Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lagerboy Pride!

If you have been following Fuggled for a while now, you will doubtless know that I am a devotee of the lager arts.

Whether pale, amber, dark or pitch black, most of my favourite beers will have been cold fermented and then lagered before packaging. I am quite happily what some breweries like to disparagingly call a 'Lagerboy'. It therefore seriously pisses me off that 'lager' is used as shorthand for lowest common denominator beer.

Lager, as I have said many times before, is a labour of love from beginning to end, especially if a brewer is going to do a decoction mash, which makes the brewday longer. Then there is the lagering of the beer itself, tying up the brewer's capital for a long period of time, whether it be 4 weeks or 90 days - did you know that a batch of 12° Budvar takes 102 days to make, 12 days in primary fermentation followed by 3 months lagering? In a world that seems to love talking about beers being made with 'passion', it takes real passion and dedication to doing things properly and give your lager the time it needs to be ready.

I have said it before, and will continue to bang the drum, but a well made lager is, in my unhumble opinion, the height of the brewers' craft. Sure you can make your triple black IPA aged in soured gorilla snot barrels, but if a brewer is incapable of making a clean, crisp, refreshing and flavourful pale lager then are they really all that great, despite the ravings of those advocating the rating of beer?

Using the term 'lager' as a cover all for the lowest common denominator brews churned out by multinational breweries does a disservice to a family of beers as diverse and varied as ales. Whether drinking a Bohemian Pilsner packed with the flavours and aromas of Saaz, downing a pint of Schwarzbier with its clean roastiness, or supping gently on a powerful yet balanced Baltic Porter, there is little in life as satisfying as well made lager, where the brewer has nowhere to hide flaws.

So brewery marketing departments, cut it out with the lager hating, beer geeks, cut it out with phrases like 'it's good, for a pilsner'.

To paraphrase a cliche from self-help name is Velky Al, and I'm a Lagerboy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Is It Still Worth It?

Wandering around one of the local supermarkets the other day, I instinctively took a detour down the booze aisle. I haven't been buying beer in the shops much lately, preferring to either have a few pints in the pub or when I am drinking at home mostly drink my homebrew and work my way through the cellar. What I saw in the beer aisle was quite the eye opener. Six packs of 'craft beer' in this neck of the woods seem to have jumped in price to $9.99. It didn't matter whether the beer was from one of our local breweries or from further afield, once you add on sales tax, a six pack of beer will now set you back more than $10.

Price, it seems, is becoming an issue in the craft beer world, with 22oz bottles of specials routinely costing between $8 and $10 by themselves, regardless of strength and ingredients, unless of course you are buying the big bottles of standard beers from the likes of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Samuel Adams. Of course smaller brewers can't enjoy the economies of scale that are afforded to the bigger brewers, and I really think we need to dispense with the myth that the major craft beer brands are anything but big brewers, not multinationals (yet) for sure, but still not exactly brewing on 10 barrel kits for their local markets any more.

I am perfectly open to the idea that I am more sensitive to price at the moment, given my lack of full time employment, but I wonder at times if the craft beer industry is in danger of pricing itself out of the market? I have to admit that prices are getting to the point that I seriously have to consider whether it is worth spending $10 for a 6 pack of craft beer or going Trader Joe's and getting their Gordon Biersch brewed German style beers for about $6, or their Unibroue made Belgian style ales at a third of the price.

Usually, it seems to me, when price is mentioned with regards to beer it is often in the context of the so-called 'wine-ification' of beer, because obviously bigger bottles and higher prices make it more like wine. As I discussed last week, this view, I believe, does a disservice to both beer and wine. Better, I would suggest, is to talk about the 'gentrification' of beer, like run down neighbourhoods into which artists and the like move and start making it a happening place to live, followed by the hipsters and eventually the more monied folks wanting the cachet of living there. There are certain segments of craft beer which are very much in the final phase, they have a certain level of cool which people want to be part of, and so up go the prices.

I have no problem with brewers making a living, perhaps in the US context part of the problem of price is really the three tier system, and the fact that a keg of a big hitting IPA will cost the same as a German Pilsner rather than having price based on ABV. Taking that into account though, it baffles me at times why more brewers don't push their session beers more, they are cheaper to make and the profit margin under such a single price system is much higher.

What then do you think is a sensible, fair price for a six pack of regular beer in the shops?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Brewer of the Week

For today's Brewer of the Week interview we are staying in the South Hemisphere, though in a part of the world distinctly warmer than the Falkland Islands. In another first for Fuggled, we head round the Pacific to New South Wales, in Australia. So without further ado, I give you Chris from 4 Pines Brewing Company...

Name: Chris Willcock
Brewery: 4 Pines

How did you get into brewing as a career?

A science degree and a healthy appreciation for alcohol. I actually really fell in love with beer whilst wagging seminars during a genetics convention in Freemantle. The Little Creatures Brewery had me hooked.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

An acceptance that there is always more that can be learnt about beer and brewing, no matter your experience.

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

I did homebrew a little, but never all-grain until I learned the tricks in my first professional job. Most of my recipe development since then has been done on the job. At 4 Pines we have the fantastic luxury of a 500L pub system to complement our new 5000L brewhouse up the road in Brookvale. We have a lot of opportunities to experiment with new ingredients and recipes.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

Any homebrew I do these days tends to be just for fun. Often with friends and pretty unscientific.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

Anything new is always the most fun.

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

I worked at the old and new Bluetongue Breweries in Newcastle and Warnervale. I still believe the Pilsner is an exceptional beer.

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

I honestly enjoy each of the 4 Pines core range equally. But if you’re making me choose between them, the Pale Ale is probably my beer of choice at this very moment. In fact, I think I’ve got a few cold in the fridge…

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

Attention to detail on method and ingredients definitely makes a huge difference to the final beer quality. I’m a big proponent of good yeast management in particular.

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

There are some exciting new breweries popping up around Sydney. Young & Henry’s or Riverside would both be great to get together with in the interest of promoting the up-and-coming scene here.

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

I had the pleasure of sampling the entire barrel-aged range at the Russian River brewpub while in California last year. Every one of those beers is genius.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Missing the Point? Twice?

I consider myself lucky.

As an army brat I moved around a lot, we lived in Germany for a long time, as well as various places in the United Kingdom. When I became an adult I carried on moving, first from my home in the Hebrides to Birmingham, to study, then eventually to Prague and now I am in the US, who knows where is next? I have visited many countries, Belarus, Romania, and France to name a few. I have drunk in bars and pubs in three continents and something is true in almost every culture I have experienced, alcohol is part of life.

Whether sat in a pub in Dublin, drinking stout and listening to old fellas lamenting the falling standards of bar staff, a wine bar in Bergerac, eating pig snout salad, or a club in Minsk, downing shots of vodka, booze is an essential part of being human. Some will claim that beer was an essential player in the evolution of civilisation, I tend to think it is broader than that, it was alcohol in general.

I was planning to write a post today bemoaning the wine-ification of beer and how those that advocate the gentrification of our favourite drink are missing the point of beer when it hit me, they are also missing the point of wine itself, and spirits. Let me give you an example, if you take a trip to the south eastern part of the Czech Republic, Moravia, you will find row after row of vines, sometimes it seems like everyone has their own sklep - an underground cellar for aging their wine. Wine in Moravia, just as with beer in Bohemia, is deeply unpretentious, it is just the alcohol of choice for that part of the Czech Republic.

Coming away from the Czech lands, I am reminded of being in a small bar in Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of France. Mrs V and I were squeezed into this room that couldn't have been much bigger than my deck (140 sq ft, or 13m2), we were drinking beer, while everyone else was drinking a local wine, I know, I know, I am terrible and uncouth. There was no deep inhaling of the aromas, swirling the glass to 'release the aromatics' or any other daft fripperies that go on, just local people drinking local wine and enjoying each other's company. Thankfully Mrs V and I have found a vineyard near us which is likewise very unpretentious and has nice wines.

Wine, just like beer, is an every man drink - enjoyed by peasants and presidents throughout the ages in those places where viticulture thrives. The problem is clearly not the drink itself, but rather the people that want to take it away from its heartland and make it something aspirational, something inspirational and ultimately invest in it a meaning that is entirely irrational. Such people have missed the point of wine and beer, much to the detriment of both.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Day for Drinkers

I have a confession to make. I broke my 'no going to the pub on St Patrick's Day' rule last night. having had a fairly quiet shift at the Starr Hill tasting room, a colleague and I popped into McGrady's a quick pint - seriously, the shift was insanely quiet, apparently the lure of half price pints of America's most award winning dry stout was not strong enough. I have two main reasons for not darkening the door of a pub on March 17th each year, one of which I covered in this post, and the other being the pub is packed with people who rarely if ever go. St Patrick's Day, or International Amateur Drinkers Day as some refer to it, is like Midnight Mass for many people, the one time of the year when they actually attend.

Thankfully the beer drinking day for regular pub goers is just around the corner, because April 7th is Session Beer Day. I am sure most of you already know the definition of 'session' beer, as proposed by Lew Bryson and thoroughly approved of by me (I am sure Lew sleeps all the more soundly for knowing that), just in case though a session beer is:
  • 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced
Session beers are an essential part, in my unhumble opinion, of a good pub, given that pubs are places where people go to meet friends, talk, play pool, all over a few pints of something tasty. I guess this is one of the reasons I fail to understand the mindset of people who want 'more bang for their buck' and drink several pints of imperial IPA because it gets them drunk quicker. While beer is an intoxicant, I am not convinced that beer 'culture', and especially pub culture, is about getting trashed, it's about being social, and beer lubricates the sociability of the scene.

Anyway, last year both Beer Run and McGrady's here in Charlottesville had a decent selection of session beer, including Williams Brothers simply wonderful Scottish Session Ale, which I think I drank McGrady's out of last year. Hopefully this year will see more session beers on tap as well as more pubs having something available. Although this ad is for whisky, I love one line in particular.....'all hail to drinking man!' (or woman, obviously, yes thank you Stan)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What is IPA?

When I managed to screw up my first attempt at the International Homebrew Project Burton Ale I was loathe to ditch all that wort and start fresh, so I chucked in a packet of Munton's yeast and decided to see what came out.

The other day I got round to bottling both that and the batch which hit the nail squarely on the head. I say the first batch was messed up, but in reality it just had less fermentable sugar from the mash than I wanted. In reality I had a 4.5% abv pale ale with an estimated IBU rating well north of 100. When I tasted the sample I took for a gravity reading I was actually quite surprised that my tongue didn't disintegrate, it was quite nice - and I say that as an avowed advocate of balance in my beer. This got me thinking, a dangerous pastime to be sure, and so I calculated that I had the equivalent of about 2.25 lbs of hops per barrel in my beer and whisked a quick email away to Ron to see if there was any precedent in history for a relatively low gravity, super hopped up beer. I am sure you have guessed already, there is.

India Pale Ale, that darling of the modern brewing industry and victim of an almost Protestantesque ignorance of a large chunk of its own history (for those not sure what I mean, for many Protestant denominations, Church History skips from about 313 AD to the late 16th Century without covering 1300 years of doctrinal development and ecclesiastical wranglings). For many in the beer world IPA was invented in the 18th century by George Hodgson to survive the long trip India, it then disappeared entirely until the nascent American brewing scene revived it and claimed it as its own. Shame the whole premise is utter bollocks, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?

One thing that gets lost in the miasma of misinformation and mythology is that IPA lingered in British brewing for a very long time before becoming the hop bomb it is today. At the turn of the 20th Century, British brewers were still making beers that they called IPA. Indeed, Whitbread brewed, in 1902, an IPA with an Original Gravity of 'just' 1.050, an ABV of 4.9%, and 2.65 pounds of hops per barrel. I am fairly sure that if a modern brewery made such a beer, it would be lauded as 'innovative' and 'ground breaking' or some such silly nonsense.

The truth of the matter is that beer styles evolve, as we saw with the development of Burton Ale, and that a modern beer like Green King IPA is no more or less of a 'traditional' IPA than Worthington White Shield or Starr Hill's Northern Lights, they are all expressions of the same tradition, just from different parts of the timeline.

Kind of makes you wonder what's the point of style guidelines and websites that advocate the rating of beer?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Sense of Place

Terroir, as I sure many of you already know, is a term commonly used to describe the interaction between the geological, geographical and climatological aspects of a place and the agricultural produce that grows there. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the use of the term 'terroir' when it comes to beer, given that beer is more of an industrial product than an agricultural one.

Something that is evident though is that beer does have a sense of place. This sense of place has come into sharp relief recently with the Brewers Association announcement that Grätzer is now included in the style guidelines used for the Great American Beer Festival, and other competitions. I am not going to get into the wrongness of the defined guidelines, Ron has done a sterling work on that front already, but I have seen a few comments around the name of the beer.

Grätzer is the German name for a beer also known as Grodziskie Piwo, which is the Polish equivalent. As the town from which the beer sprang is in modern day Poland, Grodzisk Wielkopolski since you ask, quite why the German name was chosen is beyond me, perhaps the committee were intimidated by the Polish name? Either way the name means exactly the same in both languages, 'beer from Grätz/Grodzisk'.

Beer's sense of place comes not just from the climate, geography and geology of the place where the raw materials are grown, but from the people and place that convert raw materials into something drinkable, raw materials that have an infinitely small chance of becoming useful to a brewer through the course of nature (quite how chocolate malt would occur in nature is beyond me). As such, the historic beer styles which come with an appellation are mostly the products of urban life - Pilsner, Burton Ale, London Porter, Kölsch, even the new/old stlye of Adambier was once known as Dortmunder Altbier.

In defining the styles that are named for these urban centres of brewing excellence, I tend to think that the final word should always belong to the practices, ingredients and methods used in that place. Would a brewer from Grodzisk recognise the Brewers Association 'Grätzer' style as being something like that which was made in his town?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Brewer of the Week

For this first Brewer of the Week interview of 2013 we head down to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, a group of islands that whenever I see pictures of them remind me of my home back in the Hebrides, but with penguins as an added bonus. This year I want to have as many interviews as possible with brewers working in remote locations, plying their trade for their local community, so if you know of any such breweries, drop me a line. Anyway, on with the interview...

Name: Jeff Halliday
Brewery: Falkland Beerworks

How did you get into brewing as a career?

By realizing that brewing commercial quality beer can be achieved with the limited resources that I have in the Falklands.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Be open minded with your recipes and understand that what some people like may not always be what you like.

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

I do not rate myself as a professional brewer; I have only been brewing commercially since March 2012, and in small quantities after gaining my Certificate in Practical Brewing from Brewlab in Sunderland. I have never got into home brewing and all the recipes that I use are my own designs gained from knowledge learnt at Brewlab.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

Never have done but I do keep the odd poly pin for my own consumption.

What is your favorite beer to brew?

This would be Longdon Pride best bitter. It is named after one of the mountains near Stanley where during the conflict between Britain and Argentina in 1982 there was a large battle where many members of the Third Battalion Parachute Regiment were killed or injured to help liberate us from the Argentines. Whenever I brew this beer it helps me to remember the sacrifice that many brave men and women paid so that we can live in our home under the flag that we desire.

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

I have never worked in another brewery, although I spent a day while at Brewlab with the head brewer Rob from Mordue Brewery I can't remember what we were brewing, it was a fun day.

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

This is quite hard to answer, I like them all but I must admit that I do prefer the darker beers that I brew, so I would have to say Black Tarn, which is a 3.9% dark mild. I have yet to sample my Peat Cutter Oatmeal Stout, which will not be ready for a couple of weeks. I may have a new favorite.

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

I totally believe in authenticity throughout the entire brewing process, but do not let this blinker you into not experimenting from time to time.

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

I would like to do something with Shepherd Neame Brewery, as they have already designed a beer with a Falkland theme called Falkland Ale. This was brewed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the Falklands from Argentine occupation. All profits go to two separate Falkland veteran charities, SAMA 82 and Falklands Veterans Foundation.

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

Budweiser. Not because I like it, but because I would be a very rich man by now.

Monday, March 4, 2013

In Praise of Core Beers

One of the things I like about going to places like Devils Backbone and Blue Mountain is being able to walk through the doors in full assurance that I will be able to drink a beer that I will enjoy. It's not just a question of knowing that the brewers are very good at their jobs, which most certainly they are, but also because the breweries have a very strong core line up of beers.

Imagine then a scene, if you will. You walk through the doors of Blue Mountain Brewery, take a moment to take in the view, it really is stunning, and you park yourself at the bar. As you read the beer list you realise that you don't fancy any of the special or seasonal beers that are on tap, but you are comforted because you know that the Blue Mountain Classic Lager will be available and will be excellent. I realise that in this little tale I am assuming the drinker likes lager as much as I do, though the pale ale drinker could equally be happy with Full Nelson. I also realise that the visitor in this scenario is likely to be a repeat customer, a first timer would be recommended to get a sample flight. The same scene could easily be played out at Devils Backbone, where a pint of Vienna Lager never goes amiss. Actually, I am sure that in many brewpubs and brewery tasting rooms you could see this situation occur time and time again, and to my mind it is a sign of a good brewing business.

The thing that such breweries share is a core range of beers which are always available and and always good. It is a fact of life that beer is often a comfort, and comfort is often found in the familiar, the tried and tested. More often than not I find myself in a situation where all I want is a beer to unwind with, I don't want to think about it, I don't want to ruminate on the hop aroma, the strange and exotic ingredients that get chucked in, I just want a pint that I know will satisfy. This is where the core range comes in. Sure, the seasonals and specials might garner higher ratings on those websites that advocate such behaviour, but it is the core range that are the bedrock of a brewery and without a strong core, the brewery is on sinking sand.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Devils Backbone in Blighty

To say I am a fan of Devils Backbone would be an understatement. I love their beer, I love going down to the brewpub, though I don't get down there as often as I would like these days, and I think Jason is a top brewer and a top, top bloke to boot.

Now all you lucky British drinkers will have the opportunity to taste Jason's beer, as part of the J.D. Wetherspoon International Real Ale Festival, which runs from April 2nd to 21st.

According to the brochure for the event, Jason is brewing an American Amber Ale, which is described as being a:
medium-bodied beer is a reddish-amber colour, with floral citrus hop aromas leading to full malt and hop flavours, underscored by a toasted malt backbone.
Knowing Jason's elan for making tasty beer, I am sure it will be a treat and well worth hunting out.

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, ...