Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Beers and Breweries of 2016

Jól is upon us. Today is my last day at work for this year. What better time to take a quick look back at the beers and breweries that have made my drinking life all the richer this year? As in years passim I am sticking with highlighting the pale, amber, and dark beers from Central Virgina, the rest of Virginia, the rest of the US, and the rest of the world that I have enjoyed most, as well as breweries that have impressed me in some way this year. As ever this list is utterly subjective, so let's start shall we?

Pale
  • Central VA - Devils Backbone Meadow Bier
  • Rest of VA - Port City Downright Pilsner
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
  • Rest of World - Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted
  • Honorable mentions - Champion Shower Beer, South Street My Personal Helles, Three Notch'd Road Soda, Cromarty Brewing Happy Chappy, Fyne Ales Jarl, West St Mungo Lager, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Fuller's London Pride (cask)
2016 has been a good one for this central Virginia based lager drinker (the only downside being that Three Notch'd didn't release their lovely Of.By.For Pilsner this year). My local clutch of brewers all seem to be churning out the kind of pale lagers I like, crisp, clean, packed with hop bite, and not crazy on the alcohol. Meadow Bier from Devils Backbone has been a revelation, and would compete with Rothaus Pils as my favourite iteration of a German Pilsner right now. Port City's Downright Pilsner makes it onto my list of best pale beers for the 5th year in a row, it really is that damned good. Now sure it's not likely to please a total Czech lager purist, dry hopped with Saaz as it is, but to this lover of all things Bohemian I can give it no higher praise than my belief it would sit very well among the lagers being brewed in the Czech Republic, and they know a thing or two about brewing lager. This year's Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest really had a high bar to meet after last year's version. Lighter in colour, but still packed with the glorious flavours of Munich malt and Record hops, it was great drinking, and I drank lots of it. The one top fermented beer on this list is one of the influences on Three Notch'd Bitter 42, and when I was home in Scotland over the summer I made sure to drink as much of it as I could get my hands on, and finally found a place with it on tap - Beinglas Farm Campsite since you ask. Bitter without being puckering, malty without being too sweet, moreish in the extreme, it is a simply great beer.


Four superb beers, it really is difficult to single one out, but making this list 5 times in a row, winning gold at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup for the Pilsner style, and being the perfect expression of the simple delight of well made lager, Port City Downright Pilsner it is.

Amber
  • Central VA - South Street Satan's Pony
  • Rest of VA - Port City Oktoberfest
  • Rest of US - River Rat Broad River Red Ale
  • Rest of World - Isle of Skye Red
  • Honorable mentions - Cromarty Brewing Red Rocker, Schlenkerla Märzen, Adnams Broadside, Fullers 1845, Fallen Brewing Dragonfly
Amber beers are always the most challenging category for me as I tend not to drink that many copper to red beers, being more of a pale or dark drinker. Having said that the four winners have been companions to pleasant afternoons, wonderful lunches, and enjoyable evenings. Satan's Pony from South Street is kind of my fall back beer if the magnificent My Personal Helles isn't available, nicely balanced, just bitter enough to not be sweet, and low enough gravity to make a couple of pints acceptable - I would love to see it on their beer engine, without any silly additions like cinnamon or gorilla snot (seriously why adulterate a beer just because it is going into a firkin? Another Port City beer makes the list, and their Oktoberfest is one of the few I will drink every year, mainly because in common with the Downright, they get the details spot on making the beer clean and crisp, just as a lager should be, and Port City's Oktoberfest is as eagerly imbibed in my world as the Sierra Nevada. On the rare occasions I head down to South Carolina to visit Mrs V's family, I now make sure to pick up at least a six pack of Broad River Red, again it is immensely easy to drink, and always something to look forward to. Isle of Skye Red was an integral part of one of my highlights of 2016, being sat in a pub in Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, eating freshly caught langoustines in the Chlachain Inn, served from a sparkled beer engine, it was gorgeous.


Another 4 excellent brews, but this time the winner is easy to pick out. Isle of Skye Red Ale gets the nod, and if you're ever in the north west of Scotland and see it on cask, be sure to try it, and if you can get a dish of langoustines at the same time even better!

Dark
  • Central VA - Three Notch'd Oats McGoats
  • Rest of VA - Port City Porter
  • Rest of US - Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin
  • Rest of World - Cairngorm Brewery Black Gold
  • Honorable mentions - Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter, Fullers London Porter, Guinness Original,
Mmmmm.....dark beer. I love porter, stout, mild, brown ale, schwarzbier, dunkles, and tmavé - all things generally dark, I like. Three Notch'd Oats McGoats has done something that I once considered impossible, it has replaced Starr Hill's magnificent Dark Starr Stout in my affections. If Starr Hill were to ever bring it back I would not really be all that interested in Oats was available. Smooth, creamy, roasty, and dangerously drinkable, Oats is one of those perfect winter beers, supped beside the fire whilst reading a good book and listening to an opera. Port City have swept the board with my rest of VA picks this year, and that is testament to their all round superb brewing skills, they make classic beers, they make them well, and the make them consistently well, Porter is just another example of their genius. Velvet Merlin from California's Firestone Walker is another oatmeal stout, and one that has just enough of trace of some lactic character that it isn't overly slick, six packs tend to disappear quickly. Cairngorm's Black Gold was another integral part of a great night's drinking in Scotland, in the Climbers' Bar at the Kingshouse Hotel. Beautifully conditioned, served at the right temperature, sparkled of course, I still remember that night with great fondness.


It probably comes as no surprise then that my dark beer of the year is Cairngorm Black Gold, the name says it all.

Fuggled Beer of the Year

Picking a single beer of the year from my three winners is pretty difficult, but the winner is the one which was an integral part of a night a great drinking, in a great bar, surrounded by great people, and lots of craic. I refer of course to that night in Glencoe, fuelled by beer and the occasional drop of Talisker and Balvenie.

Congratulations to Cairngorm Brewery, Black Gold is the Fuggled Beer of 2016.

Brewery
  • Central VA - South Street Brewery
  • Rest of VA - Port City Brewing
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Brewing
  • Rest of World - Fullers
  • Honorable mentions - Guinness, Three Notch'd,
Deciding on a brewery of the year for 2016 is actually quite difficult, especially given that Port City have taken the best of the rest for Virginia for all three beer categories. However, the other breweries have been regular features of my drinking this year. I have drunk more South Street beer than anything else in 2016, the My Personal Helles has been my go to beer for quite sometime, it is simply delicious, the brewery is a 2 minute walk from my office, and the bar staff know me well enough now that I rarely have to ask for another beer. When drinking at home, Sierra Nevada and Port City are both regulars in the fridge, whether that's Pale Ale or Downright Pilsner respectively, I never turn down a beer from either brewery. Fuller's might not have taken any of the gongs for best beers in the rest of the world, but with honorable mentions in each category they are most certainly one of the most consistently excellent breweries in the UK, and one that I am always happy to see on tap which side of the Pond I am on.


Mainly because I drink there so damned often, and they are brewing a beer that I can happily drink lots of and not grow tired of it, the Fuggled Brewery of the Year for 2016 is South Street Brewery - well done Mitch and crew, keep doing what you're doing, and keep brewing My Personal Helles!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Several Jars of Porter

A couple of months back a friend, and colleague at the company that is my day job, of mine was in Oxford for work. Naturally I asked him if it would be possible for him to bring me back a bottle or two on Oxford beer. After a week of seething jealousy as him sent me messages from places like the King's Arms, he came back to Central Virginia with a bottle of Shotover Brewing's Oxford Black Porter, which spawned a plan to do a tasting of as many porters as I could lay my hands on.

Originally the plan had been to find as many British porters as possible, but then I decided to broaden that out to include US made porters as long as they didn't have weird shit ingredients - I really fail to understand why craft brewers insist on putting extraneous shit in their dark beers (or in their beer at all to be honest).


Thus after Thanksgiving I had collected the following porters for my tasting:
This weekend just gone, and last night, I got round to drinking this little bevy of dark bevvy and here are my thoughts, a la Cyclops...



Fuller's London Porter
  • Sight - dark chestnut brown, light tan head
  • Smell - chocolate, caramelised sugar, roasty
  • Taste - toast, cocoa, molasses
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - very smooth, complex, moreish

Shotover Brewing Oxford Black
  • Sight - dark brown, red edges, off white head
  • Smell - spicy, slightly phenolic, touch of band-aid
  • Taste - lightly roasty, bready, trace of rubberiness
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1/5
  • Notes - bit thin, muddle of flavours

Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter
  • Sight - rich dark brown, red edges, loose tan head
  • Smell - light coffee, cinnamon, molasses, slight tobacco
  • Taste - dark brown sugar, some coffee, roasty notes
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - dry, slightly lactic finish, great balance

Deschute's Black Butte Porter
  • Sight - rich dark chestnut, crimson edges, tan head
  • Smell - molasses, bittersweet chocolate, burnt sugar
  • Taste - bittersweet chocolate, slight roast
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - medium bodied, great balance, moreishly drinkable

Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
  • Sight - deep brown, light tan head, dissipates quickly
  • Smell - bitter chocolate, molasses, light roast coffee
  • Taste - bready, nutty, cafe creme
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - beautifully balanced, medium-full body, ideal for fireside in winter

Port City Porter
  • Sight - very dark, almost black, ruby edges, tan head that ligners
  • Smell - burnt sugar, light treacle, coffee, chocolate
  • Taste - sweet molasses, chocolate spread on toast, spicy
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
  • Notes - rich, unctuous brew, really well integrated
Other than the Shotover, each of these porters was a beer than I would be happy to drink whenever the porter mood strikes. If there was one take away from this mini session it was the American made beers tending to be sweeter, fuller bodied, and maybe a bit more complex, without having that much higher an alcohol content - only the Great Lakes and Port City brews were over 6%. It seems sometimes as though porter kind of gets lost in the IPAness of the modern craft brewing world, but for those of us who like dark beers, there are some decent ones out there.

Friday, December 2, 2016

#TheSession 118 - The Feast of Four


This month's iteration of The Session is hosted by the venerable Stan Hieronymous, whose latest book I am currently reading as it happens. His theme for this chilly December day is:
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?
A challenging theme for sure, more so because I have a general aversion to the concept of the beer dinner (how many more times do I have to read of innovative pairings like chocolate and stout for dessert?). So I am ditching the beer dinner part of his theme, sorry Stan, and focussing on four people that I would invite to dinner with the inestimable Mrs V and I....


Unless this is your first visit to Fuggled, in which case welcome, or have been living under a rock since the Pliocene, you will know that I lived a large chunk of my live in the Czech Republic. I love Czech food, Czech booze, Czech people, etc, etc, and no one person embodies the Czech Republic more to me than Václav Havel. Playwright, philosopher, politician, and above all dissident, Havel understood what it was to suffer for his beliefs, denied the ability to go to a university with a humanities program due to his bourgeois background, imprisoned several times for his views opposing the Communist Party during the post Prague Spring era, one of the founders of Charter 77, and if details in the magnificent biography 'Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts' are to be believed, a raconteur extraordinaire. I imagine dinner with Havel, fuelled with beer - Havel would take visiting dignitaries to the pub - would be an evening to remember, especially if that beer fuel were Kout na Šumavě's magnificent 10° pale lager.


I've lived in the US now for seven and a half years, and being the kind of person I am, with the interests I have, I have taken great delight in reading about the Founding Fathers. It is difficult in central Virginia to get away from the Founding Fathers, after all, three of the first five Presidents were from the Charlottesville area and my house is pretty much equidistant between Jefferson's Monticello and Madison's Montpelier. My favourite Founding Father though is Benjamin Franklin. From reading about his, and there is no other way to put this, unbelievable life (seriously, if someone wrote the life of Benjamin Franklin it would be mocked for being unrealistic), here is a guy interested in pretty much everything, an unparalleled intellect, and seemingly not jammed so far up his own arse as to be a bore. As for the beer to serve with our growing band on luminary visitors, a good cask of Fuller's London Porter would do the trick here.


When I was at college, studying to be a  minister of religion, my favourite subject was hermeneutics, and it was through that subject that I developed a lasting love of language and its functions. I find things like semantics, semiotics, linguistics, philology, and etymology endlessly fascinating. So my third guest to arrive at my dinner table should come as no surprise, Umberto Eco. I love Eco's novels, in particular The Name of the Rose, as much as his essays and writings on literary criticism, and the thought of getting to sit down with him and just talk books, words, language, and symbols would be enough to make me smile broadly whilst skipping around the kitchen. For a mind such as this, the beer to be served would have to be complex, layered, polyvalent you might say, a good strong ale....North Coast Old Stock Ale, perhaps left in the cellar for several years, which reminds me that I have a bottle from 2010 floating around somewhere.


Rounding out my guests at the Feast of Four is Scotland's finest comedian, Billy Connolly. In common with the other guests, here's a guy with an incredible range of interests and knowledge, and a wonderful way of looking at the world. I imagine he would be the anchor that would stop the other three drifting off into the intellectual ether. The fourth beer that would be making an appearance at the feast would be probably my favourite beer on the planet, and I am sorry for the shameless self promotion, Three Notch'd Bitter 42.

So there we have it, the guests and the beer, but what of the feast itself? What would Mrs V and I lay on for our guests....
  • Starter - French onion soup
  • Main course - Mallaig langoustines and chips
  • Pudding - Sticky toffee pudding and custard
  • Cheese, fruit, oatcakes, coffee
For music through the night, I would just play my Teuchter Tunes playlist from Spotify, a collection of traditional music from around the world, including Scotland, Ireland, Appalachia, Brittany, and others.



Hopefully the following morning we would wake with raging hangovers, happily distended bellies, and an inclination to do it all again

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Fly In The Ointment

Mrs V and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday as we have every year since moving to the US in 2009, at her parents' place in South Carolina. The only beer I took with me was the homebrew I make each year specially for Mrs V's uncle, my plan was to just go to a supermarket for a load of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and then maybe squeeze in a trip to one of the Green's Warehouse Discount Beverages to pick up some stuff that I can't get locally.

After six and a half hours on the road, including sitting in traffic around Kannapolis in North Carolina (traffic is always bad there it seems), the last thing I really felt like doing, having stretched my legs a bit, was to jump back in my car and go to a beer shop. Then Mrs V's mother mentioned that there was a new bottle shop just round the corner from their house, so naturally I was happy to check it out rather than going to a Bi-Lo or Piggly Wiggly hunting for nuggets in the morass of BMC.

Said bottle shop is called, conveniently enough, Bottles Beverage Superstore and they run the full gamut from soft drinks to spirits, they even stock ingredients and equipment for homebrewers. Oh and their selection of beer was excellent. Lots of local South Carolina beers, including the River Rat Broad River Red Ale which I have enjoyed muchly on my last couple of trips to SC, and the staff actually seemed to know their stuff which makes a pleasant change.

Naturally they had endless banks of IPAs from across the US, and they have a really good choice of Central European beers, though I tend to think stocking lager on a shelf at room temperature is a major no-no. I even managed to pick up a couple of beers from the Black Isle Brewery back home in Scotland. Oh and the prices were pretty damned good, $7.99 for six packs of Sierra Nevada beers??? If the in-laws come visit for Christmas I'll be putting in a bulk order for Kellerweis, which is rarer than hens' teeth in this part of Virginia.

I have a feeling that Bottles is going to be a regular stop whenever we are in Columbia, perhaps because of their 30-odd tap growler filling station, however I do have one gripe, and it is a gripe I have made about bottle shops before, selling out of date beer. Checking the dates on bottles has become something I do with British beers, especially Fullers as there are still loads of the old bottle style floating around, and the 4 packs of London Porter being sold at $11.99 (I think) were a couple of months past their best before date. The one that got my goat though was a bottle of Krušovice Imperial I picked up on a nostalgia kick that when I inspected it having got home (yes, yes, I know, caveat emptor and all that jazz) had this on the label


Born on the 24th July 2015, more than 16 months before I decided to drink it on Saturday afternoon. Keep in mind that this is a beer that would have been fermented at cool temperatures and then lagered at near freezing, before being sent out in distribution, where goodness knows what perils it has gone through, to sit on a shelf at room temperature for goodness knows how long.

It has got to the point now where I am going to check every single bottle and six pack of beer that I buy, especially beer not brewed in the US (and even then if it's not from the east coast I'll check that too), so I am not paying full price for a sub-par product. Also as a side note, perhaps it is time for bottle shops, large and small, to seriously consider their stocking strategy. Sure, shelf after shelf of the weird and wonderful looks fantastic to the casual shopper picking up their 18 pack of Budweiser or 12 pack of IPA depending on their particular brand of beery conservatism, but leaving slower shifting stock to sit around until Ragnarök is frustrating to say the least.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Scrumpy!

A while back, when Mrs V and I were training to walk the West Highland Way, at least one day a weekend you would find us out in the mountains with our good friends Dave and Ali traipsing along trails. One of those weekends, and actually an Ali-less hike, we started out from Milam Gap in the Shenandoah National Park headed for the Lewis Falls. Perhaps the most unexpected thing we came across during the hike were feral apple trees.

Before this area was a national park, the Milam apple was a local staple cash crop, and there are some fascinating pictures of apple, and 'sider', sellers at the trail head. As we hiked back to the car we agreed to return in the autumn and glean as many apples as possible with a view to making our own cider. Thus a few weeks ago we returned with a couple of bags to fill with feral apples, mostly fairly small and tart, but a few bigger, blander ones as well - I also picked some thistle heads for making cheese with at some point.

There was however a problem, we didn't have a press with which to get at whatever juice was in the apples. Eventually though Dave decided to invest in a hydraulic press and we got together to see what we could get. First things first though, I must admit that this was a small scale project, just a half bushel or so of apples, and they really didn't look promising, as you can see.


Given the small scale of the project we decided not to worry too much about how we were going to grind the fruit, preferring to pound the apples to a pulp using a 2x4 and an aluminium brew pot.


The important part of this run was to test the press, and as you can see from the following pictures, it was a resounding success.




Once we were done, we had about a gallon and a half of fresh pressed apple juice ready to just sit around and let whatever wild yeast was on the apples do it's thing, and with it plans to increase production on the next run!


Said next run came a week later. Dave had been out walking his dogs around the Crozet area and noticed orchards with lots of dropped apples on the floor. Having inquired as to the ownership of said orchard he learnt that it was possible to glean fallen apples for a pittance, and thus we set a date and time to meet up and gather what we could between the three of us. Again Ali wasn't able to join us, but studying for her PhD defense was an acceptable reason.


Over the course of a couple of hours the three of us managed to glean about 4 bushels of fallen apples, gathered into burlap coffee sacks that weighed down Dave's car to a rather worrying extent.


We headed back to Dave's place to test out his even newer bit of kit, for he had built a grinder!


Having a grinder made short work of turning the shit ton of apples we had gathered into a respectable pulp for putting into cheeses in the press, and after a few hours of grinding, pressing, drinking Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest and my home brew best bitter, we ended up with 17 gallons of juice, all of which is fermenting away to make that most wonderful of glorious booze products, cider. Even though I am first and foremost a beer drinker, I do have a soft spot for cider, especially in summer, with a Ploughman's lunch....ahhhhh the idyll.


We paid $20 for the apples, which works out to $1.18 per gallon of juice, given 8 US pints in a US gallon, we will be drinking cider sometime next year for just $0.15 per pint. Not a bad return on investment for a couple of hours labour in an orchard, and then several hours drinking and pressing juice. Almost makes you wonder what the mark up is on commercial cider?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Self Bitterment

An acquaintance recently asked me why I seem to be constantly brewing beers that belong in the broad family of bitter. It's true that at least every other brewday is some form of ordinary, best, or extra special, and there is a very good reason for this fact. Bitter, regardless of sub-type, is one of my favourite styles of beer to drink and for all the hoopla around craft beer and its endless IPAing of every form of beer possible, most American breweries simply don't bother with bitter as a style.

What then is a chap supposed to do, especially a chap with little interest in IPA? Sorry hopheads, your addiction is one dimensional most of the time regardless of the latest hop to come out of the Pacific north west. The answer is obvious, a chap must either take the risk of ancient, and and badly oxidised, bottles from Britain, lurking around the local bottle shop that neither knows nor seems to care what they are doing, or a chap can make his own. So unless Three Notch'd Bitter 42 is available, I make my own.

A couple of weekends ago I kegged up my most recent batch of best bitter, and having stolen the requisite amount of beer to do gravity measurements and all that jazz, I gave it a taste and thought to myself, this could be good. After a couple of weeks in the keg, I took some growlers of said brew to a friend's place on Saturday in order to lubricate the grinding and pressing of apples for cider that took up a hefty chunk of the afternoon and evening. Boy had my hunch been right, it is as good a best bitter as I have brewed, and certainly one that I would have no objections to paying proper hard currency for.


As you can see from the picture, the bitters I go in for tend to be on the paler side of the spectrum. I rarely, if ever, use crystal malts, preferring one of either Victory, Biscuit, or amber malt as my single specialty grain, and my base malt is usually Golden Promise. For this particular batch I single hopped with Calypso as I had some floating around in the freezer, and at least half of my calculated IBUs tend to come from the first hop addition. In terms of yeast, I have found that Safale S-04 does everything I need, if I remember rightly S-04 is one of the Whitbread yeast strains. I don't bother with water modifications, working on the theory that my well water tastes good, so it's fine for my beer. I brew to make something to intoxicate myself with from time to time, not to do science experiments - and given my ability to blow shit up at school in chemistry class, that's probably just as well.


While it is true that I sometimes lament the indifference of many an American craft brewery to the bitter family of beer, I love the fact that it has given me an excuse to work on my own brewing skills by repeatedly making my own versions. Sure I rarely make the exact same recipe twice, but there are common themes that run through each iteration, such as sticking to as simple a recipe as possible. Also the key to a solid bitter is in the name of the beer itself, don't be afraid of using hops predominantly for bittering rather than flavour and aroma. Hop bitterness is the very soul of a good bitter recipe, it must be firm, bracing even, but never acerbic. This is a beer designed to be drunk in imperial pints over an extended period of time, so balance is vital, once I am finished with a pint, another one should be welcome. Oh and 'balance' is not synonymous with 'bland'.

Bitter is a misunderstood and underappreciated style of beer in the craft world it would seem, thankfully they are pretty easy to make, and done well endlessly satisfying to drink, and that's the whole damned point surely?.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Feast of Oktober

It seems at the moment that every brewer and his uncle is having an Oktoberfest celebration, whether or not said brewer regularly makes bottom fermented beers in the German style (and they say craft beer isn't marketing driven!).

Being a fan of the lager arts, and not wanting to limit my Oktoberfest drinking to Sierra Nevada, I gathered together 7 bottles of American made versions of the 'style' to try in a blind tasting. As ever I was ably assisted by the lovely Mrs V, and her willingness to traipse up the stairs when I had finished each glass of beer is much appreciated.

The beers for this little taste off were:
Such a delightful little lineup...


Using, as ever, a slightly modified version the Cyclops beer evaluation method, here's my findings.


Beer A
  • Sight: rich copper, ivory head, dissipates quickly
  • Smell: general sweetness, touch corny, wood and spice
  • Taste: bready, touch of burnt toast, clean finish
  • Bitter: 2.5/5
  • Sweet: 2/5
Overall well balanced though on the thin side, nothing to really hunt out.


Beer B
  • Sight: orange, large off-white head, slight haze
  • Smell: some toffee, baking bread, floral
  • Taste: sweet juicy malt, herbal hob bite
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Ever so slightly boozy/hot, mouthfeel was nice and full, and slightly creamy, a bit on the too sweet side.


Beer C
  • Sight: rich golden, white head
  • Smell: bready, biscuits, trace of spice
  • Taste: sweet toffee, pretzels, earthy hops
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Nicely balanced, good clean dry finish, clearly well made and nicely integrated.


Beer D
  • Sight: gold, voluminous white head that lingers
  • Smell: grainy, light lemon and herbal hops, almost like autumn leaves
  • Taste: bready malt, sweet but not in a caramel way, firm bitterness
  • Bitter: 3/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Slightly creamy mouthfeel, but firm bitterness cleans that right up, very nice beer.


Beer E
  • Sight: light red, smallish off white head
  • Smell: syrupy caramel
  • Taste: heavy caramel, dark toast
  • Bitter: 2/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Full bodied and a touch cloying, really needs a hop bite, finish not as clean as expected.


Beer F
  • Sight: deep orange, off white lingering head
  • Smell: raw wort, weetabix topped with caramel sauce
  • Taste: Very sweet, sickly caramel/syrup dominates
  • Bitter: 1/5
  • Sweet: 3/5
Tasted undercooked, like the raw dough in the middle of an underdone loaf, barely any noticeable hops.


Beer G
  • Sight: rich copper, small, stable, white head
  • Smell: lots of toffee and bread, spicy hop notes
  • Taste: cereal, caramel, like dulce de leche on toast
  • Bitter: 1.5/5
  • Sweet: 2.5/5
Sweet, warming, and overall nicely balanced, bit too sweet though for my tastes.

Having drunk all seven beers, I ended up with the following rankings:
  1. Beer D
  2. Beer C
  3. Beer B, G
  4. Beer A, E
  5. Beer F
My favourite beer, and here I wasn't actually surprised, was Sierra Nevada's Oktoberfest, with the Ninkasi right on it's coat tails, a sign perhaps that I prefer the more modern pale Oktoberfest style to the older, darker, sweeter variant.

The other beers were:
  • Beer A - Brooklyn
  • Beer B - Port City
  • Beer E - Sam Adams
  • Beer F - Shiner
  • Beer G - Blue Mountain
So there we have it, 7 beers, all bar one that I would drink a pint of, 1 that I would happily drink plenty of, and one that I have been drinking maße of.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Selling Stale

Tomorrow I am planning to do a blind tasting of American made Oktoberfest lagers. I have already gathered 7 examples form across the US. Yesterday I decided to check a bottle shop near my office to see if they had any single bottles available so I could bump my testing up to 10 beers.

Having realised that there was nothing that I didn't already have, I took to looking around and seeing if anything else might take my fancy. Ever since I wrote a post about being in a local gas station that also has a decent selection and noticing out of date beer being sold at full price, I have started check out the 'best before' or 'bottled on' dates to make sure I am not getting stale beer.

The first bottle I picked up and looked at was this from Green Flash...


A best before date of November 2015??? What the actual fuck? Surely a retailer wouldn't try to push this stuff on an unexpecting public at daft prices?


Oh wait, yes they would. That's right folks, this particular Charlottesville, Virginia, bottle shop expects people to pay north of $12 (after tax) for 4 bottles of year out of date beer.

Hoping this would be a one off, I started checking out some of my favourite beers, especially the Fuller's stuff, which while still in date was in the older bottles, so it is coming to the end of its shelf life. Then there was this...


I do like Bengal Lancer as a general rule, and sure I know the history of IPA meant that it travelled in hot conditions for 6 months to get from England to the Sub-continent, but this bottle will be 2 years past it's best before date in just 120 days. Yours for full price.

As you know if you are a regular Fuggled reader, I love the lager family of beers and Firestone Walker Pivo Pils is something that I am always happy to drink. Unless of course it was bottled nearly 8 months ago, and is sat on the shelf of a very warm shop, kind of like this one.


As I was leaving the shop I noticed that they were selling day old bread with a sign informing the customer that the bread wasn't that day's. If only they treated their liquid bread with the same respect.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Price is Too Damned High!!

With the searing heat and humidity of the central Virginia summer finally starting to dissipate, Mrs V, myself, and our friend Dave went for a walk in the Shenandoah National Park on Saturday morning. Before meeting up with Dave we popped to our of our favourite drinking holes for breakfast, and despite the earliness of the day (it had just gone 8am) I had a couple of pints to wash down the tacos with.

Given that all but 2 of the taps were pouring Ballast Point beers it was evident that the pub in question had very recently had a 'tap takeover', or 'illusion of choice' as I now call them. Snide comments aside, my couple of pints were the Longfin Helles and a very delicious beer it was too. I heartily approve of the growing number of helles lagers that seem to be popping up on brewery products lists of late.

There was another reason I plumped for the helles...can you guess what it was from this picture?


Yep, $2.50 for an imperial pint. Call me cheap if you wish, but it was simply too good a price to overlook, 40oz of beer for less than 16oz of some of the other beers on the list, and even a few 10oz options. Sure it helped that the beer was just the kind of thing I like drink, even in the morning.

Looking over the rest of the price list, I couldn't get away from the idea though that the price of a pint of craft beer is getting ridiculous, especially when you compare the price of the Longfin with that of the California Kölsch right above it, $7.50 for 20oz. Given the similarities between the two styles of beer, why would a retailer charge three times as much for an additional 0.7% and 5 IBUs worth of beer?

The kind of beer that normally fills that budget slot in this particular pub is something like PBR or National Bohemian, so perhaps there is a pervasive bias against pale lagers, and by extension pale lager drinkers.

What it really means most likely is that the price of craft beer is too damned high and retailers are gouging their customers left, right, and centre whilst prancing about in artisanal fig leaves.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Beer Snobs Are the Worst

Words fascinate me, the stories they tell, the culture they reveal, the way they change through time, how they can be used to comfort, heal, wound, and destroy. Whoever came up with the old rhyme that 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me' was an idiot. Words are, whether spoken or written, the most powerful thing the human race have ever created.

Etymology, the study of the origins of words, is one of those areas that I find particularly fascinating, and a word whose etymology is deeply interesting is 'snob'. According to a folk etymology the word came about in the great public schools of England, places such as Eton and Harrow, where the boys of non-noble families were listed as being 'sans noblesse', abbreviated as 's.nob'. Sans noblesse itself derives from the Latin 'sine nobilitate', in both cases means someone who is without nobility. Whether or not the folk etymology is correct is another thing, and according to the Oxford Dictionaries it isn't, the true origins being a term for a shoemaker's apprentice, however the point remains, a snob is one lacking in the traits usually associated with nobility, as opposed to traits associated with the nobility.

Unfortunately this lack of nobility is all too evident among the self styled beer snobs of the universe. When I worked in the Starr Hill tasting room you could usually rely, at least once a shift, on some gobshite spouting off about stuff he clearly knew little about, especially when it came to brewery relationships with bigger brewing companies. At the time Starr Hill had a distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch, which many an ignoramus took to meaning AB owned Starr Hill, and thus how could any of us truly love beer and work for an AB shill - usually they never saw the irony of their drinking in the brewery, but blinkers are a powerful device.

I have mentioned in previous posts my disdain for the ridiculous, and often vitriolic, comments made on various social media outlets about the purchase of Devils Backbone by AB-InBev, but a post by DB brewmaster Jason on Facebook caught my eye this week, I repeat here verbatim and with Jason's permission:
"I apologize for this beer realm rant, overt eyes - I don't care what your opinions are about ABI buying Devils Backbone Brewing Company but please don't come into any of our locations and impose your world view upon my co-workers. Please do not be rude to them and please do not act like you are all knowing about their situation. This is their work space and where they make a living. This is not a hobby or a diversion for them, unlike your visit. This is what we do! 99% of my co-workers had no idea about ABI purchasing DB. As soon as I was looped in, I ADVOCATED for it! ME, I did. I will debate anyone about this. Please direct your arguments to me. Everyone is entitled to their opinions but please do not be rude and callous to my co-workers. The ones with the strongest feelings are often the most ignorant. I don't expect to change anyone's minds but I can & will certainly make them look likes asses. It is so easy to do. Believe me. Case in point, on an un-related FB post about Goose Islands Bourbon County Stout someone suggested (with all the certainty in the world) to expect a cheapening of ingredients. Which in particular? Which malts & hops, what process?? The answer is that person was talking out of his ass like it was gospel but none of it is true. Yet confident to post such un-truths he was.Thousands of people toss that crap out there. Question the blanket statements. It's sad, dangerous, and distasteful, that people talk about peoples professions and livelihoods with such authority while knowing very little about it. If you are a beer aficionado, enjoy your hobby but please think twice about trying to bring other peoples businesses down with vitriol. This is our livelihood and you know less than you think. Trust me. I've been brewing for a LIVING for 20 years and I know so much more about beer, brewing, and the industry than most of you self satisfied, beer snobs. That is a FACT! Sorry to end on a negative note but god damn, what does it take to house train people these days? Why don't we speak about the things we know, celebrate the things we love, and think twice about chiming in on all the other shit?? Beer snobs are the worst thing about craft beer. Hands down."

I heartily agree with everything Jason says here. Beer geeks, lovers, appreciators, yes be that absolutely, Don't be a beer snob, and most definitely don't be a jerk to people at their livelihood.

Friday, September 2, 2016

#TheSession 115 - The Write Rail


Goodness me, where did August go? Seems like only yesterday I was hosting the 114th Session. For number 115 Joan of Birraire asks us to:
talk about that first book that caught their attention, which brought them to get interested in beer; or maybe about books that helped developing their local beer scene.
I want to start by stating the obvious, I love books. Whether we talking about beer book, historical novels, works on literary theory, scientific theory, or theology I have a constantly growing library that no Kindle or e-reader could ever replace. I have a near constant stack of about 7 books on the dresser on my side of the bed as I finish the top one, a new gets added to the bottom, or the middle. I read somewhat voraciously, any opportunity to read is seized upon.


Joan's theme though is specifically books about beer, and naturally I have a fair few, most that I use as reference books for my homebrew. Ray Daniel's 'Designing Great Beers' is an essential source for homebrewers in my world. Sure the history side of things can be questionable at times, but the analyses of various styles is very helpful when I am in the process of creating a recipe to try out. Just as valuable is Ron Pattinson's 'The Homebrewer's Guide to Vintage Beers', and while I have only brewed a straight up version of 4 or 5 of the beers there, I use the book again as a reference, looking for patterns in behaviour that I can interpret in my own brewing. The third in my triumvirate of regular reference reads for brewing might come as more of a surprise given how rarely I brew Belgian style beers, but Stan Hieronymous' 'Brew Like A Monk' is great reading.

When it comes though to beer books that I enjoy reading purely for their own sake, there is one writer that for me stands head and shoulders above us all (and admittedly I am stretching the definition of 'book' just a bit here), Evan Rail.

It may be that I am slightly biased given that Evan and I shared many a pint when I lived in the Czech Republic, but whether directly writing about beer or not I thoroughly enjoy reading his work. Evan's Kindle Singles are the kind of writing to which I can really only aspire, often witty, deeply profound, and drenched with experience. The singles 'Why Beer Matters', 'In Praise of Hangovers', and 'Why We Fly' are all wonderful, and the half hour or so it takes to read each one is to lose yourself for a bit as Evan draws you into his world.

Given that it is Friday, go download those three of Evan's titles on Amazon, sit with a pint or two of your favourite beer (it really doesn't matter what) and discover, or discover again, a fantastic writer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Railroad to the Isles

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mrs V and I had planned to climb Ben Nevis the day after completing the West Highland Way. That plan had to be put to one side as my feet were something of a state, and also the weather decided not to cooperate. Minor interesting fact, there is apparently a gale at the summit of Ben Nevis every three days on average! Thankfully, we had a back up plan, a day trip to Mallaig.

I have only ever been to Mallaig a handful of times, usually as an alternative to the Kyle of Lochalsh way to Skye when heading home to Uist. I have a lingering memory of the greatest steak sandwich in all of human civilisation being available from a van on the quayside (shocking that food trucks existed before the urbanites got the notion in their heads, eh?). There were no juliennes of this, coulis of that, or salsas of the other, just perfectly cooked steak between two pieces of buttered bread, delightful.

Bear in mind when I say this that Scotland is one of the most beautiful places on earth, yes I am biased I know, but the railway line from Fort William to Mallaig is one of the most stunning I have travelled. Oh, and we took the steam train.


Although we had this as a back up plan, we hadn't bought tickets for the train, so we took our chances and joined the queue on the platform. Happily we managed to snag the last pair of first class seats, and when the time came duly took our seats in the 6 seater carriage. Our fellow travellers for the trip were an English mother and daughter, and a Swedish couple. The Swedes were over mainly to check on a cask of whisky they owned at a distillery, and doing a few trips to other distilleries. Naturally with a shared interest in the things that can be done with malted barley, we got to chatting. The English folks were very much looking forward to crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct as they were huge fans of Harry Potter.


After a few hours of trundling through the Highlands, with steam billowing alongside the carriages, we pulled into Mallaig itself. With just a couple of hours to wander and grab something to eat, Mrs V and I made a bee line for the Chlachain Inn on account of there being a 10% discount on food in a brochure on the train. Stepping into the public bar my heart almost leapt for joy, not only were there handpulls, but the beer was from the Isle of Skye Brewery. I went straight for the Skye Red, a beer I had thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. In many ways it reminds me of O'Hara's Red, but with the added benefit of being cask conditioned.


With time ticking away, thoughts turned to food, and being in Mallaig means one thing, and one thing only, seafood, plucked from the cold waters of the Scottish west coast. While trying to decide on a main course, Mrs V decided to break out of her usual culinary safe house and try haggis. Mrs V is not a big fan of offal in general, much to my chagrin sometimes, so I was understandably rather shocked when she ordered the tempura battered haggis with a peppercorn brandy sauce. I was even more surprised, and somewhat delighted, when she wondered aloud where haggis had been all her life, she loved it, absolutely loved it, a fact further confirmed a couple of weeks later in Glasgow when we had haggis pakora in an Indian restaurant. When it came to main courses, Mrs V took the seafood platter, which featured a veritable raft of locally caught fish and crustacea, while I went for langoustine and chips....


Drenched in a garlic and herb butter, by the time I got through all 6 of the langoustine and most of the chips, the bottom of the bowl was filled with garlicy, butter, mushy chips that were decadent in the extreme. If we didn't have to head back to the train station, I could happily have had another serving. Fresh seafood, landed that morning on the quayside just yards from the front door simply cannot be matched. That fact may explain why I rarely eat shellfish when I am not at the coast.


The train back to Fort William seemed to go much quicker than the ride out, again we were sat with our Swedish and English friends, and this time we availed ourselves of the bar in the restaurant car with cans of McEwans, a step down from the Skye Red for sure, but still a perfectly good beer, a phrase I once thought I would never say.

If you ever find yourself in the West Highlands, and I thoroughly recommend you go, a trip to Mallaig on the train is something well worth the money, and when there make sure to stop in the Chlachain Inn. Whether just for a pint, the Skye Red was in fine form and excellent both sparkled and unsparkled, yes I am that sad that I asked for a half pint of unsparkled to see the difference and unsparkled didn't shine next to sparkled, or for a meal. It was superb.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#WestHighlandWay - A Drinker's Guide Part 4

The last two days of Mrs V and I's West Highland Way hike covered the 26 miles from Glencoe to Fort William, with an overnight stop in Kinlochleven. 26 miles of some of the most dramatically beautiful scenery anywhere on the planet. Rugged, moody, mountains, innumerable streams tumbling down the hillsides, lochs reflecting the ever changing sky, and, in the distance, the great hulk of Ben Nevis.

Before setting out from Glencoe, there were things to be dealt with, namely the blister that had been slowly building over the previous few days. It had got to the point where I couldn't actually get my boot on that morning, something had to be done. Given that hacking the entire toe off wasn't really an option, I made an incision in the blister and drained it thoroughly before Mrs V went into full on nurse mode and taped it up. Suitably booted we went up to the centre's cafe for a bacon roll, to discover to my joy that they had a full fry available, and so it was back to plates of protein and a pot of tea for breakfast. There really is no finer start to a day of hiking. Re-fuelled we headed out past the Blackrock Cottage, toward the Devil's Staircase and Kinlochleven.


The weather was perfect for hiking, cool, overcast, with the ocassional shower. Once I got going, the toe was fine, but if we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, getting going again was a pain that bordered on masochism. Sometimes though, you have to forget the pain and just revel in the countryside.


I have always loved this part of Scotland, and whether it when travelling home from university, Eastern Europe, or wherever I had been, it was when I got to Glencoe that I really felt back in my element. I love this part of the world, and still have a vague notion that one day I'll stop my wandering and find a place to settle among the mountains, preferably near the sea as well. The big challenge on this particular day would be scaling the Devils Staircase, which takes you to the highest point on the West Highland Way, about 1800ft above sea level, and affords you one hell of a view.


The rest of the day's hike is literally downhill, an almost dis-spiriting downhill at that as you follow the switchbacks into the valley with just tantalising glimpses of Kinlochleven itself. It was on this downhill trek that we ran in to Søren again, bedecked with new hiking shoes and as happy as the day was long having found an English chap to walk the way from Rowardennan with. As we continued on our way, Mrs V commented that she was glad to see Søren again and that he had found someone to walk with, soppy moment alert, but Mrs V really is a wonderfully compassionate soul.

Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill and headed for the centre of Kinlochleven in hopes of remembering where our guest house for the night was. Having failed miserably at the memory game, we popped into the Tailrace Inn to use the free wifi, and naturally slake the inevitable thirst that had built up. The Tailrace is a cozy little pub, just off the main drag, opposite the chippy, and with a draft selection that didn't really appeal in the moment, so I broke with my tradition and joined Mrs V on the cider, Bulmers I think it was, with an unnatural orange glow to it.


I drink much quicker than my lovely wife, so having located Tigh-na-Cheo, our room for the night, I went back to the bar for a closer inspection of the bottled selection, and joy of joys my old friend Bitter & Twisted was there. We would head back to the Tailrace that evening for food and another couple of pints, Bitter & Twisted being available in half litre bottles, before turning in for the night.

If ever you find yourself staying in Kinlochleven, Tigh-na-Cheo is a fantastic guest house, comfortable, a cracking fry in the morning, superb service (again with an Eastern European flavour, this time I think the staff were mostly Czech), and with an excellent range of bottled beer available on an honesty box basis, If you've spent the day hiking, they have absolutely massive baths, which are positively luxuriant after 6 days of just showers. Safe to say, Mrs V and I enjoyed our stay there.


The final 16 miles starts with a steep climb to make the Devil's Staircase weep, then on to the Lairig Mor pass that goes through yet more stunning countryside to Fort William. My feeble words can't do justice to the magnificence, so here's a few pictures instead.




It was walking through Lairig Mor that we needed our rain gear for the first time since Conic Hill as finally the famed Highland weather smashed into us, lashing us with driving rain and a stiff breeze that made limping along almost miserable, but for the growing sense of achievement of being on the final leg. Eventually you scale the last hill, just shy of Dun Deardail, and start the descent into Glen Nevis, with the Ben looming over you. We had originally planned to climb Ben Nevis the following day, but the state of my feet and the weather forecast put pay to that idea.

Coming down into Glen Nevis you are jarred back into civilisation as the final couple of miles are on a tarmac path into Fort William, past the original end of the hike, and along the high street to the official end. After 94 miles of mostly well maintained mountain trails, walking on tarmac again is a brutal return to the real world. Thankfully right next to the end of the West Highland Way there is a Wetherspoon's pub called The Great Glen. It seemed only apt for my first beer having completed the West Highland Way to be the Devils Backbone IPA, brewed specifically for Wetherspoon's.


My memory of the IPA is somewhat hazy now, and note taking wasn't really a priority with an aching body, and trying to decide where to have dinner that night, as well as the thought of the extra mile uphill to come in order to get to our accommodation for the night, an excellent place called Braeside House. I remember that it was very much an East Coast style American IPA, and that was just fine by me. We would return to the Spoon's that evening, having sat on a bench eating a fish supper, and a pint of Innis & Gunn's Craft Lager was downed with some disappointment, it was pretty dull stuff to be blunt, before taking ourselves off to the Grog and Gruel for a nightcap couple of pints from their beer engines. I don't recall what they were, but the condition was excellent, and the spot was duly hit.

When you take into account the getting to and from various guest houses, microlodges, and B&Bs, we must have walked close to about 110 miles in the 8 days we spent on the West Highland Way. The vast majority of pubs were exactly what I would expect from a Scottish boozer, and it was great to see beers from the likes of Harviestoun readily available pretty much everywhere we stopped. One thing that this trip reminded me of was that a good pub is not defined by its beer selection, its number of taps, or the hipness of the breweries they stock. Good pubs are places of banter, relaxation, and shared experience, good beer can help, but it's not a requisite. The night at the Climbers' Bar will stick in my memory for a long time as an almost perfect pub session, and they had all of 2 handpulls besides the more generic big brewery offerings, and the two hot toddies seemed to do the trick for Mrs V's sore throat.

Of course there was more drinking to be done while I was home, but we'll get there.