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.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Guest Post: Summer Nights Drinking with Steady Flames

It's been a while since I had a guest post on Fuggled, and we have a returning writer here today, Renée Francoeur. Rather than witter on myself, here's Renée....

There were three women out on the lake in a giant, multi-coloured, inflatable tube. One, sitting upright with the poise of a ballerina, had a Nymphaea alba woven into her dark Spanish hair, and a stick she was using as a Venetian oar. The other two, sprawled out on their bellies, had tossed off their bikini tops, one hand each sunk below the tea-coloured surface.

In the other hand, of course, there was beer. Specifically, a 568mL can of Old Flame’s Perry Loved Mary West Coast Style IPA. The saying goes “…till the bitter end. But Mary loved another.” Let me tell you, if unrequited love had more of a hoppy scent to it and a lingering aftertaste of orange infused wheat (instead of acid reflux and tonsil stones), well, I may have been still somewhat happily dancing around Perth County, waiting for a bricklayer to throw me a bone. As it is, I’ll just take another cold one.

It had been years in the making: this reunion of women. My five best friends from university (who now are all oh-so-conveniently scattered across the globe) and I had snuck away to a cottage on the shores of the artificially filled Lake Scugog in Ontario. There was no one we knew nearby. No distractions. No boyfriends. No obligations. Just puzzles, board games, inflatables, bottles of sunscreen, one badly selected scary movie, a fridge full of vegetables and steaks from the family-owned Willowtree Farm market, and of course: beer. The Canadian-crafted, microbrewed, the guy/gal-with-the-recipe-was-a-friend-of-a-friend kind of good, wholesome shit, too.

I was one of the two ladies belly-down on said tube, sipping Perry Loved Mary, created in the heart of Port Perry, a charming town with the old pioneering whiff of Upper Canada, not 10 minutes away from our cottage. I like to keep it local on vacations—especially so if the brewery is housed in an old brick building creaking with history and antiques.

“I hope it’s been established I’d be the one to survive in the wild,” Cristina (the one with the lily pad flower in her hair) said, pushing us to shore with her rather impressive twig.

Sabrina and I dipped our hands further and attempted to paddle, tugging waterweeds (Lake Scugog is actually flooded marshland and Scugog is Ojibwe for “marshy waters”).

“Now, we had no stick yesterday and got back just fine,” Sabby said, making a whirlpool with her wrist. How I’ve missed her strong Quebecois accent (along with the way she’ll creep up behind you when you’re cooking and envelope your back and ribs in a quick, tight embrace).

We sipped our beers, the cans reflecting the beaming sunlight; we were diamonds in a swamp afloat a rainbow. And it showed on our faces as we tumbled onto the mossy bank; Sabrina losing her bottoms, me clambering on all fours to run to the bathroom, and Cristina daintily stepping on land with the help of an extra hand.

Later in the week we managed to toss on something more than string bikinis and tour into town. Old Flame Brewery was our first stop. It didn’t disappoint.

My grandfather’s great-great uncles had enough of the coal dust in Wales and dove into the carriage business around the Niagara region in the late nineteenth century while my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Harris, took up farming in East Nissouri county.

Old Flame has made its home in the former Ontario Carriage Works, erected in 1884. I imagined those uncles touring this building in the 1890s as part of their work, perhaps aloof in striped trousers, velvet-collared overcoats and top hats (it was said they did well for themselves). Their hands behind their backs, boots covered in saw dust, peering at wooden spokes and the like. And now here I am, sampling malt and taking in authentic ceiling beams, still showing off their charred skirts from two major fires.

The girls and I plopped ourselves down at a fascinating table made of reclaimed wood with various malts and hops on display under glass. Off to the side was an old buggy that brought back memories of the doctor’s mode of transportation from my childhood viewings of Little House on the Prairie. The sitting area was bustling with a party on the new patio that extended out to the parking lot and an older couple at a table made from a vintage washing machine I later learned.

“Try the blonde,” said the older woman, after she offered to snap a photo of us.

“And if any of you are named Mary, they have a beer for you,” her husband added as they shuffled out.

It was just past noon so up to the bar we went. One “She Left Me Blue” (a 4.8 per cent blueberry ale that turns into a heat quenching shandy when mixed with ginger ale) and one Dirty Blonde (Kellerbier style lager), please. We were even permitted to take our glass pints with us throughout the tour. Thanks to an arm from Tiffany, I managed not to spill as I navigated around the tubes and grates in my high heels to get back to the see the massive fridge.

The tour marked the first time I sampled malt: a roasted one they use for the brunette (an aftertaste of burnt popcorn anyone?) and the one they used for the blonde (like chewing on wheat).

The crew at Old Flame was phenomenal: knowledgeable and friendly and our guide was hilarious in a relatable awkward kind of way (my apologies for forgetting your name). The hometown vibe is electric in there: service is personal. There are no assembly lines, no rushing or panic. I told the girls I could have spent all day on that patio, sampling everything they had. Old Flame may be playing off the memory of bygone romances and first kisses you can taste years later but everything about it whispers family. Maybe that’s what knotted it all together for me: a rising (thanks to the yeast of course) sense of loyalty. Try as hard as we might to bury and block, we all have old flames whose faces we’ll carry with us into the graves. Old first love, blasting though innocence, has a lasting impact. And after the heartache and the pain and the business of leaving bends the clock hands for a decent amount of time, there’s solely energy there. We can stay true to those kind of memories and the moments we felt we could trust ourselves to take such leaps: pure courageous unstoppable love. That is the crux, they say. It’s as we stay true to our blood and as we should stay true to good local brews.

(Yes, I ordered She Left Me Blue the first time I walked into Newmarket’s new Ground Burger Bar and yes I wanted to shout and wave at the staff manning Old Flame’s tent at the Jazz Festival—I recognized our guide!—but alas I was caught behind a fence and attempting to make it through another cringe-worthy cityboy date without an overdose of humiliation.)

Old Flame has another motto, too: life is better when you’re in love.

As an anti-institution-of-marriage pessimist still nursing a heart that was grated out into a liquid pig manure covered field, even I agree. And I’m so lucky to be in love with the Ninkasi goddesses I spent that week with on Scugog. They remind me of big, bold love and to honour all the love and fires around me. Out in the swamp, drinking beer, our spirits flickering unruly and constant towards each other, this is the flame.

This is Renée Francoeur’s 2nd guest blog post for Fuggled. See her first here

She is a 26 year-old journalist/writer who works in the magazine business in the Greater Toronto Area. She's worked as a news reporter in Red Deer, Alberta and Fort Smith, NWT as well as throughout Ontario and loves meeting new faces in new places. She is an organic gardener, local food and anti-fish-farm advocate, part-time poet, intersectional feminist, baker, and overall small town womyn. She loves Northern and social justice news, coconut coffee porter, goats, wild buffalo, whooping cranes, old tombstones, forgotten country bridges, late breakfasts with her kickass parents and operas with her little sister. She is currently working on a collection of short stories (when she's not driving down back roads or playing pool in gastro pubs) and hopes to one day call Yukon home with two potbellied pigs named Winifred and Beatrice.

Photos courtesy Tiffany D’Souza

Monday, August 3, 2015

In Praise of Bitterness

For some reason I seem to have garnered a reputation for not being a hop-head. I am really not sure where this perception has come from, oh that's right, I don't rave on and on about the latest, greatest method for getting hop flavour and aroma into my beer, such as these ridiculous hop tea bags which Arthur highlighted on Stonch's blog today. I am also not an enthusiastic drinker of IPA in general, there are a couple that I like and drink fairly regularly, but most IPAs leave me cold. I guess that means I just don't like hops.

Well, that's just bollocks. Sure I might not cream my undies for beers hopped with Cascade, Centennial, Amarillo, et al, but I love a good hoppy beer that uses hops like Goldings, Saaz, or Tettnang. I just don't particularly enjoy the cats piss, grapefruit, and pine resin thing of many an American hop.

One thing though that I do like, regardless of the heritage of the hop, is bitterness. I like a bracing, almost tannic bite that cuts through the sweetness of the malt. Perhaps this is one reason why I love a properly made Czech pilsner as the Saaz delivers a firm, dry bite, or a good Goldings dripping best bitter. Sure there is hop flavour and aroma in mix, but the bitterness is up front and central to the beer, and I love bitter beers.

In recent years several beers that I used to enjoy have been 're-formulated', a word that strikes fear into my heart, and become 'smoother', less bitter, more approachable. Invariably, to my taste, they have became blander, less interesting, and quite frankly disappointing, leaving me longing for a good dose of bitterness to cleanse my palate in preparation for the next mouthful.

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...