Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Beers and Breweries of 2015

The Christmas tree is up and decorated, the salmon and beef for Christmas lunch have been bought, the tin of Quality Street chocs awaits opening and tipping into a fancy bowl for me to raid for the caramel barrels, so it must be time for a review of 2015. I have grown rather attached to my pale, amber, and dark beers from Central VA, rest of VA, rest of USA, and rest of world approach, thus I will not abandon it.....

  • Central VA - South Street My Personal Helles
  • Rest of VA - Port City Downright Pilsner
  • Rest of USA - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  • Rest of World - Pilsner Urquell
  • Honorable mentions - Three Notch'd Ghost of the 43rd, Devils Backbone Trukker Ur-Pils, Cromarty Happy Chappy, Hi-Wire Lager, Rothaus Pils
It has been a great year for this lagerboy (on a side note, I sometimes get the urge to have a t-shirt made up with the slogan 'What's wrong alehead, not got the palate to appreciate lager?'). South Street's My Personal Helles has become my go to lager when I fancy a pint in Charlottesville, one I wouldn't worry too much about if it was all I had to drink for months on end. Port City continue to make the best regularly available pilsner in the USA, bar none, and it graces my fridge often. But the winner of the Fuggled Pale Beer of 2015 is Pilsner Urquell. Now available in brown bottles, cold shipped from the Czech Republic, and just delightful drinking. The crowning glory though this year was that a local bar had nefiltrovaný Prazdroj on tap a few months ago. Sure it was $7 a pop, but it was worth every single golden drop, as I raved about here.

  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Hydraulion Red Irish Ale
  • Rest of VA - Mad Fox Altbier
  • Rest of USA - Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Rest of World - Fullers Vintage Ale 2009
  • Honorable mentions - Yeungling Traditional Lager, Orval
Another collection of really good beers to choose from for the amber beer of the year. I drink Hydraulion fairly regularly, it's easy to get in to and stay with. Mad Fox's Altbier was a revelation when I was up there with my parents a few weeks back, once I got over disappointment of the Mason's Dark Mild not being on tap. It made me wish more American breweries made Altbier and got it so emphatically right. I have been drinking through my various Fullers Vintages this year, having come to the conclusion that storing them for a 'special occasion' is pretty much a waste of time, and each vintage has been lovely, with 2009 my favourite so far. If truth be told, the Fuggled Amber Beer of the Year was sown up months ago. I am not sure if I was on my second or third 12 pack of Sierra Nevada's collaborative Oktoberfest, but I knew that I would be drinking a lot of that beer while it was available, I think I ended up with about ten 12 packs all told, and several pints on tap, simply delicious.

  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Oats McGoats Oatmeal Stout
  • Rest of VA - Port City Porter
  • Rest of USA - St. Boniface Bull's Head Mild
  • Rest of World - Pokertree Seven Sisters Black Treacle Oat Stout
  • Honorable mentions - O'Hara's Leann Follain Whiskey Barrel Aged, Skye Black, Starr Hill Dark Starr, South Street Back to Bavaria, Three Notch'd Method to My Madness Mild
Regular readers of Fuggled will know that I love drinking milds, porters, and stouts. Through the American Mild Month project I enjoyed several very nice milds this year, including a crowler of the St Boniface beer brewed for that event, which made it's way to central VA through the family of the St Boniface brewer, and was enjoyed with gusto one Saturday afternoon. I still remember well the first time I had Port City Porter, in a restaurant in Alexandria where I had several pints before looking at the ABV, a 7.5% drop that tasted like it was 5%, fantastic. Another Three Notch'd beer that I drink regularly, especially in the damp of cold of autumn and winter, Oats McGoats is silky smooth and moreish, all the more so once it gets to the proper temperature. However, the 2015 Fuggled Dark Beer of the Year comes from the north of Ireland. I only had one bottle of Pokertree Seven Sisters, brought over by Reuben of Tale of the Ale, and it was a revelation, one that I am hoping to recreate in my homebrewing at some point.

Fuggled Champion Beer

If the Amber Beer of the Year was sown up months ago, then the overall Fuggled Champion Beer for 2015 was also practically decided at the same time. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest was everything I look for in a beer, superbly made, flavourful, on point for the style, and drinkable beyond measure. I drank a lot of this beer, often from my 1 litre Paulaner glass, often demolishing a 12 pack in a single afternoon. I drank it, I cooked with it, I revelled in every single drop. I wish I had stocked up more before it disappeared from the shelves of supermarkets and bottle shops. There was no finer beer I drank this year.

  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Brewing
  • Rest of VA - Port City
  • Rest of USA - Sierra Nevada
  • Rest of World - Fullers
  • Honorable mentions - Plzeňský Prazdroj, South Street Brewery, Hi-Wire Brewing

Looking back at last year's review of the year, I noticed that 3 of the 4 breweries listed here were listed then as well. This tells me several things, but most importantly that I value breweries that produce consistently well made and tasty beers, that have a solid core range that I am happy to drink anytime, and also that I am out of kilter with many a craft drinker in that I am happy to stick to a single brewery rather than taking a scatter gun approach. At one point earlier this year, I was worried that I wouldn't have drunk enough beer to warrant my annual trawl through the pale, amber, and dark delights that constitute my drinking habit. It wasn't that I had inexplicably given up on beer rather that I found my self drinking almost exclusively Three Notch'd beer, hence they are again the Fuggled Brewery of the Year. Whenever I see their wonderfully simple tap handle in a pub I know what I'll be drinking, and I know I will not be disappointed, what more can you ask from a brewery?

Yes 2015 was a good year for drinking, here's hoping 2016 is just as good.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Doppelbock Fruit Cake

On Saturday morning I got to do one of my favourite things, doing the grocery shopping by myself. This isn't to say that I don't enjoy grocery shopping with Mrs V, but rather that when she goes running of a morning I like to take the opportunity to be in the shop early and alone, to avoid the crowds, to browse to my heart's content, and to avoid running into people with small children. As I wander the aisles I like to plan meals for the coming days, bread experiments to mess with, and beers in the booze realm to try. Thus it was on Saturday morning that I picked up a six pack of Trader Joe's Winter Brew, I won't wax lyrical here about my love for Trader Joe's beer but only because I did so in this post.

Winter Brew is labelled as a 'dark double bock lager', weighs in at 7.5% abv, is a beautiful deep garnet colour, and is rather fine drinking, so be sure to find yourselves some if you can as that is all I am going to tell you about when it comes to the beer. With two thirds of the 6 pack stoking a warming glow in the belly I decided that I needed to make fruit cake as it had been so long. I get why many people on this side of the Pond are not fans of fruit cake, especially when you see the shop bought abominations that get fobbed off on consumers and are, to put it bluntly, shit. One of the benefits of having a mother who is a phenomenal cook with a penchant for traditional cooking is knowing how things should be made (hence Mrs V and I still make our own mincemeat for Christmas, from a 250 year old recipe that includes meat).

Anyway....looking through my cook books for inspiration (there really are no such things as recipes), I pulled out my copy of 'The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook', a well thumbed resource, and decided to make a version of the Porter Cake recipe, but using doppelbock instead of stout, as well as some tweaks for what was in the cupboards, thus my recipe was:
  • 1 cup currants
  • 1 cup sultanas
  • 1 cup raisins
  • handful of dried cranberries that were floating about
  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • 0.75 cup chopped candied mixed peel
  • 12oz bottle of doppelbock
  • 2.75 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs lightly beaten
The method to my madness began with putting all the dried fruits in a big ass bowl and pouring the beer into the bowl, having first de-gassed the beer a bit by whisking it in a pint glass, and leaving the mixture to sit for at least 5 hours.

When it is time to actually make the cake pre-heat the oven to 325°F/160°C. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and allspice in a bowl, then cream together the butter and sugar in another, bigger, bowl until light and fluffy, beat in the eggs a little a time, with a spoon of the flour mix as you go. Once the eggs are nicely incorporated, dump in the rest of the flour mix and beat to smooth paste, so it looks like this.

Now dump all the fruit and remaining liquid into the paste and stir, so it looks like this.

The original recipe called for the use of a 7 inch square cake pan but I don't have one of those, so I used 2 8 inch by 4 inch pans, and played around with the cooking times accordingly. Once you have greased and floured the cake tins, split the mix evenly between the two pans, and put in the oven for an hour, then lick the spoon and bowl clean to your heart's content.

After an hour, turn the oven down to 300°F/150°C and let it bake for another hour or until you can put a toothpick into the centre of the cake and it comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the tins for about half an hour before turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

Serve with a nice cup of tea....

So there you have it, a really easy, nice fruit cake recipe for winter. Shame the weather in Virginia isn't cooperating, sod it being 75°F/24°C yesterday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Flagship Craft Lager

On the same shopping trip that resulted in buying the Coors Banquet that I wrote about in my previous post I decided to also get myself some craft lager. Wanting to try something I had not had before I perused the collection of singles rather than splashing on a 6 pack. I learnt my lesson with buying 6 packs of craft lager when trying out Samuel Adam's Noble Pils.

As the aisle I was standing in was in a supermarket rather than a specialist beer retailer the selection of craft lagers was somewhat meagre. I did though find a craft lager that I had never had before...

Now, I know there will be people looking at that picture and wondering where the craft lager is, it's the rather fetching copper liquid that I poured out of the can into the glass. According to the ever flexible definition of a craft brewery espoused by the Brewers Association, America's oldest family owned brewery became a craft brewery in 2014, and if I have understood the numbers correctly, Yuengling Traditional Lager instantly became the best selling craft lager in the US. It really was remiss of me to have not drunk it already, and how was it? Well, here goes:
  • Sight - orange copper, topped with a thin, loose bubbled, white head that rather surprisingly didn't disappear quickly
  • Smell - imagine walking into a pub first thing in the morning, that distinct beer smell that pubs have, that, with some light butter and earthiness lingering in the background
  • Taste - distinctly grainy, like Weetabix, with a toasty taste in the middle and a slightly nutty finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5

The thing that really surprised me with this was that the body was more on the medium side of light than I expected. It was also nowhere near as carbonated as I expected, no fizzy mess here thankfully. Overall it was a nicely balanced beer that I really rather enjoyed and at 4.4% definitely one I can see myself ordering in the pub from time to time.

Without wanting to get into the politics of what makes a craft brewer, it is after all the BA's definition and they can do with it as they will, Yuengling tick every box when you think about a bit. Small, independent, and traditional, it's just that the tradition they adhere to isn't some puritanical obsession with Reinheitsgebot, but a very American tradition, innovation - a tradition that these days sadly gets confused for having an ingredient wankfest.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Impartial Pursuit: Part Deux

It seems like an age since I sat down on a Sunday afternoon in June and drank a 25oz can of Budweiser. Not Bud Light, not any of the rita sisters that are brand extensions of Bud Light, but good old classic Budweiser. I didn't love it, but neither did I loathe it. I was wet, it had alcohol, and I could imagine drinking it at a party rather than being a sneering craftophile who refuses to drink beers not made with navel lint and then aged in the barrel that took the body of Admiral Nelson home for burial.

That rather large can was never intended to be a singular event from which I would denounce all beer made by the multinational breweries. Nope, if you want to really know what something tastes like you have a buy a bottle or two and then drink the damned stuff. Anyone who says shite like 'I don't need to drink it to know it is bad' is a poseur of the highest magnitude and deserving of the showers of opprobrium coming his or her way, they are also complete twats, but that's a different story. parents are visiting from Scotland for a few weeks and a couple of days ago we were in a local supermarket picking up bits and bobs while Mrs V was off doing her running in preparation for a 10 mile run in the new year. Looking at the collection of singles (a phrase which still puts me in mind of the latest 'Best of....' album by a favourite band) I noticed that the store in question actually sold singles of some of them there dreaded 'macro beers', in this case aluminium bottles of Coors Banquet.

Coors Banquet is the 'premium' pale lager offering from Coors Brewing in Colorado, premium here of course being shorthand for 'full strength', weighing in a 5% rather than the 4.2% of the various light American lagers produced by the behemoths, and this was the first time I had ever drunk on with the modified Cyclops tasting notes:
  • Sight - pours a light gold, rich yellow colour, with a healthy half inch of pure white, tight bubbled foam that lingers basically for the duration of drinking while leaving a reasonable lacing down the sides of the glass, if you pay attention to such fripperies
  • Smell - the aroma is mainly grainy but with some herbal and spicy hop notes making their way through the head
  • Taste - again cereal is the dominant flavour, mostly smooth buttered corn, there isn't much int he way of identifiable hop flavour, but there is a bite in the finish that works well with the honeyed grain
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1/5

In some ways this is very close to the Budweiser that I drank back in June. Fairly bland without being offensive in any way whatsoever, though I would say that Coors Banquet is several steps up in terms of taste and drinkability from classic Budweiser. I actually wouldn't complain if I had to spend a night on the lash just drinking Coors Banquet. The beer is pretty light bodied, but not thin and watery as some mass produced pale lagers have a tendency toward, actually to be bluntly honest, it reminded me of a lot of many 'craft' iterations on Kölsch I have had this side of the Pond. The beer leaves a slickness on the tongue as you drink, but the fizz of the high carbonation soon strips that away.

In common with classic Budweiser, this is definitely not a bad beer, even if it is something that would not be a regular in my fridge, but let's face it, even highly regarded beers like Rochefort are not regulars in my fridge.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coming Full Circle?

As I took my dog for a walk this morning I was thinking about beer. Not about the beer I drank yesterday to mark my 40th birthday, the highlight being a couple of litres of Rothaus Pils at Kardinal Hall in Charlottesville, but rather how my tastes in beer seem to be ever increasingly skewed toward classic styles well made.

As I said, the highlight of my drinking yesterday was as simple a German style pilsner as is humanly possible. Other recent highlights have been a Helles lager from South Street, positively gallons of Sierra Nevada's collaborative Oktoberfest, and in the summer plenty of Three Notch'd Session 42 best bitter.

The thing that ties all these beers together is simplicity. There are no extraneous ingredients, no aging in barrels that once upon a time held a spirit of one kind or another, nothing experimental at all. I would say that my drinking life has never been richer.

Sure, it helps that each of the beers is very well made, but simple beers made poorly are often the worst beers a brewery puts out because the brewer can't hide behind the innovative band-aids that disguise their shortfall in brewing technique. I have said it many times, but show me a brewer that can put out a consistently high quality, and flavourful, classic beer style, such as pilsner, and you are showing me one worth his or her salt.

Thinking over my 22 years of legal beer drinking, from that first pint of Guinness to last night's Rothaus, put me in mind of Bunyan's pilgrim who sets out on a journey of discovery that takes him through many adventures but eventually comes full circle home. I feel as though I am coming full circle, where all I really want when I am having a beer is something that tastes great, is a well made iteration of a recognisable style, and is an aid to the occasion not the whole point of it.

I almost had a sense this morning that craft beer is starting to grow up and appreciate simplicity in all its glory, though in all likelihood reality is less prosaic and more a case of my having found my sweet spot in beer, and it is really isn't all that far from where I left from when I started this blog.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Proper German Pilsner

There's a new pub in Charlottesville called Kardinal Hall, based on the concept of the great German/central European beer hall and garden. I went for the first time last night, not being much of one for going to places on opening night, as I had a meeting to plan the next few months of events for my homebrew club. This post isn't a review of Kardinal Hall, I like to let places hit their stride before writing them off or praising them to the heavens, this is about the beer I drank....

I didn't even realise that Rothaus Pils Tannenzäpfle was actually available in the US, but the minute I saw it on the menu I knew I wanted it, and I wanted a litre of it - major bonus of Kardinal Hall is the option of 1 litre mugs of proper German beer. There are no tasting notes as I didn't make any, it not being the time or place, and anyway I have basically given up taking notes of the beers I drink unless I am at home. Suffice to say that this was German pilsner perfection, clean, crisp, with a real bite of noble hops in the finish, and drinkability that would make many a weird shit craft beer simply weep.

Coming on the back of my post the other day about how Pilsner should not be equated with adjunct laden pale lagers, it was fantastic to drink a superb iteration of probably my favourite style. It is safe to say that I will be visiting Kardinal Hall a fair bit until it runs out, and hopefully they'll continue with having good central European lagers available in Charlottesville, and if they need a list of worthwhile stuff, they know where I am....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cost, Price, and Value

Yesterday on the Yours For Good Fermentables Facebook page, Tom Cizauskas posted a 2014 article from the Huffington Post which purported to breakdown the cost of a 6 pack of beer. Below is the chart from that original article.

This chart got me thinking more about the cost of being a craft beer drinker, and frankly I find some of it really rather disturbing.

We hear much about craft beer being expensive because of the use of expensive ingredients, but if this chart is correct then the ingredients themselves constitute just 10% of the cost of the beer in your 6 pack. The bottles and the cardboard carton said beer is sitting in is far more expensive than the beer itself. I would love to see a comparative chart about the cost of creating a 6 pack of industrial beer and see what proportion of the final cost is the ingredients.

More disturbing is that the cost of labour is a mere 1% of the overall cost of a six pack, think about that for a moment, that six pack in your hand at the shop contributes just 9.9 cents to someone's pay cheque. Add that 1% to the ingredients and only 11% of the cost of the six pack is actually involved in the production of the beer, everything else is margin, distribution, and tax. The actual cost of your beer is likely not much more than $1.09, chuck in the packaging costs and the total package on that six pack is $2.39, and that's before the brewery themselves have added a markup, which takes the total so far to a mere $3.19 for a six pack, less than a third of the final cost.

Why then is craft beer so expensive? It's really quite simple. 52% of the cost of a six pack of beer is margin added by the distributors and retailers. Now, I understand that businesses need to make money to survive, but when more than half the cost of my six pack is being taken up by people not actively involved in the production of the beer then I start to wonder whether that is really justified or whether they are just scalping the consumer because the product is so popular at the moment? It also reinforces my belief that the 3 tier system that exists in the US booze industry simply serves to line the pockets of middlemen. Imagine a world where breweries could sell directly to retailers and a healthy chunk of that 21% distribution markup saving could be passed on to the consumer, thus the 6 pack drops to $7.82 in the store.

By removing the distribution channel and letting the breweries sell directly to retailers like bars and stores you actually encourage genuinely local breweries whose products are primarily available in the brewery's catchment area. This also means that breweries are not encouraged to expand their presence into markets they can't support sufficiently, sure it might mean a slow down in growth but I would rather have fewer high quality brewers like Sierra Nevada than multitudes of third rate 'craft' swill.

For me, the 'more expensive ingredients' as a primary driver of the cost of craft simply fails to stand up to scrutiny, if this chart is accurate, and having seen the cost per barrel of the leading beers at a local brewery it sounds about right. The true reason for the cost of craft beer is that the people that control the beer once it is out of the brewery door can basically set the price at whatever they feel the market will bear, and as long as consumers keep stumping up the cash without criticism the more the price will rise. That is the very nature of the market, it will charge whatever it can get away with and that will only change when people start voting with their wallets and refusing to pay sucker prices.

Monday, October 26, 2015

More Than Lite

Take a quick scan through this list and tell me what each of these beer styles has in common:
  • Schwarzbier
  • American Light
  • Vienna
  • Baltic Porter
  • Pilsner
  • Munich Helles
  • Märzen
I am sure that if you know your onions, so to speak, when it comes to types of beer then you read that list and got the connection straight off the bat. Still scratching your head? Well ok then, let me put you out of your misery, they are all lager beer styles, as in bottom fermented and then cold conditioned beers.

This tiny little exercise highlights a semantic problem that we have in the independent beer world, the total abuse of the word 'lager' to refer to any pale, adjunct laden, quality control obsessed, beer put out by the large multinational brewers like ABInBev or Carlsberg. All we do when we use the word 'lager' in this way is show a contemptuous disregard for a family of beers that are as diverse, interesting, and worthwhile as their top fermented cousins.

I have written several times before about my love of the lagered arts, but it seems at times as though the use of the term 'lager' as a lazy shorthand for beers being mass produced by multinationals is on the rise, and that bothers me greatly. When I worked in the Starr Hill tasting room, we had a guy come in and ask what 'bocks and doppelbocks' we had on tap and that he didn't 'like lager at all', and that was 'passionate about real beer'. Hmm, well. While being all outward sweetness and light I was thinking 'get the fuck out of my bar you pompous twat' on the inside. I wish I could say that was a very rare occurrence but sadly the level of ignorance about lager is staggering, especially when you consider the hoopla around beer these days.

So let's see an end to this kind of lazy lager language, especially from beer writers, bloggers, and other semi-pro talking heads. Let's highlight lager style beers being made by independent brewers and not dismiss them with nonsense like 'not bad for a lager'. Let's remind breweries that just because they don't have the wherewithal to make lager doesn't mean the fans of lagers are afraid of tasting something. I've said it before, let's have more lagerboy pride.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pale Lager ≠ Pilsner

Is there any word in the beer world more abused and debased that 'pilsner'?

Sure IPA might give it a run for its money, but as anyone with half a brain knows the use of 'IPA' has become an easy shorthand for boring overhopped top fermented beer of whatever colour is the fad of the week.

I seem to come back to this theme time after time because there is still a raft of misinformation, dumbass commentary, and just plain utter ignorance around the pilsner style and what constitutes one. Before launching into what a pilsner actually is, let's remind ourselves of the post I wrote in 2010 on the subject, and I quote:
Pilsner ≠ light beer
Pilsner ≠ Bud/Miller/Coors
Pilsner ≠ over hopped Bud
Pilsner ≠ any old pale lager
To label any of the above as a pilsner is to simply put on show the fact that you don't know what you are talking about. I don't care if you are a BJCP Grand Wizard of the Judging Arts, on any of the levels of Cicerone-dom, or Mr Marketing Bullshit Man who labels a perfectly reasonable helles lager as a 'pils' because you think it will sell better to the public (yay for craft beer being run by passionate brewers not the marketing bods eh?).

Now, I may have mellowed as I get closer to the age at which life traditionally starts, but when it comes to the style of beer that in my opinion is the height of the brewing craft I still have my standards. To call a beer a pilsner for me is to say that it follows as faithfully as possible the brewing standards and methods of the Czech Republic. So that for me means lots of noble hops, at least 30 IBUs worth, proper lagering times, at least 30 days, an ABV between 4.4% and 5.5%, and being brewed without the use of adjuncts.

As I say, I have mellowed, if a brewer doesn't have the equipment to do a decoction mash but still produces a tasty pilsner style beer then that is fine with me, and the German interpretation of the style is one that I greatly enjoy. However, there is still no space for having beers like Bud Light, Miller Lite, or Coors Light to be described as 'pilsners', they are not even close. They are in particular not 'low-grade Pilsners'.

I have no problem with people who don't like a good pint of Pilsner as much as I do, what someone else drinks is entirely up to them and I am not going to deride their beer of choice - I'll leave that to the Craft Beer Wankers (side thought, I am surprised Viz haven't complemented their Real Ale Twats with that idea). All I ask is people get their facts straight, and don't promulgate bullshit.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bigger Business As Usual

I rarely post on brewery mergers, quite possibly because I don't believe that the corporate structure of a brewing company really has that much of effect on the quality of beer being produced. If it did, every honest craft beer drinker on planet earth would love for their favourite local micro to be purchased by one of the big boys so that they could have access to superior quality control processes and equipment and thus make consistently tasty beer. but Stonch put out a challenge, and so I will attempt to rise to it.

All too often in the craft beer side of the beer scene (strangely some craft beer fans remind me of the Catholics in Dave Allen's wonderful joke about going to heaven, they seem to be convinced they are the only people who drink beer), we forget that the brewing business is exactly that, a business, subject to the same rules of the market as other industries, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. Just because you are a little business doesn't make you some kind of special case or immune to the realities of every day business life - as such those small breweries making shit craft beer (and there are a fair few of them in my experience) will, and deserve to, go to the wall, where no-one will lament their passing other than 'investors' hoping to cash in on the bubble.

Anyway....this post is not about ABInBev buying some little brewery and igniting a veritable caterwaul of 'sell out', 'I'll never buy your beer again', and other declamations from love-struck and jilted fanboys. It's about ABInBev (random thought, why isn't it InBevAB? InBev bought AB not the other way around) having agreed to purchase SABMiller in order to go from being the world's biggest brewing company to being the world's biggest brewing company by a wider margin.

It may sound strange, but this deal doesn't really bother me, and for many of the same reasons as InBev's purchase of Goose Island, 10 Barrel Brewing or Elysian didn't bother me. It is very unlikely to actually affect the beer as it is being made, though admittedly there is part of me that looks over at Pilsner Urquell and worries that the same people that fucked up Staropramen are likely to own the brewery that started the whole hoppy pale lager craze back in 1842 (side note, screw 'India Pale Lager', and morons that think Bud Lite is in some way a pilsner just because it is pale and bottom fermented). As long as the beer stays the same, and this goes for all the brands likely to be owned by whatever this new behemoth will be called, then I am happy with that, because from an American side of the Atlantic perspective the control of the factories producing the beer is frankly a secondary matter.

With the daftness that is the three tier system, whereby brewers need to sell to distributors in order to have their beer in the pubs and shops of a state, the power is with neither the producer or the retailer, but with the blood sucking middlemen, and it is those purchases by ABInBev that bother me the most. Rather than opposing huge brewing companies, the craft beer world, if it truly wants to revolutionise the industry in the US, needs to focus on destroying the three tier system and introducing a genuine free market in the beer world, whereby the middle man is cut out and maybe even, and I realise I am likely being idealistic here, prices can go down because the additional cost of the mddleman is cut out.

Big brewing companies are a very useful straw man/marketing device for the chattering classes to rail against, much like the faceless bureaucracies of the civil service, and ABInBev getting even bigger really changes nothing on that front. So my response to this news is to shrug my shoulders and carry on drinking beer primarily from my local breweries, preferably at their tap rooms so all my money goes directly into their pockets. That is the power the consumer has, deciding where his or her money goes, and someone will always exist to be the supply to meet the demand for beer from small breweries, it's called business and it will keep on going.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Real Ale Homebrew

I love a good pint of cask conditioned beer, something which is painfully difficult to get in this part of Virginia at times. None of the breweries here has a regular cask lineup, and worse yet when they do decide to have some kind of 'firkin' special they invariably bastardise the beer by adding stupid shit to the beer, and slap it on a bar for gravity pouring without proper stillage. The resulting beer is so murky that it would do London beer proud, and no that is not a good thing.

The only places I have enjoyed pints of well cared for real ale in the last 6 years have been Beer Run here in Charlottesville and ChurchKey in DC, though sadly Beer Run stopped having a regular cask offering a few years ago. What then is a chap to do? Make you own obviously.

I have written before about using a 1 gallon polypin, called a cubitainer in these here parts, for replicating cask conditioning. It really is a pretty simple process:
  1. Put priming solution/conditioning tablets into the cubitainer to achieve about 1.2 volumes of CO2
  2. Rack fermented beer from primary into cubitainer, filling it about 90% full
  3. Close cubitainer with tap attachment (edit: store the cubitainer with the tap on the top of the cube)
  4. When the cubitainer swells bleed off some of the resulting CO2 so it doesn't burst - usually have to do this twice
  5. After about a week drink it
The picture below is of one of my cask experiments, an 80/- ale from a few years ago.

Now, gravity pour is all well and good, but I about a year ago I decided that I wanted to be able to pump my cubitainer real ale. Beer engines are pretty bloody expensive in and of themselves, and I don't have a home bar to add the necessary kit to, and did I mention they are bloody expensive? An answer I found on the old interwebs was to use a 'Rocket' pump, which is more usually used in mobile homes to pump water. One of the guys at the homebrew club I go to had a similar idea, but attached it to a cooler so that he would have portable real ale, so I must admit I nicked his idea to build my own 'caskerator'.

It's a really simple set up, and so easy to build that it took me about 10 minutes to do, and most of that was drilling the holes in the top of the cooler to attach the pump to. The entire outlay for this was:
Real ale for less than $45 can't be bad. To make it work:
  1. put a freezer gel pack in the bottom of the cooler to keep the previously cellar temperature stored beer at about the right temperature
  2. put cubitainer in cooler, tap to one side and pointing upwards
  3. connect the pump tubing to the tap (this can be fiddly)
  4. turn tap on
  5. close cooler lid - taking care not to kink the tubing, though this kind of replicates the behaviour of a sparkler
  6. pump - it takes about 10 pumps to get an imperial pint
  7. drink

There you have it, how to produce a reasonable approximation of British style real ale at home and on the cheap.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Beer of Autumn 2015

Last autumn I bought myself a mixed 12 pack of Sierra Nevada beers consisting of three bottles of Pale Ale, Vienna Lager, Oktoberfest and the Tumbler Brown Ale. Each and every beer was a delight, as you would expect from such an august brewing company as SN. With the heat of summer finally on the wane, I kept my eyes open for this year's version, looking forward to, in particular, the Oktoberfest. I don't remember which shop I was in, but there was an absence of the mix pack, but six packs of the Oktoberfest were already on the shelves (at the end of August but that's a different post), so I picked one up and took it home for a Friday night of beer and films, oh yes, I know how to party.

As I poured 3 bottles into my 1 litre Paulaner glass, which is my preferred glass for most lagers, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance as I was expecting a much darker beer, a hunch which was confirmed with a quick scan of my Instagram feed. It was only then that I bothered to read the label properly and discovered that gone was the deep red Oktoberfest I had loved, and in its place a collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele from Augsburg in Germany. One of my constant gripes about many an American made Oktoberfest lager is a tendency toward sweetness derived from caramel malts rather than Munich malts, with a German brewery on board though I figured this would be something more Teutonic.

As you can see from the pictures, this is no deep red lager, it is a lovely rich golden, bordering on copper, and that big white head just seems to linger, and linger. Tastewise we are talking full on German style lager, clean, crisp, slightly grainy and with a cracker dry finish, there is some juicy sweetness from Munich malt that prevents the beer from being puckering and then there is the hop bite, again crystal clear and sharply defined. A touch of lemon, some floral notes, and all of this perfectly married together in a 6.0% abv beer that makes a chap want to dash off to Lowe's, buy a wooden picnic table, hire an Oompah band, dress Mrs V up in dirndl, and get merrily sloshed under the oak tree in our back yard. Yes it really is that good.

I have said many times before that really I am a very unfussy drinker. Make something that is delicious, well made, and not laden with silly shit and I'll happily drink it until it runs out, and this beer has filled that role perfectly so far this autumn. I think I am on something like my 3rd case of it, and given that I expect supplies to start being shifted on for the next big seasonal thing, I am looking forward to the knockdown price 12 packs to stock up well into November.

I also love this promo video on the Sierra Nevada website...

Apparently Sierra Nevada will be picking a different German brewery each year to collaborate with on the Oktoberfest, and there is a part of me that would love to see them work with Brauerei Carl Betz from Celle in northern Germany, for no other reason than I lived in Celle for about 5 years as a child.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Guest Post: Always There

Part 3 in the 'Always There' series of posts comes from TenInchWheels who as well as being a good writer is a magnificent photographer, take a gander at his blog sometime, even though he hasn't posted in a while, the pictures are great. Anyway....

For more than two decades I’ve been a Londoner. And for most of that time, the capital has largely been a dismal place for the lover of good beer.

I grew up in Keighley, and anyone who’s read my blog will know that I’m an unashamed Taylor’s fanboy. Maybe I’m biased about our local heroes, but I really don’t care. I earned my beergeek chops on sparkled, cellar-cool Landlord, drunk from the fountainhead, The Boltmakers Arms. From the immaculate old coaching inn to the shabby lock-in in the shadow of a derelict mill, a good pint in almost any pub could be taken for granted, and still can be. Until I left home for art college, I didn’t even know it was possible to get a bad pint.

In 1992 I moved to London. London! The greatest city on earth! Surely, in this throbbing metropolis of impossible-to-please Cockneys a good pint was a dead cert. Well, no. The pubs were good, but the beer was almost universally bad. For the first few years I persevered. Always ordering from the handpump, and I was nearly always disappointed. It was a matter of pride to find that elusive, decent (or consistently decent) pint. Soho, Camden, Shoreditch, Brixton, Holloway, Holborn, Highgate, Hackney, Bethnal Green. Flat, flabby, skunky, sour, murky, eggy. I’ve run the gamut of pints that I’ve had to return to a stink-eyed barman, swatting off the inevitable ‘it’s meant to be like that’ comments. Too many ‘nearly’ pints winced down. Too many unfinished nonics of flat, soupy brown boredom left on sticky tables. One famous day I took my dad to a pub, where - on asking what real ales were ‘on’ - he was told that the bank of six handpumps was just for decoration. So I gave up. For years - now it can be told - I drank Kronenbourg, Newcastle Brown or (heaven help me) Strongbow. But one thing kept me going through those terrible years. Bottles of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.

On trips home I’d bring bottles back down on the train with me, my rucksack clinking like a milk float. Rare sightings in supermarkets were moments of rejoicing. Visitors would leave them in the cupboard, where I’d find them behind the cornflakes with a moist, homesick eye. Crack off the cap, wait a second, pour. The head settles. First sip and the tingling hit as your palate wakes with that characteristic smack of grapefruit and marmalade which drifts into an astounding lip-smacking, citrus-bitter finish. Full-bodied. Satisfying. As comfortable as my old Redwings, as cosy as a cashmere scarf in a Pennine February. You don’t want cosy? I do. It’s the taste of permanence, rootedness, and home.

Landlord’s a legend, and nowadays it’s in every London pub worthy of a visit. I’ve even seen it sold in a bowling alley. Taylor’s have brewed Landlord since 1952, and it’s always been a favourite among beer fans. But it was a rare sight on handpump in the capital until 2003. That was when Madonna lit Taylors’ blue touchpaper by claiming in an interview with Jonathan Ross that she enjoyed a pint of of their most famous brew at Soho’s Dog And Duck. Did anyone really believe her? It didn’t matter. Suddenly, you started to see it all over the place. And in London it was terrible whenever I tried it. And in 2015 it usually still is. So Landlord is still my go-to bottle, and probably always will be.

And now London is a city with more breweries than I can count, and a beer choice that’s impossible to comprehend. I’m sat typing this with a choice of at least twelve places to get a good, well-kept local beer within a five or ten minute bike ride. I have the pick of the best brews in London on sale at my local bottle shop, the Wanstead Tap. When out and about I no longer have to carry a mental map of a half-dozen ‘reliable’ pubs. A revolution has happened - but there’s still work to do before this is truly a great ‘beer city’. Now you can now get Landlord in almost any supermarket, but the contents of my rucksack on trips back from home still ring and tinkle as the the train clatters south to Kings Cross. Although nowadays it doesn’t matter too much if a couple of those bottles don’t survive the journey.

Friday, September 18, 2015

High Oktane Ale

Usually when I am working on a collaboration beer with one of the local breweries the process is something like this:
  1. Come up with idea
  2. Flurry of emails
  3. Brew trial batch
  4. Review trial batch, make tweaks
  5. Brew production batch
  6. A few weeks later, drink it
My most recent beer creation project though is somewhat different.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Trader Joe's Oktoberfest lager which I have been enjoying greatly of late. A couple of days later, Ted from Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, OR, emailed me to see if I had any ideas for an Oktoberfest beer as he had been asked to provide a cask for a festival at a beer bar near him. It was funny he should ask....

I have been playing with the idea of vaguely 'Central European' pale ale for a while now but had never really found a formula which appealed to me all that much, though I had considered a paler version of altbier as a contender. Ted's question pushed my thinking into overdrive and that coupled with a comment from Tom Cizauskas on that post made me think about doing a 'to style' Oktoberfest lager, but using a nice clean top fermenting ale yeast for fermentation.

The recipe ended up like this:
  • 60% Dark Munich
  • 40% Vienna
  • 16 IBU Tettnang for 60 minutes
  • 8 IBU Tettnang for 15 minutes
  • Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale
The predicted numbers are:
  • OG: 1.056
  • FG: 1.014
  • IBU: 24
  • SRM: 12
  • ABV: 5.5%
I am brewing my version tomorrow, though Ted brewed his last week and it is already casked up and will be ready to rock at the brewpub in Oakridge in about a week. A cask will be making its way to The Beer Garden, in Eugene, and to Machine House Brewery in Seattle.

From what Ted has told me, his version had an original gravity a tad bit lower than planned, at 1.051, but the final gravity was fine, so the beer is 4.6% abv, and to use Ted's phrase had 'a high drinkability factor right out of the fermenter'. The name for Ted's brew is 180 Oktane, so if your in the area over the next few weeks, keep an eye out for it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Departure from Our Regular Programming....

I may have mentioned on here before that as well as beer and pubs, I love music.

I wish I played a musical instrument to a standard better than the ability to strum a few chords on the guitar. Mrs V on the other hand is sickeningly talented when it comes to music, a classically trained pianist, self taught guitarist, and now she is learning to play the fiddle, and seemingly doing well at it. In particular we love folk music, whether it is traditional Irish and Scottish music, stuff from the Appalachians, or even Eastern European.

A few months ago Mrs V and I went to a concert of a group called Celtic Fiddle Festival and had a great night listening to a combination of Scots, Irish, Breton, and Quebecois music. Well, this weekend is another opportunity for Charlottesville and area folks to enjoy some Quebecois folk music.

On Sunday night a band called De Temps Antan will be playing at The Haven, starting at 7pm, with tickets available at the door for $25, or in advance for $20 from the Blue Ridge Irish Music School. There will also be a workshop with the band from noon at the Charlottesville Waldorf School at $10 a pop for adults and a fiver for kids.

The band's promotional blurb from their website says:
Using Quebec's vibrant living music tradition as a springboard for musical innovation De Temps Antan forms a power trio catapulting audiences headlong into the future of French-Canadian music and culture.

It takes a special blend of musical talents to revisit and revitalize traditional music with equal measures of reverence, humor, Joy, natural ability and breathtaking turn-on-a-dime instrumental virtuosity. Welcome to the musical world of De Temps Antan!

Since 2003, Éric Beaudry, André Brunet (Celtic Fiddle Festival) and Pierre-Luc Dupuis have been exploring and performing time-honored songs and melodies been fine tuned and adapted to the needs of each generation. Using fiddle, accordion, harmonica, guitar, bouzouki and foot percussion (among a number of other instruments) these three virtuosos blend boundless energy with the infectious 'joie de vivre.' With De Temps Antan you will enjoy a musical event unlike any other.

For an idea of what to expect see, their promotional video:

Monday, September 14, 2015

Guest Post: Going Steady with Golden Beers

Part 2 of the 'Always There' guest post mini-series comes from those fine folks Boak and Bailey, and with that minimalist introduction (seriously if you aren't already reading their blog you should be) out of the way, I hand you over to them.....

Al wanted us to think about beers that we keep going back to which, as far as we're concerned, is just another way of asking: 'What are your favourite beers?' After all, your favourite album isn't one you listened to once, enjoyed well enough, but then left to gather dust: it's the one that pops up under 'frequently played' on iTunes -- the one you have on CD, deluxe double CD, MP3 and in your Spotify favourites. You could hum it in your sleep.

We've said before, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Westmalle Tripel is the Very Best Beer in the World. We always have some in the house and it's pretty much Boak's default beer. It never seems to diminish in WOW factor -- every time, it amazes us afresh.

Pilsner Urquell is on the list, too, especially now it comes in brown glass in the UK and can be bought for around £1.50 ($2.35) per bottle. We have a fridgeful right now and it's the perfect no-brainer beer -- quietly satisfying, but not demanding of attention.

When it comes to cask-conditioned beer in the pub, there's an obvious answer: St Austell Proper Job. Established in the 19th century, St Austell is our local big brewery here in Cornwall, and Proper Job is a golden, US-accented IPA first brewed in homage to Bridgport's classic take on the style more than a decade ago. Brought down from 5.5% to 4.5% ABV over the years, it was a 'session IPA' before that was a buzz-phrase, and is a beer we can easily drink multiple pints of, several times a week. So that's exactly what we do.

So, there you go: that's what amounts to our top three beers, right now, in the real world. We like trying new things and find plenty to enjoy at the silly end of the market but, if need be, those three would easily do us for the rest of our lives.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Welcome to Starbeers

This morning I had a revelation, an epiphany. It was like lightning struck my brain, and yes it hurt. It was a revelation that may explain why I find much of the current hoopla around 'craft beer' so fucking puke inducing, and I am not referring to the abominable habit many an American brewer has for putting silly shit in a beer, pouring it into a firkin, slapping it on the bar, and calling it cask. Today I realised that craft beer, including many of its fans and acolytes, is becoming Starbucks.

Yep, you read that right, the buzz and culture of craft beer is painfully similar to going to a Starbucks and having to use nonsensical terms just to get a fucking cup of coffee, whilst having easy listening muzak inflicted on you in the background, and bubble headed wotsits trying to decide if they want 2 pumps of caramel in their skinny latte or just an extra swirl of wank.

When I think about it more deeply the more I am convinced that is where the whole shebang is headed. Different pour sizes, beyond the usual big/small, pint/half-pint, thing. In the UK it is all thirds, halves, two-thirds, pints, here in the US quite often it is 10oz, 16oz, or 20oz (and yes I know a place that does a 'supersize' 25oz beer!). I look at that and all I see is short, tall, grande, venti, and trenta. God help us if some overly addled bright spark comes up with names for all the different sizes, or we adopt the Aussie approach.

Now think about the craze for putting silly shit into beer, whether to be served turbid and shitty from a firkin or bright and freezing from a keg. It gets to point where it is likely reading a fucking Starbucks menu with stuff like 'salted caramel mocha frappucino', or a 'cinnamon chai tea latte' - what the fuck are you talking about??? Reading some craft beer menus, and I'm looking at you Asheville, gets me all in a state of Bernard Black doing his taxes:

I imagine there are even people who spend the day sitting in craft beer bars, sipping a barrel aged sour pumpkin spice white stout, whilst tapping away on their laptops....

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Guest Post: Always There

My recent post on the theme of 'Always There' was the precursor to a mini-series of guest posts around the same theme. Today's post is from my good friend, and sometime drinking buddy, Eric, formerly of Relentless Thirst fame. And so with further ado.....

Let me begin by dishing out this well-worn saw: the brewing industry has undergone radical changes in the past ten years. When I first started blogging, I can recall tracking down new and exciting beers from other states that you had to make a special trip just to taste or buy. Since I've stopped blogging, it's hard to go anywhere without seeing beers from all over the country, let alone the world, on the menu at places that aren't even all that beer-centric. There are countless styles to choose from, new breweries to become acquainted with, and a wide range of quality. This should represent the triumph of the consumer, but much like the music industry these days, it's hard to sift through the noise. And much like that favorite album from yesteryear you still queue up on Spotify, there are certain beers that you always return to for their familiarity.

So what's "always there" actually mean? To me, this implies a reliable beverage that can satiate my palate's desires at any given moment; a beer that I don't have to think about to enjoy it, but when I do I appreciate it all the more. I can come up with a handful of beers that fit this motif, but one that sticks out indelibly in my mind is Stiegl Goldbrau. That's right, the pale Austrian lager that comes in pint cans. And let's start with that: cans. Great for transporting a light-sensitive product, as well as portability to places that don't allow glass containers (most useful in the summertime). Furthermore, it's a PINT - my preferred volume for easy-drinking, relatively-low ABV Central European beer.

Though if it were just tall cans of beer I was after, I could choose from thousands. Why this one? Well, for starters, it's inoffensive. I can drink this beer in the sweltering summer heat, or in the dead of winter. But inoffensive doesn't mean it has to taste like nothing (I'm looking at you, Landshark Lager). In this case, I'm talking about appreciating the subtle nuances, being nudged with flavor rather than beaten over the head by it. Goldbrau offers a pleasing, noble hop aroma and a touch, just a touch, of pale malt sweetness that makes it akin to a Munich Helles lager. A clean, drying finish allows you to take another sip and experience it all over again.

I could stop there, but I won't. The last, and most important criterion for me, is that it's consistently well-made. And this is after being transported thousands of miles from Salzburg to the States. Brewing is the intersection of art and science, and too much of either can leave you reaching for something else. But too often I think "craft" beer drinkers prize the unbridled whims of one madcap brewer over the technical prowess of another. It's infuriating to hear some zealots dismiss all lagers, and thus centuries of brewing knowledge and discovery, with the wave of a hand. When I drink this beer, I'm reminded of how light lagers came to be so long ago, and the concentrated efforts that were necessary for them to come to fruition and ultimately fill my glass.

Though I may never become the conservative-minded Teuton, content with drinking the one beer produced by the village brewery that dates back to the 13th century, I do prize a beer that's "always there". Though a beer may seem "simple" or common, I'm surprised at how many breweries miss the mark. If it were so easy, I'd have a difficult time choosing an "always there" beer. But it wasn't hard at all. For me, Stiegl Goldbrau is that beer.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Session: The Emperor's New Style

This month's Session is being hosted by Natasha from Meta CookBook, and her theme as stated in the announcement is:

For this session, I’m asking my fellow beer bloggers two related qustion questions:

  1. What do you want people in beer culture to be talking about that we’re not?
  2. What do you have to say on the topic(s)?
“Beer” is its own subculture at this point. There’s an expected “look” and expected desires. Beer festivals are everywhere. Beer blogs flourish; indeed at this point there’s reasonable sub categories for them. New breweries are popping up at record pace; the US alone has more than 3,000. Big breweries are getting bigger, some are being purchased, some are saying that’s bullshit.

But we’re still fairly monolithic as a group. And there are a number of problems related to that tendency toward sameness. Not all problems related are personal, for example trademark disputes are becoming more commonplace as we all have the same “clever thought”.

We have such a good time with our libation of choice that sometimes we fear bringing up the issues we see.

Well, stop that. Air your concerns, bring up those issues. Show us what we’re not talking about and should be, and tell us why.

Pour us a liberal amount of The Hard Stuff.
If you've ever sat in the pub with me, you'll know that I can be quite the opinionated swine, so I have to say I love this topic, especially in light of some of the comments made by Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic at last week's European Beer Blogger Conference which filled my Twitter feed for a while. Although I wasn't there, and thus my grasp of his theme is second hand, rather like many a denunciation of Pelagian theology when we have no extant writing of Pelagius himself, from the snippets I have seen I agree with him wholeheartedly. The beer world seems to seriously lack critical thought.

When I say we lack critical thought, I am not making a plea for a phenomenology of malt, a post-modern appreciation for the isomerisation of hops, or even a existential examination of the ester producing qualities of saccharomyces cerevisiae. What I am saying is that we need less of the fanboy/girl 'craft beer is awesome' bullshit, less of the mindless cheerleading (and its converse the mindless caterwauling when things happen that don't fit our narrative), and less of the inane buzz words/phrases like 'local beer', 'rising tide floats all boats', or 'innovative'.

My particular ire though is raised at the sight of supposedly creating a new beer style by virtue of adding hops not from the UK or Central Europe. You know how it goes, one day you're drinking a nice Foreign Extra Stout and the next some unimaginative muppet dumps a shit load of Cascade into the kettle and hey presto it's a 'Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale/Whatever Marketing Term Sells This Week'. So you reach for a pint of amber ale only to discover that it positively reeks with C-hops and is being whored about the bars of your neighbourhood as a 'Red IPA'. The same could be said about 'White IPA'. 'Session IPA', 'India Pale Lager', and whatever beer style gets fucked over with an unhealthy addition of New World hops to keep the braying masses of raters and tickers whipped into a veritable wank fest frenzy.

Another thing that pisses me off about these supposed styles is the speed at which they get accepted into the canon of styles on sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. Yet it took years for the admins, moderators, and other 'experts' to recognise that a Czech tmavý ležák is not really a Munich Dunkel or a Schwarzbier. Perhaps Czech brewers should dump a ton of New World hops into a dark lager and 'invent' the 'Black India Pale Lager' or some such spurious nonsense.

So yes, Jean Hummler is right. Beer bloggers and consumers need to start calling out the bullshit that seems to be a disturbingly increasing part of the industry. We need to start questioning the bold claims being made about innovative this, envelope pushing that, and stop parroting the party line because we are afraid being seen as the uncool element of the beer world.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Always There

Sometimes it seems as though every time you turn around there are breweries bringing out new beers, retiring old (or simply unappreciated, whether by brewery or customer) beers, or adding American hops to an extant beer style and calling it a IPA of some level of bastardisation. This constant obsession with the new, whether actually new or not, can leave one's head spinning. Thankfully though, there are some breweries for whom the constant demand for new products holds no sway, for whom having their beer dispensed in a different manner is not something they aspire to, who understand that for the vast majority of beer drinkers the beer that is always there is the one that they will come back to time and again. Yet at times it appears that such beers slide under the radar, ignored, sometimes despised, simply because of their ubiquity.

I have a beer that I come back to time and again for simple drinking pleasure, and really if you don't actually like drinking beer rather than just doing sampling flights then what's the point? It is the classic of its style, consistently good, and one that I can never remember having been disappointed by. People that know me well or have followed Fuggled for a while will know it is Pilsner Urquell.

Whatever the veracity or otherwise of the creation myth that surrounds Pilsner Urquell, the fact remains that when Josef Groll revealed his pale golden lager to the drinkers of Plzeň he changed the beer world forever. Just a few decades later and brewers from across Europe and America were copying, to varying degrees of success, this archetypal Bohemian beer. I'll admit that when I lived in the Czech Republic I drank more Gambrinus that Pilsner Urquell to begin with, and that when I started discovering the many wonderful beers from smaller breweries I drank a lot of their beer too, but the simple pleasure of going to a Prazdroj pub like Bruska or U Pinkasů and drinking several pints of bracingly bitter lager was something to be savoured.

When Mrs V and I upped sticks and moved to the US, the sight of Urquell in a grocery store was a little reminder of that much loved distant land about which we knew plenty and so it became a delight to come home from the shop with a 6 pack and drink it from one of my Czech beer glasses, usually with the wrong branding, but who really cares about that shite anyway? On those rare occasions when it was available on draft, I practically parked myself at the bar. Sure it was pasteurised and filtered, and as such not quite as good as the kvasnicové, or even the tanková, to be had back in Plzeň, but it was a darned sight better than the majority of attempts at Czech pilsner being brewed by small American breweries at the time. Then came the changes.

They didn't change the recipe, the lagering time, the shape of the fermenters or any of that stuff, they changed the shipping procedure. In came 'express cold shipped' Pilsner Urquell and the difference was palpable. Yes it was still filtered and pasteurised, but it was fresher, kept in better conditions through the transport process and as such tasted closer to that I would drink in the Czech Republic. Then they went back to brown bottles and again the beer was more like itself. Then, o miracle of miracles, a Charlottesville pub had unfiltered, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell on tap (a proper tap no less!), and there it was, Pilsner as Groll intended.

I probably drink a 6 pack or two of Pilsner Urquell every month. I love that beer. I don't care that it is brewed by a 100% owned subsidiary of SABMiller. I don't care that it doesn't use the latest experimental hops from the Pacific Northwest. I don't care that it is a style of beer so roundly disregarded and misunderstood by the ignorati of the craft beer world. I care that it is always good, it's always the same, and it always transports me to another time and place, that city with claws.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Buy Definition

There's an interesting piece in the Grauniad this morning going by the title 'Can craft beer really be defined? We're about to find out'. When I saw a link to it pop up in my Twitter feed, as I follow both the author of the article and the Guardian, I almost groaned at the thought of yet another attempt to define the undefinable, a task which is becoming the post-modern equivalent of answering the question of how many angels can stand on the end of a pin. But I decided to read the article anyway, and have some milk of magnesium on hand for the expected attack of indigestion.

The article is mostly about the newly formed United Craft Brewers trade association or whatever they want to call themselves, and raised a few points I'd like to address here.

One of the things I did not know about UCB is that there is a "a ban on third-party contract brewing; no-membership for “small breweries” that are owned / funded by multinationals". A ban on 'third-party contract brewing'? Really? This group of punk brewers (sic) think they have the right to tell businesses what they can and can't do to further their business? Does this 'ban' relate only to having third parties brew their beer or also to them brewing beer for a third party? As the author of the article points out BrewDog, one of the breweries driving this association are doing contract brewing for Stone. The author calls this arrangement a 'one off stunt' but it smacks more of outright hypocrisy, I guess though as long as the beards and lumberjack shirts are out in full force then it is an ironic thing and thus perfectly ok. Oh and I guess Mikkeller won't be brewing with brewers that are part of UCB anymore then, since 'gypsy' or 'cuckoo' brewing is just glorified contract brewing.

There is also a ban on small breweries being owned or funded by multinationals? How does one describe a 'multinational'? Take the simplest view and it is a corporation that owns businesses in multiple countries, kind of like, well, erm,....BrewDog will be once they open up their new brewery in Ohio. So you can't be a craft brewery and be funded by a multinational, but you can be a craft brewery and a multinational seemingly. Glad that got cleared up then.

The author then mentions that one of the worries of this organisation of so-called 'small breweries' is that 'Loads of big breweries are piling into the sector with sub-standard beers that trade on the language and design of craft. They are cashing in on a scene they did nothing to cultivate and exploiting a cachet they have not earned.'

Now, this is a bit, and pardon my French, fucking rich. The craft sector is awash with sub-standard beers already, quality control not exactly being something many seem to think about while they are cashing in on the craft beer bubble. Also what nonsensical shite is this phrase that the big breweries are 'cashing in on a scene they nothing to cultivate'? Without the big breweries there would be no craft beer. Big breweries are at the very epicentre of craft beer, a constant reference point for craft breweries, the always handy straw man for many a craft brewery's marketing. Oh and better not mention that plenty of the better 'craft' breweries are staffed by people that cut their teeth in the big evil brewing corporations and thus have an appreciation for quality control, which is one reason they make better beer than Joe Homebrewer following his 'passion'.

Thankfully the author states that 'I cannot help but think that any attempt to define craft beer is a retrograde step'. Absolutely spot on, 100%, nail on head.

Finishing up his article, the author asks the following questions:
Will some breweries knockout ersatz craft beers? Of course. Will some people be fooled by them? Naturally. But only until they try the genuine article, which, given the unprecedented growth of craft beer, is only a matter of time.
I am sorry, but the delusion of saying some people will be fooled by 'ersatz' craft beer and that only when they drink the 'real' thing, something the author says is impossible to define, will they see the light is just plain daft. Given the third rate brewing standards of many of the newer craft brewers, the drinking public is probably better off drinking 'ersatz' craft beer rather than the real thing until the new craft brewers learn to incorporate quality control standards into their processes.

There is a saying that does the rounds about life being too short to drink crap beer, perhaps it should be life is too short to drink whatever everyone else thinks you should. Drink what you like, with people you like, and your life will be all the richer without the mind numbing arcana and navel gazing of wondering if the beer in your glass is 'real craft'.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Unseasonal Delight

One of my constant bugbears is the unseasonal availability of seasonal beers. I remember a few years ago when my first sighting of the magnificent Samuel Adams Alpine Spring (and how much I miss that beer, simply wonderful drop it was) was on Boxing Day (that's December 26th for my non-British/Commonwealth readers), and now it seems the shops are groaning under the weight of Oktoberfest lagers and pumpkins ales.

I am not a fan of pumpkin ales whatsoever, they all taste like soggy, months out of date, digestive biscuits to me, but I do like a good Oktoberfest lager, though I try not to buy any until Oktoberfest is about a week away - this year's starts on September 19th. Well, I broke that rule this weekend, but on the grounds that I needed a malty lager to make my latest batch of chilli chutney, and purchased a six pack of Trader Joe's Oktoberfest, as it seemed it would fit the bill.

With half a litre of the beer bubbling away in the pan, alongside 8 red bell peppers, 6 jalapenos, 2 habaneros, and the other stuff necessary for the chutney, I poured three of the remaining 4 bottles into my 1 litre Oktoberfest glass....

One thing that immediately caught my eye, on the label at least, was the ingredient list (something I heartily approve of). It listed just dark Munich malt and Hallertau hops, which almost caused my heart to skip a beat of delight. I am not a fan of using caramel malts in Oktoberfest lagers, I find they tend toward sickliness and a slick mouthfeel that just feels wrong to me, but with dark Munich you get a lovely sweetness and still that firm cracker charateristic of good German beers, not to mention that beautiful orange glow. The hops are clearly present, with a definite, though unobtrusive, bitter snap right at the end of the finish, and traces of lemongrass in the nose.

Whilst not a session beer, being 5.3% abv, it is a wonderfully drinkable beer and it will be a regular in the fridge this autumn, especially at $6.49 a six pack. You really can't argue with that, well made, tasty beer at a price point which won't break the bank. I look forward to many refills of the tuplák in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In Praise of Without

At times, and I own that this is likely a case of perception more than anything else, it seems ever more difficult to drop into a pub that sells well made beer and just get a nice pint of pale ale, pilsner, or stout that hasn't been in some way adulerated with stuff that I have very little interest in seeing on a list of beer ingredients. Taking that observation a touch further, it also often appears that a brewery has barely got the training wheels off their brew kit and they are launching out into the weird and wonderful when it comes to herbs, spices, and barrels.

This isn't to say that such concoctions are wrong, or some kind of zythophilic evil inflicted on the great mass of beer drinkers by mad scientists with an overgrown herbarium. Rather, I feel that superb, beautifully put together, simple beers just don't get the appreciation they deserve. As a result, they suffer on sites that advocate the rating of beer because of their perceived plainness.

As anyone with an ounce of brewing knowledge understands, these seemingly simple, even simplistic, beers are exceptionally difficult to make well, and to make consistently well is another story all together. Sorry but I don't want noticeable variations from batch to batch of my favourite beers, I want to know that the brewers are sufficiently skilled to make the same beer time after time.

Think about pilsners as an example. Most great Czech made pale lagers consist of precisely 4 ingredients, malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. The malt is often a single kind, sometimes malted by the brewery itself, the hops are likewise often just a single kind. You cannot get simpler than that, yet it seems that only a select few breweries can scale those heights, and thankfully one of them does so here in Virginia.

So while a brewer may like to think of themselves as 'innovative', 'envelope pushing', or whatever the bullshit self-aggrandising term is this week, I tend to think they are actually brewers in hiding. Hiding behind herbs, hiding behind oak, hiding behind fruit. Sure there might be a good brewer in there somewhere, and they might have a deft hand with the extraneous stuff, but that doesn't replace the ability to put out consistently well made, tasty beer.

Beer is ultimately very simple, 4 basic ingredients with almost infinite possibilities without having get into needless botanical fripperies. Simple isn't bland, simple is where the science and art of the master brewer is found, simple is more than the sum of its parts. Simple beers are beers packed with confidence. The confidence to let the beer stand, or fall, on its own merits.

Taking the simple path is often the path of most enjoyment.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Top Ten Virginian Beers 2015

This Saturday is the first round of judging for the 2015 Virginia Craft Beer Cup, which unfortunately I won't be participating in this year as I will be in the mountains of West Virginia with Mrs V at a series of fiddle workshops – well, she'll be doing workshops and I'll be watching the dog, drinking beer, and catching up on some reading.

As in years passim, I therefore present to you my utterly subjective top ten Virginia beers for 2015, and by that I mean the best beers from Virginia that I have drunk since I did the list last year. So, here goes....
  1. Three Notch'd - Ghost of the 43rd (5.1%). This may come as a shock to some, an American Pale Ale being my current favourite Virginian beer, but I have drank an inordinate, if not intemperate, amount of Ghost in the last year. Unlike many an American hop bomb this actually has the malt character to stand up to the hops, making it a delightfully balanced and moreish beer.
  2. South Street Brewery - Back to Bavaria (5.7%). This time last year, South Street would have not got on this list at all, and I rarely, if ever, darkened the door of the place. How times change. Now under the ownership of the Blue Mountain guys, the beer is night and day in terms of quality and drinkability. Back to Bavaria is a style that is somewhat rare in Virginia, a Munich Dunkle, and it was delicious, the ideal lager for shaking off the cobwebs of winter and gliding into spring. Traces of cocoa and a rich nuttiness made this a great beer to spend an afternoon drinking, which I did, several times.
  3. Starr Hill - Dark Starr Stout (4.2%). There is simply no better dry Irish style stout out there which is the equal to Dark Starr. Anywhere on planet earth. Dark Starr is stout perfection in my books, all the more so since Starr Hill don't fuck it up with bullshit like nitro. I realise I am biased here as a lover of the black stuff, but it astounds me that Dark Starr is not the stout of choice for every pub in the Commonwealth of Virginia, don't you people realise what a magnificent beer is right here on your doorstep? Here endeth the lesson.
  4. Isley Brewing - Tall, Dark, and Hopsome (8.1%). I do hope you are sitting down. Another hoppy beer makes the top ten, and more unimaginable yet, it's a Black IPA. I had it down in Richmond after Mrs V had run the half marathon. I had ordered something else, but the keg had kicked and our server brought a sample of this, and to my consternation I loved it, probably because unlike most black IPAs it wasn't a horrific chaos of mismatched flavours. It worked, pure and simple.
  5. Lickinghole Creek - Til Sunset (4.7%). Forget the fact for a moment that session IPAs are neither session beers or really IPAs and focus on the beer in the glass. Til Sunset is a delicious hoppy brew that hits all the right hop highlights while having enough toffee maltiness floating around to not make it like sucking a grapefruit. Here is a beer that lives up to its name, and I have spent many a day drinking it on my deck until the sun has dipped behind the trees, and I am sure I will do so many more times this year.
  6. Three Notch'd - Method to Your Madness (3.2%). I promise you I am not on a stipend from Dave and the Three Notch'd guys, they just happen to make the kind of beers I love, and they make them damned well. Method was a dark mild brewed for the first American Mild Month back in May. Laden with dark malts and a body belying it's eminent sessionability, Method was everything a dark English mild should be, and I loved the fact that they kept it at the more usual strength for a mild rather than trying to up the booze.
  7. Port City - Downright Pilsner (4.8%). I love pilsners. Downright is a perennial favourite and regular visitor to my fridge. I love the fact that it is dry hopped with Saaz, sure it's not traditional but what the heck, that extra dose of Saaz pungnecy is wonderful. Downright is my favourite Virginia made pilsner by a country mile as it is lager perfection in my book, and available year round.
  8. Devils Backbone - Trukker Ur Pils (5%). Brewed to a recipe which purports to recreate the malts available to Josef Groll in 1840s Plzeň, hopped exclusively with Saaz, triple decocted, lagered for 30 odd days. Yup, it's a Czech style pale lager done properly. There is no higher praise than that, this is a beer that would stand up admirably to Kout na Šumavě and Zlatá Labut if it were served in the Czech Republic. I only wish this was a permanent part of Devils Backbone's range.
  9. Mad Fox Brewing - Mason's Dark Mild (3.3%). A return to the list for this cask conditioned, pulled through a sparkler magnificence from Falls Church. I described it back in 2013 as being like Nutella spread thinkly over warm toast, and that it is still as tasty as it sounds. Yum
  10. Three Notch'd - 40 Mile IPA (6.1%). Seriously? Another Three Notch'd beer? Well, yes. As I said before, they consistently make the beers I like to drink and they make them damned well. I can see the question forming in your head already, but an IPA? Yes I know, but 40 Mile has the quality that so many ludicrously dick waving over IBUs IPAs don't have, it's wonderful to drink, and I find that El Dorado hops don't have that omnipresent grapefruit/pine resin/cat's piss thing that puts me off so many other American IPAs. 40 Mile is pretty much the only IPA that I am always happy to drink.
So there we go, an entirely subjective list of the top ten beers that have been brewed in Virginia in the last 12 months. I await the inevitable comments of 'but what about....', but please remember that if the beer is a classic style 'with' extraneous stuff that has no place in beer, that's probably why it ain't on the list.

Although this list is entirely subjective, I feel that including beers to recipes that I created/researched would be taking the piss somewhat, hence the absence of Session 42, Morana, and Sensible Mole from this list.

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, ...