Friday, August 31, 2012

Ready for the Doctor

It still gives me tingles in my spine, the pulsating bass married to an almost operatic electronica, the memories of cowering behind the sofa at the sight of men in naff looking metal outfits or wheelie bins with loo plungers sticking out the front of them. Of course I am talking about Doctor Who, which returns to our screens on BBC America tomorrow, the naffly dressed tin man obviously being the Cybermen, and the bog plunging wheelie bins, the Daleks.

To say I am excited is something of an understatement, I love Doctor Who, always have, always will. One of the things I love about it is that unlike so much other sci-fi (really SyFy channel, you think your version is better?) is that it isn't so morally earnest and po-facedly serious. Of course, the return of the Doctor means being sat in front of the TV on a Saturday night with a few beers - perhaps a growler of something good, Beer Run has Victory Braumeister Pils Spalt on tap at the moment, I have a growler of ESB from Hunter Gatherer in Columbia, SC in the fridge, as Mrs V's best friends and hubby are coming to visit for the weekend.

All it all it promises to be a good weekend, friends, booze and Doctor Who, what more could you want? To get you in the mood, here is a trance remix of the Doctor Who theme...

Monday, August 27, 2012

On the Judge's Bench

Saturday was my kind of day. The temperature was pleasant, it rained for about 9 hours and I was a at a beer festival. The festival in question was the Virginia Craft Brewers Festival being hosted at Devils' Backbone, and I had been asked if I would like to steward at the Virginia Beer Cup part of the festival.

Having driven for an hour or so to get there, Devils Backbone being even further away since we moved into our new house, I got myself checked in and promptly asked if I wouldn't mind being a judge for the day rather than a steward. Thus it was that I found myself in the august company of several BJCP Master and National judges, as well as the executive director of the Brewer's Association of Maryland - who I also enjoyed a good chat with over a re-competition pint in the brewpub itself.

Judging a commercial beer competition is slightly different from judging homebrew. For a start you can generally assume that the brewers know what they are doing, and don't need to be reminded off the importance of sanitation and such like, and using the GABF style guidelines means you don't have to discuss the nature of a black IPA.

With something like 70 beers to judge, in 5 categories, I was very happy to be given the task of judging dark beers in the first session and then lagers in the second. Dark beers covered a multitude of styles, from brown ales to stouts and pretty much everything in between, my personal favourite was an oatmeal stout, while in the lager category a schwarzbier stood head and shoulders above the competition. I am still not sure who the oatmeal stout was from, but the schwarzbier, which eventually took best in show and hence the Virginia Beer Cup itself, was a Devils Backbone brew.

One thing that became abundantly apparent during the competition was that what Virginia perhaps lacks in the quantity of breweries, when compared to say North Carolina, is more than made up for in the quality. We have some damned good breweries in the Commonwealth, and hopefully the many startups that are in the works will add as much to the quality of our local beer as to the quantity.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Pub

Pubs. It is fair to say that I love the places.

There are few places in the world I would rather spend an entire day in, tucked up in a dark corner, or sat at the end of the bar, preferably with my back to a wall so I can glance up from my book or newspaper from time to time and simply people watch. My mind wanders back to Mrs V and I's trip to Oxford in 2008, I spent inordinate amounts of time in the city's pubs while she was at a conference. In one day sat in Far From the Madding Crowd (a more perfect name for my kind of pub simply doesn't exist) I read about 80% of the Iain Banks book I had bought in a bookstore just minutes before opening time.

A few months later and Mrs V and I were again on our travels, this time to Ireland to visit Tale of the Ale's Reuben and wife, though in his pre-Tale days. Sadly the pub in which we sat and watched Ireland play New Zealand in the rugby is no longer in business as far as I know. Sheridan's On The Docks was everything you could possibly want from an Irish pub, a peat fire, an excellent selection of beer, including the delightful Galway Hooker, and it was there that I had my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In many ways it was like being in your own living room, with the benefit of a bar.

On our various travels, whether it be Berlin, Paris, Columbia or Charlottesville, Mrs V and I have found pubs in which to spend time and just relax over pints. I am convinced that regardless of whether a country has a vibrant, overwhelming beer culture or just a few major brands doing nothing weird and wonderful, pubs are almost universally the kind of places I like to be in.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Carboy Carnage

I am an idiot.

Saturday was supposed to be a day of discovery, learning about the differences between the bottled water I had been using for brewing and the well water I will be using in the future. The plan was really quite simple, do a double brew of the same grain and hop bill, using the same yeast strain but with water from different sources. I had decided to brew an 80/- Scottish Ale, one of my favourite types of beer. The two batches would have been ready in the middle of September, just in time for the onset of autumn, with its cooler temperatures and steady gentle rain, days that always remind me of home.

Everything went swimmingly in the mashes, the well water extracted a touch less colour than bottled, and seemingly more sugar, with each of the 3 runnings being 2º Plato stronger with well water. Eventually I worked out that to keep a rolling boil with my kettle required leaving the lid on for the duration of the 90 minutes, and thus began the downfall of my day.

On previous brewdays I knew that the evaporation rate meant from 3 gallons of wort I got 1.5 gallons to be diluted in ice cold water in an ice bath, keeping the lid on meant I only lost half a gallon to evaporation. As a result I put less cold water in the carboy in the ice bath, and filled up pretty much as usual. Hot wort, ice bath, glass carboy, a cracking combination, as you can see from the picture. The crack of glass was unmistakable and the water turned a rich red as the wort seeped out, flowing easily as I lifted the carboy by the neck to confirm my worst fears.

Not to worry, all was not lost, I had my second boil rolling and I decided to switch out my other glass carboy with a PET Better Bottle. Fast forward to the end of the boil, the ice bath ready, and again less evaporation. With 95% of the wort in the fermenter, I heard a crack. Surely plastic doesn't crack? True enough, it doesn't, but it does melt and shrink and become deformed, as in the picture, next to an unshrunken version. I did a quick search online to see if it would be safe enough to ferment the beer but the collective wisdom was that it was best to ditch the batch.

So my double brewday ended up empty handed because of my empty headedness, but on the upside I will be breaking out my wort chiller in the very near future and will forthwith be doing whole wort boils. As I said, I am an idiot.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Of Pigs and Beer

A random thought occurred to me the other day, that where you have a great appreciation for the virtues of pigs, you also have a strong tradition of making beer. Much of Central European cuisine removes around various cuts and preparations of pork, often served with at least a half litre of lager. Think Wienerschnitzel, think Krkovice, think Schweinshaxe and try to imagine them without a clean, crisp beer to wash it all down with. It simply cannot be countenanced, and neither would I want to change anything. It is surely as truer statement as any, that pigs and beer go hand in hand.

I guess in many ways I am pretty much an unreconstructed peasant when it comes to food. I like it simple, I like it good. I am not a fan of fancy juliennes of this or gastriques of that, give me a nice, thick pork chop, a selection of garden vegetables and a slice or two of rye bread, you can call it "Jewish" if you wish, but it is common to all of Central Europe. I am fairly sure I am one of the few people that thinks proper British food deserves to be placed up with the "finest" cuisines on the planet, of course it needs to be cooked properly, like any cuisine, but there are few treats better than a pork roast on a Sunday with plenty of crackling.

What does any of this have to do with beer though? Not a lot really I guess, except that I often find myself rolling my eyes at the seemingly endless attempts to turn the drink of the everyman into something antithetical to its very nature, something fancy. We often read and hear about beer "achieving the status of wine", as though middle class respectability with its chunky knit sweaters, Volvos and wine and cheese parties is something worth aping. 

Do we as some kind of "beer community" not have the confidence in our libation of choice to let it stand on its own two feet rather than being compared with wine? Do we do beer a disservice by wanting people to "take it as seriously as wine"? Traditionally there is nothing aspirational about beer, it has been drunk by peasants and workers, industrialists, nobles and monarchs since time immemorial. To try and seek an "elevated" status for it is in fact to relegate it as something not fit for everyone, and is that not on the of the joys of beer, it is inclusive?

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Definition of Black

On Saturday I was a judge at the Dominion Cup, Virginia's largest, I believe, homebrew competition. In the morning I got to judge a combination of Scottish, Irish and Brown Ales, which was won by a 70/- ale which I later discovered was an entry from fellow CAMRAite and blogger, Jamey Barlow. The afternoon session was rather more taxing, as I had been handled Category 23, Specialty Beer, or as it should be accurately be known "random stuff that doesn't belong anywhere else".

Some of the beers in the category included an American IPA fermented with Brettanomyces and an Imperial Stout that had raspeberry puree in the secondary fermentation and then aged on cacao nibs, the most dominant beer type though was "Black IPA" in various guises. Now, if you have been reading Fuggled for a reasonable length of time you will know that I am not a fan of Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale, call it what you will, but the task of the judge is to be as objective as possible, and thus I tried to be.

Our task though was made all the more difficult because of different interpretations of exactly what the "black" in Black IPA really means - should the black be purely colour or should there be a distinct roasty element? Unlike the Great American Beer Festival, the BJCP style guidelines have yet to take into account the phenomena which is Black IPA. I have read plenty of bits and bobs on the old interwebs to the tune that if you drink a Black IPA with your eyes closed you shouldn't be able to tell the difference between it and a normal IPA, so my interpretation would be that roastiness from roasted barley, Black Malt or Carafa shouldn't be noticeable to any great degree. My fellow judges felt that the addition of dark malts should be obvious to distinguish the Black IPA from the usual kind, to which I wonder how it not then just an overhopped Porter or Stout?

It is clear to me that the BJCP needs to address this hole in the style guidelines, perhaps creating a new sub category within category 10, it would be 10D - American Black Ale. As for the guidelines themselves, using the GABF guideline would be a good start, which reads:

"American-style Black Ales are very dark to black and perceived to have medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins many contributre character. The style is further characterized by a balanced and moderate degree of caramel malt and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent
  • OG - 1.056-1.075
  • FG - 1.012-1.018
  • ABV - 6-7.5%
  • SRM - 35+"
Clearly then, while roast is an element in the beer it shouldn't be the dominant flavour or aroma, and in opinion that has been the problem with pretty much every Black IPA I have tried, whether professional or homebrew, it is simply so roasty that it may as well be an "American Porter".

Clarification is most definitely in order.

Friday, August 10, 2012

BreakFast Time!

I haven't had a drink for 12 days now. Yes, I am on my annual, post Daytona Beach beer fast, though this year it is forming just part of a bigger program to get myself back down to my 2009 weight, and once that happens perhaps I will keep going until I reach my 2007 vintage.

The beer fast itself though will come to an end tomorrow as it is the Dominion Cup and I have volunteered to judge - though at the time of writing I still don't know what categories. Even though the beer fast will be broken, I have a plan to avoid the booze effecting me too much too soon, involving a nice greasy fry-up and a pint of whole milk. This weekend could also see the return of brewing, depending on what the wife is doing on Sunday.

With this being my first brewday in the new house I have decided that I will do a double header to see the difference between my well water and the usual purified water I use from the shop. I am hoping that my well water makes good beer and thus cuts a cost from my brewing (did I mention that I am quite cheap?). To test the water I will be brewing my autumn beer, which in keeping with the spirit of my post on Wednesday will be ready around the time of the Vernal Equinox (the middle of autumn in the UK, the beginning in the US). My autumnal beer for this beer is an 80/- "Scottish" ale using the following recipe:
  • 96% Golden Promise Pale Malt
  • 4% Roasted Barley
  • 15 IBU Fuggles for 60 minutes
  • 5 IBU Kent Goldings for 15 minutes
  • Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale Yeast
I won't be engaging in any spurious techniques like boiling down some wort to make an intense maltiness, or adding peated malt to get that smokiness which is wrongly considered part of the style by some. Nope, this will hopefully be another session beer to enjoy when the days of steady rain finally arrive.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Season of Incongruity

The nights are drawing in, the leaves on the trees are turning their various shades of yellow, orange and brown, finally the fierce heat of summer is a distant memory and it rains pretty much every day, the delights of Autumn are here.

Hang on a minute! When I stand on my deck and survey the trees in my garden the leaves are still green, when I go for my lunchtime walk it is about 90°F, or 32°C for my metric friends, rain is something of a rarity at the moment. Autumn most definitely has not arrived, but in the minds of retailers it has.

Already this year's iteration of Samuel Adams Octoberfest is in the shops, as are innumerable pumpkin ale abominations (I am yet to have a pumpkin ale that didn't taste like wet cardboard). This despite the fact that according to the dictionary, Autumn runs from the September Equinox to the Winter Solstice in December, which means this year's Autumn is from September 22nd to December 21st. As such all these seasonals being  sold in the shops are at least 2 months ahead of the season they are intended to be enjoyed in, never mind the incongruity of drinking an Octoberfest in August (there might be a clue in the name, I am not sure).

This being out of step with the seasons is something I have noticed more this year than in previous years. Especially galling for me was loving Samuel Adams' Spring seasonal, Alpine Spring, and not being able to get it after March, just as Spring began.

I am not sure who is to blame for this silliness, whether it is pressure from the retailers for constantly changing product, the distributors for putting stuff in the market before it is due or the brewers for not having a calendar. Whoever is responsible for this needs to buck their ideas up, stop treating customers like impatient idiots and let us enjoy our beers in their rightful seasons.

I stole the picture above from my friend Hunter's Facebook account, he is also the president a new brewery coming to Charlottesville in the near future.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Changing Tastes

I vaguely recall the first time I drank a Pilsner Urquell. It was 1999 and I had just moved to the Czech Republic for a year, which became 10 but that's a different story. It wasn't my first Czech beer, I had drunk Budvar on the recommendation of my eldest brother and Gambrinus in the All Bar One in Birmingham, but Pilsner Urquell was different, a lot more bite and for a few years I wasn't that big of a fan, preferring Kozel.

Before moving to Central Europe my tipples of choice had been Caffrey's, Guinness or John Smith's Extra Smooth, in that order. A few years later and the only one of the three that I would drink with any regularity was Guinness, then I found a shop in Prague that sold London Pride, Ruddle's County and Old Speckled Hen. While I certainly never abandoned the delights of Czech lager, it was nice to be able to have a taste of home from time to time.

While we were in Florida on holiday a couple of weeks ago we pottered along for dinner at a British ethnopub just down from the resort called The Black Sheep. I wrote about it last year, and the liver and onions is still very nice, but there was something that I didn't expect. I ordered a pint of London Pride and polished it off with a distinct sense of being underwhelmed, so I ordered a pint of Bombardier and thought to myself, what a sweet and vaguely dull disappointment, and so I drank a couple of pints more of Pride, there not really being anything else that grabbed my attention.

That night I lay on the sofa, drinking a bottle of Highland Brewing Company's St Terese's Pale Ale and wondering how my tastes in beer have changed in the last 13 years. St Terese's Pale Ale is certainly no hop bomb, having a "mere" 24 IBU, but those hops are Cascade and Chinook and Highland are one of the few breweries I know that really use America C-hops well in my unhumble opinion. Were St Terese's a more common sight in the beer shops in this area it would likely be a more frequent visitor to the Velkyal beer cellar.

I am not saying here that I now prefer Cascade and Co to the delights of Fuggles and Goldings, and Saaz is still safe on its perch as my favourite hop, but in the hands of Highland, and admittedly Sierra Nevada, I am starting not to think "oh god, not Cascade again".

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Session - The Name of the Ring...

"What follows was translated from the original German. Found on top of a pile of papers, only rediscovered in the days of Restitution in 1990 when the government restored property confiscated in the heady days of 1948 and the Communist takeover, in a cobwebbed attic, littered with the remnants of a life hastily packed, a diary lay open...

“November 11th 1842

A few dozen people were gathered at the fair for the feast of Saint Martin, finally the moment had arrived for our new beer to be tasted. Would it be worth the wait? The money? The hassle with the brewer? The success of the last four years depended on the skill of the Bavarian who has spent recent months annoying all of us on the board of directors with his complaining, rough manner and drunkenness.

How bad was our beer in the days before we spent all that money on the English malting equipment? Sometimes it was reasonable, but most of the time it was just too smoky and heavy to drink more than a few mouthfuls of. How we wished we had smashed open barrels of it on the steps of the town hall, but Herr Schmitzer insisted we didn't.

The cask was sat on a bar, Herr Groll looking smart and sober for a change fidgeted, clearly eager to show us the outcome of his labour. Groll turned the tap and out gushed a torrent of golden liquid and bright white foam into the waiting jug.

Around the cask, the directors gasped as the beer, topped with a cap of foam, was poured from the jug into our crystal goblets. How was it possible for beer to be so light in colour, sparkling like the finest French champagne?

We felt as though the very future of our town rested on how the beer tasted...the bitterness of the hops was so much more than any of us had ever known. There was a sweetness there, which Groll said was the product of the English malting methods he used and his special way of mashing the grains. It was without doubt the finest, most refreshing beer we had ever tasted.

To think that we had everything to make such a pure beer right here in Pilsen! Most assuredly Saint Martin has left behind the grape in favour of the grain!”

Forgive the most likely abysmal rip off of Umberto Eco's style for The Name of the Rose, but the truth remains, I would love to have been at the Martinmas Fair in Plzeň, a week before my birthday, to taste Josef Groll's original Pilsner Urquell. To my mind the beers of the Czech Republic inspired by Groll's Pilsner are the finest on earth, end of story...

This month's edition of The Session is being hosted by Drink Drank, the stated topic is "One Beer to Rule Them All"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Responsible Brewing?

It's a slogan that we see a lot of these days, "Drink Responsibly", you can see my take on the slogan at the top of this page, for example. Pretty much every beer advert on the TV flashes it up after they have attempted to convince us that drinking their beer will put us at the heart of rather suave social situation or will give us the courage to chat up the boss's daughter. In all this fraternisation and sexual tension, one is encouraged to "drink responsibly".

Drinking responsibly, whatever that means, is certainly a commendable aim. I would most assuredly not encourage people to down a session's worth of some high octane brew and then drive, neither do I think drinking gallons of alcohol every night of the week is good for you. So yes, being a responsible drinker is something I think is a "good thing".

The question I have then is how come all the responsibility gets punted on to the drinker rather than the producer of the beer? Surely if a brewery is serious about encouraging its drinkers to be responsible, which I am fairly sure they aren't they are just complying with regulations, then they should be brewing more session beers?

It is a fact of life that people enjoy drinking and socialising, and by socialising I mean being with real physical people in actual buildings rather than being a social media approximation of real life. From a purely anecdotal perspective, people seem to drink at pretty much the same rate regardless of the strength of the beer being imbibed, though when you get north of about 8% the drinking speed does drop off, and understandably so.

Let me give you a concrete example, imagine you are at a party and in 5 hours you drink the equivalent of 6 US pints (4.8 imperial pints, 5.5 500ml glasses, or 8 12oz bottles) of Pilsner Urquell, which is 4.4% ABV, so just under the limit for session beer. If you are 250lbs then your Blood Alcohol Content would be 0.05, or to put it another way, you aren't getting a DUI on the way home. Let's up that though to the fairly average ABV for American breweries of 6.5%, based on my reviewing brewers' ranges and working out averages, and your BAC would be 0.11% and should you get caught you are in a shit load of trouble, and not just from your mother.

While I accept that it is the drinker's responsibility not to guzzle nearly a gallon of "average" beer and then drive home, sometimes it is pretty bloody difficult to get anything other than an "average" strength beer in the pub. It wouldn't hurt if the brewers and pubs gave responsibility a helping hand by having a diverse selection of sub 4.5% abv beers.

There are plenty of beer "styles" with upper limits on their ABV which fit nicely in the definition of session beer, and sadly they are the styles that seem to be the most neglected in the "I use more hops and have more alcohol than you" dick waving contest which is craft beer. So come on brewers, stop just nodding in the direction of session beer and let's see how good you really are at brewing by developing a whole range of beers.

PS - those that think 6% can be a session beer clearly don't know what they are talking about, and I would like to invite them to responsibly take a long walk off a short pier.

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately. At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerb...