Monday, February 19, 2018

Old Friends: Fuller's ESB

Wandering around the shop yesterday getting the weekly necessaries, I got thinking about what beer I wanted to buy. I have plenty of beer in the cellar at the moment, but most of it is dark, porters, stouts, that kind of stuff, there was very little pale beer, and no lager (purely because lager gets drunk pretty quickly in my house as I love the stuff). Usually when we go to our preferred supermarket we do our booze shopping last as the wine and beer sections are in the back corner. I have a confession to make, I am really bad about trying new beers and breweries at the moment, mainly because it is difficult to place any faith in the consistency and quality of many of the start up breweries flooding the shelves. Anyway, looking at the shelves of British beer available there were so many familiar names, but beers that I had not tried in goodness knows how long, and thus is the genesis of this new series on Fuggled, "Old Friends".

I almost picked up a four pack of London Pride, a beer I know well and enjoy drinking reasonably often. Between the stash of Pride and London Porter were a pair of ESB four packs, so I checked the best before date (a sad necessity in these parts) and took home the one pack that was still within the freshness range. It had been years since I had last indulged in a pint of Fuller's ESB, and that was on draft one homebrew club night many moons ago. Extra Special Bitter, as a style rather than the Fuller's brand in particular here, is one that gets brewed relatively often by American breweries, and even though it is part of the bitter family, I am much more of a best bitter drinker, and quite often leave the ESBs I see alone. Anyway, on to the ur-ESB...

As I said, it had been a long time since my last pint of Fuller's ESB, so for some reason best known only to the recesses of my memory I was mildly surprised at the beautiful copper colour of the beer as it sat in my freshly cleaned nonic imperial pint glass. I remember having a similar feeling when I had a few pints of cask London Pride in Inverness a couple of years back, why did I think they would be darker than that? I loved the colour, especially in the late winter sunlight streaming through the doors to our deck, with a schmeer of off white foam, every prospect pleased.

There are some breweries whose beer have a distinctive smell and Fullers is one of them. For some folks the familiarity of that aroma and taste has bred contempt, I find it deeply comforting as I know when I smell a Fullers beer it will be a good beer. The aroma is that of marmelade made with Seville oranges, citrusy, lightly floral and with traces of crystalised sugar. Tastewise, again that marmelade character is evident, though it is not overly sweet, being balanced with pithy hop bite that cleans the palate and leaves you ready for more.

Goodness me what a lovely beer I had been neglecting all these years, perhaps in part because of the 5.9% ABV, which while not strong (the average for core range beers in Central VA is about 6.5%), is a good 20% stronger than most beers I drink regularly. I still have a couple of bottles in the fridge, but they'll be gone soon enough, and I imagine ESB will be finding it's way more often in to my drinking life again, though more as an evening indulgence, perhaps while reading or watching something on Netflix once the twins have fallen asleep and Mrs V and I have an hour or so to ourselves of adult time. It'll be a welcome addition to the routine...

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Session: Three Things

My post for this month's iteration of The Session is a tad late, something of a theme recently, but when I last looked at The Session's web page, no topic had been announced, and I only discovered the topic this morning. Our host for this month is Jay Brooks, one of the founders of The Session, and his theme is looking for answers to three questions, so let me oblige....

Jay's first question is:
what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?
The word that immediately springs to mind is classic.

When I think about the kind of beers I like to drink they are all well established styles with widely accepted parameters. Think about a pilsner, four simple ingredients is all that it needs, malt, noble hops, lager yeast, and soft water. Consider the best bitter, again the simple interplay of good pale malt, with some crystal or toasted malts chucked in for flavour and colour, English hops, characterful yeast, and whatever water you have knocking around essentially. The third in my classic triumvirate is dry stout a la Guinness. When you drink an example of any of these styles you know what to expect and that for me is part of their appeal, I don't want to be challenged by random ingredients, twists, or new fangled ideas of what a beer style could be, I want a quality interpretation of a classic style.

Question the second is:
what two breweries do you think are very underrated? Name any two places that don’t get much attention but are quietly brewing great beer day in and day out. And not just one shining example, but everything they brew should be spot on. And ideally, they have a great tap room, good food, or other stellar amenities of some kind. But for whatever reason, they’ve been mostly overlooked. Maybe 2018 should be the year they hit it big. Who are they?
This is a very difficult question to answer, especially when you consider what is meant by 'underrated'? Rated by whom? Depending on how you answer that question, you could argue that Sierra Nevada are underrated because for the trend chasers they are insufficiently sexy, even though they simply do not make a bad beer in their range.

Assuming though that we are not talking about such ratings, my first choice would be the winners of the Fuggled Amber Beer of the Year for 2017, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, NC. Olde Meck are a rarity in the American brewing scene in that all their beers are German styles and they don't brew a single IPA - fancy that, a brewery sufficiently confident in their products so as not to pander to the IPA worshippers. Whether it is their altbier, pilsner, dunkel, or Oktoberfest, every beer I have has from them has been superb, and whenever I go to South Carolina with Mrs V, I know I will be stocking up for the return trip as they are yet to be distributed in Virginia.

Sticking with the Carolina theme, my second underrated brewery is actually the oldest brewery in Columbia, South Carolina, Hunter Gatherer. I still remember my first trip there, having walked 7 miles from Mrs V's childhood home into the centre of Columbia a couple of days after Christmas in 2011. As they are currently in the latter stages of opening a production brewery, I am limiting myself here to their brewpub, which is in many ways the archetype of a brewpub that I would love to open. A fairly limited selection of only 4 beers, technically 5 but their don't brew a lager so they have Warsteiner (if memory serves) on tap, but each well made and tasty, bare brick walls, wooden furniture, and excellent food coming from the kitchen. I make a point of visiting whenever we go south, you should too.

The third and final question is:
name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of
This one is relatively simple:
  • Best Bitter - there is only one brewed with any regularity in this part of Virginia, and it's my recipe. I am not sure if the American drinking public really get the idea of a bitter in general, perhaps confused by the notion of a bitter beer or even the idea that hoppy beers don't have to taste like grapefruit juice. Whatever the stumbling block, I wish more breweries would take the bull by the horns and make this wonderful style, and then serve it at cellar temperature, from a beer engine.
  • Dark Mild - sure there is a healthy dose of self interest here, being the founder of American Mild Month (which will be back this year for it's 4th outing), but I tend to think that any brewer worth his or her salt is well able to brew a mild and make it interesting. Sometimes all I want after work on a Friday is to down a few pints in short order, and mild is the perfect beer with which to do so.
  • Altbier - there are few better beers than fresh altbier, and while there are a few available locally, they all seem to use crystal malts to give the expected colour, but then contribute a slick sweetness that really doesn't work with the style at all. More examples like Olde Meck's Copper would be more than welcome.
All classic styles, all wonderfully well made, and all worth sitting in the pub for hours drinking, which is kind of the whole point of beer as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beer and Breweries of 2017

A bit late admittedly, though there are mitigating circumstances involving trips to the emergency room with my twin sons, but as they say, never late than never eh? I have somewhat rationalised this year's lists by having just a single 'Virginia' entry rather than splitting it into central VA and the rest of the commonwealth as in years passim. With that, let's dive on in.

  • Virginia - Devils Backbone Czech 10
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Nooner
  • Rest of World - Rothaus Tannenzäpfle
  • Honorable mentions - Pilsner Urquell, Three Notch'd The Ghost, New Belgium Dayblazer, Black Sheep Ale

Admit it, you're shocked that my three choices here are all pilsners. If you are then clearly you haven't been paying enough attention. Anyway, all three are wonderful versions of my favourite pale lager style, all crisp, clean, painfully easy to drink, and so beautifully made it makes you wonder why people bother with dumping random shit in the fermenter. Choosing just one is tricky, but when it comes down to it, having a desítka in Virginia puts DB's lovely Czech 10 ahead by a short nose.

  • Virginia - Port City Oktoberfest
  • Rest of US - Olde Mecklenburg Copper
  • Rest of World - Minipivovar U Medvídků Oldgott Barrique
  • Honorable mentions - Schlenkerla Märzen, Fullers 1845, O'Hara's Irish Red, Three Notch'd Hydraulion

Whenever Mrs V and I, and I guess from here on in for a few years, the twins as well, head to South Carolina I always make a point of getting some Copper from Olde Mecklenburg Brewing in Charlotte, NC. Copper is an altbier that unlike many that claim to be of that style over here isn't made with caramel malts in place of the traditional Munich malts. It is as close a genuine altbier as you will find brewed in the US, and I love the stuff.

  • Virginia - South Street Brewing Munich Dunkel
  • Rest of US - Anchor Brewing Porter
  • Rest of World - Riegele Noctus 100
  • Honorable mentions - Sierra Nevada Porter, Sierra Nevada Stout, Guinness 200th Anniversary Export Stout, Three Notch'd Oats McGoats, Sv. Norbert Dark Lager

While in Columbia for Thanksgiving, I stocked up on beers that I rarely, if ever, see here in Virginia and it is one of those that walks off with the title of Fuggled dark beer of the year. Anchor Porter is a beer I had heard much about but never actually seen in the wild. When I popped open a bottle to go with my dinner one evening I was blown away with just how complex and beautifully made it was, especially given it's comparatively lightweight 5.6% abv - one I will be stocking up on whenever I am in SC for sure.

Fuggled Beer of the Year

Of my three category beers of the year, the one that walks away with the overall Fuggled Beer of the Year will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that knows me. I will quite openly admit to the fact that I enjoy drinking beer, I am not much of one for visiting breweries and sampling their wares before moving on to another brewery and repeating the experience. If I do flights it is to find what I want to drink for the rest of my session. When I found out that my friends down at Devils Backbone were making a 10° Czech style pale lager I was excited to try it, and it was simply one of the best examples of the style I have ever drunk, up there with the likes of Kout na Šumavě and Zlatá labuť. Being able to sit in the Devils Backbone brewpub with friends, enjoying superb food, and the perfect desítka to wash it all down with, was sublime. Well done Devils Backbone, the Fuggled Beer of the Year is Czech 10, please make it again!!

  • Virginia - Three Notch'd Brewing
  • Rest of US - Sierra Nevada Brewing
  • Rest of World - Guinness
  • Honorable mentions - Devils Backbone, AleWerks, Fullers, Olde Mecklenburg Brewing,
I am sure I have said this many a time, but I am a terrible beer tourist, and as such I don't tend to go off on brewery sampling trips. I am also a rather conservative drinker in the sense that I tend to find breweries that I trust to make quality beers and I stick to them. Given the price of a six pack these days, there is no way I am splashing north of $10 for a six pack without knowing that I will be enjoying every beer. There is one brewery that in my world stands heads and shoulders above all overs at the moment and I think I have drunk more of their beer this year than any other brewery. Congrats then to Sierra Nevada Brewing for being the Fuggled Brewery of the Year for 2017, keep up the great work!