Monday, April 21, 2014

Getting Raucous

I spent Saturday drinking homebrew. No shock there you might think, but it wasn't my own brews I was imbibing, I was judging at a competition.

The competition was a very small affair, just six entrants, but the winner is to have their beer brewed on the big system at Three Notch'd. I have to admit I was somewhat worried about the judging as the chosen style for the competition was IPA, a style that I rarely brew myself, and then it is usually so I can dodge the style at other competitions I am judging. I am also not a huge fan of drinking IPAs, though I think our local breweries in Central Virginia actually make some damn good ones, especially Devils Backbone's 8 Point, Three Notch'd 40 Mile, and Starr Hill Northern Lights - maybe I just prefer the East Coast way of doing the style...

Anyway, the winner of the competition brewed a beer which was simply delightful. Boatloads of malt complexity and a real balance from the hops, this was no tooth enamel stripper and it was all the better for it. To add some creativity to the brew, she added honey and orange peel, that actually had me thinking she had used Goldings hops at first. The drinkability of the beer, and it was bloody delicious, belied its 7.88% heft. The beer was called Raucous IPA and I am very much looking forward to it being available around Charlottesville. From my experience with Session 42, it is such a great feeling seeing your beer in restaurants and bars.

The standard of the entrants got me thinking about how this part of Virginia seems to have a real wealth of brewing talent, whether doing it for a living or as a hobby - I love Levi Duncan's, formerly of Starr Hill and now at Champion, thoughts on brewers, whether you are a pro or a homebrewer is irrelevant, we are all brewers. One of the members of the homebrew club I go to, the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale, recently won a gold and two bronzes in round one of the NHC, and our club regularly does well in competitions like the Dominion Cup and Virginia Beer Blitz.

Brewing in such a well stocked area for talent definitely makes a brewer have to strive to improve all the time, which can only be good the brewing community as a whole. Not only is it a good time for the beer industry, it's a good time for brewing your own as well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Taste of the New

It seems crazy sometimes, but it is almost 5 years since I drank my first ever Starr Hill beer. It was in May 2009 that a friend of mine brought a bottle of the much missed, at least in my world, Starr Hill Pale Ale back to Prague with her. A few months later, having arrived on these shores, I was working in the Starr Hill tasting room, and drinking a fair bit of the Pale Ale, and the Dark Starr Stout as well.

Fast forward to April 2014 and I still work at the tasting room a few weekends a month, and I still wish the powers that be would resurrect the old Pale Ale. I haven't worked since the beginning of March for one simple reason, the tasting room has been closed for renovations.

This weekend, that all changes. The tasting room will once again be open for business, though it is hugely different from the old days. Gone is the simple wooden bar with industrial kegerators behind it, replaced by a custom built bar with lines that run directly to the cold store, so no more lugging kegs from the cold store to the bar on a trolley I guess. Gone is the stifling heat of summer, and the frozen backsides of winter, we now have a closed in, temperature controlled space which looks out on the production floor of the brewery itself.

A couple of weekends ago we had a team meeting to be introduced to the new space and, to put it simply, it is stunning. The guys that designed the space have done an amazing job, and incorporated some neat touches from the old days of Starr Hill when it was a brewpub in Charlottesville.

To say I am looking forward to getting back behind the bar is something of an understatement, and what a glorious bar it will be to be working behind!

The grand opening is this Saturday, but I will be working on Sunday, so come on down, enjoy the new space, and of course drink the beer!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vive La Difference?

There was a recently a story in a local newspaper that Stone Brewing are looking at building their second brewing facility (sounds so much more 'craft' than 'factory' don't you think?) in the Charlottesville area, specifically near Crozet. Of course this caused much excitement, and likely no little disappointment should they choose to go elsewhere. It also got me thinking.

Let's imagine that the powers that be bend over backwards to bring Stone to this part of Central Virginia, tempting them with all manner of sweeteners, tax-breaks, and sundried incentives, and behold in a couple of years Stone II is open for business. Central Virginia is already becoming something a must visit area for beer tourism, just look at all the award winning breweries we have here, and Devils Backbone picked up more bling at this year's World Beer Cup. Naturally people will want to visit Stone, and I am sure they would in their droves.

There is a question though that nags away in the back of my head, would it not be utterly disingenuous to consider Stone a 'local' brewery, or their beer as 'local'? Sure it would be 'locally brewed', and having access to fresh Pale Ale would most assuredly be a 'good thing', but would it have the same sense of place as Full Nelson from Blue Mountain, Starr Hill's Grateful, or Three Notch'd 40 Mile? I realise that the very concept of 'local' beer is a massive misnomer given ingredients pour into breweries from around the world, and even the water has its localness stripped out quite often. However, there is something romantic about drinking beer made by breweries born and raised in your local area.

The same goes for all the big breweries in the process of setting up secondary plants on the East Coast, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium in North Carolina, and Green Flash in Virginia Beach. Sure it'll be great to have fresher beer, but I don't think I will ever be able to think of it as local, it'll just be another national brand made in multiple factories, likely by the very latest in technological brewing plants. In fact it will be no more local, in my mind, than Blue Moon being made just up the road in Elkton, or Budweiser down in Williamsburg.

If someone could just explain to me, in words of one syllable or less, how exactly the likes of Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium doing pretty much exactly what Anheuser-Busch did about 70 years ago is different? Enjoying the growth of the post-war economy, producing more than 3 million barrels a year, Anheuser-Busch opened secondary plants to bring fresh beer to their consumers. Oh, and by 'explanation' that doesn't include kraft-aid giveaway phrases like 'crafty', misleading consumers' 'tricking' or anything else that attempts to set up the straw man that Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium are anything other than big brewing concerns. Just because 'craft' is trendy doesn't make their doing exactly the same as AB all those years ago any different, or better, or worse.

It's just business.

Friday, April 4, 2014

My Name is Rat, and I Approve This Ale


5 years since the Armistice brought the Great War to an effective end, the man that would become George VI married the woman I only ever knew as the Queen Mother, and the Irish Free State joined the League of Nations.

At the Anchor Brewhouse in Horsleydown, the Courage Brewery was making a beer which in the pubs of London was known as Old Burton, though in the brewery itself it was called KKK. Burton Ale has become something of an obsession of mine, rich as it is in history and brewing possibilities. Like all beers, Burton Ale has evolved, changed, and been understood in different ways throughout its history, and today it is all but ignored.

When I wrote a post called 'Time For Burton' at the end of last year, I suggested that Burton Ale was just the kind of beer that the 'craft' beer world should revive, much as is happening with Grodziskie. A comment on that post inspired me to comment on Facebook that it really was suprising that Burton Ale, big, boozy, and bitter, wasn't being made by 'craft' breweries, and would any of my pro-brewer friends be willing to pick up the baton?

Enter Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton. It's fair to say that I have a very big soft spot for Blue Mountain, they make one of my favourite pale lagers in the US, Blue Mountain Lager. They make one of my favourite winter beers, Lights Out. They make probably the only strong pale lager in the US that doesn't make me want to lament a total absence of balance, Über Pils. Yes, it is very fair to say that Taylor and co know what they are doing. About half an hour after my post, Taylor had responded and initiated the traditional back and forth via email that eventually lead to last Friday's brewday, when we recreated Courage's Old Burton from 1923.

We were forced into a slight change for our version of the beer. For some reason brewing supply companies on this side of the Atlantic don't seem to stock invert #3, the dark version of invert sugar syrup which gave the original much of its colour. Unfortunately British brewing supply companies that carry invert sugars don't have distribution or their products in the US, can't imagine why. What to do, what to do? Baker's invert sugar syrup was the answer, fully inverted, but also clear, so we upped the black malt a tad to adjust the colour.

By the time I turned up at 8am, the mash was already done and sparging was underway. Patrick, the brewer, had got in at 5am to get started, and with a 3 hour boil ahead of us, it's just as well he did. The colour of the wort was startling, deep, deep brown, but it lightened up with the sparging, and adding 10 gallons of clear invert syrup lightened it further so that it ended up a rich red/brown shade.

Another shock was the amount of hops we chucked in for the bittering addition. 22lbs of East Kent Goldings, for 15 barrels of beer! With the other additions of Nugget, and the Goldings used to dry hop the beer, we used something like 3lbs of hops per barrel, or a calculated 102 IBUs - take that, random IPA!

There are few things I enjoy more than a day in a brewery, the ceremonial dumping of the the hops, the chat about beer and brewing, discovering that one of the reasons the brewery wanted to do this project was precisely because it took them our of their comfort zone, and of course digging out the mash tun. Call me crazy, but that really is something I look forward to getting stuck in to.

Anyway, we ended up with about 15 barrels of dark, bitter, so very bitter, wort, which is being fermented by the McEwan's yeast and when it hits the taps at the brewpub will be about 6.5% abv, rippingly bitter, with plenty of residual sugar to take the edge off the hops. Simply put, it will be like nothing out there at the moment. Taylor is also planning to put some in some of his barrels to age for a year or so...

The name for this most auspicious brew....Sensible Mole, obviously.

Of Bostonian Beer...

 A couple of weeks ago I was up in Boston for a work related conference. Having only ever been to the city for a few hours previously, to vi...