Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Next to Godliness

It's fair to say that I am a fan of the growler, that magical 2 litre bottle which you can fill with beer at a tasting room, in a pub, or even at a petrol station. I own a few growlers, it's true, and I have settled on the style I like best - swing top, good sturdy handle.  I have drunk barrel aged barleywine that had been sitting in such a growler for two years without losing condition and it tasted great.


On the days when I am working in the Starr Hill tasting room, I probably fill anywhere between 20 and 50 growlers, and while most of them are fine, we probably get about 5 or 6 every shift which are a pain in the arse to fill. Sometimes the problem comes from the shape of the growler itself, thin necks are more difficult to fill with our setup than the wider type that we use, but more often than not it is because the growler is not properly clean. Quite often it is enough to give the growler in question a quick rinse, but again, more often than I would like, it is because of a layer of caked on crap which would need a pneumatic drill to get through.

So, as a public service announcement, and in order to stop muttering to myself in Czech when behind the bar, here is the best way to keep a growler clean.
  1. Drink the beer
  2. Immediately rinse growler with HOT water
  3. Fill growler with hot water
  4. Put half a scoop of plain Oxi-Clean into the growler
  5. Shake growler vigorously (think St Vitus Dance)
  6. Leave overnight, with the swing top open to avoid exploding growlers
  7. Rinse with more hot water several times
  8. Drain upside down
  9. If you don't use the growler for a while, leave the top open so the air doesn't go stale
Part of the pleasure of owning growlers is being able to have brewery/pub fresh beer in the comfort of your own home, keeping your growler good and clean means it will taste far better than if it sits on a layer of crud before you drink it.

Here endeth the lesson...

Friday, April 26, 2013

#IHP2013 - The Tasting

Finally the day arrived, the day to drink my recreation of a beer from 1877 - a beer which was commercially brewed 136 years ago. The beer in question was the Truman's No 4, from a brewery which was once the biggest in the world.


Number 4 was a Burton Ale, which in 1877 meant it was pale, bitter and sweet all at the same time. In 2013, my recreation looked like this:


The beer poured a rich amber, which surprised me given the grain bill of 100% pale malt (I wish I could get my bitter the same colour from a single grain). The nose was sweet toasted malt laced with traces of spice, toffee and a touch of boozy orange peel - think of a rum baba made with a pinch of white pepper and caramelised brown sugar and you are in the right ball park.


Tastewise, sweet malt juiciness dominates, kind of, balanced by a bitter tang that threatens to give balance to the beer but ultimately makes it like biting though the rind of an orange in your morning marmalade - marmalade was very much a theme running through this beer, specifically thick cut Seville orange marmalade, preferably from Marks and Spencer.


This is a full bodied, smooth, beer which fails to be either cloyingly sweet or overwhelmingly 'hoppy' - as in lots of late addition hops that make you feel like you are sucking your way through a grapefruit grove. As cheesy as it may sound, it really is very well balanced, the malt sweetness is there, and the hops play off it to perfection, giving a smoothness that belies its, calculated, 125 IBU.

In short, this is a very drinkable beer, especially given its strength and the amount of hops that went into it, and from a brewing perspective, one of the best beers I have made in quite some time.

This post is about another homebrewer who made the beer, thanks Derek for taking part! If you also brewed the beer, post a link in the comments, or tell us how it turned out!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Old Dark Prague

When we think about the history of lager brewing and the evolution of beer 'styles', for want of a better word, we usually talk about how the dark lagers like Schwarzbier have been around for centuries, while Pilsner and Helles are relatively modern creations. Lager brewing didn't really become common until the 15th century, and as malting technology improved, new, paler lagers were developed, thus the history of lager is predominantly one of dark lager preceding pale.


Except in Bohemia, where it is generally accepted that the first lagers to be brewed there were pale, based on the 1840s Pilsner phenomenon which was sweeping the brewing world (hhmmm, where does this story sound familiar from?). Up until about 1890, the dark beers of Bohemia were warm fermented, the breweries took their recipes, switched to a cold fermenting yeast and essentially created the Tmavé style which makes up about 5% of modern Czech brewing production. This story is exemplified by the legendary U Fleků beer hall in Prague, whose almost stouty 13° Tmavé was warm fermented until about 1892, if I remember rightly.


I have brewed a couple of Tmavé lagers since moving to Virginia, both homebrew and at Devils Backbone, but when my best friend suggested that we do a brewing project together, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to recreate a little bit of history - and not just in terms of he and I sitting on a balcony necking beer, like we did in Prague back in 1999/2000. I already had an idea for a recipe in my head and my friend liked the look of it, so this Saturday will be our first joint brewday when he gets down here from DC way.

The beer is being called Staropražské Tmavé Pivo, which translates as 'Old Prague Dark Beer', and the recipe is:
  • 76% Bohemian Pilsner Malt
  • 22% CaraMunich II
  • 2% Carafa III
  • 7 IBU Kazbek for 90 minutes
  • 13 IBU Saaz for 60 minutes
  • 10 IBU Saaz for 30 minutes
  • Wyeast 2565 Kolsch yeast
The hop schedule is based on that of my favourite Czech dark lager, Kout na Šumavě's magnificent 14° Tmavé, which was itself the inspiration for Morana, the Tmavé I brewed at Devils Backbone. When it came to deciding on the yeast strain, I knew I wanted to use a European warm fermenting strain rather than a British or American, which pretty much meant going with a Kölsch or Altbier strain, and so out of pure whimsy I plumped for Cologne rather than Düsseldorf. The recipe, assuming everything goes well, should give us a beer with the following:
  • OG - 12.5° P (1.050)
  • FG - 3.3° Plato (1.013)
  • ABV - 4.9%
  • IBU - 30
  • SRM - 21 Brown to Dark Brown
I haven't decided whether or not to lager the beer for a couple of weeks yet, but it should be ready sometime in June either way.

The pictures in this post were taken by Mark Stewart of Black Gecko Photography when we were working on our book - The Pocket Pub Guide to Prague.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Drinking Commercial

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are a homebrewer who has decided that the time has come to 'go professional'. One of the first things that you do is form the company that will eventually be the public front of your dreams.

During the process of making your dream a reality, you write a business plan, a marketing plan, engage in a feasibility study, study the numbers and only if you are convinced you can make a living out of the business you are starting, and pay back your investors, do you move forward.

Eventually you have your location, your equipment, your staff, and your recipes. Your opening day looms and the first customer walks into your tasting room, assuming of course that you have one, and hands over money for either a flight of samples or a pint of your beer. Welcome to the world of commerce.

The word 'commercial' seems to get a bad rap in the beer world, heavily linked, as it is, to the multinational conglomerates that churn out millions of gallons of beer a year. The reality though is that every brewery, regardless of size, is commercial, for the very aim of being in business is to make a profit, without which your bills don't get paid and you end up losing everything.

All the romance, passion and craft in the world is no replacement for solid business practices coupled with professional sales and marketing activities, an area that I tend to think ranges from bloody awful to just mediocre in a sizeable swathe of breweries. I have read many brewery business plans that simply have no marketing plan or budget from the get go, which makes me wonder how the business expects people to know they exist, and no, Twitter/Facebook/Social Media Fad of the Week do not replace proper marketing.

Let's be honest people, as beer drinkers, we all drink 'commercial beer' simply by virtue of paying for it, which allows the business making it to make more, assuming they are doing everything on the business side of things well. In reality, the only non-commercial beer is homebrew.

Friday, April 19, 2013

#IHP2013 One Week Reminder

It has been a while since those of us that took part in this year's International Homebrew Project actually brewed our recreations of the Truman's No.4 Burton Ale from 1877.

I am sure that many of us have sampled a bottle or two as it has conditioned, for scientific and quality assurance purposes you understand.

Well, this is just a quick remember for those that brewed the beer that next Friday is the date set for blogging about how it turned out.

Naturally I will be posting about my brews - I will also review the failed version that came in at 4.5% and bears an uncanny resemblance to early 20th Century British IPAs.

In common with previous years, other brewers and bloggers should link to their posts in the comments thread to my post, and I will also tweet your links, again using the hashtag #IHP2013.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A New Starr

One of the benefits of working in the Starr Hill tasting room is getting to know what new beers are coming down the line for seasonals, the brewery's 'All Access' series, and other special beers such as Pro-Am for the GABF, and the annual(ish) Brew Ridge Trail collaboration beer.

Earlier in the year, at our quarterly tasting room managers meeting, we learnt that the summer seasonal for this year would be an American Pale Ale. We had heard rumour of there being a new pale ale on the horizon, and a few of us were hoping for a revival of the old Pale Ale, which I reviewed here back in 2009 (random fact, Fuggled is now 5 years old!). I was a big fan of the old Pale Ale and, like quite a few of our regular customers, a little disappointed when it was discontinued.

Another of the benefits of working in the tasting room is being able to taste beers before they are on sale to the general public, thus I acquired some of the new pale ale, which is called Grateful, an homage to our master brewer's favourite band. But what about the beer itself I hear you ask....well, it looks like this:


More of a golden colour than the old pale ale, but still with a good half inch or so of tight, white, foam. Yep, it looks like an American Pale Ale to me. In terms of aroma, you get that punchy citrus element that you would expect from a beer brewed with Centenntial, Chinook and Cascade, and sure there is a trace of pine resin, again classic, but there is something else, something different, something funky. Also in the hopping is Topaz, an Australian hop variety which has some earthiness to it, as well as the tropical fruit thing which is apparently common in Antipodean hops. Is Topaz where the beer is getting its grassiness from? By grass I don't mean the common garden stuff that makes a lawn, I am talking about special grass. Maybe it's just me, but I think it smells a bit like marijuana. So, plenty of interesting things going on in the smell department, but nobody in their right mind only smells beer, what about drinking it?


Up front and centre is a big whack of bright, tangy, citrus flavours, I wouldn't go as far as to say grapefruit, more bitter orange in my opinion, but it is there and very much a star of the show. The backing singers though are noticeable and certainly add harmony to the main attraction with a light caramel note, blended with a light toasty element which gives it just enough of something else so as not to make this just yet another hop transportation system. The body is just on the light side of medium, which makes it nicely pintable, though not really a session beer at 4.7%. I can easily see this being a regular beer in the fridge over the summer months.


So, where can you get this lovely beer? Erm, until May 1st only at the Starr Hill tasting room. Despair not though, especially those of you living in Virginia, this Saturday (4/20) is the release party at the brewery, so if you can, get along and try a very welcome addition to the Starr Hill line up.

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's Real!

I noticed on Friday that Ratebeer has finally caught up with the real world and accepted that Polotmavý, which is Czech for 'half dark', is a distinct beer 'style' from Vienna lagers or the more generic 'amber lager'. They describe the 'style' as follows:
'This is the amber lager style of the Czech Republic. The character that the brewery usually aims for with this style is a hybrid between the dark lager and the pale pilsner. The result has a richer malt character than the American Dark/Amber Lager/Vienna style and more hop than the Oktoberfest/Marzen style'.
While I understand what they are trying to say here, let me just clear something up, Polotmavý is not a 'hybrid' of pale lager and tmavý, which is dark lager, it is a descendent of Vienna lager. For a better idea of these beers, this is what Evan Rail says about it in the 'Good Beer Guide - Prague and the Czech Republic':
'Unlike Pilsner-style brews, which usually require extremely soft water, half-darks can be made with a higher carbonate content and can include caramel and dark malt to various degrees, as well as Pilsner malt. Extremely clear and reddish-amber in colour, they are perhaps closest to the Vienna lager invented in the 19th Century by Anton Dreher'.
Something that is important to remember with Czech brewing though is that what we in the Anglo-American centric beer world call a style, such as polotmavý, is really just a definition of the general colour of the beer. Most examples range from a rich amber to a garnet red, as such you'll see beers marketed as 'jantar' and 'granát' respectively. Remembering that fact is important, because under the current Czech brewing laws there are 4 categories of beer based on strength, each of which can be Polotmavý:
  • Stolní pivo or 'table beer', up to 6° Plato OG (up to 1.024 and rarer than hen's teeth)
  • Výčepní pivo or 'tap beer' between 7° to 10° (1.028-1.040)
  • Ležák or 'lager' 11° and 12° (1.044-1.048)
  • Speciální pivo or 'special beer' 13° and higher (1.052+)
Another thing to be aware of is that Polotmavý is not the same as a řezané, which is a blend of dark and pale beers, both should be the same gravity, to make a Czech lager equivalent of the black and tan.

As for how a Polotmavý will taste, again let me quote Evan (admittedly for the Ležák variant but applicable across the board really):
'a lightly toasted taste and some serious malt complexity followed by a balanced hop finish'.
As with most Czech beers, the hops in question are likely to be Saaz, so expect lots of that wonderful lemony, hay, grassy thing that is so characteristic of the most noble of noble hops.

To mark Polotmavý's acceptance on Ratebeer, I cracked open some of my homebrew version, which I call Dark Island Granát, on Friday afternoon, when Mrs V got home from work....


Is it 'to style' (such a bullshit phrase)? I like to think so, is it dangerously moreish to drink? Oh yes.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Caledonia Werks!

As I mentioned in last Friday's post, McGrady's Irish Pub in Charlottesville was planning to have a beer called Caledonia on tap for Session Beer Day. It was a beer that I had never had before, but from its description on the Williamsburg Alewerks website, I was eager to try it:
Caledonia is a session-able IPA featuring Styrian Goldings, Willamette, and Fuggle hops balanced with pale malt and crystal malts. ABV:4.5%
Once my Sunday shift at the Starr Hill tasting room was done and dusted, I headed over to McGrady's to give it a bash. Expecting a friend to join me, I grabbed a booth rather than squeezing myself into the one spare seat at the bar, and promptly ordered. I think the server may have been a touch confused by my not wanting Samuel Adams Alpine Spring, which has been my go-to beer since February. Anyway, a few minutes later the beer was sat in front of me.


I have to admit I was expecting a slightly paler beer, what I got was an ever so slightly cloudy rich amber, like orange marmelade, though minus the thick cut peel that is my preference in the marmelade world. There was not much of a head, though given a quick swirl a half head white cap appeared. The hops in the beer are three of my favourites, so I had half an idea of what the aroma would be, but wasn't really expecting the sheer intensity of the Seville orange assault on my nostrils, back behind the oranges though was a touch of toastiness and a trace of light syrup...I was looking forward to the best bit about beer, drinking the damned stuff.

Such a delicious beer can only be described with one word, balance. Yes the hops are there, bitter, fruity, fragrant and tangy, but that is not all there is to the beer. The malt weighs in with juicy sweet sugars, more of the toasty theme and a soft toffee element which just dances with the hops and spins your head as it pirouettes round and round.

Is this stuff really only 4.5%??? Caledonia is an absolute dream of a beer, let alone a session beer, and one that my friend was equally impressed by, as was the owner of McGrady's - in fact I think it is the beer we have drunk more of this week than any other, and hopefully it will become a regular on tap.

I seem to have garnered a reputation with my friends for not being a fan of pale ales, I can't imagine where they get that idea from, but when done right, and Caledonia is done emphatically right, it is a real pleasure to down a few pints of pale.

Picture credit: taken from the Williamsburg Alewerks website.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Old Mann Brown

At the end of next month, my parents will be flying across the Pond to come and stay with us for a month. The last time they came was in 2010, just after I had a DVT removed from my right leg, and again they stayed for a month. The big difference this time will be that we now have a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom house rather than a somewhat pokey 1 bedroom apartment. There will be no sleeping on an airbed for 4 weeks for my wife and I, and my parents won't have to feel bad about having evicted us from our room. Oh an we have a garden for them to provide free labour for - some couples have grandchildren to foist on their parents, we will have tomato plants and bean poles. I am fairly sure they are looking forward to it!

My dad, in common with a lot of men of his generation, is a Londoner. The Griffin Brewery, home of Fuller's, would still be his local brewery if he hadn't joined up at 15 and spent the next 30 odd years in the pay of HM Queenie and Sons, PLC. Dad spent a lot of time in Germany, and has something of a love for good lagers, especially Schwarzbier. However, the one beer that Dad talks about more than any other is Mann's Brown Ale, the first (if I remember rightly) modern bottled brown ale. Again if I remember rightly, modern brown ale was essentially the bottled version of draught mild.

As you can imagine, I don't get home to the UK very often and so having my parents coming to stay is something special, more so because a couple of days after they arrive it is Dad's birthday. What better then than to attempt a recreation of Mann's Brown Ale? I am planning to brew this in the next week or so, and the recipe at the moment looks like this:
  • 80% Maris Otter
  • 10% Caramel 120
  • 4% Chocolate Malt
  • 4% Wheat Malt
  • 2% Roasted Barley
  • 14 IBU Kent Golding for 60 minutes
  • 6 IBU Kent Golding for 15 minutes
  • Windsor yeast
I am aiming for an Original Gravity of just 8.3° Plato, or 1.033, and expecting to get an abv of 3.2%, which is slightly higher than the original 2.8%. I put the recipe together based on what I have read in various sources about brown ale in general, and a couple mentioning Mann's in particular. Hopefully, Dad will like it and it will be fairly similar to what he used to drink.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Daily Liquid Bread

This Sunday is a special day. Well, at least it is for us drinkers of the world, for this Sunday is Session Beer Day. For those not aware of this most worthy day, it is a day to celebrate those beers which are, in my opinion, the best in the beer world, and often the most difficult to make. I am, of course, referring to session beers. Of the various drinking establishments in Charlottesville, I know for sure that McGrady's will have a selection of session beers available this weekend.


Making a return appearance is 21st Amendment's Bitter American, which is 4.4% and boasts 42 IBUs of Warrior and Cascade. I have to admit that I was not a big fan of this beer when I first had it in cans, but on tap it was a rather moreish pint and definitely worth having several rounds of, which is kind of the point of session beers.

Closer the home, McGrady's will have Caledonia from Williamsburg Alewerks. The guys at Alewerks describe this as a 'Scottish Style IPA' and it weighs in at a thoroughly sessionable 4.5%. As a British style IPA, Caledonia uses Styrian Goldings, Willamette and Fuggles for its hopping, which makes be keen to try it as they are three of my favourite hop varieties.

Sneaking a little over the upper limit of session beer as espoused by the Session Beer Project, will be Founder's All Day IPA. As with the Bitter American, this beer has 42 IBUs of American hops and while it is just a touch on the strong side for a session beer, everything I have had from Founders before has been good, so I would expect nothing less here.

Again coming closer to home, and again a touch on the strong side, it is possible that McGrady's will have the Great Outdoors Pale Ale from Three Brothers Brewing, up in Harrisonburg. Great Outdoors is described as being a 'Virginia Pale Ale that is clean, crisp and refreshing'.

There are few better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than sat in the pub with mates enjoying a few well earned rounds before heading back to the daily grind, session beers like those available at McGrady's this weekend make that idyll almost complete..

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Brewing Business

Let me tell you a story of a brewery.

This brewery was in the forefront of zymurgical innovation, brewed a version of a popular pale beer style that was regarded as the classic. As time passed, in order to keep up with demand for their beer, the company opened a second brewing facility. Eventually international demand for the brewery's beer lead them to contract with other breweries to produce their beer under licence. The company was a great success, they owned an iconic brand, were synonymous with the American brewing industry and eventually they were bought out by InBev.

I am sure that you have realised that the brewery in question is Anheuser-Busch and the beer was Budweiser. There are though parallels, I think, between the history of Anheuser-Busch and current events with the big craft breweries, as they build their second breweries across the US, and in the case of Samuel Adams have their iconic beer brewed in the UK under licence to Shepherd Neame.

I sometimes wonder to myself if the early, predominantly German immigrant owned, American breweries engendered the same levels of loyalty as we see among craft beer lovers today? Clearly they were doing something right as they brought the new European pale beer style to the New World and created something unique. You could argue that the pale lagers being brewed by the likes of Anheuser-Busch were the American IPAs of their day.

At this moment in the renewal of American brewing, it is perhaps more sensible, and less given to zealous hyperbole, to remember that each brewery is ultimately a business. No-one in their right mind starts a brewery if they don't believe that they can make a living from making beer.

To put it bluntly, passion doesn't pay the bills.