Friday, December 1, 2017

The Session 130 - Festival Perfection


The final first Friday of 2017 is upon us, so of course that means it is time for this month's Session, hosted by Brian Yaeger. For this month, Brian asks us to imagine our ideal beer festival, and so without further ado, let's dive on in....

Firstly I have something of a confession to make, I can count on the fingers of less one full hand the number of beer festivals I have been to. That's no comment on beer festivals themselves but rather an admission of the fact that if I have a choice, and a potential alibi, I will avoid big crowds at all possible cost. I can also count on the aforementioned fingers the number of people capable of coaxing me out of my introvert cave to attend such an event. Clearly then, the first requirement for the Fuggled Festival of Beer is that it be a relatively small and low key event.

To facilitate such a low key event, the venue would preferably be out in the sticks a bit. Not necessary in the wilderness of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park, but in a hotel in a small country village would do nicely. The event would also be outside so that those hardy souls who make the trek have magnificent vistas of mountains and fields to drink in as they drink their beer. If the venue has some kind of courtyard then all the better. Actually, if the venue were a hotel with a brewpub and a courtyard, with views of the countryside, that would be perfect.

As this is a beer festival we should give some consideration to the beer itself, and in keeping with my theme of being low key, I would limit the number of breweries in attendance to somewhere between 15 and 20, and then further limit them to having a maximum of 2 beers available. Said beer would be draft only, so that attendees get the freshest taste of beer possible. Breweries are free to bring whatever beers they feel like serving, whether it's flagships, seasonals, or one-offs, it's entirely up to them.


This being my beer festival, it would primarily be a drinking festival rather than a tasting one, as such beers would be available in either half pint or full pint sizes (and pint here means the 20oz imperial pint). We're all adults here, so the only limit on the amount attendees can drink is based on their ability to hold their bevvy, keep their significant other happy, not be a nuisance, and not run foul of the police. We're all adults here right, so personal responsibility is important.

So we have our venue and the beers sorted, but what about box office? Straight off the bat I will say that I hate the idea of buying tokens with which to trade for beer, especially when the price of the token is more than the cost of a beer at the festival in a local pub. I also hate the idea of having a set number of beers as part of my entry fee. As such, entry at the door would be relatively cheap but would include a half pint glass, made of actual glass and not plastic. If attendees would prefer a full pint glass, there would be a small surcharge on the entry fee. The entry fee would be as low as possible to allow it to cover the cost of the venue and glassware. Brewers would then be selling their beer to the attendees at whatever price they feel appropriate, so total cost to an attendee would be the cover fee plus however much they actually choose to spend.


Getting away from the logistics and the beer for a moment, I would want to have a snack stand as well pumping out food that goes well with beer. Think a central European sausage vendor and you're in the right ball park, we're talking snacks not meals. I would also arrange a couple of local bands to come and play sets during the festival, though it would be more a background noise kind of thing than a focal point of the event.


As I re-read this with my editor's hat on, two things strike me. Firstly this is basically my vision of a good pub writ large, and secondly it bears a marked resemblance to the first Slunce ve Skle festival that I went to in Plzeň back in 2008. It was at Slunce ve Skle that I met Max for the first time, drank plenty of good beer from small breweries I had never heard of, and hung out with an eclectic group of expats and locals just reveling in good beer with good company. It was a perfect afternoon's drinking, one that I would love to recreate.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In Praise of Sierra Nevada

There are times when the MO of much of the craft beer industry, whether producers or consumers, seems to be an obsessive compulsion toward the new, the varied, and the never to be repeated. In times such as these it feels as though any brewery that is more than a couple of years old has become passé, and god help them if they have the temerity not to completely revamp their lineup at the whim of an Untappd Beer Rating Advocate. In such a milieu, thank goodness is all I have to say for a brewery like Sierra Nevada.

I still remember vividly my first Sierra Nevada beer. I was in Galway, sat next to the peat fire in a pub called Sheridan's On The Docks, watching Ireland play New Zealand in the Autumn Internationals, it was the great way to round off what had been a grand day out drinking. Having reacquainted myself with Bishop's Finger and Spitfire from Shepherd Neame I spied the green label of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and texted Evan Rail back in Prague to ask if it was worth trying, at €6 a pop,...a few moments later came the resounding recommendation, thus I duly ordered a bottle and poured it into my glass. It was love at first mouthful, and sat in that bar on the very edge of Europe I knew that it was going to be a regular beer in my fridge.


Since moving to the US, beers from Sierra Nevada have probably been the most common in my fridge. Cans of Pale Ale and Nooner Pilsner are staples at the moment. Every August has taken on a near religious ecstasy as I wait for the latest iteration of their Oktoberfest collaborations.



Whenever I see their Stout and Porter in the shops I have to buy some.


Kellerweis and Summerfest remind me of many a drinking session in Pivovarský klub. Narwhal is as good an imperial stout as you could imagine.


The fact that Sierra Nevada do so many classic beer styles so damned consistently well is something that needs to be lauded by beer lovers across the land. It's isn't boring to make a German style pilsner that would hold it's own in the Black Forest. It isn't playing it safe by being the archtype of the American Pale Ale. Quality and consistency don't get enough praise among beer lovers in this country at times, though maybe I am just a grumpy old man who wants his SNPA to taste the same every time I drink it. That trust is an important part of my willingness to splash out for Sierra Nevada beer more often than not, shit I even tried (and loved) Otra Vez simply because I trust them to do a good job.

I think I only have one gripe about Sierra Nevada really, that they don't have a best bitter as part of their regular range of beers. I am sure they would knock that so far out of the park, Timothy Taylor's would be looking over their shoulders.

So here's to the Grossman family that own and run Sierra Nevada, long may you continue and prosper doing what you do best, making quality classic beers.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Session 129 - Whither the Session?


How exactly is it the first Friday of November already? Rhetorical questions aside, as it is so, that means it is time for The Session, hosted this month by Eoghan of Brussels Beer City. Eoghan's theme for the month is "Missing Local Beer Styles", which he boils down to being:
"what beer style would you like to see being brewed in your local market that is not yet being brewed?"
As Eoghan points out, beer choice can often seem to be an exercise in choosing from endless variations on the theme of IPA, which is incredibly boring after a while. While I consider myself very lucky to live in a part of Virginia with plenty of breweries who make beers beyond the confines of a modern interpretation of India Pale Ale (does the modern concept of IPA even relate to India Pale Ale in anything other than name any more?), I naturally have beer styles that I miss.

If you have read more that 2 or 3 of my blog posts you will likely know well by now that my favourite beer styles are (not necessarily in order):
  • Bitter
  • Pilsner
  • Dry Stout
  • Mild
Of those 4 styles, the only one brewed in this area that I can get with any regularity is Pilsner, Champion Brewing's lovely Shower Beer.


Once upon a time Starr Hill Brewing, where for the sake of full disclosure I used to work, brewed a dry Irish stout called Dark Starr, it was sublime, it is still the most award winning dry Irish stout in America, it hasn't been brewed for about 3 years if memory serves. When I worked behind the bar of the taproom I would pour Dark Starr early so it could get to the right temperature to unlock the flavours, and many people discovered they actually did like stout after all.


I manage to get my mild kick in the pub for a single month each year as several of the local breweries support my American Mild Month project, but outside of May, mild is as rare as hen's teeth. The same could be said for bitter. Unless Three Notch'd Brewing has put out my Bitter 42 Best Bitter recipe, fresh bitter is basically unicorn shit in these parts.



Thankfully there is a place where I can semi-regularly get my fix of all three styles, guaranteed fresh, and at the generally reasonable price of less than $1 for an imperial pint. That place is of course my kitchen, and the beers are my homebrew renditions of the styles.

Even though I like to think that I am a pretty decent brewer, there are times when I would like nothing more than to be sat in the pub nursing a pint some tasty, session beer while reading a book or hanging out with friends. Given that reality, the one beer "style" that is grossly underrepresented in Central Virginia is just that, session beers.

I recently did some research into the state of core beers being produced by the various breweries within 35 miles of my house and discovered that the average ABV is 6.7%, and found not a single core beer that would satisfy the definition of session beer as laid out by Lew Bryson.

I realise this has the potential of making me sound like a total druth, but I actively enjoy drinking. In common with most people from those mad islands on the west of Europe, the pub is the place I am happiest, and I can think of few things I would prefer to do than spend an afternoon drinking pints with friends, or alone just reading a good book. Were I to have such a session on 6.7% ABV beer, I would be in no fit state to get myself home.

So come on brewers of Central Virginia, try introducing session beers to your core ranges, bitters, stouts, milds, as well as pilsners! Given that they are cheaper to make, it'll help your bottom line as well!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

17° Perfection

Goodness me it's been a while since I posted.

Mitigating circumstance is that just 5 days after my previous post, Mrs V gave birth to our twin sons, the malé Aličky as they have been nicknamed, and we are getting to grips with this whole parenthood thing.

On Saturday, we introduced the malé Aličky to that most august of establishments, the pub. I fear that in the rampantly puritanical mind of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (for those unaware, a front organisation feigning academic respectability for the heirs of the Temperance League and their prohibitionist cohorts) the boys are already scarred for life as I have had several beers right in front of them already.

Said introductory pub was the original Devils Backbone brewpub down in Nelson County, and the occasion was the tapping of the beer I brewed with them back in August, a Czech style Polotmavý Speciál. Polotmavý because it is neither light nor dark, but a deep red kind of in between, and Speciál because it has an original gravity of about 17° Plato. In keeping with Czech tradition the name of the beer is Granát, which is "garnet" in Czech, a reference to the famous gemstones from Central Bohemia.


"But how did the beer turn out?" I hear you say....

Well, it pours a really rich deep auburn, that the picture above maybe doesn't capture fully, and yes I am biased but I think all my children are gorgeous. The head is a healthy inch of ivory foam that lingers for the duration and leaves some lovely lacing down the glass. Aroma wise, there are some traces of a lightly herbal hop character, but given the beer is more balanced toward the malt, the classic Central European smells of fresh bread and a sweet malt aroma (I can't think of a better description honestly, when you smell CaraBohemian malt you get what I mean). In terms of taste, there is lots of breadiness, and a healthy dollop of sweetness, think dulce de leche and you're close, all backed up by a firm hop bite that stops the beer from being sickly - is there anything worse than a sickly sweet beer? Having lagered for a nearly 10 weeks, the finish is clean, crisp, and despite the malt forward nature of the beer, refreshing.

You know, the more I think about it, the more it reminds me of a 14° Polotmavý Speciál from Minipivovar Hukvaldy that I relished back in 2008 over lunch with Max in Prague.

So yes it turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and my only regret is that it won't ever see the light of day at Pivovarský klub. Given the volume of the batch, I expect it will only be on at Devils Backbone for a few weeks, so if you are in the area get along and try the first recorded authentic Czech style Polotmavý in Virginian history.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Irish Pub

The pub is probably my favourite institution on earth. Whenever I am off on my travels I spend more time researching places I want to have a drink than I do what beers are available in a particular drinking hole. I guess that's what makes me an awful beer tourist, you'll not find me visiting places just because of the breweries that are there.

The kind of pub I like doesn't have to have a stellar beer selection of the latest, greatest, trendiest IPAs and the like. Some of my favourite places to drink when I lived in Prague sold the near ubiquitous range of Prazdroj, Gambrinus, and Kozel Černý, but I loved them all the same. Beer is not the point of the pub, community is, conversation is, comfort is, consolation is.

As I have got older, my taste in pubs has tended more and more to the simple pleasures of a well cared for pint enjoyed with good company. If I wish to get rat-arsed and listen to the greatest cheesey hits of the 90s, I can do that in the comfort of my front room.

Any way, all this thinking about pubs is because last night I came across a wonderful documentary film on Netflix called 'The Irish Pub' and spent the hour and a bit of it in a fog of nostalgia, there being so many similarities between pubs in Ireland and those in the north west of Scotland where I grew up.

Here's the trailer, and if you have Netflix look it up for the whole thing.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Session 127 - Oktoberfest Round-up


The real thing is just a few days away now, so what better time to do the traditional round up of posts for the Session? The theme I asked folks to write about this month was 'Oktoberfest lagers'.

Jack over at Deep Beer wondered whether Oktoberfest lagers come out too soon, and offered a theory that the russets of many an Oktoberfest lager make it worth waiting for the leaves to turn before tucking in.

The Beer Nut managed to find a couple of examples of the style to write about, including an obligatory maß sized can of Eichbaum Festbier - and referred to me as 'His Royal Lageriness', which I rather like.

Other than being two of my favourite blogs to read, Alan at A Better Beer Blog, and the dynamic duo of Boak and Bailey both find themselves underserved locally when it comes to Oktoberfest lagers, and thus ponder the question what would festbier be in an English speaking context? I have to admit when I saw the themes for both posts I was hoping for a treatise on historical 'October beer'.

Closer to home. Tom Cizauskus waxes lyrical about the delights of this year's Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest in collaboration with Brauhaus Miltenberger. Stan compares the Cannstatter Volkfest in Stuttgart to Munich's Oktoberfest, noting that they happen around the same time, and that he has never actually been to Oktoberfest, which neither have I, and I am not overly vexed by that fact, and Jon at The Brew Site reveals Deschutes' hybrid autumnal IPA, Hopzeit.

Thanks again to everyone that took part, and if I failed to mention anyone's posts, just leave a message in the contents and I'll update this post.

UPDATE 1: a really fascinating post from Andreas Krennmair about what was served at the real Oktoberfest in the 19th century, including a surprising visitor from Bohemia.

UPDATE 2: as Thom poins out, I forgot to mention my own post, so here is a link.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Session 127: A Feast of Oktober


This month's Session is hosted by, well, me. My theme for this month is Oktoberfest lager, and I have had a few well meaning people ask me why I chose the theme of Oktoberferst for the September Session. It's quite simple really, Oktoberfest begins in the middle of September, that and the fact that given the weirdness that is American brewing's obsession with having season beers in the shops well before a season actually starts, the shelves of supermarkets and bottle shops are already groaning with Oktoberfest style lagers, so why not drink a load of them?

In my original announcement of the theme I said:

"Feel free to dress up for your tasting, dirndls, lederhosen, that Australian backpacker outfit you keep in the back of your wardrobe for special occasions. Hire yourself an oompah band, play the birdy song, and generally get into the spirit of celebrating for the 117th time the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Whip out the grill and buy all the bratwurst you can find, proper bratwurst that is, from Germany. Shout "O'zapft is!" at the top of your lungs...you get the idea."
Well, sadly I don't have any lederhosen, or an Australian backpacker outfit, nor to I have a thing for the birdy song. I do however love German sausages and mustard, so I gleefully paired my tasting of Oktoberfest lagers with a plate of bockwurst, fried potatoes, and Dusseldorf mustard...


This though is a beer blog, so on to the beers themselves, of which there were 5, said 5 being:
  • Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest
  • Blue Mountain 13.5 Oktoberfest
  • Great lakes Oktoberfest
  • Otter Creek/Brauerei CAmba Oktoberfest
  • Sierra Nevada/Brauerei Miltenburger Oktoberfest
How were they? Let's find out shall we?


Leinenkugel's Oktoberfest
  • Sight - copper, small white head that vanishes quickly
  • Smell - some bready malt, lightly spicy in the background
  • Taste - very lightly toasted bread, slightly grassy, crisp finish
  • Sweet - 1.5/5
  • Bitter - 1/5
So yes, Leinenkugel's is a MillerCoors owned brewery, but I really couldn't give a rat's arse about that, this is a beer blog not a corporate structure blog. The beer is pretty light bodied, but not thin, it just lacks the heft I have come to expect from American Oktoberfests. It's a pretty inoffensive, perfectly well made beer, something that would be fine to drink on a night out, though the lingering sweetness in the finish would get tired after a while, I like my beer bitter and my lagers clean.


Blue Mountain 13.5 Oktoberfest
  • Sight - deep burnished copper, half inch of linger white foam
  • Smell - noticeable noble hop character, floral, citrus, some toffee
  • Taste - lightly toasted bread, a very subtle smokiness, bit of a metallic tang
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2/5
The local beer in my selection, Blue Mountain being about 20 miles from my house here in Central Virginia. 13.5, the number of degrees Plato that is the starting gravity for this beer, is very much the archetypal American made Oktoberfest lager. It has a nice smooth finish that isn't so sweet as to be cloying, but I find it has a slightly odd bite right at the end and lacks the clean snap I would expect from a Central European lager. Still, a decent beer for an afternoon in their brewpub, preferably in the rain, but I am weird that way.


Great Lakes Oktoberfest
  • Sight - dark honey (thanks Mrs V for that description!), voluminous slightly off white head that lingers for the duration
  • Smell - fresh scones and a floral meadow in the height of summer
  • Taste - caramel and toffee up front, bready backbone, malts definitely the star of the show
  • Sweet - 3/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5
I quite like Great Lakes beers, in particular their porter, but this beer just didn't do it for me. It has a distinct lack of bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the malt, and the finish was oily sweet, not the clean snappy bite I expect from a lager beer. Not so much bad as misguided.


Otter Creek/Brauerei Camba Oktoberfest
  • Sight - rich golden, white head that disappears pretty quickly
  • Smell - saltine crackers, floral hops, lemongrass
  • Taste - fresh bread, some yeastinessm abd a good hop bite in the finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 2.5/5
I don't recall having an Otter Creek beer before, but this collaboration was one I really enjoyed. It has the expected lager snap that I love, and it very nicely balanced so that drinking it is an absolute pleasure. I may have mentioned this before, but I find myself liking the more modern paler interpretations of Oktoberfest lager than the darker sweeter efforts that seem to be the norm over here. More breweries should work with German/Central European breweries for their collaborations.


Sierra Nevada/Brauerei Miltenburger Oktoberfest
  • Sight - golden honey, firm white head
  • Smell - black tea, bread, and hay
  • Taste - sweet doughy malt, floral hops, quite grassy, juicy (not in a ridiculous NE "IPA" way though)
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 3/5
I really am biased toward this beer, I am sorry, but these annual collaborations are becoming the highlight of my drinking year. This year has a fantastic firm bitterness that scrapes the palette and makes you want another mouthful. The beer is hefty enough to be interesting without being overwhelming, and it has that perfect clean finish that I want, it is delish. End of story. Keep on doing this Sierra Nevada!

So there we go, five Oktoberfest lagers, all of which worked fine with my bockwurst, kartoffeln, und senf...and I am pretty sure it won't be the last time this autumn that I pull a package of German sausages from the freezer, fill up my 1 litre glass with lager, let's be honest it'll be Sierra Nevada's until the shops run out, and pay homage to my Germany ancestors and my own Germanophilia. Prost!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Top Ten Virginian Beers - 2017

This weekend is the 6th annual Virginia Craft Brewers Fest in Charlottesville, actually in the city itself rather than down at Devils Backbone as in previous years. As in each of the previous 6 years of the festival, I spent time earlier this year judging the Virginia Craft Beer Cup, in which a beer that I designed won a silver medal. As usual I won't be attending the festival itself as I will be in western Virginia with Mrs V at a fiddle camp - basically she has music workshops all day and I find a cosy chair, beer, and a book to while away the day.

In years past I have presented a list of the 10 best Virginia beers I have drunk in the past 12 months, and I see no reason to change it this year...
  1. Port City Brewing - Porter (7.2%). I am fairly sure there are regular readers of this blog who will be sending me emails to make sure I am ok because number 1 on my list this year is not a sessionable pale lager. Fear not, I am fine. I was reminded of what a simply magnificent beer Port City's Porter is when I did a comparative porter tasting last December, describing it as 'rich' and 'unctuous'. During the winter and spring it was a regular in my my fridge and given half an hour to get to a decent temperature never failed to impress. If there is a better porter in America right now I would be surprised.
  2. Devils Backbone Brewing - Czech 10 (4.3%). I was desperately trying to avoid recency bias with this choice as the beer was only released last Friday. I failed. The highest praise I can give this beer is that if I were poured a pint of it in a pub in the Czech Republic I would love it, rave about, drag my friends to the pub to drink it. Obscenely easy to drink, packed with the flavours and aromas of Saaz hops, and so well made that had it been allowed in the Czech lager category at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup this year it would have blown all other competition out of the water. Proof, yet again, that corporate structure has no impact on beer quality.
  3. Alewerks Brewing - Weekend Lager (4.8%). This Munich style helles was a new one for me back in June when I wrote about a slew of this style that I tried (would the plural of 'helles' be 'heli'?). I enjoyed the beer, but there was something odd about the bottle I drank, so when I saw it on tap a few days later I tried again and it was delicious, I may have had several more. A wonderful competition of cracker graininess and lemongrass hops make it something to sit and enjoy on a sunny patio. Marvellous.
  4. South Street Brewery - My Personal Helles (5.2%). Probably the single most regular beer I have drunk in the last 12 months, and it hasn't even been on tap at the brewpub for about 4 months (seriously guys, sort it out!). It is a lovely beer, with a superb balance of malt and noble hops, finishing with soft, clean bite that makes the first pint go quickly, and the second, and maybe even a third, fourth, fifth....
  5. Champion Brewing - Shower Beer (4.5%). Yes, yes, yes, another pale lager. It's what I like and it's my list. Another example of a Czech style lager being made in Virginia that would be perfectly welcome back in Bohemia, bursting with the hay and lemon character that I associate with Saaz hops. A great beer for rounding off a day's hiking.
  6. Three Notch'd Brewing - Ghost of the 43rd (5.2%). A fairly common, and frankly welcome sight in the bars of central Virginia. Ghost is one of the nicest American pale ales I have ever had, up there for me with Sierra Nevada's iconic Pale Ale. Loads of hops and enough bitterness to remind you that you are drinking beer (I seriously have issues with beer that has little to no bitterness), Ghost quite often disappears as soon as you see it.
  7. Devils Backbone Brewing - Excel Lager (2.6%). That is not a typo. Earlier this year, Devils Backbone brewed a 7° pale lager that was the equal of many a far stronger pale lager being brewed in this country. Beautifully balanced, not thin in the slightest, and oh so refreshing after a morning climbing to one the highest points in this part of the Blue Ridge. As I said in my post on the beer at the time, this beer showed Jason and so as true masters of the craft of brewing beer.
  8. South Street Brewery - Virginia Lager (5.0%). Despite being a wee bit stronger, South Street's Virginia Lager kind of reminds me of a less bitter Pilsner Urquell, with a similar malt profile and clean hop bite in the finish. While it lacks the additional Saaz characteristics that Pilsner Urquell has, it is a nice pintable beer that in the absence of My Personal Helles has seen me drink plenty in the last couple of months. One of the few South Street beers available bottled, it is always a good option when out and about.
  9. Three Notch'd Brewing - Oats McGoats (5.5%). This winter will be difficult since Three Notch'd have discontinued this wonderful oatmeal stout. Seriously, it is one of the best oatmeal stouts I have ever had, and so while every one and his mate runs around like headless chickens after the latest fruited murky IPA, those of us who like a grown up beer see our favourites cut from under us. Rich chocolate enveloped in a silky smooth body made this a beer that will live long in the memory, and if it should come out as a special something to fill every available growler with.
  10. Devils Backbone Brewing - Schwartzbier (5.1%). Recently rebranded as just plain old 'Black Lager', but forever in my mind 'Schwartzbier', this is a beer that I drink quite a bit of. Wonderfully roasty, yet smooth and clean, Black Lager reminds more than anything of a bottom fermented stout, which is you know anything of my drinking history is probably why I like it so much. I have to admit I don't see the point of the rebrand, but there we go, as long as the beer stays the same I am a happy camper.
I say this every year, but it bears repeating, this is a purely subjective list based exclusively on the beers I have enjoyed most in the last 12 months. I don't have any time for the daft purity dick waving that goes on as to who is 'craft' and who is not, and yes the list is skewed to my local breweries, but that's just the way it is. If you see these beers out in the wild, try them, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

#TheSession - 127 Announcement

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. (You can find more information on The Session on Brookston Beer Bulletin).

Tis the season!! Right about now breweries and beer shops are groaning under the weight of their autumnal offerings, and so for this month's Session, the 127th of it's ilk, we turn to one of those autumnal offerings, Oktoberfest lagers.

"Oktoberfest, in September?!" I hear you exclaim, but as I am sure you know, Oktoberfest begins every year in the middle of September, this year on the 16th, and finishes in the eponymous month. So what better way to start the month it all begins in Bavaria than to hunt down a load of beers labelled as 'Oktoberfest' or 'Festbier', or in some cases both, and have a little mix and match tasting session?

Feel free to dress up for your tasting, dirndls, lederhosen, that Australian backpacker outfit you keep in the back of your wardrobe for special occasions. Hire yourself an oompah band, play the birdy song, and generally get into the spirit of celebrating for the 117th time the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese. Whip out the grill and buy all the bratwurst you can find, proper bratwurst that is, from Germany. Shout "O'zapft is!" at the top of your lungs...you get the idea.

I look forward to reading your posts on Friday September 1st.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Perfect 10

A pub. Green tablecloths draped over dark wooden tables. Beermats propped up between the salt and pepper shakers. Above the wooden wainscoting, black and white photos of the pub being on the front line of a rebellion against the Nazis, or the Communists, who knows? Working men, smoking, talking, drinking. The barman taking minutes to pour each glass of beer, the server whisking them to tables, seemingly without being asked. The beer, slightly hazy yellow, topped with a solid white foam, gone in four mouthfuls, replaced by the server with a fresh one.


The pub I am thinking of here is U slovanské lipy, in the Žižkov district of Prague, as I remember it before leaving the Czech Republic for my current sojourn in Virginia. U slovanské lipy was, at the time, probably my favourite place to drink, utterly unpretentious, down to earth, and serving what I, to this day, think of as the height of Czech pale lager, Kout na Šumavě's magnificent desítka, or 10° lager.

All of those memories came flooding back last Saturday while I was at Devils Backbone brewing up the 16°polotmavé, which we decided to call 'Granát', and sampled their new beer called Czech 10, which as the name suggests is a Czech style 10° pale lager.


Brewed to 10° Plato, obviously, this delight of a beer has an abv of 4.3%, and if memory serves me rightly 35 IBUs of pure Saaz joy. So painfully simple, so perfectly done, just this one half pint from the lagering tank was a joy. A billowingly soft, almost pillow like, malt characteristic dances like Fred and Ginger with the lemon and hay of Saaz, coming to a firm crisp snap of a finish.

It is a mighty fine beer, and it is being release on tap today at the Devils Backbone Basecamp brewpub, so I am sure you can guess where I will be this afternoon, filling growlers.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Halfway to Darkness

I have a habit of getting interested in, and advocating for, beer styles that are perhaps out of the mainstream of craft beer. What kind of loon starts American Mild Month, for example, or convinces a brewery to make a 1920s Burton Ale, a Czech tmavé, or thinks that best bitter could actually be appreciated by American drinkers? This kind of loon, that's what. Well the loon is at it again.


Tomorrow I will be taking the wonderfully scenic drive down to the Devils Backbone Basecamp, their original brewpub in the hills, and once again we are visiting the Czech brewing world to brew one of my recipes for a rare beer style, a 'polotmavé.


The word 'polotmavé' literally means 'half-dark', and is a style of beer that sits somewhere between pale and dark lager, the one above being from Klášterní pivovar Strahov. Generally speaking, polotmavé lagers use the same malts as a tmavé, just less of the specialty malts so the beer has an amber or red colour. There is a school of thought that says polotmavé lagers descend from the Vienna Red lager tradition of the 19th century, but I don't want to jump into that today.

If advocating for Burton Ale, bitter, and mild was crazy, then I think this project is proof it is time to be packed off to the beer equivalent of the loonie bin. According to RateBeer, there have been a grand total of 15 polotmavé lagers made by US brewers, though I can't verify the faithfulness of those beers to the stuff I would drink from time to time back in Prague. In a purely Virginian context, I believe this will be the first genuinely Czech inspired polotmavé brewed in the Commonwealth. There is one other on RateBeer but the description says it was just a pilsner with a bit of roast malt chucked in to change the colour, not really in keeping with Czech tradition, so I am discounting that.

With our project, we are planning a 16° beer, which should probably finish out at about 6% abv and using the same specialty malts as for Morana, namely CaraBohemian, Carafa II Special, and Munich. On the hops front we are using a blend of Kazbek and Saaz, to give us about 30 IBUs, and of course we'll be using the Augustiner yeast strain for that clean lager bite that I love so much (especially lagers from Devils Backbone!).

The beer, which as yet doesn't have a name, should be on tap some time in October. Just in time, hopefully, to wet the heads of my soon to turn up twin sons...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Helles Yeah!

I've not been to South Street as much as usual of late, for one very simple reason, they haven't had the magnificent My Personal Helles on tap for a few weeks now. That's not a slight on their other beers, Mitch does a great job with them, it's just that the helles is my go to beer, and when the go to is gone, I get a dose of the wandering eye. Part of my particular brand of wandering eye it to pay closer attention to what is available in bottles and cans in the show (whilst lamenting the storing of lagers at room temperature and the general oldness of much of a shop's 'craft' beer selection). Browsing the racks at our local Wegman's a few weeks ago it struck me just how many breweries are bringing out helles lagers these days, so I figured I'd gather a clutch and give em a bash...


First out of the fridge was Southern Tier's Why The Helles Not? As is obvious from the picture, the liquid is a lovely clear golden colour, topped with a decent inch or so of rocky white head, which lingered for the duration of the 4 or 5 mouthfuls it took to drink. Thankfully the beer wasn't overly fizzy, though there was a reasonable amount of carbonation. Breathing in the aroma deeply, I was hit by a distinct cereal crackeriness, think Carr's Water Biscuits and you're not far wrong, now sprinkle some fresh lemongrass onto said water biscuit, you see where this is going. In the taste department, we're clearly in solid helles territory, bready malt to the fore, with that lemony bite that I associate with central European hops, beautifully balanced and very tasty. This is the kind of beer that I could happily down pint after pint of, and at only 4.6% so very close to being a session beer, it is simple but not simplistic, if that makes sense.


Up next was Weekend Lager from Alewerks Brewing, just down the road in Williamsburg, and sporting a very elegant rebrand too. Weekend Lager was distinctly paler than the Southern Tier beer, and had much less head retention, and less obvious carbonation. Rather than having the aroma of a water biscuit, Weekend Lager had a more dry bread crust thing going on, with a herbal hop note in counterpoint, and a very slight touch of earthiness that put asparagus in my brain. As for the taste, we're back to the Carr's Water Biscuits and lemongrass ballpark, but with just a miserly schmeer of butter chucked in for fun. Again an enjoyable beer, other than that odd vegetal/asparagus thing that I couldn't quite pin down, but will require me buying more of the beer for investigative purposes you understand. A bit stronger than the Southern Tier one at 4.8%, but still well within pintable territory.


I really ummed and ahhed about whether to put Samuel Adams Fresh As Helles in the basket, mainly because it has added orange blossom 'and natural flavors', and I wasn't sure I wanted a flavour tainted helles. Clearly though, I relented. Looks wise it's pretty much on the spot, golden, a half inch of white foam that leaves traces of lacing all the way down the glass. The aroma though was very different from the other two, gone was the crackers and lemongrass, come was orange peel, marmelade and a soft toffee note. Tastewise was again a departure from what I had expected, this was clearly toasty rather than cerealy, and the orange blossom (I assume) was very noticeable, but in a thin marmelade kind of way that left a slighty artificial aftertaste. Oh dear. For the first time in many years I didn't finish the bottle, it was too slick on the tongue and just generally bleurgh. Nope, won't be doing that one again.


Now, if South Street could just hurry up and get My Personal Helles back on tap, I will be a happier camper this summer.....

Friday, June 9, 2017

Black and Silver

Back in February I wrote about a project I did with my friends at Three Notch'd Brewing here in Charlottesville to brew a 19th century inspired porter, which we named Blackwall London Porter after the docks in London from where the original Virginia colonists set out for the New World.


I deliberately didn't make any bold claims about it is a 'historical recreation' as the recipe wasn't based on any one single brewing record. Rather, I spent time reading various bits and bobs about Victorian era porter, including Ron's excellent homebrew book, and took the data available to create my recipe. Without the aid of a time machine, I have no idea if Blackwall would pass muster with the working men of London, but it was certainly a beer that I enjoyed and judging from comments on things like Untappd, others did too.


Imagine then my delight this week to hear that Blackwall had won a silver medal at this year's Virginia Craft Beer Cup, and is thus the first beer I have designed to win an award at a commercial competition.

As far as I am aware Blackwall is unlikely to be found anywhere on draft anymore, but the brewery does have bottles for sale in their tasting room here in Charlottesville. So, if you're in the neighbourhood, pop in, try Three Notch'd range of beers, and pick up a bottle of porter for your jar.

Friday, June 2, 2017

To The Faithful Departed

This month's Session is being hosted by Dave over at All the Brews Fit to Pint (an excellent name for blog methinks!), and his theme is 'Late, Lamented Loves' - those beers that you loved and then lost because they are no longer brewed, where to start?

Let's jump in our zythophilic time machine and whisk ourselves back to the early 1990s, to Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, and more specifically to the bowling alley that on Friday afternoons had a special rate of £1 per game. I was living in Inverness at the time in an effort to find a job for a few months in between my medical discharge from the British Army and going back to school to get an extra couple of Highers before heading to university. In order to get an extra tenner on my Jobseekers Allowance, I agreed to do some computer courses at a local skills agency. It was there I learnt the basics of spreadsheets, word processors, databases, etc. I say 'learnt' but really I knew all that stuff any way, it was just an easy way to get some extra cash. The extra £10 was handed out on Fridays, and so I would go up to the bowling alley and spend an hour or two attempting to perfect my technique, whilst drinking pints of Gillespie's Malt Stout.


There was something about Gillespie's that I loved more than Guinness or Murphy's, and I think it likely had something to do with it being a Scottish rather than Irish stout. Perhaps it was a trick of my teenage brain, but I was sure at the time that it had a slight dark blue hue to it. I seem to remember it being silkier than either my usual tipples, with a nicely sweetened finish that was more milk chocolate than the bittersweet chocolate finish of Murphy's. Time for a confession, I would love to get hold of a clone recipe for this and give it a bash sometime, whether or not it will live up to the memories though is anyone's guess.

Jumping back into our time machine, let's skip forward a few years, and shift continents to Crozet in Virginia, and the tasting room (such as it was in those days) at Starr Hill Brewing. It was August 2008 and I was again looking for a job, though this time because Mrs V and I had left Prague for the US, and life on a single income is no fun. Being a proactive sort, I had emailed all the local breweries, far fewer in those days, to see if they had any openings. Only Starr Hill got back to me, and so I had an interview to work behind the bar at weekends. Once the interview was done, I was given a tasting of all the beers they had available. The highlight for me was their dry Irish stout, the most award winning of that style in the US (a record that is still unbroken!), Dark Starr Stout. Now, you may be noticing a theme here, I am an unashamed lover of the black stuff. That first mouthful of Dark Starr was like the moment in Ratatouille when Anton Ego is transported back to his mother's kitchen and the simple pleasures of childhood comfort food.


When Starr Hill announced that it would no longer be part of their regular line up I was heartbroken, even though I had left the tasting room by this point, after some 5 years behind the bar. One of my favourite things to do with Dark Starr was to pour it about 10 minutes ahead of time so that it could get to the proper temperature, and seeing people's reactions to beer that isn't colder than penguin's feet. So gutted was I at Dark Starr's demise that I decided to brew my own version using the knowledge I had gleaned about the recipe of the years, and I like to think I get pretty close...


So there we have it, a couple of stouts that I have loved and now lost, if anyone has a clone for Gillespie's put it in the comments...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Mild of the Month

With it being June 1st, American Mild Month is now over for another year. I really wish I'd had more time to dedicate to the project, but life and work got in the way (on the up side, it is good to be busy, and my brain is still readjusting to impending fatherhood). I got to enjoy some nice mild ales during the month, Maelstrom from Three Notch'd Brewing springs to mind immediately.

The mild though that I enjoyed most throughout the month was one that is sadly not available in this part of Virginia, Oliver Brewing Company's Dark Horse. Oliver Brewing Company, headed up by fellow Brit Stephen Jones, were early supporters of American Mild Month and in many ways I think of Dark Horse as the unofficial flagship beer of the project. Dark Horse is as classic an English Dark Mild as you will find in the US, a straight down the line 3.8% ABV dark mild.

My first experience with Dark Horse, and Oliver Brewing in general was back in 2012 when my best mate and I went to Baltimore for a weekend on the lash. Nursing a well earned hangover we wandered into Pratt Street Alehouse and took our hair of the dog in the form of Dark Horse, about 6 pints if memory serves, so when Stephen offered to send some cans of the beer my way, there was no chance I would look said dark gift horse in the mouth.


As you can see in the picture, Dark Horse is one of the expected colours for an English Dark Mild, kind of a dark brown, but with crimson edges, and a nice looking light tan head that seems to just float there for the duration of the drinking. Just for reference, here's a picture of it in my dimpled mug as well as the nonic above (yes I have a thing for ye olde pint glasses).


The aroma was mostly unsweetened cocoa powder with a slight undercurrent of a grassy tobacco thing that I always associate with Fuggles hops. I realise this will likely sound insane to some, but the aroma was distinctly 'pub-like', and by that I mean classic British boozer 'pub-like' rather than modern brick and chrome craft beer bar, you could almost say it smells curmudgeonly. As for the flavour, again the cocoa character is present, but with a slight hazelnut spread thing going on as well, think schmeer of Nutella on fresh toast and you're pretty much in the right neck of the woods. There is just enough hop bite to cut through the malt, but not enough to dominate the beer, some people use 'balance' to damn with faint praise, I use it because I love balanced beers that I can drink all night, Dark Horse has balance. Even though Dark Horse is 'only' 3.8% you'd never tell as it isn't watery in the slightest.


Thankfully Dark Horse is a year round part of the Oliver Brewing Company lineup, and hopefully it will eventually find it's way to central VA on a regular basis, along with the rest of their beers, of which I have fond memories from 2012. Still, it was the ideal beer with which to see in and see out American Mild Month 2017, and here's hoping for more time to make the 2018 much bigger and better.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Impartial Pursuit: The Fourth

I realised when I had this crazy notion of writing about the mass produced lagers that suffer so much craft cognoscenti opprobrium that it would be an irregular feature on Fuggled. I didn't realise that there would be a year between part three and today's fourth installment, in which I look at a beer that has a storied history, hispter street cred, and is now stable mates with BrewDog. I refer, of course, to Pabst Blue Ribbon.


Once upon a time, think late 1970s, Pabst Brewing Company was the third largest in the US but then went into a precipitous decline that saw them in the late 90s brewing less than a million barrels a year. Enter then the heroic hispters, and the brand's revival to the point that in 2015 the company won the GABF's award for best large brewing company. Anyway, enough with the Wikipedia entry details, what about the beer in the can...?


Well, it pours a golden yellow not unlike the Heineken from my previous Impartial Pursuit post and sported a surprisingly voluminous, bright, white head. Even more surprising, at least in my mind, was that the head lingered far longer than any of the other mass produced lagers I have tried. In common with the other beers, the aroma was dominated by a cereal character with wisps of lemongrass hops floating about. Tastewise, and again in common with the other beers in the series, it was mainly a rather indistinct grainy flavour with very little discernable hop flavour, overall it was just plain bland, though it didn't have the slick corn character that I was expecting, and neither was it as thin as I imagined it would be. Thankfully it was as clean as I expected, which is always a good sign in a lager.


I very much doubt I will be adding to Pabst's bottom line again any time soon, though not because I think the beer is badly made, it quite obviously isn't, but because if I am on the look out for a mass produced lager then Heineken is a couple of steps up in terms of having stuff going on in the flavour and aroma department, and is nowhere near as fizzy as PBR, or Bud/Coors come to think of it. I doubt it will be another full year before I dip into macro beer world again, though I am not sure where to go for the next beer, Miller High Life perhaps?

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Most Excellent Lager

It had been a while since Mrs V and I had gone hiking with our friends Dave and Allie. There are mitigating circumstances though, mainly revolving around Mrs V and Allie being pregnant. We decided though to go on a short hike of only 3 miles yesterday up a mountain called Spy Rock, which has some wonderful views once to you get to the top, having scaled a near sheer rock face to do so, an interesting logistical challenge with 2 pregnant women and 2 dogs.

One of the appealing features of choosing Spy Rock was it's proximity to Devils Backbone for a couple of post hike pints, and I was looking forward to sinking a couple of Meadow Biers in short order. Unfortunately when we arrived they didn't have it on tap, though Jason tells me that they recently brewed another batch, so I'll be heading down with growlers to fill for that. They did however have another pale lager that sounded like it would do the trick.


Do the trick it did. The beer is called Excel Lager, and as you can see from the picture is a beautiful golden colour, had a nice white head, though slightly diminished by the time I took the pic. In terms of flavour it was everything you would expect from a central European lager; a perfect balance of grain and hop, nicely medium bodied, light honey notes in the background, and a firm but unobtrusive bitterness that demands another mouthful. Both Dave and I polished off our first pint in about 5 minutes.

Best of all with this absolutely stunning beer was that it has an ABV of.......2.6%. Yes, you are reading that number correctly, 2.6%. Using a method I learnt in Prague of multiplying ABV by 2.5 to get the approximate starting gravity, I was drinking a 6.5-7° Plato lager, the like of which I could imagine being brewed in a northern Bohemian glass works as refreshment for the workers.

To put this beer in a bit more context, I spent Saturday up in Northern Virginia judging for the Virginia Craft Beer Cup and was handed the Czech lager category. This sedmička would have easily made the top three beers we judged, and would have been a very strong contender for first place, it is that good. However, since Devils Backbone are no longer permitted to participate in the competition by virtue of being owned by Anheuser-Busch, this beer will likely not get the praise and credit it deserves.

I have said it many times, anyone can throw boat loads of hops into the kettle and get something the lupulin loonies will lavishly laud to the heavens, but it takes a true master craftsman to create a 2.6% beer that is refreshing and flavourful. Jason Oliver and the crew at Devils Backbone are such masters of the craft.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hail Mild Month!

Finally it is May, which of course means that on both sides of the Pond it is Mild Month.


Mild Month has been going for a while back home in Blighty, and CAMRA are at the heart of encouraging drinkers to try something a little different this month. Over on this side of the mighty Atlantic, I started American Mild Month in 2015 with the aim of encouraging brewers and drinkers to put down their IPAs and take a walk on the mild side.

Unfortunately I've not had as much time to commit to this year's iteration of the project as I would like, day job and all that, but it is good to know that there are plenty of breweries in the US who have taken up the baton and will have milds on tap in May, including several here in Virginia.

I hope to find time to scoot around the Old Dominion a bit trying milds from breweries like Three Notch'd, Mad Fox, and the Virginia Beer Company, as well as enjoying the Oliver Ale's Dark Horse sent down for myself and the designer of the American Mild Month logo form Baltimore in Maryland.

So let me encourage people to try at least a few pints of mild this month if you see them, and post pictures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the hashtag #MildMonthUS.

Happy drinking!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Brewers of Monticello

Today is Thomas Jefferson's birthday, born on April 13th 1743 at Shadwell, just outside modern Charlottesville. As such, I have decided to post here an article I wrote a while back which was published in Virginia Craft Beer magazine late last year. This version has been slightly edited, and includes the footnotes which were removed from the print version....



'I am lately become a brewer for family use'1.

Perhaps one of the most quoted lines from a letter by Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Coppinger, especially among enthusiastic homebrewers looking for presidential validation of their hobby. Beer was, in common with households throughout the recently established United States, central to life at Monticello, the plantation high on a hill that overlooks both Jefferson's childhood home of Shadwell and the city of Charlottesville. With an inherent distrust of water, and a culture that continued to share much with the mother country, citizens of the new republic had long taken beer for both nutrition and hydration, the Jeffersons were no different.

Jefferson was particularly keen on Coppinger's book, 'The American Practical Brewer and Tanner'2, such obvious bedfellows, because it contained a procedure for 'malting Indian corn'. Jefferson didn't grow barley on his 5000 acre plantation, he did however raise corn and wheat. Therefore a method of malting the corn for use in beer would naturally be of interest. In the very same letter as the quote above, Jefferson notes he had followed the procedure the previous autumn 'with perfect success'.

Out of these details has arisen the image of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States as an avid homebrewer. A homebrewer whose reputation and 'recipe' has been used by at least 2 breweries to create commercial beers trading on this very image. All this despite the fact that Jefferson wrote to his longtime friend, James Barbour that 'I have no reciept for brewing', going on to say that he doubted whether 'the operations of malting and brewing could be successfully performed from a reciept'3.

As with any image built on the quotes of eminent men, the reality is more interesting, complex, and tinged with the darkness of the spirit of their age. While the quote above is taken verbatim from a letter penned by Jefferson to Coppinger, it is not the full quote in context:

"I am lately become a brewer for family use, having had the benefit of instruction to one of my people by an English brewer of the first order".

Just by finishing off the quote, the image of Jefferson the homebrewer is shattered and a new image comes into view, that of the brewers of Monticello being an Englishman and one of his 'people', a thoroughly sanitized way of saying a slave. The Englishman was Joseph Miller, the slave was Peter Hemings. It was these men who in the autumn of 1814 perfected the malting of the corn tended by enslaved field hands and used it to make beer.

Caught up in the machinations of the War of 1812, Captain Joseph Miller and his daughter were attempting to lay claim to inherited property in Norfolk, Virginia. Being citizens of the enemy, the Millers were ordered to head away from the coast of Virginia and eventually pitched up in Albemarle County, home of Thomas Jefferson. While unable to leave Albemarle County due to the war with Britain, Captain Miller became acquainted with the master of Monticello, who clearly valued the fact the Miller was a master brewer.

Peter Hemings’ story is rather less documented, being one of Jefferson’s slaves that labored for his comfort. The story of Monticello is as much the story of the Hemings family as it is of the Jeffersons. The matriarch of the family was Betty Hemings4, the child of an African slave and an English sea captain, she belonged to Jefferson’s father in law, John Wayles. According to her grandson Madison, Betty bore 6 children to her master, including Peter and his better known sister, Sally, for whom Jefferson’s bride Martha Wayles would be a half-sister. There is in the long and tortured history of Virginia a recurring theme of shadow families, where a slave owner has taken one of his chattels as a concubine and produced children. Thus is was that Betty and her clan came to be at Monticello when John Wayles died and his shadow family became the property of his daughter and son-in-law.

In the autumn of 1813 Captain Miller and Peter Hemings came together as master and pupil to perform the malting of grains and the brewing of beer for the big house on top of the small mountain, a task that Hemings learnt ‘with entire success’.

Brewing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was very much a manual affair, one without the pumps, valves, and automation that many brewers take for granted today. Hemings and Miller didn't have access to drills to power their grain mill, in fact we don't how they milled the malted wheat and corn they used for the beer. Did they have a donkey powered grindstone? Was is powered by other slaves? Was the malt ground at the flour mills on the nearby Rivanna River? Simply put, all we have is vaguely reasoned conjecture. Assuming the flour mills on the river were used and the brewing took place at the house itself, did they transport the grist on a horse and cart or on the backs of enslaved men up the hill? As I say we just don't know.

We don't even know where the plantation brew house was. Though it was certainly part of Jefferson's schemes and plans, indeed the earliest designs for Monticello include spaces for brewing and storing beer, its location is yet to be discovered. Assuming it was near the main house, there was yet another problem faced by the Monticello brewers, that of water. Sure you know that water is 98% of the volume of beer, but what do you do without a reliable water source, without being able to just turn a tap and have fresh running water? When building the house, Jefferson had a well dug that was 65ft deep, took 45 days to dig, and failed 6 times before 1797.5 By 1810 Monticello was supplementing its well water with rainfall collected in leaky cisterns. If all else failed, there were springs on the mountainside6, or, at the bottom of the hill, the river and the back breaking task of hauling brewing liquor up the steep sides of the mountain. A sobering fact, forgive the pun, when you remember that for every pint of beer brewed, another 3 or 4 pints of water are used.

Just having the basics required to make the wort likely involved more hard work than many a modern home brewing enthusiast would care to do, including growing the corn and wheat. Barley wasn't grown at Monticello, hence Jefferson's eagerness to find Coppinger's book and a method for malting a grain that grew readily in the red clay soils of Virginia. As well as growing and malting the grains needed for the wort, Jefferson's garden supplied at least some of the hops required to add bitterness to counteract the sweet wort, though right up to the year he died the household would buy in hops for brewing.

It was over the boiling kettles of liquor and wort, taking the fruits of slave tended lands that Miller and Hemings formed a relationship which resulted in more than just beer for the table. From correspondence between Jefferson and Miller when the war had come to an end, Peter Hemings became a very accomplished brewer. This fact clearly gave Miller much pleasure as he commented in a letter to Jefferson “I am glad he has dun so well”.7

I often wonder what kind of beer these men from very different backgrounds brewed as they worked together in the Monticello brew house, especially given the very different beers put out by Yard's and Starr Hill claiming to represent Jefferson's well regarded table beer. Yard's Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale uses honey, wheat, and rye, claiming it is “just like the beer Jefferson made at Monticello”.8 Closer to Jefferson’s home, Starr Hill Monticello is made from just malted wheat and corn and is as pale as many a witbier9. While having a very definite opinion as to which I prefer to drink, I am not convinced that either truly represent what was actually brewed in Jefferson's time.

In reading Coppinger's treatise on the use of Indian corn in brewing, the author states that the end product is “peculiarly adapted to the brewing of porter”. Porter of course was a well-known style of beer in the newly formed United States. Even during his days fighting for the British in the French and Indian War, George Washington was making porter from a recipe that used copious amounts of molasses to provide the fermentable sugars, as well as rich dark color associated with this beer style. Did Hemings and Miller take Coppinger's advice and supplement their Indian Corn based wort with molasses to make porter for Jefferson, his household, and his guests? Perhaps they used the knowledge gleaned from Michael Combrune's "The Theory and Practice of Brewing" to produce malts ranging in color from pale to dark so that they could produce different types of beer as required.

Sadly we will never really know what kind of beer the brewers of Monticello actually made. What we can be sure of though was that the beer was served to an appreciative audience in the dining room where Jefferson welcomed his friends and guests. As Hemings continued brewing the beers for Monticello, requests came in from Jefferson's acquaintances for a recipe so that they might reproduce the beer they so enjoyed.

One such friend was James Barbour, a former governor of Virginia, who wrote that he remembered drinking 'some ale at Monticello' that came from a 'recipe from some intelligent Briton'10 , presumably Captain Miller. Barbour was so keen to introduce beer to the life of his plantation that he had built the facilities necessary for malting and brewing. With the material wherewithal to brew ale he requested from his friend the recipe, prompting Jefferson's well known response that he didn't believe it possible to brew 'from a reciept’.11

Another fan of the beer being served at Monticello was James Madison, longtime colleague of Jefferson, and the man that succeeded him as president of the United States. Madison's own plantation, Montpelier, is only about 20 miles from Monticello, and Jefferson encouraged Madison to send someone to participate in the brewing so that he might learn and take that knowledge back there. In the very same letter, Jefferson notes that 'our malter and brewer', presumably Peter Hemings, 'is uncommonly intelligent and capable of giving instruction'12, an observation that gives us the merest hint of the esteem with which Jefferson held this particular member of the remarkable Hemings clan.

We do however, in the letters of Jefferson to Barbour and Madison, have some insights into the kind of beer that Peter Hemings was producing. We know for example that the autumnal brewing consisted of three 60 gallon casks of ale, or about 680 liters, and used a bushel of malt to every eight to ten gallons. A US bushel weighs somewhere between 32 and 34lbs, so at a bushel of malt per 10 gallon cask, you are looking at a starting gravity somewhere around 1.100 or 24° Plato. With a 24° wort, and assuming an attenuation of about 70%, Peter Hemings' highly regard ale was likely somewhere in the region of 9% abv. In the same letter to Barbour, Jefferson notes that commercial brewers were squeezing fifteen gallons from a single bushel of grain, claiming that such beer was “often vapid”13.

In many ways the legend that has sprung up around Jefferson and brewing is an archetype of the modern craft brewing industry, with Jefferson the first 'rock star brewer' trading on a rootsy image of self-sufficiency which doesn't stand up to inspection. Jefferson may have described himself as 'a brewer for family use' but as we have seen he didn't actually engage in the activity of brewing, leaving it to a slave, who Jefferson would never set free, and the stranded Englishman that trained him.

The 'intelligent Briton' would in time be able to claim the inheritance in Norfolk which had prompted his leaving England just as rumors of war were doing the rounds. The years of neglect though had great diminished the value of his inheritance, and despite Jefferson lobbying for his citizenship of the United States to be recognized given his birth in Maryland, there is no record of him trading as a brewer in the new world, despite Jefferson's fulsome praise. Eventually Captain Miller's daughter would purchase an estate just outside Charlottesville14.

Peter Hemings was the man that brewed the beer that garnered such respect from Jefferson's contemporaries, yet history turns a blind eye, ignoring him and his many talents – as well as learning malting and brewing, Peter was a skilled chef, having been trained by his older brother James, who himself learnt his craft in Paris while in Jefferson was the US ambassador to France. After Jefferson died on July 4th 1826, Peter would be sold on as Martha Jefferson sought to pay off the vast debts built up by her father. Hemings’ new owner would give Peter his manumission and he would see out his free days as a tailor in Charlottesville15.

Despite the reality of Monticello's beers not being brewed by Jefferson in any meaningful sense, there is a deeper truth to be taken from this triumvirate, and that is the centrality of beer to life at the time. Everyone drank beer, from the humblest farm hand to the men that sat in seats of power. The brewing of beer was part and parcel of everyday life for pretty much every household, given that commercial brewing was very much in its infancy, and the skills taught by Miller to Hemings, with Jefferson's keen eye for observation looking on, were those that had been passed down through generations of Englishmen, on both sides of the Pond.

Who knows what was discussed by these men as they stood around the mash tun and kettle during one of the spring or autumn brewing sessions. I can half imagine them having the most mundane of chats, what was growing well in the garden, the price of hops, the continuing building of the University of Virginia, and probably even that perennial favorite, the weather. One thing I feel would be for certain, it wouldn't be a time of grand political or philosophical exchanges, or even salacious gossip fresh from Main Street in Charlottesville. The conversation would likely weave around the everyday experiences and lives of the brewers of Monticello, just as the beer they were brewing would, given time, take its place as an everyday part of life at the house on the hill.



1. Letter to Joseph Coppinger, dated 25th April 1815, retrieved from http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-08-02-0350
2. ‘The American Practical Brewer and Tanner’, written in 1815, retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20663/20663-h/20663-h.htm
3. ‘The American Practical Brewer and Tanner’, written in 1815, retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20663/20663-h/20663-h.htm
4. https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/elizabeth-hemings
5. https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/water-supply
6. http://memory.loc.gov/master/mss/mtj/mtj7/059/0100/0102.jpg
7. Letter from Joseph Miller to Thomas Jefferson, dated March 24th 1817, retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.049_0994_0995/?sp=2
8. http://www.yardsbrewing.com/ales/ales-of-the-revolution/thomas-jeffersons-tavern-ale
9. http://starrhill.com/brews/monticello-reserve-ale/
10. Letter from James Barbour to Thomas Jefferson, dated April 30th 1821, retried from http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.052_0765_0766/
11. Letter to James Barbour, dated May 11th 1821, retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.052_0775_0776/
12. Letter to James Madison, dated April 10th 1820, retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.051_1214_1215/
13. Letter to James Barbour, dated May 11th 1821, retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.052_0775_0776/
14. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/joseph-miller-0
15. https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/peter-hemings-1770-after-1834

Friday, April 7, 2017

In Praise of Budweiser

It had been a busy morning. Up early to get the big shop done before the hoardes descended upon the local supermarket we had chosen to go to, run all the errands that needed doing so that the rest of the day could be as chilled out as possible. With a thorough disinclination to cook lunch, we popped into one of our favourite bars here in Charlottesville for a bite to eat, hoping there would be space at the bar. Thankfully Beer Run had the requisite space at its bar and we took up residence and perused the beer menu....

I was in a distinctly lagerish mood, and we had considered heading to Beer Run's sister place, Kardinal Hall as they have the magnificent Rothaus Pils always on tap. Yes you read that correctly, the finest pilsner in all of Germany is always on tap in Charlottesville, Virginia. Sadly they would not open for another couple of hours, so that wasn't an option.

I don't know about other folks, but there are times when only a lager will suit my mood, when all I want is the clean snap of a technically proficient bottom fermented beer, something cracker dry that just cuts through the gunk of life and leaves me refreshed. This day at Beer Run, only one beer on the this met these requirements, but I was hesitant as I had never ordered it on draft before, actually thinking about it, I can't think of that many places where I have even seen it on draft. That beer was Budweiser, the American one, not one of the Czech ones, and Beer Run knowing me as they do, brought me a 20oz pint of it.


I am assuming that this particular pint was brewed just down the road at Anheuser-Busch's Williamburg brewery and so there is no irony whatsoever in the 'drink local' beer mat, especially if people are happy to called Stone in Richmond, Green Flash in Virginia Beach, and soon to be Deschutes in Roanoke, 'local'. As I said, this was the first time I can ever remember ordering a full pint of Budweiser in a bar, though I recently reviewed the bottled version here, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Attempting to put to one side all those inherent craft prejudices and focus on the beer itself in the glass, I plunged on in.

It hit the spot. Cold, though not ice cold, clean, crisp, cracker dry, and with a short, sharp finish. It was perfect, absolutely perfect for the mood I was in at the moment. I didn't want to be challenged, I didn't want to prove my craft credentials and feel worthy of drinking a beer, I didn't want to wrap my head round a muddle of flavours and aromas that may or may not have been intentional. I wanted a lager that was expertly brewed, technically solid, and through which quality brewing science shone, and this was that beer in that moment. I can't comment on how the beer changed as it lingered in the glass, because it didn't linger, 4 mouthfuls saw to the pint quite handily. One thing I noticed about the draft version over the canned version was that the draft felt much less fizzy, and the beer was greatly improved by that fact.

So there we go, I doubt I will ever become a regular Bud drinker when I am out in the watering holes of the United States, but neither will I shy away from ordering it on tap if I faced with a bank of IPAs of indeterminate provenance. Funny what happens when we overcome our prejudices and snobbery.