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.....

Pale
  • 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.


Amber
  • 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.


Dark
  • 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.


Breweries
  • 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.