Friday, September 27, 2013

Brewer of the Week

Charlottesville is booming. Breweries are popping up left, right, and centre it would seem. The first of the new breweries in the area to pop up after the introduction of law SB604, which allowed breweries to sell pints in their tasting rooms, was Champion Brewing, close to the centre of town, and winner, after just a few weeks, of the Fuggled Dark Beer of the Year for Virginia. Today, we speak to their brewer and founder, Hunter Smith...


Name: Hunter Smith
Brewery: Champion Brewing Company

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I started as a homebrewer, like many commercial brewers. As my beers improved, my confidence grew, and I took courses from the local community college, taught by local brewers. As my knowledge increased, I felt confident I could handle the curriculum of the Siebel Institute. After a few years on the management side of the wine business, I jumped in here.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

I think the most important characteristic of brewers is the level of expectation for themselves. Not necessarily to be a perfectionist but to be demanding of one’s adherence to sanitation, to quality, and to safety standards. It’s not always rocket science, but having adherence to protocol and a lack of laziness. And without a clear understanding of ingredients, the recipes won’t matter.

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! Our IPA and brown ales aren’t far off of where I got started, particularly our Melee Session IPA. Same with our No Retreat Wheat. Everything’s been a little tweaked in the scale-up.

If you did homebrew, do you still?

Truthfully, I don’t, but for a few reasons, primarily that with our 3-bbl system we aren’t married to a ton of inventory and I still have the ability to be constantly creative with recipes the same way I could at home, but with the efficiencies of a pro rig. Also as both owner and brewer, my time at home is scarce and for my kids.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

I think my favorite brewday belongs to our Olde Salt Oyster Stout, not only because it’s such a cool beer and fun process, but I also get to sneak in a few of the best oysters on the East Coast.

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

I haven’t as an employee, but I have enjoyed brewdays at both Devil’s Backbone and Hardywood Park, and we brewed a collaboration Rye IPA at Blue Mountain.

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

I have probably drank the highest number of our Tart Berliner Weisse, via its drinkability and low alcohol, but I most like to slowly drink our ICBM Double IPA; I really love it.

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

In my opinion, entirely. I think it’s important to play true to style, and modify if desired, but always keeping the original in mind. I like to wander outside of boundaries but it’s important to have a style compass. I feel the most strongly about this in regard to ingredients. I hate hearing that ‘new’ beers are other existing beers tweaked with malt coloring and canned puree and the like.

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

We have done collabs with Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain, and Breckenridge. I really admire all of their beers and brewers, truly. If I were to cherry pick another to do tomorrow, it would be Three Floyds. I love their beers and share their inspiration of heavy metal and hardcore.

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

Man, that’s a great question. There are so many great beers out there, there are plenty I wish I could take credit for. I’ll admit my most frustration with Jason’s Danzig Coffee Baltic Porter from Devil’s Backbone, because I want to do a coffee Baltic Porter, but it kinda feels like ‘seat’s taken.’ I’ve even got a Misfits tattoo, I feel like I got robbed! But Jason’s old enough to have seen them when they were still together, so he gets dibs, haha.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Retail Juxtaposition Fail

When Mrs V lived in Charlottesville we usually shopped at the local Giant, at Pantops. Now that we live something like 15 miles from town we still often shop at the same store as it is on the way home. Yesterday I popped in after work as we needed some bits and bobs, and as ever I wandered down the beer aisle, which has recently undergone something of a transformation and expansion.

As part of this expansion, there are a series of information boards above the large coolers. The boards describe some beer styles and give an explanation of what 'craft' beer is, in the minds of some. Here is a picture I took yesterday of one such board.


Somewhat incongruous, no?

I am not saying that there is a deliberate attempt by either the large corporation that retails food, drink, and other necessary items, or the large multinational corporation that makes, and through its distributors, controls the entire beer industry in the US, to mislead consumers. It is however, an interesting case of product placement. Surely this board would have been better suited on the opposite cooler, rather than the board describing, loosely, a few beer styles? After all that was where all the 'craft' beer is kept.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

British Brewer Doing American Hops

One of my habits when off on trips is to find a bottle shop in the hopes that I can pick up something unavailable in this part of Virginia. As such, whenever Mrs V and I head south to Greenville, to see her best friend and husband, I love to pop into Greenville Beer Exchange. This year's Labor Day long weekend was no exception and hidden amongst the beers from around the world were a few from a brewery I had heard much of but never seen on the shelves.

Oakham Ales, from Peterborough in England, do a range of mostly sub 5% ales which have started to find their way over the States - their importer is a company in North Carolina - and so when I saw Inferno and Citra on the shelf, well it didn't really take much thought now did it.


First up was Inferno, which according to the label uses 5 types of hop from the Yakima Valley and pours a wonderfully, almost proper pilsneresque, rich gold topped off with a white head that lingers for the duration. There was definitely the whole citrus thing you would expect from American hops, but I thought it more bitter orange that grapefruit, balanced with a very light toastiness, it almost made me think of breakfast. Tastewise lots of juicy malt sweetness, a touch of toffee and some pear flavours, all balanced out with a good citric tang of a hop bite. Certainly a very nicely balanced beer, which almost reminded me of Williams Brothers Scottish Session Ale.


It must be practically impossible to have a Twitter account, an interest in beer, and not to have heard of Oakham Citra. I will admit I was expecting an entirely different beast. It terms of the looks, it is pretty much the same as the Inferno, but the nose is a riot of funky weediness, with very definite tropical fruit aromas, in particular mango. Tastewise, straight off the bat I got lots of mango and passionfruit, followed by the comforting sweetness of malt, all leading to a lingering lemon finish. As I tweeted about while drinking this beer, where has it been all my life? So balanced, so moreish, so magnficent.

Thank goodness Oakham Ales are available in parts of the US now, and thank goodness Mrs V's friend is coming to see us before Christmas, I see some stocking up in my future...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Brewer of the Week

It has been slightly more than 4 years since Mrs V and I pitched our tent in central Virginia. In that time we have seen the beer industry in this area grow and grow. When we moved here there were 4 breweries within easy reach of us, today there are 8 in the immediate area and another couple just beyond that. Within weeks of moving here our good friend Jay came to visit, and we stopped into Blue Mountain Brewing, and I found a pale lager that I could enjoy on a regular basis, and to this day I do so. The gang at Blue Mountain also make plenty of other beers that I enjoy. Today's brewer of the week is Blue Mountain's founder and head brewer, Taylor Smack, a man that does something that worries me, makes a great pale lager without decoction...


Name: Taylor Smack
Brewery: Blue Mountain Brewery and Blue Mountain Barrel House

How did you get into brewing as a career?

Just as almost every single brewer in my generation, I too was a homebrewer first. I homebrewed after college in the mid-late 90s. But the detailed story is so much better; grab a beer while I spin my yarn:

After college and travelling about in Australia and New Zealand, I landed a job at an up and coming internet company in Charlottesville, where I chose to live, putting my English degree to use as a copy editor and then ad writer. The company, Value America, ended up employing 600+ people, going public with their IPO shooting from $18 to $76 on opening day (I was rich!), and then going to $0.10 and then off the Nasdaq within 6 months (I was poor again!). They laid off over half the company two days after Christmas and most of my friends got sweet severance packages. Sadly, I was left on. I begged for release and the severance but didn’t get it. So, essentially, I went all “Office Space” and started playing golf every day, blowing off work, etc. One of the things I did was begin skipping work to go work for free at South Street Brewery under Jacque Landry, the guy who became my mentor and to whom I owe all the good fortunes of my brewing career.
 
Eventually, I tired of coming in even occasionally to the ad-writing job, enrolled in Seibel Institute (brewing school) and headed off to Chicago. After Seibel, I landed an interview at Goose Island, thanks to my friend Matt Robbins (who became the first brewer for Southern tier and also owns part of Revolution Brewing in Chicago). Matt also set me up on a blind date with this stunning blonde with a ridiculously sweet Midwestern accent with whom he had gone to Marquette University. After this girl drank me under the table (don’t mess with Wisconsin girls) and we had chatted about opening a brewery together, I knew Mandi was the one for me. Meanwhile, I somehow talked my way into the Head Brewing position for both Goose Island brewpubs. I had just turned 25 and my beer was available inside Wrigley Field and I made beer for the Chicago Blackhawks. I was pretty high on life. But eventually the -36 degree winters and the call of the South were too strong, so Mandi and I moved to North Carolina, and eventually back to Virginia, where I brewed at South Street for almost 6 years before opening Blue Mountain Brewery.

What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Physically, the ability to problem solve. Mentally, the artistic spirit tempered with science, and humility in the face of all the brewers for thousands of years before you who have mastered this trade and left their knowledge for all of us to build on.

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

Yes, and none!

If you did homebrew, do you still?

Well, my home is practically joined to the brewery, so yes? But no, not really.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

Stouts and Porters for the smell, Lagers and Kolschbiers for the care you have to take.


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

All my beers are like my children, but being the first brewer to brew Matilda at Goose Island was very special. Even when you consider I was left behind to mind the shops as the “new guy” when all the other GI brewers took the trip to Belgium that inspired the beer. Greg Hall (former Brewmaster for GI) was like, “Taylor, we had the most amazing time in Belgium, especially at Orval! I want you to brew this idea I have for an Orval clone!” And I was like, “Yeah. Thanks, Greg. Awesome consolation prize. How about next time I go to Belgium and YOU brew the cool clone!” In reality it really was a great consolation prize. And also, I never would have said that to Greg or he may have smacked me upside the head.

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

It changes with the seasons. My favorite today will change tomorrow. It’s my curse that I find something great to appreciate in every beer style under the sun.

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

Well, there’s a time for it, and there’s a time to break tradition. Depends what you’re going for, I guess. Translating your vision to the drinker is what’s key.


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

We’ve become friends with Jamie and T.L. at Foothills and have a collaboration slated for sometime in 2014. I’m psyched about that. Those guys are really fantastic, as is their beer. Also, we got a kind pre cease and desist email from Sam at Dogfish (it really was kind…no lawyers) about changing our Local Species trout artwork as he’d heard some confusion with the DFH shark logo. I pushed him to do a collab with us, but he didn’t bite. Then I told him we were going to throw a Groucho Marx-style disguise on the trout, a la 75 Minute IPA’s “Johnny Cask”, but his lawyers didn’t think that was too funny. So DFH is on my list to harass until they collaborate with us!

Also on the slate, a ubiquitous feature of Charlottesville Beer, Brian Martin, convinced Jason Oliver and me to do a collab Belgian Quad, so we’ve got that slated to brew late October/early November. Looking forward to that one.

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

Hmmm…I love the Duvel story, with mutated McEwan’s yeast. Also wouldn’t have minded being the brewer to have come up with Bohemian Pilsner!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Brewer of the Week

A couple of weeks ago, Charlottesville newest brewery opened. Last Friday I finally got round to the tasting room to try their first slew of offerings, and very impressed I was as well - to give you an idea of how much I enjoyed the beers, I had 4 pints of their IPA - yes you read that correctly, this distinctly unfussed about IPA beer drinker enjoyed 4 pints of IPA. This Friday, sees a return of the Fuggled Brewer of the Week series, and may I introduce Dave, the man behind the beers I enjoyed so much last week.


Name: Dave Warwick
Brewery: Three Notch’d Brewing Co.

How did you get into brewing as a career?

I’ve always been attracted to beer and the beer industry. It witnesses friendship, community, and many celebrations. During some of the greatest times of our lives, beer was right beside us. Oh yeah, and it tastes GREAT and every style tells a story. After two years of a cut-throat sales rep position with Coors in Western Pennsylvania, I disregarded my degree in marketing and gave up the aggressive, high stress job to be a part-time assistant brewer making $8/hour shoveling grain and shining tanks at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Pittsburgh, PA. I met a lot of nice bill collectors that year, but I loved being a part of something special and I was happy.


What is the most important characteristic of a brewer?

Having an open mind. The craft beer scene is ever changing in the US these days. It’s important to be in touch with the beer drinking community, acknowledge what they want and adjust your recipes accordingly. Brew what the people want, not what you want. I need to keep telling myself this. I am not a fan of Black IPA’s at all, but I can’t deny the current popularity of it. I plan on breaking down and brewing one this winter.

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

Unfortunately, I have never homebrewed. I jumped right into the pro sector. I always wanted to, but after brewing all week and getting the weekend off, I just couldn’t get the motivation to brew more at home. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to homebrew at work, on a large scale, for a living.

What is your favourite beer to brew?

I’d have to say my favorite beer to brew is my pumpkin ale. I love the fall, and over the years, brewing a pumpkin ale has represented the festive beginnings of my favorite season. In years past, I always enjoyed chopping and baking the pumpkins at home the night before the brew with my fiancée, Michelle. There’s extra work to do the next day with the pumpkins in the mash and the puree and spices in the boil so it breaks up the daily routine of the other brews. This year, though, I felt the market’s pressure to brew a pumpkin ale before pumpkins were even harvested. The pumpkin puree/pumpkin pie filling is what you really taste in the final product anyway, it’s just more fun with the fresh pumpkins in the mash.

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

In 2009, I was in an apprenticeship program at Rock Bottom in Westminster, CO under Brewmaster Scott O’Hearn. I was given the opportunity to brew my very first recipe, “Tiny’s” Smoked Porter. (Tiny was my nickname.) THAT was my very favorite brewday. I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep the night before.

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

Such a hard question to answer…My pilsner, my Kolsch? I can’t decide, I’ll come back to it after answering the other questions. Okay, I’m back. Maybe my Kolsch, or no, my Double IPA, English brown, depending on the season and other things. Belgian Tripel? Hmm, still not sure. I’m going to sleep on it. Good night. Good morning, yeah, still have no idea. I like so many of them and they all are special to me.

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

It depends on the style and how open it is to interpretation. For a lot of beers I like to stay within the confines of the style guidelines and keep it simple, pure and delicious. A Kolsch, for example, has no room for authenticity. It has specific flavors and other qualities that must be met out of respect to the history of the style. Then there are beers that lengthen my leash and let me be more creative. I’ve had some fun trying to make our “40 Mile” IPA as authentic as I can. It’s light, crisp and bright with mild bitterness, (a humble 50IBU’s) and highlights a peachy, tropical hop complexity from El Dorados, but finishes with an array of staple West Coast citrus “C’s”.


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

So many great brewers and breweries out there, all that I would love to brew with, especially right here in the Charlottesville area. Champion, Blue Mountain, Devils Backbone, James River all come to mind. In a perfect world, I would brew on every system with every Brewmaster. To pick on, though, I do plan on reaching out soon to Evolution Brewing Co. in Salisbury, MD. I grew up in the Salisbury area, during a time when there was no craft beer scene and Natural Light reigned king. Evolution is the pioneer of the craft beer movement going on today in Salisbury. It would be special to brew with Geoff DeBisschop as that would be a sort of homecoming for me.

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

This is an easy one. Rye Barchetta, brewed by Champion and Blue Mountain. Not only is it an amazing beer that I wish I would’ve come up with, but I’m a huuuuge fan of the band Rush that this beer is a nod to. I would’ve loved to be a part of that collaboration. Maybe next year for an anniversary, (hint, hint). I might’ve just answered the previous question with a different answer.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In Mysterium

If you happen to be in Nelson County in the coming days, and happen to have a sudden craving for good food and beer to warm and cheer the heart, be sure to stop by Devils Backbone.



Of course, dropping by Devils Backbone for good food and fine beer is an excellent idea at any time of the year when in the Nelson County area, when then do I mention the next few days?

Last night I got an email from Jason telling me that the last keg of the batch of Morana we brewed back in the winter is now on the mystery tap.



Unfortunately I won't be getting out that way in the next little while, and due to some medical stuff I can't drink for 10 days. But what I can do is to encourage you, dear reader to venture forth and enjoy.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Czech It Out!

Think rare beers.

Think legendary beers.

Think Budvar.


Now rename it Czechvar, and if you go to Beer Run on Sunday, you can get it on draught.

Yes, you read that correctly, on tap. As in fresh, not bottled. None of those dodgy green vessels here.

Nope, Budvar, sorry Czechvar, from a keg.

Not only that, but if you are a fan of dark beers, they also have have Budvar Dark available (in bottles). Yes you read that correctly, a genuine Czech tmavé is available for purchase in Central Virginia.

Beer Run is open right now, I think, so what are you waiting for? You know you need Czech dark lager in your life to tide you over until Sunday?

Sorry for the lame pun, but it had to be done.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To The Heart of Beer

I am sat here in Central Virginia. On the table in front of me is a glass of beer which could very well be a microcosm of my worldview on the amber nectar, though it is more golden than amber.

The beer in question is quite possibly the Virginian beer that I presently derive more pleasure from than any other. The glass is from a legendary British brewery that makes some of my go-to beers when the mood for well made classic British styles hits. The style of beer in the glass is the one that I talk about most, and quite happily believe to be the very height of the brewer’s craft. I am drinking a Port City Brewing Downright Pilsner, from a Samuel Smith’s tulip imperial pint glass. It is the very image of perfection in my world right now.


Something though is missing. That something is probably the most important element of beer in many ways, because without that something, the beer in my glass would never exist. People. That’s what is missing. People are the true heart of beer.

We can talk long and loud about the beer in our glass being a natural product, made from agricultural ingredients, but the fact remains that the beer in my glass will never be a natural product. Malt does not exist in nature, it is man-made. Wort does not spontaneously boil, nor hops of their own volition leap from bine to pot, or even decide to reside in post fermentation beer to add more aroma. Neither yet do hops so prized in Bohemia simply up sticks and cross oceans to land themselves in an American wort.

Everything in my glass is the product of man. A man, one whose hand I would heartily love to shake, who decided to make a Czech style pale lager, and hop it exclusively with Saaz hops, and chuck some more in for a wonderful dry hopped aroma. Said man also decided to lager the resultant brew for an adequate amount of time, and then to forego the filtering process so as to leave a slight haze to the beer. A man made this beer which I delight in, which I come home from work and ignore all other brews in the fridge for.

Still, something is missing. The thing that is still missing is probably the most important element of beer in many ways. Without this something, the beer in my glass is just another beer in the glass. People. That’s what is missing. People are the true heart of beer.

I enjoy the fact that I can pour a glass of this golden delight at home and sit, with the TV on the background, Mrs V on the sofa doing some first aid training course for her job, and each and every taste of my beer is wonderful. The people element though is still missing, because there is a place, and there are people, that I would rather be enjoying this pint of beer with.

Were I back in Prague I would want to be sat in Pivovarský klub, with Klara, Ambroz, or Karel behind the bar, and perched on barstools beside me would be any of Evan, Max, Rob, Mark, or a cast of dozens whose company I value, and very deeply miss. Here in Virginia you would likely find me at McGrady’s, with the guys from Three Notch’d, or my colleagues from Starr Hill, or people from my homebrew club. Where there is beer, there are people. Fine people. Good people. Fun people. I could tell the same story about people in Ireland that I would love to drink with more often, people at home in the UK that I haven’t seen for many, many years, people from Uist that randomly come into Starr Hill the one day of the month that I am working there. These people, my people, are the very heart of beer.

I often have this feeling that we lose the humanity of beer in all over hoopla about barrel aging, souring, randalizing, and adding cocoa nibs. As though there is something un-craft about a simple, perfectly brewed, Pilsner enjoyed in good company in a pub with no frills, no banks of taps arrayed like howitzers attacking the Vimy Ridge. It is also as though in our striving for the next great high, we fail to realize that life really doesn’t get any better than this. Perhaps I am a strange chap, and it has been commented on before, but I would rather drink a constant stream of golden lager in great company than have all the great craft beers of the world with a bore of a human being.

It is often commented on how beer people are good people, and something I have found to be generally true is that beer people have an ability that many seem to lack in our ever more polarized world. The majority of people I have met through our attachment to the demon drink have the ability to rise above the petty squabbles of religion, politics, and culture, to see into the heart of honest people and recognize a kindred spirit. Yes I know many people whose beliefs I find baffling, and who I will debate with over pints of beer, both warm and cold fermented, but they are sincere, honest, and willing to listen even if never the twain shall meet.

I have said many times on this blog that many of the best people I know have been met over a pint or several of beer, and that is a truth that I hold on to regardless of the quality of the beer being consumed in many a session (in my world sessions begin at the fifth pint, the first four being proof only that a beer is pintable). Given the essential humanity of beer, beer must ultimately take second place to the quality of the humanity one is imbibing with. Many of my favourite, and most memorable, nights out have been whilst drinking beer which would be considered by many a geek as mere swill, Gambrinus in particular springs to mind.

So, in bringing this vaguely rambling, and longer than normal piece, to a close let us remember one simple truth, beer is really nothing more than a vehicle to a raging headache the morning after without the people in whose company you choose to spend your time drinking. Whether you see those people most weekends, a couple of times a year, or just once every half decade or so, treasure them more so than you treasure the beer itself, because it is they that bring real joy to the experience of drinking.