you to scratch the surface of even the most die hard of beer aficionado you will find a person who once upon a time drank stuff that they now deride and rail against. My particular skeleton in the cupboard is that before moving to the Czech Republic I drank the likes of John Smith's Extra Smooth, Tetley's Smoothflow and my favourite, Caffrey's. I loved the adverts, and could often be found propping up the bar of the O'Neill's pub on Broad Street in Birmingham when I was a student.

Having attended to the weekend chores on Saturday, I dragged Mrs V round to Wine Warehouse here in Charlottesville in order to completely ignore all the cases of wine and instead have a gander at the shelves of beer. I like Wine Warehouse's selection of beer, largely because they have decent British stuff, including Fuller's 1845 and a selection of Willams Brothers ales. As I perused the selection a thought occurred, I should try some of my old favourites in cans, and so I picked up these three, erm, delights.

As I said above, Tetley's was a fairly regular tipple in the misguided days of my youth, Old Speckled Hen and Bombardier were likewise something I enjoyed and bought plenty of in Prague when Robertson's would get some in, though I hadn't tried them in cans. Yesterday I set about them.

First up was Tetley's, mainly because at 3.6% it was the lightest of the bunch in terms of alcohol and, as it turned out, pretty much everything else. Any aroma that was there was basically that of a digestive biscuit dunked in week old black tea, and the flavours were a touch of toffee sweetness, a dab of crisp hop bite and sod all else. My overwhelming reaction was one of "I used to drink this?" confusion and disappointment, though only a little, in keeping with the beer. Four mouthfuls and it was gone, mind you it looked pretty in the glass, clear amber and a classic nitro can creamy white head.

I love the story of Old Speckled Hen, named for a rusty old MG in the brewery courtyard, and for a while in Prague it was a special treat, go to ale. In the can though it is another nitro abomination (sorry I really have issues with nitro, both for cans and draught, and it pains me to see "craft" brewers that make great stouts wandering down the nitro path to flavourless crap), so it poured a rich dark copper with that iconic shaving foam head. You know, I think they might actually have put hops in this beer, classic British spicy earthy ones at that. Big dollops of caramel and toast were the main features in the tasting department, and it was actually not that bad. Still, the bottles I remember were better, could that be a sign of entering one's dotage, thinking beers used to better in the old days?

Bombardier was the only non-nitro beer, as you can see from the huge voluminous head in the picture, which was topping off a nice red ale. Other than the looks though, Bombardier was just plain dull, kind of a souped up version of the Tetley's but without the nitro and a touch more malt. In my experience though the more loud and obnoxious the advert the worse the product, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised then given the puerile cack of their latest Rik Mayall adverts?

So, yes Old Speckled Hen was the best of a decidedly mediocre bunch. Thankfully I also had in the fridge a few bottles of Williams Brothers beers, including one I had not tried before, the 3.9% Scottish Session - a magnificent delight of a beer, packed with bite, flavour and all round drinking happiness which reminded me again that the truly great brewers are those that don't have to hide behind insane volumes of alcohol, hops, random flavourings and gimmicks.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brew York, Brew York!

I am sure you have noticed that I have something of an interest in the history of beer. More broadly speaking I have an interest in history generally, though someone should point out to the History Channel that more has happened in the millennia of the evolution of man than their 3 Ns - the Nazarene, Nostradamus and the Nazis.

Returning to the theme of beer history, I love reading both Martyn's and Ron's blogs about various facets of beer and brewing history and have been known to dabble in writing about it myself (though I should point out that I know a mere smidge of our learned friends). Given that I am, to re-use my friend Eric's phrase, a "pubcentric" person it is no surprise that my particular interest is more in the role of beer in the history and development of society.

It was, therefore, with interest that I got an email yesterday announcing an upcoming exhibition at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library called "Beer Here: Brewing New York's History". The PR blurb says that the exhibition:

"traces 350 years of the production and consumption of beer in the city—from colonial New York, when beer was a vital source of nourishment and tax revenues, to the current artisanal revolution occurring in microbreweries throughout the state".

As part of the exhibition there is to be a small beer hall showcasing some of New York state's "artisanal brewers", which serves to remind visitors that beer is not just part of the history of New York but a vital part of the present and the future. The exhibition runs from May 25th to September 2nd. I wish I knew if I would be able to get up to New York between those dates because this sounds like just my kind of exhibition, but truth is I doubt I'll find the money and time.

However, what I can do is encourage all of you who will in the city during the exhibition to get along and see how beer has been involved in the shaping of this country.

* the pictures are from the exhibition website and the announcement email I got yesterday.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Understanding Beer

Language fascinates me. When I was at college I learnt a bit about linguistics, semiotics, semantics and a clutch of other language related subjects as part of our hermeneutics course - don't worry I won't be wondering how to use the hermeneutical circle as proposed by Liberation Theologian Juan Luis Segundo.

One of the areas we looked at that I found particularly interesting was the development of words and how we interpret them, or more specifically how do we interpret the meaning of words within their historical context and how much of that context is it necessary to know and understand. There are two basic approaches here, synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis. The former looks at language only at a single point in time, usually in the present, while the latter is more concerned with the development of language over a period of time.

"What the hell does all this have to do with beer?" I hear you mumbling. Well, there has been a fair bit of chatter in the old blogosphere about how we understand beer styles and whether or not the styles as described by either the Brewers Association or the BJCP are valid or correct, especially what constitutes a "proper" version of a beer? In my reading of various blogs there are two main schools thought, which for want of a better phrase I will call stylistic synchronism and stylistic diachronism; the former saying that what is important is beer styles as we understand them in 2012 and the latter interested in how beer styles have evolved through time to reach this point. As I am sure you can imagine, I consider myself more of a diachronist, given my interest in the historical development of beer, and the fact I have no problem with the International Homebrew Project recipe being called a "mild" even though it smashes present convention squarely in the balls.

From this wondering about how we understand a given style arises a further question, having understood the numbers, how do we reach the soul of the beer we brew? The obvious answer is to drink examples of the style we are trying to brew. But is it enough for me to buy and drink all the available Czech lagers at Beer Run in order to understand the Bohemian Pilsner "style"? Personally I would say "absolutely not", simply because Pilsner Urquell in bottles here, while a decent beer, is nowhere near as good as tankove, or kegged for that matter, Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň. Given that the creation myths that surround many modern beer styles are located within particular geographical areas, spending a decent amount of time in those places is, I think, important. Beers such as "Pilsner", London Porter and Saison are so intertwined with the context from which they arose that simply brewing by the numbers is akin to reproducing the Mona Lisa from a photograph.

We quite often talk about the "context" of drinking a particular beer, but what about the "context" which gave birth to the beer we are drinking? Again for want of a better phrase, we should talk about the "humanity of beer" as it reflects the people and milieu of its creation as much as the agricultural ingredients that make up its tangible elements.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Taking the Amber Road

My original plan was to brew on Saturday while Mrs V was out running, however, a death in the family meant that we travelled down to South Carolina for the weekend and are heading back to Virginia later today. Depending on what time we get to Charlottesville, I might do my brewing today.

The brew that is on the table is for an internal competition that we do at the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale, the homebrew club of which I am a member. Taking inspiration from the Iron Brewer competition we decided to run a purely internal variation, with judging being done at our monthly meeting. The first time we did it, our required ingredients were agave nectar, Palisade hops and chocolate malt, and we also decided that the winner would chose the 3 ingredients for the next competition, which are white wheat malt, grapefruit and Chinook hops.

Obviously those ingredients scream out for an Americanised witbier of some kind, though having said that, the first time we did this those of us who took part all produced very different beers. I decided to stick with the clear fusion theme, but also to mess around a bit, so I am going to brew a spiced Belgo-American Amber Abbey Ale, here's the recipe:
  • 30% White Wheat Malt
  • 20% Bohemian Pilsner Malt
  • 20% Special Roast Malt
  • 20% Munich Malt
  • 10% Aromatic Malt
  • 20 IBU Chinook hops @ 60 minutes
  • 9 IBU Chinook hops @ 15 minutes
  • 1oz Grapefruit peel @ 15 minutes
  • 0.5oz Cracked coriander @ 15 minutes
  • 0.5oz Grated ginger @ 15 minutes
  • 2 IBU Chinook hops @ 1 minute
  • Wyeast 1762 Abbey Ale II
According to Hopville, the numbers for this should be:
  • OG - 1.052, 13° Plato
  • FG - 1.013, 3.3° Plato
  • ABV - 5.2%
  • SRM - 16, light to medium brown
I will follow my usual fermentation schedule, room temperature for 14 days before bottling, but I am planning a little experiment once bottling is done. I recently read somewhere that there is a difference in flavour between bottles that are conditioned standing up and those that are conditioned laying down, so I am going to buy a small wine rack and bottle this batch in a mixture of 12oz and 22oz bottles, some of which will lay flat and others will stand up, just to see what difference it makes.

An Amber Road was a trade route for amber in the Middle Ages, the most important went from the Baltic Sea, through modern day Poland and Czech Republic to Venice. There was a smaller road in Belgium.

Friday, February 10, 2012

IPA = I Prefer Anglo

Last night as Mrs V and I sat watching White Collar, I had a craving for a beer. With the Netflix paused I ventured out to the storage room, which doubles up as my beer cellar, and wandered back in with a few bottles, including one of Samuel Smith's India Ale. The India Ale was part of a gift pack of 3 Sam Smith's brews, a few beer mats and a fine looking pint glass, a proper pint that is. The pack was part of my Christmas gift from Mrs V's parents.

As I sat with this glass of rich amber nectar, I tweeted the following:

"you know, I do actually like IPA, proper IPA that is, as in British IPA. Bitter AND Balanced!"

I realise there is a very strong possibility that I am biased, and I say this in full awareness that there are America style IPAs that I like on occasion, but I simply find a hoppy pale ale brewed with the likes of Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings far more palatable than some Pacific North West enamel stripper. Perhaps it has something to do with the extra malt body and sweetness that a lot of British IPAs have, making them less like sucking a lemon and more like a hoppy marmelade?

Over Christmas when I had Durham's delicious Bombay 106 and the inestimable Worthington White Shield, I had the same reaction, bitter yes, but nicely balanced and drinkable. Speaking about White Shield, I have it on good authority that those evil magnates that allow great beer to be brewed on their premises (I mean, really how dare they!), MolsonCoors, will be exporting it to American shores in the early summer. Keep an eye out for it!

BTW - the bag in the background has the malts for my brewday tomorrow, Bohemian Pilsner, Munich, White Wheat, Special Roast and Aromatic, to be hopped with Chinook, spiced with coriander and grapefruit peel and fermented with Wyeast Belgian Abbey II. Kind of a spiced Belgo-American Amber Ale, kind of.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

International Homebrew Project - the recipe

So here it is, the recipe for the International Homebrew Project. Just a quick recap, I took an executive decision that this year we would brew an historic recipe from 19th century Scotland and gave you good people the choice of a pale, mild, stout or some random surprise. When the voting was done with there was a clear winner, mild.

When many people think about mild these days, they think low gravity, dark session beer, and admittedly this particular iteration of the tradition is something I love to brew and drink myself. It was, though, not ever thus. The origins of the term "mild" refer to beer that was sent out into trade before it had a chance to become old, thus the flavour was "mild" rather than the raciness you would get with older beers. "Mild" did not refer to the strength of a beer, which is just as well, because I think this recipe is going to mess with people's heads on a couple of levels; on what constitutes mild and what defines "Scottish" ales.

This recipe, kindly provided by Kristen England, comes from the William Younger's Abbey Brewery in Edinburgh, and was brewed in 1853.

Firstly then the grain bill:
  • 100% English Pale ale malt
There we go, that was simple wasn't it, the kicker though is that the target Original Gravity is 1.114, or almost 27º Plato.

For the hopping you are looking at:
  • 65 IBU of Goldings for 90 mins
  • 26 IBU of Fuggles for 20 minutes
  • Dry hop with 1.25oz of Fuggles (assuming a 5 gallon batch)
As far as fermentation goes, use the Windsor strain or Wyeast's 1318 London Ale III, as we are looking for this beast to attenuate down to about 1.046, giving our 91 IBU monster an ABV of 9.1%.

Now for some more technical details. The mash should be done at a ratio of 0.95 quarts per pound of malt, or 1.98 litres per kilo, for 120 minutes at 150ºF/65.6ºC. The boil should last 90 minutes.

Here are Kristen's tasting notes:

"Big, thick and rich. Biscuits, sweetened Vienna bread dough. Green tea, hay and marmelade. Ripping tannins and thoroughly bitter. The finish lasts forever and keeps from being sweet by the bitterness. What a bloody nice dram!"

Over the IHP 2012 page you can see a more orderly description of the recipe for you to adapt according to your system. The planned weekend for brewing is the 25/26 of this month, and given the simplicity of the ingredients I think most people should be able to get hold of them. I for one am looking forward to this!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Mild Victory!

The poll are closed, the votes have been tallied and there is a clear and decisive winner, and if I may be honest, a somewhat surprising winner it was too. The chosen beer style for this year's International Homebrew Project is Mild, more specifically Scottish mild from the 19th century. Ron posted just this morning about the differences between a Scottish mild and its English counterpart.

As I say, I am surprised that Mild came out on top, especially with pale ale and stout also options on the poll. I really thought people would go for the stout, even though we did a milk stout last year. When I first did this project, in 2010, the overwhelming choice of beer style was an American Pale Ale. I don't want to extrapolate too far as a result of these results, but it seems that the people who read Fuggled any interested in brewing history and are prepared to try something a little different and out of the ordinary (ordinary here being adding a shit load of hops and using a Belgian yeast strain). I find that really encouraging for some reason that I can't really explain.

Hopefully I will have the actual recipe for posting on Friday. The revised timeline for the project is on the IHP 2012 page, and if you are planning to take part either leave a comment there or send me an email. 

I am always surprised that more breweries over here don't do Milds, especially given that we hear so much about beer being best drunk fresh, and mild is the perfect style for that. Perhaps as a little side project to this, everyone who brews the recipe should give a few bottles to local craft brewers and see if we can stir some interest for more commercial mild?

Of Bostonian Beer...

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