Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not Cool, Man

Life has been a tad hectic of late.

Last Monday I started my new job, back at the company that laid me off in October, but in a different capacity, which kind of explains the lack of posting of late. I have been getting back into the swing of working life, and thoroughly enjoying it.

One of my little habits is to go for a lunch time walk a few days a week, which is a pleasant way to while away an hour or so. Today, in the summer heat, I pottered off around the centre of Charlottesville to stretch my legs and enjoy the warmth. As I headed back to the office, I popped into a local bottle shop to peruse the selection.

For some reason I noticed that most of the beer was sat out on shelves at not much below room temperature, even the lagers. Keeping top fermented beers on the shelves at about room temperature might not be entirely awful, but treating a beer which has spent most of its life at cool to cold temperatures in the same way is simply asking for trouble.

The shop does have fridges, but they were full of...yes you guessed it...warm fermented beer.

Really, what is the point of selling a good selection of beer if you aren't going to treat it well before it goes out the door?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Answer...

...is an emphatic 'YES!'

The question though comes from this article on Slate.com, which poses the deep and meaningful question as to whether:
'friends let friends drink only pilsners?'
One would have thought that a person who starts an article with 'As a beer writer' would actually have some vague notion of what they are talking about, but yet again people use terms like 'lager' and 'pilsner' as lazy shorthand for boring beer.

If your friend wants to drink 'only' pilsners, then bloody well let them. It's their body, their taste buds and their money, so they can drink whatever the hell they want to. If you can't have a good time while your friends drink 'only' pilsners, then I suggest you have a deeper problem than a person's choice of beer.

On that note, I'm going to buy a six pack of Pilsner Urquell...have a good weekend people.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Praise of Workhorses

Last night I did something that I hadn't in a while. Having lost track of the time whilst pottering around in my garden and realised that I wouldn't have time to get cleaned up and out to the local homebrew club monthly meeting. So, with dinner cooking in the oven (a rather fabulous potatoes au gratin, to which I will add mustard powder next time), I wandered down in the beer cellar to pick something to drink.

My beer cellar, as I am sure is pretty common, is a mixture of my own homebrew, a bevvy of strong beers which are being aged (most of which are Fuller's Vintage Ales) and what I tend to think of as my 'drinking' beers - the ones which will be polished off well before their best before date. Looking at the collection of beer, which has been dwindling gently while I have been unemployed (thankfully I start my new job on Monday), the only beer that leapt at me was a beer I had not drunk at home in a very, very long time, Starr Hill's Amber Ale.


The Amber Ale at Starr Hill is one of those beers which gets labelled an 'Irish Red Ale', a style which according to some was originally just an Irish equivalent of keg bitter, the kind of beer to strike fear into the heart of any CAMRA member. Over here in the US it is kind of sweet, with a caramel element and a touch of earthy/spicy hops, some versions of the style are overwhelmingly cloying and as such it is not something I bother with very often, though on the rare occasions I get to have O'Hara's Red on tap then I fill my boots. Unlike many an Oirish Red Ale, Starr Hill's Amber is actually nicely balanced, with neither the malt nor the hop dominating, I polished off three bottles  in pretty short order - and it was at the right temperature, about 56° Fahrenheit.

This got me thinking about all the beers out there which don't get the love and praise they warrant, simply because they are not very hip, sexy or labelled as some form of IPA. Beers, like Starr Hill Amber Ale, which fulfil my very simple definition of a good beer, does it make me want another one? I like to term such beers 'workhorses', sure they might not prance around like Vienna's Spanish Riding School, but they are great at ploughing a field.

What are your local workhorse beers that deserve more praise and recognition?

The picture is from Starr Hill's website as I was too busy drinking the beer to even think about taking a photo.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Defining Passion

It seems to be a particularly modern malaise that it is no longer enough to be good at the work you have chosen to do, you have to 'passionate' about it. Whether we are talking about making beer, selling financial products or even cleaning the bogs in the Prague Metro, passion has become de rigueur in practically every industry.

Often, it seems, this 'passion' is presented as being excited by what it is you do (quite how one could be excited at the prospect of cleaning the bogs in the Prague Metro though escapes me), with all the attendant hoopla that seems to go with it. In the context of beer, as that is the main theme of Fuggled, every new product is greeted with the zythophilic fervour of Beatlemania, the constant pitch of the marketing efforts gets higher and higher, like the crescendo of noise which is cicada time. When a beer though fails to live up to the hype, the damning verdicts on Twitter, Ratebeer and the like is akin to the Hindenburg going down in flames.

It is time that we re-evaluate our understanding of what 'passion' means in a brewing context to bring the demand side understanding of passion for beer with one of the common attributes of every professional brewer I know, the passion to do things properly.

When I am working at the Starr Hill Brewery tasting room I quite often overhear people talking about how some breweries are 'passionate' about beer because they put all manner of stuff into their beer, making it 'innovative' and various other adjectives which I am not convinced aren't a cover term for 'a right bloody mess'. The implication in these witterings, often though not always from a spotty yoof out to impress the accompanying spotty yoofs with his deep knowledge of beer, is that the breweries that make classic beer styles, and make them well, somehow lack 'passion' for beer.


I often think of Budvar, and not just for drinking purposes. Here is a pale lager, perhaps the most disparaged beer style on the planet, which, as far as I am aware, is still made in the same way as when the legendary Mr Tolar was the master brewer. Budvar's flagship beer, as I have mentioned before, takes 102 days to make, 12 days in primary fermentation and then 90 days in the lagering tanks, that's 12 weeks, or 1 week for each degree of Plato in the beer, as was the traditional norm in Central Europe. Would most consumers know the difference if they cut the lagering time to 45 days and thus instantly doubled their capacity? I would venture that very few would, but therein lies the heart of a consumers' confidence in Budvar, they do things as they have always done. This is passion as I understand it, sticking to doing what generations of brewers have handed down to you, because it makes the beer which the consumer wants to drink. There are few finer beers in the world than Budvar, admittedly preferably on draught. On a hot day, a cold half litre of golden liquid from České Budějovice is liking drinking the nectar of the gods.

We often talk about the 'fires of passion', as if passion should be all noise, flame and smoke. To take this analogy in a little bit of a different direction, when you first light your grill, you don't cook your burgers, sausages and chicken drumsticks straight away, you wait for the flames to die down and the charcoal to be good and hot. Passion is much the same, sure the flames and noise are impressive, but until they are gone and you know the coals are burning thoroughly all you have is light and noise.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Booze and Politics

Yesterday I went to a conference at Montpelier, which was once the home of James Madison, the driving force behind the Constitution of the USA. Part of the setup at Montpelier is the Center for the Constitution, and they organised the conference around the theme of election campaign finance reform. It was a very interesting day of talks, panels and Q&A sessions, and I will be writing some posts about things that popped into my head during the day on one of my other blogs. What the hell though does this have to do with booze?

One of the speakers yesterday mentioned a story about James Madison's early steps into Virginian political life. In 1777 Madison was running for election to the House of Delegates, the lower house of Virginia's bicameral General Assembly and successor to the Colonial Era House of Burgesses. His opponent during the race was a tavern owner called Charles Porter. As was customary at the time, Porter plied the voters with rum and punch, while Madison refused to do so. Unsurprisingly, the electorate voted for Charles Porter, though Madison's supporters claimed that this custom was effectively corruption, a complaint which got nowhere with the political powers that be, after all, George Washington was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758 having used exactly the same methods.

That story brought to mind a book I read a couple of summers ago whilst lounging by the pool on our annual trip to Florida. The book is called 'Plain, Honest Men', by Richard Beeman, and is an account of the drafting of the Constitution of the USA, in 1787, and it recounts a drinking session held just before the final draft of the Constitution was signed, where many of the delegates of the Convention joined with the First Troop of the City Light Horse to honour George Washington. The bar bill for the festivities was impressive:
"fifty-four bottles of Madeira, sixty bottle of claret, fifty bottles of "old stock," copious amounts of porter, beer and cider, and some large bowls of rum punch".
Given there were, apparently, about 60 people at the event, that's quite a night's drinking per person there! I am assuming that the 'old stock' mentioned there is an old or stock ale which would have been pretty strong and then aged for well over a year.

Anyway, all this got me thinking that there may just be some correlation between booze and political life, the former lubricating the latter. Apparently, many of the compromises that eventually found their way into the American Constitution were hammered out not during the formal sessions of the Convention but after hours, in the taverns of Philadelphia over bottles of wine, beer and cider. Perhaps it would be helpful for modern political leaders to get down the pub and actually talk to each other over a few pints of 'old stock' and maybe a bottle of Madeira or two?