Monday, July 30, 2012

Time to Restart the Engine

Somewhere in between Greensboro in North Carolina and Virginia's Danville is Eden. Not the mythological garden in which, if you believe these things, talking snakes beguiled a woman into eating some fruit and getting her husband to do likewise (possibly the earliest parable of the perils of healthy living!), but rather a rest area on the drive home. The rest area at Eden is pretty much the midway point of the drive from Mrs V's parents' home in Columbia, SC, and Charlottesville, VA. It is the place where we get out to stretch our legs, give the dog a break from his crate and it is also where we swap driving duties.

Every year when we head back from Florida, I take on the driving duties from Eden to home, which this year meant turning right at Junction 124 of the I-64 where we used to turn left, and every year it feels as though the end of summer is just round the corner. In a few weeks Mrs V will be back at work, teaching 3-6 year olds, and then Labor Day will be upon us, which is, I believe, the official end of summer over here - hopefully the weather will take notice and cool off.

The End of Summer is also, for me at least, the time when my thoughts turn back to brewing as I generally don't brew in the summer months. My thoughts turn not only to beer, but to cider and mead as well. This year I plan to make more cider than in previous years, perhaps up to 10 gallons though I have something a bit different in mind for most of the cider. I have only made mead a couple of times, and the maple syrup infused version I brewed a couple of years ago is finally drinkable, so mead needs patience. Given the size of my new garden though, I am playing with the idea of starting an apiary to supply my own honey.

On the beer front, things take a darker turn, with milds, porters, stouts and "Scottish" ales very much in attendance, and hopefully it won't be too long until I have a fridge for fermentation and lagering, at which point my plan becomes the brewing of the perfect Czech style Pilsner - a long term project I am sure.

Well, after a week at the beach, and the shoulders to show for it, it is good to be home.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What's In Your Beer?

I am nearly at the end of the my case of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and the few bottles of Saint Terese's Pale Ale from Highland Brewing that I bought with me. To head off any potential beer shortage, when we went to the nearest Publix I grabbed a couple of six packs of Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale. When we were back from the shop, Mrs V bimbled on down to the pool to enjoy a drink in the gathering gloom of night, and I was surprised to find that Dale's Pale Ale was much sweeter than I expected. Further research was required, and not of the liquid kind, but rather a quest for information online.

One of my bugbears with the vast majority of beers over here is the complete absence of key, decision making information on the label. I bought Dale's mainly because it was in cans and the name would suggest it is a regular American style pale ale, yet at 6.5% and 65 IBUs it is more in the American IPA ball park. When I am sitting by the pool (when you grow up on a small island in the Hebrides in the North Atlantic, sand and beaches really hold very little fascination) I really don't want to be drinking beers too far north of 5% - call me a wimp or a dilenttante if you wish. Admittedly with Dale's the alcohol content is listed on the side of the can, but other than that there is nothing to tell me what I might expect, like what hops are involved. With SNPA and Saint Terese's Pale Ale, you need to check their websites to learn about the alcohol content, IBUs, hop varieties and malts involved.

Is it really so difficult for brewers, or their designers, to actually find space on the labels to tell us what is in their beer? At a bare minimum there should be a list of malts and hops as well as the alcohol content. To completely misappropriate Ricoeur's hermeneutics of suspicion, what are they trying to hide by giving us just waffly bollocks about being a "completely natural ale", utter tosh since beer does not occur in nature, or that the beer in the bottle is "just a wee bit different". Sure you can argue that I can just look it up on the internet, but when in a shop and without owning a smart phone, yes there are still those of us out here who believe the telephone is for talking to people, you are effectively relying on producers of any foodstuffs to tell you what they use. In the case of the Dale's Pale Ale, checking out the website for meaningful information about the beer is as useful as a chocolate teapot.

I am not entirely sure if there are legal reasons for an absence of useful information on beer labels, but if not then could brewers please start telling their consumers at least the alcohol content, malts and hop varieties in a beer?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Follow the Flagship

Last week Andy Crouch wrote a very interesting piece entitled "Death of the Flagship", looking at how the craft beer industry, for want of a better phrase, seems to be moving away from having a flagship brand to having lots of seasonals and rotations. If you didn't read it already, once you are finished reading this, then head on over.

The reason I mention Andy's post is that I am on my annual holiday in Florida. As I type this post I am looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, watching early risers like Mrs V and I stroll along the shore, and thinking that perhaps I should be sensible today on the laying in the sun front. From a beer perspective, whenever I come to Daytona Beach, I am so glad for the very flagship beers mentioned in Andy's post, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

On the first afternoon of our week here, we always go to Walmart to stock up on food for the week and I get my first stash of beer. The Daytona Beach Walmart has a pathetic beer selection, let's be honest here. I think they have every conceivable shade of BMC lager and then a token "craft" selection of some Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, and so that is my choice, and this year it was a case of Pale Ale which worked its way into the fridge.

This is why having flagships like Boston Lager and Pale Ale is important for the industry, because of their near ubiquity, their acceptance within the larger world. Knowing that I can get a good, tasty, well made beer without having to traipse my wife's parents half way round the city is a good thing as far as I am concerned. Perhaps I am just not a genuine beer lover in that I really am not such a zealot as to afflict those around me with needless trips to obscure shops when we are on holiday. Admittedly when it is just Mrs V and I we do go looking for out of the way places, but that's because she is incredibly indulgent of me and should be sainted by whatever secular humanist organisation would hand out such gongs.

Anyway, this week will be spent raising bottles of hoppy American Pale Ale to those pioneers of good tasty beer, long may they prosper!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hope for Pilsner

If you have gleaned anything from the more than 700 posts on Fuggled, it should be, at least, that I love lager. In particular I love Czech lagers, hence Mrs V and I started our annual trip to Florida with a six pack of Budvar last night, at the half way point of our journey, her home town of Columbia, South Carolina.

When I swung by Greens Discount Beverage last night (I wonder if this country has a Trades Description Act, because I couldn't work out where the "discount" came in to it) in the hopes of picking up some cans of lager from the Bohemian Brewery, I made a point to see what Czech lagers they had available, Budvar, Pilsner Urquell and B.B. Burgerbrau Tmave were there but sadly nothing from Bohemian Brewery.

Anyway, recently the people from Pilsner Urquell announced that they are doing something new for the American market - they have started shipping their beer from the Czech Republic in refridgerated containers, and it will apparently be "express shipped". Hopefully this will see an improvement in the overall quality of Pilsner Urquell available in bottles in the States. I also hope that if the freshness of Pilsner Urquell improves we'll see an end to this ridiculous notion that Pilsner style lagers from Europe are supposed to be "skunky", and there are several pro-brewers I have in mind with that comment as well as muppets making uninformed comments on websites that advocate the rating of beer.

In other fairly recent news relating to beer from the Czech Republic, Budvar is cancelling its contract with AB-InBev to import and distribute its quality lager, thankfully there is another importer taking up the contract - and if I may be blunt, I hope they do a damned sight better job at getting the beer into shops and bars.

As I said, we are on holiday for the coming week, so here's to a week of beach and beer!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

From the Source

Think of the great brewing cities of the world, London, Burton, Vienna, Plzeň. Each of them home to a famed type of beer, London its porter, Burton its IPA, Vienna its red lager and Plzen its Pilsner. When we look at brewing history, we look at the malt, hops and yeast that made these styles, we look at the methods employed to create the wort, we look at how long the beer spent conditioning, and then at how it was handled once it left the brewery. One thing though that I sometimes feel is overlooked is the most important ingredient in beer, water.

Whether it is hard water of London, the soft water of Plzeň or the famous sulphurous liquor of Burton, water has played a greater role in the development of beer that probably any other ingredient. As recently as the early 1890s the brewers of Munich were convinced their water would not allow them to brew a pale beer in the Pilsner style.

When I went to the new Blue Mountain Barrel House a couple of weeks ago I was talking with Taylor about the water source they have there - not a common beer lover line of conversation I am fairly sure. Taylor told me that the Barrel House water is insanely soft, on a par with the well at Devils Backbone apparently, while the well at the Blue Mountain brewpub, just a half hour drive, is quite hard.

To taste the difference between water sources, we sampled Blue Mountain's Full Nelson at the Barrel House, and again, half an hour later, at the brewpub, and the difference was very noticeable. The soft water version has a softer, gentler bitterness and hop flavour which I find very appealing, in fact I think I prefer it over the original, the Full Nelson Urquell you could say. That's not to say that the brewpub Full Nelson isn't a moreish, drinkable pale ale, just that the Barrel House version is more so.

It sometimes feels as though the only truly local thing about many beers is the water, given that malt, hops and even yeast are shipped in from around the world. While I understand the reasoning behind tampering with a water supply to recreate the waters of great brewing cities, when a brewery has access to tasty, clean water, I think it is something of a pity not to let it speak for itself.

Monday, July 16, 2012

You Can, But Should You?

Over the weekend I sat and did a fair bit of reading. We are now completely moved in to the new house, indeed with hand over the keys to the old apartment on Wednesday, and in between bouts of box emptying, tree limb sawing and other sundried tasks I caught up with my reading. I have a confession to make, I have neglected my reading lately, mainly because we have Netflix and streaming endless tv shows and films through our Wii was so easy that we watched inordinate amounts of stuff. In the new house we don't the luxury of essentially limitless broadband, so Netflix has gone by the by and I for one am enjoying reacquainting myself with the written word.

Among the beer related stuff I have been reading is a recent edition of Brew Your Own magazine with clone recipes of beers available in cans, including 21st Amendment's Bitter American (official beer of the TEA Party from what I hear). Cans are the big in thing at the moment, a couple of our local breweries having canning machines, Starr Hill and Blue Mountain, and canned beer from independent breweries is becoming ever more common. One part of the article that intrigued me was the description about how using cans is better for the environment than bottles. According the writer of the article the energy required to recycle aluminium cans is much less than to recycle glass, which may or may not be true, I really have no idea. One thing I do vaguely understand though is that making the aluminium to begin with is viciously destructive.

The starting point of aluminium production is the mining of bauxite, which is then heated with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda or lye) to create alumina, apparently this process alone creates 5 tons of caustic waste to produce the equivalent of 1 ton of cans. The alumina is then smelted to about 1800°F (980°C) to form aluminium itself using the Hall-Heroult process, which gives the aluminium a purity of 99%. According to some statistics I have seen, 5% of electricity usage in the USA is consumed in the process of making aluminium. You remember the 5 tons of waste that was mentioned earlier? It is known as "red mud" and is pretty much just dumped into holding ponds where it sits around doing nothing but taking up space. When there was a accidental release of red mud in Hungary in 2010 it "extinguised" all life in the Marcal river and 9 people died, as well as there being a large area of contamination. Even when these ponds of red mud are dry they are basically just dead zones, with agriculture and housing both impossible.

I think it is pretty clear that the production of aluminium is far from environmentally friendly and while glass is barely any better, it is obvious to me that the "environmentally friendly" claim for aluminium cans is misleading at best and spurious at worst.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beer Historian Appreciation Day

I have always been a fan of history. At school I left my Geography teacher perplexed as to why I chose to take History O Grade (the then Scottish equivalent of O Levels) rather than his subject, especially as my test scores were higher in Geography. Simply put, History was, and is, more interesting to me. My tastes in historical interest are fairly catholic as well, whether it be the Russian Revolution, Scotland's role in the expansion of the British Empire or the development of Anglo-Saxon society, I will read pretty much anything about history.

I believe that without a knowledge and understanding of history it is more difficult to understand our world today, and that is just as true with beer as it would be with any other sphere of human endeavour. Few beer styles have so clear a defined origin story as Pilsner, for example, and so an interest in the history of beer continually takes you back through the eras to see what the monikers attached to beer have meant at any one point in time. So being interested in the history of beer becomes an etymological exercise.

Take for example Mild. I love modern milds, usually around 3.5% abv, dark, quaffable, rich and complex, they are in my as ever unhumble opinion a dream of a session beer whilst being a bitch to brew really well. Take a step back to the Victorian era and the ceramic pot of mild that you ordered is pale, as strong as a modern barleywine, has as many IBUs as an imperial IPA and because it came out of the William Youngers brewery a few weeks ago and is yet to age, it is Mild.

As you sit, magically transported back to your modern day drinking hole, you wonder what happened in the beer world that in about 150 years the 120/- Strong Scottish Mild with an abv well north of 9% and IBUs that put Pliny the Elder almost to shame, should become the equivalent of the little black dress? The answer really is simple, history happened, World Wars and the subsequent forcing down of gravities, the pressure to make a product in a world of rationing and want for basic ingredients.

Given that beer history is important, in my opinion, it is no surprise then that I think the work undertaken by beer historians such as Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson is more than just a fascinating read, it is a vital contribution to our understanding and appreciation of beer and the people that shape it, and how their own sitz im leben shapes the things they do. Hence I am officially calling today, the Fuggled Beer Historian Appreciation Day - thanks Ron, Martyn and any one working to bring a knowledge of the history of beer to the people, it is much appreciated.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Death of IPA

Last night at our monthly homebrew club meeting, Barlow Brewing's Jamey spoke about emerging beer styles and touched on several interesting points about what constitutes a "style". One part of his presentation looked at "experimental IPAs" such as Belgian IPA, Black IPA and this year's "innovation", White IPA. I have to admit that all three of the examples are beers that I have problems enjoying, regardless of what you call them, and this got me thinking about the nature of IPA.

As you know, India Pale Ale started life as a beer for the officer class of the East Indian Company's military wing and bounced around in very warm oceans for 6 months because nobody had built the Suez Canal yet. If you aren't aware of the real history of India Pale Ale, read Martyn Cornell's superb book "Amber, Gold and Black". Actually, read the book in general, it really is a mine of fascinating information.

Through the years breweries have sold pale beers under the moniker of India Pale Ale that range widely in strength, shades of pale and perceived bitterness. IPA eventually split along national lines to become British or American style IPA, depending on the use of hops. In the hands of small indepedent brewers, IPA has become the benchmark by which the quality of a brewery is measured in some minds. Today IPA is effectively a meaningless marketing term, appended to any type of beer as long as you hop the shit out of it and make it virtually unpalatable to anyone other than the latest lupulin loony that wandered into your tasting room.

In many ways you could say that IPA is the Pilsner of the early 21st century. Misunderstood, misappropriated and abused at will by marketeers to sell hopped up beers, just as "Pilsner" has come to mean in the minds of those who know no better, a pale, flacid lager, mass produced and sold cheap in dive bars.

What then does the future hold for IPA, both as a beer and a marketing term? Will some brave soul of a brewer actually have a stab at brewing an early style IPA and letting it hot mature for 4 months so we can see what the product that so wowed the East India Company's "servants"? Will we see endless bastardisation until IPA means precisely nothing or will IPA become accepted shorthand for any beer with too many hops in it?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Drinking a Shiftload

Friday afternoon was a case of finish work, swing by the old apartment to pick up some bits and pieces in preparation for having satellite internet installed and then a quick jaunt to the store to buy ingredients for baking as Mrs V had the urge to make cupcakes.

As is my habit I went straight for the beer aisle, which is reasonable in the Giant we shop in, and will continue to shop in as it is on the way home. Their selection is pretty diverse, serveral Samuel Adams' products, a couple of Sierra Nevada, plenty of Starr Hill, nothing that would have the hardened hophead racing over, but plenty for those of us who like to drink good beer whilst avoiding the de riguer tongue rape of whatever colour and multiple of IPA we are on these days. Nestled in amongst the selection are a few brands from New Belgium, the ubiquitous Fat Tire, Ranger IPA and as a four pack of cans, Shift Pale Lager. The choice was easy.

Lager, as I am sure you well know, is my thing. I love lager, I think the best brewers are the ones that make tasty lager, and thankfully in this neck of the woods we have 3 brewers of very fine lagers. I knew what I was getting into with Shift because on the day we closed the contract for the house, Mrs V, myself and Mrs V's running partner went out aboozing to celebrate, and the bar we went to had Shift in cans, so I had a few.

One of the things I liked straight off the bat with Shift was that New Belgium weren't trying to pass it off as a Pilsner, but I also liked the firm hop bitterness which subtley avoids being harsh and reminded me of the best Pilsners. You realise by that by "best" I mean "Czech"? Of course you do, you are a suave, sophiscated, worldly person, whatever was I thinking? The hops in question are Target, Nelson Sauvin, Liberty and Cascade, and they work wonderfully well together.

According to the marketing waffle on the packaging, which was cardboard rather than those duck strangling plastic things, Shift is the beer the guys at New Belgium drink when they come to the end of their alloted hours of employment. While I wouldn't call it a session beer, at 5% it is just a touch outside the boundaries for that, it is definitely a beer you can sit and have a few of. Just an aside, when I say "session" I am thinking of having at least 6 imperial pints, 3 pints is popularly known as "lunch".

I can see Shift becoming something of a regular in the fridge, especially for unwinding from a week of work on a Friday evening, preferably when it isn't hotter than Satan's horns outside and we can sit on the deck without developing a case of sympathy with the pains of the fried egg.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Moved In

It has been a busy week. That, coupled with an absence of internet in Mrs V and I's new house is why there was no post on Wednesday. It had nothing to do with it being a  public holiday, or the fact that it was our wedding anniversary, I was simply too busy getting moved into the house to sit down and write.

Finally though we are all moved in and now begins the task of finding places for everything, which I doubt will be that tricky as our old flat was 830 square feet and the new house is 2600 - I dread driving past IKEA on the way back from Florida in a couple of weeks as I am sure Mrs V will be saying something along the lines of "let's just have a quick look at what they have" before spending hundreds of dollars. Today we are being hooked up to satellite TV and tomorrow to satellite internet, so things should be back to a semblance of normality.

Naturally once we were all settled in and furniture was in situ, it was time for a beer. The first beer in the new house? My gold medal winning Samoset 2010 Old Ale, where once there was 4 now there are three. I hit the spot perfectly. This weekend will be my first homebrew activity in the new place, bottling my latest bitter and the Belgian Mild I wrote about a wee while back. I doubt I will brew again until September though.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Date with Isabel

Saturday was hot, and it was hot too. I had a busy day lined up, moving my cellar from our flat to the new house and then picking up some friends for the 40 mile trip to the newest venture of the guys from Blue Mountain Brewery. Shifting all my beer was heavy work, and included moving 2 carboys of fermented beer which involved much car based contortion, but it all got there safely and set up with the minimum of fuss. We went to the house yesterday and I am immensely happy with the room I chose to be the new cellar as it was 64°F, that after a couple of days of 100° temperatures and the AC being set to 78°.

The highlight of the day though was to be a trip to the newly opened, as of yesterday, Blue Mountain Barrel House. I won the trip because they had some problems with naming their beers, basically the TTB thought "Chocolate Orange Bourbon Porter" was misleading in some way and Blue Mountain decided to run a competition on Facebook to have the beer named by their followers. A quick Google search later and I had discovered that Brazil is one of the leading producers of both cocoa and oranges. I knew, in the far reaches of my memory, that Brazil had once had a royal family, so after some digging on Wikipedia I came across the page of Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil, whose mother, Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies, was a member of the House of Bourbon. Thus Isabel was born.

As I said, it was hot on Saturday, something like 101° and in the aftermath of the derecho that swept through Virginia on Friday night I was half expecting the tour to be cancelled due to lack of power. As far as I know, large parts of the Commonwealth are still within electricity and thus air conditioning, and we have a week of high 90s temperature ahead of us. Thankfully the brewery was open, had power and was wonderfully cool inside. There were four of in our group, myself, local RateBeer guru Dan, Mark the photographer and my mate Ed, a local school teacher.

The tour was taken by Taylor, owner, brewer, odd job man and gentleman. We learnt that at the brewery they are doing parti-gyle brewing, blending runnings into two 15 barrel kettles to make 2 beers with every run. We saw stacks of whiskey barrels in various stages of preparation for receiving the beer that will sit and age in them. In the barrel cold room there is a wonderful smell of beer and whiskey which reminded me of many a public bar in hotels across the west coast of Scotland, I loved it. Having walked around the brewery, geeked out at the equipment, probed Taylor about his setup, learnt that they have a fascinating effluent treatment system (well, I thought it was fascinating) and discovered that it is possible to get relief from extreme heat by entering a boiler room, we took our places at the bar for a tasting.

Virginia has a law, which came into effect yesterday, allowing breweries to sell full pints in their tasting rooms, and at Blue Mountain Barrel House you can do just that, order full glasses of the beers they are producing there, including Local Species, a "Belgian-inspired, American-hopped, barrel-aged pale ale" which is delicious. You can also get, at the moment, Über Pils, a strong pale lager with 40IBUs of noble hop delight. Taylor mentioned that the bottled stuff would benefit from a bit of aging, so in my fridge is my birthday beer, to sit until the middle of November.

When the time came to leave, Taylor told us that he was on his way from the main Blue Mountain Brewery and that if we went over he would let us try some of the latest Über Pils current sitting in the lager tanks. He didn't need to offer twice, and we jumped in the car to head up winding Virginia roads to Afton. We sat at the bar had a pint and some pretzels and were then invited into the brewery part of the pub to try the lager. It was divine. Simply magnficent, and if I may allow myself a smug moment, as I breathed in the aroma of the beer, I asked Taylor if he had used my old friend Saaz in the hopping, and sure enough it was the aroma hop, an orange blossom and faint hay delight.

A fantastic afternoon and evening was had, and everyone got home safe and sound. I want to thank Taylor and the Blue Mountain guys for being so welcoming and I would encourage everyone who is in the area to swing by for a tour and tasting. If you can't get down to Colleen, but see the beer in the store, buy it and enjoy.

Of Bostonian Beer...

 A couple of weeks ago I was up in Boston for a work related conference. Having only ever been to the city for a few hours previously, to vi...