Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Double the Darkness

It was only after I discovered the delights of beer from small breweries in the Czech Republic that I started to develop a taste for dark lager, called either Tmavé or Černé depending on the whim of the brewery. Kozel's Černé is more of a dark amber while Kout na Šumavě's Tmavé absorbs light like a black hole, yet one is "black" and the other "dark respectively.

When I finally decided to make my own lagers, during a particularly cold snap in January, the style I chose first was tmavé, simply because I knew it would be more forgiving of any mess ups along the way than would be a pilsner. I wrote about the recipe and inspiration for the beer back at the beginning of the year. Having enjoyed most of my stash of Černý Lev, I learnt that Schell's Brewing Company up in Minnesota had done a limited batch of tmavé, calling it Stag 5 and so I wanted to do a side by side tasting of the two beers.

First up was Schell's, which is 5.7% and has 30 IBU of Saaz, if the info on Ratebeer is to be believed. Although this picture makes the beer look almost pitch black, it is in fact a dark brown which becomes a rich crimson when held up to the light. The head is light tan and lingers for the duration. It most certainly looked the part.

In terms of aroma there was caramel, like toffee really, a hint of roasted coffee, though it wasn't harsh and in your face about it, and the gentle, soothing spiciness of Saaz hops in the background. I wasn't expecting the smooth flavours of bitter sweet chocolate to be at the fore in the taste department, but it was and it worked well, that roasty edge was there, like toast that is between done and burnt, and the bitterness of the hops kicks in at the end. I found myself sucking this beer down, well assembled, easy to drink and medium bodied, yes I liked it. Where I would put it in the spectrum of tmavé that I have drunk in the Czech Republic? Well ahead of the likes of Kozel and Staropramen, that's for sure, so on a par with Bernard I would say (for the unitiated, that means pretty damned good).

Now for my Černý Lev, which is "Black Lion" in English, which ended up with 5.6% abv and 24 IBU, so in a similar ballpark to the Schell's. This time the picture doesn't hide anything, the beer is a very dark brown, bordering on black and edged with crimson in the light. The head is light tan and voluminous, when eventually it died down a bit, it stuck at about a centimetre for the time it took me to drink the beer. With the head duly receded, it again looked the part.

The aromas bouncing around in the glass for this were treacle, roasted coffee, with hints of spice and I thought a trace of lemony hay. In the taste department the coffee really came to the fore, coupled with sweet malty juiciness and a firm bitter bite which may have slightly unbalanced the beer. The body on my beer was fuller than the Schell's and there was a trace of something solventy about the beer, which I think may have come from underpitching the yeast and having it at slightly higher temperatures than recommended. I like my beer, always a good thing, but it isn't as well integrated and put together as Schell's. Mrs V expressed a clear preference for the Schell's, saying that my beer had too much roastiness in it for her tastes.

I think I might do this kind of comparative tasting a bit more often, as a way to gauge where my homebrew is going right and going wrong. Certainly a worthwhile experiment, I think the next one will be my German Pilsner next to Scrimshaw.

I just wanted to quickly thank Josh up in Minnesota for procuring and sending the beer down to fellow CAMRA homebrewer and occasional blogger, Jamey - have a read of his blog, Barlow Brewing.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Summer Session

Today is Memorial Day over here, and as well as being a day to remember those that fell in combat, it is also traditionally understood as the beginning of the summer season in the US - and given temperatures in the high 80s this week (low 30s in Celsius), that sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Memorial Day is a public holiday, and so this morning, rather than writing all ready for the office, I am slumming it. Originally I had planned to brew both yesterday and today, but then on a whim I decided to just get it all done in a single day. As a result of which I now have two carboys fermenting away furiously, one with a honey malt and ginger saison and the other with my attempt to clone the magnificent Williams Brothers Scottish Session Ale.

I had to make a last minute change to the Dark Island Blonde as when I went to Fifth Season to get my grains, they didn't have any Bohemian Pilsner malt, so I upped the amount of Golden Promise and Vienna and used the following recipe:
  • 50% Golden Promise
  • 25% Vienna Malt
  • 13% White Wheat Malt
  • 6% Munich Malt
  • 6% Caramel 20
The beer has, according to Hopville's Beer Calculus, 25 IBUs of First Gold, Cascade and Saaz and I am using the dry Windsor yeast strain for fermentation. Having mashed at a slightly higher temperature than normal, I am hoping for a beer with a reasonable amount of body and somewhere in the region of 3.8-4% abv.

Essentially I hope that Dark Island Blonde will be a good beer for sitting on the deck of our new house (once the deal finally goes through and I can stop caring about it all the time), with a bucket full of ice keeping several bottles cold. Never having had a lawn, I have never seen the need for "lawn mower beers", but the 1.6 acres of land that go with the house will no doubt see to that.

I will be doing plenty of brewing in the weeks to come, both for the inevitable house warming party and the forthcoming Dominion Cup homebrew competition, so there should be no shortage of beer for those lazy afternoons on the deck...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Session Hopping

Reading the ever interesting Boak and Bailey yesterday, I was intrigued by a comment about St Austell's Proper Job as failing "as a session beer because it is too intensely hoppy". This got me wondering whether there exists an upper limit on "hoppiness" when it comes to session beers.

Clearly the hipster lupulin loonies in the crowd will immediately shout that such a thing is impossible before going back to taking self portraits with their iPhone camera in an attempt to recreate Blue Steel. To me, as someone who actively likes drinking beer (I am convinced there is a difference between being a beer geek and actively enjoying drinking good beer, though I am yet to thrash that out in my head) the idea that there is an upper limit to the "hoppiness" of session beers seems self-evident.

A couple of the criteria for a session beer, as proposed by Lew Bryson, are that a beer be:
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
Balance and flavour then are key identifiers of a session beer. If we accept Lew's proposed ABV limit of 4.5% that means a beer with a starting gravity of 12° Plato, or less. Whilst acknowledging that different yeast strains have differing attenuation properties, I think 12° is a perfectly acceptable ceiling for gravity in session beers. When I think about 12° beers, my mind automatically ambles over to the many dark, perhaps dingy, drinking dens in Prague that sell Pilsner Urquell. Brewed at about 12°, with an ABV of 4.4% and 40 IBUs, Pilsner Urquell is a dream of a session beer.

Perhaps that then is the ball park upper limit of hoppiness for session beers, somewhere in the 35-40 IBU range? I realise that IBUs tell us nothing about the flavour and aroma of a beer, but as a general guideline, I think 40 is a good place to stop with the hops, so that the important part of beer is not impeded, the drinking of it with mates.

BTW - if you haven't read Boak and Bailey's blog you really should, it is an excellent read.

The picture above was taken by my good friend Mark Stewart of Black Gecko Photography

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Turn to the Dark Side

For the next installment of the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale Iron Brewer project, as I mentioned in a post last week, we have to use the following ingredients in our beer:
  • Honey malt
  • Hersbrucker hops
  • Ginger
I mentioned that my intention was to make a ginger saison. That is still the plan, broadly speaking, but as I was tidying up my beer cellar at the weekend, and making a list of the various ingredients I have floating about, I thought to myself, is this something worth messing around with in order to use up some random odds and sods? In particular I am considering using up the remnants of Caramel 120 to turn the beer into a "dark saison".

One thing though is clear from my stock take, I need to make a bath tub beer to use up the various bits and bobs that are in the malt store that don't really feature in my 5 brews to perfect plan. The grains I want to use up are:
  • Rauch malt
  • CaraMunich I
  • Peated malt
  • Chocolate Wheat
My immediate thought is to put the peated malt to one side and get some Munich malt or similar base malt and make a smoked dark weizen, if anyone has any better suggestions, I am all ears.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Drinking In The Rain

I wasn't expecting the rain this morning when I took my dog for his morning walk, but I have no complaints about it. I like rain in general, rainy days make me happy for some reason, whereas the heat and humidity of summer makes me grumpy and lethargic.

We often talk about beers which are great for a summer day, or for when you have just finished mowing your lawn, but we don't seem to talk much about the beers which are perfect for drinking in the rain, perhaps sat outside under an umbrella.

In my experience, the best beers for rainy day drinking are ones which lend themselves to slow savouring rather than 4 mouthfuls and its gone kind of things. Clearly then it has to be a beer which isn't negatively affected by the rise in temperature during the half hour or so of its existence in the glass. Just perhaps it is days like today, overcast, rainy and mild, that something like an IPA comes into its own? Preferably one hopped with English varieties, not lemon suckingly bitter and soul destroyingly strong, about 5% is plenty.

It would be a nice day to sit in a beer garden, covered by an umbrella, reading a book, or the papers, with a pint for company and listening to the gentle patter of rain against the leaves. It's that kind of day today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Input Wanted

I mentioned in a post last week that I am planning to perfect my homebrewing of 5 particular types of beer when Mrs V and I move into our new house. Top of that list to nail down is an Ordinary Bitter, which would I hope eventually become my house ale, once I have a kegerator and starting kegging my beers.

Bitter is one of those sadly overlooked styles here in the USA, very few professional breweries have one in their portfolio and given the low alcohol content they rarely get shipped from Blighty. There are many, many days when after work I would just love to sit down with an imperial pint of something like Young's Bitter.

You would think then that having won a gold medal for my Ordinary Bitter at last year's Dominion Cup that I have a recipe pretty much sorted. However, that was a partial mash beer and converting a beer to all grain brewing is more than just replacing malt extract with pale malt. The main consideration is which pale malt to use, Maris Otter, Golden Promise or Optic? Here is the grain bill for a recipe I recently brewed, in preparation for an upcoming Pro-Am preliminary competition:
  • 67% Maris Otter
  • 13% Crisp Amber Malt
  • 13% Crisp Brown Malt
  • 7% Briess Caramel 10
Having done a little research, it would seem that using brown malt is fairly unusual in a bitter, of any strength, but as this was a recreation of my medal winning brew from last year, I felt it would be incongruous not to use it. The question remains though, should it stay as an ingredient in the new Dark Island Bitter? That then is the first set of tweaks for the recipe, pulling out the Brown Malt and upping both the Maris Otter and the Caramel, so the grain bill will look something like this:
  • 77% Maris Otter
  • 13% Crisp Amber Malt
  • 10% Briess Caramel 10
I am looking forward to eventually trying the two variants next to each other, and hopefully with a few learned friends from the local homebrew club, to decide which grain bill is better.

Naturally I am open to thoughts and input from brewers, both home and pro, on the grain bill as written, so feel free to weigh on in!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Let Them Drink Session!

Obviously I can't speak for you, but I remember my first beer, it was a half pint of my dad's homebrew when I was about 10 years old. We were living in Wales at the time and had built a huge patio behind our house, so naturally my parents had a bash to celebrate it being usable. I can't remember exactly what kind of beer it was, though I remember it was brewed in a polypin, most likely from a kit bought at Boots, and that it was brown, perhaps it was a generic bitter of some kind?

As kids we were allowed the occasional glass of wine with dinner, or cider during the summer. With the onset of the teenage years we were allowed a can of beer from time to time, by which point we had moved back to Scotland and said cans were Tennent's Lager featuring women in various states of comtemplating undress. By the time I had my first legal pint on my 18th birthday, I was no stranger to beer, cider and wine.

A couple of days ago, a friend on Facebook posting this article from the Huffington Post about how America's ridiculous legal age for alcohol consumption when compared to Germany's actually serves to create a culture of binge drinking. What though does this have to do with craft beer?

Let's assume the existence of some mythological American youth who when they get to their 21st birthday has never had a drop of alcohol pass their lips - yes I know such a creature is somewhat rare but for the sake of argument let's assume that the law isn't entirely out of touch with reality. On said young person's 21st birthday, having waited 3 years longer than their British cousins, they go to a brewery for a tour and tasting. Every beer they try is over 6% abv and they walk out having bought a case of double IPA or Foreign Extra Stout, whatever is on special that day. They chose the stronger beers simply because "it get's me where I want to be quicker", which is of course young person speak for , "I want to get pissed and pass out as quickly as possible, because that's what drinking is for". Still the question remains, what does this have to do with craft beer?

I suppose directly the answer would be "not much", but tangentially I wonder if the industry's reticence, and I am painting with broad strokes here, to brew session beers is contributing to binge drinking among beginner drinkers? I dread to think what kind of state these kids get themselves into as a result of going from nothing to high octane brews literally overnight.

Is there an answer? Well, yes I think there is. More sensible laws would be a good place to start, acknowledge that older teenagers are going to drink, so why bother making criminals out of them? Bringing the legal age for alcohol consumption down to at least 18 would be a good start, though personally I would bring it even further down, to 16, though I would make the minimum age for being in a pub 18. I would stagger what is available to kids of different ages like so:
  • 16/17 year olds, nothing over 3.5% abv
  • 18/19 year olds, nothing over 4% abv
  • 20 year olds, nothing over 4.5% abv
Assuming the Jesuit concept of getting them while they are young, this would be a good time for craft brewers to introduce younger people to flavourful session beer. It would also, and I claim nothing but self interest here, mean that there would be more session beer available for the rest of us, which is never a bad thing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Beer Vacation

I am starting a 2 week booze fast today, well strictly speaking I am doing a complete cessation  of carbohydrate intake, most of which in my case is beer anyway.

Although I won't be drinking for a fortnight, I still need to keep up with brewing for the inevitable house warming party in August, which means brewing more lime witbier and hopefully a batch of Dark Island Blonde Ale, from a recipe based on Williams Brothers magnificent Scottish Session Ale.

One beer that will definitely be brewed is whatever it is I decide to do for the next installment of the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale Iron Brewer competition. The three ingredients that must be used for this round are:
  • honey malt
  • Hersbrucker hops
  • ginger
My first instinct is to make a ginger saison, using Kazbek hops for bittering, Styrian Goldings for flavour and the Hersbrucker for both aroma and dry hopping. I am planning to use the French Saison yeast from Wyeast rather than their Belgian mainly because my cellar is nicely in the temperature range for the French whereas the Belgian likes life a little hotter.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Stifling the South

I want to preface my post today with a clarification, basically so I don't have to explain myself later if people get the wrong end of the stick. I like the beers of Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium.

With that out of the way, let me continue. If I were in the planning stages of starting a brewery over here on the East Coast of the USA, especially in North Carolina, but also Virginia and South Carolina, I would be worrying right now. I would be worrying because all three of the aforementioned businesses are planning to build breweries in North Carolina, all of them clustered in the Asheville area.

On one hand it is excellent news, it will create jobs, which will spur local economies as workers spend their money, so from a economic point of view this development is very welcome. A further benefit that has been mentioned is their beers on the East Coast will be fresher and of a higher quality, personally I am a little dubious on this, but there we go. Certainly they will be cheaper to distribute, but I very much doubt the consumer will benefit from that in any way shape or form, just as the consumer doesn't benefit from the transportation savings of using cans instead of bottles.

My concern then is that these expansionary moves will stifle the local craft brewing industries and that market share which previously supported much smaller operations will be lost to the bigger company. Of course, the economist will say that this is simply the invisible hand of the market, but I have an aversion to invisible hands grabbing small companies by the neck and squeezing the life out of them. Naturally there is the argument that having these big businesses on their doorstep should encourage the smaller local breweries to up their game so they can compete with the big boys, but the question remains will they have the resources to do so?

I can't help but think that this is the first stage in the consolidation of the craft brewing industry, where the bigger companies start to force their way into markets by opening brewing facilities in various parts of the country. While we will see more and more Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues beers in the supermarket aisles, we will see fewer local brews except at specialty outlets like Beer Run here in Charlottesville.

As I commented on my Twitter feed the other day these expansions are really no different from AB InBev buying up facilities to brew Budweiser in around the world, it's just that the beer is a bit better.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Perfecting Homebrew

There are very few beers that I brew which I go on to brew twice or more, LimeLight is an obvious exception, as is my strong Thanksgiving ale Samoset, though the recipe changes most years. I have been thinking though of late that one of the things I would like to do when Mrs V and I move into our new house is to get a kegerator and develop a range of "house" ales, a couple of which would always be on tap.

In thinking about the types of beer to focus on, I gave myself some fairly simple criteria:
  • at least 2 session beers
  • at least 1 style which is difficult to get in Virginia
  • one lager
  • to cross the spectrum of colours
Having pondered, I decided on the following:
  • 3.5% - 3.7% Ordinary Bitter
  • 3.9% - 4.1% Blonde Ale
  • 5% - 6% Porter
  • 4.2% - 4.8% Pilsner
I wanted to have 5 beers in total though, and it wasn't until I had the magnificence of Oliver Ale's "Ape Must Never Kill Ape" last week that I knew what I wanted to do, a "Belgian Mild" which would have an abv of less than 3.5%.

Yes, they are all styles that I have brewed before, and in the case of my Ordinary Bitter won a gold medal for, but they are the styles that I enjoy drinking the most and at the end of the day homebrewing is all about having beer that I want to drink.

Naturally I will still make bits and pieces that either take my fancy or are brewed for special occasions, such as my Samoset Thanksgiving ale, whatever the International Homebrew Project throws up and our internal Iron Brewer project with the homebrew club, the next round of which requires honey malt, Hersbrucker hops and ginger.

If you also homebrew, what beers would you want to perfect to have on tap regularly?

Monday, May 7, 2012

And the winner is...

It seems like only yesterday I was having a little moan about the awards handed out as part of the World Beer Cup, especially the Bohemian Pilsner category. As it is, that particular moan was from June 2010, when Gambrinus Excelent somehow contrived to come second in the aforementioned category. It was then with a modicum of interest that I read my way through the winners list for this year's edition.

Good news for this part of Virginia in the form of Devils Backbone taking gold for their Vienna Lager. As I mentioned recently, the Charlottesville area breweries do well with lager and now boast both the current World Beer Cup gold for the Vienna lager category and the current Great American Beer Festival gold, in the form of Starr Hill's Jomo Lager. There was also a silver in the grammatically incorrect "American-Belgo-Style Ale" category, for Blue Mountain's Blue Reserve. Correct grammar would have be "Americo-Belgian Style Ale".

I was also very pleased to see Jeff at Lovibonds picking up some shiny yellow bling for his Sour Grapes in the "Wood or Barrel Aged Sour Ale" category, and I say this more in hope than expectation - could someone please start importing Lovibonds beer in the US?

However, there were a few bits and pieces that I found either startling or down right ridiculous, let's start with my favourite hobby horse, Bohemian Pilsners. Of the 62 entrants, the top three were Starobrno Ležák, Krušovice Imperial and Gambrinus Premium, or to put it another way Heineken, Heineken and SABMiller. I have read that Krušovice has improved of late, and given that Starobrno is owned by the same company perhaps they have likewise got better, but Gambrinus Premium is the third best pilsner in the world? While it is true that I haven't had Gambrinus in a few years, I keep in touch with my mates back in Prague and they consistently tell me that it is getting worse than it was, and that many of them have given up on Gambrinus entirely in favour of Pilsner Urquell. Once again I would love to see who the other 59 entrants were, because if this crop of swill is the best available then there are real problems with the Pilsner brewing community (which I actually believe there are, but mainly because too many people don't have enough experience of proper pilsner within it's "sitz im leben" to brew it properly).

Then there are some of the categories themselves, but in particular "German-Style Kölsch/Köln-Style Kölsch" category. How gracious to allow for a "Köln-Style Kölsch", though the fact that Kölsch can only ever come from Cologne in order to be true to the Convention governing the style makes the category something of a tautology. Would it not be better to use a name like Kölsch-style Ale, which basically says everything necessary, a blonde ale made in the style of a Kölsch but not actually from Cologne. Now, I know nomenclature is not really wildly important to a lot of people, but I think these cack-handed categories simply breed confusion and are unnecessary when definitions such as the Kölsch Convention already exist.

I realise that competitions really need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I wonder sometimes if all the meddling makes the pinch more of a hefty slug?

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Excelsis!

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I spent a chunk of this week up in Washington DC at a conference and that I was hoping to find a good pub to while away a few hours after everything work connected was done with for the day. Eventually then a colleague and I jumped in a taxi and headed to Churchkey.

I had heard mention of Churchkey from various sources. Having climbed the stairs and had my ID checked, I stood in wonder at the bar. I barely noticed the 50 something tap handles crowding the wall behind the bar, for there, at the very heart of it all were handpumps, five of them. Yes, you read that correctly 5 handpumps in an American pub. Sure, Charlottesville has a couple of places with a solitary handpump but having a choice of cask ales was magical, perhaps even mythical. I have to admit though that I can only remember 2  of the available beers, because they were the two I drank, Williams Bros Midnight Sun Porter and a beer called Ape Must Never Kill Ape, a 3.3% abv beer from Oliver Breweries up in Baltimore.

I am planning a trip to Baltimore with my best friend in August.He is from the city and when we were flatmates in Prague in 2000 we drank shed loads of beer on the balcony of our flat while he told me that one day he would show me his home town. Suffice to say that the Pratt Street Ale House, home of Oliver Breweries is very much on our list of places to get slaughtered in. Quick side note, sampling dozens of weird and wonderful beers is all good and well, but sitting with your best mate getting totalled is the pinnacle of the drinking world. Anyway, the AMNKA is a session strength Belgian inspired dark ale, which according to the commercial description is made with:

"English pale malt, dark crystal, chocolate, carafa 3, Belgian biscuit and caramel vienna. Bittered with Kent Goldings and Czech Saaz, finished with Fuggles and German Tettnanger then fermented with Belgian DeKonick yeast and cold conditioned with vanilla beans"

Absolutely packed with flavour this beer is, a veritable melange of coffee, chocolate, toffee, grass and so many other flavours that you need a good few pints to really examine it well. I didn't have my note book so I had a good few pints just because it was so damned good. Another silly little aside, the glasses at Churchkey are 16oz nonic kind of things, which just look weird to my proper pint trained eye.

We sat at the bar for a good few hours, watching ice hockey, drinking beer and talking about work and life in general. We chatted with random strangers at the bar, naturally plugging this here blog, and if they come back and read this post then I hope they took the time to learn a bit more about the Scots language.

Churchkey seems to be finding that most elusive of balances, at least in my experience, of being a beer bar which keeps the tickers happy and a pub where regular drinkers feel welcome, and they have simply excellent bar staff. What a great way to waste several hours.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hoping for the Unusual

I am in Washington DC today, at an industry conference for the company I work for. There is a rumour that once today's activities are done and dusted with, I will have the evening free, which naturally means finding a bar to park in for a few hours and indulge in some amber nectar.

A possible venue for said bum parking and pints is Churchkey, a place I have heard much about and am eager to peruse the apparently extensive list, here's hoping for some of the following:

Just a quick aside, we went to a restaurant called Cityzen last night, and they had Gaffel Kölsch which was nice. Out of interest, does anyone know how you powder olive oil?

Best Beer Ever!

Shock, horror, a new post at Fuggled! Yes, it has been a while, but mitigating circumstances, I have been heads down writing my first book, ...