Friday, June 29, 2012

Want Local, Don't Want Just IPA

Something that bothers me at times is how difficult it can be to find local beer on tap here in Charlottesville. I could almost understand it if I lived in a town with an obscure nano-brewery making a few kegs a week and nothing else, but there are 5 breweries within a 30 mile radius of town and at least 2 in the planning that I know of, and yet I can't remember ever seeing my favourite Starr Hill beer on tap in town.

Before continuing this post let me make something clear, I am not talking here about going to places like Beer Run where the modus operandi is to have an every changing selection of beer. I am talking about your every day restaurants, the kind of places you go for food rather than the beer selection (believe it or not I don't make my eating out decisions based on how many taps a place has).

On Sunday for example, having spent a few hours out at the house painting, Mrs V and I headed out to our local Mexican restaurant for food. Usually when we go to a Mexican restaurant I'll have a Michelob because it is often the best beer available, minor side note, I actually quite like Michelob on occasion, clean, crisp, very easy to drink and best of all the bottles are re-useable for homebrew. Imagine then my surprise that our local Mexican had decided to start serving New Belgium Fat Tire as one of their 4 draft beers! I can say that Fat Tire goes quite nicely with Pollo con Chorizo and at $5 for a 22oz pour no complaints on the money front either.

But why have New Belgium beer when there is plenty of local beer which is as good? This is especially galling when you live in a town topped to the brim with "Buy Local" enthusiasts.

When you do see a Starr Hill tap, and I am not singling out Starr Hill, it's just that they are biggest and oldest brewery in the area, it is usually for Northern Lights IPA. Now, I like Northern Lights from time to time, unlike many an IPA over here it isn't so weighed down with hops as to be like sucking a lemon sized grapefruit, but I don't think it is the best beer that Starr Hill makes. I think it is third behind Dark Starr Stout and Festie, an amber lager which is wonderfully clean and delicious, and criminally not seen on draft at all in my experience, outside the tasting room that is.

When a bar is so laden with American Pale Ales, IPAs and Double IPAs, it would be wonderful to see more beers like Dark Starr and Festie breaking the banks of pale hoppy monotony. So come come restaurants, mix up your beer list, and support your local breweries.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What Tosh!

The other day my copy of Zymurgy arrived. Zymurgy is the journal of the American Homebrewers Association and generally speaking a pretty good read, with interesting articles, recipes and other homebrew related odds and ends that ferment ideas in my already fevered mind.

The current issue's headline article is the annual review of the "Best Beers in America", or as the cynic in me refers to it, a list of strong hoppy pale ales, with the occasional Belgian and lager chucked in for some semblance of measure. Naturally such lists are taken with a pinch of salt, or in some cases, the entirety of Chott el Djerid in Tunisia. The issue includes a couple of clone recipes for beers in the list, which is always interesting. So far, so good.

However, there was a comment in the article which really pissed me off, according to a Zymurgy reader:

"One thing is constant: America has the best beer and brewers".

I find that kind of attitude really annoying, as in seriously pissing me off annoying. Sure it is just lame brained bravado, but it is so wide of the mark that it just isn't funny. I guess it is true if you define "best" as being the most heavy handed on the hops, and "beer" as pale warm fermented malt beverage, but if the definition of "beer" were pale, hoppy, cold fermented lager then the US would be a back water when compared to the Czechs.

There is no nation on earth that has the "best beer and brewers", simply because it is such a nebulous concept as to be utterly devoid of meaning. Yes American beer is good, but so is British, Irish, Czech, German, Norwegian and so on and so forth.

Monday, June 25, 2012

In Praise of Familiarity

Earlier today I sat down to write a post for this blog and my mind was blank, what should I write about? What would people be interested in? Questions flashed through my mind and no answers came forth to announce themselves. So I had a cup of coffee, read the news on the various websites from which I glean my knowledge of world events, the BBC and the Guardian mostly, caught up on the football gossip, hoping to see that Liverpool had sign Gylfi Sigurdsson.

It's not as if I didn't drink anything over the weekend. I drank mostly homebrew admittedly, mainly my German pilsner, though with some lime witbier and the few remaining Černý Lev Czech Dark Lagers chucked in for good measure. I worked at the Starr Hill tasting room on Saturday, and yesterday after painting in our new house I sat with a large New Belgium Fat Tire to wash down some Mexican food. There was no beer revelation, nothing new to tickle and tantalise the taste buds, nothing worth taking notes about, though I have practically given up on that particular activity, and you know that's perfectly fine by me.

While it is true that I have never been the kind of person to go chasing half way across town just to try a particular beer, let alone to another country, I wonder if at times I lose sight of that fact that beer is just part of life? Since leaving the Czech Republic almost three years ago I have come to cherish, and miss, the wonderful solid predictability of being able to walk into any of my favourite pubs and be guaranteed a beer I would want to drink. Whether it was Štěpán at Pivovarský Klub, Zlatá labuť at U Buldoka or even Leffe Bruin at my nearest Potrefená Husa.

Don't get me wrong, I love going to the pub over here, but there is often an element of doubt in my mind as to whether there will be anything I am in the mood for, given the frequent rotation of taps, and the near constant chasing of the new thing, the latest big beer and that which contains the oddest ingredients.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but at the same time the familiar is a comfort, something reliable to go back to, knowing that it will be satisfying. Whether it is tankové Pilsner Urquell in the Czech Republic, London Pride in Southall or Samuel Adams Boston Lager here in the States, there is much to be said for those beers which are familiar, oh so familiar.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Brewer of the Week

A return today of the Brewer of the Week series, and it sees us heading off to a part of the world I think is one of the more beautiful in the UK, Norfolk. When my younger brother and I were kids, my elder brothers already having flown the nest, our dad decided that it would be fun to have a week boating on the Norfolk Broads. For about 3 years we would head over to Norfolk and cruise the Broads for a week, occasionally mooring up near a pub with a beer garden, it really was idyllic, and other than one particularly fierce thunderstorm, I can only remember warmth and sunshine.

The Grain Brewery in Harleston near Diss is an award winning brewery and hosts an annual Summer Festival tomorrow at the brewery, which from the press release that was sent to me seems to be the kind of event I would very much enjoy. The festival has a "Darling Buds of May" theme, steeped in 1950s rural nostalgia, complete with hand made ice cream, a barbecue and live folk music, it sounds like a lovely way to spend a day. So if you are in Norfolk tomorrow between 2pm and 10pm, pop on over to the brewery and join in.

In the meantime, here is the interview with their brewer, Phil.

Name: Phil Halls
Brewery: Grain Brewery

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I have been a river inspector, a cartographer and a publishing project manager none of which involved beer within my job description, so I felt a job in brewing was long overdue. Becoming a brewer was not a particular dream of mine, but I was keen to get away from the desk, do something that was more hands on, and work for myself. I easily had my arm twisted by a long-time friend who though starting a small brewery would be a ‘good idea’. As it turned out, it was.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Firstly you have to love beer or else you will never get beyond the heights of ‘just above mediocre’. Lots of energy, lots of patience, and a small dose of OCD probably helps too when it comes to cleanliness and pH.

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

Yes, a bit, and I was rubbish at it. I don’t think I ever brewed a decent homebrew beer, and I certainly wouldn’t want to scale any of them up to try and sell them.

If you did homebrew, do you still?


What is your favourite beer that you brew?

Without a doubt Redwood. I love watching the blend of Dark Munich, Rye, Wheat, Crystal and good old Maris Otter as it is drawn down into the grist hopper. And the intense smell of Citra is always a pleasure.

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

Grain is the one and only brewery for me.

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

My favourite varies depending on the time of year, time of day, and mood I’m in. That said, a pint of Oak at 3.8% abv, gulped down on a hot day is when I enjoy a beer the most.

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

I’m not a purist by nature and use the end product as my yard stick. I don’t like seeing anything unnecessary added to a beer, but it’s good to experiment and try out new ingredients. That’s how all the authentic beers started out originally.

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

Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville to find out what it is about us they don’t like and to see what the collaboratve results would be like. But also Darkstar Brewery in Sussex – great, finely tuned beers and I’d like to see what we could come up with between us.

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

A true Irish Guinness brewed in Dublin.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Good While It Lasted

We were driving back from Waynesboro on Sunday afternoon when I got a text message from fellow beer drinker and former beer blogger Dan to tell me that changes are afoot at one of Charlottesville's leading beer emporia.

It turns out that the guys that own and operate Beer Run have decided to dispense with their beer engine and install an additional three regular taps in the space being freed up. I won't hide it, this makes me sad. Many of the best beers I have enjoyed since moving to the US have been on cask at Beer Run, Joker IPA from Williams Brothers, Sierra Nevada's Torpedo and a barleywine from Cricket Hill that was obscenely easy to drink.

Now, I realise that enjoying cask conditioned beer is something of a minority interest in the beer loving community this side of the Pond, but the thought of the only place in town offering beer the way god intended being South Street Brewery is somewhat depressing. Admittedly I haven't been to South Street for quite some time, so maybe their beers have improved, but last time I allowed for that possibility I had the most depressed 90 minutes of drinking in my life, so I am not holding out much hope.

My most fervent hope is that one of the other pubs in this town pick up the baton, buy the beer engine from Beer Run and run with it. In a different world, with ownership that actually understood pubs and pub goers, it would be perfect in Court Square Tavern. If I owned the Horse and Hound I would seriously look into it, imagine that a "British" pub that actually has something authentically British about it. As it is, I think the best place for a beer engine in Charlottesville would be McGrady's or just outside town, Timberwood Grill, where the homebrew club meets once a month.

Dan also mentioned that Beer Run were planning to ditch their proper pint servings because only one person ever drank them, surely there are other drinkers than just me that like a proper pint? Thankfully though, on that front he was kidding.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Attack of the Clone

Back in May I went to what is probably Washington DC's most famous place for beer, ChurchkKey, a place with something like 50 taps, countless bottles and most importantly 5 beer engines. Other than a solitary pint of Williams Brothers Midnight Sun, I spent the evening downing a reasonable number of Oliver Ales' Ape Must Never Kill Ape, a dark Belgian ale with the ABV and drinkability of a Mild. I loved it, and it is most definitely an early contender for the Fuggled Dark Beer of 2012.

There was only one problem, I wanted more of it and driving a couple of hours to DC for a few Friday night libations is not really something I would do, and Oliver Ales' beers are only available in Baltimore and Northern Virginia as I understand it. What I could do though was brew something vaguely similar in my kitchen. Incidently, my double brewing session yesterday was the last I will be doing in my current flat. We closed on our house on Friday, get the keys today hopefully and start the process of shifting all our stuff to the new place.

The page for Ape Must Never Kill Ape on RateBeer describes the beer thus:

A Belgian inspired dark ale, using 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 Tenttnanger then fermented with Belgian DeKonick yeast and cold conditioned with vanilla beans

Clearly that gave me the outline of the Belgian Mild I wanted to brew, though I have no plans to age it on vanilla beans. My recipe then was:
  • 66% Golden Promise pale malt
  • 13% Vienna malt
  • 7% Pale Chocolate malt
  • 5% Crystal 20 malt
  • 3% Crisp Amber malt
  • 3% Caramunich I malt
  • 3% Carafa III malt
  • 10 IBU Styrian Goldings for 60 minutes
  • 8.5 IBU Czech Saaz for 15 minutes
  • 0.5 IBU Czech Saaz for 1 minute
  • Wyeast 3944 Belgian Witbier
All of that gave me a very dark beer with a starting gravity of 1.038, 19 IBUs and an estimated colour of 25 SRM, or "Brown to Dark Brown", though to my eye it looks darker than that. As you can see from the picture, the yeast is munching away happily on the sugars, hopefully the beer will have an ABV of 3.9%, a tad higher than Ape Must Never Kill Ape's 3.3%.

Not so much a clone then as a thoroughly shameless homage to the best beer I have had served through a beer engine on this side of the Atlantic. If this turns out well, I am half tempted to take a bottle up to Baltimore with me when I head up there to spend inordinate amounts of time and money with my best friend.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Beers for Auspicious Occasions

Barring any last minute hitches, this afternoon Mrs Velkyal and I are signing all the necessary paperwork to finalise the purchase of our new house, though it won't be until Monday that we actually take possession of the property and have keys in our hands.

The new house, and it is entirely new, has 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, an acre and a half of land, and most importantly, from a homebrew perspective, a double garage. The double garage is particularly useful for homebrewing when you only have one car, thus leaving half the space for me to mash, boil and ferment without upsetting the delicate nostrils of Mrs V, who is not a fan of the smell of wort.

One of the first homebrew related tasks I face is to get my water supply checked out because we have our own well. I am, naturally, hoping that we have ridiculously soft water so that I can proceed with me plans to brew a classic Czech pilsner without having to buy purified drinking water.

One thing though that I will not be doing is growing my own hops, sure I will have plenty of space for it, but given the difficulty of getting rhizomes for the hops varieties I use most, I am just not all that bothered about doing so. I am considering though reserving some space for growing barley and other grains to use in both brewing and my bread making, but that's something of a fuzzy idea at the moment.

Clearly such an auspicious occasion as buying one's first house (how Fisher Price does that sound?) needs to be marked with something special, at least one bottle of my various Fuller's Vintage Ales that I have in the cellar, or maybe even the 1996 Gale's Prize Old Ale. I could also go with one of the strong American beers that have been aging away in the cellar for nearly three years, Bell's 25th Anniversary Ale, Victory Old Horizontal or one of the Bell's Third Coast Old Ales. If I wasn't saving the remaining 2 bottles of the 2009 Samoset Vintage Ale for when I see my best mate in Baltimore in August I could well imagine that being a contender.

What beers are you saving for a special occasion and when do you plan to drink them?

* Mrs V and I have started a joint blog about our new house and the garden we plan to create around it, it's called City Girl, Country Boy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Computerised Craft

Being the second Tuesday of the month, last night was the monthly meeting of the homebrew club I go to. One unscheduled presentation was a description of one of our member's trip to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility really looks impressive, lots of shiny stainless steel and so on and so forth, but it got me thinking, in particular it got me thinking about the nature of "craft" brewing.

Something you will quite often hear amongst a certain section of the beer geek world is that one of the differences between "craft" beer and "macro" beer is that it is made by people not machines. If that is a defining characteristic of "craft" beer then I struggle to understand how a brewery like New Belgium can be considered "craft". As a quick disclaimer here, I am not picking on New Belgium in any way, shape or form, it was just that the pictures I saw last night were from there. Particularly impressive were the kettles, made in Germany by Krones, under the Steinecker brand, they are the latest in boiling technology.

When Devils Backbone built their new enlarged brewing facility they had their brewhouse custom built in Germany and talking to the brewer there I learnt that it was the very latest in brewing kit. Included in the brewhouse were hop dosers, which you fill with the hops and at pre-determined times in the boil they get dumped in. All of this controlled, as was the kit at New Belgium, by computer, or to put it another way, it is an entirely automated process.

Personally I have absolutely no problem with entirely automated brewing systems. They, regardless of scale, are not a determiner in whether or not I will like the beer being produced, for example I am occasionally partial to some Michelob AmberBock. One thing though is clear to me, we are getting to the stage in the development of the non-BMC brewing industry where the economies of scale and technology that once were the sole domain of the big boys are available to the bigger "craft" breweries.

At the moment it seems pretty much every regional brewery in the States is expanding, investing in new equipment and extra fermentation space or introducing the latest brewing equipment to replace their beat up boilers. Of course this recycling of brewing equipment allows start up breweries to get off the ground, and there are at least 2 more coming to Charlottesville in the near future. One thing though is evident, with the leading non-BMC breweries adopting similar technology and processes as the likes of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, the term "craft brewery" is becoming an anachronism at the very highest levels of the industry.

In my own head I think of Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, New Belgium and other large companies with plans for multiple brewing facilities as "mini-macros", and while I am not interested in prescribing a given moniker for these companies I think some honesty on the part of the "craft" beer drinking community would not go amiss. Once brewing companies get to a certain size, they can and should adopt the latest technologies and practices, it is how industries evolve. The key will always be what is in the glass, not the equipment the beer was made with.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Those Pesky "Belgians"

I often shy away from Belgian beers, unless they are actually made in Belgium that is, so I guess I should really say that I often shy away from "Belgian" beers. At the same time though, I do enjoy the occasional Trappist beer, Rochefort and Achel being my particular favourites, and some of the euphemistically labelled "Abbey Ales", such as Leffe.

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a mixed four pack of St Bernardus beer, partly because the accompanying glass looked so much more solid and reliable than my flimsy Chimay glasses. The four pack consisted of the Pater 6, Prior 8, Abt 12 and Tripel. I won't rattle on with tasting notes, mainly because I sat glass in hand watching something or other on Netflix and didn't actually bother with noting the flavours, aromas and other incidentals that are par for the course when reviewing a beer. I will tell you though that I enjoyed all four, including, much to my surprise, the Tripel, though I think the Pater 6 was my favourite over all.

As I sat, gently getting a tad pickled, I ruminated on why it is that I generally avoid "Belgian" beers but am generally ok with Belgian beers? Maybe it is the relative absence of what gets termed "funkiness", though perhaps it is because the Belgian beers I have had tend not to be so weirdly fruity?

I find this aversion to "Belgian" beers is particularly pronounced with saisons. I don't mind the lingering dryness from using candy sugar, but I find the hefty spice and fruity flavours off putting to a certain degree. I can't remember where I read it but I recall something about American made saisons being heavily influenced by the outlier of Belgian saisons, Saison Dupont - a beer I have never had. As I recall, the yeast used by Brasseries Dupont can function at a higher temperature level than other yeast strains used in Belgium to make saison, and throws off all this weird fruity funkiness.

With this aversion to saison, perhaps it is a little weird that I recently brewed my first attempt at the style, using honey malt and ginger, fermented with Wyeast 3711 French Saison. Said beer was bottled on Saturday, and my first instinct is that it will be very nice once conditioned and carbonated. Perhaps I will learn to like saisons, but there is part of me that wishes someone over here would make a classic saison, session strength for drinking in the heat of summer, as apparently this summer will be a hot one.

* the picture is of the spiced Abbey Ale I made earlier this year, in one of my Chimay glasses.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Defining a Session

A couple of Fridays ago I posted about what I consider to be the upper limit of hop bitterness when it comes to session beer, which I put at about 40 IBU. That post generated quite a bit of discussion and prompted further questions about the nature of session beers, it also floated the question about what actually constitutes a session itself.

Lew Bryson, in his definition of a session beer, says that they are the kind of beer which you want to drink multiple pints of. To gauge opinion about how many pints would be required for a trip to the pub to become a session, I posted the poll over on the side of this blog.

Clearly the majority of Fuggled readers believe a session to be a minimum of 3 imperial pints, the equivalent of nearly 4 US pints, by a ratio of exactly 3:1. Personally I think a session is a minimum of 6 imperial pints, or 7.5 US pints, mainly because taking an abv of less than 4.5% as the norm for a session beer, 3 pints would be lunch. Well, it would have been back in the Czech Republic, and admittedly it would have been half litres rather than the extra 68ml to get to a full pint.

I realise that the poll only had three options and perhaps fails to reflect the nuances of opinion out there as to how to define a session. So imagine, if you will, you are sat in a pub, drinking a 3.8% bitter, or whatever or sub 4.5% tipple of choice would be, how many pints will you drink before you settle in for a proper session?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Drink Beer

Last night I tweeted that "I like beer that tastes like beer".

Speaking purely for myself, if I want to drink something that doesn't taste like beer, I'll drink something other than beer, cider for example. Indeed, during the summer months there are many times when I would much rather have a pint of cider than some flaccid "lawnmower beer" drunk at the temperature of Antarctica on a particularly cold day. Heck, I'd sooner have a long glass of cold water than some of the beers, whether "craft" or otherwise, that are apparently good for refreshment after a session in the garden.

I am not a Reinheitsgebot fundamentalist, but there have been several times in the last few weeks when I have wondered if some brewers have gone from "pushing the envelope" to "jumping the shark"?

There are enough flavours from the malt, yeast and hops to keep a beer drinker happy and enjoying the complexities of beer without resorting to chucking fruit, honey or whatever happens to be at hand into the boil. I realise that there are beer traditions which use judicious amounts of fruit and spices, and strangely I have no issue with that, it is the "innovative" brewers making strange concoctions like gorilla snot and coconut bitter that bug my head.

Perhaps I am just a staid and boring, happy to sit in a proper pub, drinking a proper pint of properly made beer. Thankfully there are plenty of brewers out there making classic beers, that taste like beer, to those brewers, I salute you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Civilising Tale

I am reading a very interesting book, "The Economics of Good and Evil" by Tomáš Sedláček, a Czech economist who was once an economic advisor to former Czech president Václav Havel. The basic premise of the book is that economics is not purely a mathematical phenomenon, but rather a cultural one, influenced by, amongst other things, religion, philosophy and the arts. In the very first chapter of the book, Sedláček sets out to show that the Epic of Gilgamesh contains elements of economic theory and thought.

What exactly does this have to do with beer? Well, one of the characters in the Epic is called Enkidu, a wild and uncivilised creature to begin with, who becomes friends with Gilgamesh and together they do many great things. Eventually Enkidu is civilised and when brought to the city and dressed, he is encouraged to:

"Eat the bread, Enkidu, essential to life,
drink the ale, the lot of the land".

Seemingly, bread and beer are the hallmarks of human civilisation according to the standard text. I find it most interesting that it is beer that is marked out as being civilising because beer, and I realise that what the Sumerians would call beer would be rather different from our modern versions, simply cannot exist in nature. While beer may be a product of natural ingredients, it can only exist because of the genius of man, as I have talked about before.

What was beer for the Sumerians? Well, from what I have read, mainly from the Hymn to Ninkasi, Sumerian Goddess of Beer, it would have been made with loaves of bread being soaked with malted grains. There is no mention of hops or other bittering agents, but it sounds remarkably like kvass, a low alcohol, sour beverage which is still made in Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine.

So there we have it, a thought for Monday morning, from the very earliest recorded history of mankind, beer has been one of the indicators of a civilised society.

* the picture above is not mine, but rather, taken by "Mr.Icon", from the Wikipedia page about kvass, and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Landlord, landlord!

A quick post today as I am at the Society for Scholarly Publishing annual meeting. Last night though I went back to Church Key with some of my colleagues for dinner.

Highlight of the dinner was very simple, bottled Timothy Taylor Landlord, though the J.W. Lees Harvest 2011 aged in Lagavulin casks was also rather nice. There are many times when I wish there was an American brewer making English style pale ale with as much panache and flavour as Landlord, especially when paying more than $10 for a bottle. As a treat though, it was worth every drop of the amber nectar.

When I get back to Charlottesville tonight, I can see a few bottles of St Bernardus in my future, and possibly finally tucking into Evan Rail's homebrew...

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, ...