Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Law of Unintended Consequences

For those of us who live in Virginia and love beer, July 1st will likely go down as one of the best days of 2012. It was on that date that law SB 604 came into effect, allowing breweries to sell pints of their products in their tasting rooms. If you come to the Starr Hill tasting room this Saturday I will, as a result of this law, be able to sell you a pint and, speaking from the point of view of someone behind the bar, I much prefer pouring pints than samples.


As a result of the law coming into effect there have been a veritable slew of breweries opening up with tasting rooms that are effectively pubs. Unencumbered with the requirement to have 45% of their on-premise business come from food sales, I can see more and more breweries turning their tasting rooms into bars. On a personal level I very much welcome such a move, anything that means there are more pub-esque places in the Commonwealth is a good thing in my book.

However, this does raise a question in my head. Given that the legal requirement for pubs and bars to have food is now effectively redundant, why is it still on the statute book? Wouldn't it make sense for the Governor to take a pro-free market stance and reduce the daft regulation and red tape around starting a pub, thus allowing pubs to focus on what pubs are for? Good beer, maybe some snacks and being a social centre for the community, oh and making a viable living for those who want to run a pub without the hassle of being a restaurant as well?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Encouraging Beginnings

Last Friday saw the soft opening of Charlottesville's latest brewery, Champion Brewing Company.


Champion is the brainchild of Hunter Smith, whose parents own and operate the Afton Mountain Vineyards, one of the few vineyards in that part of the area whose wines I consistently like.

Naturally, wanting to support Hunter, Mrs V and I made our way over there on Friday evening, after I was done with brewing my latest best bitter. When we arrived, we snagged ourselves a couple of seats at the bar and had a look at the beer list.

Champion had four beers on tap:
The moment I saw that Pace Car was a respectable 5%, I knew what I wanted. Pitch black, roasty, nutty and very moreish, it was just the ticket and I polished off a couple pretty quickly. Mrs V tried the Killer Kolsch and was suitably impressed.

Usually I have a rule of thumb that it takes a new brewery a few months to really hit their stride, and so I will go back to places where the beer was merely ok and try again. With Champion, if the beer improves in the next six months as Hunter really gets to grips with his operation then Charlottesville will have an excellent small brewery to enjoy.

As some point I will go over with a camera and notebook to do the geeky stuff, but Friday night definitely showed the immense promise that Champion has.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bitter Two

I am sure I have mentioned this many times before, but getting a good bitter in the US is pretty bloody difficult. Few of British bitters make it to these shores, I am glad that I have found a supplier of Timothy Taylor Landlord, and even fewer American brewers seem interested in brewing the style. I can only think of one brewery in the Mid-Atlantic region that has a classic, English, Bitter as part of its core range - Oliver's Ales in Baltimore. Sadly, Oliver's don't bottle their beer and their casks are not distributed in this part of Virginia.

What is a chap to do then? The answer is pretty obvious, brew my own. Crafting a good bitter recipe has become something of an obsession for me, and today I will continue my efforts. When I changed the name of my brewing operation from Green Dragon Brewing to Dark Island Brewing, I also identified several beer styles that I planned to brew repeatedly until I had a recipe that I was really happy with, thus my first Bitter was composed of the following:
  • 77% Maris Otter Pale Malt
  • 13% Crisp Amber Malt
  • 10% Briess Caramel 20 Malt
  • 15 IBU Kent Goldings for 60 minutes
  • 7.5 IBU Kent Goldings for 15 minutes
  • 1 IBU First Gold for 1 minute
  • Wyeast West Yorkshire Ale Yeast
What I ended up with was reasonably tasty, 4.1% bitter that looked like this.


While I was happy with the end product, I didn't want to just settle for that recipe being my bitter. I wanted to play around with yeast strains and maybe the hopping a little bit, and see if I can improve on a very encouraging start. As such, batch 2 of Dark Island Bitter, which is being brewed today, has a couple of changes. Firstly, and mainly because my local homebrew shop didn't have any First Gold hops, I will be using Styrian Goldings for the last hop addition, as well as bumping the flavour hops to get 15IBU of Goldings goodness. Secondly, and this change was planned, I am using Danstar's Windsor Ale Yeast, which I have used a couple of times before to good effect, including my gold medal winning bitter from last year's Dominion Cup.

If everything goes to plan, batch 2 will be ready in time for New Year's Eve, when I will be hanging out in the mountains of West Virginia and comparing it with my best mate, with whom I polished off most of batch 1 a few weeks back, not to mention vast quantities of Oliver's Bitter in Baltimore. A prospect which pleases me muchly.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Give Thanks for Beer

On Thursday, in households across America, as well as in expat hangouts around the world, Thanksgiving will be celebrated. According to tradition, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the immigrants of the Plymouth Colony in 1621, though the first harvest festival is likely to have been marked by the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607.

According to Mourt's Relation, the first Plymouth harvest Thanksgiving was an occasion of great celebration:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labour. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
One thing that is perhaps often overlooked in the modern Thanksgiving celebration is the role that beer played in the early days of English settlement in the New World. Indeed, were it not for their beer supplies running low, the Plymouth Colony might well have ended up some where else. The writer of Mourt's Relation, Edward Winslow, commented that:
after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution, to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially, our beer, and it being now the 19 of December.
Throughout the Colonial era, and beyond, beer was central to life in the New World. People simply didn't trust water, mainly because the water supplies back in Europe were so tainted and polluted that you would die from drinking it, whereas the boiling required for beer killed off potentially harmful microbes. Often one of the first buildings the immigrants would erect was a brewery so they could get their life sustaining libation as soon as possible.

One thing I find interesting about Winslow's account is the use of the word 'beer', which in 17th century England was a hopped malt liquor as opposed to ale, which was unhopped. Only in the 18th Century did ale come to mean a malt liquor which was less hopped than beer. I wonder what the beer that they brought with them from the Old World to the New would have been like? What kind of beer was being brewed on the south coast of England, where the Pilgrims restocked the Mayflower after selling the Speedwell?

Clearly for a journey across the Altantic, the Pilgrims would have brought with them 'Keeping Beer' rather than 'Small Beer', the latter being for immediate consumption rather than storing. The Pilgrims finally left England's shores in mid September 1620, which would suggest to me, assuming that the Keeping Beers listed on Ron Pattison's blog from the early 18th century were broadly similar to those from a century prior, that their beer was likely March Beer, brewed at the end of the 1619-20 brewing season.

As for the beer itself, it was either pale or brown, though pale here would be more akin to an amber than modern pale. Assuming they stocked up on March Beer, it would have had a starting gravity north of 1.100, giving it a healthy ABV in excess of 10%, and being an English beer the hops would have been, well I have to admit I don't know. Goldings are first grown commercially in the 1780s and Fuggles only comes into the picture in 1875, though I would hazard a guess that they would have been fairly similar.

I think the closest to this kind of brew in my cellar is North Coast's wonderful Old Stock Ale, which might just get a comparative tasting this year as I have bottles of the 2010 and 2012 knocking about.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Get Off My Kilt!

There are times, when I am in my more grumpy and sarcastic moments admittedly, that I get annoyed by some of the naming choices and subsequent marketing efforts that breweries put in to promoting their beer.

One of my favourite websites highlighting the horrors of sub-par naming and branding is the magnificent Pump Clip Parade, a veritable litany of the ribald, obscene and downright offensive. Were a visitor from outer space to visit that website to get an idea of British drinking culture, they would likely conclude that British drinkers are only interested in third rate puns, naked women and frequent references to World War 2.

Sadly, the American craft brewing industry is not averse to indulging in national stereotyping in order to sell beer. As you quite possibly are aware, I am Scottish and happily so, though I feel no compulsion to run around in a Tam o'Shanter with bits of ginger hair sticking out the side, whilst swinging a Claymore and yelling 'Wha's likes us?' at all and sundry. Forgive me then if I am being a tad touchy at the number of beers sold in this country which have some form of kilt elevation in their name; Kilt Lifter, Kilt Flasher, Kilt Raiser, Naked Under Me Kilt, Lift Your Kilt and so on and so forth. It simply bugs my head that many brewers of 'Scottish' ales have decided that the one part of Scottish culture to focus on for their naming conventions is the kilt, and I say that as someone who loves wearing his kilt, often just around the house when trousers simply don't go the job.

There is far more to Scotland than a few metres of worsted wool and the legendary absence of undies, so brewery marketing departments, how about engaging in some innovative thought (rather than just thinking that chucking the word 'innovative' in your marketing copy makes you beer 'awesome') when branding your 'Scottish' ales? How about making reference to the many aspects of the modern world that have their roots in Scotland? How about referring to eras of Scottish history other than William Wallace?

So while beer is supposed to be fun, resorting to lazy national stereotyping is the mark of ultimately crap marketing and detracts from the beer itself.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Of Worts and Boils

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent Friday brewing. It feels great to be back in the swing of it and having carboys fermenting away with much abandon in the cellar. I am still getting to grips with my new(ish) setup and equipment though and I have missed my target gravity in 2 out of the last three brews, the third being an extract beer, which is pretty easy to get within a few gravity points of the target.

For the first time in a while, I had an assistant brewer for the day, one of my colleagues from the Starr Hill tasting room who wanted to learn more about brewing. She also took the pictures in this post, as well as performing vital tasks like holding the grain bag while I tried not to give her third degree burns with the strike water. Having an assistant certainly made the process a lot easier and made me realise that when I return from my exile to the mythical land of 47% I really need to get my setup sorted in the garage, preferably with as much gravity involvement as possible.


The beer itself turned out to be an Export strength Oatmeal Milk Stout, rather than the Imperial Oatmeal Milk Stout I initially wanted to brew. However, with a starting gravity of 1.062 (15.2° Plato) and projected ABV of 6% it should have enough oomph to keep the darkness at bay during the winter.


As I said earlier, I have missed my target gravity on the last couple of brews I have done, a fact that I put down to a couple of things. Firstly I am now doing whole wort boils rather than diluting a smaller boil, and also I have a new 5 gallon cooler mash tun rather than the small 2.5 gallon affair I used previously. Part of me wonders if I am getting a good enough mix in my mash, so I plan to buy a new, longer handled spoon for stirring the mash to get an even blend of grain and water. Secondly, I think I am simply not sparging enough, and thus leaving a fair whack of sugar in the mash rather than in the wort.


On Friday I had about 4 gallons of wort for my 2.5 gallon batch and after a 90 minute boil, just barely had the required volume left, so maybe an extra gallon or so of wort and a 2 hour boil would make all the difference?

So, my fellow brewers, any thoughts and/or input as to how to get back to the world of 75% efficiency in my setup?

Friday, November 9, 2012

On The Decks

I am brewing again today, for the third time in the last seven days. Ok, last Friday was trying not to get in the way at Devils' Backbone during the second brewing of Morana, but it counts. Earlier this week I made use of the last of my extract to make an Oatmeal Milk Stout, made with oat malt, hopped exclusively with Kazbek (thanks Evan!) and is now being fermented by that trusty 1728 Scottish Ale yeast.

Today though I am brewing the second of the big winter hitters for Mrs V's uncle in North Carolina, this time an Export Oatmeal Milk Stout, I am aiming for about 1.083 according to my Hopville recipe, though given the last time I brewed I missed my gravity target, I am reticent to call it an Imperial Oatmeal Milk Stout at this point (see, I can make up styles as well!).

When I woke up this morning, I knew that it definitely wasn't a 'brewing while listening to Morning Classics on NPR' kind of brewday, so here is a selection of tunes that will feature today:

You can't go wrong with ELO really can you?



If you have never heard of Cecile Corbel, I suggest you do so...



Louis Armstrong. Nuff said.



Have a good weekend people!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lost In Details

I love reading. Whether it be blogs, magazines, or books, I love indulging in the written word, getting different perspectives on things and learning more about a given subject. I will books time and time again because with each reading you notice something that perhaps you glossed over before. I read a fair bit about beer in particular, in between bouts of David Hume, Umberto Eco or Douglas Coupland, and this morning I picked up Stan Hieronymous' 'Brew Like A Monk' to remind myself what he said about Orval.


I have half a mind to try and brew my own version of Orval at some point in the future, when I have restored my complement of carboys back to 4, so I am working through a recipe in my mind. As I read, a comment from legendary brewer Jean-Marie Rock leapt off the page:
"It is impossible to produce a good beer with details"
I sometimes wonder, especially when listening to beer geeks waffle on about IBUs and alcohol by volume, whether we lose the wood for looking at the trees?

I really couldn't give a shit if your Imperial IPA has sufficient IBUs to strip the tastebuds from my tongue, stamp them into submission and leave them screaming for mercy. I am not impressed that you have managed to freeze distil your beer to the strength of a whisky. All I care about is how your beer tastes. IBUs, ABV, SRM and all the other numbers used in brewing are just that, numbers, details. They tell me little about the flavour, aroma and complexity of a beer.

Rock's adage could quite easily be extended to:
"It is impossible to appreciate good beer by focusing on details"
I am sure I am just as guilty when it comes to getting hung up on certain details, such as the 'black' in Black IPA or Black Pils, so I remind myself here as much as anyone, it is only beer and appreciating the aromas and flavours involved is what it is really all about, preferably with mates, and preferably in a pub.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Downright Demanding

Over the last couple of weekends, Mrs Velkyal and I have hosted a couple of parties at our house. The first, on the 27th October, was to mark Czechoslovak Independence Day, which is on the 28th but we felt a Saturday night would be better, and the second was our house warming.

In the last year or so we have found a group of Czechs and Slovaks living here in the Charlottesville area, as well as people descended from those most august nations, and we will meet up once in a while. Although Mrs V and I are neither Czech nor Slovak, neither do either of us have the required ancestry, we have become kind of adopted Czechs by virtue of our years living in the country, and we love the opportunity to break out our rusty language skills.

My best friend, whose wife is Slovak, came down from DC for the weekend, bringing with him all the essentials to cook guláš - basically a cast iron pot, tripod to go over the cobbled together fire pit, copious amounts of pork and beef and a few hours to stand around, beer in hand watching my favourite central European food being made.


Obviously no Czechoslovak party would be complete without beer, and there was plenty. Just the day before I was laid off, I put in an order with Market St Wine in Charlottesville to get a couple of the remaining 80 cases of Port City's Downright Pilsner especially for this party. People also brought Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Lagunitas Pils, and my best friend brought a bottle of 5 year old Kosher Slivovice - that's damned fine plum brandy!

The Downright Pilsner went down an absolute treat with the assorted Czechs, Slovaks and fellow travellers, as it should do given that it is pretty much spot on for a Czech style pale lager, 4.8%, 43 IBUs of Saaz, unfiltered and just downright good. It is very much a contender for the Fuggled Pale Beer of the Year - an award unencumbered with value, monetary or otherwise - and as such I really hope, nay I plead, that Port City don't let this just be a one off, but brew it again. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is the best of the Port City beers I have had, just edging ahead of their amazing Porter, and I would love to see it as part of their core range of beers.

Yes, it is that good.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Again She Rises!

It gets dark reasonably early these days, I say 'reasonably' because as a child growing up in the Outer Hebrides the sun would set at about half past three in the depths of winter. I am a big fan of winter, I love the cold, the dark and the opportunity to wear my lambswool sweaters and tweed cap every day, I also love, as if you needed telling, the dark beers that seem to be required drinking at this time of the year.

A couple of years ago I went to Devils Backbone for a day to brew a tmavý, or dark lager, which we named for an old Slavic goddess called Morana.

Morana, just one of several spellings, is the goddess of death and and winter in the pre-Christian Slavic traditions, though traces of her cult linger on in modern day Czech Republic through the annual tradition of Čarodějnice, or Witch Burning Night. Each spring, on April 30th, effigies of witches are burnt in the Czech Republic to symbolise the defeat of winter, prior to the coming of Christianity with Saints Cyril and Methodius, those effigies were of Morana.

In Poland the effigy of Morana, known there as Marzanna, is burnt and then drowned, there the effigy is:
a large figure of a woman made from various rags and bits of clothing which is thrown into a river on the first day of the spring calendar. Along the way, she is dipped into every puddle and pond ... Very often she is burned along with herbs before being drowned and a twin custom is to decorate a pine tree with flowers and colored baubles to be carried through the village by the girls. There are of course many superstitions associated with the ceremony: you can't touch Marzanna once she's in the water, you can't look back at her, and if you fall on your way home you're in big trouble. One, or a combination of any of these can bring the usual dose of sickness and plague.
—Tom Galvin, "Drowning Your Sorrows in Spring", Warsaw Voice 13.544, March 28, 1999
Yesterday I was down at Devils Backbone again, to perform the ancient rite of brewing in order to resurrect Morana, she should be back in time for the Winter Solstice, get your growlers ready!